One of my primary goals in researching my family history was to understand, to visualize, to experience via imagination, what my ancestors' lives were like. One can understand the fundamental privations our ancestors endured in the days before such conveniences as indoor plumbing, refrigeration, the automobile, etc. But only by understanding the actual conditions of their everyday lives is one able to interpret them in context and thereby give them meaning.
In terms of our ancestors' experiences, perhaps some of the most powerful certainly involved military service. Movies such as "The Patriot" provide us a brief window into the experiences of a Revolutionary War soldier standing on a line with a single shot musket, firing the weapon and then experiencing the overwhelming nervous tension of loading the weapon while being shot at by dozens of highly disciplined British soldiers. Cinematic productions such as "Glory" and "D-Day" give us a sense of being there for a number of wars, each one unique in terms of the type of weapons and the manner in which war was waged. The ability to visualize these experiences gives us greater respect for the accomplishments of the war for our country's very existence.
Unit rosters are certainly valuable materials for the genealogy researcher but they tell nothing of the actual experiences of our ancestors. I knew that my great, great grandfather fought with the Union Army in the American Civil War, that he was wounded in battle, and that he was awarded a few medals. Rosters told me which unit he fought with. But I never truly understood the magnitude of his experiences until I discovered a published history of his unit on Ancestry.com. The history described the numerous battles in which he was involved. I had previously visualized him enlisting, going through some period of training, involved in a few fire fights, and then returning to his home near the end of the war. But by reading this history I learned that he was in the heat of battle nearly every day of his service. I gained a tremendous understanding of what may have been the most significant and difficult part of his life
There is a fair amount of material online in free and subscription databases as well as historical websites which describe wars involving the United States armed forces from the Revolution through the Civil War. Casualty lists for the Vietnam and Korean Wars are fairly well documented as are the conditions under which these wars were fought. The movie "D-Day" documents the everyday drudgery and dangers of our troops in World War II. But the American historical discourse lacks a thorough analysis of the conditions faced in "The World War" (World War I).
DistantCousin.com's World War I military records (http://distantcousin.com/Military/WWI/) provide such items as casualty lists and a few rosters but our latest project is to place online a number of unit and divisional histories. During the war, the American War Department published a daily list of casualties which was frequently republished in newspapers such as The New York Times. These lists provide name, rank, and residence for all those who paid the ultimate price. We have begun a project to extract some of these lists (http://distantcousin.com/military/wwi/nytcasualties/) but somehow a simple listing of these brave folks doesn't seem to be enough.
After the war to end all wars, books were published describing the whole experience, from enlistment to occupation, of a large number of units and divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces. These provide lengthy narratives regarding the experiences and often pictures of people (mostly officers) and places. The books are not generally available in local libraries, at least in my experience. For this reason we have begun to place a number of these publications online and to index them by surname. For example, we have the following online now:
56th Pioneer Infantry / First Maine Heavy Field Artillery in Germany, 1919
Official History of the Fifth Division (USA) in the First World War
Unit History of 310th Infantry, 78th Division, USA 1917 - 1919
Official History of the 88th Division (USA) in the First World War
Casualties of the 90th Division, USA, 1918
with plans to place online in the coming months:
- The Thirtieth Division in the World War
- History of the 29th Division "Blue and Gray" in the World War
- Unit History of the 47TH Field Artillery, AEF
- 37th Division in the World War
- The 32nd Division in the World War
- History of the 304th Engineers, 79th Division, USA, in the World War 1917 - 1919
These histories include not only lists and rosters but also quite a bit to help the family historian understand the difficulties experienced. For example,
"So, despite these difficulties and the immensity of the undertaking, the result of which can, even to-day, be only crudely estimated, the American attack was launched at 5:30 on the morning of September 26, 1918, over a front of more than 28 kilometers, with nine Divisions in line. … This was in spite of all the obstacles: barbed wire entanglements, machine guns, both heavy and light, the most efficient and modern use of tactics in which the enemy was adept, the succession of well organized lines of trenches in each system, all of which hid and protected unknown numbers of the enemy; and beside the ever-present interdictory shell fire which came not only from our front but from both flanks, there came also, in the case of the four Divisions on the right of the advancing American Army, especially heavy artillery fire from the enemy guns in position on the heights along the east bank of the Meuse."
In addition to these unit and divisional histories which are necessarily military in nature, we also have some related local histories online including:
Bedford, Massachusetts in the World War - An Account of the Citizens of the Town of Bedford Military and Civilian in the Great War with Germany 1917 - 1919
with plans to place online:
- Kingsbury County, South Dakota in the World War
These publications include list of those killed in the war with somewhat greater detail concerning each including, frequently, photographs. They also contain narratives about some of the greater atrocities of the war such as,
"American soldier had been beaten, starved and neglected in an effort to make them disgorge information … they knew similar plans would not work with Corporal Roberts … accordingly they put a drop of acid in his eye and said ‘Now will you answer' … they dropped drop after drop into the eye until it was insensible to pain. When he still refused, they put acid in the other eye."
And encouraging words about how other Americans supported the troops such as,
"School children worked and saved in order that the boys at the front might have some more of the comforts that the army denied them … Citizens went without foods to which they had become accustomed that the men might have it in the training camps and on the field."
"We might be able to point out instances where the consumer did not seem to realize the fact that we were in war amd was ignorant of its consequences and took the position that he was entitled to anything for which he had the money to pay. We might brand this case as ignorance, selfishness; pro-Germanism; or lack of patriotism."