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Letters From the Battlefront

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 11, 2018

During the summer of 1918, most residents of Ocean County were closely following the war on the Western Front. The year before, the majority of those drafted locally had been sent to Camp Dix and became part of the 78th Division, 311th Regiment. In May 1918 they had made the dangerous crossing to England without incident, and after a brief stay it was time to cross the English Channel.

Capt. Allison Colonna remembered, “The next morning the battalion was formed at 6 A.M. and marched along cobbled streets to the pier, where we were sardined into a fast channel steamer, and donned those confounded lifebelts again for a short farewell wearing. Then, with an American destroyer racing along on either side, we slipped swiftly down under the Dover Cliffs, then swerving out and across the channel to Calais. … The company filed off the boat, and crossing the dock stumbled into formation down the railroad track by the hospital train and was introduced to a bit of backwash from the drive. Some English wounded were being carried from the train to the boat by German prisoners. We looked curiously at the latter. These were the Huns we were taught to hate, from whom we were to kill.”

After more training, the time for moving to the front was getting close.

“We could only keep what we could carry on our backs. The contents of our barrack bags, the extra equipment, the complete outfit that had been subjected to so many inspections, upon which we had turned in reams upon reams of reports at Camp Dix, were ruthlessly collected, dumped into trucks and carted off to Heaven knows where. … The next day we formed with rifles, belts and bayonets, and marched about four miles out into the flat, flat country; past windmills and hedges here and there, until we came to a British gas house. Here some English and Scotch sergeants issued English gas masks, and after a couple of hours gas mask drill we went through the gas house and started back to camp.”

Those at home relied on letters for news from France, but they were heavily censored. On June 30, Resident Cpl. Frank H. Mathis wrote, “Dear Mother, I know that I should have written a letter long before this, but really there is not much use of writing from here, as I cannot write what I would like to, especially where I am located and what I am doing but can truthfully say that I am a busy boy these days and don’t have much time to myself.”

He also had some complaints.

“Would like to be in the U.SA. for several reasons. One is that we don’t have very much money here and everything is very high in price, for instance, a bar of chocolate costs 50 cents (2½ francs in French money). Another reason is that there is no amusements in this section of France. … As for girls I would not give one of my home town girls for all I have seen in France. … As for my health, it never was better and I wish you could see me, with my hair cut off short and a little mustache, I look like somebody else. I expect to keep the mustache until I reach the U.S.A. again so all the boys can see it.”

Private Arch Pharo wrote home to Tuckerton on July 4, saying, “It has been exceedingly fine weather here with no mosquitoes at all but plenty of flies just like we have at home. In the place of mosquitoes, we have a fly about the size of our green head and looks more like a blow fly and I tell you they can bite; are an awful pest to the horses and cows, they only seem to be around in the day-time. … This being about all the news as it is getting dark to write will close, hoping this will find everyone as well as I am.”

The Beacon published “Robert Keil, son of Mr. and Mrs. Augustus L. Keil, of Spray Beach, enlisted in the First Regiment of the National Guards of Pennsylvania, in May, 1917, at the age of seventeen. … He was sent abroad in May, 1918. … Robert’s name has never been included in the lists of our Ocean County boys as he was under draft age and enlisted in a Pennsylvania Regiment. … His father, A.L. Keil, is President of the Long Beach Board of Trade and is also municipal clerk of Long Beach Township and if Robert goes after the Germans with the same spirit that his Dad goes after things there will be something doing ‘over there.’ We wish this youngster and the other boys the best of luck.”

What the Beacon didn’t know at the time was that LBI Resident Sgt. George Cushing had written from France on July 21.

“Just a line to let you know that I am all right, safe, sound and well. … We are now camping in a big wood just in back of the line where they brought us for a rest but we expect to move farther to the rear to-morrow so the men can get a good quiet rest. All my letters from home I lost in the trenches some place so I can’t answer them. I guess you want to hear all about the scrap so I’ll try to tell you as much as I can without have it cut out by the censor.”

Cushing told of his first battle.

“On Sunday, July 14th, we were peacefully sleeping in our pup tents never dreaming that the Huns were anywhere near us when about half past eleven the first shell dropped. That started the Hell and I mean it WAS Hell for five whole days. Well, the shells began to fall faster and men were getting wounded so we all left our tents and ran to the trenches for cover without taking a rifle because it would be over in a couple of hours, but we got sadly fooled because Jerry gave it to us all of Sunday night and for five days after.”

Cushing and his men were ordered to hold the line.

“We finally got there after losing four men and the orders were to hold the position at all costs, and I tell you when the Huns took up a position on the other hill it looked pretty black for a while, but we stuck and towards the last day, some French and Americans came and we started a drive and drove them back and they are running yet. They finally took us out to give us a rest and fill up again with men as our casualties were heavy but we got all of our dead and wounded and yesterday we buried them on a little hill somewhere in France and it was a sad bunch that watched them put our pals to rest.”

Finally, there was a footnote when he gave those back home some bad news.

“The French say it was the heaviest bombardment they ever saw since the war began so you can imagine what we were up against. Little Bob Keil is either a prisoner or killed as he is among the missing.”

Sometimes in war there is a happy ending. The Beacon ran on Sept. 19, 1918, after months of thinking the worst, “A.L. Keil, a prominent resident of Long Beach, president of the Long Beach Board of Trade, and chairman of the Long Beach Township Committee, on Friday of last week was cheered to learn that his son, Robert H. Keil, was not dead. Even the word that he had been located through the Red Cross in the German prison camp at Limburg was a relief, after the uncertainty since the battle of July 15-19, since which time he had been reported among the missing. Keil is young and strong, and his parents now hope for the best, even if a prison camp is what it is.”

The men from Ocean County were in the thick of the war “to make the world safe for democracy” and would be there until the last day.

Next Week: The USS San Diego.


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