Saturday, November 24, 2018

Diary of the Great War

(Lauriston Berdan Goetschius, 1918)

I have been prompted by this year's interest in World War I to share a portion of my grandfather's war diary with you.  In April 2012, I gave a presentation on the diary to a French class at The College of St. Rose.  At that time, I borrowed the diary from my mother and photographed many of its pages and memorabilia, which are the basis for this post.

(Journal de Grand Guerre [sic] 1918)

My grandfather, Lauriston Goetschius, spent most of his youth on a farm in the western Catskill hamlet of Downsville.  Lauriston's father was a noted historian, who named his son after Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law, marquis de Lauriston, a general in the Napoleonic Wars.  Brought up with a sense of history and patriotism, my grandfather volunteered to join the army as his honorable duty.  Serving his country during The Great War was for him and for many, a coming-of-age experience.

Laul, as Lauriston's family called him, left Camp Dix, where he was trained, and sailed for France out of New York Harbor on May 27, 1918, at the age of 22.

(Despite harsh conditions, Laul's beautiful penmanship prevailed)

Writing a war diary was not an unusual practice during World War I.  Not only did soldiers write, but they wrote with the idea that their diaries might be read by others, perhaps even future generations.  We certainly feel this when reading Laul's diary.  His writing is sometimes poetic or grandiose by our standards.  Thanks to Laul's artistic ability, his diary is sprinkled with drawings as well.  I have chosen to share entries with you that I think are particularly interesting or descriptive.

(The formidable cootie)

By the time summer arrived in France, Laul's nostalgia for his native farm country becomes evident.

"August 7, 1918 --  A beautiful summer morning out on a reconnaissance march up the valley.  Everywhere there was the smell of newly cut grain and smell of buckwheat and a humming of the honey bee. "

Laul's job was to take care of the horses in the cavalry.

"August 23 -- Formation, stables, foot drill, clean pistols.  Women come around and peddle nuts and plums. Men go to the Moselle River for bath in the p.m.  Half of men have cooties.  Bury horses.  Extremely poor food and scant.  French children beg for food at mess."

When I read these passages to St. Rose students, I had to define words like "mess," and later, "drive."  To my surprise, they also needed me to tell them what "cooties" were.

(Detailed drawings of various cemetery crosses)

September brought the horrors of war.  Here are excerpts from September 3 and 16.

"Stormy.  All night changing position of guns.  Germans shelling us.  Hear them whistling and singing just over our head and crashing through the trees just behind, and throwing dirt and wood for hundreds of yards.  No loss in men, however.

Advanced into territory occupied by Germans previous to drive.  Very bad odor of dead Germans and horses.  Forts completely torn down, nothing but stubs left.  Shells holes every two feet and dugouts torn to pieces."

The writing, which seems somewhat detached, forces us to use our imaginations to conjure up pictures of soldiers in trenches or trudging through gruesome scenes.

(Mama and Papa)

In this excerpt from September 17, we move from discomfort, to the beauty of the countryside, and finally to horror and back to general discomfort -- a fascinating juxtaposition that offers a glimpse into the turmoil Laul may have been feeling.

"Pick cooties off undershirt and drawers.  Meals terrible.  Wonderful view from here over the Lorraine country and the beautiful Moselle valley.  Very fertile valley.  Beautiful cathedral.  City partially destroyed by shelling every hour of the day.  Old stone bridge across Moselle destroyed.  Hills much like Catskills.  French fort to east of city, also statue of Joan of Arc.  Ran across a dead German in the wire entanglement.  Have not had dry feet for two weeks and no water to wash in for more than that long."

(Laul loved children; here are three of his nieces with strands of baby hair taped to the page)

By October, Laul was getting sick and times were harsh.

"October 5 -- Sergeant Crowe of my gun killed. A great loss.  Men demoralized over it.  I helped take off his personal property.  Roads full of dead men and horses, torn wagons and caissons.  Have a heavy cold and dysentery very bad.  Shed my clothes and slaughtered cooties--big catch.  We are nearly exhausted.  We lay down in muddy roads where we stopped to sleep."

(The diary has a back pocket with money and mementos)

Illness hit hard by October 17 and Laul lets us know how he feels.

"I got up but could not stand on my legs.  Had been up every 15 minutes all night with dysentery.  Had to lie down.  Boys wrapped me in blankets.  Sergeant found me in this condition and gave me hell and told me I must work since I hadn't sense to go on sick report.  Doctor comes and marks me "influenza" and to be evacuated, against my wishes.  Major tells me if I stay another night I will contract pneumonia.  Leave by ambulance at 7 p.m.  Red Cross right on job with hot chocolate, crackers, cigarettes, and chewing gum.  On American R&R and nearly dead.  Spirits low and disappointed.  Think of home."

Influenza was especially frightening at this time during the pandemic of 1918.

(French francs)

Finding and re-joining his unit after his convalesence proved difficult.  How communication and travel has changed in 100 years!  Laul was with soldiers of a different unit on November 11.  His writing becomes flowery as he describes the dramatic historical moments taking place, evoking the strong possibility that others might read what he wrote.

"At 4 p.m. the news of the armistice signing arrived. Hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. and once more the world is at peace though thousands of boys were at rest and peace on the battle fields months ago.  The camp and town were in a wild uproar.  I went into town.  One old man cried with joy.  Noise kept up way into the night. The war is over.  How queer it all seems to me to picture the front no more with the roar of incessant gunfire or aeroplane motors or the spatter of hundreds of machine gun bullets in the mud like a heavy hailstorm.  Two things remain and remain always, the lonely soldier graves and the scars of battle on the fields and hills of Europe and on the hearts of every mother, father, sister, brother, wife or sweetheart who has sacrificed all that God can require of them, a heart and soul on the battlefield.  God be with them all, and a curse on every German who is directly responsible for the sacrifices of this war."

(a photo, pressed flowers and leaves)

Months plodded on after the armistice, but, on New Year's Eve, Laul writes:

"Last day of the year.  Drilled all morning.  Took cross-country walk in the afternoon.  At night we built a great fire in the fireplace which was roaring all night.  Conway and I sent the old year out playing chess.  Had great time as the new year came in.  Much wine, everyone happy.  Sang songs and raised the deuce in general.  All men formed a circle and drank a cup of wine to the health of all our people home, and the hopes of seeing them and God's Country in the very near future.  And so the year of 1918 passes behind us a year of history all the world will carry as long as this old globe continues to travel about the sun making its years of wars and peace.  A year which has left sorrow and then peace in all the hearts of everyone.  Now America bring us home."

(Armistice Day)

The diary continues with notes about drills, bad food, cold, homesickness, and horses.  Laul did not arrive in New York until May 14, 1919.  During those post-war months in France, he did have three days of of leave and went to Paris.

When I was a child, my grandfather told stories about his fellow soldiers and the pranks they pulled.  The horrors were left to his diary.  However, for the rest of his long life of 97 years, my grandfather suffered from a mustard gas burn behind his shoulder.  My grandmother rubbed cream on it.  After she died, he fashioned a tool to spread the cream himself, reaching awkwardly behind him to find the spot.  When we visited, he always asked us to do this for him. 

(Hand-drawn map of path across the Atlantic home to New York with days drawn on longitudinal lines, April 27 - May 14, 1919.)

The St. Rose students had lots of questions about the war experience which I enjoyed answering. They also wanted to hear about my grandfather's life after the war.  In 1921, he married my grandmother and and raised a family of two girls in northern New Jersey, where he was an insurance salesman.  During the depression, when he lost his job, he used his creative talents to make wooden toys which he sold to FAO Schwarz in New York City from 1936 through 1970.  My sister and I still have some of these toys today. The St. Rose students thought that I was very lucky to have had a toy maker for a grandfather!  I assured them that I was indeed.

(letter from General Pershing thanking soldiers for their service)

After I had answered all of the questions, the professor spent the rest of the class time on World War I.  She projected a map of France on a large screen and showed the students where my grandfather had been.  She also showed them pictures of trenches, missiles, and grave markers.

The professor's grandfather had been a mail carrier on a bicycle for the Canadian Army in Belgium during the war.  On the screen, she displayed pictures of Flanders Fields with its poppies and read the famous poem, "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrae.  At The College of St. Rose, students receive poppies on Veteran's Day.  They were fascinated to learn how the tradition came about.

(A news article stipulating the terms of the armistice)

The professor told me later, "The students need to understand how important the Twentieth century was." 

(The book my grandfather bought during his three days in Paris)