Today’s post is by Jordan Patty, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD
While working on a project with Record Group 391 in the series Records of the 1st Through 338th and the 559th Infantry Regiment, 1/1/1916 – 12/31/1921 (NAID 604387), I came across an interesting letter that described activities of the 313th Infantry Regiment about six weeks after American and French success in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that culminated in the November 11, 1918 Armistice that ended fighting on the Western Front in World War I.
An unidentified officer in Verdun, France, is the author, and he is writing to Lieutenant Theodore P. Snook to give him an update on 313th activities since he left Verdun, a town immediately south of where the Meuse-Argonne Offensive had taken place. The author mentions the status of some mutual acquaintances and how some semblance of normal life has returned to Verdun. In particular, he describes a meal of chicken and oysters with other officers, and that some “glee clubs and theatrical troupes have been started, and we are trying to make the time livable as far as possible until the glad news comes.” The “glad news” he refers to is the news that they will return to the United States.
Although the fighting had ended, soldiers continued to drill for five hours each week. The author remarks that “[i]t is hard to get the men to do gas mask drill and bayonet exercises after all they have been through, and sometimes the grave instructions and ‘seeking cover’ are comical, when we consider how expert we were at it.” Another issue is that the soldiers did not want to dive onto the muddy ground or dive into holes filled with water when they each had “only one uniform and a single pair of leggings.”
The author describes another humorous episode involving one of the “interminable souvenir hunters – mostly American officers.” He “went out to Fort Douamont a few days ago to get some German helmets. He came back yesterday with his auto half full of helmets – French ones. He didn’t know the difference, and we didn’t want to disturb his pleasure so didn’t tell him.” Fort Douamont, just to the north of Verdun, fell into German hands early in the war until the French regained control in 1916.
The author notes that President Woodrow Wilson would arrive in a few days and plans to go “on a tour of inspection [and] then go to Montfaucon where he will review a provisional regiment made up of one battalion of this regiment, and two battalions of other regiments who also were in the advance at that place.” The author mentions that “Colonel Sweezey is to lead,” probably referring to Colonel Claude B. Sweezey, the Commander of the 313th.
The author closes with some speculation on when they will be leaving for the U.S. He mentions that one of the officers “says he will be on the water on the 23rd of January. When you ask him how he knows, he says he has a hunch. Now Brad’s hunches are worth something. Way back last September he told the French lieutenant who was with us that the war was going to end on the 10th of November. Missed it by five hours.” Unfortunately for the author, they more than likely did not leave so soon. The Treaty of Versailles that formally ended hostilities would not be complete for another six months, and the United States could not rapidly remove 2 million military and civilian personnel that slowly arrived in France and elsewhere in Europe following the U.S. declaration of war in 1917.
For further reading see:
“America Enters the Great War: Wilson Struggles as He Prepares the Nation for World War I” Prologue Magazine, Spring 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1, by Mitchell Yockelson.
“It is Now or Never”: Final Victory in the Great War by Mike Hancock, Pieces of History Blog.