War and Remembrance: From a farm in Iowa to The Great War

by Gerald Frantzen  May 29, 2017


Our 2017 season of War and Remembrance is one that I hold very close to my dheart. The year 2017 is the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War, or, as it is commonly known in Europe, The Great War. The effect of the war upon artists,musicians and writers and the subsequent effect it had upon their artistic output has long fascinated me.

My interest in The Great War came in a rather roundabout way. In 1996, I was cast in an Ohio Light Opera production of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. Two great things happened that summer: I met my future wife (I knew she would be the first week I met her) and I developed an outsized love for operetta and the world it inhabited.Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, was based on French playwright Henri Meilhac’s 1861 comedy L’attaché d’ambassade. The story was adapted by the Viennese writers Victor Leon and Leo Stein. The title character is a rich countess from the fictitious, poor duchy of Pontevedro. Her country’s leaders are eager that she marries one of their own so that her fortune will remain in Pontevedro, and keep the country from financial collapse. Pontevedro was modeled after Montenegro, a small Balkan nation. I soon became fascinated by the region and its intricate geopolitical arrangements. Just north of Montenego was the Austro-Hunagarian Empire, itself composed of many distinct, and not always harmonious provinces. I began researching some of the these Hapsburg province I had never heard of before such as: Bukovina, Carinthia, Carniola, Galicia, Kustenland, Lower Austria, Moravia, Styria, Silesia, and Vorariberg. (This might say more about my Iowa school education than anything else.) I was intrigued by the influence that these provinces had on the music of the Viennese School of Operetta.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the former Hapsburg Empire was a kingdom in continuous flux. It was unified in 1867 as the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which it remained until the end of World War 1 in 1918. Its Emperor Franz Joseph ruled as the leader of a dual monarchy that had two governing bodies: one for the Austrians in Vienna and one for the Hungarians in Budapest. The Emperor maintained a somewhat “nervous” control over this loose confederation of provinces. It was from these provinces, however, that Viennese operetta composers drew their inspiration, cultivating and incorporating provincial stories and songs into their music. The many distinctive traits of these provinces no longer resonate in today’s world. Indeed, most of the provinces are hard to find on the current European map. What happened to them lies within the story of The Great War, the last war of European Kings and arguably the most consequential event of 20th Century. The Great War not only changed the map of the world but also the fate of Viennese operetta. It was the catalyst that led to the eventual demise of the genre. The unavoidable Second World War assured that its flame would be extinguished once and for all. As I continued my research, my interest in both subjects grew more and more – I was hooked.

Johnny McCarville 1918

Johnny McCarville 1918

As a young child I had heard a few stories about my great uncle Johnny McCarville and his experiences in The First World War. Johnny was one of four brothers who ran the McCarville farm in the vicinity of Lourdes, Iowa. One approached the McCarville farmhouse from a dirt farm lane framed by a grove of pine trees that acted as a barrier to the Northwind. The road itself seemed to disappear into the western horizon. A row of poplar trees, like the ones you might find in Tuscany, framed the southern fields of the farm. I can still remember the blowing and shimmering leaves of the poplar trees on those hot, humid summer days. The breeze also carried that distinctive smell you can only find on an Iowa farm. A large dairy barn, the heart of the farm, sat perched on a hill, where it took on the character of a lighthouse that you might find on the Atlantic shoreline. As the evening sun set I often imagined that if I ever were to go beyond the barn I would fall off the edge of the world. At night, exhausted from playing outside all day with my brothers and sisters, we were sent upstairs to bed in the old farmhouse. Our bedrooms were assigned according to the direction they faced. The West room, which afforded the best view of the farm, was Johnny’s room. It looked like it had not been touched since the 1950’s.

Up until this time, the four brother’s life had been centered on the farm, with the exception of attending church and throwing the occasional social dance up in the big dairy barn. An elderly woman, whom I had met a few years back in an Elma, Iowa nursing home, told me that she remembers the dances vividly. On one occasion she witnessed a drunken farmer who got the worse end of shovel courtesy of my Uncle Ally. She was very fond of him and remembered “his beautiful blue eyes.” She later added that it was a “shame that neither he nor Johnny ever married-they could have had any girl they wanted.”

Johnny, my Grandfather Athonasius (Nig), my great Uncles Alphonsus (Ally) and Phillip, were all of draft age when the U.S. declared war in 1917. The Selective Service Act called for large numbers of young men to be drafted as part of the U.S. War machine. Johnny and Phil enlisted in the Army at the Cresco, Iowa courthouse. In 1917 farming still required a lot of manpower so it was necessary to have large families to work the land. Nearly 33% of the men from ages 18 to 30 were farmers when the war broke out. How many of them were versed in the problems of the world at the time is unknown. Over 30% of the new recruits were illiterate.

In the book “Pershing’s Crusaders” by Richard S. Faulkner, the number of illiterate soldiers was discovered almost by accident as a by-product of psychological testing. The use of Psychology, a new and evolving field at the time, was an attempt to increase the efficiency of moving soldiers through the training camps and also a stamp of approval, according to Faulkner, for “the era’s belief in Social Darwinism and the “scientific management” of workers.” The Army issued mental tests to over 1.7 million men in an attempt to ascertain a man’s suitability for fighting, leadership and following commands. It was an attempt at efficiency, the marriage of science and social understanding, and a quick way to put together an Army. It was an attempt to link intelligence with man’s ability to fight.

The testing also revealed who could read and who could not. According to Faulkner, men from the East and Northeast fared better on these exams than men from the Midwest and South. The more competent ones were made into officers, which didn’t always translate into greater leadership abilities. Reading excerpts of some of the questions today is enough to make your head spin. One question Faulkner excerpted was “A certain division contains 3,000 artillery, 15,000 infantry, and 1,000 cavalry. If each branch is expanded proportionally until there are in all 20,900 men, how many will be added to the artillery?” – a tough question for anyone let alone an illiterate farmer.

Johnny’s Draft Card

Beyond the draft, why join the army? The appeal of joining the Army in 1917 took on many different forms. For some young men, enlisting in the army was a way to get away from under the tedium of farming. Many soldiers signed on for the great adventure and their deep seeded belief in the cause of democracy. But for others it is believed that many of them who enlisted had no true idea of what they were fighting for beyond the notion that it was their patriotic duty and that they didn’t wanted to be labeled cowards. Whether or not my Uncles fell into the latter category I have no idea. Both Johnny and Phil could read and write so there was much better chance that they would have known something about the war and its implications.

Great Uncle Johnny, the brother with the most farm skills, was in essence my great-grandfather’s “right hand man” and likely successor to taking over the farm. The decision of who was to stay or join the Army would have been a family decision; one that I suspect must have been deeply agonizing for my great grandparents. Since Johnny and Phil were the two oldest their enlistment allowed my Grandfather and great Uncle Ally to remain in Iowa and tend to the farm. The decision to send Johnny and Phil thus can be viewed as directly related to the needs of the family. And because the draft boards were of a local origin, the needs of a family would have been taken into consideration. (This was one of the better decisions made by the government, as it took the power of decision making out of federal hands and allowed the needs of a community to be addressed.)

President Woodrow Wilson viewed this localization as a way of making it seem that a soldier was “volunteering” to join the Army. According to Faulkner local boards “ granted over 76 percent of deferment requests that they received.”According to copies of their draft cards, both Anthonasius and Phil requested a deferment based on their need to stay behind and take care of their parents. Exemptions weren’t necessarily hard to come by with local draft boards as long as a need could be proven. The registration field officer turned them both down. Johnny’s denial simply stated that his “Mother wasn’t depressed.”

The Cresco, Iowa draft board would have known about the McCarville family and their living situation during the outbreak of the war.Having to make a choice between the four brothers was almost biblical in its demand for sacrifice. It certainly was a heavy and depressing situation for my great grandparents. Could this be the reason behind Johnny’s attempt at exemption? It seems plausible that my great grandmother would have been depressed. I wonder how Johnny and Phil felt. Betrayed? Resentful? Uncared for? On the flip side, was it hard for my grandfather and great Uncle Ally? They were now tasked with maintaining the family farm and burdened with the knowledge that their brothers were going in their stead. Did they feel cheated in missing the “great adventure,” the war to “make democracy safe again?” What did people think of their being home as the war progressed and more soldiers were being called up? In late 1917, questions of manhood and patriotic duty were being spoon-fed to the U.S. male population, with the intended consequence of shaming a man into doing his patriotic duty. A tough situation whether you were sent abroad or remained home.

Johnny and Phil were assigned to different basic training camps: Johnny to Camp Mills, Long Island, New York and Phil to Camp Logan in Houston, TX. Johnny fought as part of the 131st Division. I have yet to find out what happened to great Uncle Phillip. His story ends here- he visited the farm once in the mid 1950’s with his wife Jule for a belated family reunion on the farm.  But from there on not much correspondence. My late Uncle Chuck thought that my grandfather, Johnny and Ally, bought out Phil’s portion of the farm and that he wasn’t pleased with his percentage, thus causing some animosity between the brothers. There was another rumor that Phil had enjoyed a little financial success from an invention he created and sold upon moving out East. Phil and his wife Jule had no children.   When Phil died, my grandmother, Johnny and Ally attended the funeral and were shocked to find out that he had changed his last name.  I know little more than this. Phil’s time in the military and the effect it had upon him is unknown. Johnny, on the other hand, was altogether a different story. Johnny kept a diary as well as a few items from the war including pictures, postcards and letters to his mother.


There is not much written in Johnny’s diary about his stint in basic training. According to his diary he left Camp Mills on May 22, 1918 and landed in Brest, Belgium on May 30th. The division set up camp at an old army barracks, once controlled by Napoleon outside Brest. On June 2 the division took a 300-mile train trip north to Pierregot, France. Johnny wrote: “raining like hell- put up pup tents. Dug holes three feet deep- the size of tents and lived in the ground.” On June 23 he spent one day in a “dummy trench” where he received his first “idea of trench life.” From there he proceeded to the front lines at Le Hamel.

After holding the line for a few days, the 131st division was sent to back to Pierregot for two days rest and then back up to hold the front lines again for four more days. On August 8 they were suddenly called to take the hill at Cuipilly Ridge, in what became known as the Second Battle of the Somme. This battle raged for one hundred days. After they took the hill, they crossed the Somme, working their way through the lines at Cuipilly until they reached the town of Trey. They lost fourteen men on this excursion. The division had been in the front lines for 14 days before leaving Le Hamel to Amiens. Johnny wrote in his diary:

From Amiens we took the train to Ligny- destroyed and left for Loisey, stayed eight days and then hiked to Fronville and then took trucks to the Sartia Woods. Had French barracks- (we were) being used in the French sector in the Eastern part of France. From Sartia Woods we hiked to Germonville on the eve of September 20, took over the front lines at Dead Man’s Hill- the Verdun front and on the 26th made the hop over.”

Along with the rest of the division they continued to push forward eventually crossing the Meuse ending up in the Bain des Chaume Woods. They held the lines for a total of eight more days. By now the division had been in the line for 56 days. He wrote to his mother:

“As I have been up in the line for about fifty days and did not have an opportunity to write much until now, will drop you few lines to let you know I’m real well. We have been in the front line twenty-six days and over the top twice in two weeks and believe me, I consider myself lucky that I am here as I had some very narrow escapes. We advanced seven miles in both pushes, had considerable casualties. This is the fourth time I have been over the top and sure have seen some horrible sights, had comrade killed right at my side and it sure does get on one’s nerves. We are back in support now and think we will be relieved in a few days. Hope I never see the lines again as I sure am getting tired of this life, but things look very promising and I think it will soon cone to an end. We also captured plenty of Huns and guns of all caliber.”

The division continued on their way up to the St. Mihiel front, taking a few days furlough, before reaching the front lines at St. Maurice on November 5, 1918. On November 10, 1918 at 3 pm the division went “over the top” again:

Over the top at Bois de Warville Woods- advanced through woods in opening- the enemy being strong could go no farther. Held the lines to the next day when the Armistice was signed November 11.

The war had ended. Ironically less than 24 hours earlier Johnny had gone over the top. He had survived his great adventure. I can only wonder what he was thinking and feeling. What was he thinking as he went over the top on that last day? And what about having the war called off on the next day? The mental scars of war are often as bad as the physical. The horror of seeing a “comrade’ killed at his side must have left an indelible impression in his head. For young men in war, death is a necessary evil that has to be endured. The bloom of youth had has now been corrupted by death, innocence shattered. Of course, I can only guess at what Johnny’s experience in the war would have been like. His point of reference for any new experiences would have been seen through the lens of his Iowa childhood. War itself is not to be understood. Farming is what he knew and understood the best. He wrote in a letter to his mother, on March 14, 1919.

… The farmers have started to plant. Most of them use oxen, but of course they don’t farm much as they all live in the village.

The French farm and farmer seemed very much at odds with the farming practice he had learned in his childhood. He noted that there was a different aesthetic about the French farmers and how they went about farming. Johnny wrote home inquiring about the selling of a neighbor’s farm:

I suppose things have changed considerably since I left. It will not be long until I get home.

Like any other young person who had thrown himself or herself into War, time must have seemed to be racing forward. But he himself remained in the void created between this new world and to the world, which he would soon return. The letter is the first sense of crack in his exterior. He came off as wistful and sentimental.Things back home might not be changing- he was changing. His time back on the farm had been a memory- an immutable one. Now a neighbor was selling his farm, one that Johnny coveted. From this great distance life back home must have felt like it was changing and he would be missing out.

Johnny returned home just after the 4th of July, 1919. I know of no celebration, although I am sure that there was one. The back of Johnny’s diary has a recipe for ‘moonshine”- I wonder if this was written as part of his plan for his return? And here is where my knowledge of Johnny becomes murkier. Johnny was said to have suffered from ‘night terrors’ after the war. My mother and my Uncles all said that they often woke up to his screaming and yelling in the middle of the night. Johnny, who had been gassed during the war, returned home having lost most of his hair, his eyebrows and eyelashes. A habitual smoker, he suffered from emphysema as well. How much of this was the result of being gassed I don’t know. For 12 years he remained in self-imposed exile on the farm. He was ashamed of his appearance. He no longer went into town, or to church. He had developed a penchant for arguing with his brother Ally and was known to often be very irritable. He was the lone Republican in a family of Democrats. His anger and unsocial behavior was more than likely related to his war experience. All of his symptoms show that he had PTSD. It wasn’t until my grandmother Clara (she was 17 years younger than my grandfather) married my grandfather “Nig” that Johnny slowly was re-introduced into society again.

In 1958 my grandfather died. Johnny and Ally remained on the farm with my grandmother helping to raise his five nieces and nephews. The war had severely affected him. He never left the farm and struck out on his own. He was a confirmed bachelor for the remainder of his life. He died on Christmas Eve in in 1967, when I was less than a year old.

Johnny’s story is one of millions of stories that happened to people all over the world. This “war to end all wars” deeply affected families and communities from all walks of life, leaving its mark on them and on future generations. It also changed this country into a world power. The U.S. policy of isolationism would no longer be acceptable. An isolated U.S. would only result in a more dangerous world. This is as true today as it was back then. Our 2017 Season of War and Remembrance is not only a look back at this incredibly turbulent time in history, but also a look forward to our future and a reminder of the importance of our country as the “leader of the free world.

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