Period television dramas like Downton Abbey achieve great success by presenting exciting personal narratives in a well-drawn context of the larger picture of a changing world in their period. Dr. Gregory Archer has employed that same method in writing Private Heller and the Bantam Boys: An American Medic in World War I.
Archer’s narrative snippets from the letters and remembrances of those who knew Private Heller are amazing. We owe the level of detail to the fact that Private Heller is his own great grandfather, a decorated medic in World War I. Archer has mined papers, letters and photos stored for many years to bring to life the struggles of a man he never met and who we get to know together through this work. Heller joined the fight for liberty in World War I before our own nation did. Like the famous author, Ernest Hemmingway, who also did not want to carry a gun or take the life of another, Heller became an Allied ambulance driver. In the case of Archer’s grandfather, it was the French, which put Heller in the action in northern France and Belgium,
some of the toughest of that war’s battlegrounds and where American forces joined the fight in 1917.
Archer is a clinical psychologist. Readers benefit from his insights into the man his grandfather was and into the nature of "shell shock" as they called it then, which was a manifestation of what we now call PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). In addition, Archer is a consummate researcher and excellent writer. He skillfully places Heller’s story in that greater context with just enough detail on battles, the politics of the era, and other relevant information to help us understand the why of Heller’s story and the changes he undergoes. War ravages more than landscapes. Archer helps us to understand why and how the horrors of the battles, daily privations, miserable living conditions, and even the noise wreaked havoc in his great-grandfather’s soul.
We are in the midst of the one hundred year anniversary of one of the most catastrophic wars of all times—The Great War. Lasting from 1914-1918 with an equally disastrous peace treaty negotiated in 1919, these years of carnage set the stage for the even greater destruction of WWII and likely, most of the problems we have in the Middle East (and elsewhere!) in the present day.
While most of the histories I have read focus on these large-scale reverberations and the broad scope of the fighting, Archer’s depictions of the personal horrors of these battles were something I had only "seen" before through the lens of fiction. Two years ago, I got my first in-person look at the Belgian battlefields with recreated trenches, and from letters, brief bits of tales of the machine gun woundings, and continual hand-to- hand combat horrors. Even photos like the ones in Archer’s book of the mud and rain. However, to hear it all from the viewpoint of one innocent young American, from war’s start (almost) to finish is a privilege, a hard one, but a privilege all the same.
Photos supplement Archer’s use of the personal and larger context. He uses family and other photos of the era connect us to war’s awful landscape and with the people of that era, soldiers, civilians and US home front, all people trying to enjoy the small normal moments amid a time of nightmares.
Archer’s Great –grandfather was never quite the same. In addition to telling a riveting tale, the book has a local connection for Myrtle Beach! Heller’s granddaughter, Archer’s mother, Martha J. Archer, lives right here on the Grand Strand! Archer’s mother spoke (through email) to the Sun News about her grandfather, who ended up, like many of today’s PTSD sufferers, being estranged from his beloved wife whose image helped keep him together during the war and from the rest of the family. Martha Archer was only seventeen when Heller died. Although she saw him only rarely due to his estrangement from the rest of the family, she would like us to know this about him: “He was one of WW1 highest decorated medics. He was tough but fair. He had PTSD because of the war and struggled with depression. But he never gave up. He was especially partial to my mother (youngest daughter) since she was 14 years younger than her brothers. He even handmade her a military “dog tag”; in case she got lost. He was a great combat photographer and according to an Army historian, he wrote one of the few complete diaries of medics in all of WW1.”
Archer writes with an eye to action-packed pacing skillfully entwined with an empathetic eye to the life of the individual soldier. This is a book well worth reading!
Joan Leotta, for The Sun News
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Title | Private Heller and the Bantam Boys: An American Medic in World War I
Author | Dr. Gregory Archer
Publisher | Lyons Press
Price | $26.95