“Trench Talk, Trench Life”: The Origins of a Book

Published: 11 December 2023

By Fredric Winkowski
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

From American Trench by Fredrick Winkowski

American Trench, drawing by Fredrick Winkowski

I’m thinking of my hometown of Cohoes, in up-state New York. I was in third-grade, on November 11, on the day then called Armistice Day, when my teacher Miss Golden made a statement that was literally burned into my consciousness. Despite the class’s happy excitement with red paper poppies being distributed, Miss Golden said this was a sad day, a day of remembrance. It was the day, Miss Golden said, in 1918 the Armistice had been signed and the war ended. This we knew. But on that day, after the signing, and when peace had at last come to the Western Front, her brother had been killed. There I was, transported back to World War One in 1918, stunned and trying to understand what it all meant.

And over the years, to this day, this is a question that has fascinated and at times obsessed me. What was the “what” and “why” of that war, one hundred years ago? The distant voice of that elderly lady still whispers its sad tale. What happened? Recently I wrote and illustrated the book “Trench Talk, Trench Life, A Beginner’s Guide to World War One” in an attempt to answer those questions.

Fred Winkowski

In the course of considerable research for that book, I tried to find some record or written document that held a clue to the fate of Miss Golden’s brother, who I assumed was also from Cohoes. But I had no luck. I widened the search to all of New York State and still no results. The attempt was a long shot, and it’s possible he didn’t live in New York and didn’t share the same last name.

Now looking back, who can even guess what the facts were. But there is satisfaction in research since new and unexpected bits of information are always turning up. One sad fact I found is that 4,000 or so troops on the Western Front died on Armistice Day and 400 were American.

What isn’t well known is the part my small hometown, Cohoes, played in the war. What I found especially interesting was the story of the New York State National Guard, Second Regiment, Company B. Their castle-like armory of reddish stone was just a couple blocks from my childhood home in downtown Cohoes. An old newspaper states that Company B’s early wartime assignment was guard duty in the nearby Mohawk River valley. But what I discovered next was that they were guarding newly built sub-chasers traveling down the Erie Canal. The small ships had been built on the Great Lakes and were destined for eventual action in the North Atlantic.

Three Americans, Sgt. York, drawing by Fredric Winkowski.

Somewhat later Company B itself experienced a seaborne incident before reaching Europe when it was on the troopship “General Grant” in May 1918. German U-boats attacked their convoy twice, but destroyers repelled the enemy both times. To leap forward in time until after the war, a 1919 Cohoes newspaper listed the “Cohoes boys who have given their lives for their country.” There were forty names, and one name especially held my attention. The name was Patrick Molesky, and that last name was the Americanized version of my mother’s “old country” name. It now seems possible that Patrick was some long-forgotten relative who had been lost in World War One.

French Attack, drawing by Fredric Winkowski.

If my third-grade teacher’s story is an incident that stirred my historical inclinations, the second was when I was a teenager and discovered an old book in a used-book shop in downtown Albany. The book was “Over the Top,” by Arthur Guy Empey, a 1917 compendium of all things related to life in trenches, that cost me twenty-five cents, and it has been priceless. It is in fact a major publishing influence for this current book. Empy wrote a similar second book entitled “First Call” and later went on to become a polo-playing Hollywood personality.

I return again to the question, what else contributed to the origin of my WWI book? And another answer is “I couldn’t avoid it.” I create, write, illustrate, photograph, and design books. That is what I do, and I incorporate elements of my life and interests into my various books. Many of the books deal with aspects of history, and the specter of World War One has always hovered somewhere in the background. The accumulation of related facts, history, and information has been a lifelong pursuit. I’ve flown off the Maine coast with Fokker Tri-planes, and I participated in a major WWI reenactment. I well remember the slow tat-tat-tat of the German machine guns, and the smell of gunpowder on my clothes. And in that make-believe war, I was make-believe killed three times, by rifle grenade, poison gas, and a team of French troops with light machine guns infiltrating my trench. It’s all fantasy, but it’s also real when you’re there. That too was an important inspiration. I took countless photographs while there, and I’ve used them as the basis for many of my 200-plus drawings. (As a footnote, I will soon be making these drawings available for sale to collectors.)

I also have to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement I’ve received in the course of this project. One name stands out, however, and that is Ed Vebell. Ed was also an illustrator, and he was a committed historian and collector. His house in Connecticut was filled with old uniforms, suits of armor, baskets filled with ancient swords, and fantastic ornate helmets, and just about any other historical item you might think of. And at the end of World War Two he was an official sketch artist at the Nuremberg Trials. If you’ve ever seen the famous pencil drawing of Hermann Goring, Ed was the guy who did it. And Ed had stories to tell, about his strange exploits in WWII, his collections of antiques, and his days as an Olympic fencing athlete. Ed was a walking history lesson, and an inspiration to those fascinated by history. He had connections everywhere, and because of him I was able to photograph and draw the WWI weapons depicted in the book. He is gone, but still admired, and needs to be remembered. Thanks, Ed.

Doughboys with French Officer, drawing by Fredric Winkowski.

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