It’s hard to visualize what American soldiers went through while fighting in faraway lands most people will never see.
It’s impossible to imagine the horrors they saw, the sounds they heard as shrapnel fell or the feelings they had when their war buddies standing next to them were shot down by enemy fire.
Many of those in the battlefield didn’t live to tell the tale. Many of those who got through it closed that part of their life up, not sharing it with friends or family – living through it once was enough.
But in the last few months, I’ve been able to relive the experiences of my grandfather, Alvin Victor Edenloff, a private in World War I. While leafing through the delicate, yellowed pages of the Osakis Review from 100 years ago, history columnist Marcia Lips came across several letters my grandpa wrote to his folks back home in Osakis while he was serving in the infantry.
His writings were filled with razor-sharp details, wry observations and honest terror. Reading them — for me, anyway — was like taking a time machine back to the foxholes of France in the Great War. It was like I was right there with him, watching him joke with his fellow soldiers, listening to him talk about how badly he longed to come home when the war ended, and seeing him have more than a few close calls with death.
Grandpa, who died in 1971 when I was 11, didn’t talk much about the war. I remember digging around in his garage one time when I came across some of his military possessions — a gas mask, a bayonet, a medal. I asked about them but he didn’t offer details. He said something like, “That was a long time ago,” before he got back to playing cards with the adults in the family while sipping on his Grain Belt beer.
I never pictured him as a young soldier, laying his life on the line for his country, with just fluke luck or providence determining whether he’d return home in one piece or in a box.
He wrote his last letter two days before the armistice to end the war was signed. His division made a charge across the Meuse River in France. They captured one town that morning and advanced on another in the afternoon. Midway between their starting point and their objective — a copse of woods — was a graveyard.
Here, in my grandpa’s words, is what happened next:
“Before we started, the Boche (German) shells began falling around us and when we got out in the open with our guns, ammunition and packs, we made fine targets, and left many wounded on the field. It got so hot for us that we had to take cover in the graveyard. In this country, they have the ancient custom of building a heavy stone wall 8 to 10 feet high around the graveyards. The Huns centered their big guns on the cemetery but they seemed to light all around the stone wall, only one or two lighting inside. Luckily, we found a box of ‘canned Willie’ (corn beef) and we had a feed crouched against the wall. To have stuck your head over the wall or to have stood up in the center of our corral, would have meant ‘goodbye Johnny.’
“At no time in my short career has death seemed so near as it did in that cemetery. In the centre stood a large crucifix of Christ nailed to the cross — an image 6 or 8 feet in height. I watched with bated breath for fear some shell would fall there and blow it to pieces, but fortunately, it escaped. The experience also brought to my mind the thought that some day, if we live through this terrible war, we will all have to be buried in a cemetery anyhow, but I didn’t like the idea of having my head blown off and dying in a cemetery.
“Finally the fire abated and our lieutenant gave orders that we should make the woods. We zigzagged across the open meadow and dodged shells and shrapnel that seemed to fairly hail down, and when half way across the opening, a doggone Boche aeroplane came sailing over and opened fire on us with their mgs (machine guns). Then all we could do was to hit the sod and lie low. I know I stuck my head under my helmet like a jackrabbit seeking cover. Well, we made the woods and then for five or six hours we had it hot and heavy. They had a machine gun placed in the tower of a church and kept us ducking our heads continually. The 61st Infantry was on our left and we could see the doughboys (fellow soldiers) throwing up their hands and biting the dust. I saw seven men killed there by one shrapnel shot that burst among them. About 10 or 11 o’clock, the wounded started to come in carried by their comrades, some minus a leg or arm, some wounded in the head and blood streaming from their wounds. The dead and wounded were all around us. These were terrible sights, but we were ordered to stay by our guns, and the medical corps and the Red Cross were supposed to look after the dead and wounded.”
Grandpa almost apologized for sharing his experiences:
“But enough of this war dope; we gave them more than they could swallow, and now our thoughts drift back to the old home. I just relate this little experience to give an idea of what I have seen, and believe me, I have seen but little compared with what some of the boys have been through.”
At the close of his letter, Grandpa wrote about what it means to live and die for your country, words that still seem fitting for this Memorial Day, 100 years after he penned them:
“I do not know what it is that puts courage in a soldier. You seem to forget under the excitement that you have a life to lose. Your only thought is that you came to lick the (enemy) and your aim is always forward to avenge the death of your comrades and bring a speedy end to the war.”