Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Impressions of France Behind the Lines

The Clements Library exhibition "Over There" with the American Expeditionary Forces in France During the Great War is open through April 26, 2019, on Fridays from 10am to 4pm. The following material is excerpted from a pamphlet produced to accompany the exhibit.

Many of the American soldiers arriving overseas to serve in the First World War had never left their home state before joining the service. As a result, soldiers' letters and diaries often depict France as an exotic place. Much of the correspondence from members of the AEF to their loved ones back home reads like tourists' descriptions of travels, focusing on details such as food, clothing, historic sites, local children, and the French love for red wine. These impressions are illustrated by the following excerpts from letters in the Clements Library archives:

Harold Kamp, January 14, 1918. Le Havre, France. [1]
"We quit the British Rest Camp to do special detail work, before entraining for the training camp. At Havre we were loaded on freight cars of the miniature variety. A placard on the side door read—40 Hommes, or 8 chavaux; translated, 40 men or 8 horses. As the train pulled out of the station singing songs, a British Tommy, looking on in wonderment, shouted, 'A jolly old war, isn't it?'"

David C. Cottrell, February 12, 1918. Somewhere in France. [2]
"Last night, as I was going to my room one of the boys here called me. There were three frenchmen by a pile of flour and there was not strength enough among them to lift two houndred pounds of flour, so four of us put it in the shelter for them. While we were doing this, there being about two tons of it, two little boys scraping up flour that had spilled on the ground commenced to fight over it and one of them kicked the other in the stumick. Believe me it sounded hollow."

Clarence E. Burt, July 2, 1918. Somewhere in France. [3]
"All the land we saw was under cultivation, and it seemed to be hay making time. The workers were all women, old men or children. One seldom sees an abled bodied man anywhere
between the age of 20 and 60."

Aged French Laborer. United States Signal Corps Photograph Collection.
Thomas Knowles, October 25, 1917. Somewhere in France. [4]
"Our quarters now are in a little old French town, just behind the lines. We, the engineers, are in billets, that is divided up among the houses and barns of the village. Everything is quaint and old-fashioned, and a never-ending source of interest and wonder to me. The old red-tiled houses and narrow streets, and the peasants in the curious and picturesque dresses. The people will do almost anything for us. The[y] like the Americans. We have lots of fun trying to understand their lingo. I brought three French-English dictionaries along with me, and am trying hard to learn."

Fred C. Wagner, July 1, 1918. Somewhere in France. [5]
"Many many customs differ from those in the States but we are all trying to adjust ourselves to circumstances and at the same time pick up a little French. In fact I get right out among the French for I find that is the best way to learn the language a 'wee' bit. At present I know two of the nicest kiddies across the river—a little lad of thirteen—but small for his age, and a demoiselle of eleven years. I had them out to a 'movie' show one night and they enjoyed themselves immensely. There I carry them little dainties such as candy, gum, chocolate bars etc., such as can not be obtained by the French people in France. Another comerade and I almost consider them our proteges. There are any numbers of little French children here who have been adopted by different companies who pay so much a month for their care. It is a very common sight to see some little fellow about seven or eight years dressed in a wee U.S. army outfit—complete even to leggings."

Stephen D. Brown, June 2, 1918, Somewhere in France. [6]
"Visited a drill field some distance out of camp for gas drill. Country very flat with rows of poplar trees and windmills all about. Cap Jones started cussing some French kids who were trying to sell 'Oranchees' while we were moving, and these gained the good-will of the company by imitating him and making insulting gestures."

Laurence Benedict, September 9, 1918. Somewhere in France. [7]
"I'm making great progress in French and by this time am pretty familiar with the currency here...For a while I'd sell a hundred franc note anytime for a good, old American dime. And for a few days the boys had quite a time 'shooting' Craps with the strange money but they can't be fooled now and they're shouting 'five francs' with the same lust as they formerly did 'One buck' only they usually refer to the French bills as 'rags.' Even if this is a poor part of France it seems they should have some good looking women but so far I haven't glimpsed any and my eyes are pretty good when it comes to that. Another thing we'll appreciate when we get back to God's country. I just stopped here to join in the general rush to the canteen where a load of chocolate arrived. No one is allowed more than two bars but I managed to get four by going back twice."
Doughboys Enjoying Ice Cream. Dorothy T. Arnold Collection.

Benjamin Furman, February 24, 1918. Somewhere in France. [8]
"This morning was a red letter day—we all got a bath—that is, all except Mademoiselle the dog and she needed it more than any of us. She is the new member of our family. She is evidently lost and has taken a great liking to me and follows me all over. I told Helen all about her in one of my letters to her. I hate to repeat. Yesterday she insisted on following the ambulances when I started out so I had to stop and put her in and cart her all the way to Co E and back."

Benjamin Furman, August 18, 1918. Evacuation Hospital #2, Baccarat, France.
"The nurses live in the same building I do. They have a sign over the entrance to their quarters, 'No Man's Land. Keep Out.'"

Harold Kamp, February 22, 1918. Base Hospital #6, Bordeaux, France.
"The American soldier's trench talk is varied. He calls himself, a doughboy. A soldier who shares his shelter is his 'bunkie,' the company barber is a 'butcher'; the commanding officer is a 'K.O.' a junior officer is a 'goat'; the doctor is 'saw-bones'; a new second-lieutenant is a 'shave-tail,' field artillerymen are 'wagon-soldiers,' and our soldiers never 'bellyache' or complain when the 'slum,' that is, the meat or soup, or the 'sowbelly' as the bacon is called are bad. It's all in the game—the game of 'Kan the Kaiser.'"

Laurence Benedict, October 22, 1918. Saint Maixent, France.
"This is the worst war I was ever in. Here I am still loafing, and I'm getting darned good at it by this time. I really think I'll be getting out soon now tho' I don't know where I'll go, sure that it will be frontward, and can't say that I care much where they do send me. It's tough to be so versatile that they don't know where to put you. I'll know more in the next war. You know what the next war will be don't you? We, of the air service, are going to fight Mexico and make it take Texas back."

Louis Miller
Curatorial Assistant
"Over There" Exhibit Curator

* * *

[1] Harold Kamp (1895-1942) was born in Fresno, California. He served as a private in the 146th Field Artillery. After returning home, he became an executive at his father’s department store, Radin & Kamp, before spending the last few years of his life cultivating a vineyard in the Selma area. The Clements holds Kamp's wartime diary, the Harold Kamp Journal, 1917-1919, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection.

[2] David C. Cottrell (1884-1918) was born in California. He first enlisted in the army in 1906, serving until his honorable discharge in 1910. When war broke out, he enlisted once again, first joining the 18th Engineer Regiment before his transfer to the 146th Field Artillery Regiment. He died in France at an army hospital from the effects of gas on April 19, 1918. His body was brought back to San Joaquin County, California, for burial in 1920. The Clements Library holds some of his extensive correspondence with his girlfriend, Ethel M. Jury, in the Cottrell-Jury Correspondence, 1917-1918.

[3] Clarence E. Burt (1886-1965) was born in Massachusetts. He graduated from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1908 and operated a private practice in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He served as a first lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corps from 1913-1917 before joining the regular army on December 28, 1917. In France, he was a surgeon with the 183rd Infantry Brigade. After returning home, he spent time in Walter Reed Hospital recovering from injuries received in the line of duty. His fellow veterans elected him as Massachusetts state commander of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War in 1923. His name adorns the DAV chapter in New Bedford. The above quotation comes from his correspondence with his aunt and uncle, Addie and Charles H. Mosher, in the Clarence E. Burt Papers, 1918.

[4]Thomas Knowles (b. 1896) of Massachusetts served abroad in the 101st Engineer Regiment. He was wounded in combat in May of 1918. After spending two months recuperating in the hospital, he received an assignment to a non-combat role with press section G-2-D, returning home in 1919. During his service, Knowles wrote extensively to an acquaintance, Ruth Blaisdell of Waltham, Massachusetts. Thomas Knowles Collection, 1917-1919, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection.

[5] Fred Calvin Wagner (ca. 1898-1918) was born in Rolla, North Dakota. He completed two years at the University of North Dakota before transferring to Macalester College. Shortly after the entry of the United States into the war, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was sent overseas as part of the 150th Company, 1st Machine Gun Replacement Battalion but was later transferred to the Marine 6th Regiment. On July 19, 1918, in the Chateau Thierry drive, he was killed while trying to carry wounded to a nearby first aid station. His body was never recovered. His name is among the missing at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial. The local American Legion post in Rolla is named in his honor. Wagner wrote the above letter to his Aunt Nealie Van Pelt. This letter is in the Clements's World War One Letters and Documents Collection, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection.

[6] Stephen D. Brown (1892-1980) was born in Washington, D.C., but moved with his family as a child to Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in July of 1917. Although denied entrance into the officer corps because of poor eyesight, he became a member of the 103rd Engineer Regiment. He served in France from May 1918 until July 1919. He returned to Lansdowne after the war and worked as a chemical engineer. Brown's correspondence and diary entries while in the army come from the Stephen D. Brown Diaries, 1917-1919.

[7]Laurence M. Benedict (1897-1970) was born in Delaware, Ohio. He served as a second lieutenant in the Air Service during the war. Upon his return, he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan College and had a decades-long career as a United Press correspondent while living in San Francisco, California. He mainly wrote to his mother while in the service, but he also wrote to his father and grandmother. Laurence Benedict's letters, along with those of his brother, Harley, who also served in the war, are in the Harley and Laurence Benedict Correspondence, 1917-1919.

[8] Benjamin Applegate Furman (1883-1967) was born in Newark, New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton University in 1906 and then earned a medical degree from Columbia University in 1910. He had a private practice in Newark while also working for the Presbyterian Hospital. After joining the Army in 1917, he served in France as a surgeon for the 407th Telegraph Battalion and at Evacuation Hospital No. 2. After the war, he returned to Newark where he continued his medical work until his retirement a few years before his death. Furman's quotations are from letters to his parents, John A. and Emma C. Furman, held in the Benjamin A. Furman Collection, 1917-1919, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection.

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