From Somewhere in France: Letters from Alumni in World War I

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This illustration from the 1919 Agromeck commemorates the NC State men serving in the War (with blue stars) and those who perished in the War (gold stars).

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of U.S. participation in World War I, Special Collections News continues its examination of the impact that the war had on NC State students, faculty, and campus.  This post will look at letters sent from soldiers abroad published in NC State’s Alumni News.  Visit our previous post on NC State during World War I, as well as the posts by our colleagues at the NC State News blog, including one on alumnus Jimmy Higgs.

In 1918, the NC State (then “State College”) Alumni News began publishing updates on alumni and students engaged in the war effort abroad, including lists of who was in training and who was deployed.  A frequent section listed the State alumni stationed “Somewhere in France” – “somewhere” because exact locations were redacted for security reasons.  Frequently the Alumni News featured excerpts of letters sent home to family members, providing first hand accounts of life for these young men as they fought in a land with a different language and culture, that had already been at war for four years before the Americans arrived.  A sampling of these letters is below.

“The first thing that I noticed was the greenness of the landscape.  This struck me even before I landed.  Next are the peculiar chain-like docks or quays; then the buildings are all made of stone and modeled after some olden pattern (..) As to conditions in France they are not as bad as painted in American newspapers, except perhaps near the trenches where the enemy have overrun the French territory.  All through central and southern France hundreds of German prisoners work for their daily bread as though they were laboring men working for their daily hire. (..) When we get a chance at the ‘boches’ [Germans] the training we are getting should tell mightily.  Therefore since it is all for the cause, I can bear it, the drudgery, without grumbling.” – Alumni News Vol. 1, No. 4 February 1918

-Joshua Barnes Farmer, Jr. Class of 1919. Farmer was killed in action in France near Soissons on July 18, 1918.

“The American soldiers over here are in this world’s strife to win with this glad thought in mind; the Stars and Stripes have never known defeat and must not know it now.  We must and are going to win, if it takes the last man and the last dollar to do it.  If the American people could see the conditions, the expressions on the faces of these wonderful French people and know what they have suffered at the hands of the world’s enemy, they would not take our part in the war so hard.  Some of us will see it through and return to our loved ones, and some of us are to stay here and represent America’s part in the world’s war.  We are all contented and willing to sacrifice our all for this great cause.  When I get at the front I shall do my best and no one can do more and at present I would not return to the States if I could.  The part that the American women have undertaken is as important as the front line trenches and their sacrifices as sacred and as hard as those of their loved ones over here.” – Alumni News, Vol 1, No. 9, page 8.  July 1, 1918

-Edgar Exum Cobb, Class of 1919

“I’ve been through the tortures of hell in the last week.  I’ve been in a boche attack, and I’ve seen so much blood and dead men that I’m upset, but I came out of it all without a scratch, just by the grace of God.  I think He must have heard your prayers and answered them.  The boche bombarded our trenches for four hours and then used liquid fire.  I’m out for the first time for a while.  I haven’t washed for four days nor have I slept any, so I am all nerves just at present.

I think I must have held the family name up; I don’t know just what I did, but my captain has recommended me for a croix de guerre and I am to be decorated by the French officials in the next few days.  It’s all a mystery to me.  I’m rather mixed up on it yet, but hope to find out more later.” -Alumni News, Vol.1, No. 10, page 3.  August 1, 1918

-Pierre Mallet, Class of 1915.  Awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery.

“But did I hear you say heavenly wine – whoo! – goodnight! – If I were to tell you how they made wine here, you would be sick for a month.  Over here the people do not know what water is, for all drink wine – red, white, and all grades of it.  It is essentially a nation of wine. Sometimes I just wonder how they live.  It is interesting to know how it is made.  You know we have community creameries in the States.  Over here they have ‘community wineries.’ (..)

Something of the life we live here, did you say?  Well, frankly, it is mostly work.  We are building, preparing for the incoming boys.  But when duty is over we have much time for pleasure.  And here let me say that too much praise cannot be given to the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. for the valuable aid given to us. (..) I see hundreds of boys having good movies, good music, good wholesome fun of all grades.  Hundreds of boys are entertained there who might otherwise be be in other things.  In short, the Y.M.C.A. and kindred organizations are placing themselves between the boys and temptation.” – Alumni News, Vol. 1, No. 7

-Reuben L. Tatum, Class of 1916

“There are three things the English, French, and Belgians have us beat on, and that is farming, good horses and good cattle; and we could have these if we bred live-stock and farmed like they do.  America is the coming country, because there are such great opportunities for improvement.” - Alumni News, Vol. 1, No. 12, October 1, 1918

-Drew Sugg Harper, Class of 1915.  Suggs was a member of the army veterinary corps.

“Things are exceedingly quiet tonight – few heavy guns and rats to break the silence.  Trench life is great – that is, if one doesn’t weaken.  Very seldom, though, you see a State College man weaken, if any.

It’s very cold here now, but my dugout is very comfortable; plenty to eat, smoke, and drink.  Trench life isn’t so bad after all.” – Alumni News, Vol. 2, No. 1, page 1.  November 1, 1918

-Roney M. High, Class of ‘14

“My dugout at present is only of thin boards and should a shell happen to land here I would not be able to finish my story.  To make a dugout shell-proof, you have to dig thirty feet.  From the way the Boche are treating us tonight I have made up my mind to dig a real dugout.  At present it is 11 o’clock and the shells have been popping around us for an hour, and seem to increase.  The little fellows – that is, the one pounders – can do a great deal of damage, but when the ‘Mimmy Whiffers’ (our pet name for them) get near, we hunt the deepest place we can find.  They strike the ground, bore about ten or fifteen feet, then blow up the whole hill.”

“The cooties are here all right and can bite like blazes.  The other pets are rats, and they are all kinds and sizes.  Most of them, though, are as large as our cats.  They will run over you, nibble your fingers, and make a regular playhouse out of your bunk.  Guess it is a good thing I stay up at nights and manage to get a few hours sleep in the daytime.” – Alumni News, Vol. 1, No. 11, September 1, 1918

-Frank M. Thompson, Class of 1910. Thompson was killed in battle September 13, just 12 days after this letter was published.

A tribute to Frank Thompson appears in the October 1, 1918 Alumni News. It includes the photo below with the caption “He who dies Somewhere-in-France lives Everywhere.”

Frank Thompson, circa 1917

Many Alumni News have recently been digitized and are available on our Rare and Unique Digital Collections site, as well as video, audio, and textual materials documenting the history of NC State and other topics.