HISTORY: 1918 — Letters from the frontlines

When World War I broke out on July 28, 1914, it was called the Great War. Later it was called the “war to end all wars.” More than 70 million military personnel were mobilized in the global conflict.

By the time the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, more than 9 million combatants had died and more than 6 million civilians had been killed.

The United States entered the deadly conflict after declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Through 1918, the Blue Mountain Eagle ran letters from local soldiers on the front page each week — some from training camp or troop ships, and some from the front line.

On Jan. 11, a letter from Alexander Harper, Dayville, writing from “somewhere in France,” ran in the paper. Censors read every letter and deleted sensitive information.

“We saw some towns that were pretty badly smashed up by the Germans,” Harper wrote. “It seemed that the country all around us was a mess of guns, pits, trenches, dugouts and barbed wire entanglements. It looks impossible for men to go through the wire as it is everywhere and awful masses of it.”

Harper served in an artillery battery.

“It was a wonderful sight to see the guns blazing away, and the sky seemed to be on fire,” he wrote. “A fellow feels a little shaky at first, but we soon got used to it... We got off pretty lucky until the last day they shelled our battery and killed two and wounded five... We sure swore revenge on the Germans that night and nothing would have pleased us more than to have been turned loose on them, but we get another chance at them.”

Harper ended the letter with a note about living conditions.

“We are in winter quarters now,” he wrote. “It snowed an inch here last night, and it is cold.”

A letter from John Low, Canyon City, in the Feb. 1 paper described his voyage to Europe.

“There is one good thing about sea sickness: It just lasts while the storm lasts, and when the sea is rough a sailor feels like the devil, and when the sea gets calm the sailor feels fine again,” he wrote. “But I have seen the time when I thought the storm lasted a mighty long time. A fellow thinks he is going to die, but he won’t.”

Low arrived in Europe just in time for winter.

“It has been very cold here for the last two or three weeks,” he wrote. “Colder than it has been for several years.”

A letter from Harry Watkins, Canyon City, in the Feb. 8 paper came from a hospital. He was the first soldier from Oregon to be injured in the war. His leg and arm were shattered when an artillery shell hit his trench, but he was upbeat about the situation.

“In spite of the Hun’s trick, I am feeling first rate and expect to be out in a few days,” he wrote.

He was being optimistic — Watkins was still in the hospital months later.

A letter from Alice J. Knight, Canyon City, appeared Feb. 15. She was working for the YMCA in France setting up canteens where soldiers could buy tobacco, soap, dental cream, toothbrushes, razors, towels, crackers, cookies and jam. Some workers met troops in the trenches.

“Our young men are coming here in numbers that will bye and bye amount into the millions,” she wrote. “They are young, untried and thrust at once into a foreign land where they are among people who speak another language and have other customs than ours.”

She was concerned about lasting effects on the soldiers.

“Temptations are about them on every side, and away from the restraints of home, homesick as they often are, they need help to keep them straight, and send them back when this awful war is over the kind of men you want them to be,” she wrote.

H.G. VanBibber, Monument, described the countryside in a letter that appeared Feb. 22.

“We are in a farming country which is very old,” he wrote. “Instead of fences, everything is enclosed with hedges and stone fences.”

The wine industry was something different, VanBibber noted.

“There are a good many vineyards here, wine is very cheap and very plentiful, and everyone drinks it like it were water,” he wrote. “You can see children going after the wine.”

VanBibber had a few requests.

“I wish that you would have the Eagle sent to me for three months. Also send me a cake of Lava soap,” he wrote. “I will write as much as the censor will pass.”

A letter that ran March 29 from James B. McGirr, Mt. Vernon, came from a hospital where he had the mumps.

“I have seen lots of country but haven’t seen anything that looks as good as the old John Day valley, and when we get through here I am coming back to the old place and there to stay,” he wrote.

McGirr wasn’t impressed by what he’d seen.

“France is a hundred years behind the times compared with the good old U.S.A.,” he wrote. “The railroads are something similar to the Sumpter Valley, and the street cars look like a soap box on four wheels, the people hang on all sides.”

A letter Harper wrote to May Valade ran April 12.

“We sure will have some time when we get back, but I am afraid that you will have some job in teaching me to dance again as I am getting so stiff in the joints,” he wrote.

Harper said his unit had been moved.

“We are back up to the front again, and I guess that we will stay at the front this time, and I don’t mind it at all now since I am used to it,” he wrote.

Weather conditions had deteriorated, however.

“We were having lovely weather here until the other day, and it has been raining for the last day or two. It is trying to snow tonight,” he wrote. “It is frightfully muddy here now, and it makes it very bad on us as our dugouts are full of water and it is some job bailing them out.”

A letter from Frank Baier, Canyon City, appeared May 3.

“France isn’t the country I thought it was,” he wrote. “It rains here two thirds of the time, and the aeroplanes are as thick and as common as birds. We can hear it thunder all the time. You know what kind of thunder I mean.”

Baier also had a request.

“Can you send me a pair of overalls,” he wrote. “I can get the suspenders here but not the overalls.”

Another letter from Harper ran May 17.

“We had a gas attack, at least we got the alarm, and you should have seen the boys scramble for their masks,” he wrote. “They are awful things to wear, but we have to do it.”

He described his work in the artillery.

“We are supposed to fire three a minute, and it sure makes us jump to do it,” he wrote.

He noted that the Germans were shelling a small town about a mile away.

“They have sure got that one torn to pieces,” he wrote. “We sent them over a bunch of gas not very long ago for a change. I’ll bet they didn’t relish the change.”

A letter from E.H. Brent, John Day, ran Aug. 2. An engineer serving in France, Brent said he wished he could be at the Blue Mountain Springs for a week or two, but he was dedicated to the war effort.

“Our only thought and aim is to win at any cost,” he wrote. “At present, there are 1 million or more Americans in France with the same thought... Of course, you know I would like to see my loved ones and friends, but until the day when the Kaiser squeals ‘enough,’ I will continue with all my might, men and machines to drive a wedge into any chance that Hun might have.”

A letter from Whitman Finlayson, Canyon City, ran Aug. 30. He was serving on a sidewheeler off the Atlantic coast when it was attacked.

“I know now what it is to be submarined,” he wrote.

Finlayson was asleep when the torpedo hit and awoke to smoke. He managed to make it onto a lifeboat.

“We pulled away about a hundred yards when the ship blew up,” he wrote. “It blew up all the upper decks.”

The Eagle continued to run letters through September and October, but there were signs the Germans were ready to surrender. “Peace is at hand,” a headline announced Nov. 8, three days before the armistice was signed.

The war was over. It was a complete surrender, and the Allies’ terms were met, the Eagle reported.

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