Somewhere Over There: The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal

Somewhere Over There: The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal

by Francis H. Webster, Darrek D. Orwig

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806155517
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/24/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 46 MB
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About the Author

Darrek D. Orwig is the Executive Director of Main Street of Menomonie, Inc., a non-profit charitable organization based in Menomonie, Wisconsin. He is the author of Story City.

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Somewhere Over There

The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal

By Francis H. Webster, Darrek D. Orwig


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5551-7


The Hawkeye State Answers the Call

IN EARLY JULY 1917, FORMER SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT Francis Webster reported for duty with a freshly mobilized regiment of the Iowa National Guard. His unit, the Third Iowa Infantry, had recently served a deployment on the Mexican border as part of General Pershing's Punitive Expedition. Stationed in Brownsville, Texas, for nine months, the regiment protected American interests while the United States Army unsuccessfully tracked down Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. The experience, one Iowa soldier wrote, "was the most frustrating time of my life. About all we done was close order drill and there was little else to do."

Within months after returning home, the Third Iowa Infantry was called back into service following America's declaration of war against Germany. Traveling from across the state, suntanned veteran citizen-soldiers arrived at the regiment's traditional mustering location, the Iowa state fairgrounds. It was from this point, nearly twenty years before, that many of the gray-haired men in the regiment had left to serve during the Spanish-American War.

When America declared war on Germany in April 1917, the standing army was comprised of only 127,588 men with an additional 164,292 National Guardsmen serving in the reserves. This incredibly small force was no match for the millions of soldiers already serving on the western front. In preparation for the war in Europe, the regiment's size was expanded from a thousand men to nearly four times that number. This increase resulted in a wave of recruits volunteering to fill the vacant positions, including Francis Webster, who enlisted in the Third Iowa's Machine Gun Company as a bugler.

New recruits enlisting in the regiment faced the challenge of not only being accepted by veteran guardsmen but also being properly equipped and uniformed. For a brief period, Webster wore his former Boy Scout assistant scoutmaster uniform while many others wore bib overalls and other articles of civilian clothing. The regiment's rifle companies lacked spare modern arms like the 1903 Springfield, and one company drew Spanish-American War–era Krag-Jorgenson rifles from a school's drill team to temporarily arm its recruits.

A lack of modern weaponry was also felt by Francis Webster and his comrades in the Machine Gun Company. Prior to entering the war, the American military had experimented with a number of machine gun patterns to find a suitable model for its soldiers. The type issued to the Iowa National Guard was the Benet-Mercie. This was dubbed the "Daylight Gun" because of the difficulties experienced during nighttime operations, which included the possibility of accidentally inserting the ammunition clip backward. Its fragile construction meant that parts frequently broke or were damaged while firing. Webster's company would not be issued effective modern machine guns for months to come.

The regiment's Machine Gun Company was predominantly comprised of men from Des Moines and the surrounding counties. Providing leadership to the company was Captain Edward O. Fleur, who had served with the regiment during the Spanish-American War. As a bugler, Webster worked closely with Captain Fleur in the company's headquarters section, and the two developed a fast friendship. They not only had similar senses of humor but also had the shared experience of working at the Younkers Department Store in downtown Des Moines. In civilian life, Fleur had served Younkers as a department manager and Webster had worked briefly in the store's tearoom after returning from his summer "wander lust" of 1914.

While the regiment was stationed at the state fairgrounds, it did not take long for Captain Fleur to learn of Webster's artistic ability and his past work with famed cartoonist Ding Darling prior to becoming a school superintendent. Realizing that these skills could be beneficial to the regiment in its deployment overseas, Fleur detailed Webster to begin practicing military map making. He was soon creating maps of the fairgrounds and surrounding terrain, including an abandoned coal mine not far from the encampment.

When Webster was not developing his map-making skills, he began using pen and ink to document the experiences of the regiment as it prepared to participate in the watershed event of the twentieth century. Having honed his craft while working in various capacities for Darling, Webster began illustrating professional-quality cartoons for submission to Des Moines–area newspapers. Created in a humorous style, these cartoons resonated with readers and became immensely popular. This experience set the foundation for an eventual relationship with the Des Moines Capital, to which Webster would exclusively submit his cartoons of life in the National Guard for publication.

National Guard regiments like Webster's were being called into service across the United States to bolster the small regular army, often mustering in local encampments before being transferred to larger training camps. In addition to the National Guard, the federal government also established the National Army, which was recruited by the draft. Through these efforts, the American army expanded from less than 300,000 regular and reserve soldiers to approximately 4 million by the end of the war.

During the time that Webster was stationed at the Iowa state fairgrounds, he frequently wrote letters to his family. These surviving letters share the early experiences of his regiment and how the organization drew support for the war from its community and state, one of the intended results of calling the National Guard into service. In addition to his artwork, Webster's writings in this early period of America's involvement provide us with an insight into the mind of a volunteer National Guard recruit as he made the transition to a citizen-soldier.

* * *

July 2, 1917

Dear Folks: —

This is Monday A.M. and I am on my way to D. Moines. I got to Canton Friday night and got orders the next morning to report in DM Sunday. I phoned Capt. Fleur and got excused until today.

I had a nice time at Ione [Zellhoefer]'s over Sunday. I wish you would write to her when you get time.

I will need the $10.35, as I was counting on earning a couple of weeks more wages before being called. You can send me the money at: —

Fair Grounds Camp — Des Moines Iowa M.G. Co. 3rd Iowa N.G.

I am mighty glad I came home when I did — we had a good little visit that we might have missed otherwise.

I left Hiram in camp Friday A.M. I think he will be there a few days yet — Please write to me often — With love — Your boy Francis —

* * *

M.G.Co. 3" Iowa, Fair Grounds, Des Moines, Iowa, July 2, 1917

Dear Folks: —

I just got out to camp here and have been drilling this afternoon. They are short of uniforms and I wish you would send me the scout breeches and leggings and hat if you can spare them, I'll send them back when my uniform comes.

We are staying in one of the pavilions out here at the fairgrounds. There are three other companies here, and Alfonso [Reyna] and Joe [Benge] and [William] Harry Thomas are out here.

Well I must get busy — With love Francis —

[P.S.] Keep the coat — and the whole business if you want to use it soon —

* * *

M.G.Co. 3" I.N.G., Fair Grounds — D.M. [Des Moines], July 3, 1917

Dear Folks: —

We just got thru dinner — we had mashed potatoes and gravy — roast beef — iced tea and bread. Butter is too much of a luxury for soldiers, but we get enough of other things and the food is mighty well cooked.

Last night Alfonso and Joe and Harry and I went off and practiced on our bugles and sang in the moonlight. We are quite a male quartet.

I'm enjoying the camp life very much — the men are nice fellows for the most part, and the officers of our Co. are splendid.

I'll send the raincoat and my green trousers home tonight — There is a little pack of letters in them which I wish you would store in my trunk. Thank you very much for the raincoat.

We probably won't receive uniforms for 2 weeks yet — so if you can let me have the scout breeches and hat and leggings I'd be much obliged — keep the coat — and the rest if you want it for immediate use.

Well I must get to drilling — I'm learning the semaphore signal code and do a lot of marching and bugle practice — Write soon — With love — Your boy Francis —

* * *

Des Moines Iowa, July 4, 1917

Dear Folks: —

We had only an hour's drill today. So I came into Des Moines and did a little shopping. Last night Harry and Joe and I came in and swam at the Y.M.C.A.

We are having a fine time out at camp and I am catching on to the drilling and signal work alright. Yesterday we buglers began our semaphore work with flags. We are exempt from fatigue duty such as cleaning up the company quarters etc.

I got part of a uniform today but need a hat yet — If you haven't sent the stuff yet — just send the hat and breeches —

I haven't sent the raincoat yet — as the parcel post is always closed when I get off duty in the evening. I'll get it in as soon as I can.

The boys and I ate the pie the last night I was with Hi — it surely was great and we enjoyed it. Well I must close and get out to camp — I suppose you are busy settling — Don't work too hard — With love Francis —

* * *

Des Moines Ia., July 7, 1917

Dear Folks: —

The money came yesterday. Thank you very much. I'm sending the package today. Please put the package of letters in my trunk.

I will need the breeches and hat, as I am now the Captain's orderly, and I wear his duds until mine come. So send them when you find them —

We are having a fine time and I like my work very much.

Here are some films — I'd like some prints from them if you get time — With love Francis —

* * *

Ia. Camp, July 8, 1917

Dear Folks: —

We had "church" out here this A.M. A fine sermon was given by Dr. McKean of the Central Pres. Church of D.M. The band played and Alfonso sang a solo.

Our Capt. is head of our camp, and he has discovered that I can draw, so he had me draw various companies at church. He is also having me make a portrait of him.

I serve as his orderly every other morning. The package came today, Thank you very very much.

The Army YMCA has started up out here. The secretary seems to be a very nice young man. We have a victrola and lots of magazines and plenty of entertainment. I surely enjoy army life so far. Well I must get to bed — With love Francis —

* * *

Camp Fair Grounds., M.G.Co. 3" Iowa, July 9, 1917, Monday Evg.

Dear Folks: —

We just got back from mess. We had lettuce and beans and boiled potatoes and tea and bread.

This afternoon my buddy bugler and I went off to practice our semaphore signals. I got up in the grandstand of the race track, and he climbed up on the roller coaster about a quarter of a mile off and we signaled back and forth. We've learned the code so we can say anything we want to now.

Tomorrow if all goes well the Capt. is going to have me draw some field maps for him. I got your letter today, and we talked over the Ft. Riley proposition with Capt. Fleur. He says he thinks the chances of getting a commission would be rather slim, and that the training camp idea is proving to be a failure because the men are to be sent out with too little preparation. He advised me to stay with him and work up and get a real practical foundation first and try later on if there is need for some officers. So I believe I'll stick right here and work hard on this job.

I had a little more expense in going to Canton then I had planned and I may need $5 in a couple of weeks — If I do can you let me have it?

The YMCA is furnishing us with stationary — so there is that much saved. We are surely having a pleasant camp here — With Love Francis

* * *

Fair Grounds Camp, July 13, 1917

Dear Folks: —

Your letter and the $5.00 came Wednesday and today. Thank you very much. I had a very pleasant birthday. In the evening I went to D.M. and took a swim in the Y.[MCA] pool. Last night and this noon I was invited to feeds by two fellows in my co. whose folks were out here visiting.

The mess is getting to be much better and I get plenty to eat. Tonight I went over and took a shower bath in one of the State Fair buildings. Last night the YMCA had its first meeting out here, and I went to it.

We got another inoculation yesterday, so we've had it easy today. I haven't felt sick, but some of the boys have. I'm getting pretty well acquainted and like the bunch I'm in very much.

I hope the Ford business comes thru alright and that you like your car. Well I must get to bed. Thank you very much for the money — I wish I deserved all the good things you have done for me — Your boy Francis.

* * *

Co. M.G. Reg 3 Iowa N.G. [National Guard], D.M. Iowa, July 17, 1917

Dear Folks: —

Here's a clipping from tonight's [Des Moines] Capital. I'm feeling fine and I'm getting along fine out here.

Chet Darrow is coming down here for a visit tomorrow. Tell Nellie that if she ever gets time I like fudge. Will write in a day or 2. With love Francis —

* * *

Co. M.G. Reg 3 — Ia Inf, DM. Iowa, July 19, 1917

Dear Folks: —

The letter and photos came today — thank you very much. The belt also came and I'll keep it until I get an army belt.

We had our second physical exam today and were mustered into federal service.

Hi couldn't get in as bugler here because we already have the buglers and a full company. I wouldn't advise his going in alone in some other company — for at least a year or so — I should liked to have had him come in with me but it would be too late now.

I think it would be better for Hi to work or go to college — next year, but of course he and you must decide all that.

I am on duty as bugler of the guard tonight and have to sleep in the guard tent with the guards. They are on duty four hours during the night, but I just have to be up in time for the bugle calls — Well I must close — With love Francis —

* * *

Co. MG Reg 3rd Iowa Inf., Fair Grounds D.M., Iowa, July 23, 1917

Dear Nellie: —

The candy came yesterday and I divided up with some of the boys here and we surely liked it. You are a fine candy maker.

We've got a chaplain now and he preached to us this morning in the live-stock barn. We have band music at church that sounds like a pipe-organ.

Thank you — very-very much for the candy Nellie and say hello to Bessie and Papa and Mamma. Your loving brother Francis

[P.S.] Write to me when you get time. We had watermelon for supper.

* * *

Co. MG Reg 3 Iowa Infantry, Des. M. Iowa, July 24, 1917

Dear Folks: —

I just got back from break-fast and I'll write a little letter home before drill call comes. Your letter came yesterday. Hooray for the Ford! We belong to the real American aristocracy now.

Gov. [William L.] Harding was out here last night and made a little speech and then a returned British soldier-writer made an address. All of the ones in our Co. who sneaked away to town, before the speech were confined to quarters for a week. Yesterday five fellows didn't get up in time for roll-call and they were confined to quarters for five days. I've escaped all forms of punishment so far.

I certainly enjoy this life — it will be much better when all of the men get uniforms and full equipment.

Here is a drawing I had in last night's tribune. I haven't made any steady arrangements with any of the papers, but I think I'll try to send stuff to the [Des Moines Evening] Tribune and I'll send you copies of it if I can get drawings in. Well I'll have to go and drill — With love Francis.

* * *

Co. M.G. Reg 3 Iowa Inf, Fair Grounds Des Moines Iowa, July 29, 1917

Dear Folks: —

This is Sunday afternoon. We had a big feed this noon and pie on top of it. Some days we have pretty slim pickings — some it's fine. Sometime — if you get time I'd like 2 lemon pies — one to split up with the M.G. Co. and one to divide with Alfonso and Joe and Harry. I surely get hungry for lemon pie and fudge and there is no substitute here for either. Don't do it until you have plenty of time — and if ever you send me any eats please put it in two boxes in one package so I can manage to save some for Alfonso out of one package. We had church again this morning — The chaplain is a pretty good preacher.

Nobody knows now when we'll go south. It may not be for a month yet, though I myself think it will be sooner.

We are having a pretty good time of it out here, and this is surely a fine place for a camp. We have a band concert this afternoon. Our band is getting to be fine — Joe Benge and Harry Thomas are the drummers. Well I must get cleaned up. With Love Francis


Excerpted from Somewhere Over There by Francis H. Webster, Darrek D. Orwig. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Hawkeye State Answers the Call,
2. Representing Iowa in the Rainbow Division,
3. Arriving "Over There",
4. Learning the Art of Modern Warfare,
5. Into the Trenches,
6. Holding the Line,
7. The Killing Frost,
8. Turning the Tide,
9. Recovery,
10. Into the Forest of Death,

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Somewhere Over There: The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Taber More than 1 year ago
This is a delightful book. To be able to read the words of an individual soldier and to see his artwork combined with a well researched and written narrative, makes a very fine book.