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Letters from World War I: newspapers print letters written by soldiers

Esther Larson stands beside two boxes of soldiers' letters researched from 21 area newspapers.

The letters written home by “the boys at the front” during World War I told of trenches filled with mud, shells exploding overhead and  soldiers recovering from gunshot wounds.

Newspapers in western North Dakota often printed these letters in their  Soldiers’ Letters columns. The editor of the Slope County News at Amidon explained why: “These letters are written mostly within the sound of guns, with the scenes of this greatest of world tragedies right before the authors. They are written by our own boys, whom we know and whose faces are still fresh to us.

“Not all of them are literary gems or flawless in spelling or diction. And that makes them all the more valuable, for they reflect the thoughts of all classes and ranks of our citizen soldiers…. One and all, they picture ‘the life’ as it is -- the day-by-day experiences and impressions of our brave boys over there. Their words, simple and straightforward without bluster or boasting, ring with courage and confidence…. Reader don’t miss a single one of these letters.”

Esther Hagen Larson of Dickinson, indexed 5,000 letters published in 21 newspapers of western North Dakota from June 1917 through July 1919. Here’s a few snippets:

T.J. Sanders, better known as Slim, wrote to “the Herald gang” about life at Camp Dodge, Iowa:

“I’m in the infantry and hardly get time to take a breath of free air…. They’re putting us through strenuous drills now -- mostly parade drills with the exception of one skirmish drill. We were furnished with guns yesterday so I guess they will start us off on sniping, rifle practice, bayonet charges and through the gas chambers soon. We have to shave every day because the Captain says that when we get over there and have to wear our gas masks, a few whiskers on your face will prevent the mask from fitting snugly and gas fumes will penetrate and kill us -- if the long marches and drills don’t… Well, it’s getting late now and the lights are out in the barracks  -- I had to come down to the mess hall to finish this. Early hours for a printer, but a soldiers needs the rest…. At that, I believe I’d feel like hiking 25 miles if my feet weren’t swollen like a balloon.

May 16, 1918, Williston Herald

Sam Rigler wrote the following letter to his brother, Benj. M. Rigler of Richardton:  

“I am at present in my dugout, which is just outside the network of trenches. My bed is on the rough board floor. No I do not have a mattress to lay on, but just the hard floor to rest on.

“We have been unfortunate to come up to the front just as the rainy season set in and we have had hell ever since. The trenches are mud holes and every few feet there is a large pudding of water and mud. Some of the men on duty in the trenches have no dugout and have to sleep standing up or leaning against the rock wall of the trench. We were still hiding in the trenches, when at 12 o’clock in the dead of night our guns opened up and we knew the battle started. Our shells were dropping over on the Boche and crashing and exploding with a terrific noise.  There we were in a trench with mud to our knees, raining and cold, our guns directly over our heads spitting death and the bouche guns replying with shells breaking very close by….” Oct. 26, 1918. The Dickinson Press.

Corp. Thos. V. Riley, who was a field artillery gunner, wrote to his mother from a base hospital after being wounded  on the Western front:

“... My wounds are healing fine and I expect to be well within 60 days. My worst wounds were through the left thigh and right hip… I had one wound in the middle of the back, some people would think I was running away but I wasn’t . A shell ‘lit’ right behind me and I thought my time had come, that shell had my name on it… Shells burst everywhere killing many men and horses and wounding many…  A pal of mine saw me lying where I fell the last time and he came out and carried me to a shell hole and helped me all he could til the ambulance came.. It is funny but I did not have a bit of fear when I got hit, but three days later, I began to tremble all over every time I tried to think about what had happened up at the front.” White Earth Record, Dec. 24, 1918,

Melvin Walby wrote a letter to his mother:

“Will write you a few more lines and let you know that I am alive…. I don’t see how I ever came out alive, by the way the bullets were singing around us, but we sure got a lot of Germans. There were Germans lying dead all over the field. It was the worst thing I have ever seen and the worst battle I ever saw. I hope I don’t have to go through any more like that as a man can’t be lucky in every big battle and get through the way I have….. I sure wish the Germans would give up soon as the Americans won’t give up til the Germans have and that is the only way to fight them.”  Oct. 10, 1918, Adams County Record at Hettinger

  1. M. Schantz, who was stationed on the U.S.S. Caesar, wrote from the Asian Pacific. (Note the comments are almost comic.)

“I feel just “rotten” today. God, but I wish that I could get out of this cursed Orient… Have been in China, Japan, the Philippines, Guam and Formosa and they all look alike… I did not enlist to be sent to guard China… Yet they keep us out here in this place, which was not intended for man or beast to live in….The most exciting thing we see are flying fish at sea… Just think of the fun that I am missing -- wouldn't it be great sport to be torpedoed or minced once in a while?. … I feel as though I was getting cheated. .. Well, I hope that by the time that you receive this letter that I will be on my way to France.”   May 3, 1918, The Hebron Tribune.

Dean Warner wrote, “It has been a long, hard continuous grind through mud, shell holes, all kinds of gas, high explosives, shrapnel, etc., with food hard to get to us and rest almost impossible, only what you can steal on your horse. Horse after horse went down for the count, but the men seem to stand the “gaff” pretty well. I have not had my clothes off since July 4...” Sept. 26, 1918, Killdeer Herald

Dr. Mizner, a Bowman doctor,  told how the Yanks behaved at the front:

“This much I did find out, give the Yank a good rifle, plenty of ammunition and good grub and he will scrape the Hun right off their feet…. One of them threw 28 hand grenades in so many seconds and he swore because he run out of “lead,” and he had two revolver holes in him when he did it.” Jan. 2, 1919, Adams County Record

Lt. Ira L. Jaynes of Williston expressed his joy, now that the war had ended. He was  among the American officers chosen to pass in parade before President Wilson, as reported in a letter received by his mother Mrs. Cornelius Jaynes.

“Everyone has received the greatest Christmas present in the history of the world by the ending of the war, I think. A company was picked to parade before President  Wilson on Christmas, and I was picked as one of the officers. I consider it quite an honor. … Great cheering took place as Wilson got out of his car with Pershing, but the veteran soldiers who he came to review  stood rigidly at attention and felt a wonderful thrill of patriotism as he approached us…. Proud I was to stand in the ranks of that army and very glad to have fought in the greatest cause the world has ever known.” Jan. 30, 1919,Williston Herald.

-- Compiled from microfilm records -- State Historical Society of North Dakota and Dickinson State University.