Beth’s Treasure: Part I

“A hard hearted person,” the antiques appraiser said gravely to my eleven-year-old daughter, “would look at this and say that it’s only worth a few hundred dollars, but really – this is priceless.”

Beth had a huge grin as she told me what the antiques dealer at a local church’s version of the Antiques Roadshow had told her. It was not an uncommon practice, living in a college town, for children to look for “treasures” left behind at our apartment complex’s dumpster after the students cast off their unwanted possessions and headed for home. Over the years, old bicycles, used books, and a 1903 wooden dresser – original Jordan Marsh inventory sticker still attached to the back – had been toted home and added to her belongings. But none of these things impressed her as much as the collection of almost 300 antique postcards that she had found tossed in the dumpster. Originally brought home because she recognized that some of them were of Versailles, where my great-grandmother came from, a closer look revealed what they really were: a series of letters home from a World War I soldier, beginning with his tour in boot camp and continuing through his service in England and France (with a side trip to Scotland to see where his parents emigrated from), followed by his assignment to the Allied Forces Exhibition Golf Team on its tour of Europe, and finally ending with a postcard from the Red Cross Office in Newport News, Virginia, telling his parents that he had safely returned to America and would be contacting them soon.

Sorting through the postcards and putting them in chronological order brought history alive for Beth in a way that history classes never could. The soldier, George Reid of Milton, Mass., would buy a series of postcards, start a letter on one, and then continue the message on another postcard and another, until he’d said all that he wanted to say, then he’d place all of the cards in an envelope (very few of them bore postage or post marks) and mail them home. The cards ranged from the standard tourist images of castles and landscapes, to photos of the hospitals he worked at, to pictures of the Salvation Army “Doughnut line,” to cards showing gruesome images of war, including airplane wreckages, an early tank, the body of a dead Belgian soldier and the ruins of towns decimated by artillery fire. His messages on the backs reflect the typical concerns of any soldier – asking his parents to send him money while at boot camp; reporting his weight to his mother; sending birthday greetings to a little sister; and telling his mother when he came across his brother, also a soldier, in Paris.

“All I knew about World War I before I started learning about it through the postcards was that it came before World War II,” Beth, who is now 15, remarked. “Now I know about the places that were in battles, how dangerous it was for the early airplane pilots, the way the censors would read the postcards before they could be sent to make sure that there wasn’t any secret information being passed in them, the Treaty of Versailles, and the influenza epidemic that killed so many people after the war itself had ended.”

Part of the charm of the collection are the messages that George wrote on the backs. He was a devoted son and unerringly polite. “Just a line to ask you to do me a favor and kindly send me $5 by the next mail as I feel pretty certain of a pass,” he wrote to his mother in one of his earliest messages home. He frequently tried to assure his family about his health and well-being and tried to share his experiences with them through his postcards home. “Dear Mother, Here are a few views of the Café both inside and out. Many a night I have gone in here for a hot cup of unsweetened cocoa and cakes. Sometimes when I am real good and hungry I have a good meal here.” He also assured his mother that he is not about to allow himself to be corrupted by the temptations of Paris. “Don’t worry about me Paris taking me off the straight road,” he wrote. “I have kept it while overseas.”

George also felt a sense of excitement at being able to see the world so far from home and tried to share those adventures with his loved ones. In a note to a younger brother from England, he writes, “You ought (to) see what you get for money after changing a two dollar bill. You need a wheelbarrow to carry it all around. They got (sic) a coin here called a pence that is worth 2 cents in our money and is larger than our half dollar.”

The cards themselves are an interesting mix of black and white photographs, tinted photographs and rotogravures. They are a mix of undivided and divided backs. A few bear US postage stamps, but none have foreign postage. Most of them were probably placed into a single envelope and sent home like a letter, but a few have “Soldier’s Mail” written in the upper right hand corner of the back, just where the stamp would go. This was sufficient to get a postcard or a letter to its intended destination, no matter where it was sent from.

Many of the cards, particularly the ones from France, were obviously intended for sale to Americans. The captions were in English, or in both English and French, and highlighted places or events that were of special significance to Americans – a postcard from Chateau Thierry, for example, proclaim it as “The First American Victory” while others specifically show a cemetery full of American graves, each with small American flags in front of the rows of white crosses. A few of the postcards were made specifically for US soldiers to use, showing images of Salvation Army workers on the front with “Soldier’s Mail” already printed on the backs where the postage might otherwise have gone.

But the most amazing and historically valuable postcards are a series of cards written on site before, during, and after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. “I am leaning on the wall surrounding the palace here in Versailles at the present time,” George wrote to his mother. “All set to see the big event that will go down in History.” And on another postcard, also to his mother, “The Peace Terms were signed about 3:45 today. I saw the whole procession. Note the cross on the other side of card. That is where I sat. There sure was a crowd here while the Peace Treaty was being signed, but there were very few Americans present….” And to his brother that same day, George wrote “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Curious about what had happened to George after he returned home from the war, I did a little detective work, and eventually managed to locate George’s niece, Dorothy Wagstaff. She very graciously agreed to meet with Beth and me, and was able to help us identify some of the people he referred to in his letters home, and to tell us what became of George himself. He eventually married, moved to Quincy, Mass., and never had any children of his own, dying at the ripe old age of 90 in 1980.

Only one mystery remains about George’s postcards. How they came to end up in a dumpster in Amherst, a hundred miles to the west of both Milton and Quincy? “I can’t understand why anybody would throw out something like this,” Beth says. “Throwing it out was ignorant, dumb, and a stupid thing to do, and I feel like by finding them I was able to rescue George and his experiences. We both got lucky when I found them.”

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