Books & Movies: Over There with Private Graham–The Compelling World War I Journal of an American Doughboy



“Over There with Private Graham” is a “compelling” AEF war diary–especially with regards to the 28th Division.  The finding and publishing of the diary is a story worth telling too.


Private William J. Graham of Philadelphia was a cop before the war with a wife and seven children.  At the advanced age of thirty-eight he joined the A.E.F. as a military policeman in Company B, 103rd Military Police Battalion, 28th Division.  To quote from the preface:  “Private / Bugler William J. Graham was not a garrison M.P. who slept in a comfortable bed, ate well, wore polished boots…  He was a field M.P. who was as well acquainted with deprivation and death as any muddy front line doughboy.  He was a mature and keen observer of detail often displaying what appears to have been a photographic memory.  Courageous and proudly American, he reveals himself to be a man of great integrity and compassion…  His objective view of the destruction that was happening all around him serves us as an uncensored “everyman’s” account of the western front during the deadly closing months of the war and immediate aftermath.”  (Page xvi.)  After reading sections of the diary, the Webmaster agrees wholeheartedly with this characterization.  Because Private Graham found time to scribble in his diary while events were still fresh in his memory, his entries are full of detail.  The resulting outcome–more than 600 pages of hand-written diary–is a solid first-hand account of the A.E.F. efforts (largely) during the second half of 1918.  This work will be of greatest interest to those readers who had a relative fighting in or who have a specific interest in the 28th Division, because the 103rd M.P. Battalion spent most of its time in France with that division.


In the reviewer’s opinion, it appears that some of Private Graham’s deep observations must have been drawn from being an avid reader of the war-time press and / or from discussions with officers in his unit or elsewhere in the Division–in addition to his police experience.  For example, his multi-paragraph assessment of French General Charles Mangin is significantly deeper than one would expect from a simple private in an M.P. unit.  Transcriber Bruce Jarvis believes that the diary is “a hybrid of real time and immediately post-Armistice writing.”  Bruce basis this, in part, on the fact that Harry Proctor used Graham’s quotes in his 1919 book, “The Iron Division.”  (See next paragraph.)


The finding of the diary and its ultimate publishing provides a second interesting narrative.  In 2001 transcriber, Bruce Jarvis, purchased “a large stack of unbound handwritten double-sided pages that were described by the internet seller as being written in 1918 and of a military nature with few specifics.”  (Page xiii.)  While the document did not include the author’s full name, there were sufficient clues to guess at the unit, and the author referred to someone calling him “Bill.”  A year or two later Bruce purchased a copy of “The Iron Division, National Guard of Pennsylvania in the World War” and found that “some of the stronger passages were verbatim quotes out of our mystery “Bill’s” war journal.”  Subsequent research revealed that the author of “The Iron Division” was a Philadelphia reporter who did not serve in France, but who paid veterans for content.  It wasn’t until Bruce purchased a copy of the five-volume set of “Pennsylvania in the Great War” that he was able to cross reference the names listed in the diary and discover that the writer was Bugler William J. Graham of Company B, 103rd Military Police Battalion.  The book was first published using the title “Hell’s Observer” in 2012–eleven years after the initial purchase of the diary.  But the story did not end there:  In 2016 a descendent of William Graham contacted him, indicating that she had additional handwritten journals and other artifacts of interest.  This ultimately led to the more complete 2018 reprint as “Over There with Private Graham.”  [The Webmaster and readers need to thank researchers, authors and publishers who find these treasures and keep them out of the rubbish bin!]


In the reviewer’s opinion, there are a few minor weaknesses, as one might expect in most any book.  First, readers should understand that this is an “everyman’s” account of the war.  One is not reading the war diary of a famous commander.  Second, in the Webmaster’s opinion, there are too many photos.  The transcribers have included a lot of photos of American and German soldiers–even though a good number of them do not contribute directly to the story.  Third, this 450-page large-format book is not cheap:  According to Amazon, the prices are $59.95 hardback, $50.78 paperback and $24.95 Kindle.


Finally, the Webmaster has to beg forgiveness for a late book review.  He received a review copy of the book in July 2018, but has just finished the review.


“Over There with Private Graham:  The Compelling World War I Journal of an American Doughboy” was transcribed and edited from the original journal by Bruce A. Jarvis and C. Stephen Badgley.  It was published in 2018 by Badgley Publishing Company, Canal Winchester, OH.  ISBN No. 978-0-9988045-2-1.