World War I

World War 1 Diaries: Historian Kent Powell on Utah’s Only Latter-day Saint Wartime Journal

Only one Latter-day Saint from Utah is known to have kept a World War I Diary. Historian Kent Powell tells the story of Nels Anderson.

Kent Powell is a Utah historian and editor of “Nels Anderson’s World War I Diary.” Anderson is the only Utah Latter-day Saint to keep a diary during the first World War, significantly adding to war stories told in Saints 3: Boldly, Nobly, and Independent.

Who is Kent Powell?

I grew up in Huntington and attended Emery High School and then the College of Eastern Utah for a year before going to Germany on a two-year LDS church mission.  After returning I attended the University of Utah graduating with a B.A. in History in 1970.  I remained at the U and received a Master’s in 1972 and a Ph.D. in 1976. While an undergraduate at the U I began working part time at the Utah State Historical Society.

After completing my Master’s I was offered a full time position in the Historic Preservation Office where I worked for about fifteen years serving as Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer during much of the time. In 1988 I left the Preservation Office to become the Historical Society’s Field Service Coordinator and with that assignment worked with local historical societies around the state, edited the Utah History Encyclopedia which was published by the University of Utah Press in 1994, and was the General Editor of the Utah Statehood Centennial County History Series which included a book length history for each of the state’s twenty-nine counties.

In 2002 I became the state’s senior historian and  managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly. I  held those positions until my retirement in 2013  During that time, I taught an American History class at Westminster College for twenty years.  My Ph.D. dissertation, a study of the union movement in the Utah coal fields, was published by Utah State University Press under the title The Next Time We Strike.  Later I wrote Splinters of a Nation: German Prisoners of War in Utah that was published by the University of Utah Press.

I edited two other books relating to World War II, A German Odyssey:  Helmut Horner The Journal of a German Prisoner of War and Utah Remembers World War II. 

A photograph of historian Kent Powell in front of a tree with bullet holes from World War I
Utah historian Kent Powell standing in front of a tree bearing the scar of a World War I bullet at the Western Front. Photo by Kent Powell.

Most recently the University of Utah Press has  published two edited works dealing with World War I,  Nels Anderson’s World War I Diary and Utah and the Great War: The Beehive State and the World War I Experience. I was very fortunate to spend my career at the Utah State Historical Society where as a public historian I was able to be involved in a number of history related programs and activities—research, writing, editing, oral history, teaching, lecturing, consulting, and working with local history organizations.

When did you first meet your mentor, Charles Peterson, and how did he make you a better scholar? What are one or two poignant memories you have of him?

When I enrolled at the College of Eastern Utah as a freshman, Charles Peterson was assigned as my advisor.  He encouraged me to enroll in his Western History Class and that allowed me to engage with local and regional history in a way that I had not done before. At that time Chas was under contract to write a history of the Manti-LaSal National Forest and was able to hire me on a part time basis to do research for the project.  That was my first introduction to the world of historical research.

Chas was a wonderful mentor and that experience was a turning point in my becoming an historian.  When I transferred to the University of Utah, Chas introduced me to the Director of the American West Center, Gregory Crampton, who had directed his Ph.D. dissertation that was published as Take Up Your Mission:  A History of the Mormon Settlement of the Little Colorado.  Dr.Crampton gave me part time work at the American West Center and I took classes from him as well.

After Chas became director of the Utah State Historical Society, he was able to hire me for a few hours work a week as the Historical Quarterly mail clerk, a research assistant, and general gofer.  With the part time work at the Historical Society and a teaching fellowship which I received at the beginning of my Master’s Program at the U, I had a wonderful introduction to the related but different world’s of Academic and Public History.

Chas was an outstanding example of how to do both.  He also showed me the importance of local history and how to use it to amplify national and international aspects of the past.

My fondest memories of Chas are the enthusiasm he put into his lectures, the excitement for history that he stirred in me, and how to relate to a local history community in a personal and effective way.  He knew how to become a part of whatever community in which he was involved.  I also enjoyed the trips with him  around the state and was amazed at his ability to consume an unbelievable amount of hot sauce with his Mexican food.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your years with Utah Historical Quarterly? What part of your work did you most enjoy?

The two greatest challenges for me as editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly were to insure that each issue came out on schedule and to secure a balance of articles that appealed to the general interest readers and academic historians.

Not all articles could, or should, appeal to everyone, but we sought to insure a high quality publication that lay readers would enjoy and, as a juried publication, meet the highest standards so that contributors could site their published works when applying to graduate school, seeking advancement or tenure.

There was much I enjoyed about the work as editor.  Most rewarding was the time with contributors, especially when with a few suggestions and recommendations their original submissions could be sharpened for clarity and readability.  I enjoyed working with the Board of Editors whose members reviewed each submission.  It was always fun to receive new books from publishers and to assign them to book reviewers.

How did you first become interested in the intersection of World War I and Utah? Are there any promising scholars working in this same area today?

My interest in Utah and World War I was stimulated during earlier research, specifically the impact of World War I on Utah’s coal miners and then as I researched the story of the German prisoners of war in Utah during World War II.  There had been German prisoners of war at Fort Douglas during World War I.

Utah historian Kent Powell walking an old road in Humberville, France. Photo by Kent Powell.

Another factor was the publication by the Utah State Historical Society of The Peoples of Utah, edited by Helen Papanikolas.  Mrs. Papanikolas had been very helpful to me in researching the impact of immigrant workers on labor in the Utah coal fields.  Her work, and that of other colleagues and friends, had peaked my interest in how Utah immigrants confronted their new home in Utah.  The story of Utah’s German American community was of particular interest to me and I published two articles in the Utah Historical Quarterly” “The German Speaking Immigrant Experience in Utah,” and “Our Cradles Were in Germany: Utah’s German American Community and World War I.”

Today the most active scholars in Utah on the subject of World War I are Dr. Tammy Proctor at Utah State University, and Dr. Branden Little, at Weber State University.

Who was Nels Anderson and why is his World War I diary unique? Could you set the stage for what life was like for Utahns at the beginning of the war?

Nels Anderson was born in 1889 in Chicago and died in 1986 at the age of 97.  His early life  included stays in Washington, Idaho, Illinois, and Michigan.  At the age of fifteen he left home and found work in railroad construction.  He took up the life of a hobo, riding the rails in search of work.

While enroute from Salt Lake City to southern California, he was forcibly removed from a freight train and while walking along the track waiting for another opportunity to hop a train, he passed through Clover Valley where he was taken in by the Terry and Woods families–two Mormon families who had ranches along the Utah Nevada border.  While working for the two families, he learned about Mormonism and joined the faith in 1910.

He attended Brigham Young Academy in Provo and Dixie Academy in St. George with the eventual goal to become a lawyer. He was offered a teaching job at St. John’s Academy in Arizona after having registered for the draft in Utah.  He made good on his promise to volunteer for army service at the end of the school year and was assigned to training at Camp Funston in Kansas with the 89th Division.

“Nels Anderson’s World War I Diary,” edited by Kent Powell.

Later he was sent to France where he participated in the two great Allied offensives, the St. Mihiel  and the Meuse Argonne offensives where he saw comrades fall in battle and survived several precarious situations.  After the armistice, his unit was sent to Germany as part of the American occupation force of the Rhineland.  From Germany he returned to France to study in Montpellier as part of a special program that allowed selected American soldiers to attend French universities.

He returned home in 1919, graduated from Brigham Young University and set off for the University of Chicago to study sociology.  After a difficult start, he earned status as a sociologist with the publication in 1923 of his study The Hobo  a pioneering work in the field.  However, he was unable to secure a teaching position even after earning a Ph.D. at New York University.

During the 1930s he worked in New Deal programs, and during World War II volunteered for service in the  Middle East.  After the war, he traveled to Germany to help with the reconstruction of that war torn country.  After his forced early retirement from the State Department, he became director of the UNESCO Institute for Social Science in Cologne.  He left that position at age 75 and secured a one-year visiting professorship in Canada.  That grew into a full time teaching position at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton where he continued to teach until age eighty-eight.

Utah historians recognize his importance in furthering the careers of Juanita Brooks and Dale Morgan, among others, and for his significant study of rural Mormonism, Desert Saints published by the University of Chicago Press in 1942. The Nels Anderson Diary is significant as one of the most detailed and thorough accounts of an American soldier during the war.  It is of particular interest to Mormons and Utahns because of his ties to the Mormon faith and to the state.  The diary’s significance was recognized by the Army Historical Foundation which selected the book as the outstanding publication in the category of journals, diaries, letters, and collected works for 2013.

What were some of the most significant challenges Nels Anderson faced during his war service? In what ways did the war change him?

Anderson’s diary documents a number of challenges: the fear he would not measure up to the expectations of an American soldier; being assigned to a unit where he knew no one; maintaining ties with home; coping with the loss of friends and comrades as the war progressed;  how to see the enemy in a humane and Christian way; and coping with the authoritarianism and injustice of the American army.

The war changed him in strengthening his inclination toward humanity, his decision to forgo a career as a lawyer and politician in favor of the study of human conditions and human actions; and by broadening his view of the world through the realization that humanity embodied a much broader field than he had previously recognized.

He also came to believe that every effort should be made to avoid military conflict and that war would have a devastating impact on civilians, soldiers, and loved ones at home.

To what extent does the language in Nels Anderson’s diary mirror the language of the time?

Like all good writing, Anderson’s diary has stood the passing of time and still provides for an insightful, interesting, and worthwhile read.

Readers may want to compare the diary with another work by a Utahn, Arthur Guy Empey, whose Over the Top: An American Soldier Who Went was published in May 1917, just after the United States declaration of war.  Empey’s book became an immediate best seller as American’s by the thousands rushed to purchase a copy of the book which recounted, often in a humorous way, Empey’s service in the British Army which he joined after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.  Both books illustrate the personality of their authors. and important insights into the war.

How would our understanding of Utahns in World War I be different without the diary of Nels Anderson?

Without the Nels Anderson diary we would not have as complete and rich a view of the World War I experience.  The completeness and readability of the diary provides insights that we otherwise would not have.

It is interesting that following his return to BYU when students organized a day of honor for the veterans and asked them to wear their uniforms, Nels did not participate.  When asked by a fellow student to talk about his war time experiences, Anderson replied that service at the battlefront was not any more dangerous than what he had experienced working in an underground mine at Garfield, Utah before the war.

In subsequent years, Anderson spoke only infrequently about his World War I service and had little interest in the diary, leaving it with his wife and son and for his son to give it to Brigham Young University.

Therefore the question what impact Anderson’s war service had on his later years remains unclear.

Why did Nels Anderson join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Later in life, Nels Anderson confessed that his joining the Mormon faith had to do more with joining the Mormon community which had become important to him rather than for theological reasons.  He looked to Woods family patriarch,  Lyman Woods as his example of what a real Mormon should be.

Woods had come West with Brigham Young as a young man, had been sent to help colonize the Utah-Nevada frontier, and had never stepped away from that calling.  Woods declined to enter polygamy, apparently in consideration of his beloved wife, and was known to indulge in alcohol on occasion.  Nevertheless, Nels Anderson was moved by the account of early Mormonism and Woods role in the settlement of the area that the older gentleman gave at a July Twenty-Fourth Celebration in Enterprise.

Nels sought out the association of other Mormons during his military service and enjoyed the occasions when they could come together and partake of the sacrament. He avoided alcohol and tobacco and commented in his diary at the hardships that consumption of the items brought to those addicted to them.

At BYU, after the war, he continued his fellowship with Mormons, especially those from the Dixie/Northern Arizona area.  Once at the University of Chicago, he attended LDS services for a time, but let it slide as the demands of school and earning his keep interfered.

Utah historian Kent Powell standing in front of a portrait of Nels Anderson. Photo by Kent Powell.

He married outside the Mormon faith, but his appreciation for Mormons and their faith continued as he researched and wrote Desert Saints and as he encouraged Juanita Brooks to apply for a federal grant to collect early Mormon diaries and journals and to look to the history of Mormonism on the Western Frontier as an important topic to pursue. His book Desert Saints is considered by some historians to be the forerunner of the New Mormon history with its objective treatment of LDS history.

Nels was neither an apologist for or harsh critic of Mormon history.  To the best of my knowledge, except perhaps for the weeks he spent in St. George during the 1930s researching Desert Saints in the basement of the temple, Nels did not attend church.

Still in his eighties, Nels Anderson gave an address at a meeting of the Society for the Study of Mormon Life at the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association in New York City entitled, “On My Being a Mormon.” In that address he maintained that  he was “a Mormon and that the Mormons were his people.” His definition of what constituted being a Mormon may have differed from that of many active in the faith, but in his heart, he was a Mormon.

He maintained a friendship with BYU President Ernest Wilkinson that carried back to their days as fellow BYU students, and he elected to have his papers placed in the University of Utah’s special collection of the Marriott Library. 

Would you summarize Anderson’s encounters with Reed Smoot and Church leaders at BYU when he returned from the war?

Nels Anderson butted heads with Reed Smoot and certain leaders at Brigham Young University over two issues:  Support for United States participation in the League of Nations, and a student proposal to make Brigham Young University a “real” university where credits from the Provo school would be accepted on an equal merit with other institutions of higher education in the nation.

Nels Anderson was elected as Senior Class President and with the small group of students unable to afford a “class donation” they came up with the idea of encouraging leaders and students to make BYU a real university.  The idea was taken as unappreciated criticism of the school and its leaders.  The issue of American participation in the League of Nations stirred much greater anger against Nels Anderson from Senator Reed Smoot.

Reed Smoot opposed the treaty, even though students and faculty at BYU, where he served on the Board of Trustees, had voted for a resolution favoring participation.  Furthermore LDS church President Heber J. Grant was known to favor the League and other church leaders had spoken out in favor of the League.  Other church leaders agreed with Smoot in opposing the League.

When Nels Anderson showed a picture at a public program of two monkeys chatting and quipped that Reed Smoot and the primary opponent of the League, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, were not the only ones talking about the League, two of Reed Smoot’s daughters were in attendance and reported Nels’ comments to their father suggesting that Nels had compared the two senators to monkeys.

Smoot threatened to resign from the Board of Trustees if Anderson did not apologize and Apostle David O. McKay was sent to Provo to meet with Anderson.  McKay instructed Anderson to obey his “file leaders.”   Anderson and other alleged “troublemakers” were allowed to graduate. However, Anderson understood that he would never teach again in the Church Education System as he had done prior to volunteering for military service.

If you could go back and time and observe any experience from Anderson’s WWI experience, what would you want to see and why? What does his diary indicate for the day(s) in question?

This is a hard question because there are so many accounts from his Diary that invite the reader to wonder what the event was really like.  Anderson’s diary entries do provide an eloquent description of these events and this is one of the strengths of the diary.  But limiting my selection to three they include:  His arrival in England, The Meuse Argonne Offensive; and a night and a day in Paris after the war.

Arrival In England  June 24-26, 1918

I enjoyed every bit of the ride today. Many things of interest came to our notice as Merry England passed in review for us. It is not hard to see that this country is at war. I saw pretty girls shoveling coal and working on the section. All the children we saw were working and the only men we saw in civilian clothes were bent and gray. Every able man, it seemed, was in the uniform. We saw many women in black. Many men in blue uniforms which we learned are wounded. We passed an aviation field. A big prison camp with a high barb wire fence around. Saw a lot of men working putting up buildings and clearing land. They were within the barb wire and I think were prisoners. We passed a college town famous in educational history but only got a passing glance at the place. I could see that the buildings were of gray stone and vine covered.


I would like to be turned loose in England for a while. I would like to visit so many of the places of charm and interest, better still I would like to mix with and study the people. People and their ways are more interesting, if one wants to study, than things or places.

This town is like most [of] the English cities. Beautiful and peaceful viewed from without. We were permitted to visit the place today. We had to go in company formation, however, and chaperoned by officers. (Winchester) pleased me from within. Most of the streets were clean and the homes neat and tidy. All the buildings of red brick and about the same shape and size with the same kind of chimneys and the same kind of roofs. There were no street cars, and few automobiles but many bicycles. Women were doing all kinds of work. The children I saw playing were very quiet and serious about it and all the old men were quietly and patiently doing something or going somewhere.


There were many things in the stores and streets of interest. One sign read “Mourning clothes a Speciality.”  Business will create specialists even who make capital of sorrow. Another sign named the price of potatoes but added “Bring your Bags.”  Paper is scarce here. The average American daily is 10 times the size of an English daily which are no larger than the school paper at home called “Current Events.”

The Muese-Argonne Offensive  pages 131-139  October 27—November 11

I wish I could write down just how it feels to be under fire for four or five hours. Last evening my platoon went out to make roads we took axes and were going to make a corduroy road across a bog. While we were crossing an open field at a point where we could easily see our shells breaking behind the hun lines a boche plane flew over we all flopped and remained quiet he circled low for a while or till the machine guns got to hot for him then he beat it we went on our way we hadn’t gone far till a couple of shells came over but we proceeded to a point in the road where we were to work about that time the shells came over pretty regular. We figured they had our number so we scattered and stayed scattered for about 4 hours. I sat down behind the foot of a big beech tree and not a shell came near enough to hurt but ever once in a while I could here [hear] our fellows at different places yelling “first aid.” Many of the shells were gas and I could see the air being laden other places through openings. I came out in the open to see if the fellows were gathering but they were all scattered about in shell holes so I rested behind the tree and ate my sandwiches lest they would become gassed and I go hungry.

The firing ceased after a while and we gathered ourselves together. We had one killed, four hurt and several gassed which is quite a loss for being under cover. By that time the gas had soaked through the whole place and it was necessary for us to wear masks. I stopped to help carry wounded. It is hard work trying to carry a wounded man over a bad road at night with a gas mask on. We made a stretcher out of two sticks and a blanket that made the work more difficult for the sticks bent so. We left the dead man. He had several other dead men there to keep him company. I saw four of the 32nd division boys who have been lying there since the last drive. I shall never forget [one] who was evidently killed by the concussion. He was lying on his back, knees bent up. Arms outstretched fingers spread out and tense. Head throwed back, mouth open, eyes staring, face very blue. It seems hard to leave the boys unburied but its war.

As we passed by the Red Cross in Ro[magne] they gave each of us a bar of chocolate and box of cigarettes. Philips and I were walking together. I tried to trade my box of cigs for his chocolate. He wouldn’t but started to eat it said perhaps it would be his last. It was too. An hour or so after he was killed. The shells were coming over pretty fast and they caught us on an open slope. They were only small ones some gas. Another lad and I were together we noted that they were coming over in two and threes about 10 seconds apart so we took advantage of those intervals to run from one shell hole to another and flop. Philips was not taking that precaution. I saw him and another fellow get it. They were in the open. A shell came. They fell to their knees and before they could flatten out another hit 25 feet from them and perhaps 100 feet from us. It got them both. Two other fellows were killed and several wounded in our company on the same hill while several trucks had been hit and were burning on the road.

I mention Philips because we were intimate. He was homesteading in New Mexico, was engaged to a girl from there who was living with his mother in Kansas waiting his return. So perish our fondest hopes. Every boy that is cut down over here had been building castles in the air.

A night and a day in Paris  March 4-5, 1919  210-212.

Evening—I am in Paris and will be here till 2:30 tomorrow. It is not enough time to look the city over so I shall content myself with walking the streets and making observations. That is what I did this afternoon….

This afternoon I have seen more loving on the streets than during all my life on American streets. Couples go with their arms around each other in the streets even if crowded places and in the cafes it is ordinary to see couples locked in each others arms as unconscious of the passersby as the passers are of them. Loving seems to be a very popular outdoor sport here. I spent most of the afternoon looking for a Y.M.C.A. In doing so I got lost and wandered down near the river. There I saw the Americans and their French girls. It is more secluded there. I decided that Paris is “no place for a preachers son” and I decided to that 24 hours is enough for me in this place without a chaperone

March 5 Wed.

I came very near getting my Croix de Guerre last evening. I stopped a team. I don’t think they had any intention of running till some people along the sidewalk began yelling at them. They were not hard to stop so I didn’t wait for the honors.

This morning I drifted around till I came to the market place and I spent an hour or two looking things over.

I saw everything there good to eat and some things I didn’t think were good. The venders were lined up with their wares on either side of the street. The little stores had their goods displayed in front till there was scarce room to get along the sidewalk. Every seller was a specialist in one article. One man sold nothing but corks. There were snails (So it’s true they eat snails) and a hundred different kinds of fish. All kinds of meat even to ghastly looking calf heads cut in two. There were all kinds of smells each place had its own odor. Most prominent was the cheese.

I sat for a while in one of those sidewalk cafes. I didn’t know what those side walk restaurants [were like]. I didn’t know what to order so when the waiter asked me a question I said “oui” (yes) and the result was a glass of some stuff I could scarce drink. I sat there an hour or so and watched the people pass. Many soldiers with many garbs mostly officers. I didn’t know there were so many different kinds of allied uniforms.

At 12:30 I started with my pack and reserve rations (a sack full) for the Lyons station. Some yank soldiers in a Ford picked me up and took me there. I found I was going the wrong way.

Selections of this interview are used in a profile of Nels Anderson commemorating the 100-year anniversary of his first diary entry in the June 7, 2018 edition of the Mormon Times (Deseret News).

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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