As September came to an end, in 1918, Grandpa had learned to live with the misery that now defined his life. In a landscape marked with shell craters, many made in the opening months of the war, he endured explosions, day and night. He drew breaths of air that combined the wretched smells of battle—decaying bodies left on the field, toxic chemicals, smoke, all clinched together in the dampness that hung in the grey French skies. Charred stubs of trees. Ruined and deserted villages. Barbed wire. Trenches. Abandoned dugouts. Mud. Rain. Soggy fields that doubled as beds at night and battlefields by day.
But there was mail. These three letters refer to mail he’d received, including copies of the King City Chronicle and photographs. The act of staying in touch was probably as important as the limited news that was shared with his loved ones back home. I’ve included these three in one post, as he wrote them in a cluster. He wouldn’t write again until the middle of October.
Where was Grandpa at the end of September? On the march north, from St. Mihiel toward Verdun. He belonged to a million-man American force, led by General Pershing. Over 47 days, between September 26 and November 11, they would fight to win the war in an offensive called the Meuse-Argonne, named after the wide plain of the River Meuse and the heavily wooded Argonne Forest. This was the southernmost part of a battle line that stretched to the North Sea, along which the French, British and Belgian armies forced the Germans into retreat.
The first two letters below were sent in one envelope. Both seem to refer to the earlier battle at St. Mihiel (September 12-16), but the story of a “miracle” probably refers to a battle in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. So does the death of his buddy, Rolla, on September 27, which he writes about in the third letter.
Sept 25, 1918
Some place in France
Now over two weeks since I written you but I have not had a chance as I presume you have heard of the big drive that was started here about the twelfth. You have heard of going over the top. I have been over twice. The first day we advanced about ten miles having the enemy in full retreat. And I am sure you read in the papers of the great success. Although it was some hard job. Of course I cant tell you how many men we lost but our Major was killed the first day which I was awfully sorry as he was a good man. One thing we had to work against was the weather. It rained every day and every night. And we stayed right out in it where ever we may be, some times we found dug outs and some times we didn’t.
I slept several nights laying right out in the rain but after a person gets so tired he can sleep most any place.
We got our mail pretty regular while were up there and those letters were great. Gim Sanders(?) our supply Serj saw most all the old bunch a few days ago such as Rob, Laverne, Frank Veale and about twenty more he mentioned. Laverne and Rob both told him to have me write them but I haven’t had time yet.
There was a miracle happened to our Co in a big raid the other morn.
A boy by the name of Frank Hootman, one of the boys home on our trip, was among the dead and was left on the field dead. And tonight at supper time he walked in without a scratch. I tell you the crowd sure was glad to see him. He was stunned by a shell.*
Well my dear I must close on account of time
so with Love & Kisses, Tom
Thos W Alderson Co C. 356 Inf.
*Like Grandpa, Frank Hootman was a member of Company C, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. Although he survived this time, he would die on November 11, 1918, hours before the Armistice was signed.
Sept 26, 1918
My Dear—here I am again. I had to come to a close last night for several different reasons, one was that the shells was getting pretty close around and another I had to eat supper. I haven’t cooked any since the big drive started. I was right with the boys all the time and the whole bunch had plenty to do. I am in a dugout now, Key Ring is here with me. We had breakfast a few minutes ago. Things were real exciting here all night but no damage to our co.
Mother told me in her last letter that she thought they would move to town, and I am glad as that is what I wanted them to do before I left.
I see in the last paper where Jack Call was to go to training. I supose Ruby is taking it pretty hard but that is what war causes.
Every time I see an American soldier dead I say to myself there is another home heart broken.
But I think it is all for the best in the long run.
I am sending you enclosed a piece of German money that was among a bunch we taken off of some prisoners. The bunch sure had a lot of soveneer’s but we were unable to carry all of them. But the German people are pretty well fixed. I was in a few of their towns just after they were driven out and it was quite a sight.
If I fail to answer your questions in your last few letters the reason is that I lost all of them on the front.
But you know I am and will do my best. I look at the pictures real often and they are new each and every time.
Well my love I will again close
With lots of love & kisses
Thos. W. Alderson
Co C 356 Inf
Via New York
Sept 28, 1918
Some place in France
Dear Inis, I should say some place in Germany as we are in a land that the Germans took away from France in 1861,* and as I told you in the other letter they are anyhow well fortified. I was in a dugout this afternoon that was at least twenty feet below the top of the [portion cut out] up to a town [portion cut out] all of their towns are practically torn down and no civilians at all, but when they left it the left lots of stuff.
I have our dugout all decorated up about right and right over the entrance I have a frame with your picture and mine in it.
So it with the rest of my pictures causes some comment. But I don’t think we will be here long as you know an advancing army cant stay long in one place.
They have given our Division a nick name (The Wild Cat Div) and I guess by the talk we have made some reputations.
I guess you [portion cut out] same Rolla** was in D I used to see him almost every day but it as some doings the morning we went over in the raid, I was with the first wave, and there sure was some resistance. We were under heavy artillery and machine gun fire all the way to the Germans line but we didn’t stop. Went right in on them. Although our Battalion had [portion cut out] it was a success, but if you ever get a chance to talk to Mr Tunks** [portion cut out] there [portion cut out] in an awful hard fought battle and I looked for half our Battalion to go.
We got paid this afternoon, drawed two months pay and nothing to spend it for. It is a nice day today and I sure am enjoying it as we have had so awfull much rain and mud. But I have several nights good sleep so am feeling quite a lot better. Ferris was to see me a few minuts ago also last night. He’s fine also Gim Parks [portion cut out] are here the King City boys had pretty good luck in this fight only [portion cut out] Ketchum. I helped take him back, also Joe Henson was wounded the same time. That is the Swede boy that your neighbor wrote to. Well there is a boy wanting me to cut his hair so I will close and do it for him and write more tonight.
So I close with love & Kisses
Thos. W. Alderson.
Co. C. 356 Inf.
American E. F.
Via New York.
*Did he mean 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, when German seized much of this area?
* *Rolla was Rolla Newton Tunks, the son of Mr. Tunks that Grandpa mentions. Rolla was killed on September 27, 1918.