Like many but not all young American men, George Wigert of Lincoln, Neb., was eager to join the Army in 1917 and fight the Germans in Europe.
The 19-year-old was sorry to leave his mother, but glory called.
For two years Wigert faithfully wrote letters to his mother, Anna. That correspondence, tracing the arc of enthusiasm to homesickness, has been collected in a new book compiled by Wigert’s grandson, Kansas City marketing pro Pat O’Neill. “Dearest Mother” was timed to correspond to the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. It also fits nicely with Mother’s Day.
Wigert was an only child. His father, Carl, died when George was 16. Anna had been much younger than her husband.
“So his mother was his rock,” O’Neill said. “You hear stories of soldiers on the battlefield crying out in no man’s land. What were those soldiers crying for? They were crying for their mother. And he was no different.
“When I read her letters back to him in the war, I think she might have lived in as much fear or more fear than he did because she was dealing with the unknown,” O’Neill continued. “She was reading the newspapers and the articles about the war and seeing the casualty lists on a regular basis and worrying that she would lose her only child.”
The letters were discovered in 2014 when O’Neill and his six brothers were taking turns staying overnight with their mother, Jean, who was in home hospice care. Steve O’Neill emerged from the basement one day with a box of more than 220 hand-written letters. Most began “Dearest mother.”
Pat O’Neill transcribed each of them, initially just for the family. Then it hit him that they offered a way to tell the story of the war through one person’s experiences.
“My grandfather was not a war hero,” O’Neill said. “He was not extraordinary. But he came along at an age and a time when he was willing to volunteer to go to France. He encountered lots of little things that made a big difference in the war.”
Wigert served under commander John J. Pershing and had encounters with him. He also had encounters with aviators. He was involved in the battles of Cantigny, Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. He was an artillery guy behind the lines. He was in the trenches. He was a gunner and a radio guy. He was a chauffeur to generals and a dispatch rider on a motorcycle.
In the book, the letters are presented in a typeface from the World War I era. The actual letterheads and censor approval stamps were scanned and used in the book.
Wigert enlisted in the Army and went off in spring 1917 to train with Pershing’s 1st Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. By mid-August Wigert was excited to be in France.
I don’t know just how long it will be before we go into the trenches, he wrote on Sept. 20. We are all anxious to get in, tho, because that is what we are here for and some excitement.
Nine days later: The day is near when the Stars and Stripes will flutter from Kaiser Wilhelm’s flag staff in Berlin.
Nov. 23: I’m never going to die, I know that.
In December he was writing about dead American soldiers in no man’s land with their tongues cut out. It wasn’t long before Wigert’s spirit began to wane.
You know the longer I stay the more I think about home, he wrote on Jan. 24, 1918. Hardly a night passes that I don’t dream about home, so if I see this war out, by the time I get home I will never want to leave it. With love, your son Geo.
Those feelings intensified.
Mother dear, I am getting on at the very best, only I miss my mother, a letter on Feb. 12 said. I am just like a big baby when it comes to that, and it sure is fine to have a mother like I have.
On Mother’s Day Wigert wrote, It is hard to express the strong sentiment which I feel today. Never did Mothers Day really mean so much to me, and my thoughts are most any minute with you. It is Sunday about two o’clock now, making it about time for church and I only wish I could be there to go with you. I just know what a wonderful mother I have, and I am glorifyied to see the sublime way you look at the state of affairs, and I’ll try to be ‘the boy my mother thinks I am.’ Your loving son, George.
In May the 1st Division, with Wigert, attacked the village of Cantigny. It was the Americans’ first significant battle victory alongside French troops.
The 1st Division also fought at Soissons, at the German-controlled road to Paris. Wigert wrote that he’d been up for five days and he jumped into an abandoned dugout to sleep. When he woke he found three or four Germans in the hole with him. They had been dead for days.
On Sept. 26 he was feeling poetic: I really don’t care much if I get any mail from any one except mother. When she don’t write I feel like a lost raft on life’s sea. … I will be a better son I hope when I come back than I was before.
The Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, and by December Wigert was with the Army of Occupation in Bitburg, Germany.
I sure am anxious to get back & out of the service because I have had enough of this army life. I had enough the first week away from Mother.
Wigert came home to Nebraska. Unbeknownst to him, while he was in France his mother had “run off and gotten married to an itinerant doctor, moved to Wisconsin, separated and returned to Nebraska without ever telling her son,” O’Neill writes in the book.
After the war, Wigert signed on to a steamer to South America. Then he tried the insurance business and was on his way up in the company when the stock market crashed in 1929. He ended up in Kansas City, where he would occasionally take his grandsons to the Liberty Memorial. Anna lived with George’s family until her death in 1956. George died in 1976.
“I think about how fleeting his youth was,” O’Neill said recently. “And how he got from that young guy full of piss and vinegar, who went off to war and served his part and came back kind of a jaded sort of fellow. …
“By the time he got home, six months after the war was over, he thought he was just a dumb volunteer. They were the first over and the last to leave, and by the time they got here the parades were over and the big hoopla was all done.”
Where to find it
“Dearest Mother,” 139 pages, $22, is available at the gift shop of the National World War I Museum and Memorial and online at seatofthepantspublishing.com