From my Grandfather Fay (my father’s father) to his father, postmarked Verdun, France, 3/15/1919.
Grandfather Fay was a railroad man. He got his start overseas with the Allied Expeditionary Force, assigned to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. In the aftermath of Armistice Day, he stayed in France, helping rebuild that country’s rail network. I think that’s all the context you’ll need to understand his letter, which I treasure.
Have not written to you for quite a while so will let you know that we are still working as usual. I do not get to run around at all and see very little of the country outside of our regular runs. The war has stopped for most of the AEF but as far as the Trans. Corps is concerned there is very little difference. I guess as long as they ration the third army by rail we will be stuck over here. We hear all kinds of dope about when we are to be relieved, but I do not pay any attention to what I hear in the army.
I guess I told you that I run to Audun-Le-Roman. It is right in the iron and coal fields, it is a very rich country and the land is not destroyed. Audun is all in ruins, it is one of the first towns the Germans hit when they started out in 1914. I guess they blew the town up just to frighten the people as it is the only town east of Conflans that is destroyed.
About half the mines are working. The Germans destroyed machinery and flooded the mines before they left. Between here and Sedan one sees nothing but destruction. Some of the small towns do not have enough left to know that a town ever existed there. Not a wall three feet high left standing. Sedan is not hurt very much, but every bridge on the Meuse has been blown out. We follow the Meuse all the way from Verdun to Sedan. It is a very pretty stream about three hundred feet wide. I guess if it could talk it could tell some awful stories.
Near Letain, a negro labor battalion is digging up American soldiers who were buried where they fell. They are putting them in one large cemetery. The Captain told me that about half of his negroes had run away and left him. I guess they are afraid of a dead man. I have seen a few American fathers who have managed to get over here and are looking for their boys’ graves. One found his up near St. Miheil. We run pretty close to the Argone and I guess a great many of the boys have not been buried yet. They are cleaning up fast as possible. I guess I told you about my trip over dead man’s hill.
Yesterday I saw a fellow get a knife and come coins off a dead man’s body. The man had been buried but a shell had uncovered him. East of here it is not uncommon to find dead men, both German and French who never were buried, some of them in swampy land and under water. You folks at home will never be able to realize just what took place over in this country. The worst torn up country I have seen was up near Fhieacourt, perhaps it looked that way to me on account of it being fresh. I also saw some of it getting destroyed. Quite a few civilians are drifting back in this part of the country, almost every trip we have a few on our trains, perhaps it is one woman or mother and children or an old man a family, sometimes a soldier and his family. They never have very much luggage.
One thing that is hard for us to understand is the good spirits they all seem to be in. They always joke and laugh just as if nothing ever happened to them. I guess four years of war will harden a person to almost anything. The worst crime of war is cast upon the women and children. Around Audun the German girls flock around the kitchens and will sell their souls for something to eat and I am ashamed to say that this army has men in it who will take advantage of them. I have not been up town (Verdun) for a couple of weeks so do not know what progress they are making in getting the city cleaned up. Last time I was up there, they had German prisoners cleaning u the streets and around buildings. I should think it would be much cheaper to move and build a new city all together.
Just back of the depot there is a two inch shell stuck in the trunk of a tree, which did not explode. Near Etain I saw one stuck in a tie. I might also say that the tie has been removed from the track. I made a mistake when I did not bring my camera with me. They told us that it would not be permitted but a great many of them got by just the same. One of our boys was up from Trondes this week and took quite a few pictures and is sending the films to the States to get them developed. I have some of them ordered but do not know whether I will get any of them or not.
I have a German Caboose, it is quite a swell affair and I live right in it, so I am always at home. We do not do our own cooking, have to eat at different mens’ halls along the line. If I could get the rations and cook them myself, would fare much better than I do at present . . . I guess I had better stop writing, as by the time you get through all of this your eyes will be tired.
Pvt. Fay D. Woodford
71st Co. Trans. Corps
23rd Gd. Div.