I drove my son to the Boston airport yesterday and cried when I said goodbye (and on and off for the four hour ride home). He’s heading to Germany on a one way ticket. His summer is lined up with wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) with the hopes of eventually finding a job in the brewing industry. It might be a long time before he comes home or we get there. But he’s not going off to war; how does a mother deal with that?
Around this time, back in 1918, my great Grandma Augusta said goodbye to her son, Harry, who was conscripted to fight in WWI. Harry was a twenty-three year old farmer and woodsman who’d never left western Pennsylvania. He trained in Camp Lee, Virginia, for about 6 weeks, and then crossed the Atlantic in mid June on the Leviathan, a refurbished German ocean liner (The Vaterland) commandeered in 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany. It took the Leviathan about 10 days to steam across the Atlantic (pretty fast in those days), and then about three days for over eight thousand troops to disembark in Brest, France. Letters from home were few and far between, but Harry wrote often in the hopes of getting more. Whether the letters were lost, mislabeled, or never written, it’s hard to know, but in Harry’s letters (which were given to me by my mother), he complained regularly of not getting enough mail from home.
I can imagine the joy and relief my great grandmother and my grandmother (Harry’s sister, Esther) felt when they received a letter from Harry. He was still alive, they must have thought. For another 6 weeks, Harry trained in a place called Soulaucourt, France. Nearby the village were ruins of the city, Mothe, from the 1600s. Harry never mentioned that place in his letters, but I envisioned part of his training was marching up the steep hillside to get to the top.
In August, 1918, after about 3 months of training, Harry’s division moved to the front near Baccarat, France. It was called the “quiet” sector and had previously been used by both the French and Germans to send battle-worn troops. The Americans didn’t view it as a place of rest though. Since they were new to the war, they saw it as a place to continue the training of troops, so they frequently went on night patrols and rotated soldiers into the trenches to get them accustomed to trench warfare. Harry’s letters refer to living in “holes in the ground but they are warm and dry” so he said he didn’t suffer much. All mail was censored, and I even found a few letters that had cross-outs from the censors, but probably Harry didn’t want to worry his family either, so he didn’t write much about the difficulties.
By mid September, 1918, the 37th division was on the move to the Meuse-Argonne area which would be a turning point in the war. With over a million American troops on the ground and ready to fight, and more on the way, the French and Americans launched a major offensive against the Germans. The Americans didn’t have much more than a cocky American attitude to their advantage, but after four years of fighting, troop loss, scarcity of supplies and food, a million fresh faces would have been heartening to the French and disheartening to the Germans. And so the Meuse-Argonne offensive was a success for the Allies, and the final straw for the Central Powers. Thousands of Americans died and thousands were wounded in the fight, but luckily for my family, Harry wasn’t one of them.
His division was then moved to St. Mihiel and Belgium before Armistice, November 11, 1918. Harry was in Belgium, ready to advance when peace was called. He wrote in one of his letters, “I hate to think what would have happened to our Battalion if peace had not come as the duck (Germans) had machine guns by the hundred, and it would have been like going right out in our fields at home. They certainly had a clear sweep on us.”
For the next few days, I’ll anxiously await an email from my son telling me about his first few days on the new job, about the food, and the landscape, the things my great uncle Harry wrote about when he was in France. But my son isn’t living in trenches with shells and machine guns firing in his direction, and I’m so thankful for that.