From a pocket diary to photographs and a handkerchief to a can of foot powder, the next Holmen Area Historical Society meeting will help commemorate the centennial of World War I with the program “Over There: Holmen’s WWI Soldiers and the Items They Left Behind,” presented by the society’s president and archivist Hannah Scholze.
The meeting and program will be held Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Holmen Village Hall starting at 7 p.m. and is free to attend and open to the public. The village hall is located at 421 S. Main Street, Holmen.
Along with the artifacts and photos from the HAHS collection, the program will include the first-hand accounts of Clifford Casberg, Julius Holter, Alfred Ruud and Orange Smith, all World War I veterans from the Holmen area.
“Altogether, my goal is to bring the stories of these four Holmen World War I vets out of the archives and into the open,” said Scholze. “Even though their experiences varied, they all left the small unincorporated area of Holmen at the time and traveled overseas to help liberate France. A hundred years later, their service and sacrifice should be remembered, honored and shared.”
Casberg was one of the earliest draftees. A supply sergeant with the 341st Infantry Supply Company, he left a descriptive account of his time training, traveling overseas and his joyous reunion with his family at the La Crosse County Courthouse in May 1919. Some excerpts from Casberg’s narrative will be shared as part of the program as well as several photographs.
Between 1917 and 1918, nearly 100 men from the Holmen area served in the military and many wound up fighting in France and Germany. Although US troops were involved in the Great War, now known as WWI, for only 19 months, the war played a big role in the lives of the men who served as well as their families back home.
Three Holmen men, Morris Snuggerud, Oscar Granum, and Rudolph Wallum, did not return from their tour of duty.
For some, serving in the war was an opportunity to travel to new and exciting locations; while for others, trench warfare, mustard gas and rampant disease intermingled to create a tragic and haunting experience for those who fought “over there.”
“While these World War I veterans are no longer around to talk to, many of the items they left behind help provide clues about their differing wartime experiences,” said Scholze.
The HAHS is fortunate enough to have in its collection the military uniform of Julius Holter who served as a medic during WWI.
“Besides the traditional green wool uniform of the era, Holter also retained the medical bag he carried on the battlefield, a small can of antiseptic foot powder that would have been used to help prevent trench foot, some small booklets published by the YMCA and given to soldiers to help boost morale and even his metal dog tags,” said Scholze. “Collectively, the items provide a unique picture of what Holter thought was most important to carry with him throughout the war as well as save after its completion.”
Ruud also served on the frontlines in France as part of the 310th Infantry Machine Gun Company. Ruud’s uniform survived the last 100 years as well as a number of photos and postcards of his unit overseas.
But perhaps the most telling of Ruud’s items in the collection is the metal plated lifetime membership card that he had for the Morris Snuggerud Post 284 of the American Legion, a post named for a fallen neighbor and serviceman of the same war in which Ruud had fought. His membership in the Holmen Legion was obviously something he was proud of.
One of the most interesting items to be featured is Smith’s pocket diary that he carried throughout the war. The historical society received the diary last year from a family member. Smith enlisted in 1918, and while his diary does not give a day-to-day account of his time in the service, it does document when and where his unit traveled to throughout the war and contains the addresses of many of his military buddies.
“Unfortunately, many of the pages are blank,” said Scholze. “But the diary still contains some great nuggets of information including a tragic description of the widespread disease his unit encountered while traveling to France, ‘Forty four died on the ship. Eleven of our company from Spanish influenza.’”
Spanish flu would become one of the biggest threats to US soldiers and the epidemic spread throughout the country during 1918.
“Additionally, the diary contains a poem Smith wrote about a waiting sweetheart back home,” said Scholze. “Unfortunately, we will likely never know if she ever got to read it.”
Members of the public attending the program are invited to bring and share photos and stories of other Holmen area WWI veterans to the meeting.