Leonidas Denmark's Letter on Armistice Celebrations

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

100 years ago today on November 13, 1918, U.S. Army Air Service aerial observation instructor and Raleigh native 2nd Lt. Leonidas Polk Denmark wrote a 12-page letter to his penpal in the United States, explaining his feelings to the celebrations of the Armistice that ended military combat in World War I on November 11, 1918. It is one of the most honest, unfiltered explanations of the feeling of an American serviceman seeing the end of the war come. This is largely due to the fact the American officer in charge of censoring correspondence for Denmark's unit during the war was in fact Leonidas Denmark, and he allowed his letters through without limiting the content. But first, some background information.

 

Denmark was serving as an instructor for seven months in aerial observation at the 2nd Aviation Instruction Center in Tours, France, in 1918 when the Armistice was declared. During his entire time in service, he had been writing his female penpal Lorena Patterson, whom Denmark met while being stationed either in Texas or New Jersey before going overseas. Denmark opened up to Patterson about his thoughts of the war and military training, his personal life, and expectations for the future after the war would end. After the war, Denmark and Patterson continued writing each other, though it would tail off through the 1920s and 1930s.

In 2015, Lorean Patterson's grandson had found and donated all of Denmark's correspondence to his grandmother to the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina. Amidst this was the November 13, 1918, letter. In order for you to get a full sense of Denmark's experiences in France from November 11-13, 1918, we provide a full transcript of the 12-page letter here. We hope this post honors the memory of both Leonidas Denmark and the Patterson family, and their contribution to helping us all better understand the impact of WWI on the average American. 

Leonidas Denmark Letter to Lorena Patterson, November 13, 1918

 

"Dear Pat,

 

It seems ages since I wrote to Pat and more than ages since I heard from her. Honestly I have received only one piece of mail in over two weeks now. Something is evidently wrong on this side so I’ll not think of waiting for a letter tomorrow.

 

Can you realize that the war is over? I know you can’t. I can’t myself and I have seen much more to bring it home to me than you possibly could have. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for being in France Monday [November 11] night. I went to the city and saw the celebration but I can’t write about it [so?] that you could ever feel it as I did. I have honestly never before been so absolutely full of the spirit of things. The whole time my eyes were filled with tears and a lump in my throat was so big I couldn’t swallow. Honestly I can’t tell you how it all did affect me.

Can you imagine what a nation would do when suddenly it found itself FREE? France has known for centuries what a beast lay to the east. She has looked with horror to the time when that most dreaded of all foes would have to be met in a death grapple in which France alone stood no chance at all. That foe has been met and gone down in defeat. Can you now imagine what it all meant to the French?

 

Can you blame the old, the young, the middle-aged, soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children from celebrating? No, and you can’t imagine what a celebration it was. You have never seen anything like it. It was a celebration from the very heart and soul. I can’t describe it. Words can’t express it.

 

I can tell you a few things that struck me as especially significant though. Running through the crowd came a poiles [French term meaning “stubble,” believed used to refer to someone having lost an arm or leg] with a French “tri-color” pinned to the shoulder of an empty sleeve. With his good hand he frantically waved a Stars and Stripes. His voice rang out in rapid succession “Vive l’Amerique! Vive la France! Vive l’Amerique! Vive la France!” Another time three poiles passed, pushing their way through the crowds, attempting to keep together as best they could. Each had lost a leg but that didn’t prevent their using their voices. Russians, Japanese, French, British, Italian, American—every kind of Allied soldier was in the crowd and all were expressing their joy in all the ways imaginable.

 

A crowd would settle at a corner—or in the middle of main street if they happened to be there when they thought of singing—and sing the “Marseillaise” (the national song of France) as only the French can sing it: [your?] very blood ran cold. I couldn’t help it. Honestly I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it. When the band, an American band, played the “Marseillaise” from the steps of the city hall there wasn’t another sound. It was like a hymn at church. Every man, most of them in uniform stood at “salute” until the last note was sounded[,] then the heavens shook with the shouting. When the “Star Spangled Banner” was played it was the same—and the same when “God Save the King” sang out. “Dixie” then followed and the shouting began as the music did and completely drowned it out.

All the while flags of the Allies, French & American predominantly were waved everywhere. Everybody had one or more flags. All the buildings had colored lanterns hanging from every window and all were decorated with more flags. This was truly the biggest day France ever knew. And I was here. I saw it. Pat, I wouldn’t exchange places with any General who didn’t get to France.
 

Yesterday I had a strange experience too. I went up in a plane as a fog lifted to see how the “visibility” was at different attitudes. Suddenly the fog formed again all around us. We couldn’t see the ground from where we were so we climbed above the fog we found that there was nothing but a perfect sea of clouds without an opening anywhere through which we could see the ground. Above us was the most beautiful sky I ever saw and the brightest sun; below us just a shola[?] of perfectly beautiful little billows of diamonds. Far below us we could see our own shadow on the clouds, but it was entirely surrounded by a perfect circle of rain-bow. Can you imagine anything more beautiful? I longed for my Kodak [camera] but of no use—I didn’t have it.

Then came the time to attempt a landing. We didn’t know where we were, where we would be when we dived through the cloud to within sight of the ground which we knew would be dangerously close because the fog extended to the ground. But we had to come down. We did and luckily came within sight of a farm we knew. We sailed about 75 feet above the ground all the way back to camp and made a perfect landing. That was an experience of a life time. I am delighted that I can look back on it. But winter has come over here now. Today was perfectly fair but cold and so windy we didn’t fly. I expect ice again tomorrow A.M. and I’m down on the field at 6:20 A.M.—Pity me!

 

I wonder what Pat is doing tonight. Somewhere I feel that she is writing to me. How I do hope so. But it will be about Christmas when it reaches me. The ones on the way will reach me soon thought. That helps.

 

Hoping that you [?] all well and with the same kind of Kisses for little Mary. I am,

 

Always the same sincere friend, Polk."

 

You can read all of Leonidas Denmark's WWI correspondence, including his letters to Lorena Patterson, in the digital WWI collection in the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Archives of North Carolina and State Library of North Carolina.

 

To learn more about the life and service of Leonidas P. Denmark, you can we read a "Profiles from the Archives" blog post on him here. To learn more about Leonidas Denmark’s WWI service, check out his collection Leonidas P. Denmark (WWI 35) held in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh, N.C. The State Archives also holds another collection of his wartime correspondence in the Private Collections.