Joe thought Frank was nuts.
“You do not realize what you are saying when you announce a desire to be with us,” wrote Joe, a first sergeant with Company C, 14th Engineers, in the fall of 1917. “Consider yourself fortunate that you are in Vermont instead of France. The sound of heavy gunfire is continuous, and, believe me, when you hear the first shell screech overhead you commence to realize that war is a rough game. We are all looking forward to the time when our work will have been completed and we start back to the good old U.S.A., but we will stick until the curtain drops.”
The letter home is one of two from doughboys of the 14th Engineers I found on a research website. It was printed in the Riggie brothers’ hometown newspaper, the Essex County Herald of Guildhall, Vermont, on December 14, 1917.
I latched onto the letters because my great-uncle George F. Cunningham served in that U.S. Army regiment during the First World War, helping to build, run and maintain narrow-gauge railroads. George, a private first class from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was the subject of my last blog. He joined Company B as a replacement in March 1918 amid a massive German offensive and served in France until the next year, months after the armistice. He didn’t leave behind any record of his experience that I know of, so I wanted to see if others in his regiment were more open about what they saw, heard and felt.
Back in the old days, letters from hometown boys fighting overseas appeared in the local press. That’s what I was mining Newspapers.com for, and I got lucky with Joe Riggie’s account and one from a soldier who was in my great-uncle’s company. They give a glimpse of the men and the times.
Riggie’s letter, dated November 13, 1917, was headlined Over There: An Interesting Account of What the Railway Engineers are Doing “Somewhere in France”. The 14th Engineers had come to the war just three months earlier and were assigned to Britain’s 6th Army Corps. Joe opened by thanking Frank and his wife, Iva, for a gift they’d sent him.
“Your package containing cigars, etc., reached me October 30th, and this is the first opportunity I have had to write and thank you. You have no idea what a treat those smokes were, and such good ones. … American smokes of every kind are not obtainable here, and the issue of English tobacco is punk, mostly mixtures, and resembles and tastes like curled hair.
“Our only pastime is smoking and reading, as we are located in a very desolate and barren section of France. Of course, there is plenty going on in a military way, action galore, but absolutely nothing for recreation. Lights are not allowed at night any more than necessary, as they expose us to danger from enemy aeroplanes, but we have candles that we can use until 9:30 p.m. Am quartered in a low hut (shaped like a half barrel cut lengthwise) and have been very busy with the carpenter’s tools manufacturing my office furniture. Just getting settled now and it is somewhat better than doing business in a tent, especially when the weather is such as it has been here during the past six weeks. Rains nearly every day and the mud is terrible.
“The people at home little realize what a tremendous operation this war means, and those who imagine that there is pleasure with any of the active organizations in this country should join the colors immediately. I am perfectly contented, however, and in the very best of health. …
“Not very cold here as yet, but foggy and damp. We are operating narrow-gauge lines at present, and you should see our boys handle the dinky outfits. Perhaps you imagine that the trains consist of the locomotive, cars and caboose of the ordinary makeup at home – no such trains here. To be sure, there is the engine, but no caboose or coach for the crew, and the cars are like large dry-goods boxes, no cover or running board. The shells, if large enough, are loaded like pulpwood, as well as all other kinds of explosives. …
“While we do not consider ourselves in any particular danger, it would amaze you people at home if you only knew how little a life is worth in the war zone. We have been exceedingly fortunate, though, and none of the boys in my company have cashed in. …
“We move so often that it is hard to find time to write a decent letter, [but we] have not moved for over six weeks, except from tent to tent and hut to hut. About time to set us in motion again. …
“No one knows when we will return, but [we] do not expect to be here less than two years. Write often as you can and give me all the news because letters are appreciated more than money. By the way, we are paid in French money every month at the rate of 5 francs 10 centimes … . It takes 100 centimes to make a franc, and 10 centimes is about the same as two cents in American money. Very easy money to get accustomed to, and I like it much better than English money.”
The other letter is from James R. Kendrick, a sergeant in Company B, who wrote to The Tennessean less than a month after the war’s end. It ran in the Nashville newspaper on December 8, 1918, under the headline Nashville Soldier Wants to Get Home. Apparently there was a girl waiting for him there.
“I landed in January of this year,” Kendrick wrote. “After arriving over here, I was placed in the 14th Engineers, a railway operating regiment … which was in the first bunch of Americans to land in France. We were lucky enough to be in the big drive at Cambrai March 21, as we were with the British at that time, and believe me, we had plenty of experience of real war, and we were again lucky to be the first troops to pull in to Chateau-Thierry after Fritz was driven out and followed the boys right up to Fere-en-Tardenois. …
“I hope to see dear old Nashville next year some time. Would like to see old Broadway this afternoon, after working for the Bearden Buggy Company for a couple of years. It seemed like home to me, although I happen to hail from Birmingham, Ala., but my heart is in Nashville on Russell Street, where the grandest little woman in the world is. You can tell the world that Tennessee can’t be beat for girls.”
After reading these letters, I couldn’t help but wonder what became of Joe Riggie and James Kendrick, who had served our country “over there.”