In the autumn of 1918, young Lester Koontz in the 42nd Division wrote to his father from France. This letter was reprinted in A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia, and gives another glimpse into the observations and experiences of American soldiers during the final weeks of World War I.
You’ll find a few historical notes on World War I after the complete primary source to give a little background and historical depth to the letter.
I received three letters at one time, sure did enjoy them. It is something unusual to receive mail at the front. The big noise started September 12th and we have been on the job all the time. The Rainbow Division is keeping up to its good reputation, and we expect to continue the good work. It is said that every battle that we have started into there was rainbow in the sky. Our Division has been in every fight that the Americans have taken part in. We were the only American division in the Champagne fight, and believe me we made a wonderful stand there too.
I am sending you a commendation that we received before we came to this front. It’s pretty good stuff and every word true. I wish you would save these mentions, I will probably enjoy reading them when I get back.
I have a German helmet and haversack that I am going to send you if I can get by with it. When the Germans retreated here they went so fast that they left most of their belongings behind. I suppose after we are relieved up here we will be granted a leave. I hope it will be so that we can go to Paris. I haven’t been there yet and am anxious to see what it is like.
When we advanced a few days ago we freed some French territory and also lots of French refugees. Believe me they were some happy people, they had be interned here ever since the beginning of the war. It was quite an agreeable surprise for the, for nobody knew we were coming. We had a bunch of prisoners and it was real amusing to see the women and children shaking their fists at them and yelling “American caput.”
I haven’t as yet received the box but suppose I’ll get it when we go back. Well, I will have to close as it is getting dark and we are not allowed to have a light. Have been sleeping in my “Pup tent” but the shells and aeroplanes were pretty hot last night; so I think I will go underground tonight. Will write you again as soon as we leave the front. Have you been getting the Stars and Stripes? Give my love to all.
165 Field Hospital, 117th Sanitary Train.
The Rainbow Division (42nd Infantry Division) is a unit of the United States Army National Guard and during World War I it was mobilized and sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917. During 1918, the division fought at Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Saint-Mihiel, and in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive – totally 264 days of combat. During World War I, the Rainbow Division lost 14,683 casualties. The unit’s name came from it’s organization and enlistment of Americans from across the country which commanders said would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.”
- Lester Koontz mentions the Battle of Champagne which was fought between March 21 and June 13, 1918, when the Germans made an offensive but were turned back were massive casualties on both sides; as a result of the battle and arriving American units, the Allied troops outnumbered the Central Powers on the Western Front.
- “On the Job” is how Koontz casually mentions the ongoing fighting and Allied advances that would end the war. His unit designation reveals that he served with a medical unit. Military medicine made advances during World War I, including using specialized railroad cars for casualty evacuations, complex field hospitals which were equipped with sterilized operating rooms, and the use of x-ray machines.
- Stars and Stripes is an American military newspaper (still in print!). During World War I, it was published from February 1918 to June 1919 and the articles were prepared by veteran writers or soldier correspondents. Published weekly and featuring eight pages, Stars and Stripes was distributed to American troops in France and the United States.