Larney familyFrom left, grandaughters of James Larney, Lisa M. Patenaude and Valerie A. LaClair with their mother, Mary Ann Larney hold photos and Robert Laplander's book "Finding the Lost Battalion". 

Fading ink, enduring legend: Family’s revered diary escorted back to World War I battlefields of France

By Chris Brock
via the NNY360 newspaper (NY) web site 

WATERTOWN — The 5-by-7-inch diary, worn, ragged, fading and stained by the mud and rain of World War I battlefields of France, has been lovingly kept by the Larney family for more than 100 years.

But this weekend, its revered words have taken on renewed meaning.

The diary connects the family in a tangible way to its creator — James Francis Larney, of the 308th Infantry Regiment, which formed part of the 77th Infantry Division. It was a unit originally made up of soldiers mainly from New York City with casualties replaced by untrained troops from the Midwest.

This Thanksgiving weekend, the diary has returned to France, in an alliance between the Larney family and a World War I historian and author who is solemnly escorting it through the battlefields where its words were originally set to paper by fountain pen and pencil by a soldier and writer whose life as a state highway engineer and land surveyor was interrupted by World War I, and where he served as an airplane signalman. He resumed his career with the state Department of Public Works upon his return to Watertown from The Great War.

According to Watertown Daily Times files, Mr. Larney, who died in May of 1974 at the age of 82, left Watertown with a contingent for Camp Devens, Mass., on Feb. 23, 1918 and went overseas on April 4, 1918.

Among episodes recorded by Pvt. Larney’s diary was the 308th Infantry’s experiences in “The Lost Battalion,” five days of suffering that became one of the most famous, and epic, events of the war.

“I was pretty blown away when I was talking to Larney’s granddaughter, and the suggestion was made, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if it went back to France?’” said Robert J. Laplander, Waterford, Wis., the world’s leading historian on The Lost Battalion. For more than 25 years, along with his wife Trinie, he has researched and explored the story of the Lost Battalion, the men who formed it, and their commander, Charles W. Whittlesey.

Mr. Laplander is author of the books, “Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW 1 Epic,” published in 2006 and revised in 2017, and “The Lost Battalion: As They Saw It,” published in 2020. He was featured in the 2017 PBS “American Experience” program “The Great War” and started researching the story of The Lost Battalion in 1997 after obtaining a copy of “Ours to Hold High: The History of the 77th Division in the World War.”

He was interviewed by the Times last week, before heading to France.

“I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Mr. Laplander said of the agreement to take the diary back to France. “To have a chance to work with the diary in the first place is amazing on its own, but to have the chance to bring it back to where it was ‘born’ is unbelievable. I’m incredibly humbled and honored by this opportunity.”

Read the entire article on the NNY360 web site.

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