KU project will put WWI poetry by American immigrants on the Web

Digitization effort coincides with 100-year anniversary of the Great War

Pictured is a scan of the poem Oh

American immigrants wrote an “enormous body” of poetry in response to World War I, a Kansas University researcher says.

But most isn’t readable without physically digging into a variety of repositories scattered across the country in various libraries and in various forms — from bound books to more fleeting forms of communication such as newsletters and papers.

A digitization project is coming to the rescue.

Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of German and academic director for KU’s European Studies Program, is teaming up with colleagues at Kansas State University on the project to create a digital archive of American poetry written in response to WWI.

Specifically, Vanchena’s KU branch of the project is focusing on poems penned by American immigrants, many German but also some Mexican and Irish, Vanchena said.

The Max Kade Center is home to Kansas University’s Germanic-American Studies and KU’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. The limestone house, which was built in 1927, is at 1134 W. 11th St.

She expects hundreds of immigrant poems — plus hundreds more being collected by K-State — to be live on a newly created website by 2017, the 100th anniversary of the year the United States entered WWI. But that, she said, is the “tip of the iceberg.”

“We, of course, hope to keep working on this project beyond the commemoration,” Vanchena said. “It has the potential to just grow and grow.”

Enabled by a grant from the KU Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities and KU’s Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, Vanchena and three undergraduate researchers joined the effort started at K-State.

They’ve been combing holdings at KU — including WWI periodicals housed at the Max Kade Center — and transcribing and encoding them, Vanchena said. Ultimately each poem will be presented online with historical, cultural and political context.

Lorie Vanchena

One student researcher is Caelan Graham, a Lawrence sophomore majoring in environmental studies and European studies, with a minor in German.

Graham, who connected with the project through KU’s Center for Undergraduate Research, said it’s been fascinating to see the war from immigrants’ perspectives — especially the contrast between German-Americans who were pro-United States and those who sympathized with their homeland.

“Normally with war you usually hear about the mechanics of war and the key figures involved,” Graham said. “This project has really given us some insight into how war in general affects people, all over the world.”

Vanchena said it sometimes astounded her that German-Americans — who had migrated to the United States since the 17th century — became targets of “virulent nativism” during the war even before the United States joined the fight, but they were.

“Some were tarred and feathered and even lynched for not buying war bonds, and many had to register as enemy aliens (even American-born wives of German immigrants) — at least one elderly man showed up to register wearing his Union uniform from the Civil War,” Vanchena said.

Pictured is a scan of the poem Oh

Some of the poems reflect those hardships, while others are patriotic, she said. Yet other poems describe horrors of the battlefield and being far from home.

“It is often times difficult poetry to read and think about,” Vanchena said. “It’s about war. These are difficult topics.”

Yet the century-old poems remain relevant today, she said. Their themes mirror global issues of refugees in Europe, people being uprooted in war-torn countries and competing loyalties they may have.

In addition to the free online access the project will enable, poems themselves are an “accessible” way to see the war, said Andrew Crist, a senior in economics and math who’s working on the project.

“If we’re talking about a novel, that’s something that a reader really has to invest himself in to digest,” Crist said, in a KU video interview. “But when we’re talking about poetry it can be two stanzas of four lines each in a newsletter that they get every week. And that’s something that’s much more accessible. It’s these short little poignant poems that really can get the point across effectively.”

Good-bye Broadway! Hello France!

This poem appears in “The World War I Diary of José de la Luz Sáenz,” who served in France and Germany in 1918. Published initially in Spanish in 1933, the book recounts Sáenz’s war experiences as well as those of his fellow Mexican-Americans. According to the book this poem is a “sad parody” of another song.

Good-bye New York town, good-bye Miss Liberty,

Your light of freedom will guide us across the sea,

Ev’ry soldier’s sweetheart biding good-bye, [sic: bidding]

Ev’ry soldier’s mother drying her eye.

Cheer up, we’ll soon be there,

Singing this Yankee song.




Good-bye Texas, Hello France. We’re one million strong.

Good-bye sweethearts, wives and mothers,

It won’t take us along, [sic: long]

Don’t you worry while we’re there,

It’s for you that we’re fighting too,

So, good-bye Texas, Hello France,

We’re going to square our debt to you.


Viva Pershing! is the cry across the sea.

We’re united in this fight for liberty,

France sent us a soldier, brave La Fayette

Whose deed and fame we cannot forget.

Now that we have the chance

We’ll pay our debt to France.


Source: Lorie Vanchena, Kansas University