Grandpa in WWI a Developing Family Story

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

Check out a couple of past blogs related to telling and researching family stories:

2 Responses to Grandpa in WWI a Developing Family Story

  1. This is awesome Carolyn! Sometimes its hard putting the pieces together. I have a story of my Great Aunt who fostered 75 children in her lifetime in Worcestor, MA. I wrote about her for my Women’s Empowerment group based on an article that was published in a Worcestor newspaper in 1970. In my eyes today, she was a fascinating woman. Although for my Dad’s family, unfortunately there was a ‘feud’ and she was not well liked with some of my Dad’s family. But I never saw any of that family mess. I only see what I see from my own stories. Her HUGE dark, scary house with dark, velvety furniture in her living room. Creaky hallways and two dogs ‘barking’ incessantly in the kitchen that I never wanted to venture that way. But those memories are from a 10 year old little girl. I never really understood the significance of what she was doing, how many children’s lives she made better, because I only remember her from my young childhood. I do wish I could have a conversation with her now, as an adult. But I can’t. The lesson I’ve learned in life is to make the connections with everyone. Listen to their stories an understand we’re really all in the same boat. Thanks for sharing your story and keep up the good work. Sharon

    • Sharon, I bet you could find some of those children with the internet and ask. The town hall and schools may have some info as well. Google search the street address if you have it, something else might come up. Who is left in the previous generation that you can ask about her, ask if there are any pictures. Who wrote the article, are they still around to ask questions of. This sounds like the start of a very interesting family story, feud and all – every family has a feud somewhere!

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