Today on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, I would like to tell the story of Albert D. Hequembourg and his two-volume diary, both of whom happily survived his service overseas in Belgium and France in 1918. Hequembourg, a 1908 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, was a dental surgeon who volunteered for service shortly after the United States declared war. He served most of his first year on American soil, providing dental care for soldiers who were training for duty in Europe.
On June 5, 1918, Hequembourg left New York City and traveled to France aboard the S.S. Mauretania; landed in Liverpool, England; traveled south by train to Southhampton; and took Channel transport to Havre, France, arriving there on June 14, 1918. During his time overseas, he was “in action from close to Ypres, Belgium to Amiens, France,” (inside front cover, Volume 2). In an entry written on July 7, 1918, somewhere in France or Belgium, Hequembourg describes examining the teeth of 348 American soldiers. He does not appear to have treated injured soldiers–instead, he was performing typical dental work: “getting patients ready to go to front, filling root canals and putting treatments in to hold over till they get back.”
Hequembourg appears to have been a keen observer who was aware of the historic impact the War would have on the world. As such, he seems to have taken advantage of opportunities to see the front and he describes in great detail being caught in a German air-raid, living in a dug-out and working in a dental office in “a corrugated iron shed camouflaged with branches,” and seeing a field hospital. It seems that Hequembourg and his fellow soldier Lt. Rhea traveled with transport and were often in the midst of shelling.
In the midst of one such shelling, his belongings were struck by German artillery fire (resulting in the mud on the front cover) and he thought he had lost the diary … but it turned up, albeit missing the key to the locations he describes in the diary! As a result, we have an amazing resource for people studying first-hand non-combat experience to life on or near the front lines of World War I. Before processing this collection, I never once thought of dentists serving during World War I and I never once thought of the American Expeditionary Forces having their teeth cleaned or having potentially painful problems with their teeth being treated. One of the many things I absolutely love about my job is the constant exposure to new perspectives on “old history.”
I feel as if, at some point, I should stop being surprised by how much has survived and is available for use today in the amazing libraries and archives across the world. If you are interested in some of our other amazing World War I collections, may I personally recommend a few of my favorites:
David Rosenblum World War I letters,1918-1919, Ms. Coll. 1262
R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material, 1914-1988, Ms. Coll. 956
Dorothy E. Withrow collection of World War memorabilia, 1892-1951, Ms. Coll. 930