The Reality of World War I

9 11 2017

I was excited to start writing biographies for World War I fallen soldiers who attended the college that would become Michigan State University.  As a new historian who finally had the opportunity to do the kind of research I’d fantasized about since changing my major, I was given a stack of death certificates and was ecstatic.  At the time, my perception of the thick manila folders handed to me was clinical and academic: I was truly doing raw research.

Death is no stranger to me as a resident of the digital world, which is used to senselessly and insensitively overshare anything that will garner attention and interactions.  I have seen videos of people being shot and bleeding, photos of executions from across the planet, and I daily prepare myself to see footage of someone being beaten, either by an individual or an unfairly massed group: I am desensitized.  After compartmentalizing so many visual acts of obscene violence, how could an innocuous document do anything to me emotionally?  With so much time having passed between the World War and now, how could I be moved emotionally?  I would be an unaffected researcher and reporter. I started by making a list of those that had died.  I saw the names, Bauer, Laurence J.; Halbert, Earl, but even those were nothing more than gathered data, waiting to be sorted and notated.  Once I had compiled a list of the names, I went through the death certificates in the University Archives, and the losses quickly became anything but distant.

In the first World War, 1,225 Michigan Agricultural College students and graduates joined the armed forces to fight, and 48 of them lost their lives.[1]  These numbers are both disconcerting and familiar.  All wars have an assumed loss of life, and the numbers themselves convey the losses experienced in an accurate but detached way.  They are numbers; large or small, there is not much more to them than the quantitative values that are being communicated. Grouping together the dead into a total value says something about how many were killed in war, but it leaves out what is now missing in the world and the deep effect it has.

My biases towards the culture during WWI set me up for my first shock.  I had a prejudice that in 1917, everyone would get married at 18, 19, 20 years old, so I expected to see “wife” next to “relationship” in the listed contact on the death certificates.  I didn’t: I saw parents.  Page after page, I saw “relationship: mother” and “relationship: father” next to a name of who was to be notified of this individual’s death.  I went back and started paying particular attention to the ages that were listed and saw 20, 21, and 24.  It dawned on me that these people were truly children.  I suppose the label of grownup or adult would have made their deaths more easy to swallow, and being married would have helped endow those labels.  Instead, I had to accept the bare realization that they weren’t married and most of them were younger than me.  They served and died as children.

After that, I started to see other connections that made them closer to me and not just names on a plaque or numbers in a statistic. I perceived the documents I was reading as a connection to a person who had lived.  I started paying closer attention to the little details I was given in these single sheets of paper, some filled out thoroughly, others missing most of the information, even the date of death.  I saw that an Olin Hinkle had died, and I thought of the Hinkle who was in the dorm next to mine.  I saw the name Granger, and thought of a younger Granger I went to high school with.  I couldn’t help but wonder if they were related to each other; Michigan people tend to stick close to home.  I saw that Irving Hill, who died of a skull fracture in Germany, was born in Shiawassee county, lived in Owosso and was inducted at Corunna.[2]  I grew up in Genesee county, which is directly next to Shiawassee county, and faced Owosso and Corunna High School teams in swim and track meets.  The geography of my life growing up directly overlapped with this young man.  We grew up in neighboring cities and towns and chose to attend the same college one hundred years apart from each other.  He was 29 years old when he died, which is the age that I am as I discover him and all of our uncanny connections.

The most surreal moment for me that made all of this real was when I was compiling names of service members from the first collection published by the MAC Record.  The first death of a MAC alumnus was on February 6, 1918, and the edition I was reading was published on September 14, 1917, so I was mentally focused on the living.  There was so much to record and sift through, and I found a rhythm that allowed my mind to drift a little.  Then I typed in the name Churchill and was alerted that this information was repeated somewhere in my document.  Google spreadsheets, ever helpful, offered to fill in the repeated information.  It read “Churchill, Thomas W. ‘15 Died.”  Thomas didn’t make it.  I was so occupied with recording information about living people that seeing the word “died” next to his name shocked me.  He was alive in this issue; I would find the student newspaper’s obituary for him in a later one. I still don’t know how old he was when he died.

thomas william churchill 1915 yeabook_1

Thomas W. Churchill (1915 Wolverine yearbook)

For the first time, I finally understand what is lost in a war.  It is no longer cliche to hear the phrase “a life cut tragically short.”  I have found the names of those who died too soon, read through the paper remnants of their service memories, and can imagine the empty space in time that their absence provided for those who loved them.  Their existence has become a hollow echo that replaced the lives they should have lived and experiences they should have shared.

These lives are now personal for me, but they aren’t necessarily lost.  Their time alive was shortened, taken, and ended, but they aren’t lost.  Their names are still known.  I know them, and others remember them.  They are memorialized on campus where people can walk by and read their names.  There are physical files of them, saved, stored and digitized.  They are not lost, but there was a loss.  The files and papers don’t describe who they are or what it was like to sit next to them.  But they are not lost completely, and finding them in whatever form they still exist in makes that true.

[1] “MAC Alumni-War Rosters” in Frank S. Kedzie papers (Box 1166, Folder 34).

[2] “Service Record of MAC Students killed in World War I” in Frank S. Kedzie papers (Box 1166, Folder 37).

Written by Catharine Neely, intern for MSU Archives & MSU Museum

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