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Story ID:1716
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Location:Syracuse New York USA
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By Fred Wickert

Wars have a habit of similarities. I have been privileged to have seen and read some letters from a World War I soldier. In this case, the soldier was Ralph Phelps, the only son of my maternal grandmothers sister, in other words, my mothers cousin. The time is 1918.

I thought it might be of interest to the readers, particularly as we are in a time of war again. In addition to cousin Ralph’s letters there is one other letter, the most important of all, that was found and picked up on the battlefield by Ralph. It touched him deeply enough to save it and bring it home with him as a memory of that war. It is the last letter I share here with you.

England, June 13th, 1918

Dear Mother,

Arrived fine and dandy after 16 days on the old salt water. The ocean is a good deal different than I expected. The waves have a good deal longer roll than on the Great Lakes but are not as choppy and more smooth.

We were in a fog for three days in which you could see nothing. We left the boat yesterday at 10 a.m., went right on a train which was waiting and traveled for 8 hours, then had a couple of miles hike which was a little hard going on account of our sea legs.

It is fine weather here and is daylight at 4 a.m. and doesn’t get dark until after 10 at night. The trip on the train was fine. There is not a bit of waste ground.

I am a long ways from home, Mother, but will do just the same as if you were here. I feel fine, haven’t even got a cold. Lots of love to everyone and you and Papa mustn’t worry so good bye for this time and all the love in the world.

France, June 20, 1918

Dear Mother,

We have been in France a couple of days but this is the first chance I have had to write. Everything is fine and we are located at Camp DeMemon near Vannes and DeReste, but you mustn’t put that on or in a letter, my address is the same as all times.

Ralph A. Phelps
Co. A 303 Am’n Train
American Ex. Forces

France, July 5, 1918

We have traveled quite a bit by train and on foot and my feet were kind of sore but will be better now.

You would be surprised to see how people are for food here in France. Well dressed people, young and old and children would run after a little piece of hard bread if you threw it away, no matter if it went in the dirt or not, so you can imagine what it must be in Germany. Anything that is thrown out of the kitchen in the garbage will be grabbed in less than no time by a German prisoner. They put it in their hats or anywhere to carry it. So I imagine that this winter will end the war at the latest.

Good bye with all my love in the world to you and Papa,

France, Aug. 27th, 1918

Dear Mother,

This letter is going to be overdue by the time you get it. I meant to write on my birthday for sure, but we were traveling over land for a week straight and it was impossible to write. Besides, I didn’t get over 3-5 hours of sleep any night. We went through the oldest city in france and a hundred other cities. About the only one we missed was Paris. We are now at the front or near as we will ever get for the infantry and Artillery are always ahead of us. Aviators are as common as auto or trucks and we see a couple of air battles every day and believe me, the Americans are holding their own. Every day is the fourth of July here and by the time you get this letter the Germans will know it --------------------------------------- (four lines were censored here.)

I don’t know where Bob Colvin can be but know he is nowhere near here. There isn’t any baseball here and most all work is done at night. I will write the first chance I get.

I am glad your Chop Suey was good, but it would have been better over on Genesee St. That is the best place in the city.

This has certainly been an awful short summer, I hope that winter will be the same. I wonder if the soldiers are on the Fair grounds yet and if there will be a State fair this year? Tell Helen to write. I’d be glad to have anyone write but they mustn’t expect answers.

There are plenty of rats here and they get friendly. One will run across someone’s face at night while they are sleeping and then there is a lot of music.

Give my regards and love to everyone and don’t worry about anything for everything will be all right and don’t work too hard. This letter is to you all. Lots of love to you and Papa.

Your loving son, Ralph

Note: The Helen he speaks of in the last letter is his cousin. Many years later she became my mother.

I will only include excerpts of the next letter, cutting out some personal stuff.

France, Sept. 18, 1918

Dear Mother,

Do you remember me having those postals sent from Camp Dix after I left? That same fellow who did me that favor is driving an ambulance over here. Two nights ago, we passed an outfit on the road which has about 400 fellows in it, but it was so dark I couldn’t see any of them. Pete Apps was one of them. Helen is certainly good in writing for I haven’t had time to write to her.

In every letter you send, put a blank envelope and a sheet of paper. It is very hard to get where I am now. Shaved and washed in a half cup of water this morning and haven’t had a bath in two weeks, but don’t even feel itchy so I guess everything is o.k. The only German’s I see are prisoners and I guess the rest of them will be as soon as they get a chance to give themselves up. The American’s knocked a German bridge that took 14 years to build in seven shots the other day, and every time the German’s start to throw iron, the Americans throw twice as much back, so the easiest for them is just not to throw any. Well, Mother, I must stop for I have to go right to work so give my love to everybody and save lots of it for Papa and yourself. Tell Papa to write me a note sometime, I miss those letters he used to send to Dix.

Your loving son, Ralph

France, Nov. 23rd., 1918

Dear Mother,

Everything is fine including the weather, a little cold, but pleasant. It will be Christmas in another month and I hope to be on my way sometime around then. We have been in this town for over a week now, but no one seems to know where we are going, but hope that it will be the U.S. before long for this poly-voo country has no charms for me.


The following letter will be the last. It was picked up on the battlefield November 2nd, 1918 at Germont, France. The author of this letter is unknown and was not signed.

My dear Pal…….

Tonight the beginning of the end. The war shall soon cease. The occasional proof of the large guns mingled with the bark of the smaller ones are but the first to toll the knell of Mars….going to rest. It is dark. The gliding breeze softly twirls through the tree tops glad to hear the tidings near and afar that peace is coming. Two white roses outside my door are but living to see the day and having seen, die. The shell pitted earth, scarred almost beyond recognition has turned it’s weary cheek to be smitten again, but this time in gladness because it is to be the last. Mars shall die. Peace on earth, good will to men.

But there is a tinge of sadness throughout for on the morrow………yea, even tonight, the price must be paid. Tonight the small stream of rich red blood shall begin to swell til a raging torrent makes it’s crevice in mother earth, which wrinkle neither tomorrow, sun, nor rain shall ere erase, tomorrow……..the day never to be forgotten.

Afar off, a murmuring rumble, near………the chatter of a solitary machine gun. The earth shakes and the crash of a shell……..all……….for tomorrow. The old monster afar back again proves slim……..and a steel message grimly sails afar over, telling them that we are coming. The baby cannon is quiet, gone to rest, for it must be up early………for there is much work to be done on the morrow. Everything is ready. The aviator….tired with long days of picture taking rests together with his fighting partners. The bombers with laden machines await, but the coming hour tomorrow……….tomorrow.

Nights jet black cloak covers all with it’s morning veil. She is sad, for tomorrow she lifts her veil only to cover once more her many dead. Tonight she clings to these who leave tomorrow. Just one night. How many she knows not, but there will be many. She shudders, she fears, her sons asleep…….awake……know, but do they fear? They are brave. The walls shake and the big gun mumbles and grumbles. The smaller one chuckles and grunting, heaves it’s whining missile. Echoes bring no answer. Tot-trot, tot, chuck, chuck, chuck.

The machine gunner is at his post and watchfully waits to waken his sleeping chums.

CRASH. An answer comes………….we expect you. We will make the men upon whom the duty falls to start the forward move. Snuggling quietly in their burrowed holes, some asleep………few awake……….some dreaming of home, some………all awaiting the tomorrow.

This remarkable letter was unsigned.

For all the countries involved in that war, the total of the dead was 8, 538, 315 men. The total number of wounded was 21, 219, 452 men. Prisoners of war and missing in action totaled 3, 629, 829.

We can only begin to imagine the impact the war had on the families of the soldiers and the men themselves. Now we have evolved to far more terrible weapons, but have made advances in battlefield medical technology and armor, losing far fewer men. Now we lose not only men but have allowed women to join with us in battle and are losing them too.

Dear God, please never let us do as some others have, and involve the children too.

Photo - Ralph A. Phelps, U.S. Army