World War I: Looking back 100 years
They came with photos, letters, medals, artifacts, and precious memories. Residents and others with a connection to town streamed into Wilton Library Saturday, May 20, for World War I Digitization Day, bringing their family mementos to be recorded as history into the Connecticut State Library’s project about the Great War.
Digital archive specialists from the state library were on hand to scan and photograph people’s memorabilia, interview them for cataloguing purposes, and then upload the photos into the state’s growing online World War I collection.
Don Drummond brought a binder full of letters, maps, and more that he showed to The Bulletin and archivist Todd Ligas.
Drummond’s father was Reuben B. Drummond, born June 2, 1892, in Jersey City, N.J. He enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard before the war and was based in Sea Girt.
“When the war started, they were activated with people from New York, Maryland and Virginia,” Drummond said, adding they were known as the Blue & Gray Division, a reference to the Civil War.
“When they were at dances in Alabama [where the division was based], the mothers and grandmothers wouldn’t let the girls dance with Northerners,” Drummond said, noting the Civil War had ended just 50 or so years before.
Ligas asked Drummond how his father felt about getting involved in the war.
“In 1917 everybody ran to be in the war,” Drummond said. “If you couldn’t get in you were heartbroken.”
Ligas, a 23-year military veteran himself, nodded. “Young men are always excited,” he said. “It’s a big adventure.”
The war, of course, turned out to be more of a nightmare than an adventure. After he returned home, Drummond’s father wrote to his Uncle Ike, a Civil War veteran, about his experiences.
German artillery, Drummond said, apparently consisted of a cast iron shell with explosives inside. “When it exploded, there was cast iron shrapnel,” he said. “Instead of being injured, people would be cut in half.”
In one instance, two soldiers next to Reuben were hit. One died instantly. “One died in his arms,” Drummond said.
Drummond brought one of the more interesting artifacts the archivists had seen. When shown, no one could guess what it was.
Reuben was assigned to the field signal battalion at headquarters in France, which was responsible for communication with the front lines. Secret communication was difficult, because if they used telegraph or telephone lines, the Germans often cut the wires and listened in. Early radio was also not secure.
The Army turned to pigeons. Junior officers like Reuben would be sent to the front lines with French homing pigeons in wicker baskets. He would observe what was happening, write a message in code on onionskin paper, insert it into a tiny cylinder, and attach it to the pigeon’s leg and set it free. The pigeons flew back to headquarters.
“One guy with a rifle was assigned to shoot the pigeon if it flew into German territory,” Drummond said, but to his knowledge, no pigeons were shot down.
Reuben fought in the battle of Meuse-Argonne, the last major Allied offensive, and would recall how at night he’d be in a dugout — an offshoot of a trench where soldiers had more cover — and rats would come out. “They could feel the rats walking on them, but they couldn’t move,” Drummond said, “because they were afraid of being bitten.”
Especially dangerous was when they had to move the line forward. “You had to come out of the trench and as you were running across the field, you had to avoid jumping into a shell hole, because the gas would settle in the bottom.”
Reuben was discharged in 1919 and returned to Jersey City, where he opened a laundry business.
Also at the Meuse-Argonne was Jean Lavielle, grandfather of Jean-Pierre Lavielle. Jean Lavielle is one of the first French soldiers to be profiled in the project, said Christine Pittsley, the digitization project manager.
Jean Lavielle was born in 1895 south of Bordeaux, and was drafted in 1914. He fought in the entire war, from 1914 to 1918, rising from private to sergeant. In addition to Meuse-Argonne, he fought at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, where more than 377,000 French casualties were suffered. Among them were two of his first cousins.
“Their bodies were never recovered,” Jean-Pierre said.
After the war, Jean Lavielle returned home to be a cabinetmaker. He died in 1970 at the age of 75.
Lavielle also brought photos of his wife, Gail’s, grandfathers, Dave Milgram and Leo Levy.
Dave, Gail’s maternal grandfather, was born in Kansas City, Mo., and before the war he was a sign painter. Since he was drafted near the end of the war, he did not see any fighting, but he served in France and then in Germany, which was occupied by the Allies, before coming home in 1919. Once home he started a grocery business, which grew to a very successful enterprise.
Leo Levy, Gail’s paternal grandfather, was born to a wealthy family in Houston. He joined the Texas National Guard, 36th Division, which was later nationalized and became part of the U.S. Army. He was 22 years old when he went to officers school, graduating as a second lieutenant. He became a platoon leader in the 143rd Infantry Regiment.
He was sent to France and also fought in Meuse-Argonne, and lived to return to Houston.
Florence Nightingale Johnson arrived at the library with a trove of letters, most of them between her grandfather, Marion Sims Wyeth, and her grandmother, Eleanor Orr Wyeth.
Marion Sims Wyeth graduated from Princeton in 1910 with a degree in architecture, and in 1914 studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
He did not serve in France, but appeared to be attached to the 18th Construction Company and in 1918 was at Emsworth in Sussex, England, although Johnson believes he was also at a hospital for soldiers in London. Earlier, in 1914, he was with the American Consulate in Rome.
Johnson also had a book of “war sonnets,” This Man’s Army, written by her uncle, John Allan Wyeth. He served as a translator with the American Expeditionary Forces in France.
At least a dozen people participated in Digitization Day, which library Executive Director Elaine Tai-Lauria said “exceeded expectations.”
At the library, the project was spearheaded by Michael Bellacosa, community engagement manager, who said, “the most valuable things are the local things.
“Before the Internet, public libraries were bringing the world to the town. Now the Internet can bring the town to the world.”
It was appropriate, he noted, that the event took place on Armed Forces Day.