Plains Folk

Shell Shocked, Gassed, and Side Sprained


William E. Riley, of Geneseo, North Dakota, served as an infantryman in France during the Great War. There, according to a local historian, he was “shell shocked, gassed, and side sprained.” “Shell shock” was the term a century ago for what we now call PTSD. “Gassed” means Private Riley was caught in an attack of mustard gas, damaging his respiratory system. I don’t know what “side sprained” means, but it sounds painful. Following lengthy time in recovery, Riley was discharged on 30 March 1919.

As we work through the centennial of World War I, I continue to inquire as to its effects on prairie communities, and as to the response of prairie people to what they called the Great War. This led me into Susan Mary Kudelka’s four-volume history of Sargent County, specifically to Volume 2, containing data on soldiers. The data is drawn from a 1919 publication, Sargent County in the World War, of which I have been unable to source an original copy.

Kudelka lists 173 soldiers without supporting information, but gives a catalog of 126 with biographical notes and war service. I spent some sobering hours in NDSU Archives going through this catalog.

The first thing I noticed was that many of the boys we sent to fight in this European war were themselves Europeans. Surnames indicate a strong plurality of Nordic folk, a few Czech and Pole names, and hardly any Germans. Eleven men definitely were born in Norway, ten in Sweden, and one in Denmark.

The number of men from Sargent County killed in action was smaller than I expected, at least within the sample of 126 I studied. There were twelve deaths in service, or on account of service.

Five of the deaths were from disease, three of them in camp prior to shipping overseas. The camps were hotbeds of infectious disease, especially after the onset of influenza late in 1918. For instance, one Sargent County boy, Theodore Arvid Anderson, died of pneumonia at Camp Custer, in Michigan, 14 October 1918. Pneumonia was the common endgame for influenza victims in service. Clyde Earl Wortman of Havana, an MP in France, died of pneumonia there in October 1918, about the same time as Walter Carl Guetschow of Milner, an engineer, suffered the same fate. Carl Olstad of Rutland, who became ill at Camp Dodge and was discharged late in 1917–I suspect he was a tuberculosis case, as he died at home in July 1919.

John Gotfried Anderson of Milnor survived all the bloodiest battles in France, only to die of an accidental revolver discharge near end of war.

The list of those killed by enemy fire includes Otto Emanuel Moberg, George J. Nelson, Orin Vern McNeil, Freddie J. Finn, Bernard Nilson, and Lewis M. Thune.

I counted twenty-three wounded in the sample of 126. Some wounds were minor, others bad, like the multiple afflictions of the aforementioned Private Riley. Charles Andrew Collier of Cogswell, wounded by artillery shell in July 1918, had his left leg amputated. Gilmer Jorgenson of Cayuga was hit in the Argonne Forest, “having left leg shot off at the hip,” reports noted.

Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Great War is entitled One of Ours. I think it is not a bad idea now, a century later, to read out these names from Rutland, Cogswell, Havana, and Geneseo.

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