Andover men fought in the First World War, and the Andover Townsman published letters home from them. The letters were thoroughly censored so the enemy would gain no important information from a lost or stolen letter. Although much information was removed, enough remained to give us a picture of what it was like "over there" during the early months. The writers weren't allowed to give their location except to say they were "somewhere in France."
Last week, I wrote about Andover men who went into combat years before America entered the "War to End All Wars." When Congress did declare war on Germany in April 1917, America was able to mobilize and project force far quicker than the rest of the world expected, landing its first troops in Europe by June 1917. Two million Americans were in Europe before December of that year. Andover men were among some of the first to arrive, and mail home soon followed.
Paul Cheney wrote to his mother, complaining about the constant rain and mud in France. Most all the letter writers mentioned the wet weather. Cheney said he knew less about the war than when he was home. The good news was that he spoke to a French soldier who said the Germans had no idea that America was as far into the war as it was. But Cheney added that the Frenchman was shot through both lungs. "I guess he won't last long," Cheney said. [Cheney became a combat veteran. When he came home, he lived at 39 Maple Ave.]
George Napier, in a letter to "Madge," stated that almost all the French women wore black and were in mourning. It is recorded that 1,698,000 French died in the war, most of them young men. Napier said, "The work is done by old men, women and children and every inch of land is cultivated. It looks like a stage set. Everyone drinks wine here, but I think good old water has got it all over wine." [Napier became a combat veteran and a sergeant major. When he left the service, he moved back to Andover.]
J. Everett Collins said French customs seem peculiar, and are "rather a joke to us." Collins made a plea to send "smokes," because the American's didn't like French tobacco. This was a common request from the troops. [Collins became a combat veteran, eventually moving back to Andover to become one of its best known citizens. Andover's Collins Center for the Performing Arts at Andover High School is named for him.]
George Saunders said, "France is a very queer country - looks dead and deserted. All the people are elderly." He described the town where he was staying by saying it was very clean and that the houses were all stone, not wood, and were narrow. There were villas and residences that had high stone walls with broken glass on top of them. Saunders said autos were "as rare as hen's teeth and the trains are so small they look like toys, and the engines are the size of a Ford." He pleaded for tobacco "for goodness sake" as well as copies of the Townsman. [Saunders became a combat veteran and moved to Arlington when he left the service.]
James Dick said that on the boat over they were on submarine watch two hours on and six hours off. "The food was awful poor and little of it at that." [He became a combat veteran and moved to Connecticut after the war.]
Herbert Auty said, "I never realized what war really was and now I don't know enough. It certainly is awful hard for the people here, and if the people in the States only knew they would be more careful at home. The New York Herald prints a paper here in English and we get little (mighty little) news at that. Since leaving the U.S. our meals have been rather poor and broken." [No information available on Mr. Auty.]
William Holden said the YMCA tent is awfully good, but everyone had their cigarettes stolen from their barracks bag. [He became a combat veteran and lived at 225 Main St. following the war.]
Sergeant George Abbot said they were allowed one letter a week. "America is the place of all places" he noted and said, "Send the Townsman. We get the N.Y. Herald but it is full of 'bull.'" He closed by saying, "Corporal Black and myself go for a hike every once in awhile." [Abbott became a first lieutenant, and lived in NY following the war. Black would later be the only Andover police officer shot and killed in the line of duty.]
James Dick sent another letter saying they had changed locations and "the conditions are hard, mud everywhere."
The American part of the war was just beginning and, for most of these troops, life would be miserable for the next several months.