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Your Brother in France
Written between 1917 and 1919

 

Background:  The Great War, later known as World War I, had been raging in Europe for almost three years when the United States entered the conflict in April 1917.

My mother's family was living on Curtis Ridge in rural Noble County, Ohio.  Several relatives soon had to leave the farm to join the Army.  Of course, they wrote letters home, commenting on everything from military routine to French horse-hitching techniques to the news from the States.    

Here are excerpts from a packet of 19 letters and one postcard saved by my grandmother, Emma Buckingham, who died in 1965.

I can hear her voice in some of the Noble County expressions.

NOBLE COUNTY PHRASE

WHAT WE MIGHT SAY

in my shirt sleeves

not wearing a jacket

forenoon

morning

crazy or anxious

eager

fellow that I run with 

buddy

the rest of them

the family

All we do about is . . .

We do little except . . .

Maybe there wasn't!

There certainly was!

I suppose that "Maybe there wasn't" is an elliptical version of "Maybe you think there wasn't, but if you think that, you are greatly mistaken."

I'm puzzled by the phrase "if no Providing, Providence, Prevail."  Is it a quote from a hymn or prayer?  In context, it might mean "if there are no eligible women for them, let God's will be done."

The first letter was written in simple language to Emma's son Ralph (my uncle), who was then just ten years old.

 

Sorting The Mail

Camp Pike, Arkansas [near Little Rock]
9:40 PM Sunday, Dec. 23, 1917

Friend Ralph,

I was very glad to hear from you.

I am getting along much better than I expected to.  I have a warrant to be corporal and have been acting supply sergeant since Nov. 20.  I have to handle the mail of this company.  The mail orderly (the man that brings it from the post office) brings the mail to the supply room, and I have to put it in four different piles.  Then the four men that have charge of the four squad rooms (the rooms the men stay in) come and get the mail for their men and give it to them.

This has been a busy day for me.  They took us over to headquarters and paid us for last month.  When I came back, they had piled about three bushel of mail in my room (a little room close to the supply room; I sleep in it by myself).  So I took it into the supply room and commenced sorting it out.  We had two other mails after that.  So, I was busy the most of the afternoon.

There is one man in the guardhouse from our company.  A man with a gun on his shoulder brings him over to our mess hall for his meals.  He received a box of candy and a letter, and I took them over and gave them to the officer of the day (the man in charge of the guard and guardhouse).  He is supposed to open the prisoners' mail and see if there is anything in it that they should not have.

I just finished marking the mail that goes to men in Base Hospital, and to men that have been taken to another company, and to some men that discharged because they were not able to stand soldier life.

Am very glad you are getting along so well at school.  Tell your brother James [seven years old] I would like to see him.

Think I shall have to go to France.

Well, Ralph, it is after ten o'clock and all soldier boys are supposed to be in bed before eleven, and I have to write a letter to my Momma yet tonight.  So, expect I had better close.

Your friend,

Fred McBride

 

The next was addressed to my grandfather, Harry G. Buckingham.     

 

Receiving the Wounded

Ellis Island Army Hospital, New York
Friday, April 5, 1918 

Dear Friend:

I am getting along fine now, but I am not able to work yet and I don't think I will be for a month.

Are you going to raise much of a crop this summer?  How I wish this war was over and I could be back on the farm at work!

This is a fine place, just a little ways from New York; it just takes the boat 12 minutes to go to the city.  They use this hospital to receive the wounded that they bring back from France.  About two weeks ago they landed 150 here, and almost every ship that comes in brings some more.

Well, I must close for this time.  My nerves are so bad I can hardly write.

As Ever,

Charles

 

The remainder were addressed to my grandmother by her half-brother Charles Luther Robinson.

From ancestry.com comes this image of his draft card.

Born in nearby Monroe County and still working on his parents' farm, "Luther" celebrated his 21st birthday March 5, 1917.

Congress declared war on April 6 and passed the Selective Service Act on May 18.

On Tuesday, June 5, 1917, all American men between the ages of 21 and 31 were required to fill out these cards.  Ten million men registered, but fewer than 20% were actually inducted.

That number did include Luther, however, and by May 26, 1918, he was in the Army.  It appears that he got his basic training at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe, Ohio.

 

Cutting Meat

Camp Johnston, Jacksonville, Florida
Sunday, July 28, 1918

Dear Sister & All:

Will drop you a few lines tonight.  Just had my supper and feel pretty good, although I could feel lots better in some ways.

I am not doing very much now — only going to Butcher's School.  I am in a butcher company now.  We are going to school in the forenoon and afternoon, and then go to a barracks at night.  You ought to see me with my pack on my back and my steel helmet on!  We are going to drill some tomorrow afternoon, with our packs on, I guess.

Well, what are you doing?  Working away as usual, I suppose.  Hope you are all well.  I would like to see you all, but expect it will be some time before I do, for I expect to be sailing across before long.  We got our oversea equipment this afternoon.  I do not know when we will go, but do not think we will be here more than a week, for they are needing butchers so bad in France that they are sending them across as fast as they can.

You asked me if I was crazy to go across.  Well, I cannot say I am anxious about it.  But somebody has to go, and I am not any better than anyone else; so when my time comes to go, I will go like a man.

I would surely like to be there and help you eat some young chicken.  There are none of the boys with me that came from Camp Sherman; they were transferred to something else.  But I have got acquainted with the bunch I am in, and it is not so bad.  I felt pretty blue the first night I was in the butcher company, but it does not take long to get acquainted in the Army.

 

Ready to Sail

Wednesday, August 7, 1918

I think we will leave here about tomorrow.  We are almost ready.  I do not know where we will go, though.

How are Mrs. Buckingham and Lizzie?  Would surely love to be there and eat a good dinner with you once more.  But here is hoping I will get a chance to before the snow falls again.  The news in the papers is looking good now; hope it continues.

 

The good news:  the Allies were pushing the Germans back in the Marne.  The bad news: Luther, transferred to Newport News to ship out to France, came down with a virus and missed the boat.  A virus was no small worry in 1918; an influenza epidemic was causing many deaths in this country.

 

Waiting in Virginia

Camp Hill, Newport News, Virginia
Tuesday, August 27, 1918

How are you all getting along?  I am feeling pretty good; have a little cold, but do not think it will amount to much.

I got out of the hospital last Wednesday morning and my company had gone, so I was put in the casual company and am just waiting for a call to go across.  All we do about is eat and sleep.  We went on a little hike yesterday morn, went about 6 mile, and believe me, it was hot walking!  I was wringing wet when I got back.

I suppose you are working away.  How many cows are you milking this summer?  I have never received any mail since I came down here, only the telegram Hannah sent me.  I sure would like to hear from someone before I leave here.

I do not know when I will go.  Can never tell when a call will come in for a shipment of men, and then you do not know who is going until about half an hour before time to go.  They call out a bunch of names and tell them to pack up right away to leave.

 

It appears that Luther reached France in September and was sent to a camp at St. Dizier, 120 miles east of Paris and not far from the front.  However, the next letter in the packet was not written until after Christmas.  In the meantime the fighting had ended.  The Armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918, resulting in much celebration.

 

Christmas in France

St. Dizier (Haute Marne), France
Saturday, December 28, 1918

I am feeling fine now and hope you are the same.  It has been raining here for the last month, almost every day.  It snowed here for the first time Xmas eve, but did not last long.  It is not very cold here, though.  I am in my shirt sleeves.  The nights get pretty cool; the wind is blowing pretty hard tonight.  Expect it will snow before it is over with.

Am glad the people at home are all well now.  That disease is over here just the same as it was in the States, but I do not think it is as bad over here.

Well, we celebrated over here, too, when the news came over the line.  It was just about noon, and I happened to be uptown when the word came in, and maybe there wasn't some crowd on the streets!

I am still working in the office and do not have to work so very hard, and have a pretty good bed to sleep in.  I do not know how long I will be over here, but I hope it will not be long, for I have seen about enough of France for once.  This is one time I would rather be at home.  There is no place like home, be it ever so humble.

I am going to have some pictures taken before long and send them home.  I got weighed the other day and weighed 163 pounds, so you see I have gained considerable since I came in the Army.

 

Looking for Fellow Ohioans

Thursday, January 2, 1919

Will try and answer your kind and most welcome letter I received yesterday noon.  Was sure glad to hear from you.  Some places paper might be scarce, but since I got to my company and have been working in the office, I have had all the paper I wanted.

How is the weather by now?  I suppose it is pretty cold.  Yes, the "flu" is over here, but not very bad now.

I have no idea when I will get back, but I do not figure on it before April or May.  I hope it will be sooner, though.  I have never seen anybody I know from around home yet.

Well, as to the country over here, it is pretty level; a good bit of timber and not so very cold so far.  It has been raining for the last six weeks about every day.  Some of the land looks pretty rich and some not so very good.  None looks as good to me as old U.S.A.

I am Acting Supply Sergeant now and have one barracks to take care of.  Our company is running the mess hall for the camp, and our Lieutenant is Commanding Officer of the camp.  We feed about six or seven hundred men.  The camp is located in a pretty nice place and only about 10 minutes walk from town.

Was sorry to hear of Elmer Weinstein being dead.  That will leave his mother and Hazel in a pretty bad shape.

I received a letter yesterday from Mrs. Ed Cunningham.  She said her brother Albert came across about the first of September; they had just received one card saying he arrived over sea safe and had not heard from him since.  She wanted to know if I had ever seen him or knew where he was at, and wanted me to see if I could find out where he was at.  I have never seen him and do not know how I could find him, when there are so many over here.

Well, I must close.  Hoping to see you before many more months, I am as ever your brother in France,

 

 

Wishing for Home

Thursday, January 16, 1919

Just had my supper a little while ago and had beefsteak and biscuits, and that just struck me right.  I have a good bed:  a cot, straw tick, and five or six blankets, so I keep good and warm.

I do not know what they are doing with all the boys over here.  The boys are all crazy to get home, and none know when they are going, either.  I have never saw a single boy I knew since I came here.

Yes, I sure wish I was home when they butcher the sow.  I expect to eat some of her if I am not there when they kill her.

I was uptown today and had my picture taken.  I do not know whether I broke the camera or not.  Ha.  Will send them home as soon as they are finished.  I got a dozen so I would have enough to go around.

 

President Woodrow Wilson addressed the opening session of the peace conference in Paris on January 18.  Although the fighting had stopped two months before, it would be more than five additional months before the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28.  In the meantime, most of the soldiers had to stay.

 

Fourteen Letters to Answer

Thursday, January 23, 1919

Will try and drop you a few lines before going to supper and answer your kind and most welcome letter I received a few days ago.  Was sure glad to hear from you and to know you were all well.  I am feeling fine and dandy and hope I stay this way.

I got eight letters the 20th of this month and six the evening of the 21st, and have been busy answering.  Of course, the most of them were from Hannah.  Seven were from her, and the rest from you, Mother, Josie, Margaret Davidson, George Denbow, and Uncle Herb.

I did not get any mail today noon and have not been down after it this evening yet.  I am mail orderly now, so if any comes I am sure to get it.

Was sure glad to get the clippings.  Would give a whole lot to read a paper from home, but it isn't any use to send them for I would never get them.  Ethel sent me some a month or more ago and I never got them either.

I had my pictures taken a week ago today.  Some of the boys were downtown today and had some taken and asked about mine.  She said they would be finished in a couple of days.  I will get them Saturday when I go downtown to take a bath, and will send them to you people as soon as I get them.  (If they are good.)  I am going to have some more taken some of these days as soon as I get paid.

I signed the "Pay Roll" yesterday for five months pay.  Want to buy a few souvenirs and a few things I need and sent the rest home or give it to my Lieutenant to keep for me, for you know how I am when I have money.  I am not the least bit stingy, and I will need all I have when I get back home.  I am looking forward to a great time when I get home and I hope it will be soon.

Am sure glad the "flu" has died down in the States.

Well, I had to go do a little work and ate my supper while I was out; had a nice fried piece of steak and potatoes and some good macaroni, so you can see I am not starving for something to eat.  I can get about whatever I want to eat at the kitchen, for I stand in pretty good with the mess sergeant and cooks.

 

Your Photos Are In

Wednesday, January 29, 1919

Well, I am sending one of my pictures, but they are not good at all.  I am going to have some more taken the first chance I have and see if they will not be better.

 

The French Tandem Troika Hitch

Sunday, February 2, 1919

Received your letter of Jan. 6th a few days ago.  Will try and drop you a few lines this gloomy Sunday afternoon while I have nothing else to do and feel like writing.  Have been asleep for an hour or so and just woke up.  Feel kinda blue.  Gee, but I wish I was home today; the longer I am over here the crazier I get to go home.

I suppose you are having lots of snow by now.  We are having pretty nice weather here now.  Have not had much snow so far, and they tell me it does not snow very much here at all.  Wouldn't mind taking a good sleigh ride, though.

Well, you ought to see these people over here doing some things.  It sure makes me laugh!  Saw some hauling manure the other day with three horses, but they did not have them hitched like we would.

They had a two-wheeled cart or wagon with shaves [shafts] in it, and had one horse in the shaves and one hitched in front of him with the trace chains hooked in the end of the shaves, and the third horse still in front with his chains hitched in the second horse's chains just back of the collar.  Some hitch, I must say!

I got a package of papers from Mat yesterday with a bunch of the boys' names in from Monroe County, and just looked over it a minute and laid it on a shelf in the office and this morning one of the fellows used it to build a fire with.  And believe me, he got a piece of my mind.

 

Looking Forward to Visiting

Thursday, February 20, 1919

Will try and drop you a few lines tonight before going to bed, and answer your kind and most welcome letter I received today at noon.  I only got 9 today, and hardly knew where to start answering.  Think I will write two or three tonight and finish tomorrow night

I just came back from the Salvation Army Hall and started writing.  Was over singing and having a little fun.  It is right here in the camp.

I do not blame Harry for putting out a good bit of corn.  I only wish I was home to put out a crop.  But I am afraid I will not get home in time.  I do not think I will get home before May or June and maybe later.  Cannot tell.

Makes me feel kind of blue to hear of the boys getting home and me still over here.  But they are just that much more luckier than I am.

I expect there will be lots of them get married when they get back, and if no Providing, Providence, Prevail.  I suppose I will too.  But I will try and visit a little before I do.  If I go and stay a week with everyone that wants me to, I will not get much of anything done for a while.

 

A Farmer or a Butcher?

Monday, March 17, 1919

Well, Sis, you mentioned in one of your letters about what I would do when I get back home.  I had thought lots about farming, but I know it will take lots of money to get everything I would need to farm with, and I have thought lots about working at something else.

I may get a job someplace in a meat shop, for you hardly ever see a paper from the States but what there is advertisements in it for butchers, and I think I could make good at that.  One fellow that I run with a good bit is a butcher and is going to start a shop when he gets back, and has talked to me several times about it.  I am pretty sure I could get a job from him if I would just ask for it.

I haven't done a hard day's work for so long that I expect it will go pretty hard to begin, but I will get used to it.  I have not run up against a job yet but what I got through some way.

Well, am glad you got my pictures all right.  They were not so very good but were a little souvenir from France.  No, I have not quit using tobacco yet.  I know one of my pockets was unbuttoned, and thought I had them all buttoned too, but did not have my pipe in it anyway.

You wanted to know if I had learned to talk any French yet.  Well, it is very little.  Wish I could talk it.  I see lots of girls and some very pretty ones.  But I do not bother them any at all, for I have learnt and seen too much about them to have anything to do with them.

 

Don't Ask Me to Do Laundry!

Thursday, April 10, 1919

Will try and drop you a few lines tonight and answer your kind and most welcome letter I received yesterday and also the papers.  Was sure glad to hear from you and to know you were all well.  As for me, I am feeling fine and dandy now; was in the hospital for a few days, but am out now and feeling good again.

We are having a little rain tonight; it has been nice weather for two weeks, though.  Nice and warm, just like spring.  Do hope you people do not get the "flu."  This sure would be a bad time to have it.

I think your ewes are sure doing well.  I suppose sheep and wool are a pretty good price.

You wanted to know if it was a pretty rough place where I am at.  No, it is mostly level land, and the town is a pretty nice town.  Of course, it is like all the towns in France.  I am about 275 miles from Brest — that is a rough guess, it may be a little more — and am about 40 miles from Germany.

No, they do not censor the mail any more, just seal it up and sign it on the outside.  There has not been anyone read my letter for 4 or 5 months.  I always seal them as soon as I write them.

I get $26.50 a month is all.  No, I do not do my washing any more since I have had money, for I sure hate to wash.

I sure would like to get home.  But I do not know when it will be.  I guess the Camp here is going to break up before long, and I do not know where we will go.  There are 20 of us on a list to go out sometime within the next 10 days, but I do not know whether we will go to a casual camp someplace or to Germany.  I am in hopes it will be to a casual camp and they send us home.

I have been teaching school since I got out of the hospital.  They started a school here in camp for the ones that can not read and write.  The ones I teach are all colored boys.  Can you imagine me teaching a bunch of Negroes?  Ha.  Ha.

 

Enough of France!

Monday, April 21, 1919

Well, you will see I am still at the same old place; do not know when we will leave here.  Have been waiting on traveling orders ever since a week ago Saturday.  Do not know what is the matter, and do not know where we will be sent to.  If it is for the States, wish they would hurry up and come, and if it is for Germany, do not care if they never come.

I do not think you will need to worry about me being discontented when I get home, for I will be so glad to get home I can put up with most anything.

Mother told me in her last letter than William Lafferre was home.  He went to camp the same time I did.  They must have tried to hand somebody a little B.S. when they said Glen House had come back from overseas, when he was in Texas all the time.

Yes, I go to church once in a great while, but not as often as I would like to.  No, we have not got any Chaplain in our company.

 

Apparently the traveling orders did come, because four weeks later, Luther had moved 170 miles northeast to the banks of the Rhine.

 

On to Germany

Bendorf, Germany
Friday, May 16, 1919

I am working in a kitchen since I came up here.  I cut some meat here.  It is the first I have cut since I came over here.

I tell you, it makes a fellow pretty anxious when he sees some fellow with traveling orders for the good old U.S.A.  But I do not think it will be long until we will be on our way.  It may be two or three months, but that will soon fly around.

I wrote to Hannah and Clarence Atkinson and some of the boys that were in my company last night, and just wrote Ethel a few lines.  And Frank Milton finally has found him a woman.  Well, good for him!  I think now I can surely get me a woman.  Ha.

So some of the boys are dissatisfied when they get back.  Well, I do not know how I will be, but I think I can feel very good at home, for a while anyway.  And as to the drinking, that does not bother me the least bit, so you need not worry about that.

 

Visiting Koblenz

Friday, June 6, 1919

Am getting pretty anxious to go home, but suppose I will just have to wait until my turn comes.  Looks now like it would be some time before my turn will come.

Of course, we are not allowed to go with any of the Dutch Frowlines, and I suppose it is a good thing we are not.  Ha.  [He means “deutschen Fräuleins,” which is German for “German girls.”]

Well, has Hannah been out to see you yet?  She wrote me and said she had been down home.  I suppose some will miss her in the Central [telephone] office, and I know if I was home I would miss her answering the phone.

I am off today, so I did not get up until noon, so you see I am still a pretty good sleeper.  Think I will take a little walk uptown tonight and get a haircut.  Am going to Coblenz Sunday.

An undated picture postcard of the Hotel Coblenzer Hof was addressed to the six-year-old girl who later became my mother.

Hello Anna,

How are you?  I suppose you are almost a woman by now.  I am not working today.  How are Grandma and Lizzie?  Tell them I said Hello.  Hope to see you soon.

Your Uncle Luther

 

Luther continued writing to his half-sister Emma as the peace treaty was being finalized at Versailles.

 

Long Enough for Me

Monday, June 16, 1919

This is one fine day; it is not so hot like it has been.  I did not get up this morning until about 10:30 and went for a bath then.

You wanted to know if I got plenty to eat.  Well, you can tell the world I do.  As long as there is anything around to eat, I will get my share of it.  Ha.  Ha.

Yes, I have seen Clarence A. several times.  He and I are going to take a little trip out in the country next Sunday and see what there is to see.

I suppose Frank and Etta are married by this time and living as happy as two kittens.  I can almost see Frank strutting around.  Ha.

That was too bad about Jim Hughes; that sure was a shock to the rest of them.

Well, I was just thinking:  I have got one year and 21 days in the Army, and would not be surprised much but what I will have two years in before I get out.  About two more months and I will be overseas a year.  That is long enough for me.

 

We Feed Good

Saturday, June 28, 1919 [about 3:20 P.M., apparently]

Will try and drop you a line this afternoon and answer your letter I received a few days ago.  Was sure glad to hear from you and to know you were all well.  I am still feeling good, only got a boil or some kind of a hickey on my chin that is pretty sore.  Had it opened this morning and is not so sore now.

It sure was hot [in Ohio] if it was 96 and 97 in the shade.  We have never had that hot here yet.

Well, this morning's paper said they were to sign Peace this P.M. at 3 o'clock, but it is after that now and have never heard any guns fired off yet, so do not know if 'tis signed or not.  I sure hope it is signed before long.  [At Versailles, the signing did begin at 3:00 that day, and cannon were fired at the conclusion of the ceremony at 3:45.]

You wanted to know what I had to eat.  Well, today for dinner we had beefsteak and gravy, potatoes, peas, cake and pudding and coffee and bread.  We get pork of some kind about two or three times a week and chicken every once in a while.  Oh, we feed good, all right.

I suppose you are awful busy now.  Mother wrote me the other day; said their cows were all fresh and old Dolly had a little colt, and that they were awful busy.  Sure wish I was there to help them, but suppose will just have to wait.

 

The last letter in the packet included my uncle, whose twelfth birthday was just a week away, in its salutation to "Ralph and all."

 

A Soldier without a Gun

Bendorf, Germany
Monday, July 7, 1919

I suppose when I tell you I did not get up until 11:30 today, you will think I am a pretty lazy fellow.  But I did not have to work today, so thought I would sleep until I got my sleep out.

I had to work the 4th and Sunday too.  Did not like that very well.

No, I have not got any gas mask, nor any gun either.  I had a gun awhile — brought it with me from the States — but I got tired carrying it around, so I turned it back in.

Well, I suppose you are working [in the fields] every day.  I wish I was there to see you work.  I have seen about all of this country over here I care about seeing.  I am ready to go back to God's country again.

Will close for this time.  Give my best regards to Grandma and Lizzie.  Hope to be home soon.  I am as ever your Uncle

 

And soon after, he did come home.  Not only that, he got married!  The wedding took place in Sarahsville, Ohio, on the last day of 1919.  His bride was the girl he’d mentioned several times in his letters, Hannah Mae Hanes, who had apparently been in the same line of work that my mother would enter in the 1930s:  a telephone operator.  I found a photo of their gravestone, which indicates the marriage lasted until Luther’s death 55 years later.

                                                

 

TBT

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