James F. Burns: Letters from World War I
Published 10:15 pm Friday, November 9, 2018
I’ve waited 40 years to write this article. For it was in 1978, when I first came across my Uncle Carroll Hosbrook’s World War I letters, including one written from France on Nov. 11, 1918, now a full century ago. History will honor these American Doughboys, the many thousands who joined Gen. John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force, most having little idea of the trench warfare, mustard gas, and ghastly carnage that awaited them overseas.
Uncle Sam was calling them — farm boys from Georgia and Illinois, mechanics from Michigan and Maryland, carpenters from California and Connecticut, teachers from Tennessee and Texas — to leave the safety and security of their homes and go to war. For Uncle Carroll, going to war was a gradual experience that started with a spirited patriotism and ended with the reality of war, death, and sacrifice. For that reason, this article will share only two of Uncle Carroll’s letters, the first and the last, for they will define this contrast of the beginning and the end.
Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio — May 6, 1918
I got your letter, which was the first letter I got since I was up here, and I was very glad to get it. Well, I went out on the range and fired the machine gun for the first time this morning, and it made my ears ring as if someone hit me. This afternoon I got my second inoculation and another vaccination. Then I got my rifle, cartridge belt, and pack. This inoculation was bigger but it has not made me sick (yet). Maybe that will come later. I’ll get seven more before I get in the war.
You said sister Harriet had the headache. That is nothing new. Let her come up here and take some of the stuff I got to take, and it would cure her headaches. I got an awful bad cold now. I haven’t any girl up here, so get a real pretty one down there to write to me. Don’t worry about me, I will take care of myself. That shot in the back is starting to work on my knees. They feel like they are going to fall off.
Carroll Hosbrook, 324th Machine Gun Battalion
Carroll’s mind was still on the home he had just left, sister Harriet’s headache, and getting girls — pretty girls, mind you — to write to him. But the equipment he was issued, his ears ringing from gunfire, and that inoculation spreading through his body were signs and symptoms of what lay ahead.
Carroll had never been away from home and his light-hearted sense of adventure was still intact as he crossed the Atlantic (“a wonderful trip”), spending time in England before crossing over to France where the war was raging. Initially, he was still enthralled by what he saw — “churches and other buildings 300 years old, but I am not over here to study history.”
But by September Carroll had seen action and was in a British field hospital, the somber reality of war wrapping itself around him as he mused over inscriptions on the belt buckles taken from dead German soldiers that said “Gott Mitt Uns,” meaning “God is with us.” He didn’t think so, soon knowing that “Austria has given in to President Wilson’s peace terms” and that German soldiers “were whipped, fed up with war, but too stubborn to give up.”
But then came November 11th, a Monday that found Pvt. Carroll Hosbrook sitting on the steps of a bombed-out church, once again writing a letter home to his grandmother.
Somewhere over here — Nov. 11, 1918
This has been some day in this town. We got news this morning that the Huns had given up at 5 a.m. There is a big church here which is partly destroyed, but it has a bell still intact, and it has been ringing since noon. It is now after 6, and it is still ringing. I guess it will ring all night if the Yanks can get relief enough. I guess you had a little celebration when you got the news.
The Yanks sure gave the Huns a good hot chase. I guess they will think twice before they start out to take the world again. I would like to tell a lot more, but it might be censored. Just wait and I’ll be walking in your door some nice clear day and can tell you what I have seen of this great war. I never thought that one’s part would be such a small part in this war. But I found out it is true when you say you are going to do your bit — it is a little bit. We are going to move out in two or three days, going closer to the coast and maybe to England. The English want to see us because we have been fighting with their boys, and you will read something very great about us in history. We are wanted to take part in a big parade in England. I remain as ever,
Pvt. Carroll Hosbrook
Carroll’s letter was written in the French village of Corbie, just a few miles from where the Armistice was signed in a railroad car in Compiégne. After “the war to end all wars,” Carroll never cared much for marching, machine guns, or doctor’s needles. He returned home, married, but had no children, passing away in 1953, leaving four nephews and nieces, including me, as his closest surviving relatives.
Carroll Hosbrook was a very ordinary American who fought for his country, the one that you and I have inherited and must come together to keep. On this 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice, may we never forget these soldiers and their sacrifices. Each did “their bit.” God bless America.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.