As one reads through the memoir, “Dear Mater, A Soldier's World War I Letters to His Mother,” a personal attachment to that soldier soon begins to develop. For aside from differences in the details -- time, location, enemies -- the collection of letters written by William Arthur Jewell could be letters home from a relative or a friend stationed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq -- wherever the never-ending tragedies of war continue to unfold.
Compiled by Tracy Ferguson of Kilbuck, the collection of 51 letters written by Lt. Jewell, whose family lived on a road that is now Ohio River Boulevard in Ben Avon, detail the soldier's experiences in training camp, beginning in 1917. They then shift to his days of awaiting deployment to Europe, to his training in France and on the Western Front, and finally to his transfer to Company D, 102nd Infantry, when he was killed in action just months before the Oct. 30, 1918 amnesty.
Ferguson came across Lt. Jewell's name quite by accident in 2014 while researching another subject for an article in the Ben Avon Area Historical Association [BAAHA] newsletter, “The Chronicle.” “Although my expectations for finding information on an ordinary man's brief life were not high, I was stunned and deeply moved when I discovered his World War I letters to his mother and the wonderful cache of family photographs from the turn of the 20th century. It was apparent to me that his family wanted his life to be remembered and his story told. The amount of information I accumulated was obviously too much for an article, and the idea for a book was formed,” Ferguson said.
The research was time-consuming, with the actual writing of the book beginning in the fall of 2015. The book was published this past December, timed to honor the men and women who served our country beginning a century ago, the year America entered the war.
The letters mention military details, from names of the New York camps and the battlefields of France, to the types of weapons being used by the enemy. But more than details of the war are Arthur's thoughts -- he used his middle name far more than his first -- about life as he prepared for those battles.
To introduce readers to Arthur, Ferguson traces his life from his days in the small town of Pulaski, PA, where he was born in 1890, to his graduation from Westminster College, to his enrollment in Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, and then to his enlistment in the Army in 1917, when he explained, “I look upon this as a Holy War.”
What follows are his stories of life in camps, descriptions of comrades and assurances to his mother -- referred to almost always as “Dear Mater” -- of his well-being by describing the food and his living conditions, often adding, “I am having the time of my life…,” and closing always with words of his love for her.
So what could be the appeal of century-old letters from a total stranger? Arthur never could have foreseen, of course, that his writing would have a universal appeal: family, friends, food, fun. But he never mentions any fear of the perils of battle.
Compiling the book was no easy task for Ferguson, but it was, quite obviously, a labor of love. The text is meticulously arranged, from the placement of the sepia-toned photographs among the letters, along with interludes that separate time sequences, as well as letters from comrades sent to Arthur's mother following his death. She concludes with an epilogue and a glossary of terms.
Within the concluding lines of her prologue, Ferguson writes, “Peruse the letters as if he were a loved one.”
By the time the reader begins the second letter, he will be.
She goes on to say, “Read between the lines as he attempted to calm his family at home.” Knowing Arthur's fate, one cannot avoid the sadness that builds as the letters move to the inevitable end.
And finally, she writes “Imagine his family's reactions as they read his benign letters and balanced them against the steady reports of the war in the newspapers.”
Arthur obviously realized their fears and he repeatedly wrote, “I am well and happy…” and “…having the time of my life.”
“Dear Mater” has none of the Hollywood adventures of battle scene heroics and it does not fit into any “war novel” genre of literature. Instead, it is reality. While some readers might complete the book in a single sitting, his messages will long be remembered.
Copies of the book are available for $20 at the BAAHA office at 300 Camp Horne Rd. on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. To order a copy, visit www.history.benavon.org and download an order form; shipping is $5. All proceeds benefit BAAHA and preserving local history.