Friday, March 19, 2010

James Murrin & The Great European War

(News-Herald, March 18) Thirty-nine years ago this month, a notable Franklin figures passed away. James Murrin was a newsman, a man who devoted his life to the newspaper business and the community that supported it.
When Murrin graduated from high school in 1912, he immediately moved to Franklin to begin work at the News-Herald. He started out working for his uncle, James Borland, another great newsman and community leader in Franklin. Borland had dropped out of school to start his newspaper; presumably he did not hold Murrin’s diploma against him.
Murrin followed in his uncle’s footsteps, and not just by becoming a newspaper editor. He became postmaster, charter member of the American Legion post, a Rotarian, a life member of the BPOE, a city councilman and a member of the library board. He had a son, Ralph, and a daughter, Nita, who married Lutheran pastor Dr. Robert Thurau.
But before all of that, James Murrin fought in the First World War, and he wrote a book about it—With the 112th in France: A Doughboy’s Story of the War. Thanks to a publishing house (Shelf2Life) with an interest in publishing pre-1923 memoirs of the Great War, Murrin’s book is once again available.
Like many young men from Venangoland, Murrin served in Company F, 112th Regiment, 28th Division. In the summer of 1917, he enlisted. The order to mobilize the National Guard came on July 15. Murrin married Helen Wilson on July 20. He was 22 years old.
Murrin’s book is a testament to his background as a journalist. His reporting is thorough (sometimes too thorough—it seems that he is determined to make sure that each name of each individual makes it into the historical record).
After training in the South, the 112th shipped for France in May of 1918; they would return to the US almost exactly a year later.
The first part of their time there was spent in the time-honored game of Hurry Up And Wait. Murrin’s account is indeed a soldier-eye view of the war, often odd and unclear, cut off from any big picture that might be informing the commands the doughboys received. At one point the company is kept shuttling back and forth between two locations for no apparent reason.
Without whining or complaining, Murrin captures a sense of numbing drudgery, marching, waiting, sleeping, marching. The men pass the time with the simplest of activities, perhaps enjoying impromptu concerts by the regimental band.
The band of 112th gets its own chapter, a source of morale and pride in difficult times. The 112th Regiment Band would have a lasting affect here at home—many of these men (Coulter Hoffman, Major Olmes, Roy Miller, Harland Mitchell) would become important local musicians, and many would form the core of the celebrated American Legion Band of Oil City. Murrin lavishes considerable appreciation on the group.
He also shares a love and admiration for the commanding officer of the 112th, George C. Rickards. The young soldiers expressed great respect for Rickards, who by Murrin’s account was fifty-eight years old when he traveled to fight in France.
Ultimately the 112th ended up fighting in the battle of the Argonne Forest, one of the many incredibly costly battles of the war. It was part of a final offensive push that broke the back of the German army, and the cost was tremendous: the 112th went into the Argonne with 77 officers and 2892 men and finished with 10 officers and 533 men left on the front line.
The First World War should be better remembered. Not only was the war a study in the massive carnage that can be created by clueless leaders and aimless conflict, but a century later we still live with the effects. After the war, victorious powers decided to clean up the map by combining small countries into larger ones like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Iraq, and heck, we’ve hardly had any trouble in the Balkans or Middle East since then.
When the war is studied, it is usually in the large scale; it’s worth it to see how it looked to the average soldier, and in Murrin we have an average soldier who has above average reporting and writing skills. Some of the details are mundane (sleeping through the unit moving out) and some are surprising (discovering German faux tanks made of scraps of wood). The fact that he is a local, a man who would come home to be a pillar of this community, is a bonus. You can find the book on or other reputable on-line booksellers.

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