The writings of an F&M graduate provide a window to the Great War
Shells fell right up to the end.
“About 5 minutes of 11 a dud fell near,” J. Reah Hollinger wrote in his diary. “War stopped at 11. Wounded came in until 2. Went up to front lines & crossed over & talked to Boche.”
The “Boche” were German soldiers who, hours before, were firing on Hollinger and his mates in the U.S. Army, and whose missile at 10:55 a.m., had it exploded, could have ended his life. It was Nov. 11, 1918—a Monday—and 23-year-old Hollinger, a 1917 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, was caring for the wounded with the 28th Infantry Division’s 111th Army Ambulance Company.
Hollinger—“Beeper” to his classmates—appeared in the 1917 F&M yearbook Oriflamme as a dapper, bookish young gent with round spectacles, a smirking grin, and passion for literature, bacteria and trombones. He was one among 161 Lancaster men—many of them F&M graduates—who joined the National Guard medical unit under Brig. General Charles P. Stahr; were mustered into the Army; and sent to France in May 1918, seeing several months of hard service as front-line orderlies before the war ground to a halt.
Years after the war ended, Hollinger—retired from a career that included working in his father’s store, J.P Hollinger’s Grocery at 227 N. Prince St., and serving 10 years as business manager for Lancaster Theological Seminary—recounted that final day of hostilities to Lancaster Newspapers columnist Jack Brubaker in 1992.
Hollinger said he had chatted with two Alsatian soldiers who’d been impressed into the German army. He traded socks for sauerkraut, which reminded him of home.
Reah Hollinger passed away in 1996 at the age of 101, but his experience has once again come alive. His daughter, Barbara, a former F&M employee, recently loaned her father’s photographs, documents and diaries to the College’s Archives and Special Collections to provide resources for F&M’s marking of the World War I Centenary.
The photos show that same young man from the yearbook, now hardened by his experiences overseas. Photos—worn, but well cared for—show Hollinger and his comrades in training and in trenches. In one he stands proudly at attention, rifle in hand, those same round spectacles perched on his face, in baggy trousers and gleaming black boots. In another, he runs across a battlefield with a wounded man on his back.
Others show scenery, monuments—the sort of snaps any sightseer in France might take—as well as pals lounging around camp, boxing, airing their tents, digging shelters, posing in shell craters, dreaming of home.
‘It’s Up to Us to Win the War’
Hollinger’s diaries reveal his daily routine. It wasn’t so bad at first. He arrived in New York at 5 a.m. Sunday, May 12, and Camp Mills, Long Island, a few hours later.
“Taxi trip to N.Y. with the boys,” he wrote three days later. “Chased around the town.” He slept most of the day Thursday, then was back in New York “seeing the show at the Winter Garden. Al Jolson in Sinbad.”
On Saturday, he strode onto a camouflaged Union-Castle liner, one of nineteen ships boarding troops that day.
“Pulled out to Statue of Liberty,” he remarked the next day. “Not allowed on deck. Very stuffy down below. Plum duff for dinner. Eng. cooks are pretty poor.” A day later, it was stewed figs. “Also English. Feeling a little sick.”
Food often dominated his thoughts. “Stewed cat for dinner,” he wrote one day. “Maybe rabbit.”
He wrote about seeing porpoises, rough seas, needing a bath. On May 28, the ship had a submarine scare—but it turned out to be a floating barrel.
On May 30, they spied land, steamed down the North Channel in a destroyer convoy to Liverpool, then took the train cross-country to Southampton. On June 1, he wrote: “Rest camp. Good place. Took clothes off first time since May 17. Bath, etc.” He found a canteen and bought an ale, then “walked around the park looking the ladies over.” Then he turned his attention to the war. “Transport Abe Lincoln sunk. It’s up to us to win the war, for the British are at an end.”
With that thought, Hollinger on June 2 boarded “a small side wheeler” for the crossing to France. “Boat was so crowded that there was no room to lie down or even sit. Got a place to sleep on floor when rats chased another fellow away.”
He disembarked at 2 a.m. and marched to camp. The next several days consisted of travel, by foot and rail, sleeping when he could—sometimes along the road or in a barn. He saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance. He began learning French.
Air Raids and Shellfire
In the months that followed, Hollinger moved a lot, from camp to camp, often within earshot of gunfire at the front. “Big shell burst nearby,” he wrote July 25. “Big air battle took place overhead.” That night, he slept in a stable “in dirty straw full of horse manure.”
He loafed when he could, played music and critiqued his food. “Peach shortcake: Canned peaches, evap. milk & biscuits.” He watched a village burn near the front lines. Saw observation balloons shot down. A plane fell to the earth; he didn’t say whose. He sheltered in dugouts through air raids and shellfire. Talked with wounded German soldiers. Helped bury the dead.
Hollinger penned little about his medical duties beyond noting ambulance assignments and bearing litters. “Handled some bad…wounds and had some die on our hands,” he scrawled on Aug. 17. “Bit shaky.”
On Sept. 5, he said the Army had advanced past Fismes and ambulances were busy evacuating “beaucoup blesse” (many injured; sometimes Hollinger wrote in French). The next day, he made four trips to Coincy with “badly wounded,” driving in darkness, without headlights, to escape detection. On Oct. 1, he drove down a corduroy (log) road “over what had been No Man’s Land for 4 years. Got stuck for a while in mud.” On Oct. 2, someone stole his coat while he was in the latrine.
Although the war ended Nov. 11, Hollinger still had eight months of service ahead. His days were varied—he played soccer, played the bugle in a band, and partied at the shoemaker’s.
He took classes at a French university and performed with a local orchestra. A few days after the shoemaker’s hoedown, he walked to town and found a bed in an empty house, struggling to keep warm. Many days he “called on sick” or “visited man with bad feet.” On March 29, 1919, he “received word of death of mother.”
On June 1, Hollinger boarded USS Henderson, a ship bound for home. It wasn’t a great voyage for old Beeper. “Good grub,” he wrote June 2. “Rocked a bit. Lost supper.”
By June 10, fate took a turn. “Feeling fair. Meals rotten. Eating cold canned beans and candy.” The next day, Hollinger was philosophical. “Existing,” he wrote.
The ship sighted land on Friday, June 13. The soldiers disembarked, were deloused and received new clothes. Hollinger was examined, inspected and relieved of equipment. On June 19, he gave up his blankets and mess kit, received discharge pay totaling $91 and headed to New York City.
That’s all he wrote.
College Marks World War I Centenary
Courses and lectures, artwork and films—the Franklin & Marshall community has plenty of opportunities to explore the history and ongoing impact of the Great War.
“Because World War II dominates the American cultural imagination, World War I has often been forgotten,” explains Jennifer Redmann, associate professor and chair of German and Russian and member of the WWI steering committee. “And yet, the First World War shaped the course of the 20th century. Harsh peace provisions enacted against Germany in 1919 contributed to the rise of the Nazi party and the outbreak of World War II twenty years later; the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires fell, and the map of the world was redrawn, with battles over borders in the Middle East continuing today.”
Activities at F&M this fall include two exhibits, “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women & Work in World War I” and “Building Memory: Architecture & the Great War,” at the Phillips Museum of Art. A special production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set during the Great War era, took place at Roschel Performing Arts Center. Jay Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University and F&M’s 2014-15 Mueller Fellow, provided a transnational perspective on the war at the Oct. 30 Common Hour.
Redmann says nearly 100 students are taking classes to sharpen their focus on the war era. “World War I: The War to End All Wars” is a team-taught course coordinated by Redmann, spotlighting the political, social and cultural life of the combatant nations. Other courses dissect the era’s literature, art, poetry and film, the war’s impact on American politics and German culture, and architectural interpretations of the war.
The series culminates March 28 with “Perspectives on the Great War in the 21st Century,” a Central Pennsylvania Consortium Joint Conference featuring Jenny Waldman, creative producer for the 2012 London Olympics cultural festival and official director of Britain’s commemorative program for World War I.
“We hope the commemoration will spark in students a curiosity and desire to learn more about a critical moment in world history, one that continues to resonate today,” Redmann says.
Visit go.fandm.edu/wwi for more information on centenary events.