Pvt. Ned Crawford never aspired to serve in the military or fight in a war. But while working as a telephone lineman and switchboard installer, he unexpectedly found himself drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped overseas to fight in World War I.
He chronicled his experiences on the battlefield through letters home, mostly addressed to his best friend and coworker, Bill Marshall, who had escaped the draft because of his age.
Now nearly 100 years after the war's end, Crawford's daughter, Constance Crawford, has compiled those letters in the newly released book, "My Dear People: The World War I Letters of Private Ned Crawford."
The collection of 30 letters detail -- often in an intimate and humorous way --> an account of WWI through the eyes of a 31-year-old pacifist who said he only went to the war "because they'd put me in jail if I didn't."
Despite his abhorrence, Constance said her father's letters have a positive tone, encouraging his "dear people" -- which included his coworkers and friends, as well as Marshall's mother -- to appreciate life's beauty and comfort.
Constance, a creative writing student at Stanford University during the 1940s who now lives at Palo Alto's Channing House, said she first read the letters back in 1980, after Marshall's son, Ned (named after Constance's father), loaned them to her.
"I was just delighted that they existed," Constance said. "I was surprised at how funny they were. My father had a good sense of humor but it was a quiet quirky sense of humor that I think was in the letters, which really delighted me."
After seeing his words scrawled across page after page, Constance decided to compile her father's letters into a book for the family. As the years past, she began thinking that others might enjoy reading about his experiences, and put together "My Dear People," which includes her commentary as well as historical background about his military outfit.
"The idea of writing about real feelings and writing about real events in people's (lives) just thrilled me," she said.
Despite the positive, intelligent tone, Ned's letters are honest: He attempted to shatter the noble facade of war for his readers, as if he knew that others besides his "dear people" would read his accounts, Constance said.
Constance's favorite letter, No. 15, dated Nov. 15, 1918 (four days after the armistice), exemplifies this quality as he describes climbing a ruined tower and looking out over the Belgian countryside. His relaxation and joy show in that letter, she said.
"A massive tower has been shelled till it looks like a natural pinnacle in the mountains more than a man-made affair," Ned writes. "It is still possible to go to the very top -- about 300 ft. and from there is one of the grandest views I ever saw. And peaceful. The little details of destruction are not so noticeable from that height and the country stretches out like a green checkerboard, surely as pretty a country as a person could wish."
Constance said, "The fact that he would write about that personal joyful moment about climbing up there for the fun of it ... I think the release of that letter really makes it my favorite."
Ned wrote 15 letters during the war and 15 after its end, when he and his fellow soldiers shifted from camp to camp, waiting to be sent home. Despite the apparent boredom, Ned keeps on writing. Constance attributes this perseverance to his desire "to get letters back."
"He was very hungry for contact from home," she said.
Constance's own commentary on each letter attempts to aid the reader in a further understanding. She notes, in her commentary of letter No. 15, that although Ned's "ironic humor is in play," he "admits, for the first and last time, how frightened he was under fire." She provides a translation for his language, while still providing commentary on her opinion of her father's writing.
Particularly noteworthy is Constance's use of the present tense in her commentary, as if both she and the reader are with Ned in France. She said that she wrote in this style to mirror the feeling of the present.
"When you're holding a letter that's written on paper by a person, the marks of ink are in the present. The person is writing in the present. It's a present happening," she said.
Also noteworthy is the inclusion of a historical lens, written by Christopher McManus.
"I thought it would be good to have the solid military history aspect of the book so that it's not just the letters and my writing about my father but also about the history of his outfit," Constance said.