Mather Cleveland was born in 1889; he graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in 1911 and an M.A. in 1914. Cleveland enrolled in the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons to earn an M.D., but before completing it, he left to serve a tour of duty with the Harjes Ambulance Corps in France. Of note is that Cleveland did so more than two and a half years before the United States entered the conflict on April 6, 1917. He returned home and completed his medical degree only to return to military service when America joined the war effort.
Cleveland kept a journal of his time with the French Ambulance Corps from Oct. 10, 1914, until Jan. 6,1915. We’re fortunate in the Cleveland Colby Colgate Archives to have a photocopy of his wartime journal, as well as the original letters he sent home.
From the beginning of his time with the French military, Cleveland was cognizant that he and his family couldn’t disclose much to one another. In a letter dated Oct. 7, 1914, while still traveling by boat to Liverpool (before moving on to London and then Paris), Cleveland wrote, “Remember that your letters to me may possibly be censored, opened and read before they reach me. So a strictly neutral stand is the only attitude. The best policy will be not to discuss the war at all.”
Cleveland arrived in London the following day and in Paris on Oct. 12, but the hospital where he was stationed turned out to be just outside the city. In a letter to his father on Oct. 16, he confided this information and assured him that they all felt safe with German forces being a good distance away. Nevertheless, he felt it prudent not to worry his mother: “I did not tell you this in my letter from Paris because I knew that Mother would worry. I am sending this to your office and will continue to let her believe I am still in Paris, not because I think it would be any safer there than just outside the town.”
Just two days later, Cleveland began his work, and his first patients were German soldiers. He wrote that the “poor fellows were just about worn to skin and bones. They needed rest + quiet as much as anything else. It will be months before these fellows get well … ”
Cleveland seemed to have a distaste for war, or at least the carnage it created. In a letter from Nov. 9, 1914, less than a month into his first tour, he wrote, “Peace can’t come any too soon for me. If you want to be cured of war, you have only to see the wounded and watch them die.”
After his tour with the French Army, Cleveland returned to finish his medical degree and began practicing medicine. On Nov. 30, 1917 (just five months after marrying his wife, Susan Colgate Cleveland), Cleveland was assigned to active duty and ordered to Fort Riley, Kan., for training camp. On Jan. 15, 1918, he was ordered to Evacuation Hospital #10, which took him to France once more; he was there when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. In a letter dated Nov. 23 to his father, he wrote, “Well, Dad, the curtain has been rung down on the final act over here. The villain [sic] has skulked off the stage, baffled, and Right has triumphed as it should in any well-ordered play.”
Cleveland, by then a major, served overseas until July 1, 1919; he was discharged on July 15. Later that year, he was appointed to the Officers’ Reserve Corps, in which he stayed until resigning his commission in 1938. Cleveland again served his country in World War II, from 1942 to 1945. Shortly before being dis-charged, he earned the rank of colonel. For his service in World War I, Cleveland was awarded a number of medals, including the Chevalier Legion of Honour Award, the Medal of French Reconnaissance, and the American Volunteers with French Army Medal.
Mather Cleveland died in 1979. He and Susan had six children, including U.S. Congressman James Colgate Cleveland, husband of Professor Emerita Hilary Cleveland.
If you’d like to see more of the Mather Cleveland Collection, the Cleveland Colby Colgate Archives is hosting a WWI exhibit in conjunction with the New London Town Archives through Thursday, Dec. 14. The exhibition is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Brantley Palmer is the Colby-Sawyer College archivist. He holds a B.A. from Keene State College and an M.L.I.S. from Simmons College.