Field Work and a World War

View of French battleship, Richelieu, with buoys in the foreground marking the top of the anti-subma

The Field Book Project, a joint project between the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives, aims to create one online location for scholars and others to visit when searching for field research materials. Many field books we include in the project reflect the effects of major world events, such as war. For example, the Archives’ Mann Family collection, documents military defenses in Dakar, Senegal during World War II, while the correspondence of botanist Mary Agnes Chase, sheds light on the struggles of many to reach a state of normalcy during post-World War I Europe. However, few field books document collectors in the midst of the turbulence, as do the two journals by Bohumil Shimek.

Bohumil Shimek was born in Shueyville, Iowa, 1861, the child of Czech (Bohemian) immigrants who came to the United States in the 1850s. He spent most of his life in Iowa, working through a variety of jobs as surveyor; high school teacher; zoology professor; curator of an herbarium; president of the Iowa State Academy of Sciences; geologist for the Iowa State Geological Survey; and director of the Lakeside Laboratory, Lake Okoboji, Iowa. He worked extensively in the United States, and had two major trips abroad—one to Nicaragua, and another in 1914 as an exchange professor at Charles University in Prague.

Photograph taken by Bohumil Shimek during field work in Europe, 1914, of Sand-puszta, Island of Czep

Shimek’s two journals describe his travels during the summer of 1914 across Germany and Austria-Hungary, where he collected and documented field work along the Danube and Rhine River. Most collectors who traveled in Europe wrote about visits to institutions, universities, existing collections, and colleagues.

Photograph taken by Bohumil Shimek during field work in Europe, 1914, looking west in Radotin valley

However, Shimek’s journals include a great deal more than field work. This is due to two major points: Shimek’s heritage and his exposure to a culture different from his own. Shimek identified strongly with his Czech heritage, learning his parents’ native language though born in the United States, and working throughout his life for Czech immigration rights.  Additionally, when outside his home territory, Shimek was prone to include observations of the people and places he was visiting, and recount stories he heard from local inhabitants. These characteristics made for riveting material.

[July 24] There is much comment everywhere on the possibility of general war. The general reports, however indicate that some settlement will be reached, an outcome for which the masses of the German people seem to hope. Everywhere Germans seem to be of the opinion that if a general war breaks out it will be a life and death struggle for Germany.

World War I began July 28th; Shimek left Europe August 25th. Though a short overlap, Shimek described the quickly ratcheting tension of communities, shifting demands for supplies and personnel as men began to take arms, and changes in police reactions to voiced opinions and the presence of foreigners. By the time he left, he recounted friends with family members drafted into service, seeing wounded soldiers, and the shortages of supplies in towns.

[July 29] The atmosphere was tense all evening yet it appears as if the ordinary people hoped there would be no war. We were told next morning that during the night 150,000 men had been sent from and through Freiburg to Mulhausen!

[August 1] At the hotel all the male help was called into military service and even the chef had to go.

[August 1] We have just learned of an order prohibiting the taking of automobiles, horses and mules across the border (i.e. out of the country) on account of the mobilization. Some Americans are caught with autos. One naturalized Swiss American from Nebraska is among them, and he has no passport!

[August 3] At Bern, and in fact all along the line, soldiers swarmed everywhere, and every bridge and railway station was under guard for the whole army had been called out to protect the border. We found the station at Bern crowded and guarded by soldiers. When I passed out to the toilet and tried to return I was stopped by the guard and only when I showed my passport and explained that Paul had our tickets was I permitted to go on.

[August 8] During these days as I write in my rooms ordinarily so quiet, I hear the clatter of hoofs, the measured tread of soldiers, and the rumble of wheels on the pavement below. The papers report that a retired railway employee (engineer?) offered his services because so many men were called to arms, and his offer was returned because it was a request (petition), and did not have the necessary stamp!!!

[August 11] We met with Miss B—and her old parents. Her two brothers and her prospective husband have all been called. We stopped at Grafa for ice cream and here the presence of a few and an incautious remark caused some fear of trouble.

Many times collectors in the field leave out personal reactions; Shimek increasingly seemed to feel the need to voice his. Several times he changed back from English to Czech and back again, sometimes in the midst of an entry. He described his visit to the site of Battle of White Mountain (Bila Hora) that occurred in 1620. This was particularly emotional for Shimek, who noted the construction of merry-go-round and fair-like facilities on the battle site. 

Shimek described the struggle to travel by rail on to England to sail home. In the midst of travel by rail, he wrote:

[August 24] One can hardly meet a person who does not have someone in the army, and it is pathetic to me two or more women meet and with tears exchange their sorrows. General Sherman is right, 'war is hell!'

Field books, like field work, straddle the professional and personal. The materials we catalog cover the range of experiences and emotions. Often the revelations in field books are informative, humorous, and insightful; others like this inspire reflection. Field work has occurred in many places, times, and as seen here, conditions.

Related Resources

The Smithsonian Field Book Project

Related Collections

Record Unit 7082, Shimek, Bohumil 1861-1937, Bohumil Shimek Papers, 1878-1936, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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