Letters from the Great War

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, July 2, 2014

By Frank Roberts

This week, the world marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the event that started the machinery leading to what would come to be known as World War I.

The so-called “Great War” ended the lives of about 9 million fighting men. My father, David Roberts, came close to losing his life near the French city of Metz.

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He was a member of the Keystone Division of Pennsylvania, a group of men who narrowly missed becoming victims of a packed minefield.

He never talked much about his time in the service. He wrote some letters about it, mostly covering training and furloughs. Most of the correspondence has been lost, but I found enough to get a fairly good idea of life as a serviceman in those years.

The battles were a far cry from today’s fighting. Today, battles are often fought on city streets using large military vehicles, airplanes and helicopters. During WWI, much of the fighting was done in the countryside. Trenches offered protection against the enemy, but not against the mud, rats and lice. The soldiers on each side often watched the enemy, close-up.

In a letter to me, written, appropriately, on Nov. 11, 1959, my father really opened up.

“Just 40 years ago today at 11 a.m. I was standing around with a lot of my buddies. Big guns were going off all over the place from both sides. Suddenly, 11 a.m. — silence — A thunderous silence! We looked at each other and realized all the rumors we had been hearing were true! Somehow we didn’t feel like celebrating as civilians were doing all over the world, because on that very morning we had lost several men who had gone through the whole war without a scratch.

“We were stationed near Sudan in France. Already, plans had been laid for an all out attack on Metz across the line in Germany to start on Nov. 14. In the next few days we began to learn what we would have been up against had the war continued.”

My father continued with a story of perfect timing. The men of the Keystone Division learned they had been heading toward a field of death, an area that had been heavily mined. German officers took them on a tour of that death valley, using maps showing where the mines had been buried.

“They were taking our men over all the ground in front of us, pointing out every spot that held a land mine,” he wrote. “They were all dug up and de-activated. There were hundreds of them, and we were slated to go over them on our way towards Metz.

“It would have been a slaughter and would have cost us thousands of men before we reached our objective,” he wrote.

Those letters, of course, were written after the fact, but I did find one written from Camp Meade, Md., dated Feb. 26, 1918. It was on YMCA stationary. At the top was the phrase, “With the colors.” At the bottom were the words, “Help your country by saving. Write on both sides of the paper.” He wrote to a friend named Jamie, telling him, “We have been training hard as usual and hiking every morning for 3 or 4 hours. Have also done some firing with my rifle. This is the most interesting thing we’ve done yet, and we are all anxious to go on the rough and do some real shooting.”

Then comes a military no-no, my father noting he and some friends skipped out for a spell, adding, “What’s the use of being a soldier if you are afraid of getting into a little trouble?”

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.