“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.
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) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp (full list) and https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/fourteen-points (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.
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.
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
Via New York
(4) A quarter of beef is roughly 85-100 pounds.
(5) Mary is, I presume, Grandma’s younger sister Mary.
2 thoughts on “President Wilson and Dreams of Peace”
How soldiers perceive the politics of their government and their command-in-chief is a topic unto itself. In any case, the tragedy of this “war to end all wars” was that Germany (Hitler and his ilk) could not get over the humiliation of losing this war and that humiliation/resentment laid the groundwork for the next big one, WWII.
There’s so much to learn from these wars. I wonder if things had turned out better, thinking ahead to WW2, if Wilson had tried harder to push his ideas on “justice”. In the end, it seems, peace came at the hands of the victors, just what he wanted to avoid.