Skip to main content

March 12, 1919 – Grange-le-Comte Par Rarecourt (Meuse)

My darling wife:

I'm not certain whether this letter is 29 or 30 so I numbered it 29. For if it is 29 and you receive another 29 you'll know my mistake, whereas if it is only 29 and I had numbered it 30 you'd worry because you'd think you missed 29.

My grandfather, Garfield V. Cox, was a Quaker conscientious objector during World War I. In lieu of military service he served just shy of a year with the newly formed (1917) American Friends Service Committee in relief and reconstruction work in France from late 1918 to the end of summer 1919.

I have in my possession perhaps one hundred letters he wrote home to my grandmother, they were married just over a year when he left, his parents and a few other family members that saved his letters.

This is a six page letter so I'm only going to post certain sections of it.

One of the interesting features of these letters for those of us that live in a world of instant mass communication is the time lag. It took approximately 3 to 4 weeks for a letter to make the trans-oceanic journey. This means that this letter written March 12 might arrive in rural Wisconsin where she was teaching high school the first or second week of April and a letter written in reply with questions or answers and mailed immediately might not arrive back in France until the last week of April or perhaps the first week of May. In reading these letters you might read a letter and then 20 more before being taken back to  the conversation in the first letter where he replies to the reply he has just now received to the letter he wrote a month and a half ago. These letters were hand delivered by friends or acquaintances, went through the military post, were opened by American military censors (supposedly all the time but really only sometimes) and then, during the war time portion of his service, subject to U-boat attacks on the ships (often steam ships) as they traveled the Atlantic.

Friends (Quakers) arriving from America or England first came to Paris and were then assigned to different locations and tasks around the country. My grandfather spent the first half of his time in Ornans near the Swiss border where he built sections of temporary housing structures that were then shipped by train to other parts of France to provide housing to French peasants returning to their devastated towns and villages. Often these towns were completely obliterated by the war.

This letter is the first after he has been transferred back through Paris to the former war zone where these houses will be built. The first part of the letter he describes his goodbyes at Ornans, his travel and a brief day of site seeing in Paris before heading for an area near Verdun. I'll pick up part way into his travel by train from Paris to Grange-le-Comte.

The Marne is a small river, flowing slowly through a flat valley which is (near Paris) very wide and apparently most fertile. Near Chateau-Thierry low hills rise on either side not far back from the river. Here we began to see trenches and barbed wire entanglements put up last June & July to prepare for meeting the final thrust on Paris. Just this side of Chateau-Thierry we saw the first shell holes. The town itself was not as seriously damaged as all the towns from Chateau-Thierry to Epernay. Between these large towns every village was badly shattered and almost no rebuilding has yet been done. The valley is a network of trenches, is strewn with barbed wire, and torn by shell holes. Not a bridge but had been blown up by the retreating French & along the banks lay fragments of wrecked pontoons built by the Germans in the face of a withering fire. The fields are dotted, too, by little crosses that mark fresh graves. This way from Epernay the Germans crossed the Marne in 1914 but not in 1918. Sermaize, razed in 1914, has been very largely rebuilt – by the Friends.

The Friends, both British and American, served under the auspices of the Red Cross. In other letters around the time of the armistice my grandfather states that the French notified the Red Cross that they wanted them out the moment the war ended but that they told the Friends they wanted them to stay. According to the French the Red Cross was a bunch of “secretaries” but the Friends actually worked.

We got to Rarecourt just at dark... Grange-le-Comte is an old chateau with an open court and barns (one of which the American soldiers burned not long ago for amusement). Below is a diagram. [note: hand drawn and not reproduced here by me]

Outside this circle of buildings are many army barracks. I'm sleeping in one to the north, with a wall between me and a score of Boche prisoners who work for the mission. (Eight of them worked for me today.) I must quit now. A dynamo has just been set up here to light the place, & the lights go out at 10 p.m. I'll continue this tomorrow evening – probably at Aubreville by candlelight.
Goodnight & happy dreams.

The war ended November 11, 1918. So here we are 4 months later with German POW's not being sent home yet but rather being used for reconstruction labor. This is his first mention of meeting Germans who he here refers to as “Boche,” a French slang word used as a derogatory term for German soldiers. I think he only uses it in this letter and from then on refers to them as Germans. I can only assume he did not know yet that it was derogatory as it is completely unlike him to use such a word. There is a thing known as “Quakerese” which carries beliefs in non-violence into language as well. An example of which is that when asked later in life by a Quaker businessman about a union busting firm that had been recommend to him my grandfather replied:

“I think over a period of time, a conscientious management would find the association a difficult one.”

The businessman understanding Quakerese perfectly immediately fired the firm which a year and a half later was hauled in front of Bobby Kennedy and the Senate “Rackets” committee resulting in jail terms for some.

March 13;(Thursday 7:30P.M.)

I write by the light of a flickering candle in a little shack at Aubreville with a large camp of negro soldiers on one side and a stockade enclosing 480 Boche prisoners on the other. These camps are on an imminence which looks down upon what used to be the town of Aubreville, now a mass of crumbled stone and tile.

This place is rapidly being organized as a friends center. The workers will come in fast from now on, and soon the refugees will be returning. The greatest handicap there is in all this region is that there is no drinking water. The soil is so polluted with rotting dead that we have to keep a truck busy hauling in bottled water from out of the war zone. Even it is treated with a carbonate which makes it taste horribly. It will be hard for me to get used to it.

More travel, now to Clermont-en-Argonne where they picked up supplies.

At Clermont, a town shattered in the war (as all towns here are) we took a train for Aubreville... We got here at ten o'clock, borrowed a big cart of the negro soldiers and hauled our luggage up to the shack already built for us by five men who had come ahead. At eleven o'clock we were laying the foundations for a ware house down by the railroad. On the other side of us runs a highway on which a big company of Germans under guard of two negro & two white Am. Soldiers were filling up shell holes with crushed stone. One of our boys talks German well. The prisoners told him what the ones at Grange told us – that the French starve them but that Americans feed them well. Here we are to erect for refugees some 30 houses which I helped build and load on cars at Ornans. So we'll be here a good while.

By “cars” he is referring to railroad cars. At Ornans they built these housing sections and for a short while had French soldiers loading them onto the railroad cars for shipment elsewhere but later had to load the trains themselves.

I forgot to say that near Grange are two big ammunition dumps which experts are firing off, so that the constant thunder made one feel the war still to be on... Here at Aubreville the ground is covered with shell cases.

The Friends work is starting in eight or more villages in this zone now. Of that I'll write more later....

Sunday Libby & I are going on an exploring expedition toward Varennes which has seen the most terrible fighting.

With love,

Garfield

During his time off he and other friends regularly hiked the country side near Ornans including climbing into the Alps along the border (during winter!). He continued to do so once at the front. His descriptions of these trips are often riveting. The descriptions of the front are quite gruesome but if time allows you'll read that for yourselves as I hope to post excerpts from these letters on their appropriate 92nd anniversary dates over the next few months.

In regard to the disposal of ammunition by controlled explosion, I recall sitting by a lakeside with my brother-in-law many years ago. It was the 4th of July weekend and we were having a large family gathering. He was a Marine artillery man during Vietnam. Someone on the other side of the lake was blowing off fireworks and it was a very bad experience for him as even those lesser explosions recalled Vietnam for him and made him quite jumpy and aggitated.

Peace,

Andrew

Originally posted to Andrew C White on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 11:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by Genealogy and Family History Community, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  I have a bundle of French postcards... (12+ / 0-)

    ...sent by my grandfather from France to his sweetheart in 1917/18 (they married after he returned home in 1919). His missives were far more terse than Garfield Cox's, since they had to fit on a postcard. :-)

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 11:54:54 AM PDT

  •  thanks for this bitof history (8+ / 0-)

    i've bookmarked it, so it will be read with interest when there's time

  •  Very very nice. Keep them coming. (7+ / 0-)

    You should consider editing these letters into a book.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 02:21:50 PM PDT

    •  I may (8+ / 0-)

      This past Thanksgiving my brother gave me three boxes of letters, papers, news paper clippings, photo's, etc that one of our cousins had recently sent to him. I've been scanning them into pdf's and reading them. I've also been sending off to various universities and archives for additional information on his life and career. There are some questions that need answering about changes he went through and there is his many years with the American Friends Service Committee that remain in their archives that I haven't had a chance to delve into yet as well as a lot at the University of Chicago were he taught. I have some from the U of C but I know there is plenty more to research.

      Peace,

      Andrew

      "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

      by Andrew C White on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 04:29:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  How wonderful for you (9+ / 0-)

    that the letters were kept.  Your grandfather's descendents will always know where their ancestor was, what he was doing, how he was feeling, when these important milestones in human history were occuring.  That's part of what makes history and genealogy so fascinating to me - it connects us.

    My own grandfather served during WWI, but though he was slated to ship to Europe, he never made it.

    I've heard two different stories about what happened.  My mother told me that Henry (my paternal grandfather, so her father-in-law) told her, just before he was supposed to get on the train to take him out east to the ship, a horse kicked him and gave him a terrible back injury.  However, my cousin says he was told by his mother (Henry's daughter), that he was actually on that train, but fell off and suffered a terrible back injury.

    Hmm.  I guess I won't know for sure until I get his service records.  I should work on getting those.

    In any case, he ended up staying stateside, and became a Sargeant in charge of one of the kitchens.  So he learned to cooked.  My lordy, did he ever learn to cook.  Some of the best food I ever ate (our family lived with him for about 3 years.

    Unfortunately, even though I knew he had already met my grandmother and planned to wed, I don't know of any of their letters that still exists.

    Speaking of ancestors serving in war, I did have one other ancestor I knew of.  He was conscripted into Napoleon's Army.  He went to Russia.  Happily, he made it back.  Boy, would I love to have letters tell me what was going on in his mind.

    A fascinating read.  What you possess are remarkable treasures.  I envy you for that.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK

    by edwardssl on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 02:35:23 PM PDT

    •  That would be truly fascinating (6+ / 0-)

      Have you chased down any cousin lines to see if they have a stash of old family letters, papers, diaries?

      I received a copy from a previously unknown cousin of a partial diary that one of my ancestor wrote of his early days during the civil war. I stopped after awhile and I suspect it was because he couldn't continue writing about the gruesomeness of his experience.

      These letters along with the rest of my grandfathers papers were sent to my brother (who subsequently gave them to me) by a cousin (my mothers sisters daughter) whose mother took care of my grandmother in her final days and inherited a lot of her and grandpa's stuff including these 3 boxes of papers, letters, news clippings, etc.

      In my own line my father inherited the little hand written book of genealogy I think I mentioned to you in a previous thread. Along with it are a few letters that same ancestor wrote to his wife from the Niagara battlefront of the War of 1812. Considerably less dramatic then Napoleon's march on Russia but still an amazing heirloom from near 200 years ago now.

      Peace,

      Andrew

      "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

      by Andrew C White on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 04:37:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  While I was writing my comment to you, (4+ / 0-)

        I was thinking about my cousin.  After my grandfather died, it was his family that went to the house and cleaned it out.

        Most of what they found were old photographs.  Hundreds and hundreds of old photos.  A few other momentos, but mostly photos.

        I reconnected with my cousin when I started with my genealogy and about 7 years ago I went to his place to see what he had.  He himself rescued the photos, because most of them were going to be thrown away.  We spent many hours going through them and he either gave me a copy if there was more than one, or he scanned a copy for me.

        I don't think he had letters though.

        That reminds me - I'm long overdue to send him an email....

        Yes, a letter from 1812.  That's priceless. Reminds me of a little leather book that my boss asked for me to do some research, since he knew I was into genealogy.  His sister found this little book in a used bookstore in the UK.  Inside the book were all these little notes, mostly love notes.  There were several pressed flowers and a feather.  There was the name of the owner on the inside, and when I tracked down who that person was, it turned out to have once been owned by the son of a prominent man from Boston (I don't remember the family now - that information's at work).  Anyway, the book was about 200 years old, and all those items found inside the book were from then.

        I found where that son had gone to France one year, and that's apparently where he had accidently (I assume) left the book.  200 years later, it ends up in a used bookstore in the UK, and gets sent back to the US.  The old home of that prominent family still stands as a museum, and I sent the book to them.

        Quite a journey, but 200 years later, it found its way home.

        "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK

        by edwardssl on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 05:53:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Wow (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          klompendanser, edwardssl

          that is quite the story. That is so cool that you were able to track the family down and send the book to the museum.

          Several of these letters have odd items he sent home with the letters. Train ticket stubs, etc. But one has a dried flower he sent home to his wife, my grandma, still there saved with the letter.

          Peace,

          Andrew

          "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

          by Andrew C White on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:06:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  So cool! Well, I can tell you, (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Andrew C White, klompendanser

            that dried flower will last a looooong time.

            Great momentos!

            "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK

            by edwardssl on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:19:03 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Ok found it. The original owner was (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Andrew C White, klompendanser

            Elizabeth Gray Otis, 1791 - 1824.  I believe it was her family home that's the museum now.  She married George Williams Lyman, and had a son George Theodore Lyman in 1821, who was 3 then when his mother died.  At some point, George took over ownership (poems, I believe), and started writing love notes in the margins of the book, naming the woman who later became his wife, Sally Otis (they were 2nd cousins).  He started collecting those momentos in the book while they were courting.

            George must have been heartbroken when he lost the book.

            "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK

            by edwardssl on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:35:46 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  How wonderful to have these (7+ / 0-)

    I do not have one letter either of my grandfathers wrote, nor have I ever seen one. One of my grandmothers was a school teacher and she loved writing to me when I went away to college and afterwards. I saved every one of them. I never read one again after the day I received it. Since she's been gone for almost twenty years, I believe it's past time for me to put them in order and start reading..........

    •  I recommend getting a scanner (6+ / 0-)

      if you don't have one and scanning the letters into pdf's along with the envelopes (keep track of dates, where she was, any odd notations on the envelopes themselves, etc). That's what I've been doing since Thanksgiving when I came into possession of my grandfathers papers and letters. That way you can share them with other family and ensure that your descendants have access to them without having to handle, deteriorate and destroy the actual letters.

      Peace,

      Andrew

      "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

      by Andrew C White on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 04:24:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hey, you're in the Community Highlights (5+ / 0-)

    now.

    Congrats!

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK

    by edwardssl on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 05:36:05 PM PDT

  •  Andrew, we should all strive to be worthy of (6+ / 0-)

    the words, sacrifice and deeds of "liberal" Quakers (imho).  Thank you so much for sharing your personal history.

  •  World War One museum in Kansas City (3+ / 0-)

    One of the newest attractions in Kansas City is the World War One Museum.  It is superb.  

    It truly is about the entire war and not just the US involvement.

    If there is no one in your family to leave these documents to, I would recommend donating them to this museum.

    In the meantime, it would be an excellent reason to visit Kansas City.  

    Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

    by MoDem on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:21:07 PM PDT

    •  cool...good to know (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      edwardssl, Andrew C White

      Just checked out the website, looks like a fabulous facility. Kansas City is a doable weeked trip for me in Minnesota...at least it will be after the blizzards stop!

      You go to war with the TROLLS you have, not the TROLLS you might want or wish to have at a later time.

      by klompendanser on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 09:04:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I recommend it (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Andrew C White, edwardssl

        I haven't figured out whether to go to Net Roots nation, I figure it will be about eight hours in the car.

        If you come to KC, I have recommendations for barbeque.

        Also, save time to visit the Nelson-Atkins Art Institute.  For a metropolitan area the size of KC, it is a remarkable collection.

        Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

        by MoDem on Mon Mar 14, 2011 at 11:25:33 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Do more !! (3+ / 0-)

    Financial capitalism's criminals + Angry White Males + KKK wannabes + Personality Disorder delusionals + George Will =EQ= The GOPer Base

    by vets74 on Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 06:36:01 PM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site