Monday, November 9, 2009

Camp Devens, 1917, Enlistment, Remembrance

A photo from 1917 shows the hastily constructed enlistment camp at Ayers, MA.

A company of draftees and enlisted men from Warren and Essex Counties in upstate New York. Families, sweethearts and friends gathered for a send off; flags waved, there were patriotic speeches.
Lawrence Henry Ross [g-uncle Lawrence] is second from left in the front row. Third from left is a man who appears in a number of photos in our family collection. We don't know his name.

This week, in remembrance, I will post excerpts from the letters written home by Lawrence Ross. His letters indicate that he wrote many: to his parents, to his fiancee, to his brother and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. [Ours is a family of letter writers.] I first read the letters as a teenager. They subsequently disappeared for many years. From time to time my Mother asked her brother where they were. He either professed ignorance or craftily refused to answer her. After his death when we sifted through the contents of his bedroom the letters were found, tied in a bundle, in the depths of a huge trunk. Two years ago this month I undertook the task of transcribing them from mimeographed copies. I have shared these with interested cousins. The fragile originals are in the very safe hands of my nephew, a history teacher with a passion for genealogy.
Lawrence's draft registration card, signed a month past his 27th birthday, describes him as being of medium height, slender build, with grey eyes and light brown hair. The information also notes an old injury to his right hand, leaving him with a damaged thumb and at least one stiff finger. Family lore gives that he was missing part of a finger, but I have never learned details of the accident which caused this. The registration card does not add that he wore "coke-bottle" glasses and had an abdominal hernia.
Lawrence gave his employment as "clerk in wholesale house." The business was owned by a local entrepreneur who had married Lawrence's second cousin. Lawrence also served as "Chauffeur" for his boss, and perhaps occasionally for other men who had bought big cars which they were not comfortable driving.
Lawrence was the product of a "good home". Neighborhood news notes from the archives of the Ticonderoga Sentinel attest to the family's involvement in church and small town activities. Lawrence led out in youth activities at the church, was a welcome addition to the choir. A gifted musician, he added his skill with a fiddle to any assortment of the Rosses who regularly gathered to provide music for local worship or entertainment.
The family was related by blood, by marriage and by long association to many of the families in their Adirondack hamlet.
Nothing in his rather sheltered and orderly life could have prepared Lawrence for his induction into the teeming, noisy, crowded environment of Camp Devens. His letters home express far more exasperation, impatience and down-right homesickness than patriotic fervor or the conviction to serve his country.
Sept 23, 1917
Camp Devens
Ayer, Mass
Dear Father,
I will start a letter to you, but don’t know when I can finish it. We are here at Camp, all OK. I’ll have to start at Ti to tell you about it. We left there Saturday morning at 6 o’clock, went to Elizabethtown to report at 8, came back to Port Henry, had some speeches, 3 bands and started for Camp at 10:30 A.M.
Arrived here at 10 o’clock P.M. We had dinner and supper on the train. Cold frankfurters, cheese sandwich + coffee, supper about the same. We had to walk from Ayer Junction to the camp that night-about 1 ½ or 2 miles. Then we had to be separated from the other fellows from other counties, march inside, line up, wait for roll call and then have a lunch, but wait, that wasn’t all. Then we marched upstairs, had a tag handed us, a cot shown to us. We had to write our name on the tag and tie it on the cot. I haven’t counted them but I should say that there was at least 75 or 100 cots, or rather bunks as they call them, in one room, how’s that?
After [this] we were shown how to make our beds. We have three khaki blankets, one under and two over. We had them about ready when the officer came and told us the straw ticks had just come and to line up and go downstairs single file after them. When we got down there they handed us one, told us to fill it from a pile of straw that was on the floor, made us hustle right along. I wish you could have seen the straw fly. When we all got back upstairs it was so dusty that about half of the boys were sneezing. We had to take our blankets off and put on the straw tick, then put the blankets back and we had just 20 minutes to do it before the lights went out. I waded right into it and had five minutes to spare. Then the lights went out and we tried to quiet down, but you can imagine 100 fellows trying to keep still. I did because I was afraid. At last they went to sleep. At three o’clock they begun again and got so noisy that the night officer came and called them down. Then we all went to sleep again til 5:45. Then we got up and talk about cold, it[s] awful here at night. I shivered like a dog.
We had to dress, run down to the wash room and wash in cold water, come back again and clean our clothes, comb our hair and go to breakfast. We march in single file around to our place, 20 to a table, and wait til the officer tells us to sit down. We have a big tin cup to drink our coffee out of, an agate plate, knife, fork and spoon. We have a long bench nailed to the floor and when he says sit down, we all drop over that. We had macaroni soup, boiled potatoes, hard bread without butter, and some kind of pudding, I don’t know what it was though.
Well it’s Sunday and I have worked hard all day. I wish I was back there tonight but I’d have to come some if I did 275 miles. I won’t try to tell you much more tonight.
We just went out to have the roll called. Supper will soon be ready. The boys are all up here sitting on their bunks. I must close now. We’ve measured for our suits today and take our examination tonight. I’ll know my fate soon.

Here is my address
Lawrence Henry Ross
Company F 303 Infantry
Camp Devens, Ayer, Mass
Be sure to write just as soon as you can.
Lots of Love, I’m feeling fine.
Your son,
Go to to learn more about Camp Devens.


  1. Hullo MM,

    Nice way to mark remembrance. Good that you have first hand documentation like that to make things more immediate for future generations too.


  2. What an amazing snapshot in to life at a training camp ...I want to know more ...fancy leaving us on the edge ...what happened next?

    Could the two in your photo be brothers ... if both were smiling I'm sure they would look alike.

  3. This was so interesting, you are right, you can hear the irritation in his letter! The food wasn't exactly haute cuisine either was it? I should think he was used to much better than that at home. How wonderful that your family still has all Lawrence's original letters.

  4. I think there must have been many young men whose reactions to the army life were similar to those of Uncle Lawrence. He was very open in sharing with his family his vulnerability, his sense of being totally out of place.


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