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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1.4.2 Horace Pippin’s wartime notebook

In this next activity, you will take a closer look at this interesting and unusual primary source.

Activity 2 Horace Pippin’s wartime notebook

Timing: Allow up to 30 minutes

Pippin’s wartime notes provide a fascinating example of the experience of African-American soldiers in France. It is available online and is a useful tool for primary source analysis. (See Session 1, Section 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] for primary source analysis skills that could be used to analyse excerpts of this document.)

Take a look at the notebook and pick a passage that strikes you as noteworthy or interesting and comment on it in the light of what you know about the war experiences of African-American soldiers.


I found the following excerpt, in which Pippin describes that, for the first few months after their arrivals, members of his regiment laid 500 miles of rails from the sea to enable the transport of US supplies, but that he and his comrades looked forward to seeing the trenches:

… we were all glad that we were dun there. all tho, oir next move, were to the trenches, or that way, but we did not cear, it was a place that we all wonted to see, and at that time we did not think it right to go there and not see it. every Day you could hear some one say sometheing a bout the old mudy trenches, but of coars we did not no it, be for I seen them I heard some bad news a bout them. all kind of talk, some good and some bad.

This entry is interesting because it confirms that African-American soldiers were not used for front line fighting when they first arrived, but that Pippin and his fellow soldiers expressed a desire to see the front. The statement backs up what we have already discussed. Black soldiers had been promised that they would be deployed as a fighting unit, but instead they were used as ‘laborers in uniform’ and received initially little further training. Pippin’s diary confirms that, instead of fighting, they built railway tracks and warehouses. As David Olusoga outlines, many of these men had been ‘animated by a genuine sense of patriotism’ when they joined the army. To be ‘consigned to the Services of Supply was a profound humiliation […]. Men who had dreamed of fighting for their nation or who had felt inspired by President Wilson’s evocation of a world “safe for democracy” found themselves in a branch of army service that, although of critical importance, was routinely the butt of jokes’ (Olusoga, 2014, p. 338). Pippin’s notes bear out the frustration he and his comrades felt at being used as labourers rather than as soldiers. If their war contribution was to have a positive effect on their status back home, it was surely necessary for them to see some fighting action so that their war effort could not be denigrated later.

Students’ skills development: Pippin’s notebook as a classroom resource

The notebook makes fascinating reading and is full of detail about Pippin’s experiences. It is also transcribed so that it is easy to read. Students could, for example, analyse an excerpt from the diary that describes his combat experience and the injury he sustained (pages 54–5, image 30 in the digitised files). These pages describe an offensive campaign on 26 September 1918 when Pippin was shot in the right shoulder and arm. In this somewhat gruelling extract, Pippin described being stuck on the ground, unable to move and lying in No Man’s Land.

that Battle line were about 50 miles of pairs [Paris?] northeast, Marne River thats where the Marines were, and there the germens loss 1.600 Dead 2.500 wounded out of 8,000 that took some of the sand of the Germens.

(Pippin, p. 41)

Students could reflect on the limitations of this account for understanding the broader war experience of African-American soldiers. For example, the wartime notes do not comment on Pippin’s motivation for joining the army, nor do they mention how Black soldiers were treated in the USA before departure. While we know from some of the accounts we’ve read about the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ that some of them hoped to bring about a change to segregation, Pippin’s diary does not mention this as a motivation.

Students could discuss whether these notes were made at the time or later and why this might be important. Using the free article allowance on JStor (see Session 5 for more details), they could access Anne Monahan’s article (2008). She concludes that the version we can read today was likely written in 1920. ‘Pippin constructed each of his World War I memoirs as a continuous narrative. The long sentences, infrequent corrections, and relentless focus on advancing the story suggest that he worked out initial drafts elsewhere, yet those preliminary sources have not survived’ (Monahan, 2008, p. 21). Certainly, there are parts of the notes that suggest they were based on knowledge acquired after the event. One example is a description of a shell attack.

In the 1930s, Horance Pippin made a name for himself as a painter. The painting in Figure 10 is his first oil painting, entitled ‘The Ending of the War, Starting Home’ (1930–33). It is based on his experience at the Battle of Séchault, where he was wounded, and is one of his most famous pictures. It might be a useful starting point for using war art as part of students’ analysis.

Described image
Figure 10 Horace Pippin, The Ending of the War, Starting Home, 1930–33

The painting depicts trench warfare, with several German soldiers, recognisable by their uniform (and their moustaches!), surrendering to a small group of black soldiers, one of whom has already scaled the barricades protecting the German trench.

He decorated the frame with hand-carved objects, such as helmets, tanks and weapons. The painting, including the frame, is approximately 80x100 cm. It forms part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This link takes you to a description of the painting.

In the next section, we’ll look at another famous member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the jazz musician James Reese Europe.