Author: Marian Small
Publisher: Friesen Press
Many soldiers who participated in World War I recorded their daily experiences in letters, journals and diaries and several of these were published after the war while others remained hidden in drawers, closets or elsewhere.
In 1978, sixty years after the signing of the armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany, Marian Small, daughter of 1st Sergeant John Russell Small, a veteran of a war that was to end all wars, inherited her father's collection of memorabilia dating back to the time he enlisted in the Ohio National Guard in 1916. Among the findings were photographs, postcards, and the original letters her father had written to his parents and his sweetheart Mary (later his wife) as well as a diary his wife gave him and that he carried with him when he was sent over to France in 1918.
When Johnny Doesn't Come Marching Home is a true account of John's experiences during the war, which he described as the adventure of a lifetime? It also describes his life before and after the war and as Marian states in her introduction, “it is a story that needs to be told in recognition of and to honor the memory of a valiant soldier.” It is a rich heritage that Marian had the opportunity to share with her readers.
These writings are especially revealing as they describe mundane daily military life as well as the terrifying experiences fighting day and night through rain and mud in the various trenches in France's No Man's Land. Unfortunately, Mary's letters were never retrieved and as Marian mentions, were probably lost when John went “Over the Top” in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive Drive. In addition, John's writings enable readers to receive a personalized eyewitness account dealing with conditions at the front, trench warfare, daily life, personal concerns, inner feelings, the love, the doubts, the faith, the pain, and the bravery that shaped him.
In some instances Marian has offered her own narrative, taken from John's original writings, his memorabilia, and from other sources concerning the war. As for the many pictures included in the book, these have been taken from the original pages of a publication that was presented to John and other Veterans after the war, entitled: To the Secretary of War: A Final Report of John J. Pershing, General, at the American Expeditionary Forces Headquarters on September 1, 1919.
Although John's writing opportunities may have been limited due to military censors as well as conditions at the front, we nevertheless get a vivid picture of his innocence when he first enlisted and his subsequent wartime character evolution from spirited recruit to a resigned injured veteran. Unfortunately, John did not come marching home as he sustained a serious injury while fighting in the Argonne Forest drive with his company on September 29, 1918. There had been a high explosive shell that let go and the fragments broke his left leg and inflicted a deep wound in his right leg. As it turns out, he had endured six months in four different hospitals in France and after his return to the USA he had to undergo another year and eight months in four hospitals. Once home, John had difficulty in securing employment not only due to his injury, but also the economic situation of the early and late 1920s and the Depression during the 1930s that made employment rare. Sadly, John was also deprived of a full pension because obligatory proof was required of inability to earn a living because of his disability, which in his case was adjudged to be lacking.
By and large, this is a book that is much more than a brave soldier's witness testimony of his war experiences, which in itself is fascinating, but there is also something else. Due to Marian's extensive research, interwoven into the narrative are several historical background historical tidbits that give us a better understanding of the war. I wonder how many more such testimonies are still gathering dust in attics and basements?