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The Whitehurst Diaries: An unlikely soldier, Lawrence Henry Ross

Writer Sharon Whitehurst sends this story with a note that it is similar to stories countless American families have a a family member whose supreme sacrifice is still remembered. It's for Veterans Day. Any Veterans Day and a story which should be read now - and if not, bookmarked to read later, to appreciate the work of this remarkable literary talent of this wonderful Adair Countian by Choice

See also: JIM: Letters from Doughboys (1918-1919

By Sharon Whitehurst

I read with interest the CM article referencing the letters home from military service penned by local veterans. I was prompted to re-read the letters of my great uncle, Lawrence Ross, a casualty of WWI. That phrase, "somewhere in France," heads his letters written to the family between March, 1918 and the last ones written in July, 1918 just before his death in the Second Battle of The Marne.

I read them, of course, with the fore-knowledge of his death, feeling the heartache of his hopes to return home, marry, to again pick up his violin and make music with the family.

Great Uncle Lawrence was one of the few men in my family to see active service, and in recent years I have spent a quiet few moments each November 11th reflecting on his life and death and their impact on my Mother's family. I first read the letters as a teenager, my interest in history fed with historical novels and the rather dry memorization of dates and events which were standard fare in high school.

The letters disappeared for decades. When my Mother inquired of her brother as to their location he cannily replied that they were in 'a safe place.' After his death we found the bundle of letters in an old trunk in my Uncle Bill's crowded bedroom.

A few years before her death Mother had the letters mimeographed. I received them in a bulky package shipped to my Wyoming address. I read through them again, this time with an adult appreciation.

In the long Wyoming winter of 2007 I undertook the transcription of the letters. The originals had mostly been in pencil or an ink that had faded.

Uncle Lawrence's face was familiar to me as a formal portrait of him in full military dress hung on a wall of my grandparent's parlor.

My Mother spoke of him always as someone she had known and loved--although his death occurred in the year before she was born.

Through the slow process of transcribing the letters a personality emerged to enhance the family photos of Lawrence--from the first one as a squirming toddler on his mother's knee, a bespectacled boy appearing to pose reluctantly as part of a family group, a dapper young man with father, half-brother, cousin; a faded and darkened 'Brownie' snapshot of him with the girl he hoped to marry.

In 2009 I created a series of blog posts with excerpts edited from Lawrence's letters, supplemented by news notes of the time, family stories, family photos. In revisiting those postings this morning I find that I am once again in the grip of the life and death of a soldier--unknown except to his family and friends.

Still, his story, his letters, could be those of almost any man drafted [or enlisted] into almost any war in history. The details of time and place and family change, the impact does not.

Lawrence Henry Ross was an unlikely soldier

Lawrence Henry Ross was an unlikely soldier. His letters give no hint of his political interests or his thoughts on America's involvement in the war prior to his call up for the draft. Rather, the letters convey a testy astonishment, a sense of disbelief that he has actually been herded onto a train bound for Camp Devens, MA, and amazement that he has passed the physical exams and been issued a uniform. He even entertained the idea, rather dramatically expressed, that a swift death would be more welcome than enduring basic training!

Lawrence grew up in his maternal grandfather's comfortable white farmhouse, in a small Adirondack town where the family name had appeared on the census each decade since the first formal listing in 1790. His great grandfather was described as "a prosperous farmer" with a variety of business interests.

Lawrence's mother died when he was less than two months short of his second birthday, her life bleeding away in the painful hours following the birth of her third child. The woman Lawrence loved and called "Mother" was the quiet girl who came to help his grandmother care for the motherless children and became in due time his father's second wife.

His childhood was seemingly uneventful. School, church, a closely knit neighborhood and extended family framed his boyhood years.

As he grew into young manhood the news notes of the local paper began to reference him: he taught a Sunday School class; he played the violin; his sisters were both accomplished pianists, his uncle and cousin next door played the banjo. The whole family sang with a natural gift for harmony. They made music for church services and provided entertainment at Echo Mountain Hall--the social center run by the local graphite mine works. Never a handsome fellow with his noticeable ears and thick spectacles, he was always well dressed and dapper. His was a serious nature, but he understood good clean fun.

By the time Lawrence registered for the draft in June, 1917, his grandparents had passed away and his parents, his older sister and brother-in-law had moved to the Vermont side of Lake Champlain where they purchased a farm. News notes indicate that he helped with the move during the winter of 1914, and made frequent visits to the new family home.

He was employed as a 'clerk' in the Ticonderoga, N.Y. firm of Wood and Barton.

The Ticonderoga Sentinel
Forrest Wood owned a Maxwell Touring Car and Lawrence often served as his chauffeur on both pleasure and business trips.

I treasure a photo which shows Lawrence with several family members and the local school teacher--who boarded with them--all installed in the open car, ready for an outing.

Induction whisked Lawrence from shelter world of kinfold & the familiary

Induction into the army whisked Lawrence from a sheltered world of kinfolk and familiar places into the coarse, teeming, noisy, frantic scramble of a half-built military encampment.

News references of the day and later published recollections testify to the extreme cold of the winter of 1917-1918.

The rambling barracks hastily constructed at Camp Devens in Ayer, MA were mere wooden shells, unheated and drafty through much of the winter.

Lawrence suffered from the cold: his chronic "catarrh" plagued him; he had been afflicted with psoriasis for years, and the rough wool of his uniform tormented his raw skin; his draft registration card notes an injured right hand--the tips of two fingers missing and his thumb stiff from a childhood accident.

He was a good marksman

Lawrence found that in spite of his dependence on thick spectacles he was a good marksman, and in his letters he describes the long hours of drill. He took a certain pleasure in the care of his rifle. When barked at by the sergeant for his slower than usual speed in shooting off a round one frigid morning, he could only hold up his mutilated hand, barely flexible. His handwriting, never graceful, deteriorated to an uneven scrawl on such days. Often he had to put a letter aside unfinished with the comment that his hand was too stiff to hold a pencil. He was sent for an interview with his commanding officer, who declared that Lawrence's experience as a chauffeur would qualify him for transfer to a motor unit. Lawrence waited for the anticipated change, but the orders never came through.

The camp was quarantined for measles. Lawrence didn't have measles but he wasn't allowed weekend leave to visit his family. He and his fiancee, Letha, struggled with the decision whether to marry during wartime or wait until his hoped for return to civilian life.

As the interminable winter dragged toward a muddy spring, the decision was taken out of Lawrence and Letha's hands. After weeks of anticipating his "orders" suddenly Lawrence was bundled onto a train, destination unknown. He shortly found himself on a troop ship, headed for France--there was no chance for a last visit home.

In spite of his resentment of the war's intrusion on his comfortable life, Lawrence's letters often displayed a wry sense of humor. That he was most terribly homesick is very evident. His was a nature that craved order, cleanliness and quiet. He wrote longingly of home-cooked meals, of remembered family gatherings. He spoke hopefully of a time when he would again make music with his father, his sisters and his cousins.

He saved up details which he couldn't commit to a censored letter, promising that when he returned "home" he would have tales to tell.

From "Somewhere in France" he wrote almost breezily of battles, of lice, of trains, of temporary "camps."

An unwilling soldier, he seemed to have settled to his assignment in a machine gunnery unit, determined to "be a man."

He wondered why letters didn't catch up to him; he scrawled a list of small items, toiletries and such, that he hoped the family could purchase and send.

He died 1 Aug 1918, in the Second Battle of the Marne

Lawrence died on 1 August, 1918 when a shell landed in the trench where he was stationed with his machine gun crew.

Eventually the family would learn that he had taken part in the Second Battle of the Marne. His bleeding body was carried to the First Aide Station by a young man who lived a few miles down the dirt road from the Vermont farm where Lawrence's parents lived, a man whose eyes filled with tears as he gave account of that incident to my Mother a few years before his own death.

We wonder, as do all families who lose a loved one to war, how different things might have been if Lawrence had lived, come home to marry Letha, raise children, go on singing and playing his fiddle.

In one of his final letters he declared that he would "Come home a man!" He didn't come home, but I believe that before he died, he had come to terms with himself and with his role as a soldier. He left home for Camp Devens a rather self-absorbed and sheltered young man; his dreams for his life couldn't be fulfilled. One of too many thousands, he was a man who didn't come home.

At the memorial service held in his home church, his cousin and employer, F.B. Wood, declared, "I have never known a more conscientious man."

This story was posted on 2015-11-12 06:50:10
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