Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Letters from the Boys
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Letters from the Boys:
Wisconsin World War I Soldiers Write Home

by Carrie A. Meyer
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018

The human stories of a war can often be found in the letters home from the front. They provide insights into what was on the soldiers' minds, what they wanted to tell, and what they were allowed to tell. Letters from the Boys is drawn largely from the collection of Great War letters from soldiers to their homes in Green County, Wisconsin, found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Most of the soldiers whose letters are featured enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard.

Soldiers of the Wisconsin National Guard Departing for Camp Douglas, 1917

For many their journey to France started with training at Camp Douglas, 90 miles northwest of Madison. After a few weeks there three companies were transferred from the 42nd "Rainbow" Division while others moved to Waco, Texas, to Camp MacArthur, named for Wisconsin's Arthur MacArthur, Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War and hero of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Rebellion. Incorporated into the 32nd Division, they left Camp MacArthur for Camp Merritt, New Jersey, to await trans-Atlantic transportation from Hoboken.

The narrative includes a general introduction to the milieu of Green County and Wisconsin from which the men were drawn. The reluctance of Wisconsin to embrace the war cries and its response to the declaration of the war are chronicled and documented by statistics of the numbers of American and Wisconsin casualties.

The letters tell the spirit and events of the times in what they say and what they do not. From Camp Merritt, New Jersey, on 30 January 1918 "Teddy Roosevelt gave us a dandy talk." Impressions of their first ocean voyage varied. According to Melvin Lynn, the people on the ferry boats cheered us. There were many seasick days…At night not a light was to be seen and the thought that we might encounter a sub...sure gave one a creepy feeling .(p.28)

More upbeat was Clarence Bontly:

I want to tell you of our trip across. It was simply great, and I have never enjoyed anything quite so much. (p. 28)

In France things were different:

The French train is not like one in the U.S. Our train was made up of about 35 box cars which are about one-half size of a box car at home. They are marked '8 chevaux ou 40 hommes' which in English is 'eight horses or forty men.' You have a little straw on the floor of the car with which to make your bed. (p. 30-31)

The influence of censors is reflected in the vague references to conditions and questions about home. Correspondence describing life at the front is rare but transformative. The words of the warriors take readers back to Mars' realm in a way that no researchers can rival. Get comfortable, become insensitive to your surroundings, open your mind's eye and read the words from the front. As Reuel R. Barlow wrote:

Big guns are knocking the top off a long ridge over here, and I feel sorry for the Germans when the Americans and French let loose. The Americans fire the French gun six times as fast as the French do, because they load it on the recoil…German prisoners…ask what kind of "machine-gun artillery" the Americans have, because they shoot so rapidly. The French are afraid that the gun will jam and blow up. Not so the Americans. They pack her full and let her go.

We have been under shell fire four days...the Boche have been pushed back…At night I see only the trunks of the shell-stripped trees against the sky…Our own artillery is behind us and it bangs...the sound of machine gun fire off to the northeast, and then the whistle and bang of shells coming over…A spectacular sight at night is to see the sheets of flame that burst from the big guns, situated in a straight line along a ridge as far as one can see. I wish I could describe…the scenes I have witnessed in a certain little valley where once there were many villages, but now nothing is discernable but the foundations of buildings and a few crumbled walls, around which swarm thousand of Americans, with all their paraphernalia. We see German planes fall every day and air battles every few hours.

Sincerely, from the other side of the Hindenburg line
(pp. 73-76)

Letters reflect the fears and enthusiasm of a fighting and advancing army. Great War students are indebted to author Carrie A. Meyer for mining the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society to extract these gems from the historical record. She supplements the letters to set the stage for soldiers' tales. The epilogue answers the quest of what became of these correspondents after returning to Wisconsin.

I will close with two quotes. We want to know how the Armistice was reported:

Alors mes petite enfants. La guerre es fini, n'est ce pas?..the war is over…Germany is all through, down and out, and a second-rate power. Her War Lord (?) in flight, the Crown Prince in tears, and the country in a revolution.

I won't be home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but if the flu don't get me, I ought to be with you by the Fourth of July. (pp. 192-193)

Men of the 32nd Red Arrow Division Parading in Milwaukee, 1919

With the advent of peace, a writer's thoughts were eased and turned to the mundane:

We are still leading an aimless existence…we are doing a jitney service. Just had a big bowl full of milk so, all in all, I am quite "comfy"…I guess I will just have to scratch and have a mighty cootie army until I get into decent clothes again. . . I am tired tonight, so will hit this pile of feathers. I want to come home. (pp. 195-196)

Patient, peaceful, humorous, hopeful, only its date is ominous—7 December 1918.

James M. Gallen

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! It's good to read a humanistic view from a particular location.
    Also, I wish more states had produced histories of their WWI participation.