Every Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day across the world, we honor and remember the men and women who have served and who continue to serve their countries. This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the conflict that gave rise to Veterans Day. To mark that anniversary, here’s a look at that first Armistice Day through the eyes of a Johnson & Johnson employee who served on the front lines in France.
World War I began in the summer of 1914, the result of a complex system of alliances, growing nationalism and other causes, catalyzed by a single tragic event. Many people optimistically thought the war would be over by the end of December that year. Instead, it lasted a grueling and brutal four years, ending November 11, 1918. When it was over, the political map had been redrawn, the Edwardian era was over, and the world was forever changed.
Originally called Armistice Day, November 11 commemorates the moment when the fighting stopped – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Commemorations are being held worldwide this year to mark the centennial of the start of World War I, one of the most visible being the installation of more than 800,000 ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower of London.
With Johnson & Johnson being founded in 1886 by the younger brothers of veterans, the company has a long history of supporting those who serve. Johnson & Johnson employees have served in the military since 1898. During World War I, a number of employees – and employees of the company’s sales agents worldwide – served. These veterans included not only employees from New Brunswick, but employees of the company’s sales agents in Canada, Australia, the U.K., Italy and Germany.
“Johnson & Johnson representatives are fighting with practically all of the armies now engaged at the theatre of war. From the English, German, Australian, Canadian and Italian branches comes the same news – that the staffs have been greatly reduced by valued men joining their Colors. The London office gave a dozen of its employees, while the Hamburg office gave practically its whole force. Two editors of the foreign editions of the Red Cross Messenger have gone to the front and are ‘doing their bit.’” [The RED CROSS® Messenger, Vol. VIII Nos. 7 & 8, January, 1916,p. 461, “Two Editors Enlist.”]
In the U.S., a number of Johnson & Johnson employees volunteered for military service when the United States entered the war in 1917. Those employees included Katherine H—, a member of the company’s advertising department and a trained nurse, who became our first female employee to volunteer to serve in the military. Today, many female veterans at Johnson & Johnson carry forward the tradition she started. The volunteers also included a young employee named Otto B—-.
Otto B—- was an employee from the Johnson & Johnson Box Room who had joined the company in 1910. During World War I, he served as a cannoneer with the 101st Field Artillery, Battery E, in the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Otto kept up a regular correspondence with his colleagues at Johnson & Johnson, and he included in his letters vivid descriptions of life in the military.
On May 2, 1918, Otto wrote a letter back to his colleagues describing conditions in the trenches in France. “Now where we have to go for our meals is across a big field to another battery and the field is full of shell holes for the Germans are shelling the field nearly all the time; so we take a chance going across for we don’t know when they will open up and shell us…” On the positive side, he mentioned that he was able to speak “quite a little French now.” In his understated fashion, he asked everyone to keep the letters coming and said would write as soon as he could, since being in the trenches made him “sometimes very busy.” He closed the letter saying “The mail comes in today. Here is hoping that I get a letter from good old N.B.” [Letter from Otto B---, May 2, 1918, from the Johnson & Johnson archives.]
Two weeks later, Otto wrote another letter to Johnson & Johnson:
“Over there, May 16th, 1918,
“It has been quiet the last few days but you can never tell what is going to happen the next minute; the Germans are shelling us now while I am writing to you but I am in my dug-out about 10 feet under the ground, so they will have to hit right square on top of the dug-out to do any damage to us. You can feel the jar when the shells land a little ways off and they blow out the candle by the force of the shock.” [Letter from Otto B---, May 16, 1918, from the Johnson & Johnson archives.]
By then, Otto had been at the front since April and he wrote to his colleagues that he had taken part in some of the biggest battles of the war. The support from New Brunswick was tremendously important to him, and he thanked his co-workers for sending him letters, packages and the New Brunswick Home News – he mentioned in his letter of May 16, 1918 that he looked at the newspaper nearly every day. In the same May 16th letter, Otto wrote: “Well as I am only allowed four letters a week I will send one home and the rest to J. & J.” He signed the letter with “Regards to all, I remain the boy from the box room over there.” On December 5, 1918, Otto expressed those same sentiments in a letter he wrote from Culey, France to a coworker named Mary:
“I know you all don’t realize what great friends and wonderful help you all have been to me while I have been over here with all your welcome letters that I have received; don’t know what great help it has been to me, it sure made me do my best every day.” [Letter from Otto B---, May 16, 1918, from the Johnson & Johnson archives.]
Good soap was a prized commodity and very difficult to obtain in the field, and it was an item much requested by Otto and others in their letters from the front. The superintendent of manufacturing at Johnson & Johnson and other employees sent soap and shaving cream from the company’s product lines to Otto and their other colleagues, for which they were thanked in the letters the soldiers wrote to New Brunswick.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns went silent, signaling the end of fighting. Here’s how Otto described that moment:
“I was up at the front the morning that the war was called off just before eleven o’clock on the morning of November 11th. Every gun around me was sending them over as fast as they could and just at eleven o’clock, they all stopped. It sure did feel queer that afternoon when everything was so quiet and you could walk around where you pleased; everyone started celebrating that night and I took a hand in it myself; it sure was a great sight.” [Letter from Otto B----, December 5, 1918, Johnson & Johnson archives.]
A month later, Otto wrote about his anticipation of returning home and coming back to Johnson & Johnson:
“Culey, France, December 11, 1918
Just a month today Bett when the big fight was called off and I guess a month from today, why, we may be back to the good old U.S., and then it sure will be a great day for the boys and I know it will be for me, when I walk up in the good old box room again and see all of my friends and to see the flag that is hanging there it sure makes me feel proud…”
To Otto B— , to every veteran who has ever served, and to those still serving, a huge thank you for your service from everyone at Johnson & Johnson.