First Hospitalization: Toul Sector

8:19 (envelope)

For reasons he didn’t say, Grandpa was taken to a field hospital on August 15.

Came here Thursday night. Didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best so I have had it pretty quite here. They gave me my clothes this morn. I got up, dressed, then went for a bath and shave which made me feel quite a lot better. So I think I will be able to go back in a couple of days. I am a little weak yet but am anxious to get back as the Germans threw a barage at our men for about an hour about three oclock this morn and I know they will have lots to tell me.

This letter, from August 19, sent me reading “between the lines.” What caused his illness?

The first clue is his placement at a field hospital. The U.S. Army typically set up five arenas for medical care, according to the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Here’s a summary from their exhibit:

Trenches, on the front line. Medical personnel immediately treated some of the soldiers and returned them to battle. They also sent others to the next location, if they needed additional medical attention.

Advanced Dressing Stations, 400 yards away from the fighting. The wounded were stabilized (bleeding stopped, medications given, broken bones set). As needed, the soldiers were moved again.

Field Hospital, 1 ½ miles away. Emergency operations were performed here, and diseases like pneumonia and influenza were treated.

Evacuation Hospital, 8-13 miles away. For the more serious operations (e.g. spinal injuries, head injuries).

Base Hospital, 23-38 miles away. Patients stayed here for convalescence and physical therapy.

A respiratory ailment—something that Grandpa had at Camp Funston, several times—seems a likely reason for his hospitalization, at a place that specifically treated infectious diseases like pneumonia and influenza. One of these could have been on the mild side, explaining his comment “didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best.” Also, a week’s stay matches the care of those illnesses. So does his admission that he feels weak.

He didn’t have a physical injury, it seems, because in the next letter he writes, “I tell you we are lucky to not even have a man wounded.” This leads me down another path: Where was he when he took ill? His group was in the Toul Sector, having been in battle to win back an area earlier seized by the Germans. Grandpa was cooking during this activity, meaning he was some distance back from the front lines (I presume). Since several groups in the 89thDivision were stationed throughout the Toul area, it’s hard to know where exactly Grandpa was during the heavy bombardment, described in the History of the 89thDivision.

“On the night of the 7th-8thof August, the front line battalions . . . were subjected to a most severe bombardment of gas shells. The first attack started at 10:30 in the evening and continued until midnight. The shelling then ceased until about 1 o’clock and was then resumed for nearly two hours more. Between 9,000 and 10,000 shells were fired during the bombardment. About 95 per cent of the shells were of mustard gas and phosgene, interspersed with many high explosives.” (published in 1920, p. 71)

Some of the field hospitals near Toul took “gassed cases,” according to the Army’s official history of the war:

I asked my chemist husband about the effects of that exposure and whether it might have caused Grandpa to take ill and remain “weak” days after the attack. “No,” he said initially, “mustard gas typically burned the skin, and also, in bad cases, air passages.” Then, when I reported that contemporary accounts named phosgene as the second gas used in the Toul offensive, he said, “Well, then, maybe,” adding that exposure would depend on the winds and where they transported the gas, on the presence of rain (to neutralize it). Also in the History of the 89thDivision, p. 73, I found the observation that some soldiers “removed their masks when the shelling was over, and others next morning went to their kitchens in the low ground, in ignorance of that property of the gas which causes it to vaporize again at the rising of the sun.”

The last clue in his letter–“They gave me my clothes this morn”–might suggest his clothes were initially removed to be decontaminated from gas, or from the ever-present lice, or for general cleaning. It’s one clue among several in this letter that begs the question, Why was Grandpa hospitalized? Here’s the full letter, punctuation changed to make it easier to read. I’ve kept his spelling. The scanned original follows the transcription.

Notes: He mentions some buddies from home–Chester Marshall and Clyde Shearer. The reference to “bunch of men going to the service now” confirms what the King City Chronicle would announce in a September 6 headline, “13,000,000 Men Called by War Department to Register September 12. 18 to 45 Age Limits.” The term “Chau” is Grandpa’s abbreviation for the big festival called Chautauqua. Mr. Stanton preached at the King City Christian Church. Grandpa mentions the cook shack; more on his duties as a cook in the next post.

August 19, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis

Here I am and Sunday afternoon and you can imagine what I am thinking. Although I am at a field hospital. Came here Thursday night. Didn’t want to come very bad but they thought it best so I have had it pretty quite here. They gave me my clothes this morn. I got up, dressed, then went for a bath and shave which made me feel quite a lot better. So I think I will be able to go back in a couple of days. I am a little weak yet but am anxious to get back as the Germans threw a barage at our men for about an hour about three oclock this morn and I know they will have lots to tell me.

We are with Co B now, I mean in the same cook shack. You ask me in one of your letters about Chester. We are still together. We have out side of the few, the same bunch we left Funston with. Machine Gun co. is on the line at the same place we are.

I had quite a long talk with Clyde Shearer a few nights ago. He told me he had only gotten one letter from Edna since he landed in France. So you see I am leading all the boys in mail so far, but I know the reason. I was glad to hear of your wonderfull washing machine. I want you to be an expert at it as you know I have told you I don’t like to wash, but say I am a cat at the cooking stunt.

I see by the last paper that there sure is a bunch of men going to the service now. I only think what goes now in reserve army. I don’t think this will last forever although it is a big thing now. I suppose your Chau will be over by the time this reaches you and hope you have had a good time. I often think I must write to the church as I promised Mr Stanton I would but you know there is always plenty more places I want to write worse so you can tell Mr Stanton that I think of them often and will write soon. So give my best regards to all, and I close as ever with lots of love and kisses

Your loving Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via New York

8:19 (1)8:19 (2)8:19 (3)

The Greatest Men and Nation on Earth

Grandpa rarely mentioned patriotism in his letters. But in the letter he wrote on August 10, after he had finally entered into battle, he wrote, “I tell you we have by far the greatest Men and Nation on Earth.”

Old Glory, Effingham

This framed print, about 7″ x 13″, has a copyright date of 1942. I don’t remember it, by Mother tells me it hung in my grandparents’ home in Effingham, Kansas, in the hall between their kitchen and dining room.

His letters from the front (and I have nine) don’t mention place names. Certainly, the Allies were active along the Western Front in early August. The National WW1 Museum and Memorial notes on their blog that “The Hundred Days Offensive,” beginning on August 8, saw the British near Amiens and the Americans further south, around St. Mihiel. These 100 days would mark the final chapter of the war. American soldiers played a central role in the victory celebrated with the Armistice on November 11. Unlike the demoralized and exhausted British and French troops, and the equally dispirited Germans, the American soldiers were rested and ready for battle.

In Grandpa’s “My Soldier’s Record,” a booklet describing his service, he names the Toul Sector as the place he was “first under fire.” This lines up with the account detailed in History of the 89th Division, p. 55. “On August 3 and 4, 1918, the 89th Division loaded itself into trucks and started for a front line sector north of Toul.” Their mission was to seize part of the salient (or “bulge” into French territory) held by the Germans. Noteworthy, according to the History, was how this was “the first American division ever permitted to enter the line as a unit and without having been previously brigaded with French or British troops.” (p. 56) It also established a routine, with a third of the troops on the front line, another third behind to provide support (and food prepared by cooks like Grandpa) and the final group well back in reserve, “resting, refitting and training,” according to History, p. 76.

The mission in the Toul Sector successfully ended on August 10, the date of Grandpa’s letter. Here is that letter, his first from the front, transcribed. I’ve changed the punctuation to help with reading, but kept his spelling. Below it is a scan of the letter. A couple of notes: Grandpa refers to an enclosed note “written some days ago,” which I don’t have. Marshall is his younger brother. He mentions the headquarters, which History names as Raulecourt (halfway between Toul and St. Mihiel), p. 58. The Chronicle he received is the King City, Missouri newspaper.  He calls the night the “busy time,” because the Germans often attacked during the night and early morning hours. Through it all, there was time for doughnuts, as you’ll see!


August 10, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Girl.

I have now an opportunity to write you as I have not for the last two weeks, although I am sending one tonight also that I written some days ago. We have made some move since I written you last and you can guess where we were are at, but all is well, but things are real exciting at times. I got ten letters yesterday most of them were from my true loved one, two from Mother also one from Marshall stating he had moved to Denver. The latest from you was written July the eleventh. I sure think you a dear one to write me so often and only wish I could return as many, but I am thinking of you just the same.

I am sure seeing some great experience and wish I was able to tell you all but you know there is a day and days where I won’t have to write can only talk to you, and you know I am good at that. Ha Ha. When you write me tell me anything you wish as the incoming mail is not censored at all.

The Y.M.C.A. men are on the job here also the Salvation Army. They are right in the trenches doing their bit and and bringing stuff to the boys. I tell you we have by far the greatest Men and Nation on Earth and as our Slogan goes Hell Heaven or Hoboken by Xmas is being carried through daily.

Mother writes real cheerfull and it is as you said in one letter, makes it a whole lot better for me to do my bit as I have always done. Head Quarters Co. is real close to us. The band plays every night and I tell you it sure sounds fine. I am in the cook shack now also Key Ring and Barcuss is here writing. We have our work done for today. I got a couple of copies of the Chronicle a few days ago, the first second class mail since we got here. Well my dear it is now time for me to go to bed so I will close as usual with lots of love & kisses,


Thos W Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E.F.


Sunday afternoon.

Another day is here and a nice one and I am enjoying the same. I am at the Y.M.C.A. hut now. Quite a few of the boys are writing. Things are quite today but of course we cant tell about tonight as that is the busy time. I am sure enjoying my experience. Clyde Black was at our kitchen to see me a few minutes this morn. He is looking good. We had a good dinner today. I rolled out over five hundred doughnuts while the other boys ran them. We are drawing lots to eat. Well my dear I will close again having in mind this is Sunday afternoon and I will have to send more than usual amount of love & kisses,


Thos W. Alderson

Co C 356 A.E.F.


On the Move

Of the many things I’ve learned as I blog about Grandpa’s WW1 experience, here’s an obvious one: I can’t make a good map with legends! I’ve relied on contemporary maps from Putnam’s Handy Volume Atlas of The World, 1921, as a template, adding notes to follow Grandpa’s journey to the battlefields in France.

He often wrote that he and his group were “on the move,” not being able to tell Grandma details of when they were moving, or where. I’ve been able, using various histories of the 89th Division, to imagine his journeys.

Journey 1-editJourney 2-editJourney 3-editIn Europe, Grandpa wasn’t permitted to give any details of place or movement. What I’ll provide here remains a best guess. To get a lay of the land, have a look for the famous sites of war events on this map.Eruope mapStarting in the lower right corner, you can see Sarajevo below the “s” of Yugoslavia. This was the site of the assassination that many historians mark as the beginning of the war. The northern border of Italy with Austria was the front described in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Above, the tiny state of Luxembourg shares borders with France, Germany, and Belgium. Much of Grandpa’s war activities took place in this area.

Look for Paris and then locate the town on Brest on the Atlantic coast. Grandpa was hospitalized near Paris. And on his birthday–March 11, 1919–he sailed home from Brest.

But back to his journeys from the British Isles to the Western Front.Europe journeysHere’s the same journey shown in colored lines.Europe, linesFrom Liverpool, he was transported, I believed by train, to Southampton (along the purple line). He made the (rough) Channel crossing by small boat from Southampton to Le Havre (yellow line). From there, and along a route I don’t know, he was transported at night by train, following the blue line.

Over thousands of miles and lasting many weeks from late May to August, the long journey brought Grandpa (as well as many of the American forces) to a small area between Toul and Verdun, a distance I calculate to be about 50 miles. For Grandpa, the battlefields occupied an area only slightly larger than the familiar distance he knew back home, along country roads between the farm and the next biggest town of St. Joe, Missouri.

And now, as promised, my attempt (with apologies) at rendering a map. Grandpa fought in battles at Toul, St. Mihiel, and Verdun, where he was injured. The next blog posts will feature letters related to each of these battles.


Battlefields where Grandpa fought during the late summer and fall months of 1918.

If you enjoy maps and want to see how the professionals map out the various fronts and battles of World War 1, here’s a link I recommend: “40 maps that explain World War 1” @