ndrew Smith didn’t think much of his visit to France. The Linden, Texas, native spent three months there, mostly in the area of the city of Romaine. But it was at the height of World War I, and Smith was a private in an African-American unit.
“When I first went over there, I figured if it got too bad, I’d run off and live with the French folks,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1976, nearly 60 years after he returned. “But I changed my mind. That country was awful to me.”
Smith spoke of the ever-present fear of being sent to the forward trenches, where death was random and often pointless. He remembered a commanding officer who killed himself with a 45-caliber service pistol rather than face the trenches.
Smith remained behind the lines, though, working as a kitchen helper, a guard, a photographer and an office helper.
He never fired a shot, “except at practice. I didn’t want to kill anyone, anyway.”
Smith came to Tyler after the war and was manager of the Palace Theater for more than 30 years.
He was glad, he said, he saw “mighty little killing.”
The Smith County Historical Society is looking for more stories like Smith’s.
The group will kick off its World War I project on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, with a fundraising event, which will take place at the historic Woldert House, 604 Woldert St. That’s appropriate, said the Historical Society’s President Carol Kehl. “Two Woldert brothers served in the Great War.”
The date also is appropriate. Before it was renamed Veterans Day, Nov. 11 was Armistice Day, to commemorate the cessation of hostilities in that war.
The goal of the project, she said, is to collect as much information and artifacts about Smith County’s involvement in World War I - both abroad and on the home front. The Historical Society has identified more than 1,700 Smith County residents who served in the U.S. armed forces during the war. Many more worked for the Red Cross and other agencies, and took part in home-front activities, such as metal drives and victory gardens.
That war began in Europe in August 1914, but America didn’t enter the fray until 1917. The Historical Society plans to commemorate the centennial of the war in 2017 and 2018.
“We will spend the next few months looking for anything people can find,” Ms. Kehl said. “We’re looking for things that can be donated, loaned or just brought in and copied. That includes photos, diaries, letters, posters, objects brought back from the war. Really, anything from the home front or over there.”
Smith County wasn’t eager to enter the war.
“As a presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson won Smith County by a large margin,” said Randy Gilbert, who is helping to lead the project for the Historical Society. “He ran on the platform of keeping us out of the war. People around here wondered why we would even get involved in a European war.”
But with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 and the death of 128 Americans and unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic, opinions began to change. The Wilson Administration began a preparedness movement, which called on young men to join the Armed Forces.
By the time the U.S. declared war April 6, 1917, many Americans were ready to fight. About half of the 2,000 or so Smith County residents who entered military service in the next two years enlisted voluntarily.
It wasn’t a long war for most Smith County enlistees and their families at home. And it ended, symbolically, with the sound of a trumpet.
John Franklin “Doc” Witt, a musician who founded the Tyler Municipal Band, the Tyler High School band and the Tyler Junior College band in his time, lived on West Bow Street, in a house that’s still standing.
“At 4 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, he went out on his porch with his trumpet,” Gilbert said. “That was 11 a.m., European time. And to mark the start of the Armistice, he stood out there and played the Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic tunes, until the whole neighborhood was awakened.”
Gilbert won’t commit to having the solo performance re-enacted quite so early in the morning.
“Maybe we’ll wait until 11 a.m. our time,” he said. “But we’ll do it.”
To contact the Smith County Historical Society for more information, or to donate or loan items, call 903-592-5993. The Society’s offices and the Smith County Historical Museum are located at 125 S. College Ave.