Jay Winter: The Crossed Hands of God--An Excerpt


Excerpt from the Foreword

The Crossed Hands of God

April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entrance into WWI. This set of documents describes facets of the First World War rarely addressed in American historical narratives. It covers the American involvement both in the fighting in northern France in the last five months of the war and as an occupying force in Germany in 1919. Like other collections of the personal papers of American soldiers of the Great War which families have preserved and published, it shows both the naiveté and the sophistication of those Americans thrown into the war in its last phase.

While Eugene William McLaurin endured five months of war, the French and British soldiers "associated" with the American army endured fifty months of combat. I say "associated" because the term "Allied" was insufficiently independent for many back at home. The relatively short American encounter with war explains McLaurin's initial sangfroid about artillery, his sense that the German army fought "unfairly" by seizing every possible topographical advantage, and his absence of any doubt about the outcome of the war. Soldiers with a longer experience of this, the first war between all the great industrialized nations, knew better.

McLaurin's diary and letters are unusual in that he was not an infantryman but a stretcher-bearer assigned to burial details. These moved to wherever the bodies were. He had hoped to secure a commission as a chaplain, but Army red tape delayed a decision until the war was over; then the Army was no longer commissioning chaplains. McLaurin served as a private soldier, who moved across and through different theaters a bit like Pierre in Tolstoy's War and Peace. He was at the war but did not see combat. What he did see was the human wreckage of war, and he provided a dignified burial to dead soldiers wherever that was possible.

The mix of domestic and military detail in these documents describes the world of all the 70 million soldiers who put on a uniform during the Great War. In effect, between 1914 and 1918, family history and the history of war intersected, and they have never been fully separated since. The crossed hands of war arose out of its democratization, and millions of young men bore its traces until their dying days. In McLaurin's case, that was until 1978.

Throughout the world, in countless attics, garages, and storerooms, there are diaries, letters, and photographs of soldiers of the Great War. They are appearing in great numbers now, a century after the outbreak of the 1914-18 conflict, and all are to be welcomed. They enable us to glimpse the moment when the scourge of industrialized warfare on a global scale came to the world.

Soldiers fought for their country, but they also fought for their families, or in this case, the families they would have when they returned home. His fiancée and their future together grounded McLaurin, and provided him with a powerful sense that his time at war was a step on the way to a long and rich Christian life.

More than 100,000 Americans were not so fortunate. For too many years, the screen memory of the Second World War has occluded the story of American service and sacrifice in the First World War. Twice as many Americans died in active service in the First World War than died in the Vietnam conflict. Their voices and those of their surviving comrades deserve to be heard, and for that, we owe the editors of this body of evidence our thanks and our respect.

Jay Winter

The Charles J. Stille Professor of History,

Yale University




The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin

Jerry R. Tompkins

Foreword by Jay Winter

Born on a Mississippi farm, Pvt. Eugene McLaurin had reached 30 years of age when his unit began its advance on the Western Front. McLaurin's diary, written during nine weeks before the Armistice, records the horrors he encountered during his assignment to burial detail, of bodies torn apart, and burial rituals interrupted by gunfire or the occasional stealth attack by a German fighter plane, its engines muffled before emitting its deadly machine gun fire.

In spite of his modest rank, McLaurin was a Presbyterian minister qualified to be a commissioned officer. Instead, he was assistant to the battalion chaplain whose admiration for his assistant's courageous service under fire would result in his attempts to secure a commission for his aide, including appealing to the US Congress.

The Crossed Hands of God consists of a biography of McLaurin, his diary, letters to his fiancée from his induction through six months of occupation duty in Germany, and the tracing of his career from gentle parish minister to professor of systematic theology, eventually becoming an eminent linguist in biblical languages.

'As the 100th anniversary of the Great War is marked, many are reviewing its origins, strategies, tactics, and consequences. This volume of a 30-year-old Texas pastor's diary and letters as he served as a stretcher-bearer in northern France provides an up close and personal perspective of the war. By sharing these documents Jerry Tompkins has opened for us a window into both the innocence and the horror of one soldier's experience, and for this we are in his debt.''

- James S. Currie , pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, Texas, and Executive Secretary of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

''This book is a fascinating read! Tompkins' compilation of Eugene McLaurin's World War I journal and his letters to his future wife are a superb contribution to those who, like me, have a scant sense of (a) the brutality and rhetoric of that war at that time, and (b) the persistence of love and commitment that nonetheless prevailed. Most importantly, these writings . . . provide one snapshot of the formation of character--what it looks like, then and now.''

- Theodore J. Wardlaw , President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

''I found The Crossed Hands of God to be a great read that taught me many new things about the 315th Supply Train of the 90th Division during WWI. This book is a must-read for any persons interested in the events of WWI . . . [T]hese candid accounts take the reader right into battle to reveal the true costs of war up close from a rarely seen point of view as a stretcher bearer.''

- Tyler S. Alberts , Historian - 90th Division Association

''Eugene McLaurin's love letters to his fiancée, Myrtle, during World War I, are just as revealing of the man's nobility and sense of honor as his diary entries describing the daily horror in the 1918 killing fields of France.''

- Tom Timmins , a McLaurin neighbor in Elysian Fields

Jerry R. Tompkins is a native of Elysian Fields, Texas, and has served as a pastor, a seminary vice-president, and an executive of a church-related child-care and family agency. His earlier book was D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Tompkins and his wife, the former Marcia Davis, are the parents of two daughters and two sons.


The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin

Jerry R. Tompkins

Resource Publications, A Division of Wipf & Stock Publishers

Paperback: 178 pages

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1498221378

ISBN-13: 978-1498221375

Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.4 x 9 inches

Price:   $21.00



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