Today’s guest blog post, on the topic of writing a family biography, is brought to you by non-fiction writer (of memoir and wine) and diplomatic mystery novelist William S Shepard.
A treasured family possession is my father’s notebook from World War One. He enlisted in the Signal Corps, U.S. Army, was on a July 1918 convoy to Great Britain from Halifax, and spent several months being assigned ever farther east until reaching his front line position in the American Sector at Mousson Hill, Meurthe-et-Moselle (Lorraine). The one date from his notebook that all the family knew was his entry for Armistice Day, as he described intercepting messages from both sides, and finally, the guns falling silent. But with the centennial approaching, perhaps it was time to look at the entire notebook, and see what it contained.
Let me interject that whoever spoke of the past as a different place was quite right. One needs a guide, for 1918 was a different world, and certainly, a different series of battles, than I had understood it to be. When that is understood, then the past can be unearthed on its own terms, not as we would have it. It took a number of stages before this notebook could be understood, let alone be published. Here are some of them.
Like giving up smoking, the essential first step is the determination to transcribe the notebook. It will fight you for weeks, pencil writings sometimes but not always done over in pen and ink. Small victories take place, and will be encouraging – when the writer’s slang or shorthand becomes familiar, for example. It also helped a great deal that I have lived in France, and understood many of father’s references. But the important thing at this early stage, having made the decision to transcribe the notebook, is – like ceasing to smoke – keeping at it through the inevitable difficulties.
There are allies, I discovered, as the work proceeds. An offhand reference to a fire at Halifax, for example, led me to google “Halifax fire”, and discover the cataclysmic explosion and fire that occurred in Halifax harbor in December 1917 – said to be the largest manmade explosion before the development of atomic weapons. Dad was transported across the North Atlantic in a 23-ship convoy, in the HMT Durham Castle, and I was able to find a period photograph of that very ship. Little by little, I had moved beyond transcribing, and was adding details that enriched the text for today’s reader – details that someone from 1918 would already have known, perhaps.
I did a lot of reading to get some context for the notebook. One recent author of a Doughboy history struck me as quite right, when he said that he had decided to write about officers, because enlisted men left out so many details, probably for security reasons, that officers included in their diaries or notebooks. That was quite true in my father’s case as well. However, some 55 years later, while recuperating from a heart attack, he reread his notebook and dictated several memoranda, adding details and depth. I then had this material as well, and included it with the notebook entries at the right dates. I also included information on Father’s whereabouts for each day, which became of particular interest when he and his Signal Corps company moved to the front.
This movement to the east became understandable thanks to a very readable book about the American Sector and General Pershing, written by General John Eisenhower (“Ike’s” son, also a West Point graduate). It described the American Sector, the communications and railway lines that were built to sustain it during 1917, as the American military buildup took place. The overall picture finally made sense, and I had the feeling that 1918 was no longer foreign.
There were photographs from the time to be included, and maps, and a moving elegy by my daughter to be included. She realized that he had gone to war at 22, exactly her age. She called him “my quiet hero”, a rather Victorian gentleman who saw more than anyone should have to at that age.
It was wonderful to discover shared interests and experiences with Father. He wrote of their disembarkation at Wales and welcome in Cardiff by cheering crowds, with welcome by the Lord Mayor. I remembered a trip to Ireland some ten years ago, when to our surprise the airport passenger waiting room was suddenly filled with American troops, on their way to Iraq. Those waiting for their passages elsewhere stood and cheered the troops as they filed past. And his time in France, related over the years, surely was instrumental in my interest in learning French, and teaching in a French school not far from where he had been stationed.
Was the transcription hard work? Absolutely. Was it worth doing? I’ll leave that to the readers. But I did get to understand his experiences more fully, and appreciate the sacrifices of those who fought, “Over There”. And 1918, while still distant, was not such a foreign country after all. I hope that with this centennial, others will find the notebooks and memorabilia of their relatives who served in the Great War and nearer conflicts, and share them. We will all be the richer for these shared experiences.
Thank you, William. It was great to have you back, and such an interesting article. My father spent eight years researching his family tree and loved it despite the hard work.
Prize-winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.
His books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. He evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of four “diplomatic mysteries”. The second, Murder On The Danube, now also available on Kindle, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler, his main character, is just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders.
The fourth book, The Saladin Affair, has Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State. And in the latest in the series, The Great Game Murders, the plot is played out on a vast scale – India, China and Southeast Asia.
Mr Shepard turns to a family story in his latest book, Over There – A Doughboy in France 1918, the story of his father in World War One. From Harvard to Mousson Hill, and front line service, the story has been written for a new generation of family and readers.
Over There – A Doughboy in France 1918
My Father’s notebook, kept carefully throughout his World War One service, is a treasured family keepsake. It was, however, rarely actually read, much less consulted for its first-hand account of his experiences on the Western Front. We all knew the basics, that he had been on the front lines on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, and had recorded that fact. I transcribed that day’s moving entry a few years back, and sent it to each of his grandchildren.
With the approach of the centennial of World War One, and America’s entry in 1917, it seemed the right time to take a closer look at the notebook. I am glad that I did. It was written in pencil, but fortunately, during a period of convalescence, Dad had gone over much of it with pen and ink. He had also supplemented his notebook entries with more broadly focused memos, which gave depth and context to his earlier notebook entries, when the writer was mindful of security restrictions. Gradually, as the weeks passed, the handwriting became more familiar. The outlines of the story, how Dad enlisted, trained at Fort Devens, Massachusetts with his 301st Signal Corps Field Battalion, and then went to France were becoming familiar. The larger story was fascinating, including their naval convoy across the UBoat infested North Atlantic, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Great Britain, and passage across the Channel.
Then came the eastward movement through a rail and training network largely laid out by General Pershing in 1917 across France to the eastern sector, which was to become the American Sector, in Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine. That is where Dad’s journey led, to an isolated and rocky hill on the Moselle named Mousson Hill, and combat with the American Sixth Corps. It was the time of the St. Mihiel Salient, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
I recall being told at Fort Benning at The Infantry School that Army life was months of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Something like that emerges from this narrative, with its tales of K.P. and life under fire. It also tells us something of the cost of freedom, for a generation. I hope it leads to others finding and sharing their family stories of what it was really like, “Over There.”
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic are… Jane Hertenstein, Jeff Rasley, Jonathan Taylor, Nina Bingham.
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