Wartime letters of local doughboy reflect common experience

By | April 21, 2017

To continue my theme this centennial year of America’s entry into World War I, today I’d like to talk about another local doughboy.

I first mentioned him many years ago, but it’s worth retelling.

There’s no telling how long the World War I letters of William Arthur Daugherty were filed away in the cabinets of the Newton County Historical Society, but I myself only discovered them in 2008. We can probably thank his long departed mother, and later his descendants, for saving and keeping the letters.

William Arthur Daugherty was the son of Will and Ray Daugherty. His father died when Arthur (he seemed to prefer his middle name) was only five years old. His mother, Ray, lived at 510 S. Wood St. in Neosho. She was an English teacher, and later principal, at Neosho High School (in the building that is today Greystone Apartments).

Wes Franklin

At the start of 1918, as The Great War rolled on, young Daugherty was 23 years old and attending law school at the University of Missouri when his country called. By May of that year he was in training at the Field Artillery Replacement Depot (F.A.R.D.) at Camp Jackson, South Carolina.

And it’s from there the first letter originated.

Almost all of William Arthur Daugherty’s wartime correspondence surviving today is addressed to his mother. The letters begin “Dear Mamma” and are signed “With Love, Arthur.”

From the letters, I gather he was rather close with his mom, as not only does he write at least every few days but he’s also fairly detailed in his correspondence. He shares with his mom what he’s been up to that day and what some of his feelings are.

He talks openly about his long-distance puppy love romances with TWO girls. In his first letter to his mother, dated May 26, 1918, William – or Arthur, as it seems he preferred his middle name – tells her of going to a dance in Columbia, S.C. He called it “poky as anything could be” because there weren’t enough good looking girls to go around. Out of nearly 50 females there, Arthur thought only a half-dozen worth his time.

A few letters later and Arthur is in France, having just been commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He apparently spends the next few months in field artillery school in Saumur. His barracks are inside a former French cavalry academy. The town he describes as “a very pretty place” even if the streets seem to be a “labyrinth.”

Arthur’s days are largely spent taking exams (where he tells his mother he’s doing well) and in artillery training. He can’t believe he’s in the artillery, as he recalls how once as a boy his grandpa had to bring him home early from a hunting trip as he made such a fuss about the noise of the shotgun.

Arthur also writes about taking French lessons from a local woman and then practicing on the local townspeople, going on hikes to see the countryside, running into old pals from the University of Missouri and getting his picture made (more than once).

Predictably, other than dropping short lines about the flirty correspondence between himself and his two admirers back home, Arthur doesn’t mention to his mother any other amours while in France.

He asks about friends and family a lot, especially his younger sister Mary Lynne, who is also a teacher. In late August he wonders what she and a cousin are doing for fun in Neosho. Though, he adds, “they must think Neosho is a terribly dull place. They don’t know what a fine place it is compared to lots of others.”

From his comments, it seems there may be some gossipy back story to a few of the people he writes about, if we only knew who they were exactly. But for the most part, it’s the usual inquiries one would expect to find in a personal family letter.

Arthur is patriotic, of course, and delights in talking about Allied victories and the nearing defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany. He also likes to draw pictures on the back of some of a few of his letters — such as the one of Satan roasting the Kaiser on a pitchfork over a fire.

In early October he is assigned to Battery A, 337th Field Artillery and moves closer to the front. He and several other officers are billeted in a French cottage, though most of the family had left.

And that’s where he’s still languishing when the war ends. He never got to see any action or even the front lines. Judging by past comments he was probably disappointed, though we don’t have his immediate letters from just after the Armistice.

Arthur safely returned home and later married (I don’t think it was to either of his pen-pal romances), passed the bar exam and opened a practice in Tulsa, Okla., where he finally died in 1954 and is buried.

William Arthur Daugherty’s wartime letters have, to my knowledge, never been published. I think they ought to be.

They should be printed as a booklet, not so much for their exciting content — for there really isn’t any — but for the fact this local young man’s story represents that of hundreds of thousands of other American young people throughout our past, eager to serve their country but in the end sent home without being given much to do.

By Wes Franklin

(Wes can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)

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