Posts with the tag: Robert Lincoln O’Connell

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Yank on the Western Front, 1918

Weary but hopeful soldiers gaze skyward from “I Was There!” With the Yanks in France: Sketches made on the Western Front 1917 — 1919 by Pvt. C. Leroy Baldridge A.E.F., 1919, p. 4. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

As part of our ongoing efforts to mark the centenary of the First World War a previous blog post explored the 1917 experiences of Connecticut Catholic Robert Lincoln O’Connell training as a combat engineer in Washington, D.C. This is documented by the collection of digitized letters to his mother and sisters housed in the Archives of The Catholic University of America. Now we turn to his 1918 accounts of the war as O’Connell and his unit, the First Engineer Regiment, part of the famed First Infantry Division and vanguard of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe, saw harrowing service on the Western Front in France during the war’s culmination. To complete their military instruction, which began in Washington, O’Connell and the First Engineers were trained by the French in the construction of trenches, dugouts, command posts, heavy weapons sites, observation posts, wire entanglements, and other obstacles. They also learned to destroy enemy fences by cutting wire or using explosives. In addition, they drilled as regular infantry in the use of rifles, hand grenades, and gas masks.

The First Engineers served near Toul, January-April 1918, where they quarried rock, repaired roads, built dugouts, command posts, and wire entanglements while often being shelled and gassed as they worked. American efforts to strengthen the positions in Cantigny, where the engineers served, April-July 1918, helped the French thwart a German offensive. To contain yet another German attack, the First Infantry Division shifted to the Aisne-Marne sector, with the engineers deployed to the Compiegne forest where O’Connell was wounded on July 18. The engineers not only overcame natural obstacles, but fought in the front line and suffered many casualties, O’Connell among them. During his rest and recuperation, he missed the fighting in the St. Mihiel Salient, but after recovering returned to service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in October and was there when the war ended on November 11, 1918.

A pontoon bridge built by the First Engineers. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

The O’Connell collection includes fourteen of his often breezy letters and eleven postcards sent home from France. In his March 18, 1918 missive to his mother he noted:

I am writing each week now because I have my own paper, in case I haven’t a chance to reach a Y.M.C.A. tent or an S.A. but there are few places that those people haven’t opened buildings. In this village, the two huts face each other, across the street, but the Y.M. draws the crowd and the money because they have a better equipped place. A real band has been around town for the last week and the way they grind out ragtime is a treat…Yesterday was Patrick’s day but only one man had any green and that was a scrap of weed in his buttonhole, that he had brought back from the trenches. He seemed to be the only good Irisher in sight.

In the same letter he muses about his enlistment and service:

This letter will probably reach you about the end of my first year in the Army. If you remember, it was Apr. 10, when I went up to Hartford to see if they would pass me. It has been a short but lively year and I hope I get home before another passes but I’m glad I got in early because the drafted crowd certainly didn’t have places like Washington Barracks to train in or warm weather, either, but they will have the laugh on us when they get over here and find things cleaned up.

Colorful French postcard sent by O’Connell to his mother in July 1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

O’Connell was wounded in action on July 18, 1918, as he explained in his July 24 letter to his mother:

There was a little round hole in my leggin, at the sore spot, so I took my rifle and started back for the dressing station, about half a mile away. It was just an emergency station, though, and they told us to keep going, to a larger place in a big cave. There was five in the party, by now, either limping or nursing a bad arm and that cave was almost two miles farther along. I’d have walked twenty, I think, to get some relief from those shells….When you get this, I’ll be back with the company again, but I’ll have had this rest, anyway, just for a little hole less than half an inch deep.

Robert Lincoln O’Connell in his Army uniform, ca. 1917-1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

He apparently downplayed his injury for his mother’s sake because he did not return to active duty until October, demonstrated in several later letters and postcards, such as his postcard of September 27 to his mother where he said:

Ought to be back with the boys in a week or so, Leaving the barracks at this place. A few of the boys are here after the St. Michael drive. No mail since early in July. Guess never will get it all. Have had a fine rest. Seems as if all the original company had been resting. Wish this darned war was over. I want to see what is going on at home.

And, finally, his postcard of October 15 announcing his return to his unit, plus additional commentary:

Got back to the company about a week ago. Received four letters, one from you, and from Mame and Helen. Better than money. Paid last in June. Did you receive the $20 from the YMCA and the piece of German airplane cover? I don’t need any money. I can send it, instead. Hope all are well. Good news in the papers, lately.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, and the First Engineers arrived in Germany’s Rhineland shortly thereafter as part of the army of occupation, but that is another story for a future blog post. O’Connell’s wartime experiences are a well preserved and freely available testament at Catholic University that give voice to the millions of soldiers of all nations whose accounts have not survived.

The Archivist’s Nook: Connecticut Catholic in Washington, 1917

O’Connell Family, ca. 1911.Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

One hundred years ago, American entry into the First World War transformed the nation’s capital from a sleepy Southern crossroads into a modern hub of administration commensurate to an emerging first class world power. It was here a young Catholic soldier wrote his family, primarily his mother and sisters, back in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. That man, Robert Lincoln O’Connell, whose archival papers, including a digital collection, reside in the archives at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and briefly alluded to in two previous blog posts, ‘For God and Country’ and ‘World War I on Display,’ contain seven letters he wrote from April to August 1917 addressed from Washington Barracks, now Fort McNair. ‘Rob,’ as he was known to his family, described his initial training in and around Washington, D.C. as a combat engineer, or sapper, for service in the First Engineer Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France.

O’Connell (1888-1972), a native of Wareham, Massachusetts, was the eldest of five children of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, immigrants from Ireland and Wales, respectively. By 1900, the O’Connell family had moved to the town of Southington, Connecticut, near Hartford and less than 100 miles from New York City. The family attended St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church and the 1910 federal census lists father Daniel as a “laborer” in an “iron mill” and son Robert as “laborer” in a “hardware shop.” Rob O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, New York, on April 14, 1917, and shortly thereafter transferred to Washington Barracks where he spent the next three months training as a machinist in Company C, First Battalion, of the First Engineers. His unit also spent time along the Potomac River on the grounds of the Belvoir Estate that had served since 1912 as a rifle range and summer camp for the training of Army engineers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recruiting poster, 1917.

In O’Connell’s April 28, 1917 letter, he told his mother details of settling in after his recent enlistment and commented on the visit of Marshal Joseph Joffre, famous hero of the Battle of the Marne, who spoke at the Army War College, adjacent to Washington Barracks, the day before. “All clothes had to be sent to the disinfecting plant to prevent spreading disease among so many men…. Gen. Joffre and his party visited the post yesterday. I seem to be hungry all the time, in spite of three sq. meals.”  Writing in mid-May, he complained to his mother about the Washington newspapers, presumably the Washington Post and Washington Star, although he appeared impressed by D.C.‘s sites and scenes. “This city has trees along the main streets. I never saw a place like it. I have not seen Mr. Lud, the President, yet. But I have seen the principle buildings and the Wash. Monument, which you can’t help seeing, it is so tall.” 

Apparently, ‘Mr. Lud’ was a nickname for President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps an obscure reference to the legendary British king and founder of London. Writing his mother again on May 31, he explained the training of engineers at Washington Barracks. “They had racing and other sports between the companies…We lost the tent-pitching by a few points…The sergeant was sore at losing and yelled at us as we marched off the field.”

Washington Barracks, 1917. U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In June, he told his mother “There was a black and white scrap up the street, last night.” An African-American woman had an argument with a soldier and “she hit him with a beer bottle.” This was probably not an isolated incident as the August 10 Washington Post said the Secretary of War directed “a number of saloons in Four-and-a half street southwest may be closed because of their proximity to the Washington barracks.” Another letter home, also written in June, addressed to his sister Ellen, described field training on the grounds of the future Fort Belvoir. “I have just put in the hardest two weeks of my life, I guess, down at the rifle range. It is about twenty miles below Washington, on the Potomac… passengers on the passing steamers probably wish they were camping out there. But when we (A, B and C companies), got there two weeks ago last Monday, there were no tents and lots of brush and weeds and hard work…For two days we worked around camp and lugged and tugged and sweated and wondered why we had ever wanted to leave our happy home at the Barracks.” Combat engineers learned to construct field works and pontoon bridges. They also had to fight as regular infantry when the need arose, hence training in the use of firearms. “Half the company shot in the forenoon while the other half worked in the pits, pushing the targets up into view and pointing out each hit with a long stick… I fired in the morning and managed to get in with the higher ones on the score.”

Robert Lincoln O’Connell to his mother, Mary O’Connell, July 3, 1917. Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

O’Connell wrote his mother on July 3 expressing confidence in himself as well as contempt for those who had not met the standard. “The captain told us last week that eight or ten men would be left behind because they were too stupid or weren’t considered fit to go with the regiment to France. I won’t be in that bunch if I can help it, as there is some honor in going over but only a disgrace in being a castoff. When the news first got out a month ago, that we were going to France, some of the fire-eaters were delighted, until the officers explained what they would have to do…It was no news to me and if I go, I will do the best I can. This life is a wonderful bracer and I am glad I joined.” The last letter, addressed to his mother in early August, was written a few days departure for France. “Would you care to make the trip down and risk finding us gone?” There is no record his family made the trip to see him. The First Engineers left Washington on August 6 and embarked for France from Hoboken, New Jersey, the following day. O’Connell and his fellow engineers were now at war and a future blog post will explore their time at the front in 1918.

The Archivist’s Nook: Hark! The Digital Angel Comes!

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, Vol. 10, No. 14, March 24, 1955.
Treasure Chest, Vol. 10, No. 14, March 24, 1955.

My colleague Dr. Maria Mazzenga has blogged previously about digital materials, especially those used in the American Catholic History Classroom teaching sites. My intent here is to review the separate and distinct digital collections that originated from a 2001 grant from the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services’ National Leadership Program to The Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC), of which CUA is a member. Each member was asked to provide materials for digitization via WRLC’s collaborative facilities known as the Digital Collection Production Center (DCPC), and CUA provided a total of ten collections during the DCPC’s era of operation, 2002-2010.

I confess that I am not one of those archivists mesmerized by every new shiny bauble that comes along, so I had curmudgeonly doubts about the utility of putting resources into digitizing at that time. Fortunately, taking a chance turned out to be the right thing to do as the collections selected (or ‘curated’) have been enduringly popular and frequently accessed by researchers. However, things have changed since 2010 and the process to create what many would call these ‘boutique’ collections is now being augmented, if not superseded, by mass digitization of a broader range of materials and formats (which my colleague Paul Kelly will talk more about in future). Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Hark! The Digital Angel Comes!”