Valentine’s Day

In 1919, Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday. Around King City, Missouri, people were exchanging cards and hosting parties.

Valentine cards

King City Chronicle, 14 February 1919, p. 8.

The King City Chronicle ran this simple question in the February 14, 1919 paper. And the next week, they ran notices of parties like this one.

Valentine party

King City Chronicle, 21 February 1919, p. 3.

My grandmother didn’t attend a party. Instead, she stayed home and wrote a letter to Grandpa, one of only two letters that survive from their wartime correspondence. (*)

14-Feb 19, Gma, 1Her letter, which runs in full at the end of this post never found its way to Grandpa. The envelope records the long and unsuccessful journey–to Europe and back, over four months–as the military attempted to locate my grandfather.

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope (front)In the middle of the envelope runs the address Grandma thought was correct: Private Thos. W. Alderson/Evacuation Hospital No 24/American Expeditionary Forces/A.P.O. 798. The American Expeditionary Forces presumably sent the letter to France, as did the A.P.O. number, 798, which belonged to the area of the Mesves Hospital Center, where Grandpa had been convalescing. But the Evacuation Hospital No. 24 was incorrect, and that mistake belongs to Grandpa. He thought he wasn’t getting his mail as regularly as his buddies and decided to have Grandma send letters directly to him; but No. 24 was not the number of a hospital, but rather the number of a unit of a larger base hospital (whose number he didn’t have).

Over his name, notice the postmark (in purple) with the date of April 17. I’m unable to read the complete postmark to know if this was stamped in France or after the letter’s return to the U.S. I’m guessing in France, as letters took weeks to make the trip across the ocean and to the military camps.

In any case, on the postmark (or beneath it?) is a pointing finger and “RETURN TO WRITER” stamp. That return trip included a stop at Camp Funston, stamped in all capital letters in purple. And then, on the left edge of the envelope, a handwritten note states, “No Record, 6/12/19.”

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope, back

The back of the envelope carries still more information. May 15, 1919, stamped in that same purple as CAMP FUNSTON on the front, makes me believe it was received there on that may date. And the postmark of June 10, may indicate the day the letter finally started back to Missouri, to Grandma.

So, where was Grandpa? By February 1, two weeks before Grandma wrote her letter, he had already begun his long trip home. Notice the location he gives, St. Agnan, France. This was the first time he’d identified his location during his service in France. The letter begins on the right half of the page.

feb-1-1919.jpg

Thos W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

Feb 1, 1919

St. Agnan, France

My Dear Inis, again I will drop only a line. You will see I have made a move, hope I have started home. I am in a large camp living in tents, having some winter. Had the first snow about a week ago. I have a pair of over shoes and am doing very well. Have nothing to do only sleep and eat. Go out twice a day for exercise. I am feeling good, although I miss the warm food and good bed at the Hospital. They wanted to attach me to the “Hosp” unit and let me stay but I preferred moving—as I think we are homeward bound of course we know not when but hope soon. I got my Xmas box the morn before I left the Hosp. Every thing was fine. I am sure holding on to those socks and the little knife. I expect it will be hard for you to read this as I holding the paper on my mess kit.

So I close with lots of love and kisses

Tom.

In this letter, Grandpa included cartoons he’d clipped from the newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Military humor.

1-feb-19-cartoons-1.jpg

1-feb-19-cartoons-2-e1550204700139.jpg

The Stars and Stripes, 24 January 1919, p. 7

Here’s Grandma’s Valentine’s Day letter (although without a mention of the day). I haven’t transcribed it, since her handwriting is legible. Her letter is what my family refers to as “newsy,” and it is that. Notice her references to housekeeping and motherhood, which she seems to be looking forward to. The baby she writes about, the one that earned her the title of “Aunt Inis,” was born to her older brother Charley. Join me in wondering about the expression, “busy as a cranberry merchant”! But mostly, enjoy getting to know my grandmother.

14-Feb 19, Gma, 114 Feb 19, Gma, 214 Feb 19, Gma, 314 Feb 19, Gma, 414 Feb 19, Gma, 514 Feb 19, Gma, 6

Happy Valentine’s Day, Grandma and Grandpa! This is my love letter to you.

 

(*) The second letter returned to Grandma is dated February 16, 1919. More on that in an upcoming post.

The Gloomy Aftermath of War

The Armistice may have ended the fighting, but the war didn’t end for American soldiers like my grandfather–some 4 million in total. After their quick military training in the US and deployment overseas, they waited now to go home. (There were only a limited number of ships to transport them.) And they waited for assignments, for something to do. It was a time of uncertainty, a time of suffering from war wounds, and a time, for some, of despair.

Grandpa remained for months at the hospital complex near Mesves, in the Loire Valley.  It was miserable that winter, raining all the time, he wrote. In photographs I’ve seen of the complex, where tens of thousands of soldiers received medical attention after the war, row after row of nearly identical barracks created a monotonous scene of uniform plainness (depressing to my eye). (1)

He tried to keep an upbeat tone in his letters, even as he admitted ongoing problems with his arm.

12-21-18, 1 plum good

December 21, 1918 letter to Grandma.

After noting he hadn’t received mail in two months, he wrote,

My arm is plum healed up and don’t bother me at all only a little weak and I can’t straighten it plum out but I am sure if I were with you it would not bother me at all. Get me.

Did he think he would fully recover? In December, it seems he did.

“Our Division is up in the Rhine Valley as they are in the army of Occupation,” he wrote on December 14, a month into his recovery. “I would love to be with them, but you know I would rather come home you can bet.”

Neither of these were options, at least not at the time. Any hopes he held for a return to his company were dashed in early January. That’s when the doctors reviewed his condition and classified him as “C” class, which recommended “sedentary work” or work that didn’t include more than a five-mile march. (2)

Did he know, or want to suspect, that his injury would never fully heal, that it would limit his abilities the rest of his life?

The one time I sense a note of despair in his letters, or maybe a bit of defiance, was here, in a letter written January 6, a few days after receiving his classification.

1-6-19, 4 nurses

January 6, 1919 letter to Grandma.

After writing about piano players in the Red Cross “hut,” he continued,

The Nurses are trying to get me to cook in their mess, but I tell them I don’t want to tie myself to any job. As I was a Doughboy, you know I went over the top every time the co did and cooked up to that time of our first drive.

Wounded, he still identified as a soldier, still a member of Company C.

News from his buddies in Germany was scant. If he’d had better contact, Grandpa might have learned about the kind of despair some American troops faced there. I found this description in the History of the 89th Division, written by George English, himself a member of the division that served in Germany as part of the occupation. He recalls the days after the Armistice, when American forces began their march through the desolate “No Man’s Land” in France, on November 24, before entering Germany twelve days later, on December 5.

Should we mention our feelings on seeing green fields well kept–roofs and chimneys whole on the houses–fat cattle and well fed people in unharmed Germany–all after devastated France?

There was anger, he wrote, and also a note of melancholy.

The stately, spire-like poplars which line the French roads and give a characteristic tone to the landscape, were now supplanted by smaller, wide branching trees, whose gnarled and twisted limbs gave, in the winter season, a melancholy impression of suffering. (3)

My grandfather didn’t express his emotions, certainly not the way people do today. He witnessed suffering, and endured it, without complaint. That’s my memory of Grandpa. But what did he carry with him after seeing what he describes here, about halfway down? “When I look at so many one-arm, one leg’ed and one eye’d men I think I am sure lucky to only get a few scars on the arm.”

1-24-19, 2

January 24, 1919 letter to Grandma.

Suffering visited King City, Missouri, too, Grandpa learned in letters he received from home. “I was sure sorry to hear of so much sickness and so many deaths,” he wrote Grandma on January 3, 1919. This was a reference to the Spanish Influenza, the virulent type of flu that had become a worldwide pandemic, thanks in part to the movement of infected troops fighting in the war. The King City Chronicle ran notices of school and church closures, as well as obituaries of the victims. The paper also published advice columns from doctors, like this one recommending “pleasant purgative pellets” as a means of prevention.

King City, ad for purgative pellets

King City Chronicle, 29 November 1918, p 3.

In that same letter, dated January 3, Grandpa continued, “I am hoping it will soon be stopped but as Mother said in her letter I guess everyone must have some trouble and it looks like it.”

His mother was right, of course. But I wonder if she or any one of that generation really comprehended the scale of suffering–from the war and the Spanish Influenza–and the steely presence each kept in the lives of its victims.

Some wounds never fully heal.

 

NOTES

(1) For photos and information (in French) on the hospital center: http://cnrs-garchy.overblog.com/le-camp-hopital-americain-de-mesves-bulcy

(2) From the research center at the National World War 1 Museum in Kansas City, I learned that this classification system likely was adopted from the British. Here’s the chart they sent me.

   A Able to march, see to shoot, hear well and stand active service conditions.
Subcategories:
Al Fit for dispatching overseas, as regards physical and mental health, and training
A2 As Al, except for training
A3 Returned Expeditionary Force men, ready except for physical condition
A4 Men under 19 who would be Al or A2 when aged 19
B Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics.
Subcategories:
Bl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
B2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
B3 Only suitable for sedentary work
C Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service in garrisons at home.
Subcategories:
Cl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
C2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
C3 Only suitable for sedentary work
D Unfit but could be fit within 6 months.
Subcategories:
Dl Regular RA,RE, infantry in Command Depots
D2 Regular RA,RE, infantry in Regimental Depots
D3 Men in any depot or unit awaiting treatment

(3) English, George. History of the 89th Division. The War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, p. 263.