When Max Ottenfeld joined the army he, along with millions of other men (and thousands of women), began training for the various military duties needed to launch a successful war effort. People like Ottenfeld performed both mundane and extraordinary activities as part of their regular responsibilities as soldiers and service people.

“Our signal work consists of Semaphore and Wig-Wag or Dot and Dash Codes. After we pass examinations in the semaphore and Wig-Wag we are taught to send the Wig-Wag over Buzzers or Telegraphy. I can send the Semaphore pretty fast now. The rate required is thirty-five letters a minute and in the last examination I took I made forty-eight a minute.”
Max Ottenfeld
December 21, 1917
Letter 5

One of Max’s first experiences after joining the military was being assigned to the Signal Training Corps. At signal school, he learns about the multitude of codes, techniques, and devices the military uses to communicate in the war zone. Aside from signal training, Max and his fellow soldiers must also undergo basic army training and weapons training to prepare them for life in the military and in the trenches. This section explores the theme of duty through Max’s training experiences to understand the necessity of teamwork and individual responsibility in preparing to face the dangerous realities of war. Exploring the idea of duty through Max’s training experiences helps us to understand how soldiers prepared for both the mundane and extraordinary aspects of military life at the front.


Online Media

“Training of Signal Corps Troops, 1918” US National Archives (33:39).
Note: This video shows soldiers training within the Signal Corps at Yale University.

“Occupation of Cantigny Sector (Picardy), April-June, 1918, 1st Division” US National Archives (24:55)
Note: (Sections of this video show troop responsibilities and more casual activities in camp.

“Movement of the First Division to Rear Cantigny Sector, April 5-25, 1918” US National Archives (10:28)
Note: Sections of this video show how much work went into moving camp.

“The St. Mihiel Offensive, Sept. 10-25, 1918, 1st Division” US National Archives (16:11)
Note: Sections of this video show casual activities, troop movement, and preparations.

Guiding Questions

What does it mean to “do your duty”?

  1. What are Ottenfeld’s duties throughout the war? What are the jobs he is assigned to perform?
  2. What are some of the duties you see soldiers perform in the videos? How do these jobs compare to the kinds of jobs done in “casual company” as Ottenfeld mentioned in Letter #17?
  3. Do you get a sense of how Ottenfeld defined duty? How do you define duty?
  4. Ottenfeld wrote about tension between two groups of soldiers in Letter #5. What is this tension and how does it relate to his sense of duty and responsibility?
  5. Ottenfeld wrote a list of the gear and items he received in letter #13, what do these materials tell us about his expected duties in the war? How did these items helped him perform his various jobs?
  6. What do Ottenfeld’s letters reveal about the duties performed by people who are not soldiers?
    a. What is the duty of the censors? He does not discuss them very often but evidence of their work is clear throughout his letters. Can you find more examples after Letter #16?
    b. What responsibilities do the Red Cross nurses have? (Letter #16 and #64)
    c. What were the duties of the Jewish Chaplin Ottenfeld met in Letter #60?
  7. What jobs do the townspeople Ottenfeld encounters perform? How do their jobs compare to the soldiers?
    a. What type of work does he witness people in England performing in Letter #16? What was his reaction and why?
    b. In Letter #82A and #86 he discussed work back home in the United States, what kind of work did civilians like his parents and siblings perform in the era? Why did he mention work laws in these letters?
  8. Does Ottenfeld’s assigned detail in Letter #19 match his training? Why is he not on the front doing communication work?
    a. Does his work match your expectations about soldiers in World War 1?
  9. When did troops expect to be paid and when did they receive their money? What kind of problems did this present for soldiers? What concerns did Ottenfeld discuss in Letter #19?
  10. What are some of the requirements to graduate from Signal School? What happens if a person does not pass? What is the purpose of having these requirements? (Letter #32 and #37)
    a. Take a look at the American Signal Book, 1916 and Ottenfeld’s Visual Signal book. Do the requirements to graduate seem difficult to meet? Can you imagine why Ottenfeld was anxious to pass?
  11. In Letter #37 Ottenfeld wrote, “How is Rose getting along? I hope she is doing something in the line of war work. Buying war stamps I suppose!” What is “war work” and why might he hope his sister is participating in it? What are war stamps?
  12. While in the hospital Ottenfeld referred to the “soft job” of being a telephone man, is he being serious or sarcastic? Explain your reasoning. (Letter #40)
    a. What military offensives and operations were Ottenfeld involved in?
  13. What was Ottenfeld’s new job once he reunited with his unit in Letter #40?
  14. Why was it difficult for the Europeans to believe how well Ottenfeld spoke German? (Letter #45)
    a. What was his nickname based on this ability?
    b. How might speaking German help in performing his other duties as a soldier?
  15. Why did Ottenfeld receive so much medical attention in Germany? How do his hospital stays hinder and/or help him perform his duties?
  16. After Ottenfeld was transferred to a new hospital in Letter #64, did he seem to be in a hurry to return to his unit? Explain your reasoning. (Also see Letter #67)
  17. What does Ottenfeld think of the new recruits in Letter #87? Do you think his assessment is fair? Explain why.
  18. What do you think of Ottenfeld’s skepticism about going home? (Letter #87 and #91)