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Letters define realities of WAR: Esther Larson researches published letters written by World War I soldiers

While Esther Larson relied on microfilm readers for her research, it was fun for her to look up a letter in the actual newspapers preserved at The Dickinson Press.

The nightmarish conditions endured by the troops fighting in the trenches of World War I  are best described by the the soldiers themselves. Their letters, published in 21 western North Dakota county newspapers, were lost to time… until  Esther Hagen Larson of Dickinson had the vision to research and index more than 5,000 letters.

“I hope this index will be useful for those doing family history research or for anyone with an interest in World War I,” she said.

In observance of 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice, she shared a few letters:

Dr. Fred Richey described  the front lines of France in a letter sent home to his mother and sister.  The letter was printed in the “The Marmarth Mail” of Sept. 13, 1918:

“Dear Mother, Sis and all: Well here I am at a new station ‘somewhere in France’ and although I am working hard yet, this is my first work away from the front since the 18th of February.”

Describing his experiences as a war surgeon, he wrote…. “I had four operating tables going night and day, and your dear old Red Cross dressings were a God-send to us, as I had to carry them by the arm full. Dear sis, I expect we used more dressing in one day than your little loving chapter could possibly make in a year, so you have some idea how enormous your work is…. Remember, we depend on you… we would be helpless on these big offensives, when the wounded come in by the thousands.”

Larson shared another letter written by Major A.B. Welch that was published Aug. 15,1918 in the Plaza Pioneer:

Welch  wrote about Joe Young Hawk, a Mandan Indian from Elbowoods, who was serving with the American forces in France and captured by five Germans.

“The Indian waited his chance and then suddenly taking his captors unawares, he lunged for one big Hun and broke his neck; killed two with his bare hands and marched the other two back to the American lines. He was shot through the leg in the fight, but is now in an American hospital… and like his forebears of old, he is just aching to get out of the hospital and be at it again.”

Powerful letters -- some poignant, some graphic, but what was Larson’s catalyst for pursuing the project?

At the beginning

Larson grew up on a farm three miles from Charlson -- located in northeast McKenzie County. She attended New Town High School,  graduated from Dickinson State University, married Carl Larson in 1966, and taught math at the university for 14 years. They are the parents of a son, Carlton, a professor of law at UC Davis School of Law. He and his wife have two children.

“I did a family booklet in 1983 -- Dad read it and was pleased. He wondered what everyone else was doing so I went back to the microfilm,” she said.

Eventually, she ended up typing and  publishing five volumes of newspaper items from the McKenzie County Journal. The fifth and final volume  focused on news from Charlson North Dakota 1918-1921 -- it was published in March 1998.

Larson found several letters written by soldiers in the Journal,  but she treasures one letter in particular -- the letter written by her great-uncle Arne Strand to his mother.  It was written Feb. 17, 1918 from Seaford, Sussex, England.

He tells about leaving Regina, Sask on a troop train, then sailing to  Liverpool. He said the platoon was badly split up, about half going to the machine gun depot and the remainder as cyclists. “There are lots of things we could tell, but it would never pass the censor, perhaps this won’t.”

Strand, who was an immigrant to Canada in 1914, joined the Royal Canadian Army. The family received a notice that he was killed by enemy shell fire in the vicinity of Quarry Wood on Sept. 17, 1918.

“That was the catalyst for the World War I letters,” Larson said.

The process

Larson set aside her first instinct to  do an index of for the entire state because it wasn’t practical.

“The Library of Congress did not want newspaper letters, it wanted original letters. They weren’t interested in newspaper letters.. I thought, fine, I’m not duplicating anything,” she said.

Larson wrote to the North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies in Fargo during 2002, with a proposal of printing sample letters and an index. Dr. Tom Isern, a Great Plains historian, said the value of  material was indisputable and he suggested online was the way to go.

“I was encouraged,” she said. “I read 155 newspapers, but they didn’t all have letters. I read 225 reels of microfilm.”

In between teaching  classes at DSU, she’d go to the Stoxen Library to use their interlibrary loan readers.

She targeted the  dates of June 1917 when the American draft started, and concluded in July of 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles -- the treaty that brought  World War I to an end.

“The occupation Army was still over there and the censorship was lifted. The soldiers could write back good letters in 1919 about what they did,” she said.

She spent hundreds of hours reading microfilm,  photocopied the letters and indexed them by counties. She documented about 5,000 letters from nearly 3,000 soldiers.  She organized the index by listing each newspaper and the number of letters appearing in them. After the soldier’s name, the date of the  published letter is given.

One by one, the letters told stories about the war.

One boy wrote, ‘You probably can’t read this with my left hand writing, but I don’t have a right arm anymore, but please don’t worry, I’m OK.”

Larson referenced a  letter describing conditions in the trenches that was published in the Van Hook Tribune. “...  the first time I went over the top (of the trenches) was June 6. Oh, what a happy bunch we were.. I and the best friend I had, next to Mick Williams, were shaking hands with one another, happy that at last we were “going over… Only two minutes later he met his end but he met it like a hero..  I am sending this letter to Marie first, but it is written to all of you dear people…” Your sweetheart, son and brother, Merwin.

As Larson compiled these letters, she said, “I would sit reading microfilm with tears welling up and wondering what became of you? Some time, I’d like to some follow up -- to put something together about some of these soldiers.”

The  index titled “World War I Letters from Soldiers Published in Local Newspapers in Western North Dakota 1917-19” is available at the N.D. Heritage Center, the Dickinson Area Public Library and Stoxen Library.

Family pride

Speaking of his mother’s project, Carlton said, “It was a lot of work. Both my parents are very, very thorough…. If you do something, you get it right. That means looking up every single source.”

And while historians  may have relied on military archives for their research, he said, “But here you have a history of World War I the way it was seen through the eyes of the soldiers,  hiding in plain sight through letters in western North Dakota newspapers… I don’t think there’s an equivalent of World War II letters... It was sort of a unique moment in time where that was possible.”

Not only did the war result in the death of millions of people, but he said it rewrote the maps of Europe and the Middle East.

“Sunday is the 100th anniversary of World War I so we’re finally paying more attention to the war.. . It’s sometimes called the forgotten war, but World War I was tremendously important.”

Museum Center’s collection

Dickinson Museum Center Director Bob Fuhrman was “pretty excited” to be offered the index and photocopies of Larson’s collection of letters.

“I’ve done an awful lot of museum microfilm reading in my time, and she was so dedicated to the project… Esther brought it all together. It’s such a great resource.”

The Stark County Historical Society Advisory Board recognized her work, and paid for her expenses as related to the museum’s collection.

“Think of how many hours she put into it  -- I have so much respect for what she’s done,” Fuhrman said.

If interested in learning about an ancestor’s role or general information about the war, ask the museum to use the index and to make a copy of the letter.

Fuhrman has already used the index.

“One person actually contacted me a few months before Esther came in. I was able to find some information, but when Esther came, I was able to copy all the “doughboy’s” letters. They were thrilled that I was able to pass that information on.”

The cost of a copy is minimal --.25 cents a page. Everyone is encouraged to take advantage of Larson’s research.

“We have other materials in our collection -- it’s not huge, but we’d like to see it used…. What Esther bestowed upon us is a marvelous asset,” he said.

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