Reflection – What am I doing, and for who?

Summer has arrived in Sweden, we are now having great weather, and it looks like it will be a warm summer, but also not very good for the farmers, who need rain for their crops. I have had a very hectic spring and it will not be less to do this upcoming year at my work, looking at the development in the Swedish NATO process, and it is also frustrating to see the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe, who affects us a lot, all of us. My thoughts are very much on the Ukrainians.

I am thinking of them in terms of how the soldiers are struggling on the battlefields, it happens now, and it has happened before. Looking into my own research, following up those Swedish born soldiers who fought and fell in the Great War, trying to visit all of them, at their burial site, as we know it today. One day other people will maybe try to do the same, to visit those Swedish born soldiers who are fighting in this war today. Will it be possible? Where will they end up?

What am I calling my own activities? Is it Military History? Can we learn from the results of my research and put that into the modern Military History context today? Is anyone actually asking for my conclusions, to put it into any context, regarding emigration, politics or other perspectives, that will put the soldiers sacrifice into a meaningful context?

Or is it a kind of pilgrimage, but not directly connected to the religious pilgrimage that we first think of when we hear the word Pilgrimage? I know anyway what I personally get out of it.

From my perspective

Looking in deep into my own feelings, I feel very emotional when I am putting in all the Swedish soldiers names into my database, learning about who they were, when finding facts and photos from their lives, from when they were born, how they went out to a grater world around them, for several different reason, based on their life situations. Poverty, adventure, work opportunities, and other reasons connected to their decision to leave our country and start a new life somewhere else.

It is a great honor for me to conclude the story of every individual by visiting their final resting place, do my little ceremony, “talk” to them and salute them, when putting my hand on their “shoulders” by placing my hand upon the the right side if the headstone, or touching their names on the memorials. I say to them:

“-Imagine my friend, you are here now, imagine what you did, and what you must have experienced, I am so curious about to hear more from you, if you only had the ability to tell me … Well I am here now, and I will write about what you did, and maybe people back home, or from other countries, will one day understand, and maybe follow me on my trip when I am coming down to you next time. You are not forgotten, buddy, you will always be in my mind from now on. Rest in Peace, until we meet again.”

These meetings affect me more and more. They are not relatives to me, but I can anyway imagine that they become happy when I am there, a bit strange, I know, but I think you understand the feeling. The closest I am to any of my relatives to have been close to any activities in the Great War is one of my Grandfather’s parents siblings on my fathers side, who went to North America, and was drafted in the 5th of June 1917 draft, but never went overseas. But that doesn’t matter, I have taken on the role to be that one who will visit all those individuals that I find, and commemorate them in the way I find suitable. For me it means a lot to do that, it has become one of the most important things in my life.

Below you will find one of those 470 Swedish born soldiers that I have in my database so far, that fits my criterias within my research, which you can read more about here on my website. He symbolizes the work I do and which is very close to my heart.

Leonard Axel Larsson, who is buried at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, who emigrated to Canada with his family in 1899. He died November 8th, in the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele. He is also one of few who could keep his original spelling of his surname from Sweden, Larsson, with two “S”. Many other soldiers, who especially fought for Commonwealth and America, changed their surnames to be more “anglofied”, which is fully understandable.

The process

I am very focused on individuals. I really want to primarily put the individual in a geographical perspective, more than in a military context. The military context is of course important in a longer term, which comes naturally when looking into what his unit did at that specific day he fell, and that later on makes me understand a bit more what he did, and maybe something about the horror many of them faced.

I try to visualize the sum of all facts I get, into graphical projects, and putting text into this as well. I later on try to decide a date when I can travel to those different sites, to visit the last resting place of those individuals that I have found.

It is very easy to sit at home and look at the map, but then doing it in reality is a bit harder. I gladly put a lot of my own money into this, but when I do I must also try to get the most out of it, not losing the feeling that everyone shall get their special moment with me, that is very important.

When I am finally standing there, by the headstone or the name at the memorial, I feel happy. Happy to have made plans into real action, pleased over my own determination to really do what I can do to commemorate those down in the specific area.

At the same time I just want to turn around and tell someone that here he is! I met him! My mind is filled up with feelings of that I must share it, otherwise this is not worth anything, or is it anyway?

The important people around me

Are there any people around me in my work out on the battlefields? Yes, luckily there are. These later years I am not alone on the battlefield anymore, which was OK, but it is much better to share the experience. Take Danielle from Antwerp as an example. When she knows that I am in the same area as her, she always tries to meet up which is great! Then she has to stand all the talking that I do, but I think she copes with it quite well.

This summer I will have Wendy Maddocks from New Zealand with me, and together with me, travel in France to follow up the Swedes who fought and fell for the American Expeditionary Forces. That will be a great support, to travel with someone who shares the same interest. We will meet up with Sara and Pete in Flers, and rent their cottage, which is a great thing!

In April this year I also acted as a guide when I, together with 37 other Swedes, followed in the footsteps of the Swedes. That was a huge thing for me and I have already decided to do the next guided tour in 2025.

Then there are a great number of other people that mean very much to me, the very nice people from around the world, the people in the Great War Group. I look very much up to them, learning a lot from them, and trying to put the things they know into my own research. The activities with them have really meant a lot to me, to be in the situation that I am now. But I will probably never be as good as they are in the other perspective of Military History, the leaders, the battles, the tactics and so on. For me it will always be the specific individual soldier who will be in the center.

I hope one day I can meet more of you people out there, Bart Debeer in Belgium, Paul Reed when he is out on his trips in the area, Steve Marsdin and learn more about the things connected to the French units, Jim Smithson to really find out more about all the things connected to Arras in France. I can mention many, many more of you, but you all know who you are out there. If there will be an opportunity I would be glad to look into local connections and try to create material together with you out there, in the future, to highlight things from different worlds that ended up in differents situations on the battlefields. Looking very much forward to the Great War Group conference in Brighton, UK, in October, to meet some of members there.

Sometimes, like now, I ask myself which path I should walk on, and you have probably been there yourself, you Military Historians out there, when asking yourself the same question I do. I will have to focus, to go back to the original idea of what I want to do with all this material I have gathered. I think I will start to call my work some kind of Pilgrim Activities.

I have thoughts of trying to introduce myself more to the Swedish audience, try to write more articles in Swedish and so on. I want to organize trips down to Belgium and France, help people who think they have ancestors who participated in the Great War, and help them to travel to the soldiers. I don’t know if it will work, but I will try.

The output

My head is full of material, and it is bursting. I have written some articles about my research, but I want to write more. I have so many ideas about articles to write, I just have to concentrate on the main things that I have decided to do, and not be lured into other things, visualizing itself in the edges as I walk along my path.

As soon as possible I will try to write an article for the children’s magazine “Over the Top” which is connected to the Great War Group, and I really want to try to contribute more to the great magazine “Salient Points” which is outstanding when it comes to subjects connected to the Great War.

The Pilgrimage will continue

I mentioned that I am constantly learning from other people that I meet on my trips on the battlefields, and on my latest trip I met up with Heather Warfield who is doing a great work connected to Pilgrimage with, as I understand, connection to AEF and Gold Star Mothers, and their journeys in 1930s, but also in a wider perspective. She is often in the area of Belleau and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France.

That made me look into what those Swedish mothers and widows chose to do when it came to visit their sons and husbands who fell on the battlefield.

It turned out that around 12 of those mothers and widows who lived in the US at that time, Mothers who emigrated with the whole family from Sweden. I am now trying to find out why the others didn’t take the opportunity to do the trip, which was provided by the Act of Congress in 1929. A very small amount said no to the trip, but there is still a lot of information that is blank to me, which I am still trying to find.

Who could do those trips? The document about those Pilgrim trips says:

“An Act to enable the mothers and widows of the deceased soldiers, sailors, and marines of the American forces now interred in the cemeteries of Europe to make a pilgrimage to
these cemeteries.”

I have found around 40 mothers so far, who lived in Sweden at this time, who probably not were given this option, although mentioned as a “Next of Kin” (NOK) in the casualty card of the soldier. Was it only to those soldiers’ mothers who lived in the US who got this possibility? I am trying to find information about this.

I totally understand the logistics behind a thing like this, but there must have been not only just Swedish mothers in Sweden, but also other mothers from other countries, mentioned as NOK on the cards, who still lived in their home countries.

I have not yet found any documents that say that any of the Swedish mothers went from Sweden to such a Pilgrim Trip.

Until I know more about this subject, I will take the role of these mothers, to make the Pilgrim trip from Sweden, to all those Swedish born soldiers who are buried along the Western Front, not only those who fought for the American Troops, and visit them in the way as their mothers may should have done.

This will be my main focus from now, and be the way I contribute to the Military History perspective in Sweden, whatever it will mean for it.