Fried Chicken on the Front

By the end of August, Grandpa had seen his first battle and (for unknown reasons) spent time in a field hospital. He was back with his group, resting behind the lines, when he wrote Grandma from a “nice little town with fair accommidations” on August 26. That’s when he fried up some chicken.


August 26, 1918 letter to Grandma

Fried chicken is something I remember from my childhood, especially for Sunday dinners in Effingham. But I picture Grandma as the cook. She took the chicken by the neck, chopped off its head on the stump in the backyard (a vivid memory, for sure), plucked the feathers, cut up the parts, and then prepped it for cooking. She put the chicken parts in a paper grocery bag with flour and her special seasonings, and shook the whole bag until she knew every surface was coated. Then into an old cast iron skillet for browning before it went into the oven to finish. It was perfect.

Did Grandpa use this same system in wartime France? He’d been a farmer before the war and certainly knew his way around farm animals (and home cooking). Here’s what he offered for sale before he left for training at Camp Funston in 1917.

1917 farm sale

And, after the war, he and Grandma ran a grocery store in King City, Missouri. My mother remembers hearing stories of how they’d go home for lunch, butcher meat for special orders, and then return to the grocery store in the afternoon. I found a notice in the local newspaper that seems to confirm this family tale.

grocery meat ad

An ad that ran in the November, 1923 King City Chronicle.

When I first started reading his letters, I became curious about how Grandpa was selected and trained to be an army cook. Was it his farm experience? I wondered, too, if it was common to train cooks to be combatants, and, in Grandpa’s case, barbers, too? I haven’t found answers to these questions, not in military histories or online. I wrote to NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration, which holds military records. The archivist wrote back, “Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any information about the use of cooks as combatants in any of the works in our library’s collection.” He did provide three links.

1916 Manual for Army Cooks at  This publication, with its detailed descriptions of calories and cuts of meat, etc., seems to have been written for the professionals who trained Grandpa. His job was to get the food on the table.

Two videos show cooks at work during World War 1. Both are available on YouTube. and .

I’m left to form a picture in my mind of Grandpa cooking along the Western Front, and, on that August day in France, as a man who could put fried chicken on the table like a pro.

Here’s the full letter, punctuation changed but misspellings included. Notes: This is the first letter that has a portion cut out by the censors, perhaps the name of his group. He mentions how he’s getting Grandma’s letters, but wonders if his aren’t getting through.

Uncle Marshall

Grandpa’s younger brother Marshall.

And then he mentions his younger brother Marshall, a man known to all of us as a character, or as Grandpa writes, a “funny boy.”

Aug 26, 1918

Some place in France.

My Dear Inis.

You can see by the date that you are attending the Chautauqua now. Any how it is the time. How are you? I am fine, back to the co feeling a little tired this afternoon as we got up a little early this morn. Our [section cut out by censor] moved back for a week’s rest. We are at a nice little town with fair accomidations. Our boys are all in good shape. They sure were under some artillary Barage one hour last week. The captain made a little talk night before last and complimented the men highly on the way they stood it. I tell you we are lucky to not even have a man wounded.

I got a couple of your letters a few days ago. The one with the pictures was great. I showed it to several of the boys. They all thought it a great letter. The other one was the one you [section cut out by censor] the 4thof July and up untill that you hadn’t yet got any of my letters. I sure think it funny. I am getting all your mail and at a reasonable length of time.

I am going to have fried chicken for supper. A boy brought a couple and I picked and cut them up since noon. And at six oclock, I am going and fry them so you see we will have something unusual in the army. I am at the Y.M.C.A. now. The boys are lining up to buy the candies and tobaccos that they can get, but they don’t have a great deal.

You ask me if Marshall ever mentions Aline. He does not. He never went with her any more after she was up the last time. I sure think he is making a mistake as she is fine. But you know he is a funny boy. Well my dear, news are scarce so I will close for this time sending lots of love and kisses.

Your loving Tom.


Thos. W. Alderson

Co. C 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via New York.

8:26 (1)8:26 (2)8:26 (3)8.26 (4)

First Hospitalization: Toul Sector

8:19 (envelope)

For reasons he didn’t say, Grandpa was taken to a field hospital on August 15.

Came here Thursday night. Didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best so I have had it pretty quite here. They gave me my clothes this morn. I got up, dressed, then went for a bath and shave which made me feel quite a lot better. So I think I will be able to go back in a couple of days. I am a little weak yet but am anxious to get back as the Germans threw a barage at our men for about an hour about three oclock this morn and I know they will have lots to tell me.

This letter, from August 19, sent me reading “between the lines.” What caused his illness?

The first clue is his placement at a field hospital. The U.S. Army typically set up five arenas for medical care, according to the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Here’s a summary from their exhibit:

Trenches, on the front line. Medical personnel immediately treated some of the soldiers and returned them to battle. They also sent others to the next location, if they needed additional medical attention.

Advanced Dressing Stations, 400 yards away from the fighting. The wounded were stabilized (bleeding stopped, medications given, broken bones set). As needed, the soldiers were moved again.

Field Hospital, 1 ½ miles away. Emergency operations were performed here, and diseases like pneumonia and influenza were treated.

Evacuation Hospital, 8-13 miles away. For the more serious operations (e.g. spinal injuries, head injuries).

Base Hospital, 23-38 miles away. Patients stayed here for convalescence and physical therapy.

A respiratory ailment—something that Grandpa had at Camp Funston, several times—seems a likely reason for his hospitalization, at a place that specifically treated infectious diseases like pneumonia and influenza. One of these could have been on the mild side, explaining his comment “didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best.” Also, a week’s stay matches the care of those illnesses. So does his admission that he feels weak.

He didn’t have a physical injury, it seems, because in the next letter he writes, “I tell you we are lucky to not even have a man wounded.” This leads me down another path: Where was he when he took ill? His group was in the Toul Sector, having been in battle to win back an area earlier seized by the Germans. Grandpa was cooking during this activity, meaning he was some distance back from the front lines (I presume). Since several groups in the 89thDivision were stationed throughout the Toul area, it’s hard to know where exactly Grandpa was during the heavy bombardment, described in the History of the 89thDivision.

“On the night of the 7th-8thof August, the front line battalions . . . were subjected to a most severe bombardment of gas shells. The first attack started at 10:30 in the evening and continued until midnight. The shelling then ceased until about 1 o’clock and was then resumed for nearly two hours more. Between 9,000 and 10,000 shells were fired during the bombardment. About 95 per cent of the shells were of mustard gas and phosgene, interspersed with many high explosives.” (published in 1920, p. 71)

Some of the field hospitals near Toul took “gassed cases,” according to the Army’s official history of the war:

I asked my chemist husband about the effects of that exposure and whether it might have caused Grandpa to take ill and remain “weak” days after the attack. “No,” he said initially, “mustard gas typically burned the skin, and also, in bad cases, air passages.” Then, when I reported that contemporary accounts named phosgene as the second gas used in the Toul offensive, he said, “Well, then, maybe,” adding that exposure would depend on the winds and where they transported the gas, on the presence of rain (to neutralize it). Also in the History of the 89thDivision, p. 73, I found the observation that some soldiers “removed their masks when the shelling was over, and others next morning went to their kitchens in the low ground, in ignorance of that property of the gas which causes it to vaporize again at the rising of the sun.”

The last clue in his letter–“They gave me my clothes this morn”–might suggest his clothes were initially removed to be decontaminated from gas, or from the ever-present lice, or for general cleaning. It’s one clue among several in this letter that begs the question, Why was Grandpa hospitalized? Here’s the full letter, punctuation changed to make it easier to read. I’ve kept his spelling. The scanned original follows the transcription.

Notes: He mentions some buddies from home–Chester Marshall and Clyde Shearer. The reference to “bunch of men going to the service now” confirms what the King City Chronicle would announce in a September 6 headline, “13,000,000 Men Called by War Department to Register September 12. 18 to 45 Age Limits.” The term “Chau” is Grandpa’s abbreviation for the big festival called Chautauqua. Mr. Stanton preached at the King City Christian Church. Grandpa mentions the cook shack; more on his duties as a cook in the next post.

August 19, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis

Here I am and Sunday afternoon and you can imagine what I am thinking. Although I am at a field hospital. Came here Thursday night. Didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best so I have had it pretty quite here. They gave me my clothes this morn. I got up, dressed, then went for a bath and shave which made me feel quite a lot better. So I think I will be able to go back in a couple of days. I am a little weak yet but am anxious to get back as the Germans threw a barage at our men for about an hour about three oclock this morn and I know they will have lots to tell me.

We are with Co B now, I mean in the same cook shack. You ask me in one of your letters about Chester. We are still together. We have out side of the few, the same bunch we left Funston with. Machine Gun co. is on the line at the same place we are.

I had quite a long talk with Clyde Shearer a few nights ago. He told me he had only gotten one letter from Edna since he landed in France. So you see I am leading all the boys in mail so far, but I know the reason. I was glad to hear of your wonderfull washing machine. I want you to be an expert at it as you know I have told you I don’t like to wash, but say I am a cat at the cooking stunt.

I see by the last paper that there sure is a bunch of men going to the service now. I only think what goes now in reserve army. I don’t think this will last forever although it is a big thing now. I suppose your Chau will be over by the time this reaches you and hope you have had a good time. I often think I must write to the church as I promised Mr Stanton I would but you know there is always plenty more places I want to write worse so you can tell Mr Stanton that I think of them often and will write soon. So give my best regards to all, and I close as ever with lots of love and kisses

Your loving Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via New York

8:19 (1)8:19 (2)8:19 (3)

The Greatest Men and Nation on Earth

Grandpa rarely mentioned patriotism in his letters. But in the letter he wrote on August 10, after he had finally entered into battle, he wrote, “I tell you we have by far the greatest Men and Nation on Earth.”

Old Glory, Effingham

This framed print, about 7″ x 13″, has a copyright date of 1942. I don’t remember it, by Mother tells me it hung in my grandparents’ home in Effingham, Kansas, in the hall between their kitchen and dining room.

His letters from the front (and I have nine) don’t mention place names. Certainly, the Allies were active along the Western Front in early August. The National WW1 Museum and Memorial notes on their blog that “The Hundred Days Offensive,” beginning on August 8, saw the British near Amiens and the Americans further south, around St. Mihiel. These 100 days would mark the final chapter of the war. American soldiers played a central role in the victory celebrated with the Armistice on November 11. Unlike the demoralized and exhausted British and French troops, and the equally dispirited Germans, the American soldiers were rested and ready for battle.

In Grandpa’s “My Soldier’s Record,” a booklet describing his service, he names the Toul Sector as the place he was “first under fire.” This lines up with the account detailed in History of the 89th Division, p. 55. “On August 3 and 4, 1918, the 89th Division loaded itself into trucks and started for a front line sector north of Toul.” Their mission was to seize part of the salient (or “bulge” into French territory) held by the Germans. Noteworthy, according to the History, was how this was “the first American division ever permitted to enter the line as a unit and without having been previously brigaded with French or British troops.” (p. 56) It also established a routine, with a third of the troops on the front line, another third behind to provide support (and food prepared by cooks like Grandpa) and the final group well back in reserve, “resting, refitting and training,” according to History, p. 76.

The mission in the Toul Sector successfully ended on August 10, the date of Grandpa’s letter. Here is that letter, his first from the front, transcribed. I’ve changed the punctuation to help with reading, but kept his spelling. Below it is a scan of the letter. A couple of notes: Grandpa refers to an enclosed note “written some days ago,” which I don’t have. Marshall is his younger brother. He mentions the headquarters, which History names as Raulecourt (halfway between Toul and St. Mihiel), p. 58. The Chronicle he received is the King City, Missouri newspaper.  He calls the night the “busy time,” because the Germans often attacked during the night and early morning hours. Through it all, there was time for doughnuts, as you’ll see!


August 10, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Girl.

I have now an opportunity to write you as I have not for the last two weeks, although I am sending one tonight also that I written some days ago. We have made some move since I written you last and you can guess where we were are at, but all is well, but things are real exciting at times. I got ten letters yesterday most of them were from my true loved one, two from Mother also one from Marshall stating he had moved to Denver. The latest from you was written July the eleventh. I sure think you a dear one to write me so often and only wish I could return as many, but I am thinking of you just the same.

I am sure seeing some great experience and wish I was able to tell you all but you know there is a day and days where I won’t have to write can only talk to you, and you know I am good at that. Ha Ha. When you write me tell me anything you wish as the incoming mail is not censored at all.

The Y.M.C.A. men are on the job here also the Salvation Army. They are right in the trenches doing their bit and and bringing stuff to the boys. I tell you we have by far the greatest Men and Nation on Earth and as our Slogan goes Hell Heaven or Hoboken by Xmas is being carried through daily.

Mother writes real cheerfull and it is as you said in one letter, makes it a whole lot better for me to do my bit as I have always done. Head Quarters Co. is real close to us. The band plays every night and I tell you it sure sounds fine. I am in the cook shack now also Key Ring and Barcuss is here writing. We have our work done for today. I got a couple of copies of the Chronicle a few days ago, the first second class mail since we got here. Well my dear it is now time for me to go to bed so I will close as usual with lots of love & kisses,


Thos W Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E.F.


Sunday afternoon.

Another day is here and a nice one and I am enjoying the same. I am at the Y.M.C.A. hut now. Quite a few of the boys are writing. Things are quite today but of course we cant tell about tonight as that is the busy time. I am sure enjoying my experience. Clyde Black was at our kitchen to see me a few minutes this morn. He is looking good. We had a good dinner today. I rolled out over five hundred doughnuts while the other boys ran them. We are drawing lots to eat. Well my dear I will close again having in mind this is Sunday afternoon and I will have to send more than usual amount of love & kisses,


Thos W. Alderson

Co C 356 A.E.F.


On the Move

Of the many things I’ve learned as I blog about Grandpa’s WW1 experience, here’s an obvious one: I can’t make a good map with legends! I’ve relied on contemporary maps from Putnam’s Handy Volume Atlas of The World, 1921, as a template, adding notes to follow Grandpa’s journey to the battlefields in France.

He often wrote that he and his group were “on the move,” not being able to tell Grandma details of when they were moving, or where. I’ve been able, using various histories of the 89th Division, to imagine his journeys.

Journey 1-editJourney 2-editJourney 3-editIn Europe, Grandpa wasn’t permitted to give any details of place or movement. What I’ll provide here remains a best guess. To get a lay of the land, have a look for the famous sites of war events on this map.Eruope mapStarting in the lower right corner, you can see Sarajevo below the “s” of Yugoslavia. This was the site of the assassination that many historians mark as the beginning of the war. The northern border of Italy with Austria was the front described in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Above, the tiny state of Luxembourg shares borders with France, Germany, and Belgium. Much of Grandpa’s war activities took place in this area.

Look for Paris and then locate the town on Brest on the Atlantic coast. Grandpa was hospitalized near Paris. And on his birthday–March 11, 1919–he sailed home from Brest.

But back to his journeys from the British Isles to the Western Front.Europe journeysHere’s the same journey shown in colored lines.Europe, linesFrom Liverpool, he was transported, I believed by train, to Southampton (along the purple line). He made the (rough) Channel crossing by small boat from Southampton to Le Havre (yellow line). From there, and along a route I don’t know, he was transported at night by train, following the blue line.

Over thousands of miles and lasting many weeks from late May to August, the long journey brought Grandpa (as well as many of the American forces) to a small area between Toul and Verdun, a distance I calculate to be about 50 miles. For Grandpa, the battlefields occupied an area only slightly larger than the familiar distance he knew back home, along country roads between the farm and the next biggest town of St. Joe, Missouri.

And now, as promised, my attempt (with apologies) at rendering a map. Grandpa fought in battles at Toul, St. Mihiel, and Verdun, where he was injured. The next blog posts will feature letters related to each of these battles.


Battlefields where Grandpa fought during the late summer and fall months of 1918.

If you enjoy maps and want to see how the professionals map out the various fronts and battles of World War 1, here’s a link I recommend: “40 maps that explain World War 1” @










A Musical Tribute

Some of you know I play violin in a small community orchestra. We perform at local rest homes. Our concert mistress has arranged two World War 1-era songs to mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. We premiered the songs today. I provided some background info, which I’ll share here, along with links to hear the songs performed (by professionals!).

Liberty Bell was written in 1917 for voice and piano.  Here’s what I told our audience.

This song refers to the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. When the American government decided to enter the war—and that decision came in 1917, a committee put together a big marketing campaign to get people involved, to feel patriotic, and to give money. The Liberty Bell was part of that campaign. On Flag Day—June 14, 1917—the mayor of Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell at noon. And at the same moment, all over the country, people rang bells at schools and churches and fire stations.  Part of the lyrics to the song includes this call to action, “It’s time to sing again, it’s time to ring again, for liberty.” Americans believed liberty was the compelling reason to go to war.

Here’s a great old recording of Liberty Bell, which includes a link to the sheet music, if you want to read the lyrics:

My Donut Girl was written in 1919, after the war. My notes to the audience.

This song honors the women of the Salvation Army who went to France. They famously made donuts near the front lines. It’s hard for me to imagine—but they made up the dough, shaped the treats (often rolling them out with wine bottles) and fried them in skillets over crude camp stoves. And they made THOUSANDS—yes, thousands—in a single day, and handed them out to soldiers, along with a hot cup of coffee.

Here’s a nice photo essay with the song being performed:

Summer Reading Update (1)

In France, in 1918, Grandpa continued to train as he waited for “the move” into battle zones along the Western Front. He certainly had heard about what to expect, but could he really picture what lay ahead?

Gpa, framed, dark (date?)

Grandpa in uniform. Undated family photo.

A hundred years later, I’m watching movies and reading books to imagine what he would soon know, the unspeakable horrors of that war.

The 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front was based on the 1929 novel written by Remarque, a German veteran of the war. Remarque’s main character is Paul Bäumer, a young man convinced by his teacher to join the army and defend the German fatherland. The war he fights has little to do with national pride or any other lofty ideals, he learns. Instead, it is a daily struggle to stay alive, to find food and to avoid death. When he goes home on leave, he is horrified that civilians don’t understand the war. He quickly returns to the front, to a place that now feels like home. The last scene shows Paul smiling at the sight of a butterfly. He reaches for it, and in that instant takes a bullet and dies.

The subject of war’s futility and violence shows up in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. I last read this in college. All these years later, I am still captivated by the way Hemingway uses snippets of dialogue and terse descriptions to tell a story. Based on his experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver, Hemingway’s main character drives wounded soldiers to hospitals along the front in Italy, in the mountains that separate it from Austria. He meets men who see no purpose in the war and show no obvious heroism. Desertion becomes the ticket out for Hemingway’s double, a decision that makes sense (to me) in a situation that seems devoid of reason.

Both of these first-hand accounts lead to the same place: common men, often very young men, don’t know why they’re fighting.

Pat Barker’s three books, forming her Regeneration trilogy, date from the 1990s. My friend (and neighbor) recommended I read these, and she also chose the trilogy for her book club. We met up last week to share ideas. As background, Barker’s work weaves together the experiences of historical figures involved in the war with fictional characters. We meet Dr. Rivers, a medical doctor who practices a kind of talk therapy to “regenerate” soldiers (with what we now call PTSD) and send them back to the front. This creates a horrifying juxtaposition between healing and harm, we all agreed. We talked about Pat Barker’s use of historical fiction (instead of nonfiction) to explore the war. It gave her the freedom to create characters and new relationships to the conditions of the war, we thought. And it provided, some of us thought, a way for us to look at our own notions of war and violence and sexuality through the lens of WW1.

I’ve just started listening to Good-bye to All That, 1929, a memoir and war commentary by the British poet Robert Graves. He shows up in Barker’s book as one of the historical figures who opposed the war.

As an aside, and especially for my family, Graves’s father was also a poet. Our great Aunt Mattie—one of Grandma’s sisters—visited the elder Graves, Alfred Perceval Graves, at his home in Harlech, Wales in 1931, shortly after his son wrote Good-bye to All That. She was spending a study year in London working on advanced studies in English literature. Aunt Mattie sought out Graves to help her understand a poet she was researching, but first Graves had to set the record straight on his son.

Aunt Mattie, 1920s?

My great Aunt Mattie, Grandma’s sister. Undated photo, 1920s?

In her diary, Aunt Mattie wrote, “His son Robert Graves had written Goodby to All That, a war book and his own life story. The father and mother were greatly hurt by it. They say that he has been unfair to them. ‘I don’t see how Robert could have done it,’ his mother said. The father felt that he must present the other side, and so wrote his autobiography. The editor of the Athenaeum suggested the title; and his publisher said, ‘By all means.’ So it was that To Return to All That came out when Mr. Graves was eighty-four.”


The Great War forced nations and people to take sides. Even after it ended, fathers and sons, like those in the Graves family, couldn’t agree on central questions. Just why was it fought? To what end? Who holds the answer? Families? Historians? Authors?




Gun Wipes and Pinafores

Gun wipes and pinafores? Yes, and petticoats and a single scarf. These were all part of Grandma’s summer, in 1918, along with the harvest and annual Chautauqua. Grandpa wanted this kind of news, but wasn’t getting mail or newspapers as often as he had at Camp Funston. In the letter he wrote on July 14, from France, he told Grandma he had just received her letter from nearly a month earlier on June 17.

Grandma had enclosed a photograph, which he proudly showed off to his buddies. I don’t know which picture she mailed. Nothing she sent survived the trenches. Here’s one from an old family album, probably taken in the years before the war. I remember my grandmother’s full cheeks, made even rounder when she broke into her sweet smile.

Gma photos, 12 detail of Gma?

Grandma in undated photo found in an old family album.

Grandpa’s July letters seem nostalgic to me. He wrote about “Dear Old Missouri” and wondered about what was going on back home.

July 8. “I guess the threshing machines are harvesting around home by now.” 

Harvesting brought their small farming community together. Neighbors pitched in to help in the fields. Children and women brought water and meals. Itinerant workers came in to complete the jobs before rain set in, ruining ripened grain. Here’s a rare picture of Grandpa helping with the harvest of blue grass on the Bilby Ranch near Skidmore, Missouri. The bags held the seed stripped from the chaff.

Bluegrass harvest cropped

Grandma remembered the threshing machines used to harvest grain. She described the process in an interview my father taped in the 1970s.

Al Vaughn had a big steam engine to operate the threshing machine. It was so heavy that when he crossed a bridge, they had to put planks down first. The kids watched for that and were on hand to get a turn of climbing up on the engine and blowing the whistle a couple of times. Neighbor helped neighbor, so they might be working for several days. Some came with hayrack to haul the bundles from the field to the machine, there were others who pitched the bundles on the racks. Some had wagons to haul the grain to the bins. Women went from place to place helping each other in preparing meals. To feed a big crew, was no small job—and I might add, they were always well fed.

That summer in France, in 1918, when Grandpa couldn’t farm, he took note of how the French farmers brought in their crops.

July 8. The largest implement I have seen is a mowing machine. They haul hay and wood all the time, and milk the cows three times a day and one of the handiest things is that they can open a door from the kitchen and be in the cow barn and all built under the same roof and there is no farm house at all. The people all live in the towns and villages two or three miles apart and go out in the country to farm. I haven’t saw but one farm house since I have been here.

July 31. The people here are harvesting their wheat now. They use cradles and tie it by hand.

As Grandpa thought about home, and what he would be doing this time of year, he mentioned how he would miss being with Grandma at the Chautauqua.

July 23. I suppose by the time this reaches you, you will be attending the Chautauqua. I wish I was there to be with you.

In 1918, the big event was held from August 25-September 1. Famous speakers were brought in, along with popular musical performers. Events were offered all day, and many businesses closed for the duration of the event.


Dressed in their best, some arriving by automobile, people crowd into a tent to attend a lecture or musical performance. Printed in the August 11, 1916 issue of the King City Chronicle.

Again from her 1970s interview, Grandma described the event.

The King City Chautauqua was one of the nicest things we had. When it first started, it ran for ten days. As time went on it was cut to eight and finally to six days, before it folded.

King City hosted its first Chautauqua in 1907, and its last in 1930.

We tented on the grounds several years, and that was so much fun. One year there were forty tents on the ground.

Chautauqua tent?

A Chautauqua tent? Grandma sits by the post, her grandfather A.S. Martin to her side. Her younger sister Mary stands, one hand on her father’s shoulder. In front of her is their brother Charley. Grandfather Martin died in March 1918, dating this photo to 1917 or earlier.

For a small place we really had some good talent. We were in a circuit and the talent moved from place to place. One night William Jennings Bryan was to speak. Because of a heavy rain, and dirt roads, he did not get there until late at night. By the time his lecture was over, it was nearly midnight. Very few, if any, left before the lecture. We always had several musical groups. One that was always there was Maupin’s Band from St. Joseph. The very popular piece for Maupin’s was The Stars and Stripes Forever. If they did not play it, then there was a request for it.

Plans were made weeks ahead, and one of the things was, that we have a different dress to wear each day. Those were the good old days.

The war made an appearance at the 1918 Chautauqua. A wounded soldier gave a talk. And this movie was shown.

Wake Up America

Advertisement in the August 16, 1918 issue of the King City Chronicle. No additional information was provided on that “rich lady in the east.”

Grandpa could picture the Chautauqua and the harvest. But he had to imagine Grandma doing something new this year–working for the Red Cross.

July 23. You spoke of the Red Cross work you were doing. Keep it up, it sure will be needed here this winter as they say it is an awful cold country and it must be when we sleep cold in July, so tell every one that they will do a great lot by helping with the war by knitting and try to get in early.

In fact, Grandma, her sister Mary, and their mother were making a range of items  requested by their local Red Cross chapter. And they did this work during the busy harvest season, as noted below. Those “refugee dresses?” They were made for Europeans displaced by the war, many in France and Belgium.

Red Cross garments cropped

August 2, 1918, King City Chronicle

I don’t understand why the Red Cross sent out garments “to make them up,” unless they were gathering old garments to repurpose. In any case, one thing is clear to me. My grandmother, her sister and mother must have understood the full horror of war. In making gun wipes and pinafores, they recognized the needs of both the soldiers and the defenseless victims of their violence. The war may have been thousands of miles away, but it wasn’t far from their minds or their busy hands that summer on the farm.

Gma photos, detail of Gma Dykes on porch?

My great-grandmother, Mrs. S.J. Dykes, front porch of the King City farm around 1915.


Gooseberry Pie and the 4th of July

Grandpa spent the 4th of July, 1918, “somewhere in France.”

France, 7-3:1 cropped 2

Letter to Grandma, written July 3, 1918.

He went on to explain that it wasn’t really a holiday for him, since the cooks still had to feed the troops. But he seemed happy to report that “some of the boys went out and gathered some gooseberries so made some pies. They were good. The gooseberries here are large, about like our plums and it don’t take long to get enough for a few pies.”



Gooseberry bushes, outside my mother’s apartment in Kansas.

Honestly, I don’t remember gooseberry pie from my childhood. Grandma made the best raspberry pie, so I know she (and my grandfather) could make the perfect crust and the perfect filling. But nothing fancy. Here’s the recipe for gooseberry pie Mother got from Grandma.

Gooseberry, 2Just where was Grandpa in France? He couldn’t tell Grandma. But I’ve been able to learn locations from later accounts, especially in George English’s History of the 89th Division, 1920. After leaving England (from Southampton, across the English Channel to Le Havre) in late June, the troops moved under the cover of darkness in box cars, a miserable train journey to what English called “unknown destinations.” They arrived near Reynel, and Grandpa’s group–the 356th Infantry–stayed with families in two villages, Liffol-le-Grand and Villouxel, both in the northeastern part of France, not far from the front. (pp. 42-44)

In this same letter from July 3, Grandpa explained his location, generally.

town in France

The reference to the little girl made me smile at a very special memory. In Effingham, Kansas, where I enjoyed summers with my grandparents, I was walking with Grandpa to their big garden. Just as we crossed the alley, a little boy came running, a big smile on his face, “Hi, Grandpa!” I was indignant and yelled right back, “He’s not your grandfather! He’s my grandfather!” Grandpa laughed. He loved telling that story. And so I can imagine a little French girl having the same affection for a man many of us thought of as Grandpa.

This one letter, written at a time between difficult travels and more difficult battles ahead, seems relaxed to me. Grandpa’s handwriting is neat and even. He covers four pages (a long letter for him) with details that remind me of letters my brother, sister and I wrote home from our trips in Europe. “There is lots of Cathedrals here,” he wrote. “I hear several bells ringing now.”

Back in King City, where Grandma celebrated the 4th of July, there was a daylong program of events, along with pies and refreshments and music. The local newspaper, the Chronicle, noted that a special feature would be included: “Bat the Kaiser in the Eye.” I’m not sure what that meant (a piñata? hit with a baseball bat?), but I do know that the people of  King City, and presumably of many American towns, spent some of their summer days raising money for a knock-out punch. Here’s an ad that ran the last week in June, featuring that target of the Kaiser’s eye.

Paste the Kaiser

King City Chronicle, June 28, 1918, page 3.

On this day in 2018, on the 4th of July, I’ll end where I started, with pies. Here’s my homage to Grandma, a raspberry-peach pie. And following that, a cartoon that captures the special fondness American soldiers had for pies, apparently never getting enough!

Pie on the 4th

Seconds on Pie

From Camp Funston’s newspaper, Trench and Camp, May 11, 1918. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Happy 4th!

Baseball. . . Somewhere in France

Summer, time to read, time to watch baseball. I found this story in Trench and Camp and loved the picture painted by the sports writer. At a baseball game behind the front lines in France, he described fans cheering the game and the aerial combat overhead. Grandpa wasn’t in this crowd, but I bet he would have enjoyed the action!

In case these terms are new to you (they were to me): Archie refers to anti-aircraft fire, boche to German, and poilus to French soldiers.

Baseball game, france (1) headline

Headline of story that ran in Trench and Camp, May 11, 1918. Used here with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.


With the American Army in France, May 2–The big league baseball teams in the spring training camps at home have nothing on the American soldiers, so far as limbering up the old wing and priming the batting eye is concerned.

It is the spring training season over here too.

Back of the lines, in the rest camps or along the roadside, you can hear the thump of the ball in the mitt, the crack of the bat and all the familiar baseball sounds–as well as a few war sounds thrown in.

A game of “old cat” was broken up recently by an airplane-anti-aircraft scrap overhead. The game was being played in the middle of the public square at Luneville (about ten miles from the German border and nine miles back of the front lines.) There was a good bleacher crowd of mixed poilus and dough boys. The sun was beaming down from a cloudless sky and the war seemed a thousand miles away.

“Archie” Butted In.

But just then an “Archie” spoke and everyone looked skyward. There was the boche. Gun after gun came into action. Fluffy white wings broke all about him. He dodged and twisted and turned.

Within a few minutes the guns had put a complete circle of bursting shells about the plane. Then American rooting began.

“Attaboy! Get him kid! That was a close one. Now, just once more,” were some of the cries that went up.

Everyone was bending back, shading his eyes and watching the sight. The airplane got thru the circle of “cream puffs” safely and darted back toward home, an occasional shell bursting behind him.

“Foller him up, kid, foller him up!” was the encouragement shouted from the American rooters. But the boche out-legged the guns and disappeared.

“Who’s at bat and who’s on base” a sergeant yelled, as the machine disappeared. A minuter later the ball game was on again.




Summer Reading

I’ve been collecting books about the war to read over the summer.

Summer reading 2

My summer reading, next to the boxes holding the letters.

I decided, at the beginning of this project, to hold off on reading historical material on the war. I wanted to follow my grandfather’s experience through his eyes as long as I could (keeping the opinions of historians and authors at bay). His letters from Camp Funston provided day-to-day accounts of his life in training. But once he arrived in Europe, that level of detail changed dramatically. He wasn’t allow to write about place, tactics, or even his feelings.

From now on–through the battles, his injury, recovery and homecoming–I have to rely more heavily on the accounts of others, of historians, authors, and filmmakers, to better understand Grandpa’s experience.

You’ll see from my collection of books, that I’m drawn to literary accounts. These authors don’t use the war as a backdrop–although the horrors live on the page–but seem to do what I’m struggling to do: make meaning of an experience that was largely incomprehensible to those who endured it, my grandfather among them.

Send along other titles for me to consider. That scrap of paper on my desk holds the title of a book coming out this summer. It was recommended by a well-read cashier at my favorite indie bookstore in Pasadena, at Vroman’s.