North Carolinians' Quotes of War: June-August 1918

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

The meaning of any war is a complex narrative of media, politics, societal expectations and stereotypes, and personal experiences. But for the individual military service individual, warfare is interpreted through these individuals’ own knowledge base and personal history, weaving a mixture of thoughts and fears and hopes that expose the souls of the people fighting for a given military side. In World War I, North Carolinians coming to France from different places, through different ports, and with different regiments at different times, found the war to be the same for each other in different ways that only they could express.


We wanted to try a new type of blog post for the DNCR WWI blog, which uses the quotes of North Carolina soldiers to follow their movements to France and onto the battlefields. For those in the 30th Division, U.S. Army, the soldiers had been in France since June 1918; for those in the 81st Division, they would arrive in France in August 1918. Also, U.S. Marines and U.S. Army Air Service members had already been in France for several months by June 1918. In today’s post, we are going to follow five North Carolinians from June to August 1918 through quotes from their wartime diaries and letters, and see their thoughts and fears unfold in real time—100 years later.


The Servicemen


We are going to give some quick background on the five soldiers being quoted here from their letters and their diaries, all of whom have been featured previously in the “Profiles from the Archives” series of blog posts.


Thomas P. Shinn of Kannapolis, N.C., served during most of WWI in Company B, 321st Infantry, 81st Division, U.S. Army. He did not get to England until early August 1918, then to France a few weeks later. You can read his full diary online here, and read about his entire life and military career in this DNCR blog post.


Elbert E. Wilson of Delway, N.C. served in France in WWI in the U.S. Army’s Aerial Observers No. 1 with an aviation unit. He was already in France by June 1918, and was experienced in surviving attacks and shelling by the Germans. You read about his entire life and military career in this DNCR blog post.


Charles L. Dunn of Halifax County, N.C., served in WWI in France with 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps. You read about his entire life and military career in this DNCR blog post.


Reginald W. Alston of Halifax County, N.C., served in France in Company D, 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, U.S. Army. He and Charles Dunn were related to each other. Alston was at Bellicourt at the St. Quentin Canal on October 3, 1918, during the heavy fighting there. The author of this blog post has had the pleasure to meet Reginald Alston’s son. From first-hand knowledge of Alston, it is important to understand that what he says about his military service in his letters was made with great thought and from a deeply-reserved man. His words carry great gravity, therefore, in expressing his war. You read about his entire life and military career in this DNCR blog post.


Charles H. Warren of Caldwell County, N.C., served with the Medical Detachment, 18th Field Artillery, U.S. Army, in France in WWI. You read about his entire life and military career in this DNCR blog post.


Thomas Shinn’s War


“About 9 a.m. the wild waters calmed and we found ourselves floating many miles from the Statue of Liberty [in the northern Atlantic Ocean] and the land that we loved so well, the one thing that made me feel safe was that we had 14 troopers one cruiser one sub chaser in our convoy. We had boat drills and submarine guards on at all times, the trip was a long dreary one.” —August 1, 1918, diary entry while aboard a troop transport ship headed to England from the United States.


“As our ship sailed into the docks of Liverpool our band played ‘Britain Forever’ and a big English Cruiser sailed by us playing ‘The Yanks are Coming’ which showed us that we had a hearty welcome, old men, women and children greeted us by saying ‘God bless you Sammy’ and young girls hugged and kissed us and walked with us most of the nine miles that we hiked out to the nest camp called Knotty Ashe. Ate corn willie and hard tack until we had the stomach ache, slept that night on the floor with Capt. Bagley, Lt. Blackmore, Howard & Hall, and Sgt. Hudgens.” —August 11, 1918, diary entry while he was aboard a troop transport ship coming into Liverpool, England, for the soldiers’ first time in Europe during WWI.


“Leave camp aboard train for Winchester Eng[land] was assigned to tent and had a good rest for I am used to sleeping on the ground by this time.” —August 12, 1918, diary entry while his unit left from Liverpool, England, aboard a train for southern England, after just arriving by troop transport ship from the U.S. They would leave from southern England for France across the English Channel soon after.  


“Drilled all morning, left camp at 1:45 for the docks of South Hampton [Southampton, England] loaded the two wheeler called ‘Mono Queen’ the water was rough much worse than the Atlantic, I was sick oh my. As I leave England I say to myself that it’s the prettiest country that I ever saw and wondered if I'd ever see it again.” —August 17, 1918, diary entry while his unit was getting on a troop transport ship in southern England, leaving for France across the English Channel.


“At 8 P.M. we were loaded in box cars marked 40 men or 8 horses but I certainly did have to push to get in.” —August 19, 1918, diary entry, written after Shinn and his military unit arrived in port on the northwestern coast of France, and boarded troop trains to travel inland to their initial military camp site.


“…We were the first American soldiers that these people had ever seen and they thought we were all millionaires because we had watches and rings and other things that the pheasants of France don't have…” —August 21, 1918, diary entry, written upon Shinn and his unit first arriving further inland in France after leaving the troop train that brought them from the coast.


“…for supper, we had all the children of the town. every soldier had a child and we fed them out of our mess kits. the children were so pleased they ate like they hadn’t had a square meal for four years. We had pie, cake and white bread. The old people were so thankful they thanked us with tears of joy for they couldn’t tell us so we could understand...” —August 25, 1918, diary entry, written upon Shinn and his unit being in France, a few days after leaving the troop train that brought them from the coast.


“Rode all day passed several places where German prisoners were stationed. saw a stockade of 13,000 prisoners. landed at Bruyères [France] about 8 o’clock had a good nights sleep.” —September 15, 1918, diary entry, written upon Shinn and his unit arriving on the WWI battlefront in eastern France.


Elbert Wilson’s War


“Several of my men get out when they are off duty and help the French in their hay. The boys enjoy it and the French really need the help. so when the day’s work is done they have a big time eating chicken and drinking apple cider.” —June 17, 1918, letter home.


“Well we still have air raids. During the last two I was asleep and herd [heard] nothing of it till morning and the one before these two was on in full blast when I went to sleep. so you see about how much we consider it.” —July 3, 1918, letter home.


“I bought a 45 caliber Colts Automatic Pistols the other day and it is such a wonder I can’t hardly keep my eyes off it. Every officer is supposed to have one and they are very hard to get.” —July 28, 1918, letter home. Collecting weapons from both sides of the war, and getting new field weapons, was a big sign of status and a major talking point for soldiers in the war. This would continue in WWII—as popularized in the TV series “Band of Brothers.”


“Here we are on two of the important rivers of France, namely, the Loire and the Cher. and by the way I got the chance of going in swimming. now when I was a kid you never let me go in swimming on Sunday, but in the last year my conscious has become immune against reminding me of such trivial matters. Really there is no such things as a Sabbath in war time.” —August 11, 1918, letter home to his mother, expressing the necessary changes to social, cultural, and religious practices or observances in time of war. While North Carolina mothers often thought of their sons following morals and expectations they taught them, the North Carolina servicemen were just trying to survive and find ways to find some joy in the midst of war.


“I often think that when this war is over I am going home and not crawl out of my shell for a long time to come, for I know I will be plum sick of travel or politics forever and ever—world with end—amen.” —August 2, 1918, letter home to his mother.


Charles Dunn’s War


“Girls!!! I never saw so many in my life. They were extremely friendly and accommodating to say the least. You remember a warning you gave me before I left, don’t you? Well I can still look you in the eye and say I have ‘kept the faith,’ get me? I guess you do.” —July 30, 1918, letter home to his mother, in which he uses a euphemism for making out with and/or having sex with French women. A lot of American mothers worried about the dangers of their sons being “led astray” by French women in the war.


“My wants are few. After a fellow stays in Hell a while he is not much of a hog.” —July 30, 1918, letter home to his mother, expressing the sentiment that he does not need a lot of things while in combat, as long as he is alive. This was a common sentiment from American WWI soldiers, who just wanted to be home or survive the war. Many thought there is no point in carrying much with them because they were going to die in battle.


Reginald Alston’s War

“…perhaps there will be a girl left when we come home. If they have all married, it suits me for I think less of marrying now than even before. Still, if my lady friend around Henderson [North Carolina] is single and still has the thousand dollars[-]worth of war saving stamps her father gave her some time ago, I might try to get her interest in a ‘suit.’” —June 24, 1918, letter home. A great many American soldiers expressed the loss of interest in life or marriage while in France and Belgium fighting during WWI. One Thomasville, N.C., soldier claimed in a letter to a friend during the war that he would wander around the world and never settle down, because life is too short to stay still. That Thomasville soldier would marry less than ten years later and move to Raleigh, N.C.


“Air raids still attract our attention at night. One last night directly above us. We could see the lights and also see the shrapnel which our guns fired into the enemy. Several pieces fell within ten yards of where I was. Not very large, perhaps the smallest piece weighs one half pound while the largest two and half pounds. This was the most exciting one we have witnessed.” —July 1, 1918, letter home while Alston was in France along the front lines.


“Last week we, D. Company [of 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division] I mean had the distinction and esteemed honor of being reviewed by King George of England. The only company in the first battalion. You know I always said we had the best outfit and wherever ‘a show’ was to be pulled off they came for us.” —August 13, 1918, letter home


Charles Warren’s War


“Saw the first effects of war in the shape of two bridges blown up. Still I keep wondering, is this war?” July 12, 1918, diary entry.


"Started last hike to front, refugees coming in, troops moving everywhere, still I can't see the serious side of it. Now with the thunder of guns ever present I can't help but ask myself, is this war? Heard for first time the sound of German guns." July 13, 1918, diary entry.


“…lots of unburied dead lying around, two right beside my tent.”—August 1, 1918, diary entry while in camp in France.


“…Moving up, shells breaking just ahead of us, two trucks of wounded have passed. To look at the situation now it looks like a complete route of Germans, only hope that we are able to hold it all and still push them back.”—August 3, 1918, diary entry.


“Hiking all day yesterday footsore, tired and sick, can't eat anything, haven't written any ans[wers] to the letters yet, don't feel as though I ever will, shurely not until I get to feeling better. Some one relieved me of all my barber tools [was] I suppose[d] to trade for wine.”—August 17, 1918, diary entry.


All of the letters and diaries cited in this post are held in the World War I Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.