The Last Letter from the Front

Grandma knew the look of “soldiers mail.” Grandpa was required to write the term in the upper corner of every envelope mailed from France to guarantee free postage.

last envelope

She recognized all the information that covered the front: her name and address, and his, the censor’s stamp, and the postmark: here, November 12, U.S. Army Post Office M.P.E.S. 1918. APO 761. (1)

The postmark confirmed that the letter began its journey on the day after the Armistice. She certainly received it weeks after the end of fighting, and during a time, I presume, Americans were celebrating the end of the war.

She may have looked twice at sender’s box, AM.EX.F. (American Expeditionary Forces), Knights of Columbus (a Catholic charity), only because most of his letters were sent on stationery provided by the Y.M.C.A. Grandpa surely took whatever free paper was offered.

She opened the envelope across the bottom edge, using a long, pointed letter opener that neatly sliced through a single edge without damaging the envelope or the letter enclosed. (I remember watching her open letters with such a tool.) When she pulled out the letter, its two pages neatly folded, she may have first seen Grandpa’s signature.

last envelope, back with letter

If I had seen his signature, I would have smiled. He was still alive. He was still writing letters. But I don’t know what Grandma thought. Maybe she was relieved to hear from him, or annoyed that he was writing so infrequently now (as compared to the daily writing they’d established over the months of his service). Grandpa hints at her frustration in this letter.

I wonder if she calculated the transit time, figuring the weeks it had taken this letter, after Grandpa wrote it, to find its way to the censor, to the military post office, and then onto a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, before traveling by train from New York to Missouri. Maybe she did. She was clever and always good with numbers.


“October 31, 1918. Some place in France. My Dear Inis,” the letter began. So, he had written this well before the November 12 postmark, she might have thought, before the Armistice, and before he was safe from enemy fire.

I doubt, as she held the letter and slowly made her way through the contents, that she could have known that–in real time, at the very moment she was reading his letter–Grandpa was lying in a hospital bed in France, badly injured on November 3, only a few days after he wrote her. The news of his injury only made its way to his next of kin—his parents—in December.

“Mr. And Mrs. Alderson received word the first of the week,” the King City Chronicle noted on December 13, 1918, “that their son, Tom, was seriously wounded, Nov. 3rd. All hope they will yet get different word and all extend sympathy to Mr. And Mrs. Alderson.” (2)

Grandma probably read this letter–by my count the 175th one he sent during his service and the last one from the front–around Thanksgiving, before anyone knew he’d been hurt. Her family, gathered at their holiday table, no doubt prayed for his safe return. He would return, but not for months, and not in the same condition he’d known before he was called to serve his country, a solemn duty that changed his life, and hers.


(1) M.P.E.S. stood for Military Postal Express Service. It was set up in 1918, to expedite military mail sent from overseas. APO, Army Post Office, the number referring to a collection location (which I couldn’t identify), typically the spot near the battle area where the mail could be put safely on a train.

(2) King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p4.

October 31, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis,

The orders are for us today to write to no one except our people, but as I written home a few days ago I am going to write you.

I know you think I have neglected you some and I have, but you don’t know what we have been doing since I written you last. We had had some hard warfare.

You know we all write home and send the bright side although you know we are not having a snap. I am daily looking for the time that I can be with you and tell you all.

I have been with Harry Carder several times in the last week. He is only stationed about a mile from where we are now. He is just the same as ever and is a good officer. He brought me back to my co [company] in his car a couple of times. He also took supper with us one night.

This is a beautiful day and we are sure enjoying it as we are just sleeping out on the ground with our blankets over us. We have been on the front going on four months and I think our Division deserves a rest as they have done some hard work.

I got a letter from you last night also one from Mother and a couple of Chronicles. They came in fine as I was sick all day, but am feeling a little better today.

I don’t know whether you will be able to read this or not. I am sitting on the ground with the paper on my Gas mask.

Several of our boys are back from the Hospital. Carl Ketchum, Rube Dunlap and several more you would not know.

I supose you have got the card designating you are allowed to send a Xmas present to a Soldier in France.

Xmas coupon

(He sent the coupon on October 26. Given the long time mail took, weeks, I wonder if it arrived in time to meet the November 20 deadline. Clearly, the coupon wasn’t used.)

Don’t think I am [word unclear] you for it as every boy sent one and I sent it to you instead of the folks and I thought you might send together and I don’t want you to send a great deal as we can’t carry it only something we can eat. Ha Ha.

Ferris Keys has gone to the officers training camp. I haven’t heard from him yet. Also four have gone from our co. I hear from Marshall [his brother] real often. He is well pleased with Denver.

You mentioned in one of your letters that you felt like you were not doing enough to help win the war. I think you are and if you are not I am doing enough for us both, so just rest easy.

Well we were told not to write big letters so I better quit. So I do so by sending plenty of love x kisses


Thos. W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via N.Y.

10:31:18 (1)10:31:19 (2)10:31:18 (3)10:31:18 (4)

MLB and WW1 Baseball

The Dodgers are headed to the 2018 World Series–a miracle of miracles for this LA Dodgers fan. It’s October in America and time to think about baseball. I’m sure my grandfather, who loved baseball, would agree.

How did World War 1 impact baseball? That question came to me when I read a letter Grandpa wrote on March 30, 1918.

Baseball, Funston, 1


I like how “a big Easter celebration” and “a big ball game” get equal attention.

Why were the Cardinals playing at a military training camp? I did a bit of research and came up empty. Then, on a lark, I called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, better known as Cooperstown. I realized I’d landed on a bit of good luck when a woman (who only identified herself as Katherine) answered the phone. Not only was she a graduate student in American Social History, with a specialty in baseball, she was also a Cards fan. Within a couple of days, she sent me over 30 scanned pages of information on World War 1-era baseball. In her email response, she answered my specific question on why the Cards played at Camp Funston.

“The St. Louis Cardinals were struggling to achieve any post-season success during the years before/during World War 1,” she wrote, “a trend that changed only after the team brought on Branch Rickey who developed the organization’s minor league farm system. Like many professional teams, the Cardinals lost players to the draft and military enlistment, which was partly the reason Rickey sought to locate reserve players through a player development system.”

She mentioned the teams known to have played for the troops: Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The MLB sent teams to Foot Hood, Texas, she said, and Camp Pike, Arkansas, as well as Camp Funston in Kansas. Often, professional ballplayers, now in military training, faced former teammates on the field.

From Grandpa’s letters, I know baseball filled the spring days at camp. Beginning in March, 1918, he wrote about playing catch after supper, managing his company “C” team, serving as an umpire, and watching games. On April 27, he told Grandma,

“I never saw as many ball games in my life. There was at least a dozen in a mile square down this side of the river and a big crowd at each one.”

baseball ad, Apr 6, 1918 (0137)

Local vendors sold uniforms and equipment. This ad ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p 2. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

The army encouraged baseball, noting the benefits of exercise, recreation, and the kind of discipline and teamwork needed on the battlefield. This notice also ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p. 6.

baseball excuses, funston


Baseball went with the troops overseas. The army sent equipment, as did the Y.M.C.A. The MLB sent some of its best players. Thanks (again) to Katherine, the intern at Cooperstown, I learned that the Chemical Warfare Service, also known as the “Gas and Flame Division,” included three future baseball hall-of-famers: Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. All were in the thirties, and all were willing to take on one of the most dangerous assignments of the war.

In an article she sent, “Chemical Warfare Service: World War 1’s House of Horrors,” author Frank Ceresi wrote that over the summer of 1918, the Army recruited  baseball players and athletes “with exceptional skill” to execute a daring plan. “They were tasked to prepare for battle with special orders to anticipate German gas attacks where the heaviest trench fighting would be, then turn the tables on the enemy by quickly spraying their flanks with jets of flame from tanks strapped onto their backs. Then, once their tanks emptied, they were to lob special ‘gas grenades’ at the fallen Germans and clear the area.”

Of the three baseball greats, only Mathewson was injured. The signal to put on his mask came too late, during one attack, and he suffered from exposure to the gas. This may have led, Ceresi suggested, to his death in 1925 from tuberculosis. (1)

Some baseball players stayed in the U.S. Certainly the most famous was Babe Ruth, who had registered for the draft, but hadn’t been called for service overseas. In the 1918 World Series–the only one played completely in September–his Red Sox team beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-2. At that game, a tradition was born when the military band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd joined in. The singing of the national anthem (so-named in 1931) became standard practice at MLB games beginning in the 1941-42 season. (2)

Baseball has so many traditions, and the one I most treasure, is the practice of handing down the love of the game, one generation to the next. My grandfather is my link to the game. I will always remember the pleasure of sitting at his knee, quietly watching him listen to the Kansas City Athletics on the radio. This memory came to mind on a recent flight home. I shared a row with a man and his son, who was probably a young teenager. “We’re seeing baseball parks this summer,” the father said, explaining the new jersey his son was proudly wearing. We talked about baseball. I told him about my grandfather and baseball in World War 1. I asked him what he especially liked. “I collect signed, first-edition books on baseball.” His favorites? He scribbled them down on the back of a bookmark I had.

Baseball titles cropped

Before we landed, I mentioned one detail that puzzled me in World War 1-era baseball. The Y.M.C.A. sent indoor baseballs and indoor bats to France. Did he know about indoor baseball played during the war? He grew silent and said, no, quickly adding that he wanted to look into this as soon as he got home.

I bet he did. That’s baseball–so many facts and stats and enduring traditions over its long history. It’s no surprise to me that American soldiers played ball at military camps and places in France, however and wherever they could. And watch games. And long to be home to see their favorite teams in person.

When the Dodgers take to the field in the 2018 World Series, I’ll fold into the shadows of this rich history of the game. I’ll marvel at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, two of the oldest (still standing) parks in baseball, festooned with patriotic bunting for the World Series. I’ll remember that only one team can win. I’ll take comfort knowing I’m not the only one yelling at the TV, the way my grandfather’s generation yelled at the radio or yelled from the stands. We know best, the fans. It’s baseball.

And so is the hope, that against all odds, my team will win. Go Dodgers!

Thank you, MLB, for supporting the troops in World War 1.

MLB contributions WW1

Included in story, “Baseball’s Bit in The World War,” Baseball Magazine, Feb. 1918, p. 390.



(1) Frank Ceresi, “Chemical Warfare Service,” included at

(2) “Baseball and the Star Spangled Banner” at

Online sources provided by National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“A Corner in Horsehide,” 34 ff.

“Baseball Champions American Expeditionary Forces,”

Print sources provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

Elias, Robert. “Real War (1917-1919)” in The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010.

Lane, F.C. “Baseball’s Bit in the World War.” Baseball Magazine, February 1918, 386-391, 436-437.


President Wilson and Dreams of Peace

“Most every morn someone will say I dreamed of home last night. And it is true as I know from experience and especially since the little peace talk started,” Grandpa wrote October 12, 1918.

In Grandpa’s letters, I find simple truths like this to be profound, that peace kindled a soldier’s dream. He and his buddies, understandably, were homesick. When Grandpa wrote this letter, he’d been in the army for one year, in Europe four months, and in the war zone 70 days. Of course, they longed for an end to the misery. But a soldier’s dream ran through the much larger and hugely complex desires of politicians trying to secure world peace.

“Now Monday morn,” he wrote on October 14. “We got the big news this morn that Germany had accepted all of Wilsons peace terms, so we had to read the papers through and through.”

Whatever papers they read didn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Germany had reached out to President Wilson on October 4, seeking an armistice. But peace wouldn’t materialize until all the Allies were on board, and they wouldn’t come to the table with Germany for another month.

This overture of peace came after heavy German losses in September. Some of the German leaders, seeing the costs of battle and the unlikely prospect of victory, considered the “14 Points” (conditions of peace) Wilson had announced to Congress on January 8, 1918. (1) But others refused to imagine a truce that would erase their territorial gains. As for Wilson, he had, by this time, convinced himself that the German people had a right to decide their future; he insisted that Germany replace imperial rule with a democratic state. The war continued.

And as it did, what opinions were my grandparents and their families forming? Did they support Wilson? Did they understand the magnitude of the moment, of how the ideas Wilson espoused might change the role of America on the international stage?

They all read newspapers, especially the King City Chronicle. Grandpa received it at Camp Funston and also in France. This weekly newspaper with its small rural readership regularly published news from the war, including letters from soldiers. They also ran, as did many papers across America, the full texts of presidential speeches.


Headline, Chronicle, October 4, 1918, p. 3.

On October 4, the Chronicle published the text of a speech Wilson gave in New York City, on September 27. In a nutshell, Wilson spoke of a certain “clarity” that had come to him during the long years of war, how he could now see the war as a “peoples’ war,” whose voices demanded, he believed, a new world order.

Peace would only come, he argued, when all nations—small and large—agreed to interact as equals. The powerful few, Wilson believed, had no right to rule over the weak. Only a league of nations could prevent another world war. As for this one, he concluded his speech, no terms would end it, only “the final triumph of justice and fair dealing.” (2)

This idealism came, as we know today, from a president who supported segregation and opposed women’s suffrage. But in the days of the war, did Americans consider those ideas problematic? My grandparents never spoke directly about World War 1, but they did call themselves “Missouri Democrats,” the party of Wilson. And a few years after the end of the war, in 1924, Grandma’s older sister, my great Aunt Mattie, visited Europe. Her traveling companion (a friend and mentor name Trix) wrote about Wilson in a letter home.

“Coming thru Annecy (France) this a.m. we discovered that the most beautiful street was the Pres. Wilson. We met a Dutchman who said, ‘Fighting is so stupid.’ He also said if the U.S. had come in as it should when Pres. Wilson had all Europe thinking his way, most of the troubles would now be over; and if we would come in now it would give the people of Europe so much hope that all the little nations would rally around the U.S. and England and then the world could soon be put right. That is the feeling I have constantly encountered.” (3)

After the war, Americans rejected Wilson’s program for a league of nations, choosing isolationism instead. I sense in Trix’s note, with her mention of the “beautiful street” named after Wilson, that she (and I’m certain my great aunt) disagreed with that decision.

And Grandpa? In the final weeks of the war, in October 1918, I imagine he hoped Wilson would succeed, if that meant the end of fighting. In the meantime, he was too busy with the daily matters of war—cooking, writing letters, waiting for orders, and moving—in the mud and rain—from one spot to the next, under nearly constant enemy fire. He also, as you’ll read, engaged in a bit of looting, which the army strictly forbade. But Grandpa thought Grandma would like a “Boche” (German) apron he’d found in a town they’d captured.



(1) (full list) and (summary)


(3) Letter by Beatrix “Trix” Ford, August 16, 1924. Courtesy of the Archives at Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, Missouri


This letter is actually a running letter written on three separate days: October 12, 14, and 18, enclosed in an envelope with a postmark of October 26.

October 12, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis, Now almost three weeks since I have written you, but never the less I have my mind toward you and ever my dreams. It is amusing to listen to the boys. Most every morn someone will say I dreamed of home last night. And it is true as I know from experience and especially since the little peace talk started. But during this three weeks I have saw and hear so awfully much I hardly know what to write.

We moved back of the line about twelve miles a few nights ago and only stayed over night and got orders to go to another front. I didn’t go with the co. [company]. Stayed to go with the stove, so we are still here as they haven’t came after it yet and this makes four days. There is eight of us here so we are having it pretty soft. Got plenty to eat.

We boiled two quarters of beef (4) and made about a thousand doughnuts so as to have them ready when we got to the co and we are still here and don’t know where the rest is.

So all we can do is to stay until they send for us.

We are in a small town but only two miles from a large town. I have been over there yesterday and today also. They have several civilians there.

We were on the front line about a month and this makes over seventy days we have been in the war zone. But being as we are in the forth army chore [4th Army Corps] I suppose they will give us plenty do. We had lots of mud and rain to contend with all the time we were on the front.

Just about the time we would get dug in here would come a rain and run us out of holes, so you can imagine how we slept with that and plenty of shelling to boot but I have got so that the shells don’t bother me much at all. I figure if they don’t hit me they don’t hurt and if they do I am unfortunate.

I am feeling fine and weigh as much as I ever did I think. I was just looking over my bunch of pictures. They are sure interesting, the last letter I had from you had the little picture of yourself. It was good.

I have a little Boche Lady’s apron I got out of a store in a town we captured. I am going to try and send you, but we have an awfull poor chance for anything like that.

I read the letter that Mary (5) wrote Key Ring. Well as they are doing so awfull much talking I will quit and write more later.

(October 14)

Now Monday morn and we are still in the same place and haven’t heard from our co yet.

But we got the big news this morn that Germany had accepted all of Wilson’s peace terms, so we had to read the papers through and through.

Key Ring, I, and a couple more boys walked over to another town for a while last night but after we have saw one French town we have saw them all as they are all alike, only the ones close to the line where there is nothing but the Ruins. On the big drive after artillery would finish shelling one of the German towns they would turn their own artillery on them. I sure have saw some destroyed property but I think it is to an end.

I saw Jack Spence one morning about a couple of weeks ago. He is a first aid man in the 342 Machine Gun Battallion Sanitary detachment. So I went on down to the next town and saw Chris Cummins and told him so he went up and found Jack and we moved out of the timber [?] one night about a week ago and was relieved by the second Bat. They had hardly got in when the Germans started shelling and Gassing them and they suffered heavy. Co. E alone had 64 casualties and I heard that Co. J. had more than that.

We have been awful lucky. Have had no gas at all only two small attacks but not effective.

(October 18)

Well it is now Oct 18 and we have got to the co. Got here a couple of days ago and they were sure glad to see us. All are fine and I am better than that but we are sure having some rain and mud. Tell my parents that I haven’t time to write them now will write soon so I close with love & Kisses

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C. 356

American E.F.

Via New York



(4) A quarter of beef is roughly 85-100 pounds.

(5) Mary is, I presume, Grandma’s younger sister Mary.

10:12, 14, 18 (1)10:12,14, 18 (2)10:12,14,18 (3)10:12,14,18 (4)10:12,14,18 (5)10:12,14,18 (6)10:12,14,18 (7)10:12,14,18 envelope