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Letters from the Boys: Wisconsin World War I Soldiers Write Home

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Words from the Wisconsin boys manning the trenches.

On the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the flood of American troops in Europe that would shift the tide of World War I in favor of the Allies, Letters from the Boys brings to life this terrible war as experienced by Wisconsinites writing home.

Technology had transformed the battlefield in alarming ways. Automatic rifles mowed down the young men who went “over the top” to attack enemy trenches; airplanes and improved artillery brought death unseen from miles away; terrifying clouds of poison gas choked and burned the European countryside; the internal combustion engine brought tanks to the battlefield for the first time and revolutionized the way troops deployed. 

In the thick of it were young men from Wisconsin who found themselves caught up in geopolitical events half a world away. Professor Carrie A. Meyer combed through three newspapers in Green County, Wisconsin, to collect and synthesize the letters from the boys into a narrative that is both unique and representative, telling the stories of several Green County boys and what they saw, from preparing for war, to life among French families near the front, to the terror of the battlefield. Meyer gracefully removes the veil of obscurity and anonymity hanging over soldiers who participated in a war fought so long ago by great numbers of men, reminding us that armies are made of individuals who strove to do their part and then return to their families. 

200 pages, Paperback

Published March 6, 2018

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Displaying 1 - 4 of 4 reviews
638 reviews10 followers
August 25, 2018
There is no better place to seek the soldiers’ experience than in their own words contained in their letters home from the front. Here we find what was on their minds, what they wanted to tell us and, by omission, what the sensors would not let them tell. Letters From The Boys is drawn largely from the collection of Green County, Wisconsin Doughboys letters found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The road to war for the Wisconsin National Guard started with training at Camp Douglas, ninety miles northwest of Madison. Some then went to the 42nd “Rainbow” Division while others moved to Waco, Texas at Camp MacArthur, named for Wisconsin’s Arthur MacArthur, Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War and Hero of the Spanish American War and the Philippine Rebellion. The last stateside stop for those Incorporated into the 32nd Division was Camp Merritt, New Jersey where they awaited transportation from Hoboken.

The dairy farms of Green County provided the troops and their small-town newspapers printed their correspondence that could have been written by any American soldiers and published in any newspaper. With 30-40% of its population drawn from Germany anti-war sentiment was strong in Wisconsin but once war was declared the higher than average draft registration rate and lives lost along with these letters demonstrate the extent to which its people embraced the War.

The letters tell the spirit and events of the times in what they say and what they do not. From Camp Merritt, New Jersey on January 30, 1918 “Teddy Roosevelt gave us a dandy talk.” Impressions of their first ocean voyage varied. According to Melvin Lynn
how the people on the ferry boats cheered us. There were many seasick days…At night not a light was to be seen and the thought that we might encounter a sub…sure gave one a creepy feeling. P. 28

More upbeat was Clarence Bontly, “I want to tell you of our trip across. It was simply great, and I have never enjoyed anything quite so much.” P. 28

In France things were different from home.
The United States is lucky that she has plenty of man power to work her vast acres. Gere in France you can see vey few men working in the fields. There are eight to ten women to every man. P.36

The influence of sensors is reflected in the vague references to conditions and questions about home. Correspondence describing life at the front is rare but transformative. The words of the warriors take readers back to Mars’ realm in a way that no researchers can rival. Get comfortable, become insensitive to your surroundings, open your mind’s eye and read the words from the front.

Last night I saw a sight which I had never dreamed of…Rockets of all colors were in the air all the time. They also keep the air full of star shells which make it just as light as day…A family of refugees passed thru here the other day. I did not think that the Germans treated the people like the papers said they did, but I believe it now. There was a man and his wife and three or four children. The oldest of these was a girl about eight years old; and the Boche had cut off part of her right foot to cripple her. The man was all cuts and scars inflicted by them too. They are nearest to starving of anything I had ever seen. P. 43-44

World War I students are indebted to author Carrie A. Meyer for mining the Achieves of the Wisconsin Historical Society to uncover these gems. Her narrative and the pictures set the stage for soldiers’ tales. The Epilogue relates what became of these correspondents after returning to Wisconsin.

I will close with two quotes.
Alors mes petite enfants. La guerre es fini, n’est ce pas?..the war is over…Germany is all through, down and out, and a second-rate power. Her War Lord (?) in flight, the Crown Prince in tears, and the country in a revolution.
I won’t be home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but if the flu don’t get me, I ought to be with you by the Fourth of July. P. 192-193

With the advent of peace, a writer’s thoughts were eased and turned to the mundane.
We are still leading an aimless existence…we are doing a jitney service. Just had a big bowl full of milk so, all in all, I am quite “comfy’…I guess I will just have to scratch and have a mighty cootie army until I get into decent clothes again…I am tired tonight, so will hit this pile of feathers. I want to come home. P. 195-196

Patient, peaceful, humorous, hopeful, only its date is ominous…December 7, 1918.

I did receive a free copy of this book without an obligation to post a review.
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144 reviews
June 16, 2018
A short, easy read that gives the reader a real sense of life at the front during WWI. The author smartly allows the letters to tell most of the story, with the second part of the book being simply a republication if letters from one soldier without edit.

Though the soldiers are all from Wisconsin, I’d recommend this book for anyone with interest in the human side of the Great War.
194 reviews3 followers
December 8, 2018
Great nonfiction book on WWI. The only disappointment was that the scope was primarily limited to WWI veterans from Green County WI and the letters they wrote home. A broader reference to other counties in the states and a few of those selected letters might have been helpful to place the letters shown in their broader context of the state WWI veterans as a whole.
Displaying 1 - 4 of 4 reviews

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