I love uncovering antique ephemera. One of the most fascinating insights into history which really makes the past personal are old letters and postcards from years gone by.
“Somewhere in France”
This fascinating letter home to New York from a US soldier stationed on the Western Front in France really helps give the reader a renewed appreciation for what life was truly like for troops during the Great War.
Dated August 4, 1918, this is one of Corporal Edward Canfield’s last letters home before being killed in action the following month on the Western Front during World War 1, this is one of his lengthiest and most detailed accounts of life and death on the front lines in the trenches of France during the summer of 1918. It appears that he somehow managed to get the letter hand-carried back overseas to America for someone to post in New York for him, bypassing military censorship as he had done with another letter we have listed.
Fighting Fear in the Trenches
“I just returned from the trenches … We have been in for ten days. We went into the support trenches first then to the reserve and into the front line. At first, a fellow feels kind of shaky but you soon find yourself and get control. The reserve and support are worse than the front line for you get the heavy artillery shells all the time. We had two wounded in the support. A lad from Troy [New York] and one from Middletown. The first three hours in the front line are the worst on account of reading about so many different things that have happened and what a fellow hears from fellows that have been there. When you get in you imagine that all you have read and heard is going to take place.”
“While I was in I saw two German planes brought down in flames, one landed across the lines and in in ‘No Man’s Land’ – it was a grand sight and I was much more elated over it when I heard they were Fritz planes.”
“One plane came down from a battle in the air and one from our machine guns. The Fritz that landed in ‘No Man’s Land’ tried to drop in a small lake but he fell short – both pilot and observer were killed.”
“The trenches [ ] we’re in had been taken about three or four weeks and many dead Germans lay in front of them and unburied. The stench was something awful I am glad I have a strong stomach.”
“I went ‘Over the Top One Morning’ with an English fellow we got a lot of souvenirs. We went out while day was breaking about 3:45 there was a heavy mist and we could not be seen. We got bayonets, gun, canned beef and it was good. We ate some. Belts, helmets and everything off the dead Germans also German pamphlets. I am sending you one of the belts it has on the buckle ‘God With Us’. I think they are liars.”
“Of course during the day we had to keep down. I also meant to tell you we got a 1917 Snipers Rifle one of the latest models. I wish I could send it home but it can’t be done. I left all but the best when we were relieved.”
“We are resting up now. While we were in the front line we had to cook our own meals and it was some job. We cooked with a wood fire. The wood had to be cut very fine just like match sticks so there would be no smoke as we would not give our positions away. It’s a wonderful sight at night in the trenches all on guard watching and waiting for someone to appear. Guns roaring in front of you and different signal lights appearing in front.”
German Signal Flares Light the Skies at Night
“Every now and then the Germans would send up what they call Flary Lights over at us and the whole place would be like day only with a dark blue tint. We fooled them with all their lights. While some of the other companies were in we brought them up their rations from the rear. We would start out at about 1 o’clock at night in single file and keep absolutely quiet and no talking. We brought food right to the front line and as we walked along in back of the trench the Germans would send up these lights and all would stand perfectly still and they would take us for stumps of trees, etc. All the trees are shot down or broken off from so much artillery and gun fire. Its an awful looking place around ‘No Man’s Land’ houses, barns, trees, everything ruined and about every few yards shell holes filled with water practically no grass only a few weeds here and there.”
Carrying a Box of Hand Grenades Through Shell Fire
“I had a detail one night composed of ten men and myself carrying boxes of hand grenades. You can imagine the job it was carrying these in boxes to the front line stepping over fallen trees barbed wire, old tin dugout that had been shot to pieces and falling in shell holes and at the same time machine gun bullets buzzing by like bees and shells bursting at your rear and in front of you. It’s some experience Frank and the lads have some great times after being up there and then coming back to the rear and tell about how close the shells came to them. It is great to hear some of the stories they tell.”
“Some of the dugouts are fixed up pretty solid and you are practically safe. Some are in cellars of houses that have been blown down and some in houses that must have been pretty happy homes during peacetime.”
“The last place I was in was in the cellar of an old brewery that had been completely blown to bits. It was just in rear of the front line. While you are in these dugouts up near the front you are not allowed out during the day only one man at a time as the observations balloons see everything and we do not want to let them know how many we have around and when they see a few wandering around in groups the German begin sending shells over at you from their artillery.”
“While you are in the trenches you are not allowed to take off your shoes. I did not have my shoes off for ten days until we came out to the rear.”
“When we came out of the trenches we left or was relieved about 12 o’clock at night. We hustle out, it was very muddy and the walking was fierce, mud over your shoes and raining hard and we tried to get out as quick as possible but every once in a while someone would fall in a shell hole full of water and it would delay us. We wanted to get out quickly on account of being in range of artillery fire well we walked and walked almost in a trance on account of the packs and wet clothes and feet. We walked for about three hours steady until we reached the road. Well, we reached the roach and we sat down for what we thought would be a ten minute rest anyway. We just got nicely seated when artillery shells began dropping just in back of us and up we had to get up and beat it down the road. Well, we kept going until daybreak and then the kitchen wagons pulled in and you should have seen us eat.”
Cooties (Lice) and Rats in the Trenches
“We are resting up now away out of the way. We had a good bath and are now taking it easy. Oh I came near leaving out the cooties and rats. The trenches are full of both. You could pick up some of the shirts and shake the cooties out like sand. You’ll hear a fellow say ‘well I guess I’ll read my shirt,’ off comes his shirt and he begins looking in the seams and every nook for the enemy – the cootie. They certainly keep you busy especially at night, they bite like hell and I guess they have or hold athletic meets on your back by the way they run around. Some of the cooties have service stripes.”
Ed Canfield’s Photo and Name Appear in 105th Regiment History Book
At the end of the better, Canfield suggests to his brother that he purchase a copy of a history book on his regiment, published by Edward Stern & Co. Interestingly, this book is viewable in PDF form online, and Edward’s name and photograph in uniform appear, just as he said they would. Click here to view the book online – Ed is in Company M near page 119-120.
ABOUT THE SOLDIER: CORPORAL EDWARD K. CANFIELD
One of 9+ children born to the Irish Catholic family of Thomas and Mary Canfield, Ed was born in January, 1890 in Hoosick Falls, New York. As a young man, Ed worked as a shop laborer and when the Great World War hit, he enlisted in the United States Army, finding himself in New York’s 105th Infantry Regiment, eventually merging into the US 27th Division.
His basic training was conducted in Spartanburg, South Carolina at Camp Wadsworth, then one of America’s premiere Army mobilization centers. It was from this camp that many of Ed’s letters home to his older brother Frank Canfield were written.
In May, 1918, Ed and the 105th regiment were shipped overseas to Europe, finding themselves in France in the heat of the battle against the German forces. Ed wrote home at the end of June that summer to tell the family that he’d made it safely across and described the French countryside for the folks back home.
Ed’s letters describe life in the trenches along the Western Front and witnessing moments of the world’s first war fought in the skies as German “airoplanes” are brought down in flames by allied gun fire.
On August 31, 1918, operations of the Ypres-Lys Offensive began in an attempt to remove the Germans from the Dickebusch/Scherpenberg area, freeing the Amiens-Paris railroad and protecting allied communications. Canfield’s 105th regiment participated in this offensive, eventually advancing against the German resistance until the entire 27th Division was relieved by the British 41st Division.
On September 4, 1918, Ed and the 27th Division were transferred to the British 3rd Army were stationed near Doullens, France in a reserve position.
On September 24, 1918, the allies were finally prepared to begin their own offensive after having beaten back the German forces. The Somme offensive was launched with the objecting of penetrating Germany’s elaborate system of defenses, the famed Hindenburg Line. On September 27th, elements of the 105th moved forward in support of an attack by the 106th Regiment. Gains were made, initially near Quennemont Ferme, Guillemont Ferme, and a fortified hill called “The Knoll”, but German counterattacks threw the two regiments back on their starting place. It was on this date, September 27, 1918, that Corporal Edward Canfield was killed in action during the Somme offensive. He was just 28 years old.
Ed was eventually interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hoosick Falls, Rensselaer County, New York – his hometown. Sadly, of his eight brothers and sisters in Hoosick Falls, four of his siblings met with sudden deaths. Only one younger brother, Joseph, and three sisters Mary, Julia and Rita would survive to see the second world war.
Ed’s older brother Frank, to whom the majority of his surviving wartime letters were written, committed suicide in 1932 at the post office where he had worked as assistant postmaster for over 30 years. At just 55, Frank had been battling illness for some years and after having to miss work due to his poor health, walked cheerfully into his New York post office on the morning of August 2, 1932 and shot himself in the mouth with a .45 caliber revolver.
Eldest brother John Canfield, who at one time was a reporter on a Troy, NY newspaper, committed suicide by jumping in front of a train at Hoosick Falls in 1913. William, at one time a druggist in Troy, New York, ended his life by taking poison. And James, who worked at the New York Telephone Company in Albany, committed suicide by shooting himself in the Telephone Building.