In his letters, Max Ottenfeld kept his family informed about his health and wellbeing. Click below to explore how, as evidenced by Ottenfeld’s experiences, surviving the Great War was difficult as soldiers faced both injuries and illnesses.

“I was gassed Oct. 9 but didn’t go to the hospital until the 12th. I expect to be out in a week or so because I didn’t get it bad. You can see that I am feeling pretty good by the way I write this letter. I am up and walking around and you ought to see me at “chow” time, I can’t get enough to eat…”
Max Ottenfeld
October 15, 1918
Letter 40

Although Max Ottenfeld’s letters have an upbeat tone, he spends a lot of time recuperating in the hospital. Soldiers encountered deadly chemical agents and high-powered weapons that drastically changed the nature of warfare. Additionally, the Spanish Flu epidemic (among other viral infections and diseases) was exacerbated by crowded troopships, camps, trenches, poor environmental conditions, and inadequate food and shelter. During and after the conflict, many American soldiers were also diagnosed with a condition called “Shell Shock”, understood by officials in the American Expeditionary Force to be a physical and psychological reaction to the stress of warfare. Though he recovered from the injuries he sustained during the war, the lasting effects of the war are shown through Ottenfeld’s various hospital stays in the U.S. Exploring survival through Max Ottenfelds’s experiences demonstrate how the war impacted public policies about soldiers and veterans as well as social attitudes and medical knowledge around illness and disabilities.

Oral History

Max discusses survival in the following video clips:

  • 18:08-20:06 Max discusses the dangers of laying wires and other experiences on the front line.
  • 20:06-30:53 Ottenfeld discusses being wounded in France.
  • 31:14-36:03 Ottenfeld discusses artillery shelling and the injury of a fellow soldier.
    Note: This clip may be mature for some audiences.
  • 36:03-56:40 Ottenfeld discusses the ambulance and hospitals in France.


Online Media


“Gas Alarm, 1918” US National Archives. (8:01)
Note: This is a silent film from the US National Archives of a practice gas alarm from 1918. It demonstrates how soldiers should react to a gas attack.


Listen to popular songs from the era and consider how they do and do not reflect Max Ottenfeld’s experiences.

“Over There” Written by George Cohan and first performed and recorded in 1917.
Library of Congress entry
Subjects: patriotism, commitment to duty, America’s place as a world power.

“I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m On My Way” Written by George Fairman and produced in 1917.
Subjects: patriotism, the draft.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” Written by Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi and was a huge success in 1915.
Subjects: An appeal for pacifism.

“A Rose in No-Man’s Land” Written by Jack Caddigan in 1918.
Subjects: A tribute to Red Cross Nurses and the effects of warfare.

“The Boys Who Won’t Come Home” Written by Harry Hamilton and recorded in 1919.
Subjects: A reflection on the casualties of war and adjusting to life after the war.

“Goodbye France” Written by Irving Berlin and originally recorded in 1918.
Subjects: the excitement of returning home.

Guiding Questions

  1. What were some of the dangers the soldiers faced according to Ottenfeld in Letter #5? How did their training address these dangers?
    a. What is your impression of the Gas Alarm video? How does it relate to Ottenfeld’s training experiences?
    b. What were some of the effects of this type of weapon? Why would armies use chemical warfare?
  2. What were some of the concerns Ottenfeld’s parents had? (Letter #6)
  3. Describe some of the conditions Ottenfeld experienced at camp in Letter #8. (Sleeping arrangements, weather, food, shelter, etc)
    a. What did he mean when we wrote, “In the army we eat anything and it tastes good because our appetites are so good.”?
  4. Ottenfeld lists his equipment in Letter #13. How might these items aid his surviving the conditions of the war?
  5. What do you make of his comments on food throughout his letters? Did soldiers have enough to eat according to Ottenfeld in Letter #18?
  6. While recovering in the hospital after being gassed, Ottenfeld seemed upbeat in Letter #40. Why might that be? Would you feel the same way? Consider who he is writing to and that his tone changes toward the end of the second paragraph. What do you think is going through his mind?
  7. Ottenfeld is hospitalized again in January 1918, what do you think of his medical care? (Letter #60)
    a. Why did he insist on spending his recovery in the Radio room? Explain your reasons.
  8. Discuss how the conditions of the war caused soldiers to fall sick to more common illnesses. (Letter #60) He also mentioned possibly being quarantined in a couple of his letters. (Letter #13 and #61)
    a. Why was there a lack of food in the hospital according to Letter #61? Why was Ottenfeld not receiving the same amount of food he did while working in the hospital in Winchester, England?
  9. Why do you think Ottenfeld wrote letters without much news like Letter #62 and #63?
    a. How do you think he feels during this time? Find 3-5 sentences to explain your reasoning.
  10. Why was he in a new hospital in Letter #64? How does this experience differ from his previous hospital stays? Explain your reasoning.
  11. Why does Ottenfeld not return to his unit in March 1919 even though he reported feeling better? (Letter #67)
  12. How do you think Ottenfeld feels about his hospital stays by Letter #68?
  13. Who was General Pershing and why did he visit the soldiers in the hospital? (Letter #69 and #70)
  14. Why was Ottenfeld worried about his mother and brother catching a cold in Letter #76?
    a. Discuss the Spanish Flu Epidemic and the larger implications of Ottenfeld’s statement that, “I have seen a great many cases of the flu while in the hospital and know something about it.”
  15. Ottenfeld wrote mentioned a concern he had about returning home in Letter #82A and the collection ends with Letter #91 and his return to Camp Mead, MD in September 1919. Use the military records, the newspaper articles, and Ottenfeld’s oral history interview to discuss Ottenfeld’s transition back to civilian life.
    a. What did he struggle with after the war? Do you get a sense of how the war affected him over time?
    b. What services were available for returning soldiers at this time? What was the reception they received? What concerns and attitudes did people have over returning soldiers.
    c. He received a Purple Heart for his actions in France. What is the purpose of awarding the Purple Heart medal?