In 1939, ex-soldier Don Washburn reminisced with a WPA worker about the end of World War I. Part of the interview, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, appears below. Why were Washburn and his companions angry? What might be the work of soldiers at the end of a war? What other kinds of work would still be required after a war is over?
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"We didn't like being sent to a war that was already over, but there was nothing we could do about it - we had to go. Some of the boys talked recklessly about deserting, but nobody tried it. We were really mad, though, when we learned that what they called fighting units had been taken off the ships and mustered out while we were on our way to France.
"Our outfit had been sent to Camp Mills, Long Island, to wait for sailing orders, and we were there when the false alarm came about the end of the war. No one was allowed any leave, and suddenly on the night of November 10, 1918, we were ordered to Hoboken, N. J., and we embarked immediately on the Adriatic . Before daylight we heard a rumor that the sailing had been postponed, or cancelled, and then we heard about the Armistice. We didn't pay much attention at first, because it had only been a few days since the 'false armistice', and we weren't going to be sucked in again. You can bet we were tickled, though, when it finally seemed that this one was the real thing! We could just see ourselves going home! But after a day at the dock - what do you suppose? - they sent us to France! We were a disgusted bunch, going over. Took us 14 days to reach Liverpool - we had a full convoy.
". . . Having arrived in Liverpool, the company went to an overnight camp near Birmingham.
"We were already sore at the whole world, and when we reached the tents assigned us, there weren't even any cots to sleep on. We had to roll up in our blankets on the ground."
"Don, the boys in the trenches had a tough time, too," I said.
He replied, emphatically, "But the blasted war was over, and had been for two weeks. We should have been in the States! The next night, at Le Havre, France, it was the same thing: no beds, no cots. And the next four days and nights we spent in those half-pint freight cars that are supposed to be big enough for eight horses or 40 men. At the end of four days we were only about 200 miles from Le Havre. Finally, though, we got off of the train, and my squad was quartered in a barn loft, full of hay. We were fairly comfortable there, although we had no stove. There was no coal or wood to burn, anyhow; but the Army furnished us with plenty of clean straw and hay, and when we got too cold we could crowd into one of the small cafes in the town, which was close by. . . .
"For many weeks we had nothing to do but play cards and try to keep warm. They had us drill a few times, though. By that time my outfit was known as Evacuation Hospital Company No. 32. Then one day we were ordered out in full equipment, and all sorts of rumors flew around: we were going home; we were going to Germany; we were going to Paris; we were going here, and there, and everywhere. Actually, however, we marched about half a mile to Base Hospital No. 13, to relieve an outfit that had been ordered back to the States! We had real beds and better food, then, and could keep warm without half trying. Best of all, we had work to do, and time began to pass faster - or so it seemed."
View the entire interview with Don Washburn from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.