The Last Letter from the Front

Grandma knew the look of “soldiers mail.” Grandpa was required to write the term in the upper corner of every envelope mailed from France to guarantee free postage.

last envelope

She recognized all the information that covered the front: her name and address, and his, the censor’s stamp, and the postmark: here, November 12, U.S. Army Post Office M.P.E.S. 1918. APO 761. (1)

The postmark confirmed that the letter began its journey on the day after the Armistice. She certainly received it weeks after the end of fighting, and during a time, I presume, Americans were celebrating the end of the war.

She may have looked twice at sender’s box, AM.EX.F. (American Expeditionary Forces), Knights of Columbus (a Catholic charity), only because most of his letters were sent on stationery provided by the Y.M.C.A. Grandpa surely took whatever free paper was offered.

She opened the envelope across the bottom edge, using a long, pointed letter opener that neatly sliced through a single edge without damaging the envelope or the letter enclosed. (I remember watching her open letters with such a tool.) When she pulled out the letter, its two pages neatly folded, she may have first seen Grandpa’s signature.

last envelope, back with letter

If I had seen his signature, I would have smiled. He was still alive. He was still writing letters. But I don’t know what Grandma thought. Maybe she was relieved to hear from him, or annoyed that he was writing so infrequently now (as compared to the daily writing they’d established over the months of his service). Grandpa hints at her frustration in this letter.

I wonder if she calculated the transit time, figuring the weeks it had taken this letter, after Grandpa wrote it, to find its way to the censor, to the military post office, and then onto a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, before traveling by train from New York to Missouri. Maybe she did. She was clever and always good with numbers.

103118-1.jpg

“October 31, 1918. Some place in France. My Dear Inis,” the letter began. So, he had written this well before the November 12 postmark, she might have thought, before the Armistice, and before he was safe from enemy fire.

I doubt, as she held the letter and slowly made her way through the contents, that she could have known that–in real time, at the very moment she was reading his letter–Grandpa was lying in a hospital bed in France, badly injured on November 3, only a few days after he wrote her. The news of his injury only made its way to his next of kin—his parents—in December.

“Mr. And Mrs. Alderson received word the first of the week,” the King City Chronicle noted on December 13, 1918, “that their son, Tom, was seriously wounded, Nov. 3rd. All hope they will yet get different word and all extend sympathy to Mr. And Mrs. Alderson.” (2)

Grandma probably read this letter–by my count the 175th one he sent during his service and the last one from the front–around Thanksgiving, before anyone knew he’d been hurt. Her family, gathered at their holiday table, no doubt prayed for his safe return. He would return, but not for months, and not in the same condition he’d known before he was called to serve his country, a solemn duty that changed his life, and hers.

Notes

(1) M.P.E.S. stood for Military Postal Express Service. It was set up in 1918, to expedite military mail sent from overseas. APO, Army Post Office, the number referring to a collection location (which I couldn’t identify), typically the spot near the battle area where the mail could be put safely on a train.

(2) King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p4.

October 31, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis,

The orders are for us today to write to no one except our people, but as I written home a few days ago I am going to write you.

I know you think I have neglected you some and I have, but you don’t know what we have been doing since I written you last. We had had some hard warfare.

You know we all write home and send the bright side although you know we are not having a snap. I am daily looking for the time that I can be with you and tell you all.

I have been with Harry Carder several times in the last week. He is only stationed about a mile from where we are now. He is just the same as ever and is a good officer. He brought me back to my co [company] in his car a couple of times. He also took supper with us one night.

This is a beautiful day and we are sure enjoying it as we are just sleeping out on the ground with our blankets over us. We have been on the front going on four months and I think our Division deserves a rest as they have done some hard work.

I got a letter from you last night also one from Mother and a couple of Chronicles. They came in fine as I was sick all day, but am feeling a little better today.

I don’t know whether you will be able to read this or not. I am sitting on the ground with the paper on my Gas mask.

Several of our boys are back from the Hospital. Carl Ketchum, Rube Dunlap and several more you would not know.

I supose you have got the card designating you are allowed to send a Xmas present to a Soldier in France.

Xmas coupon

(He sent the coupon on October 26. Given the long time mail took, weeks, I wonder if it arrived in time to meet the November 20 deadline. Clearly, the coupon wasn’t used.)

Don’t think I am [word unclear] you for it as every boy sent one and I sent it to you instead of the folks and I thought you might send together and I don’t want you to send a great deal as we can’t carry it only something we can eat. Ha Ha.

Ferris Keys has gone to the officers training camp. I haven’t heard from him yet. Also four have gone from our co. I hear from Marshall [his brother] real often. He is well pleased with Denver.

You mentioned in one of your letters that you felt like you were not doing enough to help win the war. I think you are and if you are not I am doing enough for us both, so just rest easy.

Well we were told not to write big letters so I better quit. So I do so by sending plenty of love x kisses

Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via N.Y.

10:31:18 (1)10:31:19 (2)10:31:18 (3)10:31:18 (4)

2 thoughts on “The Last Letter from the Front

  1. So moving to learn about the MASH units of WWI. Your grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor as made evident by his ‘quips’. They truly must have lifted his readers’ spirits for a moment or two!

    Like

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