Granddaughter finds hidden WWI treasure in a box

Published: 23 February 2022

By Judy Bruckner
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

Cover photo

Judy Bruckner’s lifelong passion for family history began at a young age. An interest sparked by a multi- generational collection of stories, photographs and countless afternoons with her beloved grandparents who cared for it all. Every Tintype, Daguerreotype and Cartes des Visites was a window peering into the past, every enthralling story a chance for Judy to reach through time and touch the fabric of her family’s history.

Most prized amongst this collection of treasure; a black, leather-bound album containing photographs, letters, documents and a one-year diary by a 19- year-old ambulance driver named Charles C. Leonard, Judy’s grandfather. This vast collection of memories allowed her to experience WWI through Charles’ eyes during his time as a volunteer for the American Field Service organization (AFS), which was taken over by the US Army shortly after he arrived in France in July 1917. Charles served as an ambulance driver until May 1919.

Judy knew the unique experiences Charles collected during the final years of the Great War needed to be preserved so upon gaining access to the deteriorating album, she went to work. Between a career and motherhood, she spent the next 8 years digitally repairing the 1000+ fading photos, transcribing journal entries, and exhaustively researching broader events of the war to support the magnificent memories Charles preserved. This book is the achievement of Judy and her grandfather’s work.

The time spent unlocking the mysteries of her grandfather’s experiences broadened her appreciation about a war that before she had only a slight knowledge about from school. Her research brought her closer to the men who served alongside Charles as she translated stories preserved from French books from 1922, old newsletters, and documents preserved by the AFS Virtual Museum and French Museum archive sites.

When asked about her experience, Judy comments:

“Writing a book was much more challenging and rewarding than I ever imagined. I became absorbed in learning as much as I could about USAAS 644 (old SSU 32) and the French infantry division 37 (DI 37) to which they were attached. I translated French books about DI 37 into English to read diaries and to track their journey as they chased the enemy back to Germany. It was hard to leave some of their touching stories out, but I wanted to focus on Charles and his experiences. Even still some of the final moment of the war can only be captured by one who there and so an Algerian solders’ memory was added to the book. The commitment and bravery of these Algerian fighters and their French Officers helped me to understand the sacrifice of all who serve at wartime.

“As I learned about SSU 71 and SSU 32, I decided to create a pictorial roster of these brave men. This would help confirm some of the photos of people taken by Charles but left unlabeled. My challenge was finding a military roster. In 1973 the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri had a fire in the Military Personnel Record Center in which most WWI service records were stored. All information about USAAS 644 was lost in that fire. Through research using the documents I possessed and online sites I was able to find most of the men and recreate the roster.

Map“AFS records, which were damaged by mildew and age, were useful in gaining a partial list, however those who joined the section after the United States Army succeeded proved challenging. Ships logs, Passport photos, and Military claims helped recover some of the men. With the help of a genealogy site, I reached out to the veteran’s family members in hope to learn more. I was surprised to discover that many folks knew little about their relative’s military service and had no photos to share of that person of just 100 years ago.

“From my vast collection, I investigated the secret details of words and documents. Why was it saved? What is the meaning of a word? Is a documents’ significant? Curiosity lead me down many “rabbit holes” each revealing different aspects of the war. Each “rabbit hole” was a piece of a puzzle bringing me closer to my grandfather and his mates.

“My investigative mind took the time to look up minor details in the diary, like a favorite game the soldiers played, “pouilleux’ also called “scruffy” or “stinker.” It is a card game using a standard 52 card deck, minus the jack of clubs. The game can be played with two to eight players. It is of the same family as ‘old maid’.

“Another interesting word was “ravitaillement”, which refers to supply or supplies. This took weeks to discover its meaning. By chance the word was used in a French military record.

“Grandfather had an old map he pasted to a board to share during public lectures he did in his final years. With the assistance of a Belgium friend, I discovered the map to be a German 48-hour artillery map describing the location and movement of the allied forces. The great significance was its date, which falls between the Kaiser Offensive and the 100 Day Offensive. This discover gave a new appreciation to its importance. How it came to be in my grandfather’s hands remains a mystery, but it is thought to have been taken off a captured pilot or looted from a downed German plane.

“In WWI news media was not allowed at the front for security reasons. Therefore, reporters reached out to the families of soldiers at the front for letters sent home and prized photographs. Charles used his amateur photography skills to add income which supported his hobby and allowed him to send money home to his mother. He was surprised when he heard that several of his photographs were published in his local newspaper, the Binghamton Press. I was delighted to find one of his photos published in a Michigan paper in 1918. The photo had been purchased by a fellow mate in the unit and sent to his folks in Michigan.

“Several of Charles’ letters are preserved in the book. Each letter explains daily life, near death experience and challenges history. One such letter home recorded his “brushes with death” made me feel lucky to be here to share this information today. He wrote:

“We got that fairly fixed up when suddenly the Germans began to heavily bombard again, and we all rushed down into our little wine cellar. Here we crouched and waited. I went up to the entrance to pull down a blanket over the door and prevent more gas coming into in when a shell exploded near the entrance blowing me back like a piece of paper, but the piles of stone we had in front of the entrance prevented any éclat reaching us. This soon ceased however, the rest of the night was rather quiet with the exception of the Germans aeroplanes which were trying to bomb some bridges nearby.”

“I started this project with the intent to make copies for my immediate family. I quickly realized the uniqueness and importance of preserving this collection for public use. When my grandfather wrote in his daily diary or snapped a photo, I doubt he imagined future generations would enjoy it.

“He captured a side of the war few read about, and he did so through the lens of a camera.

“Publishing this information honors Charles and all who served alongside him. As the photos fade so does the story. None of these men are here to share their experiences, yet so much is learned from them. If there is no one left to tell the story, then how will the stories be heard?

Memories of a WWI Ambulance Driver is a pictorial and written account of WW1 and seen through the eyes of Charles C. Leonard. It is not a typical book. It contains over 1000 photographs, mostly taken by Charles. It is a thoughtful account of one mans’ experience as he served the French forces and the United States Army.”

In the final years of his life Charles spoke to 20+ organizations about his WW1 experiences. Judy is carrying on his memories by speaking at local clubs and organizations to continue the work her grandfather left behind.

About the book

Step back to 1917 into the shoes of a fatherless 19-year-old experiencing the perils of war behind the wheel of his “Little Garlic” Ford

Cover bookRefused at first by the armed forces, Charles Leonard enters WWI. as a volunteer for the Ambulance Field Service. His diary, letters home, and photos represent his harrowing experiences during the Great War.

Even if Charles didn’t plan on future generations reading his diary, the idea of leaving a little something behind for the folks back home consoled him each time he ventured to the front.

It was rare for servicemen to carry a camera, yet Charles utilizes his trusty Kodak 1A to capture history and a little extra income to send home. Journey through the countryside to visualize the destruction and hardships that war brings from the 900-plus never before published photos (most taken by Charles).

Some of his accounts challenge written history.

An ambulance driver drove under hazardous conditions over muddy and torn roads in the midst of enemy shell-fire. They displayed under difficult circumstances outstanding evidence of devotion and bravery.

Ignoring peril and exhaustion, their only concern was for the wounded they carried to the field hospitals. Their noble task was much appreciated by the French armed forces they served.

This book encourages self-discovery into WWI from the images, artifacts, and maps preserved. Included are stories shared by fellow servicemen of USAAS 644 and the 37th French (Algerian) Infantry as they zig-zag across the western front chasing the enemy back to Germany.

The historical significantly of this collection attracted the attention of several museums and historical societies across the United States, including the National WW1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., Frazier History Museum in Louisville, KY, New York Military Museum in Saratoga, NY, and American Field Service Foundation in New York, NY. To purchase contact [email protected].

About the author

Judy BrucknerNot only an enthusiast of family history, but Judy is also a seasoned genealogist with experience teaching introductory classes on genealogy research. Additionally, this book is not the first time Judy has shared her family’s history with the world. She also published a short story by her beloved grandmother in the PBS companion book “In Search of Our Ancestors”, by Megan Smolenyak.

Now retired, she is dedicated to spending the rest of her life sharing the stories of the more than 20,000 family photos, letters and other memories preserved by her ancestors. Copies of this book are only available by contacting Judy directly at [email protected]

Share this article

Related posts