New Bern-Craven County
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Reuben Schetler to Mrs. Frank W. Shriner, 1919

LETTERS FROM THE BOYS OVER THERE

The following letter was received by Mrs. Frank W. Shriner of New Bern.

                                                                           Siury La Perche, France

                                                                                    Dec. 11th.

 Dear Aunt:--

I suppose by this time you have given up the thoughts of ever hearing from me. Well, I wouldn’t blame you if you had, for I realize that I have not kept up my correspondence as I should have done. Outside of my mother, my girl and Hillman I don’t believe I have written a half dozen letters since I came across. But now that I have the time, the place, and the paper and ink I have decided to try and catch up if I can. Ink and paper and often the time were plentiful, but very rarely have we had the place to get down to extensive writing and then I need more ambition to write than I would need to use a pick and shovel all day. I don’t know whether I don’t take to writing, or whether writing doesn’t take to me, but somehow I don’t seem to make much of a success of it.

We have been in our present camp for about two weeks, and each night I have said to myself: “I had better write to Aunt Louise,” so after supper I would sit down by the fire to think it over, and about the time I decided to write somebody would start talking on some interesting subject in which we all joined in, or sometimes all get in an argument which lasts several hours and by that time we are all so tired and sleepy that we decide to [go] to bed. Tonight the other fellows have gone out, so that is why I am writing.

We have a fine billet here. I suppose you know what a billet is but I’ll tell you about ours just for good luck [the same line repeated was removed]. There are a lot of small vil- [appears to be a line missing] front which the civilian population have fled in fear of their lives on account of the Huns shelling the towns and dropping bombs on them at night So the army officials quarter troops in the houses which have not been destroyed and that is what they call a billet. Well this time we were lucky and drew a good one or rather we found it. Everybody else had taken one look and gone on but two or three of us got together and shoveled a couple of cart loads of dirt from the floor nailed blankets over several holes where doors and windows had once been, found us each a home-made spring bed, got a bench and table, got an armload of wood and built a fire in the nice open fire-place, and it is like home, sweet home! We like it so well that we are willing to wait right here until the boat comes. But wait a minute, I’ll take that last sentence back. That was what we thought when we first settled here, but we have been here over two weeks now, ever since the Armistice was signed, with nothing to do but wash and fix up our ambulances and we have become so lazy that we creak each time we move. We had become so used to working all hours of the day and night, and all kinds of excitement, that this life doesn’t agree with us at all. Now that we know the war is over, we are anxious to get home, as every American soldier in France is. Every now and then somebody spreads a rumor that we are going up into Germany, but I think my choice is the good old U.S. just as fast as a boat can take me there.

I’ve often heard of “Sunny France,” but whoever called it that must have come directly from the North Pole in the dead of the winter. France might not be a half bad place when one has plenty of money and can ride through the country in a nice big touring car in [p.8] times of peace, but when you see it the way we have, you want to get away and forget as quickly as possible. We have worked in mud, eaten in mud, slept in mud, and cussed the ignorance of the “frog”—in other words, a French auto driver, until we were blue in the face. Where we met our greatest difficulty was at Monte Fancon [i.e. Montfaucon], where we worked with the 32nd division for three weeks. We have worked with almost every division in the lines, among them the 32nd and 42nd having the reputation for the best and hardest fighting. Well, to go back to Monte Fancon—we were sent up there about a day after the Germans were driven out, and they were then about a mile and a half away. At night we could see the star-shells and hear the machine guns rattle, but we didn’t have much time to stop, look and listen, for the wounded were pouring into the hospital. We had to take them from the field hospital back to the evacuation hospital, which was a trip of about twenty miles over shell-torn roads, packed full of traffic; and with the big guns roaring all around us. I did not mind the guns or shell-holes for myself, but for the poor fellows in the back, who, being badly wounded and having had only first aid, could hardly endure the rough usage. They would curse and cry and beg us to stop which of course we could not do. I remember one fellow with a shattered leg who would rave a while with pain, then he would faint, then would rally and begin all over again, begging me to set him out along the road to die. It took me about four hours to get through with that load of patients, and by that time I was almost as crazy as the man with the shattered leg. But he certainly did thank me for getting him through and wanted to give me his watch, which I would not take. But we soon got used to raving patients, and paid no further attention to the ravings, for you have to do one of two things, either go crazy or pay no attention. Also, we had to get used to the big guns, of which there were many along our route. I’ll never forget the first time I heard one. I was sitting in my ambulance all unconscious of the fact that there was a gun around, when “bang!” I heard seven different kinds of fits in a few moments of time. At night they were doubly bad, for beside the noise, we had the light to contend with. It is worse than staring at a streak of lightning in the face. You just must stop still until you regain your sight. We also have had some experience with the things they shoot from those guns, commonly known as shells. One night when business was not very brisk we were sleeping in our ambulances in front of the hospital. I was suddenly awakened by a strange hissing noise and then a “plunk.” When I thought the matter was over, I decided it must have been a shell, and as there had been no explosion, I reasoned that it must have been a gas shell, so I began a hurried search for my gas mask and almost had heart failure when I couldn’t find it. But as several minutes had elapsed and there had been no gas alarm, I decided that it must have been a dud—a high explosive shell which fails to explode. Well they sent over about twenty shells at half hour intervals during the night.  They were trying to make a direct hit on the hospital, for there was nothing else close enough that they could have been aiming at. But luck was with us, for not one shell exploded, and we got away with nothing more than a bad scare.

We found some German dug-outs in a woods near the hospital. We lived in them when off duty. One afternoon there was about six of us sitting around a little fire in front of the dug-outs making some cocoa, when shells began dropping close by in the woods, but we paid no attention to them for, we had become used to such things, so we sat there enjoying our cocoa, when all at once there was a flash and an awful explosion. I had a vague idea that my ear drums were burst, then I found myself lying flat on my stomach with my hands over the back of my head, and rocks and dirt were falling all about me. After a few moments we got up—not one had been hurt—took one look at each other and made a dive for the nearest dug-out. About five minutes later we got enough nerve to go out and see where the shell had hit, and we found that it had hit a dug-out not many feet from us and blown it all to pieces. We thought they were shell-proof. After seeing what a shell had done, we had none too much confidence when several nights later a boche airplane came over and dropped bombs almost on top of a dug-out in which we were trying to sleep.

Never before or since have I seen so much mud as I did at Monte Fancon. As I said before, we ate in mud, slept in mud and were camouflaged in mud. Our cars would get stuck and the tires just spin around and when anything went wrong with a car and we had to get underneath there was nothing to do but roll in the mud. Well, I gave you my experience at Monte Fancon which is a rough outline of all my work since I have been in France. I would like to give you all my experience but they would fill a book.

I have been in Verdun several times. I suppose you have read a great deal about that famous city. It is a walled city—one of two in France. The walls are about fifty feet high and are very thick. There is a moat in front of the wall. As you enter the city, you must first go over a draw-bridge across the moat. The draw-bridge may be drawn up in time of trouble. Then you pass under a double arched gate with an armed guard at each side, and you are then inside of the city. From the appearance of the remains, Verdun must have been a pretty little city before the war. Hardly a house has escaped from shells, bombs, or fire. In some places whole blocks of buildings have been destroyed. All of the civilian population have long since fled to a cooler climate. There is an underground city in Verdun which has been used by the soldiers for living quarters during the war, for the Germans never let a day slip by without shelling the city.

Well, Aunt Lou, you may imagine our joy when the fighting stopped. I guess you have similar feelings of joy yourself. We could hardly believe that there was to be an armistice, for the morning that it was supposed to go into effect, the guns were roaring as hard as I ever heard them roar; but promptly at eleven o’clock, the guns stopped roaring and the church bells all over the country took their places—ringing out the glad news! And when I heard those bells ringing I just had to stop still to think, for seeing as much of this war as I had, and what I had seen was only “a drop in the bucket,” I couldn’t realize that it was really over. For the next few days we sure did some celebrating—we had a grand Fourth of July!—shooting up star shells, burning piles of powder and shooting off guns. At night it was like falling into a new world. Where before we had to grope around in the darkness, now everything was light—auto lights, houses lit up, and the hillsides were covered with the bon fires of the soldiers—from a distance looking like so many twinkling stars in the sky.

And so, now that the world was once more at peace, we decided to have a Thanksgiving Day as much like old times as possible. Knowing that the government was not going to make any provision for a Thanksgiving dinner for the soldiers over here, we all chipped together and sent out a search party to buy anything that would go towards making a good dinner. Food is pretty scarce in this country, and our search party did not have much success, but after a fellow has been eating red horse (corned beef) and monkey meat (canned roast beef is what it is labeled—it is roasted to a certain extent, and some of it is beef, but what the rest is I do not know), for several months, he can enjoy any kind of fresh, well cooked, meat. Well, our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, apple sauce, raisin pie, white bread, bread dressing, corn, cocoa, nuts, and bon bons, and enough of everything we wished to eat. I guess you know we enjoyed that meal and we ate so much that we didn’t eat again for a day afterward.

Well, we haven’t received any mail for some time. I’m getting so hungry for some news from home that I’ll soon starve if I don’t get a letter soon.

Now, Aunt Lou, I’ve broken all my former records of letter writing. I’m just about played out and very sleepy, and so, hoping you are all well and happy I will close.

                                                                          Your nephew,

                                                                          REUBEN P. SCHETLER

[Morning New Bernian, Sunday, January 12, 1919, p. 7-8]

 


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Updated: November 20, 2014.