Messenger photo by Linda Dillman
Bruce Jarvis displays a World War I helmet, damaged by shrapnel 90 years ago, similar to one worn by Pvt. William Graham, the subject of "Hell’s Observer."
"You can never tell. ‘Battle’ ever was and is now, the acid test of the soldier. Until that test has been passed, we do not know our fellows. In fact, do not know ourselves and how far we can go in this war game which is tough for the bravest of us all." – entry made Nov. 6, 1918. Pvt. William Graham wrote about how some sergeants were disliked by the soldiers before they got to France, but earned their men’s respect by displaying courage in battle while others, who were the favorites before they got to France, fell from favor by showing fear at the wrong time.
Canal Winchester’s Bruce Jarvis was researching World War I American Expeditionary Forces diary material in 2001 when he stumbled on a stack of 660 unbound, military themed, double-sided pages handwritten in 1918 that were up for sale from an Internet trader.
"The pages were yellowed, somewhat brittle, and completely shuffled out of order as if they had been dropped, scooped up, and re-dropped over and over," said Jarvis, who spent weeks reassembling the document into a chronological sequence that would become the book, "Hell’s Observer," a first-person account of World War I.
Jarvis realized what he found was historic and dramatically beyond the routine wartime correspondence of a soldier. He said the emotions of the words written in old fading ink were "unbelievably moving."
The journal was written by Pvt. William Graham between July 28 and Dec. 28, 1918 and appears in "Hell’s Observer."
"This wasn’t revisionist history. It is an epic journal," said Jarvis. "It is pretty much word-for-word about what William Graham saw. Some of the entries are only a page long. Others are six to seven pages long and there is very little editing of the soldier’s words. This is his story of what he saw and how he felt about the war."
There are more than 300 pictures from Jarvis’ private collection reprinted in the book and most have never been published previously. A reproduction of a page on which Graham describes waking up from a night’s sleep in a "cootied" bed in a captured German headquarters-complete with what appears to be a smashed cootie (body louse) still stuck to the page where it was stopped in its tracks by Graham in August 1918-is included.
According to Jarvis, the material did not fit the mold of a typical first-hand war account since nearly all of a World War I enlisted soldiers’ mail was censored by junior officers before being sent out. Information was not to be divulged and servicemen were expected to keep their observations to themselves.
"War diaries were very limited on space so that they contain fragmented, quickly jotted entries that rarely go into a level of detail needed to understand the owner’s true predicament or state of mind," said Jarvis. "Memoirs written after the war fall short of delivering a full unvarnished account of actual events."
Jarvis, who wrote the preface to "Hell’s Observer" and is credited as a contributor, knew he was holding something that somehow skirted the censors and landed safely in the hands of someone across the Atlantic, where it was preserved for 94 years.
Jarvis followed clues throughout the diary in an effort to identify its author, such as references to Philadelphia, the military police and the 28th Infantry, "Bill" and playing the bugle.
The purchase of a five-volume set of "Pennsylvania in the Great War," where he discovered a roster for a 28th Division Military Police Company, brought Jarvis the answer he was seeking.
"When I found Captain Henry Crofut listed as the commander of Company B, 103rd Military Police Battalion, I knew I was getting very close to unmasking our unknown writer," said Jarvis. "There, printed within the names, was listed a bugler named William J. Graham of Philadelphia. The anonymous writer now had an identity."
Jarvis, who also served in the Army with the military police, said because of Graham’s occupation directing troops to and from "No Man’s Land," he was in a unique position to observe details of what happened at the strategic, tactical, and individual levels of combat.
Graham also returned to a place where he could write down events almost every day. Close examination of the writing and paper convinced Jarvis the journal was written while the events occurred, rather than later.
Research revealed Graham was a Philadelphia policeman with seven children when he enlisted in the Army at age 39. He served in the military from July 1917 until 1919. He later remarried and fathered five more children before passing away in 1940.
"He struggled with what was going on during the war, but he also had a strong sense of purpose," said Jarvis. "He was an older recruit when he volunteered and had a strong sense of patriotism."
Jarvis turned his attention to the "why" of Graham’s nearly photographic documentation of a half-year of World War I battlefront experience. He said the soldier’s prime motivation became clear after Jarvis saw a 1919 Philadelphia ad for a book, "The Iron Division in the World War."
"The ad stated that the author, Harry G. Proctor, paid soldiers to provide eyewitness accounts of the material he used to write the book," said Jarvis. "Bugler Graham was clearly one of these few paid and anonymous contributors. He side-stepped the military censors by mailing the manuscript to Proctor as a package through the French civilian post. Graham’s fascinating story, written over 90 years ago, is the only known surviving account of its kind in the documented history of the American Expeditionary Forces," said Jarvis.
"Hell’s Observer" will be available in hardbound, paperback, and in a digital format in March from the publisher and retail sources. Visit www.hellsobserver.com.