Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace (abridged), November 23, 1918. Family, Business, and Personal Affairs Papers - Family Correspondence File.
Nov. 23, 1918
Since the censorship was eased up somewhat today I am going to try and tell you from the beginning to end and tell you just what happened to me after I left Camp Coetquidan, which is the training camp whose picture I told you to look up in Saturday Evening Post of May 18, 1918. If I remember correctly I told you this camp was situated north of a town made famous by an Edit of Louis XIV. Well, that Edit I find was issued by Cardinal Richelieu. Coetquidan is half way between Nantes & Rennes [sic], the ancient capital of Britony. (This letter is going to be an awful bore I know and I'd advise you to discard it right now, but I have a suspicion that I have somewhat busted the censorship rules in past letters and I want to ease my conscience by telling you now a few things I should not have before). We were loaded on one of these toy French trains which are made up of seventeen flats thirty box cars, marked Cheveaux 8, Hommes 40, one first class passenger coach and two cabooses one in front and one behind. The Cheveaux 8 Hommes 40 are for the men and horses of the battery, the flats for the guns and caissons, and the first class car for me and my lieutenants. We loaded about 5 A.M. making a record, the best time ever made by a battery loading from that camp, pulled out at 8 A.M. and road half across, I mean all the way across France to a town in Alsace called Saulxures. It took us about two days and a half and was very tiresome. We stopped in Saulxures a couple of days and one night I got an order to be ready to go up to the front and make a reconnaisance for the purpose of going into position at 4 A.M. the next morning. Every battery commander got the same order and there was great hubbub and excitement about going into position before the enemy for the first time. It did give me a real creepy feeling, one I shall never forget although I've gone into some real positions since them. I have never felt about them exactly as I did that first one. We rode about 15 kilometers in a truck through some of the prettiest and hilliest country I ever saw to a town called Kruth which was full of German sympathisers and French soldiers. We got horses that had been sent up the night before and the real climb up the Vosges to our positions began. It took us until noon to reach the headquarters of the French group commander and it was a steady climb all the way. They Huns were shelling a cross road not far from those headquarters and I got to see my first enemy shell light and it was not a very pleasant sensation. The S.O.S. or Camp Doniphan seemed very pleasant and very far away. I met Major Staton just before I came to that cross roads and he treated me like a long lost brother. I was just as glad to see him too. I got by without getting any shells on or near me and they assigned a French Lieutenant who understood not a word of English to go and show me my battery position which was to be an entirely new one in Foret de Herenburg some seven kilos further yet. It was noon by this time and Major Gates and I ate dinner with the French commandant. They served it in usual French style a course at a time and a clean plate for every course. French officers always eat that way. It takes them so long to serve a meal that I'm always hungrier when I get done than I ever was before. We finally got done and the French Lt. and myself and my instrument and telephone sergeants started around to my position. We had to go around a mountain to get to it and also cross a ridge in plain view of the Boche. The French man made us go over the ridge a hundred meters apart so the Hun would not suspect that we were going to put a battery in that place. It was never necessary afterwards because I don't ever remember a clear day after that one. The ridge and my battery position were in a cloud all the rest of our stay there which was about ten days. Well we finally got the position picked out and proceeded to locate the positions for the guns, pick out a kitchen site and a place to keep my saddle horses. The position is 1200 meters above sea level and some six or eight hundred above the valley where Kruth is. It was on a bare knot about two kilometers long one end of which is called Schniepfenreith and the other Foret de Herrenburg because the woods comes up to the edge of it at that end. I chose a place in the edge of the woods for the battery and a place further down in the woods for the kitchen. There is a rock road running down the side of the hill and it was about 200 meters straight up from this road to my kitchen. All the supplies, water etc. had to be carried up by hand as well as all the material for construction. The battery was brought in over the ridge at night but that road could not be used any more because the positions would have been given away to the Boche air photos. Myself and my sergeants camped in the woods a couple of days getting things ready and then I brought the battery up. I found that there was a road about half as long as the one I first came up running directly to my position from Kruth. The battery you understand had been brought to Kruth by one of my Lts. during the two days I was getting the position ready. One of the men dropped a can of lard when they were bringing up the kitchen supplies from the lower road and it rolled all the way to the valley below scattering lard on every tree it hit and finally landing a battered piece of tin at the bottom. One of the kitchen police went down the next day and gathered in the lard getting a chunk from a tree and a chunk from a bush and maybe some on the ground. Anyway the cooks rendered out the sticks and saved a half a can of lard. It was surely some steep hill and the trees were all full of wire entanglements. If a man had started to roll down he'd have been in shreds when he got to the bottom. Well I worked on that position and followed all the rules in all the books to the letter and never did fire a shot from it. I got ordered one day to go pick out a position some two kilometers close to the Dutch lines and get ready to fire a gas barrage at him. I was supposed to have 24 hours to get ready but only had about six. My horses were seven kilos away and no phone to them. You should have seen the hurrying and skurrying I did to get into position and get adjusted and ready to fire. I got ready and went up to the O[bservation].P[ost]. and began my adjustment. That was my first shot at Heine and it was an event. The boys heard some way that I was going to shoot at a brewery and it was with great regret that they pulled the trigger. It was a mistake because I didn't shoot at the brewery although I could have. They are saving the case of that first cartridge and I hope to see it engraved with the date, place and event and installed with other important things in D. Bty's archives in Kansas City some day. You know the rest of that eventful day. I shot my gas barrage at 8 P.M. The first sergeant failed to get the horses up in time and the Hun gave me a good shelling. The sgt. ran away and I had one high old time getting out of that place. I finally did with two guns and went back to my former position arriving at 4 A.M. where the cooks had the best hot meal I've tasted since I arrived in France with one exception. The boys called that engagement The Battle of Who Run, because some of them ran when the first sgt. did and some of them didn't. I made some corporals and first class privates out of those who stayed with me and busted the sgt. Bill O'Hare whose letter you saw in the paper was one of 'em.
We didn't stay long at the old position but got ordered to move everything down to Kruth which is where I wrote you about the engagement. We stayed about two days in Kruth and then got ordered to fill all our caissons and pull out. We did. And marched every night until the 12th of Sept (Pulled out the 31st). We didn't start marching though until we'd been loaded on a train at a place called Remiremont. I went to bed and supposed we'd ride all night but about 3:30 a Lt. Col. woke me up and told me that in 18 minutes I would be unloaded at Bayon and that Bayon was under constant aeroplane bombardment and I must have my battery under cover before daylight. Well I was scared green. I was in command of the train and there was absolutely no one to pass the buck to. I simply had to unload that battery and find a place for it before day light. The Lt. Col. gave me a map and told me of a possible location if someone else hadn't beaten me to it. He also told me and marked out for me a line of march I was to pursue on the next two nights. Well I got all unloaded and under cover without a mishap. There were two dead horses on the platform with bullet holes in thier [sic] backs and I told my outfit that it was evidently the work of machine guns from aeroplanes and they'd better speed up the unloading. Well they did all right and I found that the Lt. Col (by the way he was Champ Clark's son) had given me a good steer. There was no one else in the woods he had suggested that I go into. I spent a very pleasant day snoozing and watching the men bath in the Moselle River. We were right on the bank of the river. I got up about noon and went up to the depot to watch Col. Elliott and the Supply Company detrain. I told him all the harrowing tales I could think of regarding the daylight attacks of Hun planes, showed him the two dead horses and invited him to draw his own conclusions as to how they'd met their fate and just what he could expect if a Hun plane came. (I found after wards that those horses were shot by a vet because they couldn't walk). Col. E. was duly impressed and as I had already preempted most of the woods he was about wild trying to find a place to put himself and the supply Co. He finally had me to make room for him along side of my battery and he came piling in in broad daylight. That was usually about what happened to all our well thought out preparations. They were usually nullified by old mother necessity and we did as we'd do in any other enterprise, just the best we could.
They changed my orders about four times that day as to where I was to go but finally decided it would be the first place I'd started for and my era of night marches began. I passed a whole regiment of infantry strung out for four or five miles and would have passed another regiment of 'em but their brigade adjutant got hold of me about them and gave me a terrible wigging. He looked like a bishop and if I ever meet him in civil life I shall certainly knock his block off. He made me wait until that whole regiment I'd passed went by me. I stood at that crossroad from 9 o'clock until 3 A.M. and then had to poke along behind that outfit until broad daylight. We could hear Hun planes and saw them bomb Nancy and Luneville over in the distance and expected any minute to get a good machine gunning. But we didn't and finally arrived at a patch of woods and put up for the day. With one exception that was the worst night I ever spent in France. If that onery adjutant hadn't stopped me I'd have reached the town I was headed for by 2 o'clock and would not have had to make two nights of it. The next night we went into a little old dirty place called Coyvillier. We spent about five days there and then began marching again every night until we reached St. Mihiel where we were held in reserve. I had a disagreeable experience getting out of that little old town all caused by C Battery. It was up hill nearly straight up every direction out of the place and I pulled all my guns up out of town in daylight but Marks tried to move all his battery out at once and naturally got stuck. That split me in two leaving my guns up the hill and my combat train kitchen etc. behind C. We were both supposed to move out at 8 P.M. but it was 9:30 before Marks got up the hill and 10:30 when I got my battery all together. The road was so narrow I couldn't pull around him and I had to wait. As usual it began to rain and I got left clear at the tail of the whole brigade but I was lucky anyway because I got a better place to stay that day than any of the others had. I wrote you several letters from Coyvillier. The next night we went through Nancy and heard the first continuous roar of artillery preparation. I have heard it several times since but it's never sounded so big or so real as it did that night. It was dark as Egypt and raining as usual and I had to ride behind the last carriage of the battery in front of me in order to see it. That morning we arrived at the Foret de Haye and were in reserve for the San Miheil drive. It was such a walk away that they didn't need us but we were there and ready just the same. We kept our horses harnessed night and day for two days and spent a very pleasant time watching Hun prisoners go by.
Then one bright moonlight night we started night marching again. We did 22 nights of it in September. We marched for several nights and then went into a wood called the Argonne. One of my Lts went up to look over my position and I stripped the battery for action. I knew I was in for it this time because I only took the firing battery and just enough men to run the guns and they for the first time were allowed to ride. I got stuck getting out of the woods. One caisson got pig headed and I couldn't budge the cussed thing with either prayers or cuss words. I tried both. Finally hooked all the men onto it with ropes and got it out and then and there began the wildest ride I ever hope to have. It seemed as though every truck and battery in France was trying to get to the same front by the same road that I was going. I had twelve carriages in my column four guns, six caissons, and two fourgun wagons one of them full of instruments and one full of grub. I don't know which I'd rather have lost. I believe I could have gotten along better without the grub. Well, I finally got my battery out on the main highway and headed for the front. The real front this time west of Verdun and just alongside the Argonne Forest. Those devilish trucks kept trying to cut me in two. It was necessary to keep the battery moving at a trot and a gallop nearly all the way and I had to ride the line to see that they stayed closed up. Every time I'd get a chance I'd cut in ahead of a row of trucks and sew 'em up until I got the whole battery by and every time a truck would get a chance he'd cut through the battery. They didn't get very many chances because when we got the right of the road I made it a point never to let 'em through. In one little old village we passed we had to make a right angle turn around a curb and one of these bloomin' trucks drove up just as close as he could while one of my carriages was going by and then he had to stop because I started putting my horse squarely across in front of him and held the whole train of a division while the battery went passed. Every one of my carriages either hit that truck a jolt or smashed into the curb but I got them by and went on down the road at a gallop to find that my second gun had a horse down in the road. I don't know if I told you but it was raining as usual and the road was as slick as glass. We finally got that horse up and it took me a solid hour of fast maneuvering to get that gun back to its place in column again. When we arrived at our position about 3 A.M. we found that it was in a little patch of woods just off the Forest de Hesse and south of Neuvilly about a kilometer on a mud road. Well naturally after all that wild ride I had to get two caissons stuck in spite of the fact that at regular intervals Heine would drop a shell in that neighborhood just to let us know he was there. By doubling up teams I finally got into position by daylight and then went up on the side of a hill in some woods and went to sleep. Got up about 3 in the afternoon and picked out another place to put my cot which was very lucky for me because that night my first choice was unmercifully shelled and I'd be in small pieces now as would half my battery and my Lts if I'd stayed there. We spent the next day, which was the 24th in digging trenches and preparing shelter for the men and figuring out ranges to different places to fire on. When we did finally fire they gave us targets of course that we'd never figured for. Every night Heine shelled all the surrounding territory but missed me. He shot up Pete Allen's bed just after Pete had gotten out of it and blew out an ammunition dump and killed a man for Salisbury. They were both within two hundred meters of me but a shell never came any closer than that all the time we were there but they lit on all sides of us and did shoot a hole through my kitchen stove pipe. I promptly moved the kitchen on the urgent request of the cook.
Well as I have written you already the eventful day was Sept. 26 and at 3:20 A.M. I began firing a barrage that lasted until 7:20. My guns were so hot that they would boil wet gunny sacks we put on them to keep them cool and I was as deaf as a post from the noise. It looked as though every gun in France was turned loose and I guess that is what happened. At 8:30 I hooked up and moved out at the head of the second battalion 129 FA because I got ready first. Got out in no man's land and the Colonel told me to go into action behind a hedge and walk out front and find if I could shoot up some machine guns that were playing hot with our infantry. I went along with Major Gates but I found nothing to shoot at. Got shot at myself and after looking around about an hour we decided to go back. When I got back to the battery I found that the Hun had a bracket on me that is an over and a short and that I should get away from there as quickly as the Lord would let me. The Colonel had ordered my Lt to limber up and had taken the rest of the regiment around another way. I got hooked up before Heine started his fire for effect and started across no mans land crossways trying to get to a wood over behind Vauquois. As usually under such circumstance I got stuck and had to hitch in the men. We finally caught the rest of the column and the Hun began to shell again. They got a direct hit on one of Salisbury's wagons and completely wrecked it. One of my men was sitting in a shell hole and a dud lit right between his legs. If he hasn't a charmed life no one has. The shelling finally got so bad we had to unlimber and wait for it to quit. There was a little hollow we had to cross and when it finally got dark I hitched 12 horses on a piece and got across some way or other. It was 3 A.M. when I had finally gotten all my carriages but two into that wood. Those two are out in that no man's land yet I guess because I never did get them. That was the worst night I ever spent. Men went to sleep standing up and I had to make them keep on working because I had to be in position to fire by 5 A.M. the 27th. I got into position but the infantry advanced so fast I couldn't dig my trail holes deep enough to fire over them so I didn't get to fire that morning. Out battalion got orders to move forward that day and we went up through Chepy and took up a position in front of Varennes. I was the farthest front battery that afternoon and I got instructions to fire on Charpentry and go up and observe the fire. I went up and by some unaccountable mistake got ahead of our front line infantry and didn't even have a pistol. I got in a shell hole to observe fire and the infantry fell back and left me there. I fell back also and established myself an O. P. at a tank headquarters and I've already told you what happened from then on. I shot up a German battery in position one morning out and a German O.P. and I'm the only B.C. in the 129th who ever saw what he fired at and I think that is some distinction. We stayed in until Oct 2 when we went back to a little dirty French town to rest and I'll say we all needed it. Every one of us was all most a nervous wreck and we'd lost weight until we looked like scare crows. But we're all fit as fiddles now. I weighed 174 today, which is about 20 pounds more than I ever did.
We stayed at Signeulles about a week and then they went us up on the real Verdun front. My battery position for 3 weeks was right between Ft. Tavannes and Ft. de Souville and about 3 kilos from the famous Douamont the impregnable fort that saved Verdun and Paris. I have already told you how we were shelled most every night and what a dreary desolate place it was. I am most awful glad it's over and I hope I never have to fight in another one. But it gives a fellow a kind of a satisfied feeling when he knows he's done his best and that some 10,000 or 12,000 rounds were unloaded on Heine on the figures that he has prepared. The best part of it is I still have all my men but two who were wounded when on special duty with the ammunition train and have both eyes both hands both feet and a fairly clear head.
You no doubt will be mighty tired time you get to this but I thought perhaps you'd like to know some of the things we did and saw. I am still stopping in barracks not far from Verdun but expect to move soon whether to Germany or home I don't know but I hope it's home.
Remember me to your mother and all the family and I hope you're not entirely bored to death.
Yours always Harry
Gene Sallers is all right and back with the battery.
Harry S. Truman Capt 129 F.A. American E. F.
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