Springfield native Clara Smith Steichen was an eyewitness to World War I. Born December 26, 1875, she traveled to Paris to study music where she met her future husband, artist Edward Steichen. The couple lived in the French countryside when war erupted in the summer of 1914. Fearing that Paris would fall to the Germans, they fled to America. Edward remained in New York and joined the army where he became a pioneer in aerial reconnaissance. Clara returned to France with their two young children, Kate and Mary. Clara wrote to her mother describing life in war ravaged France. Portions of her letter were published in the Springfield (Mo.) Republican on July 3, 1917.
"I wish I had the spirit to write you a long letter, but lately the cannon have kept at it day and night. They are not so near as a month ago, but somehow I’ve grown accustomed to listen for them and it grates terribly on one’s nerves. Just now, there has come marching up to us, one of the detachments of brave men from Verdun.
"The trumpeters formed right under my dining room window and the music they played was thrilling. From up the hill came the troops and as they passed, I saw their standard. It had been decorated. I dashed down and had the gardener put up the tri-colors and Old Glory. It was so pretty to see the salutes as the soldiers passed by. They come in so weary sometimes, and look like men moulded of dirt and mud. It isn’t a half hour until every blessed one of them is speck and span as their old faded uniforms will let them be. I never get used to it all -- I never shall.
"Pershing is here. Good! That means his men are too, and once on the front, far off homes in the U.S.A. are going to begin to understand what France has done for nearly three years. I do not mean this as a reproach. How could they understand a thousand miles away. Words can scarcely make anyone understand it all. I go to Paris and talk of what I see here on the fringe of the war zone. They know it is terrible, but cannot realize it."
The Steichens divorced in 1922. Clara traveled extensively and lived abroad for many years. She died in Paris in 1952. Edward Steichen went on to great fame as a photographer and his work was well known around the world. Steichen returned to military service in World War II. Serving in the Pacific Theatre, he organized the Navy’s photographic division. He and his photographers vividly documented the war half way around the world from America. For more information about Edward Steichen and his work see Faces of War: The Untold Story of Edward Steichen's WWII Photographers and Steichen's Legacy: 1895-1973
Library Local History Associate Michael Price will discuss life in Springfield during World War I on Thursday, November 29, at 7 p.m. in the Library Center auditorium. Learn how Springfield residents supported the war effort and the actions of Greene County men in the trenches.
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