Yesterday, I went to a garden talk at a local library, and last week we started working outside, cleaning up greenhouses, wood chipping, and pruning. It’s been a long winter in Vermont, but the signs of spring are starting to show, albeit slowly.
It was about this time (March 18, 1919) that my great uncle Harry boarded the U.S. Battleship Kansas and steamed home after being in Europe for nine months. He’d had a long winter as well. On November 11, 1918, when Armistice began he was in Belgium where he stayed for a few more weeks. By December 1918, his regiment had made their way back to France, and in January, he was in Gesnes, France waiting for word to ship out.
All during late 1917 and up until November 1918, the US had been sending millions of soldiers to France. After Armistice they had to bring them back and quickly. But how could they bring back millions within a few months when it had taken almost a year to send them over? By spring 1918, the French were starting to get tired of the rowdy Americans as well, so it became even more critical to speed their debarkation. It was a huge logistical problem for the American Forces and took longer than everyone had hoped.
Many of the regular soldiers, like Harry, thought that after Armistice they would go home quickly. But it was actually over 4 months that he had to wait, and many other units waited even longer. When January came, Harry realized he wasn’t going home any time soon, and he wasn’t happy about it. On January 26, he wrote the following in a letter to the Folks at Home (I’ve added some punctuation for ease of reading).
“I am sure disgusted with the army. It seems as though a fellow is never to get home by the looks of things. I don’t believe we will get out of this country before spring. It would be all right if only they did not drill us six hours every day.”
“Last Sunday we hiked 12 miles and back about 24 miles in all to get deloused and a bath. The dirty suckers had to do it on a Sunday so they could drill us on the week days. Well, don’t worry about me as I am all right. I will not go to the bad although it is enough to drive a fellow, and I am not the only one. The reason that I am ornery today is because I did not get much of a breakfast, bread and dishwater coffee. Some meal.”
One of the things the army did while waiting to send home the troops was to keep them busy. That meant hours of drilling and hiking and the regular military routine. Not surprisingly, the men didn’t like it. But it kept them out of trouble for the most part.
On April 1, 1919, Harry arrived in the U.S. and wrote the following note to his family. This was the last letter he sent that was saved by my grandmother and then by my mother.
“Just landed on U.S. soil. Some tickled boy I am. Had a very plightful voyage. We left France March 18 on the battleship Kansas. I am enjoying the very best of health and hope to get home soon. I suppose we will go to Camp Lee from here. I have not written for some time because I have been on the homeward road for the last two months. I would not be surprised if I get home in a week or ten days… won’t that be a joyous time.”