To most people WWI is a just a series of statistics or a list of famous battles. Perhaps you can remember names of a few high ranking officers. It is the men in the trenches (and the women in the hospitals) who should be first in our thoughts. They died and suffered in great numbers.
“In the Somme valley, the back of language broke. It could no longer carry its former meanings. World War I changed the life of words and images in art, radically and forever. It brought our culture into the age of mass-produced, industrialized death. This, at first, was indescribable.”
This quotation by Robert Hughes, in The Shock of the New, expresses the unnatural, grim reality that came crashing down on those serving in Europe during World War I. Not only was it a new experience by those directly participating, but in the age of improved photography and motion pictures, man’s inhumanity was captured and widely shared.
Soldiers and nurses and Red Cross workers saw and experienced death, disease, and horrific wounds each day. They suffered through bomb shells, the spray of bullets, the burn of poison gas, rain and mud, lack of rest, and the ever encroaching reality of their mortality.
Letters sent home from the war front show their courage and amazing ability to normalize their world, at least for their family back home. These stories written by Nashua New Hampshire military during The Great War speak for themselves.
–LETTERS FROM THE DEAD–
Nashua Telegraph, Saturday, June 29, 1918. CORP KEARNS’ LAST LETTER Was Received by His Wife in This City. Corp. Fred J. Kearns whose death in action in France on June 16 probably at Xivray, wrote his wife, Mrs. Bessie Kearns, in this city, on June 9, the letter being received today. Pvt. Kearns was 22 years of age, and was a member of Company I, 103rd infantry. He was a native of Plattsburg NY, and had been in service two years being a veteran of the Mexican border.
June 9, 1918
Somewhere in France
Dear Little Wife:
Just a few lines to let you know that I am still thinking of you and the folks. I hope these few lines find you and mother and father feeling better and hope mother’s cold is better. I received your last letter which was written on May 13th, and it found me in the best of health. It is surely hot in old France. I sure will be some happy boy to get a picture of you and the baby. Bess, you are right when you said you know who your friends were. But cheer up, Bess, me and you for a little home of our own and better days are coming sometime if an Old German or “Square Head” don’t get me, for they can’t last forever for the things look better now. We expect to go in the trenches in a couple of weeks, and then we come out for a rest again, I hope. Well, Bess, we couldn’t all have weak hearts because some of us had to pass and help out Uncle Sam. My captain said you had about $60, if not more, for your month, and he said he’d see that you got it soon, and let me know when you receive it. I also got a letter from Aunt Vinie and she said she wrote to you and she said the kids were fine and also little Tipp. How is father’s garden coming? I sure wish I was there to help him weed it. Well, Bess, I guess I have said all about all I can think of for now, as it is pretty near time for inspection, so I will ring off till tomorrow. Give mother and father my best regards, luck and love. Love and kisses to you and good luck and God bless you.
From your little Hubby,
CORP. FREDERICK J. KEARNS
Co. I., 103rd U.S. Inf., A.E.F.
PRIVATE CHAGNON’S LAST LETTER: Nashua Soldier, Dead at Xivray, Wrote Sister June 4. Mrs. A.A. Jeannotte has received the following letter from her brother Pvt. Eugene Chagnon, recently reported killed in action on the western battle front in France and presumably at the battle of Xivray, where members of the old Company I militia unit of this city took an active and heroic part in the engagement. The letter was written several days before the battle. Private Chagnon writes as follows:
June 4, 1918
Dear Sister Maude:
Here’s a few words acknowledging your card and letter of May 1. They find me well and contented. We have not been in the trenches since we came out in April, but we expect to have another crack at it very soon. We are still billeted in a little town and although it isn’t like home by any means, we are contented and having a good time. We had a concert here this afternoon, the band from the 104th playing. A week ago Saturday Elsie Janis was in the next town (about a mile from here) and she gave us a lot of enjoyment. She sang, danced and told stories. The Band also played. It was fun to see Miss Janis leading the band with a stick. When it got dark enough they showed moving pictures. So you see we are not without having some good times, at that. You would no doubt be interested to know that we received our baptism of fire where the big fight is going on at the present time, but luckily for us we had completed our hitch before the big stuff started. We are not in that sector at present. It is
pretty tame in this sector, but then there is never any telling what the morrow will bring. For the last two months the weather has been elegant and we are beginning to realize that there is a sunny France. Got tobacco from Ralph O.K. We have got news from some of Capt. Elliott’s men, telling us they are in France, but it is only by chance if we should ever run into any of them. My two secretaries are still well. Believe me I miss the old Crow Bar farm. This is about all for this time. Love to little Maurice, and all of you dear folks.
Pvt Eugene Chagnon
Co. I, 103rd Inf
American Expeditionary Forces in France
–LETTERS FROM THE LIVING–
Nashua Telegraph Wednesday, June 5, 1918: From “Somewhere in France” comes the following letter to Mrs. M. Albert Giles, 47 Cross Street: “Just a line to let you know that I am well and happy, and hope that this will find each and every one of you in the best of health and happiness. I am on my route back from the hospital to my company. I suppose that you had given up all hope of ever hearing from me, but I assure you that I am ever thinking of you and other loved ones at home. I have been on the go since I left the company that I haven’t had time to write anyone a letter. I expect to be back in the front-line trenches in a few days, taking a few more cracks at those square headed Germans. They have one score on me, and I hope to tie it and go them one better before I see you again. At present I am in a camp where soldiers are coming and going every minute. I suppose that I have a score of letters back at the company for me, and by the time that you are reading this, I will be back doing my little bit for Uncle Sam. I expect to leave for the U.S. before next April. I can’t think of much else to write of just at present, but will write you more soon.”
Your loving son,
Pvt. Charles H. Giles
Co. D., 103rd U.S. Inf.
Pvt. Charles Dubuque sends the following letter to his mother in which he tells about an encounter with the Germans. “Only a few lines to let you know that I have received your letter, and that I am very glad that you and everyone else are in good health, as for me, I never felt better in my life. I got your two letters and the box that you sent me the same day that I came out of the trenches, and believe me, they struck the right place. The two union suits that you sent me were just what I wanted, and after taking a bath, I put one on. Well, I suppose that you would like to know how I spent my vacation in the trenches. I would have liked it better if we only had better weather. It rained for five days and five nights steady, and of all the water in France, we had the majority in our trenches. We were covered with mud from the top of our helmet to the bottom of our shoes, and it would run off our overcoats or slickers just like water. We are getting use to that kind of weather now, for every time that we go into the trenches, it rains. We only lost one man, while we were in the trenches, ‘Sgt. Mitchell, the fellow that I brought home from Westfield with me, the last time that I was in Nashua. He was struck with a piece of shrapnel. Two days before we came out of the trenches, the Germans thought that they would give us a little surprise. The order came at 7:30 one
night while I was on post, that the enemy were getting ready to attack us, and to prepare to receive them. It did not take us long to follow orders, each man took all the ammunition that he could carry and started to dig a trench and each worked with all his power from 10:00 that night to 2:30 the next morning. When we had our trench dug, we settled down and waited for Fritz to come over and pay us a visit. About 2:30 A.M. the Boche artillery opened fire, and continued until our batteries silenced them. The whole bombardment lasted for over two hours, and the shells fell in front and behind us. Believe me, there was some steel and iron flying around us, trees broke as if made of paper. All we wanted was to get a good look at the Germans. Company I certainly kept up its good name, for all we lost was one man and that was three hours after the bombardment. We got a good look at a German trench, but everything was blown to pieces. I guess that we gave the Kaiser a hint as to the probable finish of the war. Guess that I will close as I have no more paper.”
PVT Charles Dubuque
Co. I., 1034d U.S. Inf. A.E.F.
Nashua Telegraph, Saturday, June 29, 1918. Mrs. Bertha Clemons, 14 Harvard Street, received a letter from her son, Pvt. William G. Houghton of Co. D., 103rd Infantry A.E.F. which contained an extract of General Orders from Major C.R. Edwards, in which Pvt. Houghton was cited for bravery. It read as follows:
Headquarters 26th Division, A.E.F.
France, May 25
General Orders No. 42 [Extract]
4. The following named men of Co. D., 103rd infantry, on the morning of the 10th of May 1918 in the C.R. St. Agnant, during the gas attack by the enemy, performed conspicuous acts of courage and initiative while under heavy fire. The Division Commander is pleased to mention them especially for their gallant conduct and devotion to duty on that action. Private William G. Houghton.
C.R. Edwards, Major General commanding.
Private Houghton enlisted in Co. D National Guards and went with the first contingent from Westfield. He is 22 years of age and has lived in Nashua since he was seven years old. He was formerly employed as a shoe cutter at McElwains. In a letter to his mother Pvt. Houghton states that he is in good health. He writes: “Decoration day we went to a small cemetery where some of our boys are laid to rest and had military services in memory of those who fought for the flag in previous years. I can tell you mother it was worth seeing. Since last writing I have had my first experience of a gas attack and it is awful. It made me think of home and you for a while but I managed to keep cool and pulled through all right. At present I am in a rest camp back of the lines. I am still waiting for a letter but hope to get one most any day. I hope you and father and the children are in the best of health. Well mother I am enclosing a slip of paper that was given to me for what I did, during the gas attack though I don’t know as I really did it as a lot of the boys did as much and more. Your loving son, William.”
SEE the National Geographic Documentary (COLOR) World War 1 – Ep 1 – Catastrophe
(Caution: graphic scenes depicted)
[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I. Look here for the entire listing].
What a sad tale of the devastation of war and loss of life. It would be heart wrenching for the families to receive the letters but also heart warming to have one last letter.
These remind me of letters written by some of my cousins during World War I and World War II. The soldiers always seem to try to seem upbeat and courageous. Reality must have been very different.
British poet Wilfred Owen captured the horrors of trench warfare in his poem describing a gas attack, Dulce et Decorum Est: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html.
I supremely enjoy reading these letters. How do you find them all and how do you decide which you will use and those you won’t use. Reading these letters and seeing the advertisements awakens and excites the history buff within.
First, thank you for reading my stories and for letting me know that you enjoy them. I have been researching New Hampshire’s involvement in WWI for the past few years, and as I research I collect information that helps me to understand what the soldiers and their families were experiencing. I save the ones that particularly teach me something new, or pull at my heartstrings. I am very fortunate in that some of the New Hampshire local libraries are digitizing and putting newspapers online, in this case the Nashua NH Library. Without their hard work, I would not have read these amazing letters. As for the advertisements, I feel they add to our knowledge of what people were interested in, and what terms they used within the context of the actual era.
Thank you so much for your work in this field. I have been thrilled to find your blog and read the many articles. My grandfather and his three brothers all served in the AEF and I have been trying to research their participation.
Steve, thank you for your kind words. Was your grandfather and siblings from New Hampshire? Who were they? What town or city did they live in?
I really enjoyed this post and the letters he wrote home. Reminded me of the letters I have of my uncle writing home in WWII. Things he hated to do at one time, like plowing, he talked about how he wish he could just go out in the field and plow a bit for his father. My grandmother received back, a box she mailed to him,,, she knew he had died when that box was returned to her. A few days later the government came to tell her. Thanks for sharing these Janice.
How heartbreaking – maybe even a bit chilling – for family to receive the letters from their loved ones after they had been killed.
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