We won’t come back till it’s over ‘Over There’

By Joy Burgess-Carrico | Published Saturday, November 10, 2018
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I love putting together the Veterans Day section every year. I start thinking about it months ahead of time. Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, it seemed obvious to concentrate on WWI for this year’s edition.

Joy Burgess-Carrico

The Messenger published many letters from soldiers “Over There.” I thought it would be a good idea to provide quotes from these letters in the Veterans Day section, so I started reading them.

I discovered pretty quickly that letters home were not good sources for what these men actually went through. Some would talk about the actual battles, but if it was there at all, it was sandwiched between other information that was normal and upbeat.

Here are examples of statements I read over and over:

  • “I am fine and fat as a pig.” That was apparently a positive back then. Lots of people declare it in their letters home, especially to their mothers.
  • “We are all well with the exception of a few injured in baseball.” Sports games between soldiers were often reported on, injuries and scores included. For example, the 36th Division whipped the 80th Division 20 to nothing on Jan. 1, 1919, which put the 36th in line for the A.E.F. Championship. I have no idea if they won it.
  • “There is no use for anyone to worry about their boys not being cared for over here for they sure will be taken care of.”
  • “We had a nice trip coming over.” This was usually followed by a comment about fighting off U-Boats and/or seasickness, but these things did not stop the trip over from being nice.
  • “I never have gotten homesick, because I haven’t had time to worry about that.” I found the declarations that they weren’t homesick doubtful, especially when they then asked people to write to them.
  • “I will tell you something about the country over here in France.” Descriptions of the landscape took up much of the letter-writing space, sometimes there was some mention of the devastation, sometimes it was just a description of how the French farmed.
  • “Lots of the people wear wooden shoes.” The strangeness of the place was often commented on.
  • “The greatest objection a person can have to this country is the rain.” Weather figured heavily in letters home, and the weather was almost never good.
  • “The Germans sure did shell the roads.”
  • “I have a nice, big feather bed to sleep on.”
  • “If I were to write you all now I wouldn’t have anything to tell you when I get home.” This was a frequently used excuse to avoid details.
  • “I see my letter is growing too long…” Long letters were not a good thing, apparently.
  • “I would like to hear from any of my friends who will write.”
  • “Write me and tell me all the news.”
  • “Hoping you are well and with my love to all, I am, as ever, Your boy and brother.”

Most of all, soldiers writing home didn’t want the homefolks to worry. This colored almost every letter I read.

Even when they had to report an injury, even a bad one, they were very careful to make it sound like all would be well.

One unusually honest letter reads: “Dear Mother: I can’t start this letter as I usually do by saying I am well, for I am not. I am in the hospital. I got gassed on the front…but think I will be all OK in a few weeks. I…am being treated fine….I was gassed pretty badly….My lungs and whole insides pain me, and my back is stiff and sore, but don’t worry about me, as I am getting good treatment.”

Next, soldiers wanted to hear from home. After reading dozens of letters I had a deeper sense of how profoundly homesick these boys were. Home, they seemed to learn, was precious. News from home was comfort. And they definitely noticed when someone wasn’t writing.

They didn’t want to write about their battle experiences. Even those who were gung-ho about being in battle weren’t very detailed about the actual fighting. They would provide exhaustive descriptions, including dates and places, of their transport experiences to the front lines, then follow that with something like “we had four days of hard fighting,” followed by more details about their transport elsewhere.

They tended to stick to subjects that were more “normal.” As already mentioned, they loved to talk about sports. They talk about the land – how pretty it was, how devastated by war it was. They talked about the locals, how they were entertained, the shows they saw – anything that seemed normal.

I think this was as much for themselves as for the people back in Wise County. As one soldier said, “I was very glad to see the game yesterday, for I am sure it was the best I have ever seen; then, it kept me from being restless…for we are still talking [of] it today.”

There was a strong sense of separation between the soldiers and the homefolks in the letters. More than just the physical distance between them was a growing difference in their attitude toward the war, especially talking about it.

The soldiers used language like, “you have no idea…” “you cannot imagine…”

People back home obviously asked them to tell stories about the war, because many letters made reference to such a request. The soldiers almost always begged off saying much. When they did, they talked about the suffering of others or they kept it very vague, or both.

It was rare to come across a soldier’s letter that told of his experience or how the war was affecting him.

The more I read their responses to these requests, the more I understood just how strange it would seem to a soldier who has been in combat to be asked to talk about his combat experiences as if they were fascinating stories. The people back home had not experienced what the soldiers experienced, and did not understand the depths they were asking these men to go into to satisfy their curiosity.

The soldiers usually promised to tell the tales when they got home. I wonder if they kept that promise.

The letters themselves changed as the war went on. Early on, letters were full of patriotism and talk of whipping the Germans. But in the last months, this was not present. They didn’t openly question their purpose or their dedication to Old Glory, as they often called it, but ideals and national pride weren’t often mentioned.

If they talked about the U.S., they would usually convey a sense of how good life was at home and how they never appreciated it.

By the end, they had mostly had their fill and wanted to return to Wonderful Wise.

Joy Burgess-Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. Look for more excerpts from WWI letters in the Veterans Day section.

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