Remembering the Great War

Looking at World War I through artifacts and letters.


Last year Lynn Silva brought a canvas bag full of old letters tied together with faded green yarn to Times associate editor Geoff Currier. She had bought them at a yard sale at the Lambert’s Cove Church years ago, and thought there was a story someplace in those letters. Geoff sat on them, so to speak, until last week, when it occurred to him that the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I was coming up. (The letters are written to Capt. Baldwin L. Keyes, Medical Corps, USA, Camp Hospital #45, American Expeditionary Force, France. The postmark says they were mailed from Philadelphia during World War I.) Geoff shared them with some of us at the newspaper, and it set us to wondering who Dr. Keyes was.

After some Internet searching, we discovered he was a decorated veteran of World Wars I and II. Keyes lived to be 100, and was the longest-living alumnus of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s School of Medicine in Philadelphia, as well as the founding chairman of the psychiatry department there. But we still don’t know why dozens of letters written to him by his mother and other family members ended up in a West Tisbury yard sale.

The letters reminded me of a conversation I’d had a few weeks ago with Gilbert Lorenzoni, a collector of interesting artifacts of all kinds. He came by to tell me about his collection of World War I memorabilia, since that 100th anniversary was coming up. I called Gilbert, and he brought some of his collection to The Times’ office last week; we had a conversation about war.

Born in France in 1940, Gilbert remembers well the effects of World War II in Nice, where he grew up. He said it took at least 10 or 15 years before life began to return to “as you call normal” after the war. What he remembers most is the lack of nourishing food and medicine. “Everything was rationed still,” Gilbert said. “You had nothing. Many kids my age died of malnutrition, disease. Everything you could catch, you caught it because you had no vitamins, no strength.”

Gilbert’s love of history and everything from 19th century toasters to first-edition bestsellers paved the way for his considerable World War I collection. He has an original front page of The New York Times’ April 3, 1917, edition, with the text of President Wilson’s address to a joint session of Congress calling for a declaration of war against Germany. The ensuing congressional vote brought the U.S. into World War I.

He also has an original 1918 copy of a little book titled “Dere Mable: Love Letters of a Rookie” by Edward Streeter, the same man who wrote “Father of the Bride” in 1949. The book includes humorous love letters written by a rather naive soldier serving in World War I. Gilbert has photos of regiments from the first World War, and a 1927 program from the famous World War I film “Wings.” He has a well-worn little brown book that was carried by a soldier during the war, keeping account of his health, immunizations, supplies used, and other standard information. Gilbert also has a photo of his maternal grandfather, Mathieu Merengone, standing alongside other injured World War I soldiers, as well as his Certificate de Bonne Conduite — certificate of good service. Gilbert said he wasn’t sure how his grandfather was injured during the war, since his parents divorced when he was a little boy, with his older sister going with his mother while he lived with his father. Gilbert’s sister gave him the photo and certificate after they reconnected years later.

“My parents separated in 1948 or ’49,” Gilbert told me. “My first school picture was of the class of 1949-1950 in school. I was almost 10 years old before I went to school.” He said like many other families at the time, his was poor, and his father, a carpenter, couldn’t always pay the rent, so they moved from one place to another often.

“School was repulsive to me,” he remembered. “In France I was always at the back of the class, next to the stove.” Gilbert said he completed his own mandatory military service and spent more than two years in Algeria during that country’s fight for independence from France.

“Unfortunately I knew I was going to Algeria,” he said. “This is when de Gaulle was president. I was in Algeria for almost two years. It should have been 16 months. It was way past that time … 28 months I had to do.”

Gilbert told me about all he’s read concerning World War I, about fighting in trenches soaked by steady rain, the first use of chemicals as weapons, how deserters were shot on the spot. It was a terrible war, he said. Then we chatted about the famous Christmas truce in the trenches during World War I, when German and British soldiers put down their weapons, came out of the trenches and shared food, Christmas carols, and games just for that one night. I showed him the old letters to Capt. Baldwin Keyes, and he was delighted by them. “This is like treasure,” he said.

It made me wonder again what Capt. Baldwin L. Keyes was like, and how he could serve in not one but two world wars. There’s a reference to Baldwin’s brother, Merritt, who judging by the letters must have served in the first war as well. Keyes’ mother signs the letters “Very devotedly, your loving mother.” Indeed.