A first-hand account of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a man on the front lines.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. While the war seems a distant blip in history to most, contemporary shows such as Downton Abbey have given viewers a brief glimpse into the lives and horrors of World War I soldiers.
Several years ago I was handed a box of love-letters that belonged to a distant relative, Sergeant Reno, who wrote to his sweetheart, Beatrice, for the duration of the war. The beautiful tradition of letter writing, almost extinct in the current age, provides a first hand account of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a man on the front lines, who slept in the trenches and wondered when he would return home to his love.
The letters start out as one would expect: sweet, with much longing and fear:
“Beatrice, I want you to do something for me. Please send me a good picture of yourself. If you don’t I’ll take one of my bombs out of my bag, set the time fuse and swallow it. Now that’s just how you can save my life. I swear I mean it.
“Thanks for the million kisses. I’ve only had just about four so far, but remember a promise is a promise. I aim to collect.”
Then the horrors of war make their way into the pages:
“When I first got gassed and couldn’t see anything, why I did wonder if my lamps had gone out for good, but I’d seen several others go blind for a day or two and then come out of it all right. You get a piece of horseradish and take a few big sniffs of it, and then you’ll know what mustard gas smells like. But this gas we got was in a heavy barrage – it was all mixed in with High Explosive shells. They came in so thick that for a few minutes we didn’t know they were using gas – the High Explosive fumes stifled us a little and we couldn’t smell it until we got a big whiff of mustard gas.
“As for our letters and souvenirs, you could never understand our condition. If you lay in the lines and you patrolled, attacked, and ducked shells and bullets until finally your nerves were so rattled you’d just stand and say ‘God why can’t they just hit me and get it over with’ – and then come out and march and march until you were asleep on your feet, then you’ll see why we throw our letters and souvenirs away. It wasn’t that I didn’t think of you. It was just the exhaustion that made us feel we didn’t care a whoop whether they hit us or not. The kind [of exhaustion] that makes you see a man with his leg bleeding, and say ‘lucky fellow, he’s out of the damn thing.’
“I don’t think anyone could understand … just how absolutely empty and lonely a man’s life can seem here. Sounds like a bally novel, doesn’t it? But please don’t laugh. I’m trying to make you feel something of it. I tell you it makes a fellow think of lots of things. You’d think I was crazy and a liar too if I tell you how much I think of you. Don’t think I’m a mushy fool – I’m just a very tired, very lonesome critter, and you’re the only girl I’ve got, and the only one I want, so you’re the only one I tell about it.”
As the war drew to a close, the young sergeant looked forward to the reunion with the woman he loved:
“With a million kisses to my young college lady, which I beg she will accept (and not on her hand)… I am ever yours, Reno.
“To you, my most dear, my most profound love. I will be most happy to see you again my dearest, because I love you very much, very much, very much, too much perhaps. I will see you soon. When I return it will be the day of my life. Perhaps I will meet you at the station where it is very crowded. But anyway, I will embrace you as I do in my dreams now. And I hope dreaming all my life ever there. Goodbye, most beautiful of my dreams.”
Sadly, Reno and Beatrice were not reunited at the war’s end. Reno sent a telegram to Beatrice, urging her to reunite with him at the train platform upon his return in 1919, but she did not come to greet him. Their families did not look happily upon the union. Years later, after they were each widowed, they were reunited and finally married.