WWI in SD: Letters of Pvt. Herbert McKennett
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World War I era photo

Recently a series of photographs and letters were processed by the South Dakota State Historical Society. These were World War I era photographs and letters written by Webster native Private Herbert McKennett. Matthew Reitzel is a manuscript archivist with the society and joined us now to expand upon this donation.You may listen to this conversation in its entirety here.

Cara Hetland: Welcome to the In the Moment. I'm Cara Hetland, sitting today for Lori Walsh. Recently a series of photographs and letters were processed by the South Dakota State Historical Society. These were World War I era photographs and letters written by Webster native, Private Herbert McKennett. Matthew Reitzel is a manuscript archivist with the Society and is with us now to expand on this donation. Matthew, welcome back to In the Moment.

Matthew Reitzel: Thank you as always.

Cara Hetland: Thanks so much for taking the time. Who was Herbert McKennett?

Matthew Reitzel: Well, as you mentioned, he was a Webster native. Was born there, went to school in Webster. Then after that, he traveled to Canada to file for a homestead there, and that was shortly before World War I started. He enlisted with the Canadian Infantry, and then he was their basic training. Then over in Europe for World War I, he wrote a number of letters to his family, and we have some of those letters mostly dating from 1916 to 1917. It's just kind of general, what I would refer to as general solider letters home I guess. They were censored. Once he went over to Europe, the mail was censored. It kind of starts off with basic training letters, saying how much they're running all time ad things like that. Then, there's one short letter that basically just says, "I'm here. I made it."

Then after that, there's a collection of letters covering different topics. Because it's censored, I think they had to hold back a little bit I guess as far as what they could say about what was going on. As always, it mentions the weather, and I always wonder if that's a South Dakota thing, or if that's just because the censors would catch him otherwise. There's a lot of talk about the weather, and a lot soldiers and Mr. McKennett included received the local newspaper so they could read the newspaper and then write a letter back saying, "I heard about X, Y and Z in the paper." A lot of references to their family. Saying they got a letter from sister or Mom or something like that. Also, that they're receiving letters from other individuals who aren't their family, so it's not just the family who's corresponding with the soldiers. It's also other acquaintances they have from the area.

Cara Hetland: Are these all addressed to the same person, or are they just kind of scattered?

Matthew Reitzel: Most of them are to the family, either his mother or sometimes his sister. Usually it's in the same area in Webster though who got the letters.

Cara Hetland: Where did they come from?

Matthew Reitzel: Well, a lot of the times it's kind of addressed somewhere in France, and usually that's as much they could say, again because of the censoring and stuff like that. They're very interesting to read through. One of the advantages this collection has is when they were donated to us, before they can to the State Archives, the donor had transcribed them and we have a PDF document of all the letters transcribed. Instead of trying to read through all the letters, you can just see it digitally I guess.

Cara Hetland: Somebody typed it out word for word?

Matthew Reitzel: Yup. Typed it out. It just makes it easier to look through I guess when you're reading through the letters, and all the references he makes to various things. They're just interesting to read through because you'll go through and it will say, "We saw three German planes today, and we were shooting at them. Well, that's about it for now. Have a Merry Christmas." Something like that. There's just these brief references to what's going on around them. He makes reference to trench life I guess and how they're basically all buried in these trenches, and it's rainy and it's terrible out. There's just all kinds of references to things like that. The other thing too that I don't know if it's a South Dakota thing or not, but there's always this reference to agriculture. In one of his letters he writes, "You're probably getting ready to harvest now." He'll say, "They're doing this kind of stuff here," and what kind techniques they're using. He'll say, "This reminds me of southeastern South Dakota," or something like that, making references to that. It's just interesting to kind of take a look through and read.

Cara Hetland: How did you receive this collection? Where did that come from?

Matthew Reitzel: It was from a descendant of Herbert McKennett who had donated it to us. It's been about a year or so ago now I guess. That's normally how we get a lot of our collections. People just get a hold of us and say, "We have this stuff." Usually the conversation starts out with, "You probably have a lot of this," or, "You probably don't want this." A lot of times it's the kind of stuff we would be interested in. Because we've slowly been approaching the anniversary of the start and now the finish now of World War I, we have seen an increase in the number of World War I specific collections over the last five years or so.

We're averaging about two or three collections per year that we've gotten specifically concerning World War I. This year already we're only half-way through the year, we've gotten two that have come in and actually called, or I talked with a gentleman who was calling from Georgia last week. His great-grandfather had some ... was from South Dakota and he had these World War I letters and he was looking for a place for them. Hopefully they'll be on the way here soon. I think with all the stuff you guys have been doing, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, and I think they've been re-showing the Great War documentary on TV that they put together a while back. It's just something that's on everyone's mind I think, especially when people know that they have collections relating to World War I.

Cara Hetland: What does it look like, a censored letter? Is it that you can tell that they know somebody's reading it, or is there actually black-out on some of the pages?

Matthew Reitzel: For World War I, there isn't any black-out, but we have along with the letters, we also got the envelopes, which tell us a lot of the history of the correspondence as well. There's a sticker that's on them that says, censor and the censor's number I suppose. It just basically is a way to say this was looked at or looked over by somebody. I think that's the extent that they did for World War I.

Cara Hetland: They may not have let it go through if it wasn't to their approval?

Matthew Reitzel: Possibly. I've seen more World War II letters where there's a stamp with a censor and then like you said, if there's some part that they shouldn't be talking about, you'll see it blacked out or sometimes I've seen it also cut out of a letter. Sometimes they would be like ... photocopy it I guess and shrunk down. You see letters in all different kinds of ways I guess when the censors have looked through them. You can certainly tell that they're thinking about that as early as World War I. They don't want let anybody get this letter and know maybe where a company's position is or where they're amassing in a certain spot. Yeah.

Cara Hetland: Private McKennett served with the Canadian Battalion. You have a photo of his Battalion as well?

Matthew Reitzel: We do. It's him and all these other individuals. On the back, it lists them as the Canadian Black Devils, which I wouldn't think of Canadians and devils to be called together I guess, but you got to have some kind of tough name I guess when you're in a unit or a group. There's a few photos of him in his uniform, a few photographs of him when he was a child, like an infant and stuff, and then their family farm in Webster. Not a lot of photographs, but again, enough to where it's telling a story of Herbert. The main ending of the story unfortunately is that he was killed in France during World War I, and within the collection is the Western Union telegram that his mother receives basically saying that he was killed on this date.

He died August 21, 1917. He's buried in the Loof Bridge Cemetery in France, and that's spelled L-O-O-F. We have the telegram. We also have some photographs of his grave marker in the cemetery. If you can go online and actually, there's a number of ... He's actually in a British cemetery, but there's a number of British and American cemeteries overseas, and a lot of those are indexed. If you know of someone or someone has died from a certain a country overseas, they have a lot of indexes now online where you can find out where certain people are buried. He unfortunately was one of the soldiers who died during World War I. There's a story about it in the Webster newspaper. He was the first local area resident there of Webster who was killed in World War I. The American Legion post number 40 in Webster is named after him.

You get a lot of different things I guess when you get historical collections. There's the letters and the photograph. Then in this instance we have that telegram that his mother received, and then the pictures of his tombstone.

Cara Hetland: It tells you a complete story of him.

Matthew Reitzel: It does, for that time period. One of the main things we always try and emphasize when people are donating things, it's not so much the stuff, but it's the story behind the stuff, especially with letters because a lot of times they'll making references to ... They're corresponding with people who, they know who they're talking about so they can say, "I heard from Dale the other day." Everyone in the letter knows who Dale is, but if you're reading it now in 2018, you have no idea who that is. A lot of family though can still go through those and figure out, yeah, that was the neighbor two sections down or whatever, or the kid he played band in high school with or something like that. Any kind of historic context we can add to collections is always important and it just helps to bring that story more to life.

Cara Hetland: How deep do you dig to find the complete story when you receive a collection?

Matthew Reitzel: We try out best. This one was pretty straightforward. We had the letters and all the other things that said he he died. We had looked in the newspaper, Webster newspaper, which we have on microfilm here at the State Archives, and found the issue of the paper where it's listing. That was in September of 1917. On the front page of the Webster newspaper. There's a headline that says, "Somewhere in France, He Fell." Then, it talks about basically the memorial service they had for him that day and all the different speakers and everything that went on to commemorate and memorialize his death. There's a few different areas that we can look around for some things.

I know recently we got a collection, and I think it was just a photograph of a gentleman, and the people who donated knew a little bit about him, but they didn't know when he served or for how long. We could get some of that, but with letters, they're a little more intimate I guess, a little more personal, more family history kind of stuff just because of who they're talking with and the topics that they're talking about. We do have some resources here to kind of flush some of that stuff out.

Cara Hetland: Say if somebody finds old letters from World War I, do you prefer that they put things in order and get more of the backstory together before they give to you? Do you work with them together, or how does that ... What do you prefer?

Matthew Reitzel: We always prefer it's in a nice shiny box like that, and the whole history is written out. That would be perfect, if every collection came in that way. It just kind of depends because I think with collection I think it was one of the things where the family, is was almost like a family heirloom kind of thing. Everyone in the family knew about it. They were kept intact, and like I said, it was transcribed. I think they were kept pretty well, and some of the ... The donor knew some of the family history behind them, so there was more connection to it. Whereas, sometimes we get things where it's a son or daughter, a niece or a nephew or a cousin who just comes in and says, "I got this stuff. It's World War I. I know who it's from." That's about it. We're interested in both, like you said. As much as we can get beforehand, that's always helpful for us, but we have the ability to do a little research and see what else we can find.

Cara Hetland: Private McKennett was how old when he died?

Matthew Reitzel: About 23, 23 years of age.

Cara Hetland: Okay. Probably never married. He went off to start a life and then the war started.

Matthew Reitzel: Yup. The material, the donation, the donated materials that came from the family were through one of Herbert's siblings, and they kind of went down the family line that way. That's how they eventually ended up here.

Cara Hetland: Okay. Other interesting collections that you have that you would want to share with us right now?

Matthew Reitzel: Well, like I said, we have had an increase of some World War I related items. Those include some collections we've gotten, more correspondence and stuff and photographs of the individuals, but we also get pamphlets and brochures, like "You're In the Army Now" kind of stuff. Let's us know more about them. Within a collection we received this year, there was a pay book I guess that kind of explained how they were getting paid and how much and when. We're always trying find things. We can't collect everything from one person. That would be great if we could I guess. We try and with all these different collections start to piece together different things that each soldier would have had in common I guess, and trying to see what we can explain about South Dakotans and World War I.

That is a wide array of things. We're always happy to get things like that, or have people contact at the State Archives, but I always like to say too, there are other historical societies, museums, libraries, archives throughout South Dakota who would probably also be very interested in this kind of material too. If someone has a collection of World War I letters specifically but any kind of historical materials that relate to the state of South Dakota, you can always contact the State Historical Society or even someone local who might have an interest in that kind of stuff. Kind of what I alluded to earlier, I think the assumption is always that no one has an interest in this kind of stuff, but there's a lot of people who do. There are places throughout the state where people can donate materials of historic importance of our state.

Cara Hetland: Given that these items are 100 years old or so, what kind of shape are they in?

Matthew Reitzel: They're in relatively good shape considering. I hope I can say the same for whenever I turn 100 I guess. The photographs are actually in really good shape. Photos from that time period tend to last pretty well as long as they're not messed with too frequently I guess. I know the one photo of his regiment, it's a larger image. It's a 11 by 15, and that has some cracks and dings and stuff like that just because it's a larger image, so it's kind of more susceptible to damage. Where the letters, they're just in the envelope, and there they sit, so they tend to be relatively okay. The one trouble I tend to see more with letter is when people are opening them and then they unfold them and fold them and unfold them and refold them. That creates a wear part there in the picture, and then get tears and things like that if they get looked at too much over time. Like anything, anytime you handle stuff, people are more apt to have some kind of accident that happens, or something gets spilled or torn or who knows what.

I mean, they're in relatively good condition. A lot of them are written in pencil. You can still read them. It's more of just being able to decipher what the person is writing and how to read handwriting and cursive and stuff like that, what they're referencing. I know in his letters, he makes a lot of reference to Fritz. Fritz is airplanes and Fritz is guns. Well, he means Germans, but he's saying Fritz. You kind of have to have that understanding- of what they're ... the context of what they're saying, and sometimes that's easily figured out and sometimes it's not. Yeah.

Cara Hetland: Okay. Matthew Reitzel, I want to think you for taking time and coming on the program.

Matthew Reitzel: Well, thank you. I very much appreciate it.