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Twenty-two-year-old Frederick Kittleman of Olean hadn’t even arrived at artillery training camp when he began writing his first letter home, documenting his World War I experiences.
Kittleman joined the other 2 million American soldiers who fought in some of the most crucial, bloody battles in the final phases of that conflict. Along with more than a dozen other Olean men, he was assigned to Battery F of the 340th Field Artillery, which formed part of the 77th Division. Throughout his service in 1918 and 1919, he wrote regularly to his family — brother Harry, sister Helen and his mother — and kept a journal.
In his new book, “Somewhere in France: The World War I Letters and Journal of Private Frederick A. Kittleman,” St. Bonaventure University history professor Dr. Thomas J. Schaeper transcribes these letters, which show a young man proud to join the army and excited about his adventures. The letters are contrasted with Kittleman’s journal, which recounts the gritty details of battle that he shielded from his family in their correspondence.
Schaeper provides detailed annotations of the journal and letters, which, together with a number of illustrations, paint a vivid picture of the experiences of a private in WWI, his opinion on America’s participation in the final, bloody campaigns of the war, and reveal the psychological and physical effects that the war had on him.
Kittleman was born in Olean in 1896. When he was drafted, Kittleman was a machinist in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s hub in Olean, a city of about 16,000 residents at the time. He lived with his younger siblings and mother on West Sullivan Street.
“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. But Fred Kittleman clearly was honest, thoughtful, funny and brave. In short, someone well worth remembering,” writes Schaeper.
Schaeper’s interest in Kittleman dates back to 1983. That year, a man entered Friedsam Memorial Library at St. Bonaventure carrying a box of papers he said he discovered in his attic. He did not know anything about the papers but thought he should give them to a library rather than toss them out. Before anyone could get the man’s name, he left. To this day, the university doesn’t know who he was or where he lived.
Schaeper soon learned about the manuscripts and was intrigued. The collection contains the nearly complete set of letters that Kittleman wrote to his family as well as various other papers and memorabilia. Schaeper could see that the materials were both interesting and important: They showed how the war was viewed by a common soldier, not by a general or politician.
The fact that his family saved the letters also made them valuable in another way, Schaeper said, because they show the entire scope of his military service. The soldier’s letters started when he embarked by train from Olean in February 1918 and continued until his return home in May 1919. He describes his weeks at a training camp on Long Island, his sea crossing of the Atlantic, and his gradual introduction to hard fighting. Along with hundreds of thousands of other American troops, he participated in the momentous Meuse-Argonne battle from September to November 1918. More than 25,000 Americans died in that conflict, making it the deadliest battle in all of American history.
Kittleman spared his family many of the more gruesome details of what he witnessed, said Schaeper. Indeed, military censors would not have permitted him to write about them. However, he kept on his person a journal in which he gave graphic descriptions of what he encountered. This journal survived, and Schaeper was able to compare what Kittleman wrote to his family to what he actually experienced.
Despite the obvious value of the papers, Schaeper did not start work on this book until almost 30 years later. However, in 1985 he encouraged one of his students, Christopher Domes, to transcribe and examine a part of them. Domes’s work became his senior thesis. (Schaeper is confident that Domes’s work in this project helped him to hone his skills in research and analysis. Nowadays the Bona grad is president of Silver Lake College in Wisconsin.)
For the next quarter century Schaeper often thought about doing more with the papers, but he was working on other book projects.
“In 2013 I decided that the time had come to give justice to the life and wartime service of Fred Kittleman,” he said. The world would commemorate the start of World War I in 2014. April 2017 will mark 100 years since the United States’ entry into the war.
Schaeper knew that Kittleman lived in Olean until 1976. Along with other members of his family, Kittleman is buried in the St. Bonaventure Cemetery. Schaeper figured that various people in Olean would remember him, so he placed an ad in the Olean Times Herald and was rewarded with phone calls from grandchildren, nephews, nieces and friends. One of Kittleman’s grandsons lives in Arizona but was able to mail Schaeper a large stack of papers and photographs that he inherited from his “gramps.”
The book is about the war, but Schaeper also covers other topics. One can learn about what life was like in a small town like in Olean a century ago. In the epilogue, Schaeper discusses Kittleman’s life after he returned to civilian life. Among other things, Kittleman suffered from the painful effects from two poison gas attacks.
He also held many different jobs over the years. One of the items that Schaeper discovered is a ledger showing accounts from a restaurant that Kittleman and one of his cousins operated on behalf of a local couple in the 1920s. It is clear from the ledger that this establishment was really a tavern selling alcoholic beverages that were illegal during the Prohibition era.
Schaeper joined the St. Bonaventure faculty in 1979. He is the author of a number of books, including “France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont” and “Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy.”
“Somewhere in France” has earned praise from a number of military authors.
“The combination of Private Kittleman’s letters to his family and his personal journal offer a fascinating portrait of one young man’s poignant journey from eager recruit to seasoned veteran. These letters, elegantly annotated by Thomas Schaeper, tell America’s story during WWI, revealing how the war permanently altered the nation and the lives of the wartime generation,” said Jennifer D. Keene, author of “Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America.”
Available beginning Feb. 1, “Somewhere in France” was published by the State University of New York Press and is available at Amazon or by ordering from local bookstores.
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