Providence Public Buildings Department
Papers and records, 1917-1921.
Size: 0.5 lin. ft.
Catalog number: MSS 214, sg 8
Processed by: Robin Flynn, March 1998
©Rhode Island Historical Society
During 1917 and 1918, several workers from the Providence Public Buildings Department enlisted to serve in World War I. The city resolved to hold open the jobs they had left, and to pay them the difference between their city and military pay rates out of a specially established fund. For the duration of their service, the enlisted men's jobs would be filled by temporary employees.
As a condition for continuance of city pay, the soldiers had to send weekly letters or cards to the commissioner of the Department, William E. Hartwell, stating their military status and pay rate and notifying him of any change in either. The enlisted men served in varying levels of military service. Three of them, Louis A. Watson (1894-1963), Archibald MacLaughlin, and John A. Murray, were involved in action on the Western Front. MacLaughlin and Watson served as artillerymen for the 103rd Regiment, 26th Division Armed Expeditionary Forces (A. E. F.), though for different batteries: Watson was Battery "B", MacLaughlin Battery "C".
In Watson's case, what began as a fulfillment of Hartwell's simple requirement transitioned into detailed, extraordinary letters recounting his experiences on the Front from February to November, 1918. No other employee wrote as consistently or as specifically. Overall, Watson's letters cover the period from September, 1917 to April 1919, from his early days of training in the United States to the post-Armistice period when he waited impatiently to be sent back home to Providence. Among all the workers represented in this collection, Watson and MacLaughlin were the first to be sent to the front lines. Due to absence of correspondence, MacLaughlin's fate is unclear; Watson is the only employee known to have seen extensive and intense action on the Western Front, serving without rest for nine straight months.
The division in which Watson and Archibald MacLaughlin served, the 26th, is known in the historical context of World War I as the "Yankee Division" and "Savior of Paris". The first full American division to arrive in France, it emerged as one of the most famous of the war for its role in forcing the final decline of Germany's war machine, beginning with the Second Battle of the Marne during the summer of 1918. For its effectiveness in battle, the French generals labelled the 26th "the pick of the shock troops", a fact which Watson proudly mentions in one of his letters. It was during the Marne campaign that the Division's 51st Brigade of Field Artillery, to which Battery B belonged, gained the distinction of making the greatest advance (40 kilometers) along the front of any unit in the war. Other major campaigns in which the division was invaluable were Seicheprey, Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, Argonne, and Verdun. Due to extremely heavy losses in the very last days before the Armistice was signed, approximately 15 percent of the 26th's original enlistment remained at war's end.
Louis Watson remained in France as a "peace-time" soldier until April, 1919, when he was finally shipped home to Providence. He resumed his job as chauffeur for the Buildings Department, and married Doris Redman, his pre-war fiancee, in August, 1919. The couple had two daughters, Barbara, who married William F. Nicholson in 1943 and later became a state representative; and Beverly, who died in early adulthood in 1953. Barbara died in 1985.
Watson continued to live in Providence, working alternately as a chauffeur, firefighter, and lineman, until the early 1940s, when he moved to Warwick. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Watson served as a custodian in the Warwick School system and as a school crossing guard for the city police department. He died in Warwick in December, 1963 at the age of 69. His wife, Doris, died in 1982.
Committee from the Battery. History of Battery B, One-Hundred Third Field Artillery, Twenty- Sixth Division (Providence, 1922)
Kernan, W. F. and Samson, H. T. History of the 103rd Field Artillery (Providence, Remington Printing Co., 193[?])
Nelson, J. A Brief History of the Fighting Yankee Division, A.E.F. (Worcester, 1919).
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Scope and content:
The date range of the correspondence is May, 1917 to February, 1921 with the bulk falling between 1917 and 1919. Most letters are from Hartwell's office and Louis Watson. Among Hartwell's letters are listings of the employees who enlisted, their military assignments, and their city and military pay rates. The letters of the other enlisted men describe their various locations or experiences as soldiers, engineers, seamen, and airmen. As a whole, their letters reflect a well-rounded picture of the American experience in the war effort. Correspondence from the group picks up in frequency, intensity, and participant level in the late summer months of 1918, paralleling America's increasing influence on moving the war toward its end.
Most of the letters from Hartwell's office concern issues directly related to pay policies. Occasionally, his letters include responses to the descriptions of war events that his employees incorporate in their correspondence.
Armed Expeditionary Forces:
Battery B, 103rd Reg. Field Artillery, 26th Division - Louis A. Watson
Battery C, 103rd Reg. Field Artillery, 26th Division - Archibald MacLaughlin (Sgt.)
Battery E, 55th Artillery, C.A.C. (Coast Artillery Corps) - John A. Murray (Lt.)
Company F, 4th Infantry - Charles Winters
35th Engineers / 35th Transportation Corps - Bernard McDermott
U.S.S. America - Arthur Bliss
U.S.S. Leviathan - William Woodcock
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The collection was placed on deposit from the City of Providence in 1975.
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The letters were originally arranged chronologically and stored in flat archival folders. In 1998, the letters were re-housed in upright archival folders and boxes; additionally, a study of the history behind the collection was done and an inventory compiled. Funds for the processing of this collection were supplied by the Woleon-Halpert Fund, in memory of Rose Anna Woleon and Abram Halpert.
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Box 1 of 1.
Folder 1. May, 1917 "Resolution Relative to Pay of City Employees while Engaged in Military Service", 1917
Folder 2. June, 1917
Folder 3. July 1-10, 1917
Folder 4. July 11-31, 1917
Folder 5. August, 1917
Folder 6. September, 1917
Folder 7. October 1917
Folder 8. November 1917
Folder 9. December 1-13, 1917
Folder 10. December 14-31, 1917
Folder 11. Jan. 1-18, 1918
Folder 12. Jan. 22-31, 1918
Folder 13. Feb. 1-7, 1918
Folder 14. Feb. 5-28, 1918
Folder 15. Mar. 1-16, 1918
Folder 16. Mar. 17-31, 1918
Folder 17. April, 1918
Folder 18. May 1-14, 1918
Folder 19. May 15-31, 1918
Folder 20. June, 1918
Folder 21. July, 1918
Folder 22. August, 1918
Folder 23. Sept. 1-11, 1918
Folder 24. Sept. 12-30, 1918
Folder 25. October, 1918
Folder 26. November, 1918
Folder 27. December 1-15, 1918
Folder 28. December 16-31, 1918
Folder 29. January, 1919
Folder 30. February, 1919
Folder 31. March, 1919
Folder 32. April-May, 1919
Folder 33. June-July, 1919
February, 1921 (one letter)
Folder 34. Checklist of names (McLaughlin, Watson, Bliss)
Authorizations receipts for paychecks, 1917 and 1918
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Hartwell, William E. (1864-1932)
Murray, John A.
United States - National Guard - World War, 1914-1918
United States. Army - Artillery - World War, 1914-1918
United States. Army - Military life - World War, 1914-1918
United States. Army - Foreign service - World War, 1914-1918
United States. Army - 26th Division - World War, 1914-1918
Watson, Louis Augustus (1894-1963)
World War, 1914-1918 - Campaigns - France
World War, 1914-1918 - Personal narratives
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