The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.
In a letter to her family from November 26, Minnesota Red Cross nurse Marion Backus describes the hospital she was working at in France when they received the first news of the Armistice on November 8. She writes that the French and Americans at the hospital celebrated the Armistice by all getting drunk, but she went for a walk to really wrap her mind around the idea of the war finally being over. When she arrived back at the hospital she couldn't believe that she saw the hospital all lit up for the first time in 4 years. Backus describes her mixed feelings of joy that the war is over and everyone will be returning home soon and sadness over the soldiers who died who will never return home to their families. They were then told that the "news was a little premature" and had to wait until Monday, Nov. 11 for the official news of the Armistice.
[…] Of course you know this war has been run on rumors, as far as the boys are concerned. There is a new one every hour almost, and the first thing asked when two people meet is- “Have you heard anything”. Well on Nov. 8th we got our first news of the Armistice and a wonderful time we had. The French and almost all the Americans got drunk and everybody was wild. I celebrated by taking a nice long walk and trying to realize that it was all over. The part I remember most is coming home about 11:30 to the hospital and seeing it all lighted up. […] As we stood there on this night, looking down on the hospital lighted for the first time in four years and knew that now we were sometime going home and wondering what you all were thinking about over there, with all the joy, the thought of the other boys and from them to their folks and what they would have to suffer, made a mixture of feelings that I will not forget for sometime. And any celebration afterward never did mean what those last fifteen minutes out there in the quiet that night did to me. Of course the next day we were told that our news was a little premature and that there was no cause for a celebration yet. So Saturday and Sunday we waited and on Monday the official news arrived. [...]
Marion Backus Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P1356
Marion Backus was a Red Cross nurse from Minnesota serving in France. In a letter to her family, Backus describes the excitement of American soldiers going through the town she was stationed in when they realized that she and the other nurses walking around town were American. The soldiers would stop the nurses in the street to talk to them because they had not seen or talked to American girls for 5-6 months.
[...] There has been a lot doing here lately. Some of the American boys were going thru and as the town was not very large they were every were [sic] and it was good fun to go along the streets and speak to them and watch the look of surprise and delight on thire [sic] faces when they heard American spoken by a girl and then they would generally say are you really an American[.] I think that when I get back to the USA and everybody does not smile and speak to me I am going to be very much hurt. Really we have had some funny and pathetic experiences for these boys had not seen an American girl for any were [sic] from five to six months and they were just like children[.] they would stop us any where even in the middle of street an ask us to talk just so that they could hear us talk but now they have all gone on so that there are just occasional boys and the M.T.'s which are always around. [...]
With love to every body
Citation: Marion Backus Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P1356
Our interns and staff have been hard at work, and in two weeks we will launch the World War I Daybook blog. Each day beginning April 1 we will be tracking Minnesota’s involvement in “The Great War” with items from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection, including diaries, letters, artifacts, newspapers, and more. Join us as we delve into the lives soldiers, nurses, senators and suffragists to examine the war from multiple angles.
Don't miss the all of the World War I and homefront related artifact for that era in our Collections, now available digitally!
And mark your calendars for the Minnesota Historical Society’s newest exhibit WWI America, opening April 8 at the History Center in St. Paul.
Dee Smith left her clerical job with the Minneapolis Department of Education in June 1918 to go overseas with the Red Cross Department of Personnel in Paris. Her letters home, which are the main component of this collection, were usually addressed to her mother and a woman named Cora who may have been her sister. They are seldom about her work, and instead concerned matters such as going sightseeing, having fun with her friends, and descriptions of wartime Paris.
Letters from July 1918, when Smith was in New York waiting to ship out, reassure her family that she would not be needing a ball gown. This decision was farsighted because in September of that year, when she was in Paris, the American Expeditionary Forces took over the American Red Cross to the extent that Smith was considered service personnel and so wearing her uniform in public became mandatory for the remainder of the war. Smith was not terribly pleased with this decision, especially as it meant she had to wear it to the many dances she attended "to keep morale up." The uniform also made her instantly recognizable as an American woman overseas.
Although writing of many lighthearted matters, Smith's letters also directly address the war. Smith visited American troops in hospitals in some of her free time. In January of 1919, after armistice, she visited several battlefields, and that May she used her vacation time to tour Belgium and the defeated Germany. The letters she wrote about this tour show her extreme hatred for Germans, remarking that Germans were ugly, describing American troops stealing cabbage from a German woman for Smith and her friend to eat, and hinting that she thought German prisoners of war were so lazy they ought to be bayoneted. Considering that the application process for overseas Red Cross workers included letters of recommendation proving their loyalty and patriotism for the United States and its allies, this hatred is not entirely surprising. It was only long after armistice that she revealed she had been in Paris while it was being bombed, with bombs falling within blocks of where she was, as censoring had kept her from writing earlier. Other than censoring, her continual fear was that the boats with mail would be torpedoed and her letters would never make it home.
My favorite letter of Smith's was written on January 23rd, 1919, during the Paris peace talks. While on her lunch break she and a friend went to buy as much jam as they could possibly carry, stuffing their arms and pockets so as to avoid the long lines at the store by reducing their number of trips. While walking back to work in this condition they suddenly realized that the man walking toward them on the street was President Woodrow Wilson, with his secret security agents following behind him. She states in the letter that, "We smiled our best, bowed, and said "Bon Jour" which is good morning in French. He [President Wilson] lifted his high silk hat, bowed and smiled. [...] We were in a perfect misery of indecision afterwards to as whether his affability was due to his delight in seeing us or our most amusing appearance of a grocery delivery wagon."
See whole letter here: 1-23-19 complete
Look for more of Dee Smith's letters in the World War I Daybook when it launches in April 2017!
The collection sheds light on both the daily life of Minnesotans during the war and the local politics of the time period. I found particularly interesting the numerous letters that dealt with groups that were critical of the war. Many letters described how the government and citizens reacted to anti-war activity in the state.
Some of the most interesting documents concerning politics and groups opposed to war were dated from July 1917. I found a letter written on July 10, 1917, from a Minneapolis lawyer by the name of Jonas Weil to be particularly interesting. According to his letter a doctor by the name of Eugene Friedman had been held in Hennepin County jail for three weeks, without formal charges being known to him, for allegedly being “antagonistic to the United States Government”. The letter captured how suppression of alleged anti-war proponents was enforced through the government; however suppression of anti-war criticism being carried out by citizens is a common theme of the collection.
A letter from July 14, 1917, by Bemidji lawyer Elmer E. McDonald captures this theme. In a letter to Nelson describing the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizing among lumber and agricultural workers, McDonald nominates a local Bemidji man to infiltrate the IWW and essentially spy on their activity. McDonald clearly saw the IWW as a distinct threat that had to be aggressively targeted by the government and citizens. This sort of political suppression offers interesting insights to the lengths to which citizens would go to protect the war effort.
In addition to opposition to leftist groups, the war elicited strong nativist responses. A letter dated July 25, 1917, from the owner of a Duluth grocery store warned Nelson about the dangers of foreign born residents and citizens in the country. The Duluth man states that all foreign born non-citizens and citizens should be deported from the United States. A strange statement given that Nelson himself was born in Norway. However, it expresses a common theme in the collection of anti-immigrant sentiment during the war.
The Knute Nelson collection offers an interesting view of Minnesota and the home front during the war. The collection offers a personal account of diverse selection of Minnesotan political issues, from censorship and nativism to women’s suffrage and immigrant rights. Be sure to check out the World War I Daybook in April 2017 to learn more about the history and politics of Minnesota during the war!
My name is Matt Reicher, and I was the World War I Daybook Project Intern for the Spring 2016 semester. The majority of my time as an intern was spent in the MNHS Library working through the manuscript collections.
Reading the different manuscripts offered me the first-person perspective of events that is often lacking in historical literature. I found myself wrapped up in the life of the people involved, and hung on each of their words while their story took shape. Each story was unique, showing how different people handled the events unfolding around them while maintaining their sanity far away from their homes.
While I read many different types of documents in the library, the one item that stood out most was a diary written by former Glenwood resident Ingvald D. Smith. He was an American soldier who wrote notes documenting his service time in France almost daily. Titled “My Experience in the World War,” Smith’s narrative of events began in March of 1918 and continued through his honorable discharge from service on May 27, 1919. While it isn’t a day-by-day accounting, each of the diary's 235 pages offered significant insight into the life of a soldier in war. Smith spared no detail, describing the seemingly mundane moments alongside events that unfolded while on the front lines of battle.
Two entries stood out in particular. First, on August 9, 1918, Smith’s sergeant came upon a makeshift gravesite that the group later discovered to be of US Private Herbert Holtke. Smith recognized the name, noting in an entry that Holtke was “one of the men in our group of four that volunteered for service and accompanied us on our trip to France.” Two entries mention Holtke, Smith’s first notation and the description of his gravesite. Though little else is revealed about Holtke and his death, it is a fascinating entry.
The second, written on October 2, 1918, found Smith describing how quickly the fighting could be upon them. “This evening while I was sitting beside a small fire making toast several enemy planes came over flying low, and with machine guns opened fire on the troops in the valley.” He noted after crawling out of a small fox hole that the four-hour barrage “was the worst thing that I have encountered yet.”
While Smith’s diary is captivating, the physical book itself is what I found most compelling. It is large, but pocket-sized and has a slight bend in it giving the impression that Smith carried it with him in his pocket during his time in France. Some of his notes, especially those during his early days in France, give the impression that they were written only moments after an event occurred.
The final few pages of Smith’s diary are a short synopsis of some of the events he took part in during the war. Smith notes his enlistment date, organizations he was attached to in France, as well as the five fronts he fought on - adding whether or not those battles were “offensive” or “defensive” engagements.
Look for Smith’s story, along with many others, when the World War I Daybook blog launches in April, 2017!!
One interesting source that I researched consisted of letters written by Willard W. Bixby, a Minnesota man who worked as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy beginning in June 1918. Bixby’s work driving ambulances as a Red Cross volunteer involved moving injured soldiers between hospitals and working on the front lines removing injured soldiers from the battlefields to hospitals where they would be treated. Bixby’s letters to his family describe Italy and his life as an ambulance driver. These letters provide an interesting and unique insight into the war as Bixby served in Italy, while most of the other collections I researched were written by people serving in France, and he was the only ambulance driver in the manuscript collection that I encountered.
In a letter from June 16, 1918, Bixby describes driving an ambulance in the midst of an attack that started the day before and (as he states in later letters) lasted for eight days. It was written from “somewhere on the Piave” in Italy. Here is a selection from Bixby’s letter:
"The anticipated attack started yesterday morning about 1 A.M. I have been on the go every minute and have had about 6 hrs. sleep in the last 48. I am well and safe but have certainly seen the thick of it. . . . I have a machine now so we all have to be on duty as it is a night and day affair. . . . I can see shrapnel bursting from my window and believe me it is not the most pleasant of sounds."
In later letters, Bixby describes his work throughout the following months and his role in the “grand advance” at the end of the war. See more posts about Willard W. Bixby’s life as a Red Cross ambulance driver in the World War I Daybook blog!
These are two types of ambulances driven by the Red Cross ambulance men. This photo is captioned, “The Fiats carry twice as many wounded as do the Fords. The contrast in size is plainly to be seen here.”
Citation: Willard W. Bixby and Family Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [A/.B624]
Don’t forget to check out the World War I Daybook when the blog launches in April 2017 and keep up to date with the research process blog posts until then!
Lisa Matson, World War I Daybook Intern
With the digitization project now complete, all World War I artifacts in the MNHS Collection are available to view on the Collections Online database. Here are some highlights from this incredible collection:
Victory medal awarded to Tela B. Burt, an African-American from Minneapolis who served as a supply sergeant with the 809th Regiment of Pioneer Infantry in France, circa 1919. After the war ended, Burt returned to the Minneapolis and had a career with the post office, played music for several dance bands, and eventually became one of the first African Americans in the Twin Cities area to enter the real estate field.
A length of barbed wire from Verdun, France, found by Miss Frances Rogers of Minnesota, who was part of the American Fund for French Wounded.
German military field telephone inside oak case, circa 1915.
A United States Army Model 1917 steel helmet. This classic World War I "doughboy" helmet was worn by Private Clarence Ervin Ohmann of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
A ditty box owned by United States Navy Seaman Edward R. Stensrud of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It contained souvenirs relating to Stensrud's WWI service, including postcards, German and Swedish matchboxes and an address book. Railway tags have been pasted on each end of the box.
Coat for an American Red Cross overseas uniform, worn by Margaret MacLaren of Saint Paul, Minnesota, while serving in France circa 1918.
British military issue gas mask and cloth case, circa. There were many types of gas masks used during the war, and this is known as a Small Box Respirator.
French Croix de Guerre medal awarded to Minnesotan John Bowe. When the war began Bowe was the mayor of Canby, Minnesota. He abandoned his position and went to Canada to join the military, where he was rejected due to age. He then went to England and tried to enlist, but was informed he would have to renounce his United States’ citizenship. He then went to France where he joined the French Foreign Legion in 1915.
Minnesota service flag created for the Victory Liberty Loan Campaign in April, 1919. The approximately 1,200 gold stars represent the servicemen from Minnesota who died during the war. It is 18 feet high, and 28 feet long.
Stephanie Olson, Collections Assistant
Hello everyone! My name is Mary Lesher. I’m a senior History major at Vassar College and I was this summer’s World War I Daybook Research Assistant Intern. I followed up on some of the great research the previous intern, Molly, did into the various kinds of World War I collections items the Minnesota Historical Society has acquired. I spent the majority of my internship in the Gale Family Library examining the Minnesota Gold Star Roll, which was compiled by the Minnesota Public Safety Commission in the years just after the close of the war. The Gold Star Roll is a record of every Minnesotan who died during the war from combat, plane, train and automobile accidents and influenza, which affected soldiers domestically and abroad. These records were filled out by close family members- mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and children- and include various details of these men and women’s lives, from their place of birth to their schooling, character, vocation and military service. Family members often sent in photos, letters they received during the war and newspaper clippings about their loved one who died to give a more complete understanding of who that person was. I combed through every single record to find stories, primary sources and photos to share with you in the World War I Daybook.
One of my favorite Gold Star Roll records is that of Miss Sabra R. Hardy, a nurse in the United States Army Nursing Corps. She was from Minneapolis and worked as a nurse in Minneapolis Hospitals before enlisting for service in WWI. Hardy trained at Camp Travis in Texas before shipping out to New York to finish her training and await her journey to Europe. When she reached England she wrote a brief note to her parents alerting them that she had arrived safely overseas, and told them she would write again once she was permanently located at a hospital near the French Front. This was the last her family ever heard from her, as Hardy contracted Influenza-pneumonia and died about a week after reaching France.
Dearest Mother and Dave:
I am here at last and, I just can’t wait till I’ve got my gov’t. outfit together & my Red cross suit on. They are such a good looking blue serge suit [symbol] & U.S.A. emblems worn on lapels beside the Caducci [plural form of caduceus] which stands for the medical dept. & a black sailor hat & heavy brown army shoes. The duty uniform is grey crepe & white (No. 2) aprons & bibs & caps…”
Citation: "Hardy, Sabra R."Minnesota Publc Safety Commission.Gold Star Roll. Minnesota HistoricalSociety, St. Paul, Minnesota[114.D.4.3B]
Be sure to join us for more incredible stories from World War I when the blog launches in April, 2017!