R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Richard Norris Williams, II (1891-1968) served in the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur. A descendant of Benjamin Franklin and Bishop White, Williams was born in 1891 to American parents in Switzerland. In 1912, Williams and his father were traveling to the United States on the Titanic, when during the sinking, Norris dove into the water, swam towards a half-submerged inflatable raft that floated off the ship as it sank, and stayed afloat until the Carpathia rescued the survivors. In the five and a half years between the Titanic disaster and America's entry into the War, Williams received a degree from Harvard, achieved international tennis fame as the reigning U.S. champion, and began an investment banking career.
Shortly after President Woodrow Wilson's 1917 Declaration of War, he volunteered for the U.S. Army. After a brief stint as an artillery officer, Williams came to the Army's notice because of his fluency in German and French and was ordered to the French Staff School at Senlis as an instructor in English. When close artillery fire necessitated the school's closing, he became Aide-de-Camp to General James G. Harbord, Commander of the Marine Brigade, Second Division, and later Commander of Services of Supply. As a member of the General Headquarters staff, Williams had the opportunity personally to observe the major directors of the war in action. He knew Pershing, Pétain, and, after the Armistice, Secretary of War Newton Baker.
He had a propensity for participating in the great events of history: not only had he survived the Titanic's sinking, he also watched the first bombing of Paris by air, participated in the battle of Belleau Wood (part of the Chateau Thierry campaign, the most important American engagement of the war), and worked at staff headquarters during the peace negotiations. For his dependable and often courageous action, he received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur. Still in Europe in February of 1919, with most of the American army, he won the singles and doubles championships at the A.E.F. tennis competition in Cannes. Williams seldom spoke of the extraordinary events of his life. Often heroic, he minimized his own heroism; even in his personal memoirs of the Great War, a reader finds only a lively and humorous account of events. He met those events with a sense of quiet confidence. He had an ability to respond quickly and appropriately to situations as they arose, as effective on the battlefield as he had been on the tennis court.
Both the general awareness of the terrible impact of the War, which he clearly shared, and Williams' own encounters with history -- his Titanic experience, his tennis fame -- must have prepared him to appreciate the War's historical significance. As his later career was to demonstrate, he had a historian's sensibility. Even in battle, he remembered to collect bits and pieces of history: aerial reconnaissance photographs; outdated instructions from French artillery positions; and the maps he "souveniered," used, and then saved.
After the war, Williams returned to the investment banking profession he had left. In the 1920s, when lawn tennis remained truly an amateur's game and not a profession, an investment banker could still enter the competition for, and win, the Wimbledon doubles title, as Williams did. In the 1930s, with increased free time on his hands, Williams returned to his War memories and began seriously to put his World War I Collection together. During World War II, as a trustee of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he became his Active Director, replacing the incumbent who had gone to fight overseas. He remained Director of the Historical Society until shortly before his death in 1968.
The entirety of the above biographical note is taken from "An Exhibition celebrating the R. Norris Williams World War I Collection," by Elizabeth A. Mosimann. This exhibition was on view from November 14, 1988 to January 6, 1989 in the Kamin Gallery of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania.
This collection not only documents the war-time experiences of R. Norris Williams, but also includes materials he collected while in France and afterwards, as well as material generated during the process of developing this collection. In addition to the material contained within this collection, Williams collected a valuable group of published books, many of which contained the personal narratives of soldiers and military leaders involved in World War I; a topic which remained a focus of interest to Williams throughout his life.
This collection is arranged in two series: the first series includes World War I documents and the second contains material R. Norris William created during the process of developing his World War I collection. In Series I. World War I documents, researchers will find correspondence, diaries, official documents, photographs, artwork, memorabilia, booklets, and leaflets which were created during the conflict. Of particular interest are R. Norris Williams' own diaries and photograph album which document his experiences from April 1917 to May 1919. Because the original diary was in terrible condition, Williams transcribed it, but in a note at the beginning of the first volume, states, "in doing so I have not changed anything at all. It will be noted that some parts are in the present tense, others in the past tense, depending on when it was written at the time. Even that I have not changed" (box 1, folder 42). In addition to Williams's written memories, the diary includes photocopies of newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, telegrams, and illustrations. Along with the diary, the photograph album, in which many of the photographs are accompanied by captions, provides an excellent picture of Williams' personal experience in the war, from the time of Wilson's proclamation of war, to his return to the United States. This series also contains booklets and leaflets, both civilian and military; and most notably, a large number which were created to fight conscription in Great Britain. Finally, there are a few items that document the aftermath of the war, including speeches and memorials for generals, soldiers, and battles; and correspondence regarding British war debt.
The second series, R. Norris Williams material on the creation of his World War I collection, includes correspondence, clippings, and notes which document the efforts made by Williams to collect material, and particularly books, relating to the conflict. Much of this material includes non-original material such as clippings from bookseller's catalogues, newspapers, and magazines, and obituaries. However, there are several very substantive items, including letters from Thomas Buffum (box 3, folder 10) and Harold B. Willis (box 3, folder 60) in which they describe their experiences as prisoners of war; correspondence with Horst von der Goltz regarding his letter which was published in Saturday Evening Post; and correspondence with General James G. Harbord, who was writing a book on his own experiences in World War I and with whom Norris developed a firm friendship. Also of great interest are Williams's own research and notes on understanding World War I, in particular his hand-drawn maps and handwritten chronologies of events surrounding the entire conflict (box 2, folder 26) and the battle of the Marne (box 2, folder 25).
In order to fully appreciate Williams's efforts to fully document World War I, researchers should also consult books collected by Williams in Franklin: Penn Libraries Catalog and Print Collection 12: World War I Printed Media and Art Collection.
Gift of Sue Williams, wife of R. Norris Williams circa 1987.
The original gift included books and other printed material in addition to Williams' archival material. All printed material was separated and catalogued independently of the archival collection. Researchers will find books collected by Williams in Franklin: Penn Libraries Catalog. Printed material can be found in Print Collection 12: World War I Printed Media and Art Collection.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Aleth Tisseau des Escotais
- Finding Aid Date
- 2014 February 25
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.