George William Walker, Jr., Papers, 1913-1934
| Manuscripts Gifts 2006 | Front Page 2006 | Previous Issues | Friends of the Library |
When war engulfed Europe in August 1914, millions of young men rushed to enlist to fight for glory and country. During the ensuing months and years their initial idealism vanished amid the mud and slaughter of the Western Front. | Manuscripts Gifts 2006 | Previous Issues | Endowments | Friends of the Library |
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the process was repeated, as many young American men with their own optimistic dreams of glory filled the ranks of the armed forces. One of these was George William Walker, Jr., the son of George William Walker and Claudia Chapman Walker, of Charleston, South Carolina. He shared his army experiences with his family by means of lengthy letters and photographs during his service from 1917 through 1919.
While most of the one hundred three letters in this collection are from Walker, there are a few written by others to members of the Walker family. Among these is a March 1917 letter from Sgt. L. Delaporte of the French army to Walker’s sister Claudia. This message is of more than passing interest in that it conveys a darker view of the war from someone who had witnessed the action firsthand. In labored English, Delaporte gives his grim assessment that “the foot soldier is the most miserable of all soldiers” and relates some of his experiences during the Verdun campaign of 1916, adding - “I hope that your brothers and all the young men in USA do not never see a same thing.” However, this warning did not dampen Walker’s enthusiasm, for in a letter to his father, written on 15 May 1918, before Walker left for France, he declares - “I can not be kept over here, because I have not had the real experience which is gained from the actual stopping of the Huns… I got into this thing to go over; if I do not, I’m going to be disappointed.”
The letter from Walker to his father was written after he had spent over a year at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, training for his upcoming work overseas. The bulk of the letters in the collection were written during these thirteen months spent on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee. They are filled with details of the training regimen at the Officer’s Training Camp, including discussions of camp life, long marches with heavy equipment, practicing charges from newly-dug trenches, and learning the basics of handling a bayonet in combat.
Additional training in machine guns, bayonets, sniping, and deployment of poison gas was provided by British officers who had already seen time on the fronts of Europe. Judging from a letter written to his sister Lucia on 10 December 1917 in which he confided, “All this is exciting stuff,” the opportunity to learn these techniques only heightened Walker’s anticipation for active service while preparing him for the trials ahead. Not all of Walker’s time in Chattanooga, however, was spent in training. Discussions of his interaction with several young ladies of the area, including dinners, picnics, tea dances, and car rides, fill the pages of letters written to his sisters Claudia, Lucia, and Julia and his brother Henry.
After completing his training, he remained at Fort Oglethorpe awaiting his commission until June 1918. In a March 1918 letter to his mother, he had spoken of his eagerness to see action and his determina¬tion to be successful in combat, saying, “If a person joins the army, he joins to fight. When I go over, I’m going to fight for a decoration. Believe me, I sure want it.” Records show that Walker, a lieutenant with the 52nd Infantry Brigade, departed for France from New York in July 1918.
Following a gap spanning July and August 1918, his correspon¬dence resumed with a letter to his mother written on 5 September 1918 during his participation in the recapture of Alsace. In it he acknowl¬edged that the work was much tougher than he anticipated and took time to describe the unsanitary conditions in which he and his fellow soldiers lived - “my own dugout is not rat free... one particularly daring rodent bit out a piece of his [the sergeant with whom he shared a dugout] finger while he was sleeping... when he yelled and flung it off, it landed on the side of my head and woke me up.”
Nevertheless, such hardships did not diminish Walker’s excitement over taking part in the defeat of Germany. In a message to his sister Julia, 31 October 1918, he noted that he was to depart for the front the next morning and provided an optimistic assessment of what he and fellow American troops would be able to achieve. Censorship restrictions allowed him to give few details, but his words clearly expressed his pleasure at finally being on the brink of combat. “I’d give anything you could name to tell you where we are going,” Walker wrote. “It is a peach of a place and you and the others would be thrilled at the idea of our division working there. We have looked forward to it for some days, just hoping we would have a good chance to show our real value. We feel that we are GOOD - someone is going to find it out to his sorrow.” The undisclosed location for which he was bound turned out to be the Argonne Forest, where Walker and others were slated to participate in the major Meuse-Argonne offensive. Unfortunately, from his perspec¬tive, Walker never reached the front lines. For, on 4 November, while marching through the Argonne in pouring rain en route to the front, Walker fell ill with pneumonia. There followed a lengthy stay in the hospital, which deprived him of the chance to take part in any further military operations.
Walker recounted his hospital experiences in several letters written between November 1918 and January 1919, focusing particularly on the amazement of doctors at his rapid convalescence as well as complaints about the quantity and quality of hospital food. He also expressed his disappointment at missing the chance to go into combat with his fellow soldiers, admitting that he “could not keep from crying” when he thought about it.
In a 13 November 1918 letter, Walker expressed his approval of the peace terms planned for Germany, stating that “nothing is too hard for them.” His illness, coupled with the end of the war, hastened the soldier’s departure from France, and he arrived in New York on 25 January 1919. Upon his return to American soil, he was again posted to Fort Oglethorpe, although the letters indicate that he was able to secure leave to visit his family in Charleston, S.C., and his brother Henry in Richmond, Virginia. Walker’s correspondence contained in this collection ceases in June 1919. The Army’s reorganization to peacetime status following the cessation of hostilities resulted in his official discharge in August 1919.
In addition to the letters, the collection includes two photograph albums, 1913-1920, containing three hundred twelve snapshots which belonged to Walker’s sister Claudia and twenty-two loose photographs. These include images of outings with family and friends, servicemen acquainted with the family, the ruins of Verdun, France, and training at Fort Oglethorpe. Four studio portraits included among the loose photographs show George William Walker, Jr., in his military uniform.