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.


Crash Course in Combat Training

After being relieved of his cooking responsibilities, Grandpa started combat training. That meant marching, sometimes for miles, to a shooting range or mock battlefield in the Flint Hills near Camp Funston.

Soldiers Marching

Troops training at Camp Funston, 1917. From the collection of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

March 1, 1918

This regiment had a sham battle this afternoon. I was among the dead. Sure some fun. I was glad they named me dead as I was out of wind.

His light-hearted account—some fun and being out of breath—surprised me. He was training for war, after all. But then, he couldn’t know what lay ahead, how real battle would change his life. And he wasn’t alone. The U.S. Army struggled to understand their role in raising and training an army to fight a type of war they’d never seen.

In 1920, shortly after the war, George English, a member of the 89th Division (Grandpa’s division) and later its historian, described the situation. “It was realized that the Great War had introduced new methods with which no one in America was familiar except by report. On the Western Front of Europe the Warfare and Position had superseded the open warfare to which our Army had been trained.” (George English, History of the 89th Division, 31-32)

By “position” he meant trench, and by “open” he meant a field where enemy combatants met, weapons drawn. Here’s why this distinction arose, according to English. “The war of position or trench warfare developed as a result of the improvement in fire power through the use of rapid-fire weapons, particularly the machine gun,” which, he said, had more than fifty times the fire power of the rifle—the weapon known to the U.S. Army. (English, 32)

Trench warfare, as practiced in the early years of the war, had led to a defensive stalemate, with both sides literally entrenched. It was General Pershing who argued for training American soldiers to be competent in both “position” and “open” warfare. He pictured Americans driving the enemy into defeat. Infantry soldiers like my grandfather largely proved him correct.*

At Camp Funston, Carpenter Hill (north of Fort Riley) was one of the practice fields provided for training. It covered an area, according to George English, “about a thousand yards square and comprised three lines of trenches with communicating trenches, dugouts, wire entanglements and machine gun emplacements.” (English, 35)

March 1, 1918 (continued)

We had crawled for quite a while, then had the order to make a rush so the run almost got my wind. So I got to rest quite a while then until the battle was over. 

It’s not clear from Grandpa’s letter, which practice battlefield his group used that day, and whether it included trenches. (Later letters specify trenches.) The order Grandpa described in this letter, “to make a rush,” was a skill similar to “going over the top,” the term used in France when soldiers rushed out of the trenches and faced the Germans in open warfare.

To build confidence for such a confrontation, shooting ranges were set up at Funston and instructors were brought in from Britain and France to demonstrate the weapons being used on the front, including machine guns, bayonets and grenades. One of the British instructors, Major G.W. Hall, caught the attention of the camp newspaper, Trench and Camp, March 30, 1918, which reported on his instruction. “The loud bark of machine guns pouring their deadly streams of lead into the hillside targets can be heard above the other sounds of activity about Camp Funston these days.” Grandpa noticed the same, “Sure some noise when about two hundred gets to shooting.”

Grandpa’s combat training only lasted ten weeks before he was sent overseas. The army had hoped for a six-month period of training, but didn’t have that luxury. The war wouldn’t wait. Before Grandpa left, he had yet another important training to complete: surviving a gas attack. More on that in April.

Marching camp funston 3-27-18

In March 1918, Grandpa began using stationery with scenes of army life.


* I found an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of trench versus open warfare in World War 1, and General Pershing’s opinion of them, in a master’s thesis by Roger Spickelmier for a degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1987. It’s available to read online:

To see pictures of the trenches, check out the Kansas Memory section of Kansas State Historical Society’s website. Search with keyword “Funston.” Here’s an example showing the Red Cross training with the troops: