Monday, November 9, 2009

Camp Devens, 1917, The First Weeks

Lawrence H. Ross
Camp Devens
It is possible, reading Lawrence's letters, to suspect that he was a complainer! On the other hand, although he was 27 years old, his entire life had been spent as part of a large extended family, part of a closely knit neighborhood and church group. Other accounts document the miseries of life at Camp Devens, the cold weather, the inadequate uniforms, the lack of heat in the barracks for many weeks. Lawrence had suffered from a skin condition since childhood, probably psoriasis, and the lack of warm water for bathing, the coarse wool of the uniform, exacerbated this condition which he tried to keep secret from those around him. The constant jostle of men, crude manners and clouds of tobacco smoke irritated him and he often gave way to rants in his letters. It was likely the only safe way to express his feelings. In spite of his miseries, he kept his eyes and ears open, made friends, enjoyed his brief outings. Following are excerpts from his letters written during October and November. Since I have none of the correspondance he received in return I sometimes have to guess what was happening.
Lawrence Ross Excerpts

Oct 7, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear People at Home,
I was glad to hear from all more than I can say. The letters look better every time I get one. You have the advantage of me. You all can write one letter to me and I have to answer with four. I’ll only send one today, because I got another inoculation last night and I can’t hardly get my arm up to my face it’s so sore.
Well, I had a hard day yesterday. Another bunch of boys came here, 120 more. I was told to report to head-quarters at 5 o’clock and was appointed orderly to look for and after the boys. They didn’t come till late and I didn’t get to bed til 12:30-- some tired and cold and I had just been probed in the arm so I didn’t feel the best on earth. But, I had to do it just the same. I eat an extra supper when I got through and I guess it didn’t agree with me, because it drove me out at 3 o’clock. I was awake again at 5 o’clock my arm ached so bad, so I didn’t sleep much.
We don’t have to get up quite as early Sunday as other days, so I had a little more rest, and I can rest all day. I’m so lonesome here on Sunday that I can’t hardly stand it. I haven’t heard anything yet about my exams, but they are giving out suits all the time, so will send a little card along just to show you how I look. It’s not very good. It is one of those that they take in a few minutes. I’ll try and get a better one before long.
I hope it don’t mean that I’ve got to stay though. I am getting a better feel than I did but I hate it here. It’s awful cold and damp and I haven’t got my heavy underwear. My old ones were all worn out. I’ll find out before I seal this letter and if they let you wear your own undersuits I want you to order me two suits from Stevens and Weed, good wool Union suits size 38 like the ones I had or as near as you can get--Mother will know what they were—and send them down in my suitcase.

Oct 9, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear People at Home,
I received your letter and I was so glad to get it. I must make one letter for all. You can all read it because I would have to tell all about the same thing, and my time is so full that I don’t have time to sleep hardly. They keep adding more so you see it makes me hustle to keep track of things. We have our rifles now. We had our first lesson on caring for them. They have to be kept clean, not a bit of rust or dirt, grease or anything on them. They have to shine all the time. The officer said he wouldn’t stand for anything else. That means more work for us. I’m still corporal, and working like a bugger to hold it. It makes me extra work but it’s worth it. You just ought to have seen me down on the drill field this morning. The officer formed us into a line and took us up to the edge of the field, told the first squad to come to Attention—that is the squad I’m corporal__ marched us out by ourselves, told the rest to gather around us and sit down on the ground. I didn’t know what was coming. Then he told me to step out front of the squad and explain some of the movements, then to make the squad do them. I nearly fainted, but made up my mind I’d try anyway. I think there must have been 50 or 75 boys there in that group to listen and see what I done. I explained what he told me to. When I finished he said, "that was good, Ross." Then I had the squad do them. They didn’t all do it right, but that wasn’t my fault. Then we went back and sat down. Another officer came up and took one of the rifles and explained all about them and how to protect ourselves when in battle, how to stab the other fellow. It was awful, but never mind.

Oct 18, 1917
Dear Father,
I don’t know what I’d do here if it wasn't for your letters. I’m sorry that my letters make you cry and feel so bad, but at that I don’t tell you half of the bad things. If Germany is any worse I want to see it and die as soon as I can. I hate it here. I ought not to say that I suppose, but I can’t help it. I never heard such swearing and such rotten talk as we have here. Even the officers, nearly all of them, swear to beat the band.
Yesterday we were out drilling and because one or two fellows didn’t do it right, we all had to suffer for it. They began to holler and swear at some of them and [then] they get excited and can’t do anything. Then they swear all the more and say that all of us haven’t got a brain in our head. I hate the whole blame business. I had rather walk in the clay mud clear up to my ears than to endure this stuff.

Well, another forenoon gone by and it was a bad one too. I got so nervous I thought I’d go all to pieces. All we get is swearing like h---! I think this is a hell on earth. I ought not to tell you these things, because you’ll worry about me, but don’t do.

I’m feeling good outside of my temper. I just wish I could give way to it. I’d kill or half kill about 5 or 6 of the fellows here. I like to see them make us mind, but they carry it too far and make an ass of themselves.
Its some warmer today, so we don’t suffer with the cold, although we haven’t any heat yet. I suppose I’ll get so tough that I won’t feel the cold at all. I know one thing—when I get home I won’t have any manners.
The band is playing outside. Mounted Guard drill tonight. I saw it last night. I have been in the trenches this afternoon. It was interesting. I’d rather have that than swearing at me all the time.

Oct. 23, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Dad and all,
Your letter came today and I was as glad as ever to get it. I used to like to see your letters when I was at Ti, but they look a thousand times better here than they did there.
Well, everything is about as usual here, as busy as can be, but I don’t think quite as hard as it has been. We are getting so we understand the drilling some better, so they don’t swear at us so much. We got along real good today and instead of a swear the Lieutenant spoke up once or twice and said, “that was good, Ross.” That makes a fellow feel good
Yes, I like it better than I did at first, the only fault to find is the cold damp weather, and the same old story, no fire yet. Can you imagine how it would be if you went out to your barn and sat there all the evening without your coat or hat on and then went to bed out there, got up in the morning, went outdoors to the tub where the water is like ice and washed, then went back into the barn—no fire to warm yourself by.
I started out for drill this morning a-shivering and shaking so I couldn’t stand still, and the worst of it is we haven’t any blouses [coats], and they won’t let us wear anything over the O.D. shirts. That is the regular army shirts. We can put all we can get or want under them but nothing over them, not for drill
Right near where we form our company there is a mud hole, and this morning it was froze over and the fog was blowing in from the ocean and the air went right through me. I don’t see what else they can do only go south. We’ll freeze here. The barracks is only a shell. It isn’t sealed up only like a barn, and we can go outdoors and walk right up under part of it. So there is the whole story.
Oct. 28, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Mother,
Will drop you a line today. I’ve just had mess a few minutes ago. We had roast pork, applesauce, mashed potatoes, bread, tea and ice cream. Pretty fair for us, but we have a better feed on Sunday.
I went down to Ayer to church this morning. I asked three other boys to go and they went with me. I was surprised to hear the speaker. He had a uniform on and is one of our boys. He is in the same Infantry that I’m in, so you see, all are not bad boys here.
It is a grand day, quite warm and I’m glad of it because it has been so cold and damp. Same old story, no heat, and cold shower baths yet. It makes me shiver but I guess it don’t hurt me. I have quite a cold but it is getting better.
I wanted to come up so bad this week that I couldn’t hardly stand it, but I can’t so I’ll have to wait awhile. You just ought to see the crowd here today. Lots of visitors and so many here all the time that you can’t hardly move.

I look at every car that goes by and wish I’d see somebody from up that way. Harold Durkee has gone home, Jack Braisted has, and another Ti boy is going back tomorrow. Don’t it beat all that I have to stay and those big boys go back.

Oct. 30, 1917
Dear Father,
I must write a few lines to you today and not wait to hear from you. I can’t wait any longer. It has been quite a few days since I heard from any of you or Minnie either, and I’m so lonesome today that I want to cry, but won’t. You don’t know how I hate to have the days roll by and not get any mail. That is about all the comfort I get here, but I won’t complain. I know how busy you are and have to milk those cows. That used to worry me you know. Well, if I was there I could drink about a quart or two.
This is an awful day here, the worst I’ve seen since I came. Raining hard and the wind blows awful, but its not very cold. I’m glad of that. I suppose we’ll begin to get cold storms before long. I heard that there was snow up to Saranac Lake. I haven’t heard anything more about moving away.
That Boston paper around my shoes and coat you want to read and see the trenches that we did. When you read it think of me a-working down in them getting practice in the trenches like they have “Over There.”
We have our new rifles now and they are fine ones too.
We went up to the hospital yesterday for another examination of our brains. If you want the proper word I’ll say it. Psychological Exam. I liked it. It was all kinds of brain work to see how quick we could do it. We won’t know for a while how well we done.
I was so sorry that I couldn’t come up last Saturday, but can’t do as I want to all the time.
I wish you could come down and see me.
I just had a scare. We were all called out to go over to the hospital. I thought we would get another inoculation, but we that had three didn’t get any more. I was glad of that.
I hated to go out, the rain is pouring right down. We stood outside in it, but had ponchos on. I didn’t get wet.
Say Dad, send me some of Mother’s ginger cookies and some more doughnuts, will you. Oh yes, and a piece of butter. I hate to ask all the time but they patch in pretty well.
My cold is better and aside from that and lonesomeness I’m as healthy as I ever was in my life. So that will make you feel better. I shall be careful and not get more cold. Hope you are well and will write just as soon as you can. I look for letters and boxes right along. I’m an awful feller.
I’ll come up just as soon as I can for a few days. Maybe not till Thanksgiving, but before if I can. Send me Harold’s address and maybe I’ll go and see him.
Love to all,
Your son.

Nov. 3, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Mother and Father,
I’ll try and send a few words to you tonight. Your letter looked good, as usual.
I’ve been awful busy today. It was my turn in the kitchen. I mean it was my squad, so we had to set tables, peel potatoes, wash dishes—and a stack of them too—about 250 cups, plates, knives, forks and spoons. I’ll tell you they look like a load of hay when they are piled up.
It has been awful cold here today and snowed a little tonight. I suppose we’ll be getting some cold storms before long.
It’s the same old story, yet no heat and the barracks are like an iceberg, but I sleep warm and don’t sit around much in them. We can’t, we would catch cold.
I’m over to the YMCA now. Two other Ti boys are here, two Willsboro boys.

We had a little hike out to the woods for some scout work yesterday and my squad and one other one got separated from the rest as we were working through the woods on our belly and we didn’t get back to the barracks til after the rest of the company had. They had a good laugh at us.
We have our new rifles now. They are fine ones. Wish you could see them. We have to keep them as clean as a whistle, not a bit of rust on even a screw head. I can throw mine around pretty fair now.
Six weeks ago today since I became a son of Uncle Sam and in some ways I’m proud of it when I hear some good talks on how every boy ought to be proud that he wears a uniform, but it means more than I ever realized to be [a soldier.]
I can’t tell you how much I miss you folks at home and all of my friends at Ti and Hague. I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for the letters. Somebody finds out every little while that I’m here.

[Lawrence got home for a furlough weekend. His younger brother, Harold, had found wartime work at the gear shapers plant in southern Vermont. They took the train together on Sunday afternoon, Harold getting off in Bellows Falls or Springfield, VT, Lawrence continuing on to Ayers, MA,]

Nov. 13, 1917
Camp Devens
I’m back at the big Camp once more and as busy as ever. It did seem hard to start in again, but it had to be done, so I got right after it.
I guess Harold thought I was rather poor company, because I slept nearly all the way down and he did too.
They are having a French class here at the Y and all the rest of the boys are writing, reading and talking. Oh yes, and smoking, so if I make any mistakes, you’ll know the reason why!
It was so cold over to the barracks last night that I slept cold, but it has been a nice day.
Over on the field today we stripped right down to the hide down to our waists. Maybe it wasn’t cold! Afterward we had a long run and felt better.
I had to leave this letter last night. I was so sleepy and the lights went out, so will finish it today.
My squad was on Police Detail today. We had all kinds of work. I’d rather drill any time than to do the work around here. I’m glad to say that at last we have got steam heat. It is some different now, but I wish the war would close so I could come back. I had to leave this again and go out for another formation. I wish I could feel free again! I hate this life some days. If I was a swearing man I’d swear because of this life. I want to come back.

Nov. 18, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Folks at home,
That means all. I’m going to write a few words tonight, but can’t say how much it will be. I’m sort of tired today: had my first experience on Guard Duty. Our company was on from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday, so I had my share of it this time. I was on from 7 till 9, then off till one, then on from 1 to 3 a.m. and the same hours through the day on Sunday. I was lonesome because I couldn’t go any where for a rest. Clark and I had an invitation to Boston for overnight and today. We had to refuse. Well, this is some life!
Besides all of that, my turn came for Police Detail this week, then so many of the boys went south that they changed the company over. They put all the tallest ones up front. That brought me on kitchen detail this week also. You see I got everything that was going this week.
I think they will let me off on Friday night this week and I’m coming up again, for this reason. I don’t think I could come the next week because the talk is that the 303rd Infantry is going to Boston on Thanksgiving Day for a Parade and probably they won’t let out any passes that week. I don’t want to take any chances, so I’m coming Friday night unless you hear different.
You needn’t come and meet me, because I’ll try my feet a little and see how good I am for walking. I leave Ayer at 8: 53 and get to Brandon about 3 or 4 o’clock. I’ll come up to Sudbury and when you come over with the milk I’ll ride back with you.
That’s not much of a walk for me, I do that much every day.
I’ll take my time and maybe call you somewhere on the road to let you know that I’m there all right.
I’d like to go over to Ti on Saturday, but if you’re not going over I won’t.
I want Letha to come over once more, for I may go away farther any time. I have looked for a letter all the week, but none came. I hope nobody’s sick up that way.
I wrote to Letha and asked her to come. I hope you folks don’t care.
I was so lonesome coming back a week ago that it was hard for me to start in again, but I made it alright.

Nov. 28, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Father and all,
I’m back here in camp again, safe and sound. And it makes me lonesome to think of tomorrow. I hate to spend my Thanksgiving down here. How can I be thankful for such a life as this! But I suppose I ought to be thankful that I haven’t got “a harr life”. That’s what grandmother used to say to us.
There’s so much to tell and I’m so kind of lonesome that I don’t know what kind of a letter this will be.
To begin, I’ll say that we have snow here now and it’s some nasty running around with shoes on. I was glad when I got here Sunday night and found the heat was on. It was awful cold coming up from the station that night. I did have such a good time up there that it was hard for me to get after it for a day or two.
You don’t know how I long to be free again, but that’s out of the question. I’ll be thinking about you tomorrow. Nearly all the boys will be away from here and I wish I was up there for a good square meal.
I don’t know whether I can stand it till Christmas or not. I heard that G. Company was going to have a week then. I hope we will.
We went out into the woods this afternoon to gather evergreen to decorate the barracks. I’m over to the YMCA now and they are decorating here.
I didn’t do as well on the 200 yard range. The wind blew awful and the sand is light. It filled our eyes and the tears run. Once I shot on the wrong target so I lost that shot. I only got 38 points. Tomorrow I suppose we’ll try the 300 yard range. I hope I do better. I said “tomorrow”. I don’t mean that day, because that’s a holiday. Friday we are all split up on special details. I go over to the heating plant to work, probably to shovel coal all day.
I can’t think of any special news, only drill, walk and shoot, sleep, eat, smoke, swear, sing, talk, play tricks.
Better send me some more doughnuts. I’m so hungry for some more of Mother’s good food. And if you have an old tooth brush, wrap it up and send along. I use one to clean my rifle.
We had an inspection of barracks and rifles. You just ought to see us work to get our rifles clean. Every little spot on them must be perfect or else we’ll get something extra.
I trembled when the officer took mine for fear he would find something dirty. He looked it all over then handed it back as I showed you up there, and said, “That’s good.” Then I felt better.

Nov. 30, 1917
Camp Devens
Dear Father,
Will just scratch off a few lines to you tonight. Your letter came this noon and I was glad to get it. I was so lonesome. You don’t know how I wish I was free again. I hate this life. I’m so sick of the noise and swearing that some times I wish I’d never wake up when I go to bed. All we get is nag! Nag! All the day long, and such talk. Why, it’s rotten to hear it all the time.
I just wish I’d play out one of these days, I hate it so.
I can’t tell you how blue I was yesterday [Thanksgiving.] I thought of all you people up there and me way down here alone. We had a good dinner but that didn’t satisfy me. Every time I’d think of home it would make a big tear come in my eye.
I have got another cold. I got my feet wet and the wind blew in here on my head, and I was sick enough to go to bed, but no such things as that happen here.
I’m so blue tonight that I can’t hardly stand it. I haven’t been as homesick since I came, not even at first, as I am tonight.
I worked over to the heating plant all day shoveling coal on a wheel barrow and wheeling it inside.
It was awful cold for a few days after I came back and I was sorry that I didn’t bring those things with me.
One thing that makes me feel so is my skin. When it gets good and cold, it will get rough. Then when the officers find it out they’ll say I don’t take care of myself, and here stands 130 boys ready to laugh at anything. I can’t see why I had to be this way.
I ought not to say anything about it, but I have to tell things to someone once in awhile.
I just can’t say much more tonight. I feel so [bad], but will try and write a better one next time.
We have to go for another examination before long, to test our heart and lungs. I wish mine would play out on me so I could come back.
I don’t care much what happens if I can get out of here, but don’t suppose I stand much show of getting out.
I won’t try to tell you any more tonight, but will go and take a bath and go to bed.

1 comment:

  1. It must have been SO hard for him, coming from a nice family home, and all the comforts that offered, to have to struggle in the Camp, which was so basic in creature comforts, and so different to the life he had led, and alongside the sort of people who it sounds as if he would never have chosen to keep company with in civilian life. I don't blame him for complaining - I jolly-well would have too!