My Grandfather’s War

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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.