WW1 Daybook

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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


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.

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WW1 Daybook

"It Was Worth It"

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 22, 2018

Leila Heath of White Bear Lake was the served as the directress of an American Red Cross hospital hut in France. In this document, she says her most interesting experience during the war was when she set out to get candy and gum for the boys in her hospital three days before Christmas. They had not had candy any for weeks and the ones who had been gassed during the fighting had a craving for gum. On the way back from Nantes, where they had a high supply of candy and gum, Heath and her driver got delayed, lost, and ran out of gas. But when she finally arrived back at the hospital with the candy, she said when she saw the boys' faces on announcing her arrival with candy in hand, "it was worth it.".


[...] My most interesting experience was a trip to Nantes after supplies. After sending eight or ten requisitions and receiving no answer, I decided to go after some gum and candy in a camionette I used for that purpose. With just a driver, I started three days before Christmas, determined to at least get candy; for the boys had had none for over two or three weeks; and the boys who were gassed craved gum. Some one told me at a Hospital Centre in Nantes there was plenty of both. We arrived at Nantes at the noon hour, after a five hour drive. Of course every thing was closed until 2:30. We had lunch and were directed to the Centre; at five o'clock we were still looking for it, but finally found a French boy who knew where it was. We reached there at 5:30 and the warehouse was closed, and all the boys in charge out on a pass. At 7:30 one boy returned, and would give us one case of gum (5,000 pkgs.) and six of candy. In starting back, both the driver tired, [sic] we took the wrong turn and at twelve o'clock, instead of Angers, we found ourselves in Blois about two hundred kilometres out of our way. We turned back, and thirteen kilometres outside [sic] of Nantes, we ran out of gas. Luckily we had two blankets, so the driver curled up on the front seat and I crawled in and slept (?) on a case of candy. It had rained all day and the cover of the car leaked, so at 4:30 I got out and walked five miles to where I saw a light, and asked if they had a horse. No, but two miles farther his friend had one. It cost me 50 francs ($10.00) to go into Nantes and get gas. A Navy Lieutenant brought me back in his car and we started once more; four punctures and only three extra tubes, and no mending kit, -- stalled again and there we stayed until a convoy of Cadillacs came by, -- the ones for President Wilson's reception. One took me to the Hospital, and I sent another car back for my driver. But I can assure you despite all the trouble, if you could have seen the boys' faces when I said: "I have candy." It was worth it.

American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P781

Return of the Rainbow Division

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 21, 2018

This diary entry from May 8, 1919 from Mary T. Hill, the wife of railroad magnet James J. Hill. Her diary provides insight into the Minnesota homefront of the First World War. In this entry, Hill is excited to attend a parade welcoming home the Rainbow Division and other returning soldiers.


St. Paul
May Thursday 8 1919
Today is the day of the parade to welcome back the Rainbow Division and all returned soldiers providence has contributed much in giving a bright warm sunny morning. […]

1915-1920. Mary T. Hill Papers. 64. C.5.6 Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota

David Backus - A Summary

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 20, 2018

Before David Backus' entrance into flight service during WW1, he was volunteering as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. Through this volunteer work Backus spent three months in Chemin des Dames, France, evacuating the wounded. For this work he was awarded the Fourragère of the Médalle Militaire from the French Government. Throughout his air service Backus was credited with the destruction of four enemy aircraft and was presented with 3 more awards. The first, given in 1920, was the Comité Britannique de la Croix Rouge Française, meaning British Committee of the French Red Cross. The next two would come in 1924, titled Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster. The Croix de Guerre was awarded to those who distinguished themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy. The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to those who distinguished themselves by extraordinary heroism while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States. The oak leaf cluster identifies the recipient as someone in the Army and Air Force.
Years later, Backus would volunteer for active duty at the start of WW2. By February of 1942, he was appointed Major in the Army Air Force. Throughout his time in WW2, he played many roles, including an Intelligence Officer with the 305th Flying Fortress Bombing Group in France and Germany, an Air Intelligence Officer and Public Relations Officer in Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle's 12th Air Force Service Command in North Africa, Sicilian and Italian Campaigns, and Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Public Relations with the 15th Air Force Service Command.


David Backus Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 123.D.10.6F

Percy Christianson in Show Business!

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 19, 2018

After the Armistice, many soldiers in Europe were waiting to get back to the states. However, without the war, there wasn't much for them to do. To keep troops entertained, musical comedy and vaudeville shows were created with "all men" casts made up of the soldiers who had performing talent. These shows traveled from camp to camp, performing for the soldiers who had not yet been shipped home. The shows were very detailed, with costumes and wigs created for the performers, where the men in the shows dressed as chorus girls. Percy B. Christianson describes his role in one of these "traveling entertainment units" in a vaudeville show, which he was involved in for nine months after the Armistice until he was able to return home.


For those soldiers who waited patiently to be transported across the Atlantic, and home, was a problem of discipline without reason. In war men will be disciplined, to prepare themselves to know how to defend themselves.[...] After that is over and it suddenly ends, the problem of discipline is ended. What then? What branch of our military machine figured out the problem of how to controll [sic] this situation I do not know. One thing is for sure, they done a good job of it. They figured out, that where "discipline would fail, "entertainment" would succeed.["] That is the idea they worked on. It was a success. All service men, who wished to do so, were called in a screened for talent. The results were astounding. Among them were some of the most gifted artists. There were singers, slight of hand, dancers, comedians, cartoonists, stage directors, costume experts and many others. From this talent was created some of the most fabulous musical comedy shows that have ever been produced with an "all men" cast. Costumes and wigs were made for groups of singing and dancing chorus girls that would have been welcomed by any of our TV screens today. [...] The boys simply went wild over this kind of entertainment. They would fill Y.M.C.A. and Salvation Army entertainment centers to the rafters. The show traveled from one camp to another. Sometimes stages and tents were put up to accommodate the show, where no Y.M.C.A. or Salvation Army huts were built. [...]

American Legion Poster

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 18, 2018

The American Legion formed in 1919 as a way to aid soldiers returning from Europe, as well as their families and communities. The organization's first national convention was held in Minneapolis, and when it concluded the Minnesota branch of the American Legion was made permanent. In addition to providing war risk insurance assistance, the Legion helped members access benefits provided by the State Bonus Bill of 1919. The organization is still active today.


"Suffrage Victory Hailed in Meeting at Capitol" and "Woman Given Office in Auto Association" - The Minneapolis Morning Tribune. June 10, 1919

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 17, 2018

Aid for Discharged Soldiers

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 16, 2018

This letter from the American National Red Cross from February 5th, 1919, details the plans to aid discharged soldiers. It discusses small loans that have been given out and arrangements to have men stay at a local YMCA or in a hotel. However, it appears several men were taking advantage of this system, using Red Cross funds to tour a country.


Feb. 5, 1919.
To date we have advanced money to 54 men, the loans aggregating $485.44, less than $9.00 to each applicant. This does not include the $40.00 advanced to local Red Cross representatives at the Great Northern and Milwaukee Stations. They have been authorized to take care of emergency cases, involving small loans. Arrangements have been made with the St. James Hotel to provide rooms for discharged soldiers having an introduction card from this office. Similar arrangements have been made to secure meals at LaMott's Restaurant, near the St. James Hotel. We have loaned to the YMCA fifty cots and bedding for the use of discharged men, a charge of 35¢ being made to men who are able to pay. We have agreed to pay that charge to each man sent to the YMCA from this office. Several men who applied recently for assistance were evidently touring the country at the expense of the Red Cross. They wanted only a few meals and transportation to the next town. It is easy, of course, to pass on responsibility in this way. I think that it might be advisable to send out a gram to all chapters, advising them against this method of procedure. Four of the discharged soldiers who called at the office have been partially intoxicated. The St. James Hotel has been very co-operative in caring for these men.

American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P781

President Wilson's Parade in Paris

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 15, 2018

Dee Smith was a clerical worker from Minneapolis who served in the Red Cross' Department of Personnel in Paris from July 1918 to July 1919. In this letter home, Smith describes watching a parade commemorating President Wilson's arrival in Paris to participate in the the peace talks. She wrote that she and everyone else in her group agreed that the president looked right at them because of all their shrieking. The parade had many prominent people, including French President Raymond Poincare, Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau and General Pershing.


Dec 15-
[…] Saturday was made a national holiday in honor of Pres. Wilson, so bright + early Mrs Taylor + I started out for our German gun. […] It was great fun watching the crowd, + after awhile comes Pres + Mme. Poincare + Clemenceau whom the people adore. Papa Joffre was in [m...], very simply, as always, and more dignitaries whom we didn't recognize passed on the way to the station to meet Pres. Wilson. He looked natural, very happy, and tho’ I had promised to remain seated so some Frenchmen behind me could see, I forgot all about it + stood up + shrieked with the rest. We declare that the president looked straight at us. We were the only American women right in the particular place - The Red Cross had made a big reservation further down the avenue, but we decided for the gun, and it was a seat in the front row. Mrs. Wilson was rather pale - but looked intensely interested in everything + was almost covered in flowers. […]

Dee Smith Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P441


Minnesota Service Flag

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 14, 2018

An extremely large dark blue service flag with approximately 1,200 gold stars, representing all the servicemen and women from Minnesota who died during World War I. The flag is constructed from twelve panels of cloth sewn together. It was made by the Western Badge and Novelty Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota, for the Victory Liberty Loan Campaign in April 1919. It measures 18 1/2 feet high and 28 feet wide.


Harold Smith - The Lasting Effects of Mustard Gas

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 13, 2018

Even though the fighting had ended, soldiers and nurses suffered from the after effects of the War for years to come. Harold Smith of Saint Paul enlisted with the Canadian Forces prior to US entry into the War, claiming he was well and strong so it was his duty to go do his part. Smith was digging trenches on September 4th, 1917, under heavy shell fire from the Germans. In the middle of the night, the shell fire switched to mustard gas and a few of canisters landed in the trench that Smith was in, exposing him to the deadly gas before he was able to evacuate. At noon the next day, Smith reported himself ill and remained in the hospital for the next 10 months. After these 10 months, he was still ill but went back into training in England for another 6 months. He was discharged and returned home on February 11th, 1919. Smith died on November 5th, 1919, from complications of the poisonous mustard gas he had been exposed to more than two years prior. In addition to mustard gas poisoning, many soldiers also experienced shell shock. The new artillery that had been used throughout this First World War had never been seen before, and these weapons had lasting effects on the brains of men even after they had left the battlefield and returned home.


Circumstances attending death- Mustard gas shells were thrown in his dugout on September 4th. 1917- Next morning sick, but not realizing he was seriously affected he took out a working party five miles, where they were laying watermains [sic] and making railroads less than a mile from fighting line and constantly shelled by the Germans. Returned at noon, reported ill at dressing station, was put in ambulance sent to hospital (unknown) As able to be moved was sent to Etaples France to Birmingham Eng and [Ep...] Eng. Was in these hospitals 10 months having good care and food. Then not well and feeling miserable was back in training nearly 6 months in England. After returning to Canada his discharge was delayed on account of his ill health. Finally discharged returned home Feb. 11. 1919- sick, but happy to get home where he could rest and see his friends with the same high ideals and courage he gradually failed till Nov. 5- 1919. When he passed away.

"Smith, Harold L.," Minnesota public Safety Commission. Gold Star Roll. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 114.D.4.6F


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