WWI Letters: “There Are Greater Things Ahead Of Us”

Today’s featured letter – rediscovered in A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia – was written by an American sergeant serving “over there” during World War I. He details his lodgings, general impressions of Americans in war-torn Europe, and an experience with French refugees in this letter to his mother.

Similar to last week, we’ve included a few historical notes after the complete primary source to give a little background and historical depth to the letter.

The Letter

Somewhere in France

September 14, 1918

Part of the American Expeditionary Force in France

My Dear Mother: Received your letters dated August 12th and 18th today. Certainly enjoyed them, as it has been some little time since I received any mail. In fact I think we have been moving so fast that the mail could not catch up with us.

Have been getting along O.K. so far. At present I am sleeping in an old deserted French house. There is a big old time fireplace here, and as the nights are getting pretty cool here have a nice fire burning. Am writing this letter from the light of the fire. Have a good bunk to sleep on, and indeed could live very comfortable here till the end of the war. But there is no chance for that, as I think we are here only a short while. Now we are not always located as good as we are [at] present. For very often we sleep on the ground in tents. Well, I do not expect to have it quite as good in the future as I have had while in France. There are greater things ahead of us than we have been through. 

I am not sure that this letter will go out, as they have been only taking mails at times. I hope it will go out tomorrow.

I was sorry to hear that Henry Guard was wounded, but glad to know that he is getting along nicely. There have been one lieutenant and six or eight men killed in this regiment and quite a few were wounded. The lieutenant was from Staunton, Va., and the private from near Richmond, Va. They were both in the company I was in at Camp Lee. I knew both of them very well. I knew none of the other men.

The Americans have been doing good fighting, and they have raised thunder with the Germans in the last few days. Suppose you will see all about it in the newspapers. They were celebrating General Pershing’s birthday.

French refugees during World War I (https://www.firstworldwar.com/photos/refugees.htm)

I have seen quite a few pathetic sights here among the French people. Last night I went with the doctor to see some sick French. They were living with a family in this village, as they were refugees just coming from the front. They were a middle aged lady and her son. They were both sick in bed, and beside that the lady had a sprained ankle. When we entered the room we found the lady in bed crying. Have no doubt but that they had to leave their homes and everything they owned. You can see them along the roads moving back with what few things they can carry with them. Of course you do not see a great amount of it now, as the Germans are being driven back. Now I tell you I never want to see things in States as they are here. It may be a good thing after all that we are over here, for if we were not I believe that some day the States would have had to experience the same thing.

Well I must close for this time as the light is getting too bad to write. Will write you again at the next opportunity which might be some little time. Will continue mailing cards every chance I get, as I can make out one of them and send it when I cannot write a letter.

Best wishes and love to all, 

Harry

Received a letter from Wade also. Will write him later.

(Sergeant Harry Zirkle to his mother, Mrs. J. W. Zirkle, who lived in Forestville, Virginia)

Historical Notes

  • General John Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Force in France during 1917 and 1918, the entire U.S. involvement in World War I. He was promoted to General of the Armies, the highest rank in the United States Army and is the only American to receive that rank while living.
  • As Sergeant Zirkle wrote this letter, other American troops fought the Battle of Saint-Mihiel (September 12-15, 1918), which was the only offensive undertaken solely by the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Catching the Germans by surprise, the Americans won the battle but did not capture Metz, giving the Germans time to refortify.

American troops near Saint Miheil battlefield

  • From August 8 to November 11, 1918, the Allies launched the Hundred Days’ Offensive (which included the Battle of Saint-Mihiel) as a decisive push to drive back the Central Powers and end the war. 
  • World War I created a massive refugee crisis as civilians fled when their farms became battlefields, trench systems, or no-man’s land. Four years of conflict displaced thousands, who often had nowhere to go and would find nothing to return to when the conflict ended.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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