(Author’s Note: This post concerns my time at Pritzker on 9/28.  Following that day, I began dealing with a cold that lingered up until the end of the week).  

This Saturday’s internship session at Pritzker was one entirely devoted to research.  Not only was I able to finish compiling all the information for my first Discovery Page on the Merchant Marines of WWII, but I also set through the arduous process of finding materials to support my research on the Trench Warfare of WWI.  

The more time I’ve spent at Pritzker doing research, the more I’m finding a value in recorded history coinciding with personal recounts and memoirs, as opposed to simply books on a shelf.  I fully expected my time here to consist almost exclusively of dense, information-laden texts where I would memorize and absorb as much as possible.  Yet in the never-ending quest to find decent, reputable online sources, I came across a Library of Congress collection of memoirs from WWI front-line soldiers.  One of particular interest was John Joesph Brennan, a specialist in the 102nd Engineer Train from New York.  What is immediately striking is the message that precedes his day-by-day account of his war experience.  A simple paragraph, with his signature underneath it from 1982, simply reads:

“This is not the diary of a hero, but the diary, of one of the many men who enlisted in the army, to serve his country, and accept and carry out what ever job he was assigned to do.”

Up until that point, many personal account stories I’ve found tried to employ as much emotionally charged language as possible, to try to capture the brutality of life in the muddy trenches.  Yet a soldier who spent time in the front, with shells bursting around him, simply chalks it up to his duty.  Before travelling overseas, he describes his time spent in New York in uniform on page 6 as “exciting.”  Mr. Brennan mentioned how people were very nice to him, and gave his men candy.

This dry, seemingly emotionless account of the war is equal parts fascinating and shocking to me.  As it progresses, beginning on page 80, a series of entries from September 7 – 20 all talk of constant rain, sleeping in, reviewing maneuvers, and “no detail,” in various iterations.  Only when he is in the heart of battle, describing German artillery falling around him, does his writing bridge on literary.  I’ve always considered memoirs to be ways to fully capture that experience, to vividly describe every detail of the soldiers mind in the worst of human interactions.  Yet this perfectly captures an element of trench warfare people seem to forget: the downtime.  Only a fraction of soldier’s time, in around 10-15%, was spent fighting on the front lines.  Everything else was varying degrees of preparation, repairs, and waiting.  Mr. Brennan’s memoir is a perfect representation of not only the stagnation of the warring countries, but of the soldiers as well.Image