The Gloomy Aftermath of War

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

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

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

12-21-18, 1 plum good

December 21, 1918 letter to Grandma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-6-19, 4 nurses

January 6, 1919 letter to Grandma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-24-19, 2

January 24, 1919 letter to Grandma.

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

King City, ad for purgative pellets

King City Chronicle, 29 November 1918, p 3.

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

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

Some wounds never fully heal.

 

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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.

9-25 (1)

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

9-26 (1)9-26 (inside)9-26 (2)

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.

img006

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.

9-28 (envelope)9-28 (1)9-28 (2)9-28 (3)9-28 (4)