Another Thanksgiving far from Home

Grandpa spent Thanksgiving, 1917, at Camp Funston, Kansas. A year later, he shared the holiday with wounded American soldiers in a hospital south of Paris. From letters he sent in January, the hospital seems to have been Evacuation Hospital #24, with a military mail code of APO 798. 11-28-18 envelope front

This letter, postmarked December 1, was the first he sent to Grandma after his injury. If she didn’t know he’d been wounded, the neat penmanship on the envelope was a clue. This wasn’t Grandpa’s handwriting. And, once she opened the envelope and saw the American Red Cross letterhead, I imagine she knew: he was sending news from a military hospital staffed by the Red Cross.

11-28-18, 111-28-18, 2

It was true, as Grandpa wrote (or dictated), that mail would be hard to send and receive. I wonder why. The delivery of mail at the front didn’t fail. The army knew the value of mail as a means to keep up morale. But now, in peace time, the service faltered. It would be two months before Grandpa received mail from Grandma, or anyone from home.

Speaking of home, my childhood home in Kansas, Thanksgiving is the holiday I most associate with my family. I don’t have a photo of a Thanksgiving table, but I want to include a picture of Grandma. She made such a wonderful meal. I especially remember the super moist oyster dressing she served, an odd treat for a Kansas holiday. It was perfect with a side of her dried corn, mashed potatoes and turkey, covered in gravy and followed with pie.

Gma, Manitour, shuffle board

Grandma as my shuffle board partner, one summer in Manitou Springs, Colorado. My brother stands at the other end of the court.

11-28-18 envelope, back

The back of the envelope. American Red Cross. American Expeditionary Forces.

 

After the Armistice

November 11, 1918

Grandpa learned about the Armistice from the hospital. He’d been there (or in a series of places) for eight days. On November 15, he had a friend write a letter to his parents; his right arm, injured in an attack, didn’t allow him to hold a pen. As was common among local families with their “boys” at war, his parents shared the letter with the King City Chronicle, who published it on December 13.

Letter 11-15

King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p. 1.

The fighting may have stopped that day in November, but it didn’t end my grandfather’s own battles. He stayed in France until March, 1919, recovering and waiting to rejoin his Company C, 356thInfantry, 89thDivision. He didn’t want to leave France without them. After returning to King City, he spent months fighting his way back into the life he’d left for war. The transition was difficult. Upcoming blog posts will look at his life after the Great War ended.

November 11, 2018

I decided to recognize November 11 as a remembrance of the Armistice. That’s how Grandpa’s generation saw the day, as a celebration of peace, as the end of a war meant “to end all wars.”  I flew a flag from the front porch.

Armistice Day 2018

And I baked donuts to remember Grandpa’s job (one of his jobs) as an Army cook.

Armistice Day Donuts, turned, cropped

Cinnamon, lemon, and blood orange (glazed) donuts

I shared them with my orchestra, the group that added two World War 1-era songs to our repertoire, Liberty Bell (It’s Time to Ring Again) (1) and Don’t Forget the Salvation Army (My Doughnut Girl). (2)

Music holds a central place in my family—especially in the generations of musicians on Grandma’s side. They sang at church and sang at home, with someone playing the piano or pump organ or violin or mandolin. Into this tradition, my father picked up the cornet. And his children, the trumpet, piano, organ, and violin. So, offering a musical tribute to Grandpa and his generation of soldiers seemed perfect to me. I felt so close to him and all my family as I remembered the Armistice with music (and donuts).

 

 

NOTES

I’ve shared these links before. Enjoy the music again!

(1) Liberty Bell

https://archive.org/details/78_liberty-bell-its-time-to-ring-again_peerless-quartet-joe-goodwin-halsey-k.-mohr_gbia0013538a

(2) My Doughnut Girl

November 3: Wounded in Action

November 3, 1918. Sunday morning. 5:30 am. Grandpa and the members of Company “C”, 356thInfantry, 89thDivision, prepared to advance on German troops. From historical accounts of the division, I place him in an area roughly 60 miles east and slightly north of Reims, between the northern edges of the forested area called the Barricourt Heights and the small villages known as Le Champy Bas and Le Champy Haut. (1)

The Germans had long held this part of France and knew how to take advantage of the dense woods (for traps and hiding spots for snipers) and the hills (to follow the enemy) and the open fields (to pick off advancing troops).

That morning, on November 3, the American infantry troops set out with extra supplies for what the army expected to be heavy fighting: “two bandoleers of small arms ammunition, one automatic rifle clip or the equivalent number of cartridges, two hand grenades, two rifle grenades and one white panel.” (2) They followed behind the artillery, whose deadly shells added a smoky haze to the foggy, wintry morning. Advance, always march forward, they knew. Use a compass, as needed. Stay with your group. If a comrade falls, leave him. Don’t give the enemy an inch.

Major General Charles P. Summerall, in a daily briefing, explained.

The best way to safeguard the wounded is to push ahead and defeat the enemy. Pitiful examples have occurred in the present offensive wherein units have allowed their strength to be weakened by details for carrying wounded and in the face of a counter attack have been driven back, leaving their wounded to die. To halt plays the enemy’s game, since he is fighting a defensive action with machine guns and artillery. To halt means losses. (3)

On that November day—one hundred years ago today, one of those machine guns fired at my grandfather. He fell to the ground. The only information I have on the nature of that battle and his injury appears in a letter he wrote six weeks later.

12-14-18, 2, cropped

Letter written December 12, 1918. The second page includes the section shown above.

My arm don’t bother me a great deal only is weak. But there is a good cause as I had a gash about five inches long cut to the bone just above my wrist which cut a leader [tendon], and a bullet through the muscle of my arm which cut an artery, which almost bled me to death before got off the field. We were in the front wave going over the top at this time and the Germans had a large number of machine guns just about three hundred yards ahead of us. And they were sure using them. Ha. Ha.

Historical accounts describe the advance by the 356th Infantry as coming under “severe fire from the woods in front and from the village of Le Champy Haut.” (4) Grandpa told Grandma, in a letter from November 28, that “our whole bunch was hit hard.”

I’ll never know who saved my grandfather, or how long he lay on that field, nearly bleeding to death by his own account. Was he carried off? Did an ambulance transport him, over muddy, rutted roads, to safety and care?

In an earlier post, I noted the levels of care established during World War 1. It was a  system that saved the lives of men like my grandfather. Medical personnel were stationed in trenches, to evaluate injuries. Advanced dressing stations, 400 yards away from the fighting, to stabilize bleeding. Field hospitals, 1 ½ miles away, for emergency operations. Evacuation hospitals, 8 – 13 miles away, for more serious operations. Base hospitals, 23-28 miles away, for convalescence and physical therapy. (5)

Grandpa nearly came through the war without injury. His luck ran out that November day, so close to the official armistice. People tell me that he was lucky because he received medical attention and survived. But it’s also true that his luck was scarred by a wound that would never fully heal.

Notes

(1) English, George H. History of the 89th Division, U.S.A. War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, pp. 196-200. To explore the November battles, visit the online map collection of the Library of Congress, especially the map of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, day by day, noted by Major General Charles P. Summerall. You should be able to enlarge sections, and when you do, follow the 89th: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g5831s.ct004281/?r=0.115,0.528,0.473,0.199,0

(2) English, p. 171.

(3) English, p. 168.

(4) English, p. 199.

(5) National WW1 Museum and Memorial, exhibition notes.

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)

MLB and WW1 Baseball

The Dodgers are headed to the 2018 World Series–a miracle of miracles for this LA Dodgers fan. It’s October in America and time to think about baseball. I’m sure my grandfather, who loved baseball, would agree.

How did World War 1 impact baseball? That question came to me when I read a letter Grandpa wrote on March 30, 1918.

Baseball, Funston, 1

funston-baseball-2.jpg

I like how “a big Easter celebration” and “a big ball game” get equal attention.

Why were the Cardinals playing at a military training camp? I did a bit of research and came up empty. Then, on a lark, I called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, better known as Cooperstown. I realized I’d landed on a bit of good luck when a woman (who only identified herself as Katherine) answered the phone. Not only was she a graduate student in American Social History, with a specialty in baseball, she was also a Cards fan. Within a couple of days, she sent me over 30 scanned pages of information on World War 1-era baseball. In her email response, she answered my specific question on why the Cards played at Camp Funston.

“The St. Louis Cardinals were struggling to achieve any post-season success during the years before/during World War 1,” she wrote, “a trend that changed only after the team brought on Branch Rickey who developed the organization’s minor league farm system. Like many professional teams, the Cardinals lost players to the draft and military enlistment, which was partly the reason Rickey sought to locate reserve players through a player development system.”

She mentioned the teams known to have played for the troops: Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The MLB sent teams to Foot Hood, Texas, she said, and Camp Pike, Arkansas, as well as Camp Funston in Kansas. Often, professional ballplayers, now in military training, faced former teammates on the field.

From Grandpa’s letters, I know baseball filled the spring days at camp. Beginning in March, 1918, he wrote about playing catch after supper, managing his company “C” team, serving as an umpire, and watching games. On April 27, he told Grandma,

“I never saw as many ball games in my life. There was at least a dozen in a mile square down this side of the river and a big crowd at each one.”

baseball ad, Apr 6, 1918 (0137)

Local vendors sold uniforms and equipment. This ad ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p 2. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

The army encouraged baseball, noting the benefits of exercise, recreation, and the kind of discipline and teamwork needed on the battlefield. This notice also ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p. 6.

baseball excuses, funston

 

Baseball went with the troops overseas. The army sent equipment, as did the Y.M.C.A. The MLB sent some of its best players. Thanks (again) to Katherine, the intern at Cooperstown, I learned that the Chemical Warfare Service, also known as the “Gas and Flame Division,” included three future baseball hall-of-famers: Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. All were in the thirties, and all were willing to take on one of the most dangerous assignments of the war.

In an article she sent, “Chemical Warfare Service: World War 1’s House of Horrors,” author Frank Ceresi wrote that over the summer of 1918, the Army recruited  baseball players and athletes “with exceptional skill” to execute a daring plan. “They were tasked to prepare for battle with special orders to anticipate German gas attacks where the heaviest trench fighting would be, then turn the tables on the enemy by quickly spraying their flanks with jets of flame from tanks strapped onto their backs. Then, once their tanks emptied, they were to lob special ‘gas grenades’ at the fallen Germans and clear the area.”

Of the three baseball greats, only Mathewson was injured. The signal to put on his mask came too late, during one attack, and he suffered from exposure to the gas. This may have led, Ceresi suggested, to his death in 1925 from tuberculosis. (1)

Some baseball players stayed in the U.S. Certainly the most famous was Babe Ruth, who had registered for the draft, but hadn’t been called for service overseas. In the 1918 World Series–the only one played completely in September–his Red Sox team beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-2. At that game, a tradition was born when the military band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd joined in. The singing of the national anthem (so-named in 1931) became standard practice at MLB games beginning in the 1941-42 season. (2)

Baseball has so many traditions, and the one I most treasure, is the practice of handing down the love of the game, one generation to the next. My grandfather is my link to the game. I will always remember the pleasure of sitting at his knee, quietly watching him listen to the Kansas City Athletics on the radio. This memory came to mind on a recent flight home. I shared a row with a man and his son, who was probably a young teenager. “We’re seeing baseball parks this summer,” the father said, explaining the new jersey his son was proudly wearing. We talked about baseball. I told him about my grandfather and baseball in World War 1. I asked him what he especially liked. “I collect signed, first-edition books on baseball.” His favorites? He scribbled them down on the back of a bookmark I had.

Baseball titles cropped

Before we landed, I mentioned one detail that puzzled me in World War 1-era baseball. The Y.M.C.A. sent indoor baseballs and indoor bats to France. Did he know about indoor baseball played during the war? He grew silent and said, no, quickly adding that he wanted to look into this as soon as he got home.

I bet he did. That’s baseball–so many facts and stats and enduring traditions over its long history. It’s no surprise to me that American soldiers played ball at military camps and places in France, however and wherever they could. And watch games. And long to be home to see their favorite teams in person.

When the Dodgers take to the field in the 2018 World Series, I’ll fold into the shadows of this rich history of the game. I’ll marvel at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, two of the oldest (still standing) parks in baseball, festooned with patriotic bunting for the World Series. I’ll remember that only one team can win. I’ll take comfort knowing I’m not the only one yelling at the TV, the way my grandfather’s generation yelled at the radio or yelled from the stands. We know best, the fans. It’s baseball.

And so is the hope, that against all odds, my team will win. Go Dodgers!

Thank you, MLB, for supporting the troops in World War 1.

MLB contributions WW1

Included in story, “Baseball’s Bit in The World War,” Baseball Magazine, Feb. 1918, p. 390.

 

Notes

(1) Frank Ceresi, “Chemical Warfare Service,” included at http://www.baseballinwartime.com/chemical_warfare.htm

(2) “Baseball and the Star Spangled Banner” at https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/anthem

Online sources provided by National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“A Corner in Horsehide,” 34 ff. https://archive.legion.org/handle/20.500.12203/3469

“Baseball Champions American Expeditionary Forces,” https://books.google.com/books?id=2yJjJZF7lOYC&pg=PP457&lpg=PP457&dq=%22Baseball+Champions+American+Expeditionary+Forces%22+Lt.+Colonel+Malcolm+P.+Andruss&source=bl&ots=Vw_aXMk3D-&sig=pfQiUMfMYrUk8lTL4amvTor4O_w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiSnoG-rPLdAhUIIDQIHY4pCCsQ6AEwAHoECAAQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Baseball%20Champions%20American%20Expeditionary%20Forces%22%20Lt.%20Colonel%20Malcolm%20P.%20Andruss&f=false

Print sources provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

Elias, Robert. “Real War (1917-1919)” in The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010.

Lane, F.C. “Baseball’s Bit in the World War.” Baseball Magazine, February 1918, 386-391, 436-437.

 

President Wilson and Dreams of Peace

“Most every morn someone will say I dreamed of home last night. And it is true as I know from experience and especially since the little peace talk started,” Grandpa wrote October 12, 1918.

In Grandpa’s letters, I find simple truths like this to be profound, that peace kindled a soldier’s dream. He and his buddies, understandably, were homesick. When Grandpa wrote this letter, he’d been in the army for one year, in Europe four months, and in the war zone 70 days. Of course, they longed for an end to the misery. But a soldier’s dream ran through the much larger and hugely complex desires of politicians trying to secure world peace.

“Now Monday morn,” he wrote on October 14. “We got the big news this morn that Germany had accepted all of Wilsons peace terms, so we had to read the papers through and through.”

Whatever papers they read didn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Germany had reached out to President Wilson on October 4, seeking an armistice. But peace wouldn’t materialize until all the Allies were on board, and they wouldn’t come to the table with Germany for another month.

This overture of peace came after heavy German losses in September. Some of the German leaders, seeing the costs of battle and the unlikely prospect of victory, considered the “14 Points” (conditions of peace) Wilson had announced to Congress on January 8, 1918. (1) But others refused to imagine a truce that would erase their territorial gains. As for Wilson, he had, by this time, convinced himself that the German people had a right to decide their future; he insisted that Germany replace imperial rule with a democratic state. The war continued.

And as it did, what opinions were my grandparents and their families forming? Did they support Wilson? Did they understand the magnitude of the moment, of how the ideas Wilson espoused might change the role of America on the international stage?

They all read newspapers, especially the King City Chronicle. Grandpa received it at Camp Funston and also in France. This weekly newspaper with its small rural readership regularly published news from the war, including letters from soldiers. They also ran, as did many papers across America, the full texts of presidential speeches.

Wilson

Headline, Chronicle, October 4, 1918, p. 3.

On October 4, the Chronicle published the text of a speech Wilson gave in New York City, on September 27. In a nutshell, Wilson spoke of a certain “clarity” that had come to him during the long years of war, how he could now see the war as a “peoples’ war,” whose voices demanded, he believed, a new world order.

Peace would only come, he argued, when all nations—small and large—agreed to interact as equals. The powerful few, Wilson believed, had no right to rule over the weak. Only a league of nations could prevent another world war. As for this one, he concluded his speech, no terms would end it, only “the final triumph of justice and fair dealing.” (2)

This idealism came, as we know today, from a president who supported segregation and opposed women’s suffrage. But in the days of the war, did Americans consider those ideas problematic? My grandparents never spoke directly about World War 1, but they did call themselves “Missouri Democrats,” the party of Wilson. And a few years after the end of the war, in 1924, Grandma’s older sister, my great Aunt Mattie, visited Europe. Her traveling companion (a friend and mentor name Trix) wrote about Wilson in a letter home.

“Coming thru Annecy (France) this a.m. we discovered that the most beautiful street was the Pres. Wilson. We met a Dutchman who said, ‘Fighting is so stupid.’ He also said if the U.S. had come in as it should when Pres. Wilson had all Europe thinking his way, most of the troubles would now be over; and if we would come in now it would give the people of Europe so much hope that all the little nations would rally around the U.S. and England and then the world could soon be put right. That is the feeling I have constantly encountered.” (3)

After the war, Americans rejected Wilson’s program for a league of nations, choosing isolationism instead. I sense in Trix’s note, with her mention of the “beautiful street” named after Wilson, that she (and I’m certain my great aunt) disagreed with that decision.

And Grandpa? In the final weeks of the war, in October 1918, I imagine he hoped Wilson would succeed, if that meant the end of fighting. In the meantime, he was too busy with the daily matters of war—cooking, writing letters, waiting for orders, and moving—in the mud and rain—from one spot to the next, under nearly constant enemy fire. He also, as you’ll read, engaged in a bit of looting, which the army strictly forbade. But Grandpa thought Grandma would like a “Boche” (German) apron he’d found in a town they’d captured.

 

Notes

(1) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp (full list) and https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/fourteen-points (summary)

(2) https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1918Supp01v01/d258

(3) Letter by Beatrix “Trix” Ford, August 16, 1924. Courtesy of the Archives at Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, Missouri

 

This letter is actually a running letter written on three separate days: October 12, 14, and 18, enclosed in an envelope with a postmark of October 26.

October 12, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis, Now almost three weeks since I have written you, but never the less I have my mind toward you and ever my dreams. It is amusing to listen to the boys. Most every morn someone will say I dreamed of home last night. And it is true as I know from experience and especially since the little peace talk started. But during this three weeks I have saw and hear so awfully much I hardly know what to write.

We moved back of the line about twelve miles a few nights ago and only stayed over night and got orders to go to another front. I didn’t go with the co. [company]. Stayed to go with the stove, so we are still here as they haven’t came after it yet and this makes four days. There is eight of us here so we are having it pretty soft. Got plenty to eat.

We boiled two quarters of beef (4) and made about a thousand doughnuts so as to have them ready when we got to the co and we are still here and don’t know where the rest is.

So all we can do is to stay until they send for us.

We are in a small town but only two miles from a large town. I have been over there yesterday and today also. They have several civilians there.

We were on the front line about a month and this makes over seventy days we have been in the war zone. But being as we are in the forth army chore [4th Army Corps] I suppose they will give us plenty do. We had lots of mud and rain to contend with all the time we were on the front.

Just about the time we would get dug in here would come a rain and run us out of holes, so you can imagine how we slept with that and plenty of shelling to boot but I have got so that the shells don’t bother me much at all. I figure if they don’t hit me they don’t hurt and if they do I am unfortunate.

I am feeling fine and weigh as much as I ever did I think. I was just looking over my bunch of pictures. They are sure interesting, the last letter I had from you had the little picture of yourself. It was good.

I have a little Boche Lady’s apron I got out of a store in a town we captured. I am going to try and send you, but we have an awfull poor chance for anything like that.

I read the letter that Mary (5) wrote Key Ring. Well as they are doing so awfull much talking I will quit and write more later.

(October 14)

Now Monday morn and we are still in the same place and haven’t heard from our co yet.

But we got the big news this morn that Germany had accepted all of Wilson’s peace terms, so we had to read the papers through and through.

Key Ring, I, and a couple more boys walked over to another town for a while last night but after we have saw one French town we have saw them all as they are all alike, only the ones close to the line where there is nothing but the Ruins. On the big drive after artillery would finish shelling one of the German towns they would turn their own artillery on them. I sure have saw some destroyed property but I think it is to an end.

I saw Jack Spence one morning about a couple of weeks ago. He is a first aid man in the 342 Machine Gun Battallion Sanitary detachment. So I went on down to the next town and saw Chris Cummins and told him so he went up and found Jack and we moved out of the timber [?] one night about a week ago and was relieved by the second Bat. They had hardly got in when the Germans started shelling and Gassing them and they suffered heavy. Co. E alone had 64 casualties and I heard that Co. J. had more than that.

We have been awful lucky. Have had no gas at all only two small attacks but not effective.

(October 18)

Well it is now Oct 18 and we have got to the co. Got here a couple of days ago and they were sure glad to see us. All are fine and I am better than that but we are sure having some rain and mud. Tell my parents that I haven’t time to write them now will write soon so I close with love & Kisses

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C. 356

American E.F.

Via New York

 

Notes

(4) A quarter of beef is roughly 85-100 pounds.

(5) Mary is, I presume, Grandma’s younger sister Mary.

10:12, 14, 18 (1)10:12,14, 18 (2)10:12,14,18 (3)10:12,14,18 (4)10:12,14,18 (5)10:12,14,18 (6)10:12,14,18 (7)10:12,14,18 envelope

 

 

 

Another Home Heart Broken

Battle image

From Grandpa’s “My Soldier’s Record” booklet.

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.

9-25,26 (envelope)

Sept 25, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear,

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.

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9-25 (2)9-25 (3)

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

Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

American E.F.

Via New York

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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.

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Undated photo of Grandma as a young woman. I don’t know which pictures Grandpa had in France.

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

Tom

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.

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Bombs Bursting in Air

St Miheil cannon

Capturing St. Mihiel Salient- 3 soldiers operating a cannon- pile of empty cannon shell casings in foreground. , 1918. [Sept] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016650684/.

September 12, 1918.

St. Mihiel, France.

Weather: Heavy driving wind and rain.

At 1 a.m. Grandpa woke up (if he’d slept at all) to the sights and sounds of the first major battle fought—and won—by American forces. The artillery used 3,000 pieces of heavy equipment to fire more than a million shells. They lit up the night sky and caused, in eye-witness descriptions, a deafening rumble that felt like an earthquake.* For the next four hours, until 5 a.m, Grandpa and the other soldiers—nearly half a million—stood ready in dark, mud-filled trenches, their clothes soaked from days of constant rain, waiting for the command to “go over the top,” the term for leaving the trenches and running, guns blazing, into the no-man’s land that was the Western Front.

The battle of St. Mihiel lasted five days. The goal was to claim back an area held by the Germans since the opening weeks of the war in 1914. The area, or salient, was a triangle, with the Meuse River and the town of St. Mihiel at the western point, Haudiomont (near Verdun) at the far north, and Pont-à-Mousson, near the Moselle River, on the east.

Salient

My bad map makes another appearance, with a detail of the St. Mihiel Salient. Grandpa’s group, the 89th, moved from the south.

Forests and rivers cut through low hills, occasionally creating broad plains. The Germans had transformed the landscape into a warren of deep trenches, long barriers of barbed wire and hidden machine-gun nests.

On that morning of September 12, Pershing led the American First Army (including the 89th Division), which attacked from the southern side, and the French forces, who moved from the eastern side. The French and British also participated from the air, with 1400 aircraft forming the largest air force to date.

General Pershing had long argued the strategic value on taking this area (which the French had tried and failed to do), as a way to approach Germany, and take the important rail center at Metz. He also convinced the Allied command that an independent American force was up to the challenge. The battle became critically important to prove Pershing’s confidence.

Pershing succeeded, and in part because the Germans had already anticipated this offensive and begun to withdraw from the area. A letter found on a German solider suggested low morale may have been a factor. “The men are so embittered that they have no interest in anything,” the German wrote, “and they only want the war to end, no matter how.” (1)

George English, a member of the 89thDivision, and author of its history, described the final night of September 16. “The advance through the gathering dusk and the deep night, though devoid of excitement, was stirring to the emotions of every participant. The weather had cleared and brilliant stars were looking down upon the field of battle. The continuous roar of the artillery and the rattle of small arms had ceased.” (2)

 

September 12, 1918.

King City, Missouri.

Weather: Fair.

Thousands of miles away from the war, Grandma awoke that same Thursday to a nice autumn day. The local newspapers reported “fair weather,” meaning mostly sunny but cool. She and her family started their day early, tending animals and having breakfast before working in the fields or the yard or the house, or going to town for supplies. Since March, they had followed President Wilson’s wartime program of daylight saving time, meaning their days no longer followed the sun, but the clock. Some farmers objected to this (and led the effort the next year to abolish it) and felt like a precious morning hour was being stolen from them.

I doubt Grandma’s family fussed over this. They were a hardy, no-nonsense bunch. If there was work to do, they did it.

Farm, Chickens

From a family album, probably around 1915.

But on this September morning, when Grandma headed outside for morning chores, dew clinging to the hem of her dress and patches of fog lazing over the fields, I wonder if she let herself daydream about Grandpa. Did she have an inkling that he’d been moved from the safety of his cook’s job and sent to the front lines? And I wonder, too, what she knew of war. Both her grandfathers had been in the Civil War, one fighting for the Confederacy and the other on desk assignment for the Union. Did they ever share their experiences, or their opinions of war?

Grandpa Martin (as they called their mother’s dad) died in March, 1918. He was a favorite and might have shared stories. But if he did, the stories didn’t survive into my generation. Nor did those known to Grandfather Dykes (father’s side), who lived with them in King City until his death in 1901. Grandma was only nine when he died, and may have been too young to have heard (or understood) his war stories. Aunt Mattie, Grandma’s older sister, wrote in her 1971 diary, on a day spent researching family history, “Oh how I wish I had asked Grandfather Dykes about his war service.”

The events of World War 1 were slow to make their way back home. The King City Chronicle, which only published on Fridays, ran stories a week or two after major events. On September 20, under a headline of “Verdun Freed by Americans,” they wrote, “Official dispatches were still delayed and the full scope of the victory won by the Americans in their first independent action could not be gauged.” They also ran a photograph (as did many American papers, all using the same caption) of a French village liberated by the Americans in August. The unnamed photographer focused on the women and children walking in the ruins.

Newspaper Thierry

King City Chronicle, 10 September 1918, p. 7.

Letters took 2-4 weeks to cross the Atlantic. In the meantime, I suspect Grandma did wonder and worry about Grandpa. She would have to wait for the first letters to arrive in October to hear about his experiences during the St. Mihiel Offensive; I’ll post those next week. While she waited, Grandma carried on with her chores.

Thursday towel

From a set of tea towels my sister and I have, probably wedding gifts from Grandma. Monday, wash. Tuesday, iron. Wednesday, sew. Thursday, market. Friday, clean. Saturday, bake.

*This summary is pulled from many sources, all agreeing on the major points.

(1) Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars. The University Press of Kentucky, 1998: 280.

(2) English, George H. History of the 89th Division. The War Society of the 89th Division, 1920: 109.

 

 

 

 

Write Home! That’s an Order!

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Grandma kept the letters from Grandpa in a shoe box. Envelopes marked with “Soldiers Mail” (upper right corner) identified mail from France, which didn’t require postage. Photo (c) Charlene Reichert.

The army encouraged soldiers to write letters, lots of letters. Staying in touch with folks back home would keep up a soldier’s morale, the argument went, and also maintain the public’s support for the war. Over the summer of 1918, as more and more soldiers were deployed to the Western Front—including my grandfather, newspapers across the country ran General Pershing’s official order to “write home often.” The New York Times ran the full order, a portion of which read:

Duty to one’s country does not end on the parade ground, nor even on the battlefield, but consists in doing everything in one’s power to help win the war. To write home frequently and regularly, to keep in constant touch with family and friends, is one of the soldier’s most important duties. (1)

Service organizations like the Y.M.C.A., Red Cross, and the Knights of Columbus, provided writing paper and envelopes to soldiers, both in military training camps and also overseas. Postage was waived for all mail sent from Europe.

The army provided rules and advice. For example, once they boarded a ship, soldiers could not mention specific details of location or troop movement, the numbers of troops, and, later, the numbers of wounded and killed in battle. That information, if it fell into the hands of the enemy, posed a danger.

Of course, for this danger to present itself, soldiers had to carry letters with them. And they did. Grandpa once apologized for not answering some of Grandma’s questions, explaining that he’d lost her letters on the front.

Friends and family also received advice. Trench and Camp, the weekly military newspaper, often ran advice columns for the public. In one, the author recommended keeping letters “hopeful” as a way to counteract a prevailing notion that most soldiers would die.

Do not get the idea that our boys are “going over the top” to die. Ninety-three in each hundred will return. Do not let the “Well, if I do not see you again, good luck and God bless you” farewell send a man off with a stone where his heart should be. Keep this idea out of your letters and their thoughts. To be victorious they must be hopeful. (2)

Keep the letters newsy–with stories about neighbors and happenings at home. This would help remind the soldier of the life awaiting him after the war.

Don’t use letters to explore any misgivings about the war. Criticism was seen as unpatriotic and, in extreme cases, illegal. The federal government, under the direction of President Wilson, enforced the 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act against pacifists and dissenters, or anyone it deemed disloyal. (3) These acts were seen at the time as violations against free speech, and parts (though not all) of these acts were repealed after the war. But their role in the national effort to keep things positive, maintain high morale, and support the war that would end all wars . . . informed the public conversation, including private letters written to and by soldiers. Grandpa sometimes mentioned that he was supposed to keep his letters cheery, and in one poignant example from the battlefield, he remarked,

You know we all write home and send the bright side, although you know we are not having a snap. (from a letter I’ll post in October)

The War Department stepped in with restrictions on second-class mail, especially packages. Cargo ships were needed for military equipment and personnel exclusively, not gift packages from home. Also, these packages slowed down the delivery in France of first-class mail–those all important letters.

TC Puzzle Letter

Published in Trench and Camp, January 5, 1918. Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

“A letter is a gift that is always timely and never in the way,” appeared in another column published in Trench and Camp. The letters need not be fancy, the author noted. “Literary quality isn’t the thing most needful in them, of course.” (4)

This may explain the quality of a poem Grandpa included in the letter I’m posting below, which he wrote in early September. The poem had been written (or copied?) by a girl “back home” and sent to one of Grandpa’s buddies. The rhyming is forced at times, but the ending makes it worth the read!

(1) “Asks Men to Write Home.” New York Times. 9 June 1918: 9.

(2) “Rules and Suggestions Regarding Soldier Mail.” Trench and Camp. 12 January 1918: 3.

(3) For full discussion, see Patricia O’Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York, 2018: 290-301.

(4) “Home Letters Revivify Soldiers and Play Important Part in War.” Trench and Camp. 23 March 1918: 3.

 

Sept 1, 1918

Some place in France.

My Dear Girl.

Almost a week has past since I written you although I have thought of you quite a bit of time. I got three letters from you last night, one from Marshall and one from Mother. So you see I was pretty well fixed for a while. One of yours had the pictures of your dogs Jack loving Ruby and the others and a few days ago I got the other one with the pictures. They were sure gladly received even if they were not extra good. So keep the good work going as the letters are the best thing we get over here.

I haven’t been working so hard for the last week as we have been in reserve. But I think we will go up again soon. I am feeling fine. The weather has begun to get cooler here already. I sure am scringing* for this winter as France is a great deal cooler than Mo. But every thing looks bright so far. We have had four men promoted for their bravery already. Rube Dunlap was made Sergeant, for one, and Clyde Findly made Corporal and a couple more. This event of bravery was while the bunch was under the heavy artillery fire I told you in the other letter. So I guess Mr. Moulton was right when he said there was some in this bunch that could give good account of himself.

Ferris showed me a letter with some pictures he received the other day from Loretta. They composed of her and another girl dressed in bathing suits so you know they were keen. Well My Dear there isn’t much I can tell you only that I am sending with this an extra amount of love and kisses being as it is Sunday afternoon.

So I close

Lovingly Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E. F.

P.S. Below is a couple verses of poetry that a boy in our co received from his girl in Omaha Neb.

*scringing is likely cringing, as in dreading the upcoming winter. In 19th-century American folk language, scringe was often used for cringe.

 

To My Soldier Boy

I’m feeling pretty worried over all the things I hear.

Of the Shrapnel and the canons that are roaring around you Dear.

Of the Zeppelins and aeroplanes and the sneaky (?) submarines.

But the worst of all the things I fear

That nearly turns me green

Is the fear of all the damsels you’ll be meeting over there

The Parisiennes and the Belgian Maids with fascinating hair.

So be loyal Honey, don’t forsake the girl back home.

No matter how they smile on you,

Don’t let your fancy roam,

For the French girls are so pretty and the nurses are so kind

But do not be a traitor to the girl you left behind.

 

I know that you are Loyal to the old Red White and blue.

And I hope you’ll be loyal to your little girl, too.

Against the Hun’s they spell with “U” you’ll hold your own I know.

But I fear you may be ambushed by the huns they spell with “O.”

Stand guard against temptations

Don’t surrender to their charms.

And wait until you get back home before presenting arms.

Leave the French Girls to the French men and the Nurses for the Doc’s.

And the soldier in Kaki for the girl who knits his socks.

Tho the French girls may be pretty and the nurses may be kind

Oh do not be a traitor to the girl you left behind.

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Summer Reading Update: John McCain and Hemingway

Farewell to Arms

From the many tributes to John McCain, I learned his favorite book was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. But one quote, offered by Paul Ryan, came from A Farewell to Arms. In chapter 34, Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Ryan intended this to mean McCain had grown stronger after his brutal captivity in Vietnam. Hemingway may have thought the same of soldiers he knew in World War 1. He may have considered, as a witness to war’s brutality, the meaning of suffering and death. The passage with the statement holds all this ambiguity in a gentle rumination on love.

One night, Hemingway’s character, Frederic Henry, muses on the love he shares with Catherine, who was pregnant with their child. After their daring escape from the war zone of Italy and arrival in Switzerland, he thinks about the nature of being alone together, of not feeling lonely when they are together. “We were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.” He gathers his thoughts, as she sleeps, ending here:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

 

(2014 edition, p. 216)