Interview with author Andrew Capets
"I wanted the reader to feel like they too were following their ancestor through the war."
By Will Kasier
Even though the Great War ended one hundred years ago, families across the country continue to uncover complex military pasts of their families. The World War One Centennial Commission is proud to sponsor author Andrew Capets’ book, Good War, Great Men, which was inspired by his grandfather’s exploits in the 313th Machine Gun Battalion in France. Using the harrowing accounts from letters and diary entries of the 313th Battalion, Mr. Capets’ book immerses readers in the trenches with the men of the 313th. In a recent interview with the author, I had the chance to ask Mr. Capets for more details about his newly released book.
Could you tell us more about the history of the 313th Machine Gun Battalion and the men who served in the battalion? How did you come across this particular battalion?
Several years ago, I was standing next to my father, staring into a display case at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh admiring their exhibition of WWI items, specifically, a 1917 Browning machine gun. My father said, “That’s the kind of machine gun my father shot when he was in France.” This story was completely foreign to me. While I knew my grandfather was a veteran, I never truly contemplated the thoughts of my grandfather fighting on a battlefield. I thought this would be an interesting topic to explore. I had no idea it would lead me to writing a book about the men of his unit, specifically those who served in the 313th Machine Gun Battalion.
While the book briefly mentions my grandfather’s background, it’s not a family history. The subject material is predominantly the writings of men in his command, and other men attached to his battalion. The 313th Machine Gun Battalion was part of the 80th Division. The enlisted men were primarily from Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. This unit had a large contingency of draftees from the Erie County, Pennsylvania region.
What inspired you to write this book and what motivated you to tell the 313th’s story?
I first discovered the writings of Minard Hamilton tucked away in an archive. He was an officer from New Jersey who was my grandfather’s company commander. His writings were exceptional, yet they were never published. I fell in love with his stories and knew that I had to share the letters with other family members. However, his letters were censored, so I needed more details that were missing from his narrative. This led me down the road to finding other officers in the same battalion who also documented their experiences. It was truly fascinating. Suddenly, I had a ringside seat, watching the war unfold before me as these men described their experiences. I was now imagining my grandfather in the scenes they painted for me. I was hooked.
Since learning about the exploits of the 313th Battalion, what are some of the similarities and differences between the 313th and their French and British counterparts?
While I did not dig into the specifics of the French or British machine gun units, I did discover the 313th Machine Gun Battalion had a great affection for their New Zealand counterparts. The New Zealanders held a front around Puisieux, France, and were training this American battalion during the end of July and early part of August 1918. It was here that this American battalion received its baptism by fire. The New Zealanders already had some fighting experience from previous engagements. The Americans seemed to appreciate the New Zealanders sense of humor and friendliness while they shared the trenches.
What kind of methodology did you employ when selecting individual accounts to include in the book and how did you piece it all together?
I started my process of dictating every letter and journal entry word for word from these men. I soon found this to be an overwhelming amount of information. Their stories were placed in chronological order, but it was too much information for anyone to sit down and read in a single book. I personally liked reading what was happening with their families on the homefront, and the worries the men had about the families back home, but I had to eliminate a lot of these stories to stay focused on the essence of what the battalion was doing in France, and what the majority of the men were experiencing 100 years ago. I wanted the reader to feel like they too were following their ancestor through the war. In some cases I allowed the same story to be reiterated by more than one soldier because I felt like it gave the event credibility, as well as providing a different soldier’s version of that same event.
Who is your book’s intended audience(s) and how does your book appeal to all audiences?
I initially wrote the book with the hopes of simply sharing these fascinating stories with anyone who had a family member who served in the battalion. However, as I began talking to friends and family about the topic, I often heard people say, “I don’t know a lot about the First World War,” or “we hear a lot about WW2, but not as much about WWI.” With that notion in mind, I wanted to make sure the book appealed to anyone searching for more direct accounts about the war from a very personal point of view (first-hand accounts supplemented with historical facts). You don’t have to be related to one of these men to appreciate their writings or read their emotions expressed on paper during the war. It also provides a good sense of the day to day activities in the life of a soldier 100 years ago.
What has been some of the feedback from your readers?
I have been humbled by the sincere appreciation received from many families who read the book and have a very personal connection to these men. Several people have written to me and wanted to share with me additional stories and photographs of their soldier. I just recently received an original WWI service flag with the blue star from a gentleman who also had a grandfather father serve in the battalion. I was truly touched by his generosity.
Could you describe your writing process and did you uncover any information that changed your approach to this project? If so, what kind of information did you uncover? In addition, what were the most challenging aspects of this literary process and how did you overcome these challenges?
The writing process took many years because I found myself exploring and researching so many different aspects of the people involved in the story. The challenge was to stop searching for more stories and put the collection of research together into something readers would enjoy. I also knew that I wanted to get the facts correct, so I did my best to research what was happening at that moment in history as the men were writing their letters from France. When a name was mentioned in a letter, I took the time to find out who the person was in the letter and if the person was significant to the overall story. For example, in one letter an officer in the battalion mentioned an enlisted man named Duff. He spoke highly about the man in his letter, but I was not sure who this Duff gentlemen was in relation to the battalion. Later, the officer wrote another letter home to the family stating that Duff was promoted as an officer and subsequently transferred to another unit. Duff was killed ten days after receiving his commission while fighting in the Meuse-Argonne.
I came to discover that Duff was Joseph M. Duff Jr, a former head coach for the University of Pittsburgh football team, and a Princeton All-American football player. I live in the Pittsburgh area and was quickly drawn into Duff’s story. He initially wanted to serve as an officer, but apparently his vision issues prevented this from happening. Duff obtained his law degree from Pitt and during the early part of the draft he was hired by the justice department to prosecute men trying to avoid the draft. Ultimately, the draft board called his number and Duff’s father recalled how enthusiastic he was for the opportunity to serve his country. Like so many other men with such great potential, Duff’s life was cut short on the battlefield and it is up to us to remember and honor his sacrifice.
How would you compare or contrast your book to previous literature about World War One?
The number of the books that I have read about World War I have provided me with a larger perspective about the events, why we entered, and who the big players were during the war. I did not have the historical background or education to tackle the subject in this fashion. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Edward Lengel, and after I read his book, “To Conquer Hell: The Meuse Argonne, 1918” I started searching out more about what Lengel had to say about the subject. I came across a YouTube video of Lengel giving a talk on the subject and he recommended the book “Toward the Flame” written in 1926 by Hervey Allen. Maybe it was the Pittsburgh connection again, but I just fell in love with Allen’s writings and his first-hand accounts of his time serving in France during the war. My goal was to stick to first-hand accounts as much as possible with this book.
How did you distinguish between the information to include in the book opposed to the supplemental information provided on your website?
I created the website because I wanted a method to share a number of the photographs and side stories that may have distracted the reader from the overall story while the men were in France. The website is something that I think readers would enjoy browsing after reading the book. I also had a hunch that I would come across more stories and wanted a method that I could use to share with other history lovers, and in particular, those who have a family connection to the unit.Because I have been on this journey for so many years, I have tried to collect as much information as possible about the 313th Machine Gun Battalion.
Just recently I met a gentleman from Pittsburgh who shared his grandfather’s history with me. Here it comes again, a Pittsburgh connection: Charles A. Williams was a machine gunner in the battalion. He was drafted into service from West Virginia, but he did not sail back the United States with the rest of the men. He stayed in France to participate in the AEF Olympic Games. He was an exceptional athlete and a football star for the University of Pittsburgh. Sharing his story, along with others that I continue to discover along the way only underscores the title of my book; these were truly Great Men.
Are you planning any talks, panels, or other discussions about Good War, Great Men, that will be open to the public in the near future?
I have scheduled a few local historical societies and organizations wishing to discuss the Great War during the Centennial. The one event I am most looking forward to participating in will occur on September 27th at Liberty Hall Museum in Union, New Jersey. I’ve been invited to their lecture series to discuss this book. The museum has a current exhibition underway entitled “Brothers in Arms, Memories of the Great War.” This is special to me because one on these “Brothers” was the senior officer in my grandfather’s Company, Captain John Kean. Liberty Hall, more specifically, John Kean Jr, was gracious in allowing me access to the Captain’s letters in my book. I’m sure I will be the typical history enthusiast and “geek out” at the collection the museum has on display. I’m looking forward to the visit.
Are you planning to write other books about World War One?
I don’t have any immediate plans to tackle another subject on World War I at the moment. Now that I have one book under my belt, my wife just looks at me and says, “OK, what’s your next subject?” She knows I love history. I do have my eye on some local history topics, and yes, they happen to take place in Pittsburgh. For now, I’m enjoying the research.
Will Kaiser is a Summer 2018 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.