"Part of the story of our families."
Finding the Great War on the way to the Bad Inn
By Christy Leskovar
It all started in 1997. I was living in Las Vegas, working as a project manager for Bechtel. My background is mechanical engineering. Earlier in my career I did engineering design for commercial nuclear power plants. While on a trip to my hometown of Butte, Montana, I heard about a fire on my great-grandparents’ ranch; a dead body was discovered in the ruins, determined to be my great-grandfather; and his wife, my great-grandmother, was arrested for his murder. I was floored. I decided to leave my engineering career, go find out what happened, and write a book about it.
Before I knew it, I was in Flanders.
I was determined to keep the book nonfiction. I wanted you to get to know the people in the story. For that I needed familial and historical context. I started a timeline with three columns: date, events in family history, events in local and world history. The “protagonists” of the story were my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. I wanted to know how they bumped into history and how history changed their lives.
When I began, I knew that my Irish grandpa, Peter Thompson, fought in the First World War in the American army, he was an immigrant. He saved a man’s life and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. I knew that the archduke was shot, the Lusitania was sunk, and we joined the war toward the end. Therein lay the sum of what I knew about the First World War when I began this quest.
I needed context. I found books about the war when visiting my parents, books at the library. History books. My library had only a handful of books about the war. I read the bibliographies of the books I did find and ordered those books. I read General Pershing’s book, soldiers memoirs, soldiers letters. I read voluminously about the war, concentrating for the most part on the American involvement, so I could tell the story of this one particular soldier, not any soldier, this soldier, Peter Thompson, my grandfather. I wanted you to feel like you were right there with him on the battlefield, while keeping the book nonfiction.
I had no idea how difficult this would be. The first books I read gave simplistic reasons for the start of the war which made no sense to me. It can be an advantage not to have any preconceived notions before beginning research, otherwise I might have accepted “nationalism” as the reason. I was starting with a blank sheet. I wanted to know why the war started, why we got in it. I also wanted to know what Peter’s sweetheart, my grandmother, was experiencing at home, a high school girl in Butte, Montana, while he was fighting on the Western Front. I had some of his military records. Grandma made sure that all her children had copies. Those gave me his regiment (362nd), brigade (181st), and division (91st). Someone told me I could get the rest of his military records from St. Louis. I did. One of my Bechtel colleagues, Miguel Monteverde, a retired Army officer, told me about the Center of Military History. He knew the man who ran it. I didn’t know there was such a place. To delve into Peter’s battle experience, I need much more than what I could find in books. I was writing ground-level history. I needed details, details specific to Peter. Until Miguel told me about the Center of Military History, I didn’t know where to turn. I called. Roma answered. She had a memo with a regimental history. She sent it to me. She suggested that I contact the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I did and quickly realized that I needed to go there. I went. The woman asked for the brigade number. 181st, I said. She brought out a box. The largest folder was from Farley Granger, who was an officer in Grandpa Peter’s regiment. He was the father of the actor of the same name. I’d seen him in Alfred Hitchcock movies. I read field messages, orders, some with code names, who were they? Day after day, I pored through the papers in the box. Then to the library. The librarian said there is a regimental history, the official one. They didn’t have it, but he gave me the name of a man in Springfield, Massachusetts, who had it. I called. He sent it to me.
Along the way, someone said I could find more at the National Archives. I think that was while I was in Carlisle. It didn’t occur to me to change my flight and go there at that time. My brain was full. I needed to go home and transcribe and absorb and write from what I had already found.
I knew straight away that I needed to see the battlefields in France and Belgium. At Flanders Field Cemetery, I met Christopher Sims who worked for the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency that cares for American military cemeteries here and all over the world. He gave me a copy of the division history and continued to be a tremendous help throughout my research of the war.
I found field messages, letters, and battle descriptions by soldiers in Grandpa Peter’s regiment at the Fort Lewis archives, which was built to train Peter’s division for the First World War. I found oral histories and a battle description by men in Peter’s battalion at the Montana Historical Society. You never know where historical documents may be stored. A family might give those papers to any archive. My grandfather fought in the 91st “Wild West” Division which included men from the western states. I could have visited archives all over the West but I stopped short of doing that. At some point, I had to stop research and write the book.
Still I wanted more details as to what was happening on the battlefield around Peter. What was he facing? I read the account for every soldier who was awarded a medal in Peter’s regiment, the 362nd, the Powder River Gang.
Eyewitness accounts conflicted as to whether there was artillery before that horrible attack on Gesnes. I read more and more to try to find the truth. I concluded that I will never know for certain, and the only way to handle this was to tell you both accounts. Some soldiers said there was artillery support, some said there was none.
Large maps showing troop movements became fixtures strewn across my dining room table. I added yellow post-its with more details that I found in archival sources. Something didn’t add up. The regimental history said that Peter’s regiment reached the Kriemhilde Line, the American objective. I wrote a marvelous sentence describing this heroic crescendo after horrible losses. I found their location on the map. I compared it with the map showing the German trenches. I read what the officers wrote about the battle. These sources didn’t seem to agree. What was I missing? I read more, I went back over the maps. I wondered, did they confuse a communication trench for the Kriemhilde Line? When in doubt, I couldn’t say it. Removing that wonderful sentence was painful.
Next I wanted to know what was happening on the home front around Peter’s future wife, my grandmother Aila. She was a high school girl living in her mother’s bawdy boarding house in Butte, Montana–a raucous, notorious copper mining metropolis a mile high in the Rocky Mountains. Our joining the war was not popular in some quarters of this city full of immigrants. The Irish thought we were on the wrong side, since we were on the side of Britain. The Finns were unhappy that we were on the side of Russia (Russia dropped out a few months later). The Socialists were upset about the war in general. Butte was under martial law shortly after the war started in 1914, which had nothing to do with the war; there was a riot and the Wobblies overthrew the miners’ union. Trouble ignited again in 1917 with the draft. In March of 1918, none other than Omar Bradley commanded the troops in Butte under a quasi martial law. He was fresh out of the Academy. I can only conclude that he must have gotten crosswise with the wrong officer to be sent to Butte in the dead of winter–sounds like punishment to me, but we all know that his career recovered.
The advice to go to the National Archives kept gnawing at me, a gentle, intuitive nudge that wouldn’t stop. I’d already done exhaustive research on Peter’s experience in the war. What more could I possibly find? That intuitive nudge wouldn’t stop. I called. I spoke to Mitch Yockelson who at that time was the First World War specialist. He said, “You need to come here.” I did. He was right.
What did I learn about the war in a broad sense, beyond the details of what happened? The fact that it happened was insane, something I am delving into even more in my next book, the protagonist of which is my paternal grandfather. He was a Slovene-Austrian in Paris when the war began, which made him an enemy alien.
I learned that broad brush explanations for historical events are often so simplistic as to be false, such as attributing the cause of the war to nationalism. Life is much more complicated, and more interesting. The reason the archduke was shot was nationalism. It need not have ignited a world war.
I learned that when intuition said, this source is interesting, make note of it, get a copy of it, go there – I better follow that intuition. When I didn’t listen, I’d end up going back over already traveled ground.
Though today we can do so much research online, which is a great help, it doesn’t replace going to the sites in the story and going to the archives. So often, through serendipitous conversations with staff at archives and historical libraries, I found things I didn’t know I was looking for. Had I not visited the Military History Institute, I might never have spoken with Mr. Slonaker who told me about the man in Massachusetts who had the regimental history.
As I studied maps of the Western Front and the Eastern front, I realized that hardly any of the First World War was fought on German soil. The German people did not see their towns and homes destroyed, they did not become war refugees, as did the Belgians and the French. This certainly made it easier to push the German people into another and worse world war and made it harder for the Belgians and French to fight back.
Why is it important that we learn about the First World War? Because it is part of the story of our families. Learning about the war also teaches us that people in other parts of the world have much longer memories than we do. Antagonisms and loyalties can have deep historical roots that might make no sense to American policy makers. It doesn’t matter that they don’t make sense to us. What matters is that they are real. The spat between Austria and Serbia need not have gone beyond Austria and Serbia, but it did. Understanding why could help us avoid disasters in the future. Being dismissive of the motives of people in another country, assuming they define a logical course of action in the same way we do, is folly.
On a more personal level, understanding what soldiers go through in war can help us understand the soldiers. Several people told me that reading One Night in a Bad Inn helped them understand their family. None of them wanted to elaborate.
One Night in a Bad Inn is the book I wrote that tells Peter’s story, and his wife’s story, my grandmother Aila, before, during, and after the First World War. It is a true story. Nonfiction. I traveled the globe to find the story, which is a story in and of itself and is chronicled in Finding the Bad Inn: Discovering My Family’s Hidden Past. I will close with an excerpt from Finding the Bad Inn about how Belgians remember the American contribution to winning the First World War. This happened in May of 2002:
On Sunday, we attended the Memorial Day service at Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem. Though we arrived early, there was no parking to be found. There were so many people there, hundreds of Belgians. An American major hopped to when he heard we were next of kin and escorted us into the cemetery. He turned us over to a Belgian officer who escorted us to our reserved seats in the front row. A few seats away sat an American woman dressed all in black, wearing a black hat and dark sunglasses, even though it was a cloudy day, looking like a stand-in for Lana Turner in an old movie.
The ceremony began. The colors were presented, followed by an invocation and prayer. An American general with NATO spoke. The burgemeester, Yolande Dhondt, gave an eloquent speech. She recalled the First and Second World Wars. Twice in half a century Europe was devastated by war. Cynicism took hold. Hope was vanquished. Then came fifty years of relative peace. Then came September 11.
Her speech got me thinking. The Belgians and French took the brunt of the First World War on the Western Front, as far as destruction to their homes and livelihoods. Entire towns were obliterated by the shelling. I thought of the citizens of Ypres watching in horror as the majestic tower of Cloth Hall, there since the Middle Ages, burned, crumbled, and collapsed. Two decades later, they were overrun again. Both times, jocular young men from across the sea, the Doughboys and then the GI’s, sailed to their shores and fought to liberate them. Then to see their liberators attacked, and our towers burn, crumble, and collapse. As many of us thought we were impregnable, much of the world thought we were, too. No one wants to see their bulwark battered.
Assembled before us stood about fifty Belgian children. A guitarist began to strum softly, and the children began to sing: “Oh say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars . . .” Each child gripped a tiny American or Belgian flag which they raised and held high as the tune swelled.
Belgian children have been learning our national anthem and singing it for Memorial Day since 1922.
A soft mist began to fall. Umbrellas opened.
More speeches, a wreath laying. The children were dismissed into the cemetery. Each planted his or her flag at an American grave.
A plane flew over and dropped poppies, just as Lindbergh did during the Memorial Day service in 1927.
Christy Leskovar is the author of One Night in a Bad Inn (ISBN 978-1-57510-142-2) and Finding the Bad Inn: Discovering My Family's Hidden Past (ISBN 978-1-57510-150-7). She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.