Monday, September 10, 2012

Featured Manuscript: 1917 Postcard

My name's Hunter Stires.  I'm a 15 year old rising high school sophomore with a keen interest in American History.  I'm honored to have been invited to blog for the Lloyd W. Smith Archives.
This month's featured manuscript is a 1917 postcard written from the Western Front to Albany, NY during the First World War.  It's amazing what can be discovered from such an innocuous piece of paper.

Initially, the identity of the postcard's sender was difficult to ascertain.  While his message was fairly simple to read, both signatures were written in somewhat flamboyant calligraphy.  Here's a transcript of his note back home:

LWS 677

My Dear Friends: _
            On the Battlefield of the Marne,
in a corner of a French artillery camp,
tucked away in a small room I
am writing these few lines by the
dim and flaring light of a candle
just to let you know that I am
well and thinking of my friends back in

LWS 677

Albany whom I feel
it an honor to represent
at the Front.
            Time and the censor
forbid my writing more

            Bonne nuit!
                        Faithfully yours
                                    [Flamboyant signature here]

After some scrutiny, his last name appeared to be “Cochrane.”  While this was a crucial piece of evidence, more information would be required to find out who he was.  His first two initials appeared to be “W.D.” and his signature was followed by “M.R.C.” (I'll spare you the details of the time and effort chasing down the red herring that was “W.D.”.  It turned out to be “H.D.”).  In addition, several previously unrecognizable scribbles in the “Reply to” section soon revealed themselves to be an abbreviation of “Major” as well as the line, “7th Regt. C.A.”  Let the sleuthing begin.

Harold Duncan Cochrane was a doctor from Albany, NY who, according to an article he wrote in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1919, served in the railway artillery as a regimental surgeon and then the surgeon for the entire division.  Officially, he was a Major in the Medical Reserve Corps (M.R.C.), an organization of medical doctors who would be called up to serve with the Army in the event of war.  Major Cochrane wrote his postcard on September 20, 1917 from a French artillery camp.  Since American combat troops didn't arrive at the Western Front until October of that year, Cochrane appears to have been among the first American servicemen to reach the front lines.

Major Cochrane served with the Railway Artillery, a military innovation that was fairly unique to World War I.  Large caliber guns were taken from battleships and coastal defense installations (“C.A.” stands for “Coast Artillery”) and mounted on railroad cars.  These weapons were far more mobile than older, fixed heavy artillery.  Since artillery was a very valuable asset for obliterating trenches and other fortifications, commanders would have to move their guns quickly and often to keep the enemy from finding and destroying them.  With railroad artillery, generals had at their disposal the power of a battleship almost anywhere along the front lines.

Cochrane's article in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy dealt with the logistical issues of getting the wounded back to evacuation hospitals, and he wrote extensively about his experiences with the railroad artillery in other publications as well.

Cochrane also mentions his location as being on the “battlefield of the Marne.”  While this phrase makes it seem like he's in combat, history tells us that the two large-scale offensives that took place there were in 1914 and 1918, respectively.  Since the First Battle of the Marne stopped the German advance towards Paris and marked the beginning of the infamous stalemate and trench warfare that defined the conflict, Cochrane was giving his reader a reference point that was probably well-known at the time.

Cochrane used YMCA stationary to write his September 20 postcard.  When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the YMCA volunteered to run the post exchange for the American Expeditionary Force (the U.S. troops fighting in France).  Among the responsibilities  involved with this critical role was selling or making available to the troops candy, cigarettes and other personal items, including postcards.

Cochrane's card is housed in the Lloyd W. Smith Archives Collection at Morristown National Historical Park.

This post was written by guest blogger, Hunter Stires.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! Very well researched and written. Thanks Hunter!

    Anne DeGraaf
    Morristown NHP