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Friday February 11, 2005: WWI letters from the front

        I know I need to finish up on goddesses and mythology. This break heads in a different direction. Lately, I’ve been typing up WWI letters and scanning in postcards that my grandfather sent home to his girlfriend (my grandmother) while he was stationed in France. Sid, his sister and brother all served in France during WWI, and they all come back. Sometimes, I marvel at the family’s luck in surviving their military service – not only in this war, but in all other American wars.

        My grandfather’s letters fascinate me. I know only small bits and pieces about WWI, ‘the Great War.’ I know it was a devastating war, started by chance – an assassin became lost, then somehow ended up in the right place, at the right time, to assassinate an archduke; political commitments drew other countries into a battle that never should have started, a battle that would claim over 8 million lives (not counting civilians), leave landscape and towns in ruin, and scar the memory of Europeans for generations.

         In France alone, over one million soldiers would be killed - more lives than America has lost in all its wars, from the American Revolution through current day. I don’t think we can even comprehend such statistics in our day. Would this war ever have been fought with today’s media reporting each casualty, critiquing every political or military decision? Half of both Allied and Central troops mobilized would be killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

         It is one thing to read of historic wars, long after cities have been rebuilt, when only monuments remain to mark the destruction, when casualties can only be remembered from printed records and faded photographs. My grandfather survived this war, yet he died young, when my mother had barely graduated from high school. I grew up with stories -- her stories of what she remembered from her childhood -- and only a few tales of the war were passed down to my generation.

        Three years ago, I was handed my mother’s collection of family photos. I stared at black and white photos, trying to connect with the grandfather I never knew. There was no shared time, no relationship built, no way to create an image in my mind that might remain in memory next to the rich and full images of grandmothers and aunts and uncles I have known.

        Last summer my mother handed me another box. She’d been trying to organize her father’s letters and felt they should be added to the family history I’m compiling. There is a thrill in reading my grandfather’s letters from WWI, in seeing what he had written to ‘the girl back home.’ From the comfort of modern-day, across distance of time and space, WWI has become an on-going battle that I see through his eyes. Perhaps it is the difference between hearing third-person stories and actually reading Sid’s thoughts, written in his own hand, but the image of my grandfather is becoming fleshed out. Each letter reveals something more of the man, allows me to share more of his life.

        Most of the letters contain the same basic chit-chat. As I enter the words into the computer, I resist changing or deleting anything; these records will eventually be distributed among my siblings and cousins. Perhaps it’s not important how many times he begins letters with an apology for not writing sooner, and problems they are having with mail service. Reading the compiled letters, one after the other, it is easy to hear the same expressions over and over. I keep reminding myself of the time and distance that separated each mailing and it seems best to leave each letter exactly as written. There are the letters where I begin wondering if I’ve already made an entry (when it sounds too familiar, there’s a quick stop to check dates), but there are also moments when I stumble across a new bit of information, passages which make me smile or take my breath away.

         Aug 19, 1918 ..."Well, at last we have landed in the promised land and are enjoying ourselves immensely trying to talk French with the townspeople and sampling their wines, which we are allowed to buy between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. every day. The wines here are quite reasonable in price too. Champagne cost but 10 Francs (2 dollars per bottle) while in the U.S.A. it costs about $8.00.

        "...We are drilling every day and I expect we will until we are ready to go into action. We don’t get much war news here but from what the French soldiers say the outlook is good. The French, especially the soldiers, are very grateful to the Americans for what they have done and are not a bit backward in expressing their feelings. They seem to enjoy trying to understand what we say and with the help of our French books we are able to talk with them a little. "

        According to my mother, Sid delighted in telling how he would put on the act of searching through his French book before greeting the locals with a great, enthusiastic "Bum Sewer, Manure." The poor French were never sure what to make of his pronunciation.

        This letter from Aug 19th ended with note about having to get his canteen filled with wine before 9 p.m, and that made me chuckle. It was certainly a luxury (or necessity) that our present day troops cannot enjoy.

Sept 25, 1918   "...I am glad that you received the card announcing my safe arrival overseas, and I hope it won’t be long until you hear that we have landed safely in New York again. The weather here has been quite wet lately and cool, more so than in good old Michigan at this time of the year.

        "I just finished a letter to a friend of mine in one of the Infantry regiments in action at the front. His company did some great fighting recently but was almost entirely wiped out. Of course, he was one of the remaining and I was surprised to hear through a friend of mine here that he was still alive. His company was composed of fellows from my home and I knew personally nearly every man in the company, including his captain and 1st lieutenant. It doesn’t seem to me it can last much longer with all

the setbacks that Germany has had lately and I am of the opinion that we will be back by next year this time."

        Nov, 5, 1918 Sid wrote, "...We have been in action for the last three days and up to last night we hadn’t had any casualties. Last night was pretty quiet so I presume everything is O.K. this a.m.. I haven’t been up to the guns yet but expect to go up tonight. I am back of the lines with our supplies in the woods and am occupying a dugout that the Huns built about three years ago.

        "We expect to move up again tonight so I guess the Huns are backing up yet.... P.S. Nov 6th ....We have moved and are now occupying a small shell torn village. Our guns are in position and are firing tonight. We fired the first shot in the regiment and were the first to take position on the line. Will write again in a day or two. Lots of airplanes and air battles here."

         Nov, 20, 1918 "....Well, the war is evidently over and we are quartered in a little town up near Switzerland awaiting orders. This town has been almost entirely destroyed by shell fire and aerial bombs. When the armistice was signed we were living in a little town which was shelled by the Huns nearly every night and we never dared leave our gas mask in the billets.

        "This is a very interesting little town and we can see soldiers from every Allied nation here. Most of them are prisoners from Germany. They started to pass through here about three days ago and they are still passing through, British, French, Italian, Belgian and Americans. They certainly tell some awful tales. We talked with one Englishman that was taken prisoner the first day of the war.

        "There is a regiment of Italian Chaussers quartered in a large building right across the street from us. They are a snappy looking bunch. Yours truly is busy getting the boys fitted up with new clothes and I am looking forward to plenty of hard work in the future before I am mustered out....

        "The morning the armistice was signed, a 30 piece band came marching though the village playing for all they were worth and maybe it did seem good to hear music once more. I don’t believe I’ll ever forget that morning.

        "We expect to leave here sometime this week and hike for somewhere (I haven’t been able to find out) and it’s going to be with full packs too, so I hope it isn’t far. Goodness knows that we hiked 15 miles the day we landed here. That was the most interesting trip we made since we landed.

        "We passed through towns that were leveled by shellfire and across no man’s land where for miles the ground was covered with barbed wire and gouged with ugly shell craters, undermined with dugouts, and dug up with trenches. I never could realize what a poor doughboy had to go through until I saw this and I’ll tell the world that the same doughboy is the man that was "there" and did the actual fighting. We passed many graves where our boys were buried. A simple wooden cross with one identification tag nailed to it at the head and his rusty bayonet sticking up at the foot. There were also many German graves and a good sight more Huns than Yanks.

        "One of those huge tanks that you have read about was blown up right in the center of no man’s land and aeroplane wreckage lay here and there. At one point, the front line trenches passed right through a small town but one could never tell what had been there because of the havoc wrought by the big shells. It certainly was an awful sight and one that will never be forgotten...."

        Dec 3, 1918 "...While Dan Hornbeck was calling off the mail an Italian soldier from the regiment quartered across the street came in with a big French canteen full of red wine. He comes over every evening and fills up our canteens for us. Pretty soft, eh? We exchange tobacco with them for the wine and they are only too glad to get it. They certainly are a dandy bunch of fellows and we like them the best of any Allied soldiers we have met so far.

        "....Well, we don’t know what is in store for us now. We are drawing a big bunch of horses, harness, and all other equipment that we lost in action so I presume we will join the army of occupation and go up into Germany. Most of the fellows are downhearted and can’t see why we have to go and why we can’t go home now that the war is over, but yours truly isn’t the pessimist that he used to be. Lately I look for the worst, pray for the best and take what comes good-naturedly."

         Sid continued writing letters from France for several more months, ever hopeful that the orders would soon come to send him home. I continue transcribing his letters into the computer, grasping at the precious fragments that momentarily bring my grandfather back to life.

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Note: a new website has been set up for Sid's letters, diary and his Battery Book account. (Click here for transfer)

Posted on Friday, February 11, 2005 at 05:39AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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