Communication During the Great War: The Critical Role of Letters and Newspapers

By Sherri Goudy

“’My dear son, it’s almost June
I hope this letter catches up to you, and finds you well
It’s been dry, but they’re calling for rain
And every thing’s the same old same in Johnsonville
Your stubborn old daddy, ain’t said too much
But I’m sure you know, he sends his love’ and she goes on
In a letter from home
I hold it up and show my buddies like
We ain’t scared and our boots ain’t muddy, and they all laugh
Like there’s something funny about the way I talk
When I say, ‘Mama sends her best y’all’
I fold it up and put it in my shirt
Pick up my gun and get back to work
And it keeps me driving me on
Waiting on letters from home”        …Letters from Home, by John Michael Montgomery

It is evident throughout history, that in times of war and separation, communication between families and soldiers was the most important way of boosting morale and keeping hope alive.  Letters to soldiers showed that families were thinking of them and loved them, and it provided them motivation to press on despite horrible conditions and constant death.  For families, a letter was a reassurance that their loved one was still alive and gave them an uncensored look into what war was really like. These essential communications were often memorized and handled frequently.  Today they offer us a valuable historical record about what life was like for both the soldier and the Homefront.

Private Robert E. Bryant wrote letters to his cousin Geneva (Jackie) Fath and his Aunt Grace Quinlan of Springfield throughout his service during WWI.

Photo 1 Envelope addressed to Geneva April 8, 1918

Bryant, born in 1899, enlisted in the US Army Artillery Corps and began his service in 1917 at the age of 18. By January 1918, he was serving in the Coast Artillery Corps at Fort Constitution, in New Hampshire and in March he was part of the Coast Defense at Fort Stark in Portsmouth. On July 19, 1918, he went to England then France to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the war, he was promoted to Corporal, and worked in the Education and Reaction Department at Camp Zachery Taylor in Kentucky.

In his letters to his cousin and aunt, which span from June 1917 through August 1920, you can see his evolution and growth as a result of being at war.  His first letters home were playful, and he talked about his training to become a marksman and sharpshooter and in this excerpt from December 1917 he says,

“What would you think of me as an ambulance driver going to France before long? I am afraid that is what will happen if we don’t get some action of some kind soon. A friend of mine that works for me (and myself) by the name of Frank L. Core, is going to France before very long. We had our names sent to Washington D.C. and we’re waiting anxiously for an answer.”

Photo 2 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dec 1917

Photo 3 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dec 1917

Photo 4 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dec 1917

Photo 5 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dev 1917

Photo 6 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dec 1917

Photo 7 Letter Bryant to Geneva Dec 1917

In early 1918, he still is waiting to hear about going to France and mentions that the newspapers say there will be peace soon.  He also mentions the “shenanigans” that happen in the barracks between himself and his buddies.

 “From what the paper says tonight we will have peace in a short time. (I hope the paper tells the truth.) I have not heard anymore about going to France. Everything is as quiet as a mouse around here except at night after the lights goes out, and then—we start throwing shoes and anything else that is throwable or grabable. Oh yes, sometimes we get soaked on the “Dome” about proper. All we can hear when the lights goes out is: Zipp! Boom! Buch! Cut it—Zipp! Out. Someone threw a shoe at me last night (It was more like a steam-boat than a shoe) and as my bed is near a window I saw the shoe heading straight for my “Bean” and I ducked just in time. The shoe went through the window and as it was snowing, the snow came through on my bed, so I had to keep my head under the blankets for the rest of the night. Such—is the army life.” 

Photo 8 Letter Bryant to Geneva Jan 1918

Photo 9 Letter Bryant to Geneva Jan 1918

Photo 10 Letter Bryant to Gevena Jan 1918

Photo 11 Letter Bryant to Geneva Jan 1918

Photo 12 Letter Bryant to Geneva Jan 1918

Photo 13 Letter Bryant to Geneva Jan 1918

Just a few months later, Bryant learned he would be going to France.  In this letter, dated March 7, 1918, he wrote to his aunt asking for financial information, so he could make out his will.

Photo 14 Letter Bryant to Aunt March 1918

Photo 15 Letter Bryant to Aunt March 1918

Photo 16 Letter Bryant to Aunt March 1918

In his final letter for quite some time, he apologizes for not writing sooner, but says he had been putting it off because he knew he would be going to France.  Though he didn’t want to say goodbye, possibly forever, he closes with this line,

“Give my love to Aunt Grace and tell her goodbye for me and I will say goodbye to you little girl in case I don’t get to see or write to you again.”

Though letters were the preferred method for receiving news about their loved ones, the people of Clark County, just as was the case across the nation and world, relied heavily on newspapers for the latest information about the conflict.  Acting as the Facebook or Twitter of the day, the newspaper was the source for daily updates about what was going on “over there.”  Letters could take weeks even months to reach their intended recipient, so the newspaper provided “immediate” information for anxious communities.  Local newspapers published the names of men that entered the military, printed letters home from servicemen overseas, reported casualty information, and informed readers of the efforts to support the war on the home front. The newspapers from WWI provide a detailed record of how the war was viewed from local, national, and international perspectives, and how it affected the daily lives of Americans.

In Springfield, the newspaper published daily a “Local Men” section, which provided information about the men serving during WWI.  Private Robert E Bryant was one of the men featured on April 21, 1918.

Photo 17 SDN April 21 1918 pg 8 - Jun 8 2018 - 10-54 AM - p1 (002)

Photo 18 SDN April 21 1918 pg 8 - Jun 8 2018 - 10-56 AM - p1 (002)

Bryant’s last letter to his cousin was written August 9, 1920.  In it he tells about his new job and his future and begs for the latest news (probably gossip) from Springfield.  His playful language with his cousin is consistent throughout his letters, and they are an excellent source for learning one soldier’s experience during and after war.

Photo 17 Last Letter Bryant to Geneva

Geneva received letters from several other soldiers which help paint an even more colorful picture about war and writing letters to someone you’ve never met (and think you’re in love with).

To see this entire collection and to learn more, please come see our exhibit August 2, 2018 at the Ohio State Fair, the Cardinal Building from 9am -9pm.   

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