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An Olean soldier and his view of World War I

NONFICTION

Somewhere In France:  the World War I Letters and Journal of Private Frederick A. Kittleman

By Thomas J. Schaeper

State University Of New York Press

141 pages, $16.95

Professor of history Thomas J. Schaeper of Saint Bonaventure University has achieved a stellar place in the annals of writing about the history of war. He does this with his excellent book “Somewhere In France” which shows that all war is, in the end,  a story of the "quick and the dead," the personal and local.

World War I ran from 1914 to 1918, with the United States taking part starting in 1917. It was advertised as the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. Instead, its murderous efficiency used modern technology that enabled it to be more brutal than any earlier conflict. “Somewhere” is the 100-year-old story of Frederick A. Kittleman of Olean, a kid who was thrust into war by world events of which he had little understanding in February 1918. (The title of the book is a reference to the army’s blotting out all reference of troop movements in letters home that might aid the enemy.)

Kittleman’s existence came to Schaeper’s attention in 1983, when an unknown man cleaning his attic dropped off a box of papers on the circulation desk of the St. Bonaventure library. The papers were those of Kittleman ("Fred" as Schaeper calls him after his introduction), letters and journal of his war experience. As our author relates, “these letters paint a vivid portrait of a common man, one who did not rise to become an army general or a captain of industry.” Schaeper continues, “But Fred Kittleman clearly was honest, thoughtful, funny, and brave. In short, someone well worth remembering.”

Fred quit high school before graduation to take a job on the railroad. He had to do this because of his parents’ divorce and father’s absence from home. Schaeper gives us a careful explanation of how World War I started, shows how doughboys knew of the grand picture, and he does it all with a sense of balance, understatement, and good sense.

Fred Kittleman (1898–1976) of Olean, our author relates, is almost like someone in “It’s a Wonderful Life” with James Stewart. His letters and journal were written from the time he left home until the spring of 1919, as he was about to return to America.

Schaeper says they let us know what it was like to be an ordinary private. Fred was patriotic, eager to “get a crack” at the Germans. After fighting he noted that he had seen “all the action any sane man could want.” Fred didn’t write everything that happened because he didn’t want to frighten his mother and family. Initially, he was assigned to the 304th Field Artillery, which was part of the 77th Division.  This is the same Division of New York Army draftees in World War II that my uncle, John E. (Babe) Laffey (1916 – 1962) of Lackawannawas assigned to.

Fred traveled by train with other recruits to Camp Upton on Long Island. It was one of a number of camps built hurriedly as the United States hustled to enter the war. Irving Berlin, a 29-year-old private with scads of money from his songwriting, was already at the camp as a draftee. Fred’s first job was bugler. He didn’t want the family to be worried about him. He wrote home to assure his mother that he was getting plenty to eat. He asked for  “a few cent stamps and one good pencil,” concluding “Mother we can’t kick at all about the way they treat us we get three square meals a day and a good little cot at night what more could a man want?”

Soon Fred found out that more was wanted.

Britain and France were desperate for the United States to send “men, men, men” to Europe as quickly as possible, Schaeper writes. Troops traveled to Europe on what had been a German ship docked in Hoboken called The SS Vaterland (Fatherland). It was quickly renamed the USS Leviathan.

Overseas and in the thick of it, Fred ended up in the hospital with a strain of influenza. He earlier felt the effects of being gassed but didn’t say anything about it and stayed at his post. He wrote home from France on Oct. 31, 1918,

“We are doing our part in this war and doing it with a smile that the Huns can’t take off. We have seen a lot of fighting and hard at it, and … know how happy we are when we are told to move ahead.”

There may have been many bad things about “the good old days,” but a young man like Fred who could write to his mother every day, sign off to his brother Harry “with loads of love” and address his younger sister Helen as “my dear little sister” from 4,000 miles away, had a lot going for him as a man whose sensibilities had been sharpened by war.

Years later, Fred tried to enlist for World War II at age 45, but was turned down. He lived a generally happy life as an active member of his Catholic parish with his wife Lucinda, children and grandparents. Fred was just an ordinary man, we are told, “But his kindness his conviviality, his love of family and friends, his bravery, and his devotion to his country marked him as extraordinary,” Schaeper concludes..

Michael D. Langan writes reviews for The Buffalo News.

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