The Great War and Me: A Study in Still Life and Memory

Tuesday Morn Oct 1, 1918

I haven’t taken off my clothes in about a month; haven’t removed or changed socks in a week; haven’t shaved in about a week; and can’t remove my shoes because they shrunk so.

My grandfather only spoke about his experiences in the First World War to me once, and that was abruptly, and in anger. As young boys, my brothers and I would spend part of our summer vacation with my grandparents. One sweltering August night, I climbed down from the attic guestroom to ask my grandmother if I could sleep on the screen porch. She helped me gather up my pillows and sheets, and as we were rounding the second story landing, my grandfather’s figure appeared unexpectedly, looming against the light of his bedroom doorway. “What are you doing?”, he demanded of my grandmother, who explained that I was so hot in the attic and was going down to the screen porch where it would be more comfortable. “Comfortable?”, he snapped, wheeling on me now. “Comfortable? Do you know, boy, that when I was in France, we slept on rocks, and I never once complained.” And with that, he retreated back to his room, glowering in disgust. I stood there, mute and uncomprehending, not knowing what he was talking about, what France was, or what I had done. I did not think of that evening for almost forty years, and it is only now, as an adult, that I am able to gain some understanding of that encounter, and of that remark.

I am a painter, and I am a painter in large part because of my grandfather, Edward H. Freedman. His Enlistment Record at the age of 23 lists his vocation as “Artist”, but by the time I got to know him, he had pretty much given up fine art and resigned himself to being a commercial artist and teacher to support his family. I remember him as a perpetual instructor, always willing to sit down and show me ‘how to draw’ something. I remember with absolute clarity the feeling of entering his studio and smelling the turpentine and seeing the dizzying array of colors in his special paint box. These experiences are as deeply embedded in me as any I can think of. I knew my grandfather as an artist and a teacher, but I did not know him as a man or understand the experiences that had formed him.

A few years back, I had cause to think of that long-ago summer night, when, going through a trunk in my parent’s attic, I discovered a tattered, miniature book that turned out to be a journal that my grandfather kept in France during the Great War. As I was growing up, I pieced together that he had fought with Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force that had gone over in 1918 and helped seal the Allied Victory. But he never spoke to anyone of his experiences, not even to my mother. His witnessing of the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front, his grueling labor in the 52nd Pioneer Infantry, marching through the moonscape that was eastern France, filling in shell-holes and burying horses and mules round the clock, and the death of his beloved older brother Isaac, these things were unknown to me until I happened upon this small book. He kept his memories so well hidden, that the only evidence of his participation in that great cataclysm were the tiny seismic eruptions like the one I witnessed as a boy.

This journal became a window for me, not only into the unknown inner life of my grandfather, but also into another time and place, and into the heart of one of the most important events of the twentieth century. As I turned the brittle pages of this decomposing little book, I felt the day by day history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive unfold before me with an immediacy that was exhilarating. The book took on an emotional and intellectual vastness completely out of proportion to its physical size.

The first thing that you notice about the journal is how tiny it is. It had to be small, as it was competing for very valuable real estate in his knapsack. It is severely dog-eared and yellowed, and it began to disintegrate the second I touched it. The pages started to fall apart in my hands as I turned them. I tried with the greatest care to separate it’s Bible-thin pages, cemented together by rain, mud and sweat.

But the journal turned out to be only a part of what I found. There was a wrist watch, a beautiful hand-painted Waltham, that had belonged to my great-uncle Isaac “Ike” Freedman. He was my grandfather’s older brother, and a Sgt of the Machine Gun Company of the 77th Division of the 307th Infantry, the division that finally reached Major Whittlesey and the “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne Forest. Ike was killed less than a month before the war’s end, amidst some of the most hideous fighting in the Argonne. I looked at this silent timepiece, a present to my great-uncle by a neighbor when he was drafted into the Army. I wound-up the watch, which probably had not been touched in over half a century, but it remained silent.

There were also in the trunk some war objects, and a great mass of papers and documents; letters, sketches; family correspondence, official papers and several editions of a family newsletter, “The Cheer-Up”, meant to connect the family at home to the seven extended family members all serving in the Army in 1918. But among all of these items, two papers stood out. The first was a pencil drawing by my grandfather of a copse of shelled trees overlooking the spot in which Ike was killed. And the second was an exquisitely drawn map of the exact location of Ike’s field grave in the Argonne Forest, just outside of the village of Grand Pre’. My grandfather was not able to visit the site until November 21, ten days after Armistice, and he clearly wanted to be able to find this spot again, and to be able to show others as well. Without surveying equipment, the map gives an unbelievably accurate description of the topography of the location. Drawing the slope of the hill, mud roads, paced off steps, a line of sight to a far off church tower and the position of the shadow of his pencil point at a specific time of day, he was able to give the location of Ike’s field grave so accurately, that my wife and daughters and I were able to locate the exact spot some 80 years later to within several feet. Having made the map and the drawing, my grandfather never returned to France. But he had been there and recorded the scene with his pencil, so he could always remember.

All of these things–the journal, watch, maps– became pieces of a puzzle that I have been trying to reconstruct for some time now. And I have not merely been striving to reconstruct them historically, but to interpret them artistically, just as my grandfather had turned his experiences in France into subject matter for his art, carrying drawing materials and watercolors to the front. The trunk in the attic contained drawing of soldiers writing letters home, playing checkers, watercolors of ruined villages. When I discovered these objects, I knew immediately that I had to respond to them. “One does not choose one’s subject matter”, wrote Flaubert, “one submits to it”. From that moment on, I set about doing several things. The first was to find out exactly who Edward H. Freedman was. The second was to find out what had actually happened to him and as best I could, to the world at that time. And the last, and the most pressing to me, was to find out how I could respond to all of this as an artist. . How could I use my gifts to resurrect this glimpse into the silent past that I had been given, and to pass on something of what I had learned and felt to my own children, now that we were so far removed from the Great War. (issues still haunt us??)

My grandfather was no Wilfred Owen. When you read British letters and diaries from the Western Front, you get the feeling that they must have had some sort of poetry prerequisite at their Enlistment Office. My grandfather, on the other hand, came from that generation of American men that could use both the words “gumption” and “backbone” in the same sentence without flinching. My grandfather’s journal is, as well, singularly unreflective. As a person, he was not given to musing on larger questions, either political or existential, and with the exception of several things that really hit home, he used the journal to record in detail events that transpired rather than to comment upon them. However, he occasionally does stop to describe how something made him feel, as in a description of a leave of absence he took to go to Nantes to attend Rosh Hashanah services;

There were very few old French men present (no young ones excepting a few children) and about twenty young and old women. The remainder consisted of soldiers & there were many among them who were wounded & who were detailed to guard prisoners. The services started at 9 and they were very much the same as those held at home.

And I began to think that several hours later the folks at home would all be gathered in a synagogue praying and weeping for their dear ones over here; — a few tears came to my eyes– and I remembered that I was a soldier and must show no weakness. Very soon the tears disappeared– and while they lifted the “Saiftorah’s” from their cozy berths of velvet I prayed for Ike that he come home untouched, healthy and happy; I prayed for the rest of the boys, and I prayed for the folks at home that they might all be well and happy & see their dear ones return– I prayed for victory soon & I prayed that the Lord take care of me.

But by far, the most self-revealing aspect of the journal tells the story of my grandfather and his brother, their attempt to stay in touch during battle, and the agony of Ike’s death in the Argonne Forest. Both Edward’s journal and Ike’s letters reveal a tremendous bond between the two brothers. The papers are full of the frustration of these two men, serving sometimes only a few miles apart, trying to see each other, or even to communicate by mail. As they were not allowed by the Army censors to reveal their exact locations, they kept trying to find each other so that they could finally meet. Ike writes on Sept 18, 1918;

My Dear Ed;

I just came out of the lines after doing 17 days of the most strenuous possible, but am glad to say I am O.K. physically for which I am thankful indeed and very fortunate. Our division had a pretty rough go of it but made quite a good advance though they paid the price for it…

Ed, try and let me know where you are located. Ask your Lieutenant about it if you want to and explain it to him. I will try to get a ten day furlough after I get out of the lines and if I do I will make an effort to see you if I have to hike it. I would give 500 of my francs for an hour’s talk with you. I think he will give you permission to let me know where you are located. Are you near Nordesque? Answer yes or no.

Your loving brother,

Ike would be dead within a month’s time, killed at Grand pre on Oct. 14, 1918. Due to the dismal state of the postal delivery, there exists for the reader a painful irony in that Ed did not know about Ike’s death until Nov. 19, over a week after the war’s end. When peace was declared, he writes;

Gosh! I must write again. Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Bang! Bang! Flash! Bang! The report, shots & colored flashes come from the Front announcing that peace has been declared. The fellows are going nutty. They’re shooting their revolvers at the ceiling while the locomotives are tooting their whistles. The sky is one mass of colors. But somehow, I can’t feel happy — I haven’t heard from Ike since his letter of Oct 2nd. God! I hope he’s safe.

On Tuesday November 19, the journal entry is inscribed in bright red ink;

God almighty! I just heard that Ike was killed by shrapnel. The 307th Infantry just came into town & I spoke to one of the men of the Machine Gun Unit & he told me the news. Poor mother– poor dad– everybody at home– if I could only be home to cheer ’em up a bit. God preserve them in good health that I may see them all when I get back. Who knows what kind of a burial he had– what place he lies in— I’ve seen some terrible sights and I hope he looked like none of them…. All along I’ve prayed to the Lord to take me if one of us had to go…

Within 48 hours, he had secured a pass and a map and went to Grand pre to find the grave;

Lt. Oliver provided me with a map on which Corporal Hartley had indicated the location of the grave as best he could. Well, we hunted for a cross road that had a big tree & a clearing of about 150 yards. We found similies but never the right. We went all the way down to Malhassee Ferm & then started north again on another road. We finally reached Grand pre again about 4 P.M. without any success. I needn’t mention my disappointment.

The next morning, with a more detailed map and a guide from Ike’s division, he set out again;

This morning at 7 A.M. the three of us set out, and my legs were certainly sore. We got past Buzaney when we met a truck & got a hitch to Grand pre.

We then set out to climb a hill and after quite some walk we came upon the spot where the Boches got Ike. The line of dugouts– Ike’s dugout & Jack’s; the presumed shell hole & the place where Ike fell. I made a rough sketch of the place & a position map.

We then hiked around again for quite a while, for Jack lost his bearings & later regained them & came upon the grave. It is situated on a hill side all alone in a section where no one will disturb it for there are no houses around.

The boys left me. I stood alone with my hat on– poured water on my hand then took out my book of hymns & said three. Then I said the Kaddish in the absence of my folks.”

It was the makeshift quality of Ike’s burial, and the difficulty in finding the grave-site that prompted him to make detailed maps of the two sights. And if the purpose of drawing is to use lines, tones and marks on a flat surface to convey thought and emotion, then I do not know anything more moving than these two drawings. My grandfather, devastated and totally helpless at the enormity of his loss, used the only thing in his immediate power, his artistic ability, to try and hold on to his dead brother. I have these maps pinned on my studio wall today.

My grandfather, the artist, acted instinctively and automatically in making his drawings. I have had the luxury of trying to frame an artistic response over time, and in peace and quiet. I knew right from the start that I would not be painting battlefield pictures, or trying to recreate experiences to which I had not experienced nor could never fully comprehend. While the reality of the trenches lies 80 years and four thousand miles away, I felt that the objects from the war that I found are before us right now to contemplate and to listen to. I thus formulated my response to this subject matter as a series of still life paintings.

I believe that these deeply moving objects are sentient, having a life of their own and a history to relate. Their story is encoded in their visual presence– their size, shape, proportion, color, texture and gesture. If you look at something attentively and humbly over a long period of time, as a painter must do, it speaks to you and tells you about itself. I can see if something was used gently or roughly, if it was ever dropped, or broken and then repaired. In laying out these objects on a table, I wanted to let the objects speak of the man who used them, and of his monumental experiences. So in the central painting in the series, the tiny journal, which my grandfather entitled “The Great War and Me”– thus defining his own small life in relation to this huge event– is at the center of the painting. Everything in the composition radiates around it, like planets in a constellation. A photo of Ike, and Ike’s recovered watch lie close by. The still life table contains the reconstituted parts of a man; the uniform is his chest–the medal his heart; the helmet, his skull– the gas mask his lungs; the mess kit, his stomach–the entrenching tool, his strong arm; the journal, his thought– and the watch, his very life’s pulse.

To paint these objects is to slowly sink into a sea of olive and drab, from which there is little relief. Only the red poppies and the medal ribbon grace the canvas with any flash of color. But anytime I felt overwhelmed in the presence of these objects, I tried to remind myself that contemplating them on a still-life table, no matter how unnerving, was only an echo of the reality of actually having had to use them. And my attitude towards them is respectful and thankful– all of the objects on the table helped keep men like my grandfather alive so that they could come home and have children and grandchildren.

My grandfather slept on rocks. In later life, he would find that trying to survive as an artist was as hard as sleeping on rocks, and a good deal more protracted. So I keep this journal by me because it speaks to me of courage and fortitude, and, like my way of painting, it ties me to my ancestors. I took Ike’s watch, and tapped it gently on the edge of the table, and all of a sudden it started–stunned out of it’s coma. It had regained it’s pulse and began to tick. I felt this to be the nature of this whole endeavor, to bring back to life objects, experiences, and men that had remained silent, stored away in a box, for so many years.