CONTENT WARNING: This post includes graphic photos of wounded and dead people. Discretion is advised.
One of the more varied wartime experiences in the Veterans History Project belongs to a veteran whose voice we cannot hear. Longshaw Kraus Porritt of Canton, Connecticut: one of only two veterans in the archive who served in World War One.
In 1982 – nearly 20 years before the Veterans History Project was founded – Longshaw died of natural causes. While we don’t have his oral history, the archive does contains his vast collection of photographs, scrapbooks, and a written memoir.
From these resources, we know that Longshaw first enlisted in the American Ambulance Field Service in March 1917, entering a war already 3 years old. Just two weeks later, President Woodrow Wilson finally asked Congress to declare war.
Longshaw served for six months on the Western Front providing medical support for French troops. He saw the Allies undertake the disastrous Neville Offensive while he served at Verdun – just one year after the famous battle there – and at Chemin des Dames. For exceptional service, Longshaw was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
But by June of 1917, we know that Longshaw was lamenting his status:
“I feel I ought to be doing more for the cause which my country has at last espoused…
We are over here, willing, anxious to do our share…”Longshaw Porritt
For three years President Woodrow Wilson had resisted US entry into the Great War. During those years hundreds of enthusiastic Americans like Longshaw had volunteered to help other armies in a war they believed in.
Though the United States had finally entered the fight in 1917, it would still take months for the first American troops to reach Europe. Longshaw explained his frustrations in a letter published by the New York Times:
In September, Longshaw’s six month commitment to the Ambulance Service was over. The eager 23-year-old was ready to join the fight, but wanted to avoid the “unnecessary cost and danger of two ocean passages, and losing much valuable time both waiting to get into our American service and also, when in, waiting to get back to the front again.”
So, Longshaw signed on with the US Navy at their base in Brest, enlisting in the six-year-old US Naval Aviation Service.
From an ambulance on the Western Front, he now found himself onboard the USS Corsair (the former yacht of J.P. Morgan) patrolling for submarines in the stormy Bay of Biscay and rescuing survivors from sinking transports.
“I was sworn in to the U.S. Navy in the wardroom of the Corsair, at about 4PM on Sept. 5. By 10PM that same day, I was standing a gun watch on the quarter deck of the Corsair, looking for enemy submarines and survivors of a sunken ship.”Longshaw Porritt
WWI was a war of technological innovation.
The conflict saw some of the first instances of submarine, tank, and air warfare. For six weeks onboard the USS Corsair, Longshaw guarded against one deadly new technology – submarines – before disembarking to wield another new tool of war: airplanes.
In October of 1917 Longshaw began training at a Naval Aviation school at Mouchic, France. However, an accident while unloading plane parts at the school left him with a broken foot. Longshaw was sent to a hospital in Brest to recover.
While there, news broke about allied Italy’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto.
The Western Front had endured the bloody stalemate of trench warfare for years. Italy and Austria, fighting along their mountainous border, was an entirely different situation. To make matters worse, the disastrous Battle of Caporetto – which concluded with the surrender of an entire Italian army – occurred at the same time as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
With Moscow in turmoil and Austrians advancing on Venice, the Allies feared the loss of both Italy and Russia from their camp. Without these two nations, German and Austrian troops from two fronts would be redeployed to break the stalemate on the Western Front and finally conquer France.
However, at that time the USA had declared war on Germany only, not Austria. No American troops could join the fight in Italy.
Instead, Americans once more volunteered to drive ambulances. One recruiter learned of Longshaw’s previous experience on the Western Front and offered immediate promotion to 2nd Lieutenant and sweetened the deal by quadrupling his navy pay.
As 1918 began, Longshaw arrived in Italy, once again an ambulance driver in the service of a foreign army.
Notably, a fellow American ambulance driver was the author Ernest Hemingway. Both Hemingway and Porritt wrote essays for their unit newspaper, Ciao. A creative letter to Hemingway from this time even mentions Longshaw’s recovery from a bout of depression, evinced by his telling tall tales at lunch again.
As an ambulance driver Longshaw relied on yet another relatively novel tool: the automobile. Ford and Fiat ambulances navigated steep roads through the Alps, rushing wounded men from the front lines to hospitals in the rear.
These small, rugged automobiles drove without headlights (to avoid enemy aircraft) and dodged shellholes while sharing the road with dog carts and ox drawn wagons:
Wounded men would be carried from the battlefield by hand, then loaded onboard a vehicle. From there, it was a sprint to deliver the wounded into adequate medical care. Longshaw’s photos can only hint at this frantic, bloody race against time and terrain.
Like any military job, hurry-up-and-wait was the standing order. Longshaw’s many photos capture life behind the front lines, where he waited for the next clash, the rush of casualties, and the next race against time.
WWI was an artillery war, first and foremost. The famous trenches that defined the conflict were the only feasible response to tremendous advances in the quality and quantity of artillery. From the rear, Longshaw passed his time alongside batteries as they lobbed shells towards an enemy rarely seen.
Longhsaw appears in some of these photos, the ambulance driver trying his hand at loading a cannon or aiming a mortar:
It was only when the lines shifted that Longshaw witnessed the destruction wrought by artillery. His pictures of broken buildings, pockmarked walls, and wrecked vehicles show the grim consequences of so much firepower.
Longshaw also took the time to document the ultimate cost of war. His haunting photos of corpses speak for themselves.
The wounded, those that Longshaw raced towards hospitals: these were the lucky ones, and they knew it.
Longshaw’s moments of respite came with a leave spent in Venice, or an afternoon horsing around with souvenirs:
For his service in support of the Italian army, Longshaw was awarded the Croce Merito Di Guerra. As the war concluded, he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant.
With the war finally over, Longshaw returned to Connecticut. He moved to Hartford to live in the Parkville neighborhood for some time.
After his years of service, Longshaw found himself in a position familiar to many: surrounded by red tape, struggling to quantify his service and gain the benefits he thought due.
Longshaw Porritt was denied the Connecticut WWI veteran’s bonus. His years driving ambulances did not qualify by the terms of that bonus, and his brief stint in the Navy – cut short by a broken foot – only lasted 79 days: 11 short of the qualifying mark.
We know as much as we do about Longshaw’s service because he penned a brief memoir of his service in 1974 – just 8 years before his death. That summary was part of an appeal to the State of Connecticut, explaining the circumstances of Longshaw’s long and decorated service. In 1975, that appeal was again denied.
Longshaw’s memoir, along with his collection of photographs and souvenirs, offers a vital glimpse into a time lost to living memory. Among his newspaper clippings is a prescient letter that understood how easily this first world war could be followed by another:
“I don’t believe in putting them [Germany] up on a pedestal… but neither do I believe in hanging such a millstone of scorn and reproach around their necks that they cannot pull themselves up again.
All men who have fought in this war will agree on one thing- that is that this is the last war we want to fight in.
Should a humiliated and defeated Germany be boycotted by the rest of the world, one thought would soon rise foremost in her mind: to get even.
Those of us who survive this deserve something better than that for our efforts.”Longshaw Porritt