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A Century After the Armistice, a WWI Memoir Set in Shirley

December 31, 2018
The 6th Regiment arrives in Ayer to prepare for World War I. COURTESY PHOTO Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

SHIRLEY -- When events that inspired Shirley Lawton Houde’s WWI memoir “Water for Soldiers” took place, the author was 20, living with her parents in Shirley Village.

It was 1917; the United States had entered the First World War, raging in Europe since 1914.

Houde wrote her memoir 20 years later and another 80 years would pass before “Water for Soldiers” was published by the McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company of Newark, Ohio in August, 2018. It describes how New England villages like Shirley did their part to “answer the call” in WWI.

The book’s release coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice that ended WWI.

“Water for Soldiers” was the topic of a recent talk society member Paul Przybla gave at the Hazen Memorial Library and later repeated at the Ayer Library and the Fort Devens Museum.

Framed in historic context, with vintage photos, the presentation included a biopic of the author and a telling run-through of the book’s back story, including how the society obtained Houde’s original manuscript from her children, Frank Jr. and Emily, and the painstaking work it took to prepare it for publication. Przybla and fellow society member Ruth Rhonemous tackled the project with their assistance.

Przybyla posited that Houde’s goal was to publish her work.

“She clearly wanted it to be read,” he said.

A compelling time capsule, richly peopled and historically anchored, “Water for Soldiers” offers up a slice of life on the home front during “The Great War” and a philosophical take on war itself.

In retrospect, Houde said she found “no cause” that would justify war, which she called, “simply carnage, the child of insanity.” But answering the country’s call in WWI was simply doing one’s part.

Her family, for their part, rolled out the welcome mat for soldiers from Camp Devens.

One of 16 Army cantonments and as many National Guard camps set up after Congress passed the Selective Service Act (the draft) in 1917, Camp Devens, like the others, was built to house about 28,000 recruits. About 40,000 passed through Devens before the war was over, Przybyla said.

Sited for proximity to the railroad in Ayer and large tracts of open land, the cantonment rolled over fields, farms and barreled through boundary lines, leasing acreage from owners. Some were displaced.

Local readers will find familiar landmarks and a period portrait of Fort Devens, the Army base the WWI cantonment later became. Shuttered in 1996, it is a civilian community now.

Written from the perspective of “a young girl” in “a little New England village, suddenly annexed to the great struggle by the building of an army cantonment,” the book brings history home.

“Rumors of the Camp’s coming were ... like a great swarm of bees,” Houde wrote. Reliable news was reported “in the Ayer paper” in February, when Army officers came to “look over the ground.” They returned in April, “about the time the United States declared war.” In May, land-leasing began.

“We tremble, but we are ready,” Houde wrote.

Citizens were urged to offer soldiers hospitality.

Houde’s family posted a sign on their Shirley Village house. “Water for Soldiers.”

They set up a table in the front yard and kept it stocked with pitchers and glasses so that soldiers marching past on foot or horseback could “partake of a cool drink of water.”

It was a prime location across from Shirley Center Common, used as an Army training area. The bucolic backdrop seems ironic, with the First Parish Church as a centerpiece.

The Lawton place became a kind of wartime wayside inn, offering soldiers home cooked meals, conversation, games and homey “entertainments,” even a night’s stay.

Houde’s narrative style may be old-fashioned, but the book is remarkably free from romantic notions.

For example, fond memories of soldiers are juxtaposed with stark sketches of the camp that housed them. For all its perks, such as heated barracks, Camp Devens was built to train troops for war.

“Camp Devens is a vast manufacturing plant, human beings its raw material,” Houde wrote. “The great system of receiving, training, transferring, rolls on.”

It had a huge impact on the local scene. On camp visiting days, for example, thousands of visitors came to Ayer by train. One photo shows a sea of people flooding Main Street.

Then there was Community Soldier Day, when households in each village were expected to entertain soldiers, apparently posing a dilemma for “Cousin Hester,” a single woman of a certain age who worried about the propriety of entertaining soldiers in her home.

A popular camp song in the winter of 1918, “Funny Old Ayer,” suggests the soldiers would one day fondly recall the place where they had “landed” with some dismay. Lampooned as a “one-horse town ... three-foot Square,” one verse snapshots Main Street: a row of country stores, one straight street ”... lined with the U.S. Army in droves and stacks ... and nothing much else but railroad tracks.”

Przybyla read the poem aloud and paged through other historic touch points, such as the influenza epidemic and the Camp Devens convalescent hospital, with occupational therapy.

One of the book’s more colorful characters is “the Witch Lady” a portrait painter with a penchant for palm reading. “This is a pioneer hand” or “the hand of a thinker” she’d tell a soldier. Entertaining, lighthearted and hopeful, her parlor tricks were a big hit.

Memorable conversations, books the soldiers read, letters they wrote home, the author was the observer, the reporter. The war awaited them and many seemed eager to go. They were young, adventurous. But readers know, as Houde did when she wrote the book, that some didn’t return home.

A couple of the soldiers kept up correspondence with their hosts. Others were never heard from again.

Houde’s book did not glorify the war, nor in hindsight did she support it. But for a brief moment in history, she and her family in their own small but significant way helped the nation get through it.

It was not a wasted effort, nor should soldiers’ sacrifices be forgotten. “The apparent uselessness, in 1939, (of WWI) cannot belie the sincerity of ... those who lavished their all upon it.” Houde wrote.

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