Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"I will write to you forever" — One World War I soldier's letters home


     In your letter you say, “What is love?” Surely a girl of 19 years ought to know what the word “love” means, if not, I do not think I could explain it to you.
     Tuesday is Veterans Day, when we honor the soldiers, sailors, Marines and other military men and women who serve and have served our country. The date, Nov. 11, was originally Armistice Day, the anniversary in 1918 of the end of World War I, so it is particularly apt to remember the two million Americans who fought in that war.

     What I mean when I say I love you is that I think more of you than of anybody else. You are the one that I would do anything for. You are one that I can trust and one who I can tell my troubles to.

     Recalling such an enormous group is impossible. It’s hard enough to remember just one person, taken at random, such as Pvt. Gail O. Woodman, who grew up in Evergreen Park and volunteered for the Army in 1917, following his older brother Roy. We can hear his voice today only because he wrote letters to a certain special young woman who, well, let him explain it.

     You are the one with whom I love to spend my idle hours with. You have a lovable disposition, you have winning ways, a great entertainer. With you nobody can feel lonely, and for this reason I have learned to love you.

     Gail Woodman — Gail was a man’s name 100 years ago — had met a teenager named Lucile Nelson, who lived at 3813 W. 83rd Place, in the Ashburn neighborhood.

     I have learned to love you so that now I want you for my own. You say you think you will always like me. Why can’t you always love me, dear?

     Four hours hadn’t passed after he left Chicago before Gail started to write his first postcard to her; his troop train hadn’t reached Bloomington, Indiana, yet.

     Train rocks so I can hardly write. Letter will follow.

     And so they did. Like every soldier, he complained about the food; the train trip was three days of beans, corned beef, tomatoes, bread, jam and coffee. . . . Texas is several month of sandstorms, scorpions and constructing the camp. Gail goes into detail discussing their mutual acquaintances while constantly pitching woo.

     If letter writing will hold us together as fast friends, believe me, dearie, I will write to you forever....

     The soldiers drill, train, dig trenches, put on gas masks, then are sent into buildings filled first with tear gas, then deadly chlorine gas.

     While we were in there they had us let a little gas into the mask and then had us smell it just to see what it is like. Do not think I would care for very much of it

     The soldiers are showered with packages from home, with fruit cakes and hand-knit sweaters and chewing gum, all described in great detail and appreciated. Among the gifts is, ominously, a “trench mirror,” a tool to allow crouching soldiers peer above the lip of a trench, reducing the risk of getting shot. Gail gets a wristwatch; up to World War I men used pocket watches, but it is difficult to dig into your vest while face down in a trench. He worries about being thought of as a dandy.

     I belong to the “Wrist watch bunch” now. ... I am a regular ‘sissy’ now, don’t you think so, Lou?

     She is “Lou” and “girl” and “girlie” “sweetie” and “dear” and “dearie” and even “sweetie-dearie.”Details of their pre-war courtship come out in fond remembrances in his letters — ice skating, a dance at Carson, Pirie Scott, along with various private moments that are not specified, but obviously made an impression.

     Only wish I could be there to keep you warm ... Could only do it in dark places or when nobody is around, as in the hall or on the back swing, (not saying anything about the sofa). Sure do miss our good old Sunday nights, dear, and can hardly wait until we land in Chicago again so I can see my little girl again.

     Not to give the wrong impression. Gail has never had a drink and isn’t about to start. He sends $15 of his $36-a-month pay home to his parents. At Thanksgiving, 

     Lucile asks him what he is most thankful for.That is very easily done and in a few words. The thing I am thankful for most is that I know the Lord Jesus and that during the short time that I have been serving in the Army I have met others who know him also. It was my great desire, when I made up my mind to enlist, that I get with a company of men who were Christians.

     Well, not entirely Christians. There is a Jewish corporal, and as he passes with his men Gail sneers, “Here comes the rabbi squad” — too loudly; he is overheard, and nearly ends up in the brig. But he learns his lesson.

     After this I will be a little more careful what I say. I didn’t think he would hear, otherwise I would never have said it.

     Lucile, for her part, goes to Billy Sunday revival meetings, when they aren’t too crowded to get in. None of her letters survive: Lucile obviously is worried about others reading them, and several times Gail assures her he is promptly burning them, both for privacy, and to not have to “excess baggage to carry around.” He expects to be on the move soon.

     I enlisted to go to France and will feel disappointed if I don’t get to go.

     Besides wristwatches, Gail talks about news of the day, admires the “pluck” of a 14-year-old Chicago boy who managed to enlist. He refers to automobiles as “machines,” and remarks on another modern change brought about by the war.

     How do you like the idea of setting the clock ahead 1 hour? It will probably be alright when we get used to it.

     For sweethearts, they are surprisingly frank about seeing other people; he visits girls he’s set up with, she goes out on the town.

     Do not mind at all if you have some of the boys take you home, as you are capable of picking out someone who you will be safe with. I do not expect you to be tied down at all and whenever you get the chance to go out go ahead and have a good time....Don’t worry about being wicked, dear, as I don’t think it is a sin to dance, that is, the way we dance. There is a thing of carrying it too far but I know that you wouldn’t do that. Some people think that when a person dances that there isn’t any good in them. But we know different, don’t we dearie?

     Which raises the question for Lucile: If the girls Gail is seeing are only friends, then what is she?

     In your letter, Lou, you mentioned that I said, “I only went out with girls thru an introduction of a friend and that they were only friends of mine,” then you added, “Isn’t that all I am, Gail?” Can’t we be more than friends, Lucile? Why can’t we be sweethearts?

     Whether she intended to provoke this reaction is uncertain, but Gail takes the hint.

     Please accept this as a proposal, Lucile, for when I come back I would like to have you become my wife. Do not think that I intend to get married as soon as I get back, dear, but my love for you is so great that I just want to know where I stand. Please let me know as soon as possible, dear. Every thing will be held a secret even if you do accept, dear, which I sincerely hope you do.

     Gail is good to his word: However she replied to his proposal, he doesn’t refer to it, even in his letters to her. He finally get his furlough in May and comes home to Chicago. The letters stop during that period, but family legend has it that Lucile accepted his proposal. They took a photograph together in Evergreen Park that certainly looks like an engagement photo.When he returns to Texas, his company is packing up for France. His brother Roy has died — concentrating soldiers stoked the flu that would kill millions. Gail is soon in New York City, which seems to overwhelm his descriptive powers.

     New York is quite a place. All the railroads leading into N.Y. are electrified. The main reason for this is because they enter N.Y. thru the subway. The subway is quite a place.But troops only pause there, then load onto ships for the eight-day voyage to France. Have arrived safe and sound and I am feeling fine.  When I was in Chicago the first part of this month I didn’t think I would be so far away from you by the end of the month. France certainly is a beautiful place. The trees are full of leaves and the grass is very green .... This place is so old fashioned that it reminds me of the olden days. There is nothing that is up to date. They all have these old stone wells and you have to draw the water in a bucket.

     He mentions his brother Roy in passing on Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day, when families visited the graves of fallen soldiers.

     Thought of you and the folks all day Decoration Day. Wondering what you were doing. I suppose the folks went out to Mt. Greenwood to see Roy’s grave. I was riding the old box car that day. Well, sweetheart, I must close now.

     After eight months of cleaning rifles, building barracks and riding trains and a ship, they find themselves at the war.

     Where we are at now we are about 10 miles from the front line. ... we can hear the reports of the cannons very plainly and at night we can see the flashes in the sky. Sunday afternoon we went into some trenches about 6 miles from the front, and stayed there for 24 hours. There were several big artillery guns stationed near these trenches and they sure did make some noise every time they went off. It was very interesting to see our airoplanes flying over the Germans and drawing fire from their guns. You could see the shells exploding all around them but none of them seemed to hit.

      Perhaps the most surprising thing about Gail Woodman’s letters are their upbeat tone. Later, members of his unit would write gut-churning accounts of a muddy, horrifying hell with bodies blown apart and rats gorging on corpses, none of which he tells his fiancee.

     O, Yes! I almost forgot to tell you. Since I have been sleeping in the dugouts, which is about the safest place to sleep when a person is in the trench, I accumulated a number of very close friends. Friends that stick closer than a brother, better known as the “cooties.” Believe me they are hard creatures to get rid of, too. I managed to get rid of them a couple of times but on my next trip to the trenches I got them again.Part of that might be concern for the censors, which stamp each letter.I understand that one of my letters to Geo. was cut up quite a bit by the censor. I am afraid I have been telling too much. If I don’t watch out my letter will be something like a certain fellow who wrote a letter to his mother and after the censors got thru with it all that was left of the letter was, “Dear Mother, “ and “Your loving son, John.”  Down below the censor wrote “Your son is well and happy but he is too darned newsy.” This will be the case if I am not careful.

     That was mid-August. On Sept. 5 he writes in a noticeably shaky hand. Compare what he is telling her with the matter-of-fact way he tells it.

     My dearest Girl,You have probably heard, thru my folks, that I have been injured. But there is no course for worry as I am getting along fine. I will soon be going to Blighty (England) as they call it over here, for a rest. As to my wounds, I have lost my right eye, a piece of shrapnel going right thru it. I also have several small wounds on my neck and one on my left chest. These do not amount to much. ... I am in a British hospital but American doctors and nurses have charge of it. I happen to be the only American in this ward, the rest being English, Canadians and Australians. I am getting the best of care here. The doctor said this morning he was well pleased in the way I was coming along. Now, dear, I don’t want you to worry as really I am getting along fine. Hope you are well.

     The rest of the letters are sharing the sights of London.

     London is quite a city. They seem to do everything just opposite to the way things are done in Chicago. The sidewalks are very narrow for a city like London and the buildings are not more than 7 or 8 stories high. They have very few high buildings like they do in Chicago and the buildings look to be very old. The street cars, autos, and wagons all move down the left side of the street instead of the right as done in America. It is very interesting to walk down the streets of a foreign city. There are so many things that interest you that you do not see in American cities. Most of my wounds have healed up now. I have just one other dressing besides my eye and that wound is just about well. How are you feeling now? Well, I hope.

     You would think, reading his letters, that he’s spending his days as a tourist. He isn’t.

     Nov. 6, 1918

     My dearest Girl,

    It has been some time since I have written to you but that is thru no fault of mine. Last week Tuesday I had that piece of shrapnel removed from my head and I have been in bed ever since, to-day being my first day up. The piece they took out was about ½ inch square and it had a few ragged edges. I think I will feel better now that it is out. ... Last Friday they moved me from Ward 9 over to Ward 28. They were going to make 9 a convalescent ward but last night they filled it up with bed patients again. They are most all bed patients in this ward. Must close now. I hope you are well and happy, dear. I am feeling fine. My love to your mother and lots to yourself.

     Your loving sojer boy, Gail

      On the envelope, Lucile wrote: I received this letter on November 30, 1918 which was the last letter from Gail as he died in a London hospital on Dec. 3rd, 1918.The letters sat in a shoebox for 70 years. Lucile Nelson married three times and had two children, nine grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. 
     When she died in 1989, her granddaughter, Kathleen Loftus, a Columbia College lecturer, found them among her possessions. Her self-published collection of the letters can be purchased for $10 at lulu.com


  1. I enjoy how you got soldiers, sailors and marines correctly. Most people call us "soldiers." Soldiers = Army, sailor = Navy, marines = marines and "that guy" = Air Force. Haha, just kidding. We love you Air Force.

    1. I always heard from my marine friends that marines, because they didn't have their own equipment per se, was an acronym for "My Ass Rides In Navy Equipment Sir!"

  2. Anyone who reads today's column without getting a lump in his throat isn't human.


    1. I got a lump in my throat all right, but it wasn't for the reason you're probably thinking of. How utterly sad and pathetic that this young man, and millions like him, had to lose their lives for nothing at all. WWI was the most pointless, purposeless slaughter of the 20th century, leading to nothing but the horrors of WWII.

    2. That's exactly what induced the lump in my throat: the insanity that infected all of Europe and much of the rest of the world, including the most prominent intellectuals of the day, leading to the wholly preventable deaths of millions, including Gail, who would have been "disappointed" had he not been sent into combat.

    3. So true unknown of 9:54.

      The Treaty of Versailles set up a mess.

    4. Too bad Ashburn today is probably a place you don't dare drive into.

  3. Attitudes toward war have changed somewhat since Dr. Johnson wrote "Every man must think meanly of himself for never having been a soldier or gone to sea," and the carnage of "the Great War" had a lot to do with that. But events have a way of altering attitudes. In the 1936 Oxford Union debates the question was "Resolved, that we will not fight for King and country," but five years later many of the debaters were fighting and dying in the skies over Britain and on the beaches at Dunkirk. And once the thing gets started it's hard not to get swept up in the martial exuberamce. Robert E. Lee said "It is well that war be so terrible, else we would grow to love it."

  4. the spectre of brave youth cut short is hard, but today is the day to look

    hope Gail was not writing more cheerfully than he felt, and believed in his recovery until his passing

    great post


  5. Did you find the rest of the story in the Sun-Times computers?

  6. I must have read this column in the past, because the address was familiar, but I must have missed something along the way. Other comments allude to his death, but I don't see that anywhere...maybe it's just me.

    Did he finally get a kiss-off letter from the lovely Lucille? Was he killed in action, or did he come home in one piece?

    Did they marry, or did both of them marry someone else? Perhaps he lived a long and happy and productive life, but Lucille remained in his thoughts as "the one that got away." Been there.

    Or perhaps they reconnected in their middle years. Before the age of the internet, that happened to only a very fortuitous few. I was one of them.

    1. Yes, Gail died from his injuries in a London hospital and never made it home. Lucile was my grandmother, and although she eventually married my grandfather and had 2 children, she saved Gail’s letters for the rest of her life, which I found in a box she left me when she passed at age 90.
      Kathleen Loftus


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