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In the Trenches of WWI

"Suddenly the sky ahead seemed on fire as the flashes of hundreds of German big guns lit up the darkness. The air was filled with the piercing whine of approaching shells, followed by the violent explosion as they hit in front of our position, and for several hundred feet on either side of us," recounts Quiren "Big Boy" Groessl, a corporal in the 5th Wisconsin Regiment during World War I, in his diary.

Detail from form letter written by Dennis J. Sullivan, manager of the Domestic Distribution Committee on Public Information, Film Division, to theater managers. Quiren Groessl in uniform

Groessl was captured by German soldiers after that barrage and barely escaped with his life. As he fought off his captors, he was severely wounded by a German bayonet. "The bayonet entered just above my shoulder hitting my spine a glancing blow, cutting nerves and muscles, and cutting me open from shoulder to shoulder … A kick in the ribs by the German rolled me on my back. Bending down over me with his bayonet poised for another quick thrust, he gave a peculiar grunt and fell over backward, dead at my side." Apparently, the German died due to a barrage of gunshots firing down upon him and Groessl during their struggle.

The corporal goes on to describe his harrowing experience finding his way back to his trenches, all the while racked with pain throughout his entire body and unable to move his arms. Groessl spent the remainder of the war recovering in various hospitals in France and the United States.

His story is just one of nearly two dozen featured in the "The Great War," an online presentation in the "Experiencing War" series featuring some of the most compelling collections in the Veterans History Project archives. "In the Trenches" leads off the series of narratives and takes visitors to the front lines of the first mass war fought with modern weaponry. The second series, "Above and Beyond the Battlefield," offers an insider's examination of the experiences of aviators and others who served in support of the infantry.

World War I is among the least-documented wars of those covered by the Veterans History Project, and the number of World War I collections is not likely to grow dramatically as there are only a handful of veterans left. Many of the memoirs in this collection have been donated by relatives and friends of deceased veterans.

Commissioned by Congress in 2000 and supported by volunteer interviewers, the Veterans History Project collects and archives the personal recollections of U.S. wartime veterans—and home-front civilians who supported America's armed forces—to honor their service and share their stories with current and future generations. Other presentations in the "Experiencing War" series include "Military Medicine," "Women at War" and "D-Day Anniversary."


A. Detail from form letter written by Dennis J. Sullivan, manager of the Domestic Distribution Committee on Public Information, Film Division, to theater managers. 1918. Veterans History Project. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

B. Quiren Groessl in uniform. Undated. Veterans History Project. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.