In a chicken coop like place

I’ve seen movies and television shows that were set during World War I, but it still amazes me how relatively primitive things were in the early 20th century. That came back to me when I started perusing a diary kept by Oscar Sandell, who served with the Ambulance Corps  in France with the American Expeditionary Forces. He did not see any action but served as an orderly and later a chauffeur for the officers at a base hospital.

Oscar Sandell's diary, with an entry about landing at Harvre, France, in January 1918.

Oscar Sandell’s diary, with an entry about landing at Harvre, France, in January 1918.

When he arrived at Havre on January 11, 1918, he wrote “stayed at rest camp over night Lived in a chicken coop like place, all lying side by side. No windows or floors in the place. Open on one side like the old places folkes [sic] used for shelter for horses & wagons at churches.” Nearly every day in January it seems to have rained and the only way to keep warm was by the fire or the wood stove–evidently no central heating. Oscar went in to town to buy lamp chimneys (oil or kerosene lamps, I presume), although they did have flashlights. In the evenings, he mentions listening to “the talking machine.”  On February 21 he received his gas mask. Transportation was also an issue. The troops still used horses so he went horse back riding. He had a puncture in his tire and no extra tubes with which to repair the flat so he drove back on the rims (no spare tire, either, I suppose).

Oscar Sandell may have drawn this cartoon about his experiences with the Ambulance Corps in World War I.

Oscar Sandell may have drawn this cartoon about his experiences with the Ambulance Corps in World War I.

With the centennial of the Great War approaching, it is timely that we should acquire the diary and some of the other souvenirs Sandell collected in France. I will no doubt be writing more about the war as the anniversary approaches, highlighting other items in the CHS collection.

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About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

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