Too Near Where History is Being Made

Henry Howard Houston II in a Time of War

...we are too near where history is being made to see it in any proper perspective. One sees so little of the front and sees that little so intimately that a "tire de barrage" seems of much more importance than a revolution in Russia.
- Henry Howard Houston II to Valentine Mitchell, April 3, 1917

Following Henry

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Selected Images from the Collection

Henry describes the devastation of France in his letters
but nothing speaks as loudly as the photographs he left behind.

See all World War I Photos from the Henry Howard Houston II collection


Themes in Henry's letters.


"All of us instantly became fatalists"

In some of his most revealing letters, Henry struggles to articulate how it feels to be in combat. In a letter to his friend and confidant Valentine Mitchell, Henry writes:

You know I promised to tell you how it feels, so I suppose I shall have to try, although I can’t even quite explain it to myself. Yesterday we went over a hill and started down the road. Our guide said, “Gentleman, that line where you see French shells bursting is the German trenches.” Well, right then and there I experienced the most peculiar sensation I have ever felt. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t excitement, it wasn’t curiosity, it wasn’t battle-lust, it wasn’t anything I even could of imagined, just the very idea that over there in plain sight were men who by pressing their buttons could blow you into kingdom come and refrained for no reason at all, just the stupendousness of the whole thing, your absolute importance and littleness, and the invincibility of fate.
"Oh Hell!" he continues, "There is not any use trying, it just simply can't be described."
The funny thing is that every other fellow felt exactly the same thing, and yet none of us can tell the others what we felt, we simple call it "that feeling." All of us instantly became fatalists, for if one were not a fatalist it would be impossible to keep sane.

Just a few days later, Henry writes again to say that everything has changed. "The other day I thought I knew what it meant to be under fire because I had heard three shells burst. I know now that that was nothing."

On Sunday and Monday the 18th and 19th there were big doings and I know now what it means to be afraid. Have you ever had the feeling that the next second may end everything forever for you? Have you ever looked death square, slap-bang in the face and wondered why you had survived so long? Of course you haven’t, no one who has not been over here has felt it. It’s terrible, terrifying, hopeless fear.

These words by Henry -- "the next second may end everything forever for you" -- take on special significance in light of Henry's own death in 1918.

Modern Warfare

" is men against machinery and life and death is all a matter of luck."

The first World War saw the development of new kinds of fighting. We get glimpses of this through Henry.

Henry writes to his mother on Easter Day, 1917 about fitting in with the new modes of warfare:

Aviation is the only phase of modern warfare in which it is man against man, if the other fellow gets you before you get him it’s your own fault. In every other phase it is men against machinery and life and death is all a matter of luck.

Trench warfare was a defining element of the First World War. The space between the trenches, called no man’s land, would often be barren as bombs from both armies destroy all buildings, trees and animal life. Henry describes a trip to the front:

At one outpost we were thirty yards from the enemy, at another twenty, and at a third only fifteen…We stood up several times and looked over No Man’s Land and the Borche trenches, but the swine were keeping pretty low and we didn’t see any of them. No Man’s Land is the most desolate sight imaginable.

Desirability of War

"I don’t know just how to feel about the U.S. getting into this war."

Few people actively wish for war, and Henry wasn’t one of them. It’s clear that he struggles with his own feelings concerning the topic of U.S. involvement in the war.

Henry writes to Valentine Mitchell, on April 3 1917 about how conflicted he is about the United States entering the World War:

I don’t know just how to feel about the US getting into this war. Of course theoretically I honestly believe it is the only thing to do -- we should have been in it long ago -- yet I hate the idea of even one young American getting into those trenches. Yes- it is right and proper for us to stand by France and help to lick les salles Boche, but I can’t help feeling that “everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."... Yes, we should be in it, yet can you imagine your friends blown to pieces the way I have seen men blown to pieces and regard the prospect with any degree of equanimity? I can’t.

If Henry struggles with the necessity of including Americans in the war, he’s more certain about the need for ensuring that everyone in America becomes involved. In a letter to his mother on Easter Day, 1917, Henry puts the issue in decidedly class-conscious terms:

It would be a crime to send a purely volunteer army over here. That would mean that the patriotic men, the upper classes, the men who should be saved and trained as officers, would all volunteer and be killed off as were the English, while the uneducated and less public spirited slackers would be left to carry on the war to its finish and then govern the nation.

Continuing in his thoughts on forced enlistment versus volunteerism, Henry writes to Valentine (whom he affectionately calls Vava) on April 21st :

Now if Congress will only have the sense to realize that conscription is the only fair way to form an army, and they will back up the President, who really seems to be doing well now except for the fact that he has made Col. House chairman of a commission to come over here and has made Dr. Grayson a rear Admiral, there may still be some hope for a speedy termination of the war.

July of that same year, Henry combines both pity for new soldiers and a call for more action in his description of the arrival of American forces in Paris.

Such enthusiasm I had never imagined – Paris went wild, and Paris is capable of quite a little wildness… Yet in spite of all the excitement, all the enthusiasm, all the joy, one could not help feeling sorry for those men. Just think – not one man, not even one officer, of these American Troops had the slightest conception of what they were going into. In a few weeks those men will be in the trenches. They will be full of energy, bravery, and foolhardiness. They won’t realize what they are in for and will simply commit suicide. All of our first troops that come over will be wiped out… you ask how the great mass of the American peple is to be aroused to a proper war spirt – wait until you see the effect that a few casualty lists will have on public opinion. The U.S. won’t realize that war really is hell until a couple of thousand Americans have been killed. Then after we have begun to lose a little blood we will wake up with a jump and start to do things. It’s a pity we can’t get stirred up and have a really efficient army and government without being bled a bit first, but let’s hope that we will wake up and do something soon.


Topics represented in Henry's letters and photographs

Pancho Villa and the Mexican Expedition

In March 1916, Mexican Revolutionary general José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Pancho Villa, attacked the small U.S. town of Columbus, New Mexico. Though the purpose of the attack on Columbus remains a matter of debate, Pancho Villa had reason to resent the United States for recognizing the government of José Venustiano Carranza Garza, Pancho Villa’s revolutionary rival.

Pacho Villa’s forces were able to cause significant damage to Columbus before being driven out. Shortly afterwards, President Woodrow Wilson authorized a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa. Additionally, National Guard troops from around the country were mobilized to guard the U.S.-Mexican border against future raids. Villa was not captured, and additional raids did not happen.

Henry, like many of the men sent to the border, spent much of their time in training and preparation. Troop reviews served as a show of force for would-be Mexican attackers. Henry describes one such scene:

Yesterday there was the biggest review of the U.S. troops since the Civil War. Over 26,000 participated … We marched into El Paso by a roundabout route and then all through the town going back to Fort Bliss to be reviewed.

The United States was showing its force at the border. However, within the context of the world’s stage, with war raging in Europe, Henry puts the scene in perspective:

It was really most impressive seeing all those men gathered together and being one of them, but when you think that the whole thing was about five eighths of a Germany army corps it is really pathetic.

Images from Henry's time in Texas

Henry's summer in Texas guarding the Mexican border prepared him, in many ways, for the rest of his life. He experienced both the excitement and the dullness that comes with serving in the military. He saw what he considered shortcomings of the system. Eager to be helpful in the conflict that was engulfing the world, he sought out a more active service. His next step would be joining the Ambulance corps in France.

Ambulance Corp

The most useful he can be.

Before the U.S. entered the war, one of the most active ways a U.S citizen could help the allied cause was to volunteer to join the Ambulance Corps.

In a letter to his father: “There are many men here now that truck sections are being formed to carry munitions to the front. The French Army has said that this is the best way we can help as their recent offensive was so unsuccessful on account of the lack of truck drivers.”

Even after the U.S. joined the war, the Ambulance Service continued to be an active way to participate. To leave France was to risk leaving the site of the action only to spend months in training, or even worse, being stationed in an out-of-the-way location such as Alaska or the Philippines.

The United States is at war, the war is in France, I am in France working (in a small way) for the common cause (that is a bombastic phrase)- wouldn’t it be foolish for me to go back to America? Seems so to me.
Henry remained in the Ambulance Corps until mid-1917, at which time he transferred to the Auto-Transport school to continue helping the French move people and goods back and forth to the front.

Images from Henry's time in the Ambulance Service

Aerial Observation

A new way to see.

The ability to inflict damage from a distance greatly increased with the development of artillery, and one of the defining aspects of the First World War was the fact that sudden death was often a possibility. However, the ability to shoot far is of little benefit without a method of determining how close to the target the shots are. Aerial observation was the solution to the problem of being able to shoot farther than a gunner can see.

In a letter to his father, Henry explains the relationship, as he sees it, between aerial observation and the other components of artillery.

This is the branch of aviation for which all other branches exist. A fighting plane goes up merely to protect friendly observation planes and sink enemy craft. Artillery would be blind without aerial observation. By getting into this game, I am not getting out of Artillery but merely raising it to the 17th power.

A month later, Henry explains the training:

At present we are flying 'puff targets' which give us a very good simulation of artillery fire control. We see a puff at the battery and then a puff near the target. Then we tell the battery by wireless how far short, over, right, and left the shots are. The battery can talk to us by putting out ground panels. It is good sport, but it is hard to estimate the distance as accurately as they require - with an error of less than thirty yards.

Aerial observation images

Gallery Credits

The letters and photographs used in this gallery were digitized and cataloged by Robert Teel, Summer 2015 Digital Library Intern.

The gallery was developed by Scott Ziegler, Web Development Librarian, and Robert Teel. Additional assistance by Charles Greifenstein, Associate Librarian & Curator of Manuscripts.

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