BISMARCK, ND—June 1918, the Germans were in the middle of their massive Spring Offensive: a series of German attacks in France along the Western Front (a meandering line of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea) during the First World War. To halt the German advance into Paris, U.S. commander General John Pershing ordered a counteroffensive to drive the Germans out of Belleau Wood, France. Facing heavy machine gun fire, sharpshooters and barbed wire in wooded terrain, Private Harold Beltman of Tower City, North Dakota, and what was left of his 6thMarine Corps Regiment under Army General James Harbord, helped halt the advance of the Germans in Belleau Wood. By the end of the month, the Marines had attacked the woods a total of six times before expelling the Germans for good, but unfortunately not before Private Beltman would lose his life on June 14, 2018.

Albert Beltman

“Mother, did you get my cablegrams? I hope you did for although the truth is often terrible, it is still best for one to know,” stated the letter from Sergeant Albert Beltman, Harold’s brother, who lay wounded in a French hospital from high explosive shells since the day after Harold’s death. “After I had written and sent you that letter I felt I should have written more in detail, but I simply couldn’t then. There is one blessing in that brother died quickly after he was wounded and he had no suffering. His wound was not so very large, but proved fatal because it was in his chest on the left side and severed his spine. Had he lived his suffering through recovering would have been almost unbearable and he would have always have been crippled.”

This is Beltman’s second letter to his mother about his brother’s death at the hands of the Germans. It is one of nearly 1,400 letters from North Dakota soldiers and nurses from the Great War housed at the ND Heritage Center and researched by the University of Mary history students under the guidance of Joseph Stuart, PhD, associate professor of history at the University of Mary. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, many of these letters will be brought to life by the University of Mary History and Theater Departments under the direction of Daniel Bielinski. The production, sponsored by University of Mary Faculty Research Grant and Humanities ND, is entitled “ND Voices from the Great War,” Friday, Nov. 9, 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, 2 p.m., and 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 11, 7 p.m., at the Belle Mehus Auditorium in Bismarck. The production is $10 for the general public and free to University of Mary students and faculty with the showing of their Mcard. Another performance will be held in the Belfield Theater in the western part of the state at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17.

Daniel Bielinski

“Our show is a devised piece – that means it is an original work of theater that we’re building around these actual letters from North Dakota soldiers and nurses,” said Bielinski, “We’re also pulling in music from the time period, poetry from the time period, and creating scenes, as an ensemble, that reflect the actual experiences of the soldiers and nurses. This theatrical piece is being created and assembled by the history and theater faculty and students working collaboratively. It’s great to see students become such a huge part of the creative process.”

The performance will be approximately 75 minutes in length and feature about 40 cast and crew members.

“The letters we have from the soldiers and nurses are so powerful—heartbreaking, funny, hopeful, despondent—so beautifully real,” added Bielinski. “It’s especially poignant to hear these letters read and performed by students who are the same age, and who come from some of the same places, as the actual soldiers and nurses before them. These soldiers/nurses were 18-19-20-year-old North Dakotans, just like so many of our students.”

Dr. Joseph Stuart

“Working with the history and theater students on turning research into a theater production has been one of the highlights of my career,” explained Stuart. “Immersing students in the letters of young men and women about their age is an incredible experience because they find so many moving, profound, graphic, and humorous stories. The University of Mary theater program under Daniel Bielinski is helping us turn those discoveries into a work of art that many people can enjoy. I have never taught a class before where students volunteered to do more work than was assigned.”

“Being a part of the Great War class and the “North Dakota Voices of the Great War” theater production has not only increased my knowledge of this conflict, but truly brought back to life the emotions of the soldiers and nurses who answered the call of duty, sacrificing their comfort and safety when they were just about my age,” said Cray Kennedy, a junior history major from Chicago, IL. “The letters they wrote convey a heartfelt and intimate story.”

“This class has been a wonderful experience,” added Rachel Smith, a history major from El Paso, TX. Reading and transcribing letters from the soldiers and nurses who served during the Great War has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation for their service and sacrifice. I hope that this play will convey some of what it was like to serve in the horrors of this war and selfless bravery of those who gave their lives.”

University of Mary cast members for “ND Voices from the Great War” (left to right) Casey Beck; Ashlyn George; Nicholas Waddell; John Davies; Cray Kennedy; Michael Durkin.

“Being a part of the WWI class and the ‘ND Voices from the Great War’ theater production has been amazing and moving,” said Sam Zezeus, a junior history major from Bristow, VA. “Reading these letters and then performing them on the stage is a time machine to 100 years ago. It’s so easy to think of events like wars as these grand things and forget about the individuals that participated in them. It’s very powerful to experience such a fraction of their life and it brings a deeper understanding to history to be a part of this project.”

“This project has been an amazing opportunity to learn about North Dakotans who fought in the Great War,” stated Michael Durkin, a sophomore history major from Inkster, ND. ”The most exciting part has been finding letters from relatives of people I know.”

Americans experienced their first significant battlefield casualties of the Great War at the Battle of Belleau Wood with 10,000 soldiers either killed, wounded or missing in action, including the Beltmans.

Private Harold Beltman

“To see him go made an impression on me I can’t explain. Nothing ever has or could hit me such a blow. And I will be over it only when I am on the other side with him,” continued Albert in the letter, as he reconciles his own emotions and continues to console his mother. “The last time I saw him he was in good spirits and even after hurt he kept calm. When he went beyond his facial features relaxed to an expression of one asleep, which showed no signs of pain and told us he was ready to meet his God.”

In July 1923, Belleau Wood was dedicated as an American battle monument. At that time Maj. Gen. Harbord was made an honorary Marine and attended the event and provided these remarks:

“Now and then, a veteran, for the brief span that we still survive, will come here to live again the brave days of that distant June. Here will be raised the altars of patriotism; here will be renewed the vows of sacrifice and consecration to country. Hither will come our countrymen in hours of depression, and even failure, and take new courage from this shrine of great deeds.”

In April 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron gifted the United States a sessile oak sapling from Belleau Wood as part of his state visit. The Western Front was the main theater of World War I with at least 4 million killed.