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Members' research

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Andrew J. Huebner

Love and Death in the Great War

My name is Andrew Huebner, and I’m an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. My current book project, Love and Death in the Great War, surveys the stories of three American doughboys and their families in the context of the broader national impulse to sell, justify, and understand the First World War in personal terms.

“Crusades are for generals,” wrote the journalist and combat veteran Edmund G. Love in the 1950s. “War is a more personal thing.” America’s doughboys of World War I, like most soldiers, had prosaic things in mind as they shipped off to France—sweethearts, wives, parents, brothers, sisters. Most of those families had their own now-endangered loved one in mind more than anything else in 1917. Officials in the military and government, grasping these crucial realities, invested the war with personal meaning. Alongside the better-known rhetoric of democracy, progressive internationalism, and maritime rights, architects of the war aligned personal commitments with patriotic obligations. Popular culture followed suit: “Make your mother proud of you/And the Old Red White and Blue”—so went George Cohan’s famous tune “Over There.” Federal officials and their allies in public culture, in short, told the war story as a love story.

Love and Death in the Great War explores the relationship between these two venues of wartime experience—private life and public culture—at a time when barriers separating the two were crumbling. The state reached into people’s homes, mourning moved from parlor to town square, newspapers became saturated with language about home and family, and ordinary people incorporated military service into their ideas about sexual attraction, courtship, and love. Among them were the three soldiers at the heart of this study.

George Waring Huston was a sensitive boy from Selma, Alabama, who volunteered for the service to please his parents. He suffered no end of homesickness, writing haunting letters to his family and sweetheart. In October 1918, Waring died in a shell blast, his unit of the 82nd Division at the tip of the million-man Meuse-Argonne offensive. Eliga Dees, an enlistee from Williamsville, Missouri, wrote barely legible letters from France to his wife Mae Bilbrey. His 6th Division was held in reserve during the Meuse-Argonne, and “Lige” survived—and with him scores of Mae’s letters, offering a rare glimpse into both sides of the war’s transatlantic emotional traffic. Finally, Arthur Huebner, my grandfather’s older brother, was a German-American from Watertown, Wisconsin, drafted in August 1917 and mustered into service with the 33rd Division. In the Meuse-Argonne offensive’s last push—at 5:20 a.m. on the war’s last day—Arthur’s machinegun battalion advanced through a thick fog, unaware of the armistice. Shot through the lungs, Arthur survived two weeks. His family received notice of his death, and then just days later, a letter from Arthur telling them he expected to pull through.

The book’s first task is to breath life into the stories of this generation of Americans at the centennial of its great trial. Its second charge is to put those matters of private experience into the context of persuasive official and public culture. Woodrow Wilson faced Americans’ uneasiness with the war by clamping down on civil liberties and keying it to the survival of western civilization. But more crucially, the administration appealed to private emotion, subsuming international goals to more prosaic domestic ones. Confronting fears that the war would rip apart the family, officials and the purveyors of popular culture countered that it would redeem domestic character. The Great War offered chivalric adventure, good for shoring up masculine virtue. More deeply, it demanded a return to familiar gender roles, with men taking up arms and women tending the home fires. For decades leading up to 1917, traditionalists, progressives, and reactionaries alike had winced at perceived threats to white, middle-class domestic morality. War offered, as it often had, regenerative promise alongside geopolitical goals. Ultimately, such attempts to key the war to familial health in the aggregate fell apart as it brought devastation to families individually. Many people who had understood the war story as a love story came to regard it as a tragedy. From 1917 to 1919, the families of my three doughboys grappled with the intricate and often heartbreaking ways that the war intervened in their private lives—sometimes in line with official prescriptions, other times not.

I came to this project many years ago through my relative, Arthur, but it soon expanded to include the other two soldiers and the broader national picture of which they were a part. It builds on my first book, The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), by linking the purely cultural emphasis of that study to the personal histories of three particular families.

Keywords: Homefront Life; War and Family; War and Love; Doughboys; United States; Social History; War and Culture