Armistice Day 1918 in letters from the front

November 10, 2010 —

Nearly a century has elapsed since Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 to end World War I. Today we know it as Veterans Day. Post-Gazette archives vividly reveal what it was like for a local soldier fighting in the front lines in France in that war. Letters to Alvah and Lucy Stone of Medina from their son Harry and to brother Stanley, editor of the paper, describe some of the battles.

Harry, a Hudson high graduate and a 1908 graduate of Michigan Agricultural College (now MSU), was presented his diploma by President Theodore Roosevelt, commencement speaker on the College’s 50th anniversary. He declined a commission when entering the army preferring to serve as a private. At the time he was employed in Lake Forest, IL and enlisted in the old Chicago Gas and Flame Company. After intensive training in gas warfare the company became a part of the First Gas Regiment numbering some 2,000 men. Theirs was the only regiment of the kind that saw active service on the battlefront, and they were divided and subdivided in order to cover as much territory as possible. The result was the regiment suffered terrific losses and holds the record of all American units there in this respect with over 50% either killed or wounded.

THE BATTLE OF ST. MIHIEL

AS SEEN FROM THE FRONT LINE

Sept. 14, 1918

Dear Mother:

It has been some time since I wrote you; first because I could not get any paper, and then there has been so much doing of late that I had no time. You see since writing that last letter (Sept. 1st) we have gone up to the front and been in a battle besides. It must have been about a week ago that one night we suddenly got orders to pack up. We were loaded into a truck, about ten of us, and we started. It was not so far to the front but it took a long while to get there. The roads blocked with all sorts of motor trains, supplies, artillery and everything imaginable. It got dark and started to rain which did not improve matters. We passed through villages which only too clearly showed the marks of war. In fact, war was all that could be seen.

As we came nearer the front the sound of the guns grew louder and louder. Finally we could get no farther, so we all rolled up in the truck and slept the best we could. In the meantime it had started to rain again like Cain.

Think it must have been about midnight when we were told to get out, as we had to walk the rest of the way. We kept as close to the bank as we could, (it was all high hills about us) as every few minutes a shell would let go. it was so blame dark that we could hardly see our way, but we got to our dugout, where there was another squad of our boys who had come a day or two before. These boys didn’t relish the idea of being disturbed at this time of night, and as the place was small, there was not much sleep for anyone the rest of the night, and that didn’t soothe their feelings either, as we had to stand or sit. Of course no one thinks of staying outside up here when he doesn’t have to, especially at night, and besides it was raining.

The next day we didn’t have much to do, and as they were not shelling much, we looked about a bit. Went up on top of the hill and looked out through the brush over “No Man’s Land” to the German trenches. Could see a village that was absolutely destroyed, trees and all, just a few bare walls were all that remained. Occasionally a shell would go shrieking over on its way to the road in the valley. As a rule, the Germans don’t do so much of this in the daytime, but let go pretty strong at night. We found us another dugout during the day. The hills are all honey-combed with them.

The next day, in the morning, the balance of the company arrived. That night we spent in the trenches and had lots of hard work to do. Some of it was up on top. It had rained most all the time that we had been here and was still at it, the trenches were full of mud, and at places a foot or so of water. We had a rather hard night of it betwixt it all. We got back just before daylight.

The next night was the big night. We got our stuff together and went out to our position in the first trenches. It was dark as a stack of black cats, and of course still raining. As I have said, the Germans would do considerable shelling every night, but the Yankees never replied. But this night, about one o’clock, Fritzie had just started in when hell broke loose for twenty miles or more up and down the valley. The ground fairly rocked and the sky was lit up as if by a terrific electrical storm. If you can imagine countless express trains tearing through the air, you can get some idea of it. Of course the Germans answered back. Just as dawn was breaking the din increased, as countless machine guns just behind us cut loose. You could hear the deep rumble of the big guns far over the hills and then nearer by the medium large guns, while on the hills immediately behind us the 75’s barked and roared; and then at dawn or a little before the machine guns took up the chorus. It was at this time we did our work, and then last of all, just as we could see the “doughboys” (infantry), jumping from the trenches and barbed wire and throwing away everything but theif belts and guns. As they went over our trench it was fairly showered with raincoats, toilet kits, etc. Three waves of them, I think it was, went over and they were followed by tanks. They chased the Germans up the hill, througfl the woods and kept after him till night and the next day, when they had him pushed back something like ten miles in places.

That night, when we returned to our dugouts, there were a great many refugees there, and they were, I think, the happiest people I ever saw. They had been held captives for nearly four years. Yes, they were sure glad to get away from the Germans … “

YANKEE TROOPS !N THE ARGONNE

October 20, 1918

Dear Mother – Today is Sunday and it is raining and rather cold, have been sent back from the line for a rest and we sure are appreciating it. We have been on the front line almost continuously since September 1 and with the exception of the two or three days we had off that I wrote you about between drives we have been under fire practically all the while. We have been attached at times two or three different divisions which were relieved, but not us.

That first drive – St. Mihiel – that I wrote you about, was mere child’s play compared with this last one in the Argonne. The fighting has been thru a very difficult country – hills and woods – an ideal place for machine gun defenses, and the Germans have made the most of them. They are out now more in the open and are being driven back faster. The English and French are doing great work also, and if the good work goes on, there soon will not be another Boche in France. They would have gone still faster, I think, if the weather had not been so bad. It has rained a great deal, which has made it bad in many ways – bad to move guns, supplies, etc. But at that, they have kept the Germans headed in the right way and I think they are beginning to lose heart. At least the prisoners we have seen, and we have seen lots of them, talk that way.

Many come in and give themselves up, and I heard of cases where some of them would go out and pick up wounded Americans and bring them into the lines. They would take that as a safe way to get thru and give themselves up. A few days ago, we had just arrived in a town, or what had been a town, and shortly a whole bunch, a hundred or so, of Germans came in as prisoners. They were apparently delighted with their fate, and for the most part they were rather young. They were plastered with mud and hadn’t shaved for some time. There was a big kettle of coffee near and the boys filled all their canteens with coffee and passed around tobacco among them which seemed to improve their feeling still more. They were being held there for awhile to wait for some more who were being brought up.

About this time some Fritizies some distance away, and who decidedly were not prisoners yet, began to drop shells around us. We of course ducked for a dugout on the side hill and the guards told the prisoners to get up also. it seems rather funny now, for there we were, Yanks and the Dutch, mixed up in that side hill, trading tobacco for buttons and the like.

When the other bunch of prisoners came along there was much talking and laughing and kidding one another about what had happened to them. They seemed to be a pretty good lot; however there have been cases where these Germans have done treacherous tricks and no one is trusted too much.

It looked like peace a few days ago, but apparently it has blown over with until the Kaiser, or rather the German people, can see the light a little more clearly. During the peace talk I was in a place that didn’t sound a bit peaceful. I was stationed as a courier in a shell of a town that we had taken, and it was being shelled constantly, and every little while they would let go with a double dose, and the walls would go crashing down and the rocks would fly all about. Besides our own batteries were planted all about and came roaring back their answer. The peace talks were not at all convincing there.

We have been advancing thru one town after another that are all shot to pieces. I don’t think much of hanging around these towns for they are always being bombarded. A week ago today we were back some distance, six or seven miles, and thought then we were coming back for a bit of rest; but Monday morning the orders were to pack up and advance again, and we put in four or five pretty hard days. We were quartered for the most part, when not in action, in one shell wrecked towns.

One night we went out on top of a hill where our front lines were. The “doughboys” don’t waste much time digging trenches, and as this hill was peppered with sheil holes, the boys got into them and shoveled them out a little and had a trench all of their own, and this was our front line. It was raining, as usual, and we were far from beautiful when we came away after lying around in the mud . . .

We are now in a rather pretty little French village, quartered here, tho it is not so far from the lines but what we can hear the guns at night. I sure have laid into the eats that we can get in the stores here – grapes, nuts, celery, condensed milk, and cheese. I do like this French cheese. What we get here comes in little round boxes weighing about a pound. We go to the bake shop and get warm bread, which is fine. it comes in round loaves, and is made out of rye, and is good. It wilI be luck if we don’t all get indigestion. We had another experience last night – was bombed by an aeroplane here in our quiet little village. They shook things up considerable, but that was all, tho they fell pretty thick.

About the Christmas box, as to what you send, do as you like; only don’t send anything that will have to be packed around. Up to the front one losses or throw away most everything but his blankets. You have no idea how things are ditched And of how little use things are to us that are necessary at other times.

With love, Harry.

The above letter, just after their arrival back from the terrible fighting in the Argonne, in which the American forces made their greatest sacrifice in killed and wounded. Here it was that another Hudson boy, Lieut. Delancey Colvin, met his death while fighting with the Thirty-second Division, a spot a few miles to the left of where Harry was located on the front.

Dear Mother,

I am again in the little town where I wrote you last, Grange aux Bois, they call it. We have been back for a couple of days, and were gone just two weeks but those two weeks were mighty strenuous – at least some of the time. Came back the day the Armistice was signed though we did not know for sure until we arrived here. Isn’t it grand – the peace coming so soon! It seems too good to be true. We got in here Sunday night – about midnight – the same night the Armistice was signed. We came all the way from the Belgian frontier mostly by hikes, but last night we were in a truck. We had scarcely seen a paper since we started, but there were many rumors that found their way to the front that we knew pretty well what was afoot. This night as we came along through a shell-riddled town we could see the camp fires playing freely from every hill and automobile lights shone brightly – proof enough that something unusual was going on, for no lights had dared to show on these hills for four long years, except the flare of cannon. It did seem so strange this night to see the camp fires burning freely.

The next afternoon a couple of us were out gathering fern leaves in the woods for our bunks, when the bells started ringing to celebrate Peace and Victory. They sounded very sweet to us, and must have indeed been music to the French. They were ringing all over France, and perhaps in America, also . . .

Harry Stone returned to his home in Medina where he lived the rest of his life working on the family farm together with his brother Stacy.