One hundred years ago, the only known Mormon to have kept a diary while serving in World War I recorded his first entry.
“One can never tell what the morrow will bring and the record of the few weeks I have been in the army might interest some one,” wrote Nels Anderson on June 9, 1918, five months before World War I would end in Nov. 11, 1918.
Anderson was born in Chicago in 1889 and lived to the age of 97. Over the years, he made a home in Utah, was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served in World War I, returned to Chicago, and became a celebrated sociologist and author.
At the age of 15, Anderson left home in part due to a tense relationship with his father and became a hobo. He met with varying degrees of success sneaking onto trains looking for work in railroad construction.
“While en route from Salt Lake City to Southern California, he was forcibly removed from a freight train and while walking along the track waiting for another opportunity to hop a train, he passed through Clover Valley,” Utah historian Kent Powell and editor of "Nels Anderson's World War I Diary" (University of Utah Press, 2013) wrote in an email interview.
It was in Clover Valley, Nevada, that Anderson was taken in by two families that would change the course of his life. His association with the Terry and Woods families allowed him to devour books on history and theology and nurtured his desire for an education.
“While working for the two families,” Powell said, “he learned about Mormonism and joined the faith in 1910.” He found in these families men to whom he could look as mentors and examples in things both temporal and spiritual.
Anderson considered enlisting to serve in World War I and was tempted by a rumor that those who enlisted would receive priority for officer status. However, he was in debt and decided to focus on earning a living — a relatively easy task given the surplus of available jobs left open by departing soldiers, Powell said.
The death of his father would ultimately serve as a catalyst for Anderson to enter the war, according to Powell. When returning home for the funeral of his father, a night spent reminiscing with his siblings led to a determination to enlist in the Army.
From April 1918 to August 1919, Anderson served in the U.S. Army. Soldiers were discouraged from keeping diaries of their service, but Anderson began a war journal in 1918 that contains hundreds of pages.
“The Nels Anderson Diary is significant as one of the most detailed and thorough accounts of an American solider during the war,” wrote Powell in the interview. “It is of particular interest to Mormons and Utahns because of his ties to the Mormon faith and the state.”
“Anderson’s diary documents a number of challenges,” wrote Powell. “The fear he would not measure up to the expectations of an American soldier, being assigned to a unit where he knew no one, maintaining ties with home, coping with the loss of friends and comrades.”
In page after page of personal accounts and contemplation, Anderson paints a multifaceted picture of wartime. His entry on Oct. 27 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive gives insight into his battle experience.
“I wish I could write down just how it feels to be under fire for four or five hours,” wrote Anderson in his diary. “The firing ceased after a while and we gathered ourselves together. We had one killed, four hurt and several gassed. … I stopped to help the wounded."
"It is hard work trying to carry a wounded man over a bad road at night with a gas mask on," he added.
On another occasion, Anderson describes a glance of immorality he encountered during a night and day in Paris.
“I got lost and wandered down near the river. There I saw the Americans and their French girls. It is more secluded there,” Anderson records in his entry for March 4-5, 1919. “I decided that Paris is ‘no place for a preacher’s son’ and I decided that 24 hours is enough for me in this place without a chaperone.”
Anderson’s diary takes readers from battle to battle, experience to experience, and thought to thought. However, while the worth of his diary for understanding the World War I experience is invaluable, Anderson thought little of it once his service was complete.
“In subsequent years, Anderson spoke only infrequently about his World War I service and had little interest in the diary,” Powell said.
Notwithstanding his eventual apathy towards the diary, Anderson’s writings and his life after the war remained firmly entwined in both Utah and Mormon history — even though Anderson had a unique relationship with religion.
“Anderson confessed that his joining the Mormon faith had to do more with joining the Mormon community … rather than for theological reasons,” wrote Powell.
Although Anderson married outside the faith and eventually stopped attending church services, he still considered himself to be a Mormon. While in his 80s, Anderson gave an address titled, “On My Being A Mormon.”
“In that address, he maintained that he was a Mormon and that the Mormons were his people’,” Powell said. “His definition of what constituted being a Mormon may have differed from that of many active in the faith, but in his heart, he was a Mormon.”
The final entry of the war journal reflects on the past, considers the future and embraces the present.1 comment on this story
“I have been in the army a year today,” Anderson wrote on April 27, 1919. “I have kept this diary faithfully all the while but I have decided to quit.”
“This has been the biggest year of my life. I am glad to have gone through it,” he continued. “My future will be richer by the experience I have had and the observations I have made.”
He concludes with an entry both surprising and satisfying for a war journal: “This afternoon I borrowed a pair of shoes and went to a party at the majors(.) There were many young folks there and we danced and had a big time.”
Editor's note: Kurt Manwaring is a personal friend of Kent Powell.