Croquet and Chemical Warfare

Fearful and homesick, Grandpa wrote this letter a few weeks before his overseas deployment. I’m posting the entire letter, followed by a transcription.

Gas House 1Gas House 2, 3Gas House, 4

I’ve added punctuation in the transcription below. Grandpa often wrote without commas, periods, or capitalization. I’ve also corrected spelling and added a few notes.

April 30, 1918

My Dear, now Tuesday night. I have been out playing catch since supper. The evenings are awfully long when I have nothing to do. Would like to play croquet with you. We were out and tried the gas[s] this afternoon. We have been practicing with them [i.e. the masks] for three weeks so this afternoon they gave us the test. The gas house holds about a hundred at once and we went through three times. The second time we were fastened in with the doors shut five minutes and they say one minute would kill any man. So you know we were awfully careful that they [masks] didn’t come off. They also threw some gas bombs into the trenches to show us how it acted. The smoke and gas hold right to the bottom of the trench.

We are going to move in the next three weeks for France. 355 [an infantry, Grandpa’s group was the 356th] is fixing to go now and they say we will go soon and the Captain told the first Sergeant there would be no more passes issued, and the first Sergeant said we would go inside of ten days and I think so too. But I don’t want you to tell it for I am not going to tell the folks until after we are started and of course they will have to know it. I saw Clyde Black tonight. He was down after his mail. He is in the bunch that was sent to the detention camp [where new recruits were housed]. I sent some of our boys mail up to them by him.

Mother didn’t tell me about writing to you. What was it about. They sent me an affidavit for a farming furlough. I got it today, but the Captain said there wouldn’t be any issued at all so several of the boys were somewhat disappointed as they were looking for a furlough. But the late news has spoil it all. I got a letter from Marie Sawyer today. She was awfully funny. Poor girl, too bad she hasn’t got a beau. Well my Dear, I will quit for tonight.

Love & Kisses



The Last Trip Home


Train postcard

A postcard Grandpa sent earlier in the spring.

Grandpa’s last trip home ended badly, in a misunderstanding with Grandma. When he boarded the train to go back to camp, he knew he’d have some explaining to do.

This trip home, from April 6-14, had been organized by the Army. They sent nearly 30 soldiers to their homes in northwest Missouri to drum up support for the war. As the King City Chronicle noted, April 12, the “soldier boys” came with “their guns, tents and all camp equipment.” Big crowds gathered to marvel at “bayonet charges” and the speedy way the soldiers set up their tents.

The soldiers went, like a traveling show (seems to me), from one little town to the next, staging their exhibitions first at Maysville, then Osborn, Cameron, Union Star, and finally, on Saturday, in King City. At each location, patriotic speeches were offered, bands played familiar all-American tunes, and townspeople bought Liberty Bonds.

Bond ads

These ads ran in the April 12 King City Chronicle, the same issue that described the military drills. Both ads capture the point of view of this newspaper–that the war in Europe was fought to protect freedoms at home.

That Saturday in King City, on the 13th, the last day of the tour, Grandpa sat down at a dinner. I don’t know if Grandma attended, only that Grandpa was finishing up when his buddies told him to hurry up and join them. He looked for Grandma but couldn’t find her to say goodbye. First thing he did, back at Camp Funston, was start apologizing.

First apology, 2 cropped

April 14 letter, written at 9:30pm, after a long trip back to camp. As he often did when he was anxious or in a hurry, Grandpa used a pencil and messy, loopy handwriting.

The “lot of things to tell you” was explored in an unusually long letter he wrote the next day, across five pages. He opened with a note on guard duty, followed by an update on the weather, and then moved right into a reference to his sister Ethel . . .

4-15-18 apology, 1 cropped

April 15 letter

Maybe he’d done the wrong thing?? Who was this “lady?”

In the letters that followed, Grandpa never named her. He tried to explain that she needed a ride home to Clarksdale (south of King City), and that he (along with his buddies?) obliged. He also made it clear that she had taken a train from there to St. Joe, and he traveled the other direction, to Maysville, to catch the train back to camp.

The last time he mentions the episode was in a letter dated May 9.

Apology, 5-9-18, cropped rev.

May 19 letter

Grandpa was ready to move on, put this behind them. He argued, in an earlier letter, April 28, “I sometimes think that was a good thing in some ways. My people sure did hate it, but given things will happen in love or war and this was in both, so I guess that was the reason there was the trouble.”

How did Grandma feel? I wish I knew. I can only imagine the strain the war put on her, keeping up with a boyfriend who could, at any time, be sent to a war that might claim him. How did her family feel about the “lady” episode? There’s only one clue, and that’s the appearance of  Stanley Brown in their correspondence. He had been introduced to Grandma by her paternal aunt, Susie Dykes Frank, who lived east of them, in Madison, Missouri. Grandma wrote Grandpa that her “friend” Stanley Brown had been inducted and was training at Camp Funston. “I will try my best to entertain him,” Grandpa wrote back, “as I know he is nice fellow or you would [not] have had anything to do with him, course saying nothing about me, HaHa.” Their first meeting came, not in Kansas, but months later in a hospital in France, where both men were recuperating after the war. That’s when they shook hands and both pulled out pictures of Grandma.


An undated family picture of Grandma, about the time of the war.

Troubles in love or war. Grandpa got that part right.



Reading corner inside a Y.M.C.A. hut at Camp Funston, 1914-1919. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

The Y.M.C.A. ran what they called “rest and recreational” programs in fifteen buildings at Camp Funston. This is one of the smaller structures, called a “hut.” Soldiers wrote letters at desks running along the walls, played board games, or caught up on the news. The “war articles” received special prominence, ingeniously held by clothespins, tied onto what looks like a pipe, and hung from the ceiling.

The welcome banner includes the Y.M.C.A. logo used during World War 1. The inverted red triangle, which originally carried the words spirit, body and mind on the three sides, was adopted in 1897 and used continuously by the Y.M.C.A. until 1967.

4-24-18 letter YMCA

Letter to Grandma, April 24, 1918. Grandpa rarely wrote on both sides of the paper, as encouraged, because the ink bled through the thin paper.

Soldiers received stationery, free of charge, at the Y.M.C.A. They could take the paper and envelopes back to the barracks, or write at one of the desks, as Grandpa apparently did that night, in the minutes before the hut was closed.

The Y.M.C.A. built larger structures at camp for concerts and lectures. The camp’s newspaper, Trench and Camp, often reported on Y.M.C.A. activities and attendance. Here’s the tally for February 1918, printed in the March 16 issue.

  • Estimated attendance at the 15 Y.M.C.A. buildings: 404,999
  • 60 lectures held: 30,888
  • 425 educational classes: 13,575
  • Books circulated: 10,225
  • Athletic events, participants: 20,242; spectators: 18,765
  • 173 religious meetings: 29,154
  • 117 entertainments held: 48,815
  • 109 motion pictures: 73,250
  • 358,795 letters written at Y huts

During wartime, it was no small task to book speakers, or to find and fund the supplies and equipment needed to keep the soldiers entertained. For example: dominos became scarce, as did checkers and checkerboards.

dominos cropped rev.

Trench and Camp, March 30, 1918. Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.

This story struck close to home. I have a checkerboard my grandfather made, although I’m not sure when. He painted the grid on the back side of glass, and then glued a pad to form a base. I see it everyday, as it sits under my laptop.

Grandpa's checkerboard

I’ll end this post about the good work of the Y.M.C.A. with a nod to baseball, one of the athletic activities much loved at Camp Funston. This cartoon ran in Trench and Camp, in a group of cartoons titled “A Practical Little Game Called ‘Swat the Kaiser.'” Yes, that’s a Kaiser baseball. . . .

Baseball Kaiser cropped

Trench and Camp, May 18, 1918. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.