Laurence Burke: Favorite Archive Find

I am a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.  The main thrust of my dissertation is the history of technology, but the particular technology I am studying is military.  Specifically, I am looking at how the U.S. military services adopted (and adapted) the airplane, and comparing that development across Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from 1908-1925.  (I keep saying this, but I hope to be done soon!)

 

In April of 2008, I started the archival research for my dissertation by visiting the Air Force Academy library’s special collections.  As this was my first intensive research visit, I had not yet developed any clear ideas as to what, exactly, I was looking for, so I was looking at a bit of everything.  I knew, however, that I needed to see the papers of General George Owen Squier, an important officer in the development of aviation in the U.S. Army.  This collection is what brought me to the Academy.

 

Though he never underwent flight training himself, Squier remained an aviation promoter and enthusiast once he had been exposed to flight.  I had not yet read deeply in secondary sources, but I knew that Squier had been Chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, for the last year or so before Army aviation separated from the Signal Corps in 1918.  I also knew that, from that position, he had supported the development of Army aviation.

 

But in reading his papers, I discovered that Squier was much more involved with (and important to) Army aviation than I knew.  One interesting thing I discovered concerned Squier’s time in London as military attaché in 1914.  In a presentation in 1930, Squier’s sister, Mary Squier Parker (the two were close – she survived him and was the one to donate his papers; the collection includes many of her papers as well), told members of a local Michigan club that her brother had been allowed to visit the British sector of the front in 1914 – this at a time when the U.S. was still strongly neutral, and when representatives of Britain’s declared allies (Russia and Japan) were reportedly denied similar access.  Since she was relating the story in an informal setting (academically speaking) many years after the fact, I mentally discounted the tale.  I figured that that this was just a sister’s pride in her brother’s achievements, combined with the inaccuracy of memory inflating his importance over time.  However, I soon found some other documents to corroborate the date and nature of George’s visit, and moved on with my research.

 

Toward the end of my scheduled time in Colorado Springs, I had been through everything I knew I wanted to see, and was at the point of just looking at other things on speculation.  The finding aid identified a collection of “News Clippings, 1899-1958” in “Package 7,” and I figured I would see what kind of stories were in these clippings.  But there was a problem: “Package 7” could not be found.  In fact, as I recall, none of the “packages” could be located. They were not on the shelf with the document boxes.  After a good bit of searching, the archivists found the “packages” back in the oversized documents storage.

 

The packages were little more than oversized envelopes, apparently untouched since their accessioning, as the envelopes were glued shut.  The reason the archivists had had a hard time locating Package 7 is that several of the packages had been placed together in a large Hollinger box and stored with the oversized documents.  As I opened the envelope that was Package 7, I could see that the contents were all loose clippings and odd-sized papers.  Since the archivists had no idea what was in the envelope, I promised to try to sort through the papers and report on their contents.  It quickly became clear that this envelope probably contained the contents of a desk drawer: there were multiple copies of articles from the local paper mentioning George, including perhaps two dozen copies of his obituary, along with other odds and ends.

 

But while sorting through these clippings, I found an odd-sized piece of very heavy paper.  The paper bore a letterhead consisting of a seal and the address, “War Office, Whitehall,” embossed on the paper, with nothing else to highlight them.  The document was a short letter, typed, with a firm, clear, handwritten signature.  Dated “14th November 1914” and addressed to “My dear French,” the letter introduced Squier, mentioned that he would be traveling to France, that he would “doubtless want to see something of our troops,” and encouraged French to “give him facilities for doing so as far as is practicable.”  It was signed simply, “Kitchener.”  This was Squier’s free pass to visit the British lines in France and see practically anything he wanted.  (The vague wording was diplomatically necessary to avoid putting in writing exactly what Squier would be doing in France.)  The archivists were just as excited as I was to discover that this document survived, unknown, in their collection.  They immediately gave it its own acid-free folder in the last document box, removing it from the rest of the contents of Package 7.

 

The letter itself makes no new revelations.  It was not needed to confirm Squier’s visit to the front; other evidence (beyond Mary Squier Parker’s memories) exists to prove the visit occurred, though the letter does wrap it up and put a bow on the story.  Instead, the interest is in the provenance: written (or at least signed) by Lord Kitchener (at that time, Britain’s Secretary of State for War) and delivered to General Sir John French (commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France) just a few months into the war.  Such a document might have been thrown away after its purpose had been served, or even deliberately destroyed to prevent any diplomatic problems should it come to light.  But Squier kept the letter, only to have it become just another anonymous piece of paper in his collection until I rediscovered it.

Signal-army-mil George Squier (2) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Laurence Burke: Favorite Archive Find

  1. This is a great post. As a researcher with very, very little formal training and only limited experience in physical archives, I’m always very curious to learn about how others work—so I particularly appreciate the way Margaret addresses her general approach in her visit to the archives.

    I’m sure there’s been plenty of positive feedback elsewhere, but I LOVE this “favorite archive find” series!

  2. Whoops, I should’ve said Laurence rather than Margaret. But the sentiment remains the same!

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