AUGUSTA — Before he became one of the first Mainers to die in World War I, Murray Alexander Morgan wrote a letter home that captured the unique terrors and joys experienced by soldiers like him.

Morgan, who was born in New Brunswick but raised in Millinocket, was attending Colby College as the war got underway. In 1915, he decided to stop his studies and join the Canadian Light Infantry, which soon departed for Europe.

His letters are among those now on display at the University of Maine at Augusta as part an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War.

Morgan had hunkered down in a trench in Belgium when he wrote the missive detailing a common fear among soldiers in the Great War, the first in history in which poison gas was deployed as a weapon.

“It’s fine,” he wrote, “when you’ve stood for a couple hours in the mud looking for (German soldiers) and smelling for gas, your feet so cold that you have no feeling in them and your eyes so heavy that you can hardly keep them open, when suddenly an odor comes up the trench that rouses you to your senses. Is it gas?”

“You wait a few moments,” he continued, “when suddenly the smiling face of the sergeant with the rum jar under his arms comes into view. A few words of cheer and a swallow of the ‘juice’ certainly gives you a new lease on life. For a short time feeling comes even into your toes.”

That new lease wouldn’t last long. Morgan died in June 1916 while fighting in one of the largest conflicts in the war, the Battle of Verdun.

“Colby shocked at news of death (of) Murray Morgan,” read a headline in this newspaper. “President Roberts advised of sad news of young man who gave his all for a cause he thought was just.”

Now Morgan is one of several Mainers featured in the new exhibit, which is being hosted in the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, on the University of Maine at Augusta campus. The Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, and the exhibit will be open until Oct. 13.

The focus of the exhibit is letters from Mainers who served in World War I that have been collected from museums, archives and historical societies around the state and reproduced in various forms. Besides printed, colored copies of the letters, excerpts from them are also posted in large print along the walls.

Few Americans know much about World War I, said David Greenham, director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center.

More than 65 million men from 30 countries fought in the war, and nearly 10 million died. An additional 5 million civilians were killed. The Spanish flu caused about a third of all military deaths.

The U.S. joined the war on April 6, 1917. To increase the size of its army, a month later Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which started a draft. By the end of the war, 2.7 million men were drafted. Another 1.3 million volunteered.

The purpose of the exhibit at Holocaust and Human Rights Center is to focus viewers’ attention on the quieter experiences of soldiers in the war, as opposed the dramatic parts that are so often depicted in popular accounts.

“We don’t tend to think of soldiers in solitary moments, especially when they’re on the battlefield,” Greenham said. “But as anyone who has served will tell you, soldiers in the field and those supporting them all have had those quiet times to reflect and think about their friends and loved ones.”

The exhibit also features photos and artifacts from the war, and a mix of artwork. One of the prints on display was produced by Marsden Hartley, a painter born in Lewiston who later moved to Germany in the period before World War I and is thought to have had an affair with a German military officer.

Another Mainer who is featured prominently in the exhibit is Kilburn O. Sherman, of Boothbay Harbor, who was attending Bates College when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Marines during the war.

The exhibit got a boost from his nephew, Barry Sherman, of Boothbay, who himself served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and has a footlocker full of his uncle’s medals, photographs and other objects. His uncle received both a Purple Heart and a Croix de Guerre, a French military honor.

Kilburn Sherman, who survived the war despite being captured by Germans, went on to work as a police officer in Los Angeles. The first time Barry Sherman met him was while he was stationed in California before heading to Vietnam, he recalled on Thursday night.

Barry Sherman was visiting the exhibit Thursday as part of a small program to celebrate its opening. Greenham connected with Barry Sherman after reading a 2016 piece about him in the Boothbay Register.

His uncle never talked about his overseas service or the health problems he experienced as a result of being exposed to gas in the war, Barry Sherman said.

“It’s powerful,” he said of the exhibit. “I’m a war veteran. But all that I saw in Vietnam, it doesn’t compare to what he saw.” Then referring to the bayonets that Germans attached to their rifles, he continued, “Can you imagine someone crawling out of a pit and coming at you with one of those?”

In the coming year, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center will continue the World War I project by collecting letters and encouraging people to read and reflect on them.

Greenham is particularly interested in collecting writing from women who served as nurses and in other roles during the war, he said. Any families with material to share, or teachers or organizations that would like to incorporate the letters into their own work, can contact Greenham at [email protected]

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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