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​North Dakota’s letters from the Great War

by Sabrina Hornung | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Culture | July 11th, 2018

WWI Letters - photograph courtesy of Barnes County Historical Society_preview

“This is their encounter with these people and this may be all that’s known about them," Dr. Joseph Stuart, associate of history at the University of Mary in Bismarck, said. "These may be the only words that are preserved from this person. The students really respond well to that and they love it. It’s the power of the past that really inspires us to think more deeply about what it means to be human.” 

Stuart is also part of the North Dakota World War I committee. He and his students are working on a project that will breathe new life into nearly 1,000 letters from the front lines of the Great War sourced from the archives of the North Dakota State Historical Society.

“This encounter with the past is not from a textbook. This is not where you memorize facts and sell the book at the end of the semester. It’s that real encounter through the archives with real letters with real people who were their age,” he said.

The committee is a nationwide effort to raise money for a national monument in Washington, D.C. commemorating the centennial of “The war to end all wars.”

The transcription project was the brainchild of Darrell Dorgan, head of the North Dakota Branch of the committee. The intent is to catalog, transcribe and digitize these letters. 

“One of his ideas was to find letters from every county in the state of North Dakota and publish them in newspapers across the state in November,” Stuart said.

November 11, 2018 will be significant because it will mark 100 years since the end of the Great War.

They plan to collaborate with the North Dakota Newspaper Association (NDNA). The project is called “North Dakota voices from the Great War.” Last year 40 papers throughout the state printed the letters, which in itself is a love letter to the era. 

“When soldiers would write home, their parents would have the letters published in local papers across the state, which is a wonderful thing because most of them would have been lost in history if they wouldn’t have done that," Stuart said.

The most difficult part of the project was coordinating deadlines, he said. In order to have the letters published in November the NDNA said they needed to be submitted by early October, while the school year at the University of Mary starts in September due to their summer schedule. 

“So we have a month to research and transcribe these letters so that’s challenging. Last year it freaked them out the first day but they rose to the challenge and they made it on time,” Stuart said.

“The students are amazed to just read letters. We now live in an age where people don’t write letters anymore, so they’re impressed that these nurses and farmers from rural North Dakota could write so well, secondary that they could write such gripping and dramatic accounts of their experiences. When you read them and read their words it’s quite a moving and powerful experience.” he said.

In addition to the transcriptions of these letters there’s a public presentation component to the project called, “Reader’s Theatre.” 

"The students will be on stage holding the letters in their hands and then weaving together a script so the letters they hold tell a story from the beginning of the war to what it was like toward the end, the suffering, the hardships, and then what it was like waiting around and trying to come home, the confusion, the great influenza…” he said.

The production would include period costumes, artifacts, songs and marches. The presentation was performed once before the Amvets in Bismarck and once as a presentation in Grand Forks during the history conference last fall. This year the history department will collaborate with the theatre department for a full-scale theatrical production at the Belle Mehus Auditorium in Bismarck.

One of Stuart's most interesting discoveries included information about North Dakota’s involvement in the war involved their medical division. 

“North Dakota had the highest percentage of RNs volunteer of any state in the country, 20 percent of the RNs volunteering to be in the conflict performed heroic feats taking care of 'the boys.’ Many were really motivated out of a sense of wanting to take care of them and mother them in a sense.”

As a whole, the aspect that Dr. Stuart found the most fascinating was how consequential the war was. 

“The cultural historian Simon Schama said WWI was ‘the original sin of the 20th century,’ if you know anything about original sin, it’s a mistake committed at the beginning then other sins and evils came later.” 

Not only did the Great War lead to the unprecedented bio warfare, it led to the collapse of four empires and from that four ideologies emerged including nazism, fascism, communism and even contributed to radicalized Islam.

“You can’t just say it was good or bad--it’s just not that simple. A lot of times as historians we have to look at what happened and try to understand it and make judgements when you can but also with sympathy for the fact that these were people who made the best judgements that they could. They risked their lives and they were heroes even if the unintended results of the war were pretty horrible.”

In thinking about what the future holds for future historians, how will correspondence from the current war be archived?

“Historians are nervous about this because we’re not sure how things are being preserved and certainly there are efforts being made to save digitized things but there are inherent problems with these changing formats and deterioration. I don’t think they are writing letters, they’re skyping, they’re sending messages through electronic devices--email,” Stuart said. “It does raise a possibility in 100 or 200 years. Historians trying to understand the 21st century might have some serious difficulty. It might appear as another kind of dark age. Not in a sense that we weren’t advanced, but of a darkness that they can’t see what we were thinking about. Most of the records are going to be digital. Those will be lost and we won’t know what was going on inside us.”

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