Christmas with Grandpa

Christmas postcard

Postcard sent to Grandma, December 1918.

Christmas brings back lots of memories for me. Today, I’ll remember three memorable Christmases that feature my grandfather–1918, 1943, and 1960.

 

Christmas 1918, France

Grandpa spent Christmas at a hospital south of Paris, recovering from the injury he sustained in battle, just days before the Armistice. Although he couldn’t identify the location, other than “some place in France,” most likely he recuperated at the Mesves Hospital Center, in the Loire Valley. The clue to his location can be found on the other side of this Christmas card. Christmas card, addressThe number 798, stamped in the upper right corner, is the APO (Army Post Office) for village of Mesves-sur-Loire, a detail explained to me by a researcher at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial (Kansas City). (1) Hospital buildings stretched between the two small villages of Mesves and Bulcy. In November 1918, more than 20,000 American soldiers were hospitalized in this area. Grandpa scribbled a short note on the card:

Dec 26

Just a word to let you know I had a Merry Xmas and am feeling fine am still in the Hospital will write soon.

Lovingly,

Tom

On December 23, Grandpa sent a letter to his parents. I found it printed in the King City Chronicle, February 7, 1919. Mail from France usually took 4 – 6 weeks to arrive.

Some Place in France.

Dec. 23, 1918.

Dear Folks:

I am still in the hospital but am just like a well man, feeling fine, have plenty to eat and sleep good. I am working in the diet kitchen about six hours a day, and that is just enough to make it interesting for me.

I think I will go over to the town tomorrow, as we boys have all pitched in and are going to buy the two nurses in our ward a present, as they are awfully nice and are working hard to make Xmas pleasant for us. We have our ward all decorated and are going to have a Xmas tree. The Red Cross is working hard getting ready for Xmas. I saw what they were fixing. This afternoon they are taking a pair of new socks and filling them with nuts, candy and cigarettes for each soldier.

I don’t think I will be able to get my package from you as my mail will go to the Company and they are so far off.

In fact, Grandpa didn’t receive any mail for months. All letters and packages went to his “official” address, to the location of the remaining members of his Company C, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. Most, he would learn, were in Germany, along the Rhine, as part of the Army of Occupation.

But even without incoming mail, Grandpa kept writing and managed to send one small gift to Grandma–a silk-embroidered postcard. Handkerchief with full borderThese cards were especially popular during the war. (2) Some were hand-embroidered on a mesh support (here, the area of the flowers), others by machine. Some had only embroidery and others, like this one, featured a pocket to tuck in a card and/or a handkerchief (this one is too small to be anything other than a suggestion of a usable handkerchief). After being embroidered, the piece went to a print shop in Paris to be attached to a cardboard frame that served as a postcard, with a mailing address on the back. Grandpa chose to put this one in an envelope, postmarked December 12, 1918.

silk border card insert

On the back of the small card, he wrote, “Dec 10. Dear Inis. How are you? I am getting along fine but still in the Hospital. As usual it is raining today. Hoping this reaches you O.K. Lovingly, Tom”

Grandpa reported on the festivities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a December 29, 1918, letter to Grandma, which included “we had a splendid Xmas” . . .

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Portion of letter he wrote on December 29, 1918.

We had a splendid Christmas had a tree and we decorated the ward so things had a real Xmas spirit. About nine o’clock a bunch of nurses mixed with a few male Voices went through all the wards singing Xmas carols which was very nice. Then after that the Red Cross workers went through and put out the stockings, which were filled with nuts, candy and cigarettes, and after we had our Santa Claus and giving the presents to the nurses and our ward surgeon which we boys bought, we sang a few songs and went to bed.

Then the next day we had a turkey dinner, then in the afternoon we were given candy, nuts, apples, oranges and white grapes. Then that night we had a Minstrel show in the Recreation Hall put on by a bunch of engineers (3) and they were good.

I carried a fellow that was crippled over on my back to see the show.

Christmas 1943: Nortonville, Kansas and King City, Missouri

Grandpa and Grandma were living in Nortonville, Kansas in 1943. They may have had Christmas there with my father, home from college (University of Kansas). There’s a better chance they celebrated the holiday with their families in Missouri. In any case, Grandma and Daddy had some fun at Grandpa’s expense. I know about this joke because  the Associated Press circulated the story on their wire. And I know about that because Grandma’s sister, my great Aunt Mattie, contacted the AP with what she considered a funny Christmas prank.

Same Shirt

My great Aunt Mattie glued clippings of her published newspaper stories in a scrapbook. She carefully annotated each one.

What Aunt Mattie hadn’t imagined (couldn’t have imagined) was the appearance of the article in a newspaper in Springfield, Missouri. That’s where a World War 1 buddy of Grandpa’s, a man named Clifford Melton (Ozark, Missouri), saw it.

Same Shirt, follow-up

From Aunt Mattie’s scrapbook. She taught English and journalism at Northwest Missouri College (now Northwest Missouri State University).

Christmas 1960: Lawrence, Kansas

Christmas memories from my childhood include my grandparents, who would load up their car (or pickup truck) in Effingham, Kansas, and drive to our home in Lawrence.

Pink Lady, 1960

Christmas in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960. My first bike, from Grandma and Grandpa.

Christmas Eve that year, if my memory is true, I checked out the presents under the tree and didn’t see much for me. As we opened gifts on Christmas day, I went to bed a bit concerned. But that mood changed in the morning when I saw what Grandpa and Grandma had brought–a bicycle named the Pink Lady. The frame was pink. Shiny fenders framed whitewall tires. A little medallion at the front featured the “pink lady.” I was eight that Christmas, maybe a bit young for a big bike. Mother recalls that Grandpa thought I was ready for a bike, as my older brother and sister already had theirs. He and Daddy assembled it, but not properly. It landed in the bike shop not long after Christmas! But the Pink Lady saw many good years of service. I still have her.

Pink Lady, detail

Older, but still fine, the Pink Lady mostly stays in the garage. Occasionally we go out for a spin.

Merry Christmas! I hope the holiday is filled with your own fond memories of family!

 

NOTES:

(1) The National World War 1 Museum and Memorial has been so helpful to me. https://www.theworldwar.org

(2) I like the overview of the silk embroidered postcards at this site from the Netherlands. Click on each picture and learn more: https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-digital-exhibition/index.php/silk-embroidered-postcards

(3) By engineers, I presume he means men serving at the Mesves complex as construction and repair specialists, men who had done important work at the front in creating and maintaining roads, rail lines, water supplies and mechanical equipment.

 

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.

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“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)

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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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.

Chautauqua

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.

 

England: Rest Camp at Knotty Ash

One hundred years ago today, on June 16, 1918, Grandpa disembarked the Caronia, one of nine ships in a convoy that carried American troops across the Atlantic.

Arrival, 2

After 12 days at sea, his boat landed on Sunday, June 16, 1918.

Where had they landed? On the other side of the card, the postmark provides a clue.

Arrival notice“Old Swan LV” was a neighborhood in Liverpool, one of the busiest ports accepting American soldiers during the war. In the History of the 89th Division, the author confirms Liverpool as the port, p. 40. He also names the army’s rest camp as Knotty Ash.

Both the Red Cross and the American Y.M.C.A. had facilities at the camp. They organized music and sporting events, along with places to write letters home. The arrival postcard includes the Red Cross logo, as well as “Soldiers’ Mail” and “No Postage Necessary,” denoting official army correspondence.

The nature and content of Grandpa’s letters changed when he arrived “overseas.” He couldn’t identify where he was or provide any details that might reveal place or military activities. He was “some place in England,” or “somewhere in France.”

He wrote two letters on June 16, the same day he addressed the postcard. The first one described the trip over, and how he’d been sick “a couple or three days after leaving the States.” He ended with an explanation of why he couldn’t say more, . . .

England 6-17 letter

June 16, 1918 letter to Grandma.

The second letter offered a bit more information. “We have tents to stay in but they are good ones,” he wrote. And then on a personal, perhaps homesick note, he mused, “I supose every one is busy at home farming. I haven’t saw any thing in the farm line here, only a potato patch. Well, my Dear, I can’t write much so will close.”

Once they arrived in Europe, soldiers couldn’t “write much” and they knew each card, each letter, would be read and approved by censors (who could cut out portions or refuse to send the mail). Every envelope I have included some kind of official stamp and a handwritten signature of the censor.

England 6-22, envelope

Grandpa wrote “Soldiers Mail” in the top right corner of envelope that held his June 16 letter.

The postcard and first two letters from England open a new chapter in the correspondence I’m sharing here. The number of letters Grandpa wrote—and received—decreased. At times, he worried that his mail from home has been lost. I have no way of knowing if Grandma wrote less often, or if her letters did get lost in the mail. I only know that he eagerly awaited them. “Keep on writing I will get them some day,” he wrote that first day he landed on foreign soil.

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A group of letters carrying the marks and names of official censors. Photo (c) Charlene Reichert.

 

 

 

 

Do Your Bit! Women on the Home Front

 

Knitter

W. T. Benda, “You can help–American Red Cross,” 1918. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-9645

The King City Chronicle announced in its September 14, 1917, issue that the national Red Cross had granted King City permission to form a local branch. The first meeting, to be held a week later, would show ways to “be better enabled to ‘Do Your Bit’ to aid in the great cause . . . for the rights of humanity and of nations.” Businesses were asked to close during the time of the meeting, between 2 and 3 pm.

King City wasn’t alone in setting up a Red Cross chapter. After President Wilson established the War Council for the American Red Cross in May 1917, the relief organization mounted an impressive campaign to win public support in raising money, volunteering, and producing items “for the benefit of soldiers.”

The campaign succeeded. Between 1914 and 1918, Red Cross chapters grew in number from 107 to 3,864, and membership swelled from 16,000 to over 20 million adults, plus an additional 11 million children in the Junior Red Cross.*

Within weeks of that September meeting in King City, residents had formed committees and started to work. The Military Relief Committee oversaw the kind of work my family did–knitting, making hospital supplies, comfort kits, and–here’s a surprise–“snipping.”  (My mind swerved over to “snippy” as I wondered why there was need to organize that activity.)  The Chronicle ran a special explanation.

snippings

King City Chronicle, October 19, 1917.

My family certainly “did their bit.” Grandma, her younger sister Mary, and their mother made over 200 garments, most of them sewn, for the Red Cross and other agencies, according to an account of my great-grandmother. Many of these pieces were bandages needed in hospitals, here and abroad, for injured soldiers. Just as my great-grandmother kept track of what they’d made, so did Red Cross chapters. On November 23, 1917, the Chronicle ran a first-page story, noting “King City Chapter has turned out more knitted garments than any other chapter in the County.”

Grandma parlor?

I imagine settings like this, in a farmhouse parlor, where women gathered to work on wartime projects. From our family collection of photographs, undated and women unidentified.

Down the road about nine miles, residents in Union Star (population 400, then and now) had also been busy knitting, sending articles to Camp Funston. Grandpa reported he didn’t receive any, as the captain thought him “rich.”

Union Start Red Cross rec

Letter to Grandma, January 4, 1918

In tiny Amity, Missouri, where Grandpa was born and about 100 people lived at the time of the war, residents sent fruit. On November 17, 1917, Grandpa wrote, “we Dekalb co boys got a barrel of pears from Amity.” The next day, while his group was under quarantine for illnesses, he reported they had made preserves with the pears, adding “the Livingston co boys got a barrel of canned fruit and we served it for dinner, was fine, several kinds of fruit.” Other delicacies from home included homemade candies and cakes.

The generosity of the folks back home often exceeded the needs of the soldiers. Trench and Camp, the weekly newspaper at Camp Funston, ran a column before Christmas, 1917, asking “thoughtful ones at home” not to send food in holiday boxes. “Men receiving foodstuffs nibble between meals; stomachs get upset, and where the sender of foodstuffs started out to be kind and thoughtful, they may be the cause of sending a loved one on ‘sick report.'” In short, the U.S. Army was serving enough food.

And those knitted articles being made at home? By the end of 1917, Trench and Camp reported that Camp Funston had distributed “35,999 sweaters, 25,737 pairs of socks, besides many helmets and wristlets.” And, by the end of March 1918, the growing supply of knitted articles, mostly from the Red Cross, led–as reported in Trench and Camp–to an order that required an inventory, a system of equitable distribution in accordance “with actual needs,” and a monitoring plan “to see to it that they are not sold or otherwise indiscriminately disposed of by enlisted men.” (As a knitter, I laughed and sighed at what I know is true: men don’t always like sweaters knitted with love. So, knitted hats off to the Army to control this behavior!)

Even as friends and families “did their bit” to keep up the spirits of their soldier boys, the hardships of training and war found their way home. There were personal costs. One showed up in letters Grandpa wrote his “dear girl” in early 1918.

 

*The Red Cross includes these statistics in their history of the Red Cross in World War One, at www.redcross.org/about-us/history.

 

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