UNC-Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South is a great resource for history nerds such as myself. The program has provided numerous images and texts that illustrate the history of the South for anyone to access from the comfort of their home computer.
One collection accessible on DocSouth is “North Carolinians and the Great War.” Here you’ll find multiple journals and letter collections from UNC students who were part of the First World War. These papers give us a glimpse into the life of a student-turned-soldier.
Part III: Personal Accounts
While conducting research for The Education of Eve, one of the main letter collections I focused on were those of Robert March Hanes, due to the level of detail he used when writing about his experiences. A member of the class of 1912, Hanes attended officers’ training at Fort Oglethorpe, GA, before being commissioned a captain in the 113th Field Artillery. His letter collection contains the original envelopes, with the censor inspection seals still easily legible. The first of the collection is to his boss at the Crystal Ice Company, where he worked as the secretary-treasurer. He hoped that his absence would not cause too much difficulty at the office, and asked that he be written “if anything at all turns up that you don’t understand.” From there the letters chronicle Hanes’s time with the army, from training, to the trip over to France, to the front lines, and then, finally, the armistice. He wrote his wife on November 11:
The greatest day in history!
Sweetheart a deathlike stillness covers the whole front now and has since eleven o’clock this morning when the armistice went into effect. It is the most unnatural sound to us that could possibly be. All sorts of artillery has been piling into this sector for the past two weeks and things had livened up considerably. There was firing going on all the time day and night by either the Germans or us. So the stillness now seems all wrong, I keep feeling like it isn’t true.
I fired my last shot at exactly eleven o’clock this morning and am keeping the shell case as a souvenir. It is the last shot fired by my battery. I hope the last it will ever fire.
To read more of Hanes’s letters, you can find them on the DocSouth page here.
The collection also includes the diary of William B. Umstead, who later became governor of North Carolina. Images of his uniform and the equipment he carried during the war are also available to view. Umstead was a member of the 81st division. Known as the Wildcats division, Umstead would have been part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which did not end until the armistice was called at 11:00 on November 11, 1918. You can read Umstead’s diary here, and also take a look at his military gear.
Also featured within the collection are selected letters from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Eliot Green (who wrote the outdoor drama , The Lost Colony), who began attending UNC in 1916, but left less than a year later to join the army. Like Hanes, his letters describe his training experience, and then his service in France. Green was assigned as “a bookkeeper of sorts,” keeping up with all of the fighting orders, ration reports, and casualty lists.
Reporting the killed and wounded is my job also. And alas! I’ve marked up several friends whose mothers today are speaking to God about the eternal Why? But withal our losses are extremely light, it appears to me, compared to those of Germany. I must not talk tho, for there is the censor; and even the leaves have ears these days.
Now as to the hours I work–when and how long, I may answer all by saying that I never keep track of time. Scarcely ever can I give the name of the present day. It may be Monday; it may be Sunday, I don’t know. All I’m concerned with is the day of he month, 21, 22 or 23. Foreign service already has taught me one thing–that 8 hours of sleep are not essential to good health. Yes, and I’ve learned another thing, I was forgetting: the poor tired earth has drunk enough blood within the last four years as to be offensive in the sight of God. Not long ago I was on an old battlefield. We were digging trenches. One could hardly push his spade into the ground without striking a bone of somebody’s body. Yes, horrible; but war. And a few days ago I was at another place where 54,000 men “went west” in one day. Awful! Yes, but war.
After the war, Green went back to UNC. You can take a closer look at his letters here.
To read more accounts of the First World War, please visit DocSouth’s North Carolinians and the Great War page.