Friday, November 11, 2011

Portrait of a Reluctant Soldier

Those who have been with me on this blog since I began writing in 2009 may recall a series of posts created using excerpts from the WWI Letters of Lawrence H. Ross.   I still consider it one of my better accomplishments of creative writing.

Great Uncle Lawrence was one of the few men in my family to see active service, and in recent years I have spent a quiet few moments each November reflecting on his life and death and their impact on my Mother's family.

Lawrence was an unlikely soldier. His letters give no hint of his political interests or his thoughts on America's involvement in the war prior to his call up for the draft.  Rather, the letters convey a testy astonishment, a sense of disbelief that he has actually been herded onto a train bound for Camp Devens, and amazement that he has passed the physical exams and been issued a uniform!  He even entertained the idea, rather dramatically expressed, that a swift death would be more welcome than enduring basic training!

Lawrence grew up in his maternal grandfather's comfortable white farmhouse, in a small Adirondack town where the family name had appeared on the census each decade since the first formal listing in 1790.  His great grandfather was described as "a prosperous farmer" with a variety of business interests.
Lawrence's mother died when he was less than two months short of his second birthday, her life bleeding away in the painful hours following the birth of her third child.  The woman Lawrence loved and called "Mother" was the quiet girl who came to help care for the motherless children and became in due time his father's second wife.
His childhood was seemingly uneventful. School, church, a closely knit neighborhood and extended family framed his boyhood years. 
As he grew into young manhood the news notes of the local paper began to reference him: he taught a Sunday School class; he played the violin, his sisters were both accomplished pianists, his uncle and cousin next door played the banjo. The whole family sang with a natural gift for harmony.  They made music for church services and provided entertainment at the Echo Mountain Hall--the social center run by the local graphite mine works.  Never a handsome fellow with his noticeable ears and thick spectacles, he was always well dressed and dapper. His was a serious nature, but he understood good clean fun.

By the time Lawrence registered for the draft in June, 1917, his grandparents had passed away and his parents, his older sister and brother-in-law had moved to the Vermont side of Lake Champlain where they purchased a farm.  News notes indicate that he helped with the move during the winter of 1914, and made frequent visits to the new family home.
He was employed as a 'clerk' in the Ticonderoga, N.Y. firm of Wood and Barton.
The Ticonderoga Sentinel makes frequent reference to F.B. Wood, an enterprising business man and entrepreneur who married a cousin of Lawrence's mother.  It seems likely that Lawrence boarded in the Wood household.
Forrest Wood owned a Maxwell Touring Car and Lawrence often served as his chauffeur on both pleasure and business trips. 
I treasure a photo which shows Lawrence with several family members and the local school teacher--who boarded with them--all installed in the open car, ready for an outing.

Induction into the army whisked Lawrence from a sheltered world of kinfolk and familiar places into the coarse, teeming, noisy, frantic scramble of a half-built military encampment.
News notes of the day and later published recollections testify to the extreme cold of the winter of 1917-1918.
The rambling barracks hastily constructed at Camp Devens in Ayer, MA were mere wooden shells, unheated and drafty through much of the winter.
Lawrence suffered from the cold: his chronic "catarrh" plagued him; he had been afflicted with psoriasis for years, and the rough wool of his uniform tormented his raw skin; his draft registration card notes the injured right hand--the tips of two fingers missing and his thumb stiff from a childhood accident.

Lawrence  found that in spite of his dependence on thick spectacles he was a good marksman, and in his letters he describes the long hours of drill. He took a certain pleasure in the care of his rifle. When barked at by the sergeant for his slower than usual speed in shooting off a round one frigid morning, he could only hold up his mutilated hand, barely flexible.  His handwriting, never graceful, deteriorated to an uneven scrawl on such days.  Often he had to put a letter aside unfinished with the comment that his hand was too stiff to hold a pencil. He was sent for an interview with his commanding officer, who declared that Lawrence's experience as a chauffeur would qualify him for transfer to a motor unit.  Lawrence waited for the anticipated change, but the orders never came through.
The camp was quarantined for measles.  Lawrence didn't have measles but he wasn't allowed weekend leave to visit his family.  He and his fiancee, Letha, struggled with the decision whether to marry during wartime or wait until his hoped for return.

As the interminable winter dragged toward a muddy spring, the decision was taken out of Lawrence and Letha's hands. After weeks of anticipating his "orders" suddenly Lawrence was bundled onto a train, destination unknown.  He shortly found himself on a troop ship, headed for France--there was no chance for a last visit home.
In spite of his resentment of the war's intrusion on his comfortable life, Lawrence's letters often displayed a wry sense of humor.  That he was most terribly homesick is very evident. His was a nature that craved order, cleanliness and quiet. He wrote longingly of home-cooked meals, of remembered family gatherings.  He spoke hopefully of a time when he would again make music with his father, his sisters and his cousins.
He saved up details which he couldn't commit to a censored letter, promising that when he returned "home" he would have tales to tell.
From "Somewhere in France" he wrote almost breezily of battles, of lice, of trains, of temporary "camps."
An unwilling soldier, he seemed to have settled to his assignment in a machine gunnery unit, determined to "be a man."
He wondered why letters didn't catch up to him; he scrawled a list of small items, toiletries and such, that he hoped the family could purchase and send.

Lawrence died on 1 August, 1918 when a shell landed in the trench where he was stationed with his
machine gun crew.
Eventually the family would learn that he had taken part in the Second Battle of the Marne. 

I have often wondered how events might have differed in my Mother's family had Lawrence lived to return home, to marry Letha, raise a family.
He might have survived the war only to succumb to the influenza epidemic which swept both Europe and America.
Knowing something of his high-strung nature [a family trait] I wonder if he could have put behind him the deafening noise and unspeakable horrors of his months at the front.
At the memorial service held in his home church, his cousin and employer, F.B. Wood, declared,
"I have never known a more conscientious man."


  1. Simple, poignant and full of humanity. Even though the dead are remembered with reverence, it's easy to forget that they were people just like us and not some mythical body of heroes. Most were simple, honest, full of humanity themselves and simply thrown into a situation very few these days can really understand.

  2. What an interesting story, your uncle sounds a really nice man, how sad that he was killed so near to the end of the war and that he never had chance to say goodbye to his family and his fiance.

  3. Amazing post, you're lucky to have access to his letters. He should have married, I'm a believer in seizing the day because we don't know what tomorrow may bring.

  4. I remember your posts and the letters ....and I felt so sad that he died so near the end of the conflict.
    Again this is a wonderful piece of writing ...thank you for sharing ...and giving even more insite into this man.xx

  5. Al; I sometimes wonder at the patriotic hyberbole of the times---some of the tributes printed in the hometown paper after Lawrence's death extolled the "willingness to lay down his life for his country."
    While his letters indicate that he finally accepted his military service as necessary, he still chafed at the interuption to his planned life.
    Rowan: His letters detail the many times his plans for a visit home were dashed. When the quarantine was raised after many months, train schedules had changed, weekend passes had been shortened. I've driven the route from near the camp [in Massachusetts] to 'home' many times--a trip of less than 3 hours by car, but impossible for him to accomplish.
    Janet: Lawrence and Letha did decide to marry. He had plans to go home for a weekend to be married, his fiancee was making the arrangements when the quarantine was slapped on the whole camp.
    Angie: So many men 'almost' made it home--such a sad and terrible waste of young lives. I beleive I would have liked him--I wish I could have heard him sing and play his 'fiddle.'

  6. Your writing about Lawrence does him the ultimate justice of making him lie again for those of us reading of his life. I think the fact that he was a reluctant soldier makes his death seem all the more poignant. He stepped up to the mark and did his duty and gave his life for his country - reluctant or not - the price was the same.

  7. Hi again ...thanks for the great comment on 'G the P'. I think J would enjoy researching it ...It was the usa that leaked the story into their press about 2 months after. One chap, who witnessed it from another ship, took photos ...the only ones ever ... and sold them or gave them to an american reporter I believe.I think the thing that shocks me is that it was all kept quiet even after the war when so many had died. At the time ..I read that if any surviving soldier had said any thing he would be deemed a traitor.

  8. I'm so glad you stopped by my blog, or else I might never have found you. What a touching story of your uncle! Media always wants to make soldiers sound like some John Wayne type of professional soldier. It is good to be reminded that most are just as your uncle, somewhat reluctant young men that are doing their duty. I think it makes them even more heroic. Now I'm off to read more of your lovely blog!