Veteran's chest reveals Army life a century ago

By STEVE URBON | The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. (TNS) | Published: November 12, 2018

NEW BEDFORD — In his long life as a World War I veteran, Walter Johnson never made any decision to rummage through his cedar chest that contained the artifacts of a tour of duty about a year long in the battlegrounds of France.

But as this is the 100th anniversary of the "War to End All Wars," Johnson's grandson John Sharples decided it was time to unlock the chest's treasures: All of the things Johnson took home with him when he was discharged shortly after the end of the war.

Sharples brought out the contents, for now being housed in a blue plastic bin, and spread them across a kitchen counter in his New Bedford home. The sense of his ancestor's presence was palpable, each item filling in a piece of a larger picture of what it was like in that terrible war, and what Army life was like at the time.

The first thing that draws attention is the green woolen uniform, what the Doughboys wore in the fight. Sharples, who produced a small photograph of his grandfather wearing that uniform, standing about 5 feet 8. Miraculously, the uniform has no moth holes, seeing it is made of wool, the credit for which was a dose of good old-fashioned moth balls, that sharp camphor smell that drives people away along with the moths.

Sharples spread the uniform across the counter just as he had displayed it at the North Fairhaven Improvement Association's re-dedication of the memorial to Ernest Benoit, the first Fairhaven soldier to die in WWI. That was the first time anybody had seen it in public since Sharples opened the chest.

Perhaps at least as remarkable was the assortment of books, papers and clothing in the bin, too.

Sharples picked up the helmet and turned it over to expose the small straps and a total lack of anything beyond the basic gear.

"This is all there is to it," he said.

His grandfather's boots were in there as well, as heavy and rugged as one could imagine. They were accompanied by a pair of leg wraps to resist briars from scratching up the soldier's ankles.

Just as important as physical protection was the support for soldiers' morale, and the books in the chest are proof that the military went to great lengths to improve morale among the troops, including draftees such as Johnson.

The Army published a songbook in a pocket-sized format that contains dozens of patriotic and military songs that the troops were encouraged to perform, such as "Rally Round the Flag," a Civil War song by Union troops that was the counterbalance to "Dixie," sung by the confederates.

Johnson's possessions also included a small Bible, very well worn and marked with his favorite passages.

Other books painted a picture of how how boosting morale was counterbalanced with images of war.

One is "The Awful Truth," a photo album of images of the war. "People didn't believe how bad it was," Sharples said. The book depicts battlefield scenes including the corpses of the soldiers who fell in combat, difficult to view even a hundred years later.

That was in contrast to a comic book album of World War 1 cartoons published by Star and Stripes magazine, which is still published today.

Sharples said that he is not quite ready to donate the chest's contents to a museum, like the military museum at Fort Taber, but that day will likely come, eventually.

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