Where to begin, I have a collection of letters my Grandfather, George Brooks Armstead sent home from the front when he worked for the YMCA in WWI. I have read them all, now the big question how to go from a batch of letters to a story to share? I read them straight through in chronological order, then went back and read excerpts from a few. I never met my Grandfather, he died years before I was born, but now I feel I know him much better. This photo I borrowed from the Long Long Trail blog could be my Grandfather – he was there!
This site assists family historians and is a good research tool to put in your favorites tab for tools online. The YMCA Canteens were set up where ever they could find a little space, sometimes a building, sometimes a tent. In this image it is in a basement to the right of the men.
When I tell the story I will want to create images with my words. I need to see real images of the places and times my Grandfather wrote about. As I researched I began to stock pile the best images in a new Pinterest board to help me look at them all in one place. ( I can also click back to their source for further information) Here is the link to that Pinterest board I created:
I was so impressed to find images of many of the places he worked for the YMCA including Egypt and in the city of Jerusalem post war.
By trade my Grandfather was a writer and newspaperman. At the close of the war General Pershing asked all men with a connection to the press back home to be gathered for a news writers tour. He wrote quite a bit about his three weeks touring major battlefields and hearing first hand accounts of those battles from the General on the field that day. There was a major effort to see that the news going home was correct. The train the rode had been used as a hospital train for moving the wounded, now repurposed to transport reporters. I found an image of one of the trains, I can picture my Grandfather falling into a bunk at night after a long day walking the fields and listening to debriefings on the battles. Here is an image from the blog Indigenous Histories
My collection of letters, most of which were written to my Uncle Jim who was 9 at the onset of the letters is a treasure. Its writing is simple as it is directed to a child. Most of the gruesome details of war are omitted and replaced by words of encouragement, love and hope. The letters are sprinkled with well wishes and hopes that the young man is doing his part and being helpful to his Aunt and Uncle who are raising him in his father’s absence. There are several commentaries about children my Grandfather encountered in his travels. I think in a way my Grandfather wanted his son to know that although his Dad was oversees, he was quite fortunate not to be living in a war scared country.
From the letters I can see several stories I want to develop. The train trip will be one itself, Christmas eve in Bethlehem, Armistice, and boys and girls an ocean apart. None of these stories can be told without reading more about the time place and characters. The battle reports, the weather, the news from the dates around the letter. I will even research what people were wearing to be sure to give as true a description as I can.
A single letter would be valuable insight to a family story, an entire collection of letters is a window into an extended period and the seeds of a program replete with world history through the pen of a father to his son.
I will be offering a workshop in Eastern Connecticut; My Roots Are Showing; Collecting and Telling Family Stories on March 8, 2015 from 1-3 followed by a performance of selected family stories. (snow date March 15) Contact me for details at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out a couple of past blogs related to telling and researching family stories: