After my mom died last November, I went through her house, not only bringing boxes to Goodwill but also bringing home boxes of antique photographs; many, many photo albums (I think I have a total now of 63 family photo albums on my bookshelves), and the best treasure: my grandfather’s diaries and letters from World War I. This seems to be the earliest letter, written to his mom while he was taking the train to Devens Military Training Camp in Massachusetts.

Beth Harriman’s maternal grandfather asked his sister May to mail him this photo of him with his horse, Myrtle, when he was at Devens Military Training Camp in Massachusetts during World War I. Photo courtesy of Beth Harriman

An excerpt: “I was not the least bit car sick. I have read your letter. I read it in Lee (so much noise I don’t know what I am writing). It was very comforting and I thank God for a mother like you. Don’t worry, Mama. ‘Cast all your cares on Him because He cares for you.’ I think I am going to like it very much from what I have seen. … I do not know what I am going to do yet, but they asked me my occupation and I said ‘good with horses.’ ”

When I first saw this postcard, I thought it was quite comical. I have changed my mind.

As the days went on at training camp, he talks about missing his mom, his sisters, his papa, the dog and – several times – his horses. He asks his sister May to send him the photograph she had taken of him posing with his horse, Myrtle. He mentions volunteering his free time helping the stable attendant with taking care of the mules.

I imagine this next letter would have been a bit alarming to his family back home: “Every morning now when I wake up I wish I was home … I dream I am home and then wake up and find I am not, and you can imagine the feeling it makes on one. Well, I must wait patiently and do my best where I am put. There is only One that can help me at these times.

“This PM we went on a drill and then we had some boxing. Everyone had to fight whether he wanted to or not. I got licked all to pieces. As you know I have never boxed, nor saw it done, so of course, I got licked. I got a black eye and swelled nose, and big upper lip. I bled like the dickens for awhile. I think it is too much of a good thing to have to box whether one wants to or not. But he does by law, so I had to do it.


“And I am glad I got licked, as they say. The ones that get licked will not have to fight again, not right off. Anyway, I feel bum so you will have to excuse my writing. My head feels like a barrel and it aches some, too. Well see that blood on this paper as a proof that I have been fighting … My life is insured anyway.

“Give the Doctor my best regards when you see him again. Tell him that we had some osteopath treatments this PM, and that I had all that kind of treatment that I wanted.”

Two days later: “My nose is much better today and my eye is alright, only the blood has settled around it and makes it look bum. I am upstairs this PM because they are using the lower room for drilling in arms. And they are boxing up here, but I don’t care to see anybody get killed. One fellow had his eye almost knocked out of his head yesterday and had to be taken to the hospital. Poor fellow. But they keep at it … .

“They just took one fellow to the guardhouse because he would not box this PM. He will have to stay there for 1 to 3 months probably, only he will be out working all day under a guard. They are very strict, that’s certain.”

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