This is the tenth in a series of excerpts from letters that my grandfather, Garfield V. Cox, wrote home from France during his service with the American Friends Service Committee during and immediately following the end of World War I. For the first half of his time in France he was stationed in Ornans near the Swiss border. The first diary in this series is from the first letter he wrote after transferring to Aubreville near Verdun in the war zone. The second describes a hike he took along the battle lines in the Argonne Forest and the third is from a letter to his mother and father in which he recounts that same hike but also describes some of his work and the conditions he and his crew were working under. The fourth described his climb up Mt. D'or in which he gained a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. The fifth discusses the travails of German POW's at the hands of the French. The sixth included discussions he had with a Quaker leader on the possibility of revolution in America and the beginning of a Mission planning conference he was attending. The seventh continued discussion of the conference and the problem of employing German POW labor. The eighth returns mostly to the subject of the work they are doing along with German opinions of a few capitalists being the cause of the war. The ninth combined 3 letters discussing a bicycle trip to Sedan and Belgium that also briefly discussed the on-going Paris Peace Conference.
This post shall combine parts of two letters, one to his wife ranging April 28 to May 1, 1919 and another dated May 2 to his parents, that mostly cover the same subjects. These letters are packed so I’m going to make two or three posts out of them.
April 28, 1919 (Aubreville)
Dear little wife:
You mustn’t be hurt when you see the enclosed money order which I am returning. The birthday letter and the will behind the $20.00 present make me very happy. I am not returning it because I don’t want the money. I shall probably need it badly as you will have learned through my request for a $20.00 and a $10.00 personal check, which I hope are on the way to me now.
Turns out the money order was made out to what she thought was the specific post office in France but was in fact an address for the Friends Mission which then routed mail from there. In other words it was uncashable. He also complains that the Post Office in Wisconsin gave her a poor exchange rate for francs. In other letters, I’m not sure if before or after this one, he talks distressingly about the failing economy in France and the falling value of money. He had requested the checks so that he could cash as needed at more favorable exchange rates.
He goes on with a series of replies to items in her birthday letter to him that have little or no meaning without the other letter. He then advises her on how to reclaim her money. There are various places in these letters in which he praises her for her proper handling of money matters and others in which he instructs her. It is also clear, as I interpret his opening statement being a reflection of, that she seeks his instruction and approval on all such affairs. It all speaks so strongly of a different time when women did not deal with financial affairs. Not to mention his addressing her as “little woman” and “little wife.”
The next few paragraphs discuss the poor weather, the work going slowly as a result and other odds and ends. I’ll take the more succinct opening paragraph to his parents to describe the weather.
2nd of May 1919
Dear father & mother:
It is 5 P.M. of a rainy Friday. In fact heavy rain has fallen constantly every day this week except for intermissions of an hour or so. It is cold, too. Near two o’clock in the mornings the rains stops & the water freezes in the pools & shell holes. Yesterday morning (May 1st!) one had to break ice to get drinking water. There is little more sign of spring then the day I arrived here almost two months ago. But this is not quite typical of France; returning refugees tell us that they have never seen so late, so cold, or so rainy a spring.
Sounds much like this years weather here. Saturday, April 23rd there was ice and snow on my car when I woke up. The temperature has finally started to warm but it is accompanied by heavy rain and thunderstorms every day. The Hudson is well above flood stage. The ground everywhere is thoroughly saturated. This weekend I’ll need to go out and mow my lawn for the first time but the yard is more swamp than lawn.
In the meantime, several of Grandpa’s friends from Ornans have finally arrived, including Holmgren, and he has been able to get them assigned to his equipe in Aubreville. While Grandpa hasn’t said anything about it yet it appears that he has taken on a defacto leadership role as there are mentions of “his men” scattered amongst his talk of trying to secure more workers.
For instance, from the letter to Grandma:
I’m tired & sleepy for I worked all day in a cold rain which turned to snow late this afternoon. Holmgren, Stoltzfus, and I worked alone together. Gifford, one of my best men, quit at noon; he is leaving for his home in California tomorrow.
Back to the letter to his parents…
Last Monday we learned that the eighty Americans in charge of the 450 German prisoners here were to depart the next morning to a place in Central France. So Raymond Jenkins & I who knew a Lafayette boy in the company went down to pay a farewell call. We spent the evening inside the stockade (the soldiers call it the “bullpen”), and got to see something of the barrack life of the prisoners. The fellows gave us some tables and cupboards and a few cooking utensils, and, best of all, a big water wagon. No, even better than that, perhaps, they gave us the key to their recently constructed shower-bath house. So from now on we can heat water in quantity and take baths remindful of college days!
And about this same to Grandma…
At the German prison camp Monday evening I was impressed principally by two things: (1) the cheapness of the talk of the Am. soldiers, & (2) the really cordial feeling that existed between them & the prisoners but which they usually pretended to hide beneath a gruff exterior. The soldier we knew is a Lafayette boy ; while we were there he received three letters from his sweetheart, all of which were written before the armistice was signed, and one letter from her written April 5th! He took us through the prison barracks; I was surprised to see how well cared for the prisoners were.
Hopefully that is April 5 1919 and this was just a case of this poor fellows other mail being lost for a time. The armistice was signed in November, 1918 and this is April 28, 1919!
It is interesting to note this about the treatment of German prisoners. Not only for our horrendous failing at humanitarian behavior today but that I’ve always heard that towards the end of World War II it was common wisdom amongst German soldiers to try and surrender to the Americans. I always thought this was in preference to the Russians but given this and the earlier description of the treatment by the French I suspect it was a general rule.
No idea what he means by the “cheapness” of the soldiers talk. At a guess he means shallowness. There are other places in the early letters where it is clear he has high expectations of the great intellectual and spiritual exchanges he is going to have with other American and, in particular, British Friends during his time in France and is then gravely disappointed with the quality of thought and spirituality of his compatriots. A little bit of intellectual arrogance (she was graduated cum laude and he summa cum laude from Beloit in 1917) shows through in some of this. For instance, from earlier in this letter:
Wednesday night April 30th
It is almost 10 P.M. & I’m in an ugly mood. Tatum, who started the mid-week C.E. has been growing increasingly “windy” of late. I wouldn’t have gone tonight except that George Riley had consented reluctantly to take the subject, Christianity & labor. He was through, tho, in 20 minutes, and Tatum with one or two others have been going ever since & are still going. I got up noisily & stalked across the room to another light to write to you.
It was after this that he wrote about being tired from working in the cold rain all day so perhaps he was just worn out but there are other passages where it shows more clearly. “C.E.” is, I assume, Christian Endeavor which came up in earlier letters. He was very disdainful of it when it was first mentioned but later without explanation spoke of participating. I find it interesting that the topic that grabbed his interest was Christianity & labor.
And then, after (in the last letter) throwing away the German helmet he had found following all his internal struggles over bringing home such a souvenir for his nephew Leonard…
One of the soldiers gave me a German helmet just before he left, and also a French one – he didn’t want to carry them away. After all were gone I found a shell that had been made into a very pretty vase; it will make a pretty souvenir & I’m bringing it home to you to put on your study table or some appropriate place. We don’t want any guns, bayonets, or helmets do we? I tho’t I’d give the French helmet to some unit man who arrives on the field too late to pick one up for himself, but I guess I’ll bring the German helmet to Leonard. If the French peasants are wise they’ll pick up the helmets & keep them against the day of the invasion of the French battlefields by well-to-do American tourists!
So Leonard gets his helmet after all. Seems it was destined to be. I can imagine Grandma reading this though and thinking he’s out of his mind bringing her a shell casing for a vase! I’m guessing she found “some appropriate place” for it and I doubt it was her study table.
As for being too late to pick up war souvenirs of their own… in a separate post from these two letters we’ll read about Verdun and I’ll include links that show that today you can still, quite dangerously, come across “war souvenirs” on these fields.
Very interestingly later in the letter to Grandma there is this:
At the prison camp yesterday morning we found copies of two letters which Germans had written to send home to their people & in which they lied about their condition. They complained of daily hunger & wretched living quarters & begged for boxes to be sent from home! I suppose they said this to gain sympathy & to get some delicacies from home; I know first hand that their complaint was unjust.
Humorously, though probably not for him at the time, I’ll close this post with this little story:
Saturday evening I foolishly put on boxing gloves & tried six rounds with George Riley for the amusement of the equipe. Neither of us knew much of boxing, but it seems I knew more than he. He hit “below the belt” the first thing. The boys “bawled” him out for it but the mischief was done. I went ahead then & didn’t feel it keenly, but the next morning I discovered I had torn a muscle in my abdomen. It is sore & bothers me a lot in my work. He bloodied my nose & I cut his lip open & on the whole I think it was a genuine Quakerly success! The nose was O.K. by Monday, however, yet I got more sympathy about that than the stomach punch.
There aren’t many places but there are a few where the letters to mother and father differ in interesting ways from the letters to wife. This particular story does not make it into the letter to mother and father. In their letter there is this…
I myself am not working this afternoon. I fell from a ladder just before noon & struck a stone pile, shaking me up so that I tho’t best to rest till tomorrow. The unit doctor came an hour ago and reinforced a torn muscle in my abdomen with adhesive tape, and said I’d be able to direct building work tomorrow, but not to lift before Monday.
One would assume from this that the torn muscle came from the fall and not the foolish boxing. I can only assume that mother and father would disapprove in a manner a wife wouldn’t be able to achieve.
More from this very interesting pair of letters tomorrow.