- Historic Sites
My Grandfather’s War
How the discovery of a long-forgotten trunk inspired an artist to spend years recording the quiet remnants of a wrenching military career.
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
My grandfather spoke to me about his experiences in the first World War only once, and that was abruptly and in anger. As young boys, my brothers and I would spend part of our summer vacations with my grandparents. One sweltering August night I climbed down from the attic guest room to ask my grandmother if I could sleep on the screened porch. She helped me gather up my pillows and sheets, and as we were rounding the second-story landing, my grandfather appeared unexpectedly. “What are you doing?” he demanded of my grandmother, who explained that I was going down to the porch, where it would be more comfortable. “Comfortable?” he snapped, wheeling on me now. “Comfortable? Do you know, boy, that when I was in France, we slept on rocks, and I never once complained.” With that, he retreated back to his room, glowering in disgust. I stood there mute and uncomprehending, not knowing what France was or what I had done. I did not think of his outburst again for almost forty years, and it is only now that I am able to understand it.
I am a painter in large part because of my grandfather, Edward H. Freedman. His enlistment record states his vocation as “artist,” but by the time I knew him, he had pretty much given up fine art and resigned himself to being an illustrator and art teacher to support his family. He was a perpetual instructor, always willing to sit down and show me how to draw something. I remember with absolute clarity the feeling of entering his studio, smelling the turpentine, and seeing the dizzying array of colors in his paint box.
A few years ago, I had cause to think of that childhood encounter when, going through a trunk in my parents’ attic, I discovered a tattered miniature book that turned out to be a journal my grandfather had kept during the First World War. As I was growing up, I pieced together that he had fought with Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force, but he never spoke to anyone of his experiences. His witnessing of the horrors of trench warfare, his grueling labor in the 52d Pioneer Infantry, marching through the moonscape that was eastern France, filling in shell holes and burying horses and mules, the death of his beloved older brother, Isaac—these things were unknown to me until I happened upon that small book.
His journal had to be small; it was competing for very valuable real estate in his knapsack. He gave it a title, “The Great War and Me.” Severely dog-eared and yellowed, it began to disintegrate the instant I touched it. I worked with the greatest care to separate its Bible-thin pages, cemented together by rain and mud.
The journal turned out to be only part of what I found. There was a beautiful Waltham wristwatch that had belonged to my great-uncle Isaac, nicknamed Ike. He had been a sergeant in the Machine-Gun Battalion of the 77th Division of the 307th Infantry, part of the group that finally reached the “Lost” Battalion in the Argonne Forest. Ike had been killed less than a month before the war’s end, in some of the worst fighting in the Argonne. I wound up the timepiece, a present to my great-uncle from a neighbor when he was drafted into the Army, but it remained silent.
I also pulled out of the trunk some military paraphernalia and a great mass of papers and documents: letters, sketches, official papers, and several issues of “The Cheer-Up,” a family newsletter meant to connect the folks at home to the seven extended family members serving in the Army in 1918. Among all these items, two stood out. The first was a pencil drawing my grandfather had made of a copse of trees overlooking the spot where Ike was killed. The second was an exquisitely drawn map showing the exact location of Ike’s field grave in the forest, just outside the village of Grandpré. My grandfather visited the site on November 21, ten days after the armistice, and he clearly wanted to be able to find the spot again. By drawing the slope of the hill, a line of sight to a far-off church tower, and the position of the shadow of his pencil point at a specific time of day, he managed to fix the location of Ike’s grave so accurately that my wife and daughters and I were able to find the spot some eighty years later.
My grandfather was no Wilfred Owen. When you read British soldiers’ letters and diaries from the Western Front, you get the feeling that they must have had some sort of poetry prerequisite at their enlistment offices. My grandfather, on the other hand, came from that generation of American men who could use the words gumption and backbone in the same sentence. He was not given to musing on larger questions, either political or existential, but he did occasionally stop to record how something made him feel, as in this description of Rosh Hashanah services in Nantes:
“There were few very old French men present (no young ones excepting a few children) and about twenty young and old women. The remainder consisted of soldiers Sc there were many among them who were wounded & who were detailed to guard prisoners. The services started at 9 and they were very much the same as those held at home.
“And I began to think that several hours later the folks at home would all be gathered in a synagogue praying and weeping for their dear ones over here—a few tears came to my eyes—and I remembered that I was a soldier and must show no weakness. Very soon the tears disappeared—and while they lifted the Saiftorahs from their cozy berths of velvet I prayed for Ike that he come home untouched, healthy and happy; I prayed for the rest of the boys, and I prayed for the folks at home that they might all be well and happy & see their dear ones return—I prayed for victory soon & I prayed that the Lord take care of me.”
If the purpose of drawing is to convey thought and emotion, then I do not know anything more moving than these two works, drawn to try to hold on to his dead brother.
The most revealing story the journal tells is of the bond between my grandfather and his brother. Both Edward’s diary and Ike’s letters are full of the frustration of these two men, serving sometimes only a few miles apart, at being unable to see each other or even communicate by mail. One obstacle was the Army censors, who did not allow them to reveal their exact locations. Ike wrote on September 18, 1918:
Within a month Ike was dead, killed on October 14, 1918. Because of mail delays, Ed did not find out until November 19, more than a week after the war’s end. When peace was declared, he wrote:
“Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Bang! Bang! Bang! Flash! Bang! The report, shots & colored flashes come from the Front announcing that peace has been declared. The fellows are going nutty. They’re shooting their revolvers at the ceiling while the locomotives are tooting their whistles. The sky is one mass of colors. But somehow, I can’t feel happy—I haven’t heard from Ike since his letter of Oct 2nd.”
On Tuesday, November 19, the journal entry is inscribed in bright red ink: “God almighty! I just heard that Ike was killed by shrapnel. The 307th Infantry just came into town & I spoke to one of the men of the Machine Gun Unit & he told me the news. Poor mother—poor dad—everybody at home—if only I could be home to cheer ‘em up a bit. God preserve them in good health that I may see them all when I get back. Who knows what kind of burial he had—what place he lies in—I’ve seen some terrible sights and I hope he looked like none of them. All along I’ve prayed to the Lord to take me if one of us had to go.”
Within forty-eight hours he had secured a pass and went to Grandpré to find the grave.
Lt. Oliver provided me with a map on which Corporal Hartley had indicated the location of the grave as best he could. Well, we hunted for a cross road that had a big tree & a clearing of about 150 yards. We found similies but never the right. We went all the way down to Malhassee Perm OC then started north again on another road. We finally reached Grandpré again about 4 P.M. without any success. I needn’t mention my disappointment.”
The next morning, with a more detailed map and a guide, Jack, from Ike’s division, he set out again.
“After quite some walk we came upon the spot where the Boches got Ike. The line of dugouts—Ike’s dugout & Jack’s; the presumed shell hole & the place where Ike fell. I made a rough sketch of the place & a position map.
“We then hiked around again for quite a while, for Jack lost his bearings & later regained them & came upon the grave. It is situated on a hill side all alone in a section where no one will disturb it for there are no houses around. … The boys left me. I stood alone with my hat on—poured water on my hand then took out my book of hymns & said three. Then I said the Kaddish in the absence of my folks.”
It was the makeshift quality of Ike’s burial and the difficulty in finding the gravesite that prompted my grandfather to make detailed drawings of the two sites. If the purpose of drawing is to convey thought and emotion, then I do not know anything more moving than these two works, drawn to try to hold on to his dead brother. I have these maps pinned to my studio wall today.
My grandfather slept on rocks. I keep his journal by me because it speaks to me of courage and fortitude and, like my way of painting, ties me to my ancestors. One day, during the three years I spent working on a series of still-life paintings of the contents of my grandfather’s trunk, I took Ike’s watch and tapped it gently on the edge of the table. All of a sudden it started, stunned out of its coma. I felt this to be the nature of my whole endeavor, bringing back to life objects and experiences that had remained stored away for many years.