“Getting Fat and Lazy” in World War I France

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Stationed overseas in small towns surrounding Dijon, France, David Rosenblum was far from the front line during World War I. Rosenblum described his time in the United States military from 1918 to 1919 as being “just like a vacation and a little hard work.” In his letters home, he talks about girls and ‘grub,’ about missing home, his odd jobs, and stories of his military experience.

The David Rosenblum World War I letters offer an alternative perspective of overseas service during WWI, far from the frequently recounted horrors of the front line. Rosenblum was stationed outside of Dijon, France which was inland of the southernmost portion of the front line between France and the German Reich by 1918, when he began his service. Working for the Mobile Ordnance Repair Shop around 200 kilometers behind enemy lines, Rosenblum assembled Fords and lead pipes.

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He went on to work as a stenographer, joking, “Our hero, undaunted braves the storm and fights on for liberty. Yes, verily he fights on pounding this cute little typewriter…It seemeth strange that the government can’t find more use for our hero other than the delicate task of typing.” Rosenblum frequently poked fun at his role in the war, with a full understanding that his conditions were quite pleasant (and un-heroic) compared to his fellow soldiers fighting on the front lines. Finally, in these letters, he discusses his time as an official military entertainer, playing piano for soldiers, nurses, and officers in various Red Cross locations in France, and of course, “getting fat and lazy.”

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Rosenblum’s humor is evident throughout the letters. He takes every opportunity to gently poke fun at the French and their pace of life. On October 11, 1918, he informed his family of the attitudes towards the French among the soldiers, “Oh: yes, we call the French frogs and France is called Frog country and the boys are not one bit keen about the frogs. Golly, but they are slow. How they ever stopped Germany is a mystery. We do more in a minute than the frogs in a month…they are slow and way behind the times; the engines and railroads and conveniences are medieval.” He continues the use of the term frog until his departure from France. Despite his joking, Rosenblum had clear affinity for certain aspects of French culture. He frequently notes the charm of the towns and expresses a liking for the children who were enamored with the American soldiers.

r1But, above all else, in his letters Rosenblum expresses a love for the ‘grub’ and girls of France. Of the 26 letters in this collection, every single one mentions food. Be it the underwhelming food of the station, or his wonderful culinary experiences in town, Rosenblum was focused on the grub. He frequently talked about the bread, cheese, wine and jam that he would purchase or be gifted in the towns, and about the restaurants he would visit with his military buddies. He also mentions the French women several times, most fondly, the one who made him an omelet and the several that offered him bread, cheese, wine, jam and sweets. He also recounts the French love of American cigarettes, and how this love helped him initiate conversation with French women, “I saw a beautiful looking young lady looking out the window. She smiled friendly, everyone does – perhaps it’s the U.S. uniform or the thought of a cigarette – I guess the latter.”

Rosenblum’s experience was far from the heroic and glorified stories of boys being sent overseas and returning as weathered men. Rosenblum retains a sense of innocence. During the war, he is well fed, works in a protected and comfortable environment, and has plenty of opportunity for enjoyment. That being said, this collection offers vibrant description of small-town France and its people in the early 20th century, first-hand reports of the morale of soldiers at the end of World War I, and a look into the charming and humorous attitude of a young man, like many others, who was thrust into a less-frequently recounted military experience.

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