Arkansans' letters share WWI stories

Posted: May 28, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

This postcard is among the correspondence posted online by The Arkansas Great War Letter Project.

Arkansas soldiers deployed in Europe during World War I kept in touch with not only families and friends, but with their entire hometowns through letters shared for publication in local and statewide newspapers, creating personal ties between the front lines and the homefront.

Some described foreign countrysides and cultural differences, some expressed a longing for home and asked for letters or certain items they missed, while others gave explicit details of the atrocities of war.

About 1,500 such letters are now available for public view through The Arkansas Great War Letter Project by visiting chsarkansasgreatwar.weebly.com. The project was initiated by the staff at the Museum of American History/Cabot Public Schools in conjunction with the World War I Centennial observance.

The project is sanctioned by the Arkansas World War I Centennial Commemoration Committee. The Arkansas State Historical Association presented an award of merit to the project in April.

The project involves mostly Cabot High School students, but also a small group of volunteers statewide, who search old newspapers for such letters and transcribe them as written, with no corrections. The letters are then posted on the website by county, along with some background of the letter writer and who transcribed the letter.

Most of the letters were personal messages shared with a hometown newspaper, while some were sent directly to a newspaper for publication.

"Am coming along fine now was sent to the hospital two days ago with three pieces of shrapnel in my side and a machine gun bullet through my instep, and it shattered the bone pretty badly and is good and sore. Have already been operated on successfully. Am fine and hope you are the same." -- Part of a letter by Karl F. Wilson, "In a hospital, somewhere in France," to his mother, Mrs. Snapp Wilson, published Nov. 9, 1918, in the Gurdon Times.

"The letters run all the way from pretty dull 'How are you?' 'What's going on?' kind of stuff to battle content and political discussions," said Mike Polston, a retired Cabot High history teacher who is the project's director. "We have right at 1,500 online. There are tons more. I'm not sure how many more there are out there."

Transcribed letters began being placed on the website around March of last year, said Polston, who is also the staff historian for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Letters will continue being added "until there are no more to add," he said.

The website will be available indefinitely.

Most of the Arkansas newspapers from the Great War's period aren't available except on microfilm at local libraries or history commissions. A transcriber will scour a newspaper on microfilm for such letters, copy them and type up their transcription.

"It is time consuming," Polston said. "It's nice when you get the hang of looking for them. Then you can find them pretty easily.

"Some letters are real short," he said. "The letters are easy to transcribe. It's just a matter of reading them and typing it up. If you're a fast typist, it goes pretty quickly."

"This is a nice and clean little village and the people treat us fine. They think there is no one like the American soldier. It looks comical to see a crowd of French people coming down the street wearing wooden shoes. They make a noise like a bunch of horses running away." -- By Fletcher Jackson from France to his mother, Mrs. J.K. Granger, published Oct. 26, 1918, in the Newport Daily Independent.

More than 71,000 Arkansans served in World War I and 2,183 died, according to information from the Centennial Commemoration Committee. U.S. involvement in the Great War was from April 6, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918.

"This particular project is just really a great citizens history project," said Mark Christ, the Department of Arkansas Heritage's designated committee member and spokesman for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. "It's the personal aspect that really comes out in letters like these.

"It's the private's eye-view in a lot of cases," Christ said. "The big histories don't always look at the common soldier's experiences. When somebody read one of these letters in their hometown newspaper, that was from somebody they knew: a neighbor or a son or a relative. It makes it all a lot more real."

Polston said he's read all 1,500 letters transcribed so far and learned that the soldiers who wrote the letters "were a lot more literate than people give Arkansas credit."

"The language is more straight to the point," Polston said. "There are some of the letter writers who were pretty well educated. Some go into great detail. And I've learned that letter writing was not any different then than what it is now. People write about the same things."

What's learned from the letters, Christ said, are the firsthand accounts of actual experiences of Arkansans who served in World War I and wrote home to tell their stories.

"These kind of primary source materials have an impact much greater than general histories of a conflict," Christ said.

A few such eyewitness accounts provided descriptive language of the carnage in the war, writing with the kind of details that vividly brought the war's horrors to those at home.

"The hill upon which I stood had cost the British 17,000 men and as I stood upon the tiptop I could see countless shell holes. Canadians and English unburied, lying, just as they had fallen nearly two month ago. German rifles, helmets, hand grenades, arms and legs sticking out of holes. I shall never forget the sight or odor of decomposing humanity." -- From Paul Remmel in "A Dirty Little Town in France," to his uncle H.L. Remmel of Little Rock, printed Dec. 16, 1917, in the Arkansas Gazette.

Keeping the website up through the end of the centennial observance this year will provide personal accounts of the war for anyone doing historical research or who may just want to read the letters out of curiosity, Polston said.

"That's the point of the whole thing, for people to use them," Polston said of the letters collection. "I've encouraged anybody I know who teaches history to use them. The kids enjoy it. It's kind of like snooping on people to read their letters."

A Section on 05/28/2018