WW I Soldier's Letter to an Army Buddy
I Find an Old Letter
While going through some old family papers recently I ran across a long letter to my great-uncle Walt from a World War I soldier named Francis.
The letter is dated March 19, 1919 and was posted from Leudelange, Luxembourg. In the letter he mentions some of his combat experience as well as his current experience as part of the American occupation forces waiting to ship home.
The tone of this letter is different from the tone I described in my Hub Christmas in a War Zone which dealt with my Uncle's account in his diary about celebrating Christmas in France in1918. At that time the Armistice signed earlier on November 11th was still feared to be just a temporary lull (like the numerous Christmas and Tet cease fire agreements during the Vietnam War which were temporary) and the expectation was that fighting would resume shortly.
However, by March it was obvious that Germany and its allies were no longer able to fight and diplomats at the Versailles Peace Conference were well on their way to drafting a peace treaty officially ending the war.
My great-uncle, Walter Alexander Fraser, fought with the 309th Field Artillery Regiment in France during World War I and Francis was also in the artillery but, based on his location at the time the letter was written, Francis would have been with the 21st Field Artillery Regiment.
Francis and Walt were obviously good friends who either met in training or had known each other since before the war. In the letter Francis refers to his time in the 309th before being transferred so they could have met while both were in the 309th. However, since the 309th was made up mostly of men from Western New York State they also could have known each other while growing up before the war and ended up getting drafted at the same time.
Whatever the case, the two men remained in touch at least through the war as this letter was written in response to a letter Francis had recently received from Walter Fraser.
While the handwriting is generally clear, the paper is old and darkened with age, the ink is faded in many places and some of the creases where the letter had been folded to fit in the envelope have become brittle which has obscured all or part of the text on the crease. Despite this, I was able to transcribe most of the letter which I have reproduced below.
I have also done some additional research and tried to add context to some of the comments made in the letter.
Walter Fraser in France 1918
Mar 19, 1919
Leudelange Lux 9,
Rec. you're very welcome letter last night and was very glad to get it, I have been looking for one from you for the last week, so am writing right back and hope you will get it before you leave for home. I saw where your division was due to sail in May so I think you are a lucky dog. I see where I shake hands with you about the last of Sept. as I don’t think it will be much sooner. I hear the 5th Div. trench mortar is in Tesa and are keeping the the barracks in condition for us so I may get another long ride up from that state. I sure wish we were nearer together but it is to far to try and get together. I am going to get a 14 day leave and go to England. I have cousins there so ought to have 9 or 10 days of leisure.
Sorry to hear you have been sick with the mumps but I hope you are in the best of health now. I have been well all the time I have been over here except for a cold now and then and I always did have my share of them. Well Walt have nothing to do for 24 hours, I only have been beat out of 48 hours they hand out 3 shots in one now, so therefore they save themselves 48 hours. Now believe me I don’t think I will do a h--- of a lot of anything from after hours now.
You ask me if that corn fed girl was still true to me. Well Walt she kept writing but I didn’t answer them right away and finally I quit writing to her well before Xmas. That other girl is writing about every other night to me so I am returning jake. As for these Labor Battalion recruiting officer arm of here I have had no use for them over here and never will. We have lost a few fellows from it here. Yes I am a true American too if I never knew it before.
Well Walt, since a few days before Xmas I have not slept in a barn only 3 or 4 nights. Have had rooms and most with a stove in the place we are in now has paper on the walls and the [sentence continues on next line which, except for the last word, is completely illegible due to combination of age related fading and the fact that the page was folded here to make it fit in the envelope - based on the context, the illegible words are referring to a house and lady/family where he (and possibly some of his fellow soldiers, were currently quartered.] there are swell. I had her fix a pair of straight pants and she wasn’t given to take any money for it. I finally got her to take it and gave the kids a couple of bars of chocolate a piece. They will do the fellows working for nothing.
I have got the nerve to keeping my working down where we keep the horses. We did have a Y.M.C.A. canteen here and could buy all you wanted but he sold out and only has books and this writing paper now. The weather has been [next four words appear to be: normal warm at first] except for a cool and rainy day now and then.
Say Walt have you got any souvenirs? I have a few but don’t know if I will have any luck getting them home. I hear from guys that have went back to the states that they have to be guarded all of the time or somebody will cop (i.e. steal) them. I have decided to to send mine and take a chance on them getting there. I got a letter from your mother a few days ago she said not seen anything of your [NOTE: the next 5 words can't be deciphered] but I’ll bet you wrote as soon as you saw it. How about it?
Page 1 of Letter from Francis
Our Artillery was only on two fronts at St. Die afterward(?) St. Mihiel we were to go up to the Argonne but had not enough lorries to move so stay on the St. Mihiel front up to the time the Armistice was signed.
We call these people about here square-heads but here is one instance where that name don’t apply, some fellows here were in the habit of burning up the people’s wood in the house they slept in.. What does the old man do but sneak up on the roof and block the chimney, it wakes the room up in a hurry.
Well Walt, I am not worrying about a job. I will keep my eyes open for a drafting job and gold-brick in the meantime. Have not had more than a 40 hour pass since I left the 309th, and I sure hope I land a 14 day one. Is your outfit going on 7 day government leaves? We have 19 men at Nice, France now and 24 more goes
Well Walt, I guess I will be closing hoping you are in the best of health as this leaves me. Hoping to hear from you again soon. More saving it up.
YMCA in World War I
This letter, like many letters from soldiers and sailors in World War I was written on stationary provided by the American YMCA.
The YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) or Y as it is now called is an international organization with world headquarters in Geneva Switzerland and national associations in 127 countries.
It was founded in London England on June 6, 1844 by George Williams. Its original purpose was to provide a safe place to meet for the masses of young men from rural areas migrating to cities seeking work in the factories during the Industrial Revolution. Seeing a similar need in the United States, Thomas Valentine Sullivan created the first Y in the United States in Boston on December 29, 1851.
With is focus on meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of young men (and families) away from home the Y in the United States became actively involved in helping soldiers during both the Civil War and Spanish-American War.
When World War I started in 1914 the YMCAs in Britain and the other Allied nations immediately became involved both at home and in combat areas around the world providing services to troops and their families. The American YMCA became involved in the war immediately following the U.S. entry into the war in 1917.
During World War I the American YMCA had 26,000 male and female employees and 35,000 male and female volunteers working with troops and their families in the U.S. and in war zones, especially in Europe, around the world. Because a large portion of the nation's young and healthy men had been drafted into military service, the majority of the YMCA workers and volunteers were young women and men not eligible for the draft.
YMCA staff and volunteers were non-combatants and most found themselves working directly or indirectly (such as working in YMCA facilities established in France where they made cookies and candy to give to troops) meeting the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of the troops both at home and abroad.
However, the American YMCA, like the YMCAs of the other Allied nations, built YMCA Huts (simple shelters with hot coffee and other simple amenities) and slightly more elaborate canteens close to the trenches on the front lines. As a result the young female and male volunteers manning these sites not only saw and experienced many of the horrors of the war first hand but, in the case of 286, suffered casualties due to battle (278 wounded, 6 men and 2 women killed in action).
In Europe alone, the American YMCA provided 85% of the general welfare services (other non-profits provided most of the remaining 15%) for the troops. These were services that, starting with World War II, have been provided by the USO (United Service Organizations) - a non-profit organization founded by the YMCA and other non-profit social service organizations in 1941 at the start of World War II to carry on and expand the services these older organizations had provided to troops in World War I.
Walter Fraser with Army Buddy in France
Luxembourg in World War I
One of the first things that surprised me about this letter was the address right under the date which read Leudelange Lux 9. This was the first I had heard of American troops in Luxembourg during World War I, let alone any battles having been fought there.
Luxembourg had been created as a separate neutral state recognized by the major European powers in the 1867 Treaty of London. However, despite Germany having previously agreeing to recognize Luxembourg's in 1867, it faced a couple of problems with Luxembourg at the start of the war in 1914.
When Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia following the Serbian backed plot that assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Serbia's ally, Russia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary's ally, Germany then declared war on Russia (this chain reaction and those that followed were the result of a series of secret military defense/alliance treaties entered into by European powers in the years before World War I.
France was Russia's ally in the west and Germany decided to quickly invade and knock France out of the war first and then concentrate on its eastern border with Russia.
On August 1, a German troop train carrying Germany's Fourth Army violated Luxembourg's sovereignty when the train passed through the northern tip of Luxembourg. Lacking a sufficient military force (and, as a neutral nation, no military alliances to help it) to halt the German troop movement all Luxembourg could do was issue a protest which Germany ignored.
The next day, on August 2nd, German troops swept through Luxembourg in force on their way to France. Germany tried to justify the invasion, and occupation that followed, by claiming it was doing this to protect Luxembourg from invasion and conquest by France (which France denied).
As a result, Luxembourg spent World War I under German occupation. While many in Luxembourg didn't like the German occupation (which was not brutal like the later World War II Nazi occupation) they were spared the destruction and horrors suffered by neighboring countries.
Throughout the war the Allies were unsure as to whether Luxembourg was a victim of German aggression or had secretly welcomed the Germans.
One of the terms of the Armistice that ended the fighting called for Germany to remove its troops from Luxembourg. The Allies assigned the task of overseeing the removal of German troops from Luxembourg a to the Americans.
General Pershing, the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe assigned the U.S. Third Army the task of overseeing the removal of German troops from Luxembourg as well as continuing on to Germany and joining other Allied troops in occupying the Rhineland area of Germany.
The first U.S. troops arrived in Luxembourg on November 19, 1918 and the last of the German troops exited Luxembourg on November 22, 1918. A part of the U.S. force, including Walt Fraser's friend Francis,was kept in Luxembourg after the Germans left.
Housing in Luxembourg
Francis writes happily about not having had to sleep in barns more than three or four times since before Christmas which occurred some three months earlier.
Troops at the front lived in the trenches where they fought. Camps in the rear generally had tents for the men to live in. But while on the move troops had to sleep on the ground or, if they were lucky, abandoned barns and other structures. Germany had invaded France and much of the fighting in Europe took place in France which forced many French people to flee from their homes to avoid the fighting. This left a lot of abandoned farms.
Since the war hadn't been fought in Luxembourg there were no abandoned farms or other structures in which to house the American occupying force. Since it was winter they needed shelter and the Army apparently solved the problem by billeting the troops with local families in their homes.
Having been overseas fighting and living in primitive conditions for months, being quartered with a family in their home containing luxuries like a stove and wallpaper on the walls must have been the next best thing to actually going back home to America.
In Barracks at Ft. Dix, New Jersey 1917
In the letter Francis mentions labor battalions. He appears to be referring to the 20th Engineers Regiment - which was the largest regiment in the Army at that time and was tasked with harvesting lumber for use in the war effort.
Lumber was a critical resource in the war effort as it was needed for many things from the construction of the trenches on the front lines (the miles of walls of which were reinforces with lumber to keep them from caving in), to housing for troops and POWs, temporary bridges and other construction projects.
The 20th Engineers were kept busy cutting trees in forests in areas all over Europe that were controlled by the Allies. They were especially busy in the forests of France including those at the front lines where the war was raging. Thus, in addition to the hard work and dangers associated with the lumber industry many of the men in the 20th Engineers had to also contend with the combat going on in the midst of their cutting down trees.
When the fighting ended on November 11, 1918 life became easier with time to relax while waiting to be shipped home and discharged. However, the work of the 20th Engineers continued as huge amounts of lumber was needed to rebuild war torn France. So, while other troops were performing light duty and spending time playing baseball and touring Europe on leave, the 20th Engineers continued their work as if nothing had changed. There was naturally resentment and, from Francis' comment it appears that the Army was trying to deal with this by sending teams to U.S. Army units around Europe and pulling men from units that had little real work to do.
While Francis was concerned about the threat of being grabbed for lumber duty, his friend Walt probably didn't have to worry as he played the french horn in the 309th Artillery Battalion's Band. Thus, between battles where he was manning an artillery position and in the period following the Armistice he was kept busy performing with the band in concerts for the troops and for the French people.
309th Field Artillery Band - World War I
Returning Jake and Gold-Bricking
In the letter Francis writes (apparently in response to a question in the previous letter from Walt), You ask me if that corn fed girl was still true to me. Well Walt she kept writing but I didn’t answer them right away and finally I quit writing to her well before Xmas. That other girl is writing about every other night to me so I am returning jake.
According to the online Oxford Dictionary the word Jake is an early 20th Century slang term used by Australians, North Americans and New Zealanders in that period to mean everything is alright or is going well. In the letter Francis appears to be using it to mean that he is keeping things going well with his new girl by answering her letters promptly.
In the last part of the letter Francis writes, Well Walt, I am not worrying about a job. I will keep my eyes open for a drafting job and gold-brick in the meantime. I think he is referring to finding a drafting job when he returns to civilian life. The gold-brick in the meantime is probably a reference to his plans to lay low and do as little as possible while awaiting his return to civilian life.
The term gold brick or goldbricking is military slang for avoiding work. The United States (as did many European nations) used a military draft or conscription to meet its manpower needs in World War I and again from World War II until the end of the Vietnam War (actually the draft law is still in effect and all young men in America are required to register for the draft - however, the military currently does not use the draft to fill its ranks).
Because men, when drafted have no choice other than to serve or go to prison, the military has no problem getting the men it needs while keeping costs low by paying these men wages way below the wages needed to recruit volunteers.
While most draftees have taken their duty to fight and defend the nation seriously and unquestionably endured the sacrifices needed to keep the nation safe, most resented the numerous petty rules and make work projects they had to endure outside of combat (given the huge numbers drafted the majority in both World Wars never saw combat and many never served outside the U.S).
As a result many draftees chose to keep a low profile and avoid the petty rules and make work assignments as possible. This came to be known as goldbricking and this can be seen in things like the popular Beetle Baily comic strip as well as the antics the characters in reruns of old TV shows from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s like McHale's Navy, Sargent Bilko in the Phil Silvers Show, MASH and others.
Francis had obviously fought and served well during the war but now just wanted to be left alone until he was discharged and allowed to resume his life again.
© 2016 Chuck Nugent