Finally, the long-awaited news had arrived. The 78th Division was headed home! However, there was a bit of business to attend to first:
The delouser was a large steam-cleaning machine in which the soldiers’ clothing and gear were placed for 45 minutes to kill the “cooties” (body lice referred to during the Civil War as greybacks) and their eggs.
While their clothing was being sanitized, the men themselves had a hot (if they were lucky) bath and a haircut.
For most of the men, this was the first time in months that they had been free of infestation. Cooties, also known as “seam squirrels” for the way they congregated in the seams of soldiers’ clothing, were a normal part of life for soldiers in the first World War. Countless letters were written home about them:
Some men even wrote poetry about the experience:
The notion of “cooties” had so thoroughly penetrated popular culture that by the Christmas season, 1919, a cootie game was being offered as a toy for children:
Despite the humorous nature of the many descriptions of cooties, the creatures themselves were a rather serious concern. Firstly, their bites were painful. Many men described them as feeling as if the insects were treading over them wearing hobnail boots.
Transmission of disease was another significant problem:
During the war itself, it would have been nearly impossible to rid oneself of a cootie infestation. Troops at the front rarely had any quantity of fresh water to wash with and were often wearing the same clothing for long periods of time:
The following training film from WWII contains images of the lice themselves along with much information that had been learned about them during the course of the first World War:
It was no doubt an incredible relief to Ralph and his fellow soldiers to finally be free of infestation. Unfortunately, for the most part, this initial delousing treatment was not the only one they had to undergo. Frequently, soldiers became reinfected aboard the ship home. Another round of treatment was required at the base from which they were discharged.
The morning of March 26, 1919, witnessed 20,000 men up before dawn to march, in full battle dress, to the plain of Les Laumes. Contemporary newspaper articles pointed out that the site was near the location where Vercingetorix, who united the Gauls in a revolt against the Romans, finally surrendered to Julius Caesar in dramatic fashion.
On this morning, however, the men of the 78th would form up for review by the most celebrated American leader of the war, General John J. Pershing.
Katherine Shortall, a young woman employed by the Y.M.C.A. in Pouillenay, beautifully describes the scene in her book, “A ‘Y’ Girl in France”:
“I had not realized before what an immense body of men an Army Division is. On the vast muddy field stood, motionless, ranks and ranks of khaki-clad soldiers, their protective coloring blending with the green-brown of the field. Here and there the Stars and Stripes and the vivid blue and red of the Infantry and Artillery flags made bright spots on the monotonous brown scene.”
According to Miss Shortall, the general arrived on horseback an hour later than anticipated. He rode around the formation and then dismounted to walk among the men:
This inspection lasted for nearly two hours. Next, the colors of each unit moved to the front and General Pershing presented those who had earned the Distinguished Service Cross with their prizes, pinning them on the men and shaking each by the hand.
He then proceeded into the grandstand and the review began, described here by Katherine Shortall:
“The Infantry came first in their orderly files, dipping their colors as they went by. Then came the Artillery in its seeming magnificent disorder. The great horses plunging, caissons rattling, drivers holding the reins taut, scarlet flags fluttering, it galloped over the muddy, bumpy field with a wonderful rush. This was followed by the Motorized Artillery which came out of the woods like a swarm of huge creeping beetles. Weird monsters they were, and their deafening rattle reached us at a distance like some great magnified buzz.”
The 78th Division was commended by the general for their performance on this day:
Certainly it was a matter of great pride for Ralph and the other men of the 78th Division, but, practical girl that she was, Katherine Shortall pointed out how tiring the day had also been. The soldiers had been on their feet for nearly 12 hours and all welcomed the hot chocolate and fresh cakes available at the Y tents.
Mere days after General Pershing’s visit, the 78th received welcome news: they had been given permission to head directly to Bordeaux without passing through Le Mans, the main embarkation center. Ralph was no doubt pleased not to have to retrace his steps before he could finally leave France.
On December 8, 1918, the headquarters companies of the 334th and 335th infantries were transferred from Le Mans to line companies of the 78th Division. The 78th was based approximately 250 miles away in the Cote d’Or near Dijon, headquartered at Semur-en-Auxois.
According to History of the 78th Division in the World War 1917-18-19, Ralph’s unit, the 309th Infantry, was located at Epoisses, 12km from Semur. The following video shows clips of Semur, Epoisses and nearby Les Laumes. Though it is an advertisement for train travel, you can get a general feel for the surroundings:
Following the newcomers’ arrival, the December training schedule for the 78th Division was boosted to a solid 8 hours of drill and instruction per day. The result was that, by the end of the month, the preexisting 78th and its new additions had become much more closely knit, “presenting a wonderfully fine appearance–splendid morale, and excellent discipline, with a smart, snappy execution of drill.”
Christmas at Semur was quite an event. The soldiers held an old-time American Christmas party on Christmas eve, 1918. Local French children and their parents were invited guests. A lovely tree had been decorated with tinsel, ornaments, and lit candles. A soldier dressed as St. Nick, long white beard and all, to hand out small gifts of toys and candy to the delighted children.
The men themselves had a wonderful Christmas dinner of roast pig, dressing, potatoes with gravy, squash, bread and butter, “and all the other good things that go with a good dinner, even candy.”
Each received a small gift:
Many also received a package from home. Back in October, each man had been given a coupon to send home, allowing his family to send him one 9 x 4 x 3 package as a Christmas gift.
The requests in terms of the contents of the box varied from man to man (watches, photographic film, candy, gum, tobacco products), but the feeling seems to have been constant: what a delight it would be to have some small piece of home!
With the start of the new year, divisional schools were established, offering English classes for soldiers born outside the U.S., other topics traditionally taught at grammar schools, agriculture, blacksmithing, motor repair, wireless telegraphy, electrical wiring and many other trades. These courses went a long way toward keeping the men occupied during the long winter of 1918-1919.
One gentleman who was previously in the 334th headquarters company with Ralph, having been a teacher in his civilian life, was chosen to teach an English class:
His company, Company K, was billeted in Montiguy-sur-Armancon, just a few miles from Semur. He writes that some of the local French people became almost like family to the soldiers:
Every ten days to two weeks, several hundred men would board a “leave train” for a government-sponsored vacation of ten days. Many of the men were taken to sites in the French Riviera such as Nice, Cannes, Monaco (Monte Carlo), and Menton.
To keep the men occupied at “home”, shows were held on a nightly basis, with motion picture equipment and YMCA entertainers making the rounds to the various camps near Semur. Below is a sample of a movie that might have been shown at this time, Charlie Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life”:
Additionally, each unit within the 78th Division formed its own show troupe. The quality of these troupes was very high. With most of the men of the 78th having coming from New York and New Jersey, men had been drawn from the cream of NYC entertainment.
In fact, the stars of each unit were chosen to form a divisional entertainment group that toured through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania after the 78th returned home. The show was called the “Zig Zag Follies”. It featured original music written by Corporal Joseph Ritchie and took the audience through many of the experiences of the 78th while overseas in a humorous musical format. Proceeds were donated to a foundation to support members of the 78th Division who had been injured in the war and the families of those who were sadly killed.
Several portions of the show involved female characters, such as a Red Cross nurse or a young French woman. Amusingly, the performers publicly requested that the female characters not be sent flowers, chocolates and love notes, no matter how enamored the audience members might be with them, as these women were, in fact, men:
Despite all these organized distractions, all anyone could really think about was what would happen to the unit and when they would be allowed to go home. Wild rumors flew about the place, causing some men to write home that they had heard they were going to be sent to Siberia as reinforcements against the Bolsheviks or to Turkey to enforce the mandate of the Peace Conference.
It wasn’t until February 1919 that solid information emerged in the form of General Order No. 35. It set forth a rough schedule of embarkation for the divisions remaining in France. However, the 78th was 15th in line, with a tentative departure date at the end of May. The wait would be long, but at least now the men had an idea of what to expect.
Within days of the war’s end, talk of the return of the soldiers overseas had begun. Families and friends were naturally eager to have their boys returned to them and for normal life to resume.
The men themselves were just as excited, with many writing home about dreams of a Christmas among family.
Unfortunately, demobilization was a tricky issue, both strategically and politically. At the end of the war, roughly 2,250,000 American men were serving overseas. Secretary of War Newton Baker confessed just after the armistice was declared that the war department had been so busy with plans for conducting the war that it had not had time to work on a full plan for sending the troops home. The only decision that had been made was that the process would be gradual and done in a way to prevent upset to labor conditions or destabilization overseas.
Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder proposed a plan in which local draft boards would be responsible for finding jobs for returning servicemen. Original draft cards listed the jobs the men held prior to their time in the service. The draft board would contact the companies the men worked for to find out if they wanted the men returned to the same job. Companies could also place orders for workers. For example, the local draft board could inform the commander of a demobilization camp that it could employ 50 machinists. Fifty men falling under the jurisdiction of that draft board could immediately be discharged into civilian jobs. This plan was ultimately rejected by the General Staff and Secretary of War.
Demobilization began with the boys who hadn’t yet shipped out and the sick and wounded overseas. The stated goal was to release 30,000 men a day from service.
Meanwhile, Ralph Benington was in Le Mans along with thousands of other soldiers.
Celebrating the End of the War
On November 11th, 1918, at 11 a.m., millions around the world celebrated peace. The city of Le Mans was not left out of their number.
It is worth noting that the soldier who wrote the letter immediately above was aboard the Aquitania on the way to France and mentions by name in this letter several others who were in the 334th with Ralph, so it is quite possible that the scene above would have been one that Ralph would have witnessed.
Similar celebrations in Paris can be seen by following this link.
Seeing the Sights
The post-war schedule for the troops involved the typical reveille at 6:30 and five hours of drilling. As one would imagine, a great deal of the sense of urgency behind their training would have drained away after peace was declared. On the bright side, after the training day was done, the soldiers were free to explore their surroundings.
While I do not know specifically where Ralph went during his free time, I can speculate based on other soldiers’ letters home. The cathedral in Le Mans is mentioned by many men, including those in Ralph’s unit. Dedicated to the city’s first bishop, St. Julian, it was constructed in the 6th to 14th centuries.
The square in front of the cathedral, used in this post-war period by the Americans as a football grounds and a location for band concerts, was the home of the Roman circus. The old Roman wall still stood in some areas, along with a couple of crumbling towers.
Also in the square was the House of Queen Berengere, the entrance to a vast system of underground tunnels, dungeons and catacombs used initially by the Romans. Many men mention taking tours of these tunnels with local guides.
At the time of Ralph’s initial arrival in Le Mans, the YMCA had a hut at the forwarding camp, “Hurrah Hut”. From October 1918 to January 1919, Hurrah Hut was the only place at the camp for soldiers to get out of the rain and mud, the only location with wooden benches for seating and a few heating stoves. The YMCA operated a dry canteen there, where soldiers could smoke and have something to eat. The dry canteen designation meant that no alcohol was served. Three nights a week, movies were shown. The other nights, talent shows were held. These entertainments were so popular that all available seats would fill up hours before their starting times. Men would skip dinner to be able to attend the show.
The American perception of the French people seems to have changed greatly from Razac-sur-L’Isle to Le Mans. No longer did the soldiers wax rhapsodic about the quaint surroundings and the charming, generous people. While they did seem impressed by Le Mans’ historic beauty, interactions with the citizens seem limited to the strictly economic.
A second lieutenant from Kansas, V. L. Durand, when asked to list the battles in which he had engaged, said: “I will only casually mention mine as those of ‘Battle of Le Mans’ and the Battle of ‘Combiens.’ The former you know of, the latter is the French word for ‘how much,’ which we all battled with until we got onto the French money. All we could do was to hold out our hands full of French, Belgium, English, Italian and Spanish coins (all the same over here) and tell them to take their pick, and believe me they are as good at picking as the ‘cooties’ here in France.”
By this point in the war, inflation had hit the French hard. According to some sources, the purchasing power of the French franc was reduced by 70% between 1915 and 1920. This fact is reflected in the prices soldiers encountered in the shops at Le Mans:
The French people had suffered greatly during the war and it is likely that this suffering would have been felt much more keenly in a city like Le Mans than in Razac-sur-L’Isle, a rural area far from the front. At least in an agricultural community like Razac, the people could grow their own food. While the American soldiers may have perceived them as mercenary, the citizens of Le Mans had to survive.
Waiting for News
By the end of last week in November, the first overseas troops were expected to arrive home in the U.S. General March, the chief of staff, announced that 382 officers and 6614 men of the air service and other detachments training in England were aboard the Minnekahda, Lapland, and Orca.
All three of these ships were British. It was pointed out at the same time that a major problem in demobilization was going to be the number of ships available to transport the men home. When the U.S. had entered the war, the British had provided them with a number of ships, including the Mauretania, Olympic, and Aquitania, in which to carry troops to Europe. However, now that the war had ended, the British ships would be needed to transport troops home to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Secretary Baker said that it was possible that German ships might be used to transport troops home, as well as to send food to Germany, but that no definite plans had been made.
For the next several weeks, the transports would be filled with the sick and wounded, as well as those from the air service in England.
Ralph and his fellow soldiers would be left to wait and wonder when their turn would come.
Ralph Benington was not one of the 12,000 men sent to the front after the call on October 10th. The headquarters companies, as well as about 30 men from each of the infantry and machine gun groups, were left in Razac-sur-L’Isle to await reinforcements. The respite was only a brief one.
On October 30th, a wire was received ordering the remainder of the 84th Division, along with the 34th, 38th and 86th Divisions, to the 2nd Depot Division at Le Mans. Like the earlier group, the men would be transferred to units at the front as needed.
On the morning of November 5th, the men of headquarters company, 334th infantry, boarded a train headed north to Le Mans. Along the route, they passed several Red Cross trains filled with the wounded to be evacuated from the front. It is difficult to imagine that any man would fail to dwell on thoughts of his own mortality when faced with such grim reminders as he headed into danger himself.
By this point in the war, the Red Cross ambulance trains had become quite specialized. They were composed of ward cars, which had seats that could be folded down into beds for patients on stretchers, a pharmacy car, a kitchen, and even an operating theater!
The afternoon of November 6th, Ralph and his fellow soldiers arrived at Le Mans and marched the five miles out to the forwarding camp in a heavy rain. The weather did not improve the following day and most of the men spent their time looking for somewhere dry to wait and something to eat. That evening, they received orders to move again the following day to a camp only a mile away. Still the rain fell. By this point, the men must have been feeling extremely anxious, knowing they were destined for the front and having nothing to do to distract them from the thoughts racing through their heads.
On the 9th of November, the men were woken at 3 a.m. and told to roll their packs and march to the train. They were on their way to the front.
The new order was to turn back to Le Mans. It was here that they received the news:
The end of the war had come, and not a moment too soon! It’s likely that the men of the 334th would have had mixed feelings about this development: the obvious joy, of course, but perhaps also a bit of regret that they had not “done their part” at the front, especially after the emotional build-up of the last two weeks.
Spilling out of the small ships that brought them across the English Channel into a cool early morning rain, the men of the 334th infantry lined up, and led by the regimental band, they paraded through the streets of Le Havre.
The expressions on the faces of the French people they passed varied. Some looked sad and downtrodden, hard-worn from the long period of war they had already endured. Others were jubilant at the arrival of the Americans.
After the sleepless night before, the men were allowed periodically to fall out and rest for a moment:
The men marched a total of five miles out of Le Havre to a rest camp. There they slept–fourteen to a tent–crammed in, but no doubt grateful for shelter from the rain that would fall the entire 24 hours they were in camp.
A video of the men of an American infantry unit preparing to leave a rest camp at Le Havre in 1918 is available at the website for the Imperial War Museum (Infantry leaving Le Havre camp). In this video, you can see the conical tents in which the men slept.
On September 13, Ralph and his fellow soldiers marched the five miles back to Le Havre, where they boarded boxcars. These cars were marked with the words “Hommes 40, Cheveaux 8” for their capacity: 40 men or 8 horses. Over the next two days, as they traveled through the French countryside, the men took turns sleeping, as there was not enough room in the car for everyone to lie down at once.
This form of transportation seems to have been a source of amusement to some of the men, who mentioned it in letters home:
“Side-door Pullman” was a slang term for boxcars.
On the 15th of September, the train pulled into Razac-sur-L’Isle, a small town with a population of about 750 in southwestern France. Several characteristics of Razac-sur-L’Isle are mentioned frequently in the soldiers’ letters home. The surrounding countryside was hilly and dotted with grape vines. The people used old fashioned farming techniques and had oxen to work in the fields rather than modern machinery. One particularly charming feature was the wooden shoes worn by the women and children of the town, which made a distinctive clicking sound as they walked.
The arrival of hundreds of troops must have been somewhat overwhelming for a village of this size. Certainly it caused several documented problems. One soldier wrote home to his family that a great deal of wine was produced and sold in the area:
One wonders how the townspeople felt about all the drunken soldiers. Were they concerned for the young women among them? About an increase in theft? Even in Chillicothe, Ohio, locks for cars were advertised by warning about the influx of troops at Camp Sherman: “Be Prepared!”
Another issue that cropped up was the high demand for the very limited supplies at the local stores. The soldiers complain in letters about the extremely high prices for canned salmon and sardines, two to three times that at home. Authorities would soon request that the Americans not purchase goods from the locals, as their produce was their only source of income. The 84th Division was well supplied by the government: all their food was shipped in and they ate significantly better than the locals; cigarettes and tobacco were handed out every ten days.
By this point in the war, the French people were really suffering. Letters mention how no sugar or tobacco was available at all, that canned salmon and sardines were all that was to be had at shops, and that coal and wood were ridiculously expensive. Bark was being used for cooking fires and even that was difficult to obtain.
Regardless of all these issues, the French people were kind and welcoming toward the soldiers of the 334th infantry. Over and over they mention how the French were willing to share what little they had with the men and they were very rarely willing to accept payment for their kindnesses.
Many of the women of Razac-sur-L’Isle took in washing from the soldiers for a bit of extra money. According to one letter, a man could have one shirt, one two piece set of underwear, one towel, one handkerchief and two pairs of socks washed for one franc (20 cents). The women took the clothing down to the river or a shallow purpose-built concrete pond, where they either rubbed it with a board or beat it with a stick to clean it, as seen in the postcard below.
When they first arrived, the men were divided between tents and barns, sleeping on the floor with a blanket each. It wasn’t long before they were all billeted in barns or local homes and issued with straw mattresses and two additional blankets per man.
Soldiers frequently mentioned the huge amounts of blackberries growing wild. The locals apparently did not eat them because they thought they were poisonous. The soldiers had no such qualms.
Suddenly, on October 10th, the 84th received orders to send forward 12,000 men as replacements for the many casualties on the front. These men arrived at the regulating station of the 1st Depot Divison, where they were sent out to various regiments to shore up their numbers. Reports of casualties among the men of the 84th began rolling in.
In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri destroyed between 16 and 18 million military records, including 80% of those for individuals discharged from the Army between 1913 and 1960. Combining this information with the fact that none of Ralph and Bernice’s letters from 1918 and 1919 survive, I thought it was highly unlikely that I would be able to find any details about Ralph’s time in the AEF.
Luckily for me, there are far more resources available than I expected. Men who were also aboard the Aquitania when it set sail on September 2, 1918, wrote letters home and some of these were published in their hometown newspapers. A number of these men were also in the 334th infantry or its medical detachment, just like Ralph, and shared their experiences after disembarking from the Aquitania. As a result, we are able to construct a rich picture of what the war must have been like for Ralph and his fellow soldiers.
Hurry Up and Wait
The strains of “Over There” mentioned in the previous post must only have lasted so long. Boarding the ship and waiting for it to embark seems to have been a rather tedious, and much longer than anticipated, process. The man who wrote the letter below had spent two days and nights aboard a troop ship preparing to embark when the peace was declared:
Aboard the Aquitania
As the Aquitania finally pulled away from the docks, the regimental band played on the deck of the ship. As many men as possible would likely have crowded onto the deck to catch a last glimpse of their native land. Leaving from New York City, their last sights would have been the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan’s financial district with Jersey City on the other side, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. They would have sailed past Staten Island and Sandy Hook and out into the open Atlantic.
Next, the men headed below deck for their supper. The same cooks who had been with the regiment at Camp Sherman travelled with them aboard the ship. Incredible organization and timing would have been required to serve meals to several thousand men. As we saw in the video of the systems in place at Camp Sherman, the cooks’ skills were well-honed.
Following dinner, the musicians returned to the deck to play for the officers before retiring for bed. The enlisted men were offered the option of a picture show in the mess hall, but they couldn’t get the machine working, so the evening was spent in singing instead.
For the first three hours of the journey, the ship was accompanied by a convoy of destroyers and hydroplanes. Afterward she was left to her own devices. With her complement of six 6-inch guns and her considerable speed, she was thought to be capable of outrunning any attacker.
The accommodations aboard the Aquitania seem to have varied greatly, depending on where in the ship each man was placed. Photos of suites and first, second and third class staterooms follow. There was also a steerage class area, though I was unable to find any pictures of it. Presumably, it would have been similar to that described in the letter at the start of this post: small and crowded, with large numbers of men possibly sleeping in hammocks hung from hooks.
The passengers aboard the Aquitania on this trip were lucky in that the seas were calm for much of the journey. Unfortunately, this didn’t preclude the men from suffering seasickness.
Of course, not everyone felt the same way.
The regimental band continued to provide entertainment throughout the journey, performing minstrel shows and various concerts. The typical minstrel show consisted of dancing, singing, a “stump speech”–the forerunner of modern stand-up comedy, and humorous skits. For much of its early history, minstrel shows often involved white men in blackface and much racist content. By this time, however, the popularity of such performance was on the wane. Many groups instead attempted to adopt an air of refinement and differed from other mainstream entertainments only in name.
Some confusion may have resulted from the change in time as the ship progressed on its journey. As the ship crossed into different time zones, the ship’s time was changed but of course, the men’s watches had to be reset each morning. They likely stayed on a set schedule, resulting in a feeling that I can only imagine was like that of daylight savings time, over and over again. Perhaps this gradual change saved them from the kind of modern-day jetlag one experiencing when flying overseas.
The last night of the journey, the men were told that they were now entering the danger zone. Each man had to sleep fully dressed and wearing his life belt in case of attack.
At 10 a.m. on September 9th, the Aquitania came into sight of the white chalk cliffs of southern England. An English convoy met the ship and escorted it into port at Southampton. The men stayed aboard the ship until September 11th when they were loaded into smaller ships and ferried across the English Channel under cover of darkness. Later ships carrying portions of the 84th Division were diverted to Scotland and rode trains to Winchester, England.
The trip across the Channel was probably the most treacherous portion of the entire journey. The men were warned against even lighting a match, in case it attracted the attention of a German submarine. However, the men arrived safely at Le Havre on a wet, dreary day in mid-September. They were finally in France.