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.
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.