The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume I, Number 1, Pages 27-44
Nora and Nelson Burch of Moran Prairie, near Spokane, sent three sons to the Great War. Walter, the oldest, was stationed at Camp Lewis in the mustering office. Ralph (aged 20) and Charles (aged 17) went overseas. The letters of Ralph and Charles give a clear picture of the soldier's life in camp and 'over there' - and tell one of the most stirring tales to be found in the history of World War I.
Most of the letters are addressed "Dearest mother."
MATT JARONESKI, a graduate student in English at Eastern Washington University, is the technical writer at Key Tronic.
The Burches were a close family. While in the different boot camps across the nation, Ralph and Charles saw each other often. Though Ralph was in the Miltary Police and Charles was in the Infantry, they moved from camp to camp at about the same times.
Both were close to their family at home. Charlie, for example, sent a chevron to his sister Eva after he became a private first class so that she could put it on her sweater as a souvenir. The brothers bought life insurance together and named their parent as beneftciaries.
On November 16, 1917 Ralph wrote: "I took out $10,000 Soldier's life insurance today. Charles has taken the same amount. It costs $6.40 a month, and we are paid for any injury incurred in duty or otherwise. The government is backing it up, and it is the most reliable insurance... If either of us are killed, you will receive the money within three months; so we've got it doped out that we're worth more dead than alive."
Ralph encouraged his parents to enjoy life, and encouraged them to buy "a machine" - a car. But he did not think much of the Ford's Model T. "Get a machine for the love of mike," he wrote them, "but don't invest in a mantle piece (Ford)." Ralph was willing to help them "enjoy life" by sending them part of his pay.
The two boys had been a big help on the Burch farm, and without them around getting the crops in would be difficult. Ralph (27) asked about the prices and the weather and wondered if his father were working double time.
To increase the amount of money he could send home, Ralph became a kind of doughboy fmancier: "I will be able to help you some in about two months," he wrote, "as I have a banking scheme which I intend to work out. In the middle of the month the kids are broke and they have been paying $1.00 interest on the dollar until payday. It's a sure proposition as the top sargeant takes all the debts out of their pay. In a couple months I can have $100." (undated letter, 1917)
Going to church was a frequent activity for the soldiers: "I have gone to church every Sunday and once or twice a week since we've been in camp here," he wrote from Charlotte, North Carolina. "I go to First Presbyterian as I fd it the biggest and best church here, and most of the fellows go here. " (September 30, 1917)
The first soldiers in the camps were volunteers, eager to flight in the war. When draftees began to drift in, the existing soldiers looked down on them. Charlie wrote from Camp Greene, North Carolina, "They're 'Yellow', that's all that can be said for them." (October 22, 1917)
Ralph agreed and tried to get Charlie to transfer to his company which had fewer draftees. Ralph thought "some of them are discouraged and would give half of their life to get out of the army. On the other hand, there are many good men waiting to do their part."
Both brothers were open and friendly. Ralph gives a good example of this gregarious nature in a letter from North Carolina:
"Any time I want a feed while in town [Charlotte], I fall into a cafe and sing a song and get a chicken dinner." (September 30, 1917)
Charles and Ralph wrote often about getting invited to dinners, and about the fme people they meet wherever they went. This was common for the First World War era. The people around the camps were generous to the men in uniform and were proud to help them and make them feel at home.
On September 24, 1917, Charles wrote "A big bunch of us went to church in Charlotte last Sunday, and we were all taken to different homes for chicken dinners served by old mammys. And they sure were some feeds. On the way (28) home in their machine the lady I was with said, 'Why, I never met a more refined bunch of young men. Do they have schools out there?' They could hardly believe that we had street cars and automobiles out there ... They have the idea that we are entirely uncivilized, and the truth is we are years ahead of them ... " He proved how up to date the West was by discussing street cars and hand brakes.
While at Camp Mills Charles was invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
He wrote his sister Eva:
"I was on guard duty last Sunday night at the entrance of camp to stop all machines going thru after dark. The wind was blowing as bad as the 'northeasters' out there and it was around zero some place. I stopped one car with a lady and her husband in it (Mr. and Mrs. King) and they started a conversation concerning the camp and where I was from 'etc.'
"Finally they asked me what I was going to do Thanksgiving,. so naturally I jumped at the chance and told them 'nothing absolutely.' They immediatley invited me out to their place and told me to bring a couple offriends ijpossible. They even made me promise to come Wednesday afternoon if possible and stay all night and be there for Thanksgiving day early as they lived in Newark, New Jersey and it takes from three to four hours to make the trip. I said I would and I did.
"Wednesday morning I rec'd a letter with two round trip tickets to Newark, I went over and got Ralph and we finally got a pass from 5 o'clock Wednesday until midnight Thursday. We went, but we didn't get there until nine o'clock in the evening, and they were still waiting supper for us. And believe me it was some feed. After supper, the music started and we sang around until midnight just like we used to do at home. It wasn't long until a bunch of neighbors were in and we had a regular party.
"After that they showed us into a bath room and a bed room with a bed that I sunk out of sight in. I took advantage of the bath tub too. On the bureau they had laid ten one dollar bills in case we needed any money, but of course we didn't quite have the nerve to partake of that ....
"In the morning they took us to a football game between the south (30) side, and the north side high schools and what made it seem more like home the south side colors were orange and black and the north side red and white .. .And what was more like home, the south south side lost...
"After the game we went home to dinner and such a feed. Turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, salad... etc. I can't think of it all. We would finish one plate and say we had enough and they would take our plates and load them up again, and of course we couldn't refuse. I ate so much I was ashamed of myself·"
(December 1, 1917)
Training camp was not usually so relaxed. The daily routine for Charlie was "Crawling out at 5:30 in the morning, shaking off the icicles, and doing our 'monkey drill'." It was getting to be a habit, he said, but "I hope it doesn't grow so strong I can't get over it." (October 24,1917) The men spent most of the daylight hours drilling.
Sickness was a constant fear in the camps. Whenever 40,000 men are together in a close area, communicable diseases can easily get out of hand. The military was quite conscious of this, and Charlie mentions that at various times the men were quaranteened for influenza, pneumonia, and spinal meningitis.
On October 13, 1917, Ralph described the procedure: "We are quarantined for spinal meningitis. This whole squadron and many others in this division. Yesterday 1st company had two cases. They are right next to us. None of our company has been afflicted yet. It sure is a fierce disease. We are conformed to quarters and no one is allowed in or out of camp. Our Major was out when we were quarantined, and he is kept out. We are not [even] allowed to seal or stamp our letters, a man outside of camp in the medical department does it."
Ralph was in the military police while in the various camps across the United States, and told many stories about guard duty and about its drawbacks:
"One of our men got cut up pretty badly by a negro the other night. He approached two negros who were partly drunk; he demanded a pass of one who was a soldier. The other one was not questioned as he was a civilian, but when our man, Engle, started to arrest the soldier, his partner (31) made a pass at Engle's throat with a razor.
"Luckily he missed his throat, but [he] cut his face wide open. He could stick his tongue thru his cheek. Both eyes are black and his face is swollen twice its natural size. He will get all right if he can keep it free from infection. Will close tonight, your loving son, Ralph." (November 22, 1917)
Charles, too, told stories of the dangers of guard duty. "They caught three fellows sleeping on post here [American Lake] and they got eighteen months in the guard house ... A guard from the Coast Artillery shot a fellow here, the other night. And he is pretty seriously wounded. He was halted three times, but they found out later that he was deaf. He was one of the carpenters working here." (August 10, 1917)
Despite everything, both brothers loved the Army life because it was "such a big generous cause." Charles' easygoing and optimistic manner is shown in a letter written November 30, 1917: "If a person only acts human, you can always meet fine people wherever you go. We have been in camps in the three different parts of the U.S. - the west, south and the east - and I have found it that way in every place. And I have had some place to go whenever I could get leave, always, wherever we have been."
In eight months Charles moved six times from camp to camp throughout the United States.
During the Fall the troops were issued two wool uniforms, three suits of underwear, and five pair of heavy wool socks. (November 20, 1917) They were also issued "trench shoes." "They are corked and have iron heels," Charles said, "weigh like bricks, and it is impossible to soak them thru no matter how long you stand in water." (November 30, 1917) This was equipment for a new environment. In a few weeks the Burch brothers would be "going over" to France.
In France Ralph and Charles were separated. Because of secrecy about troop movements, at one time Ralph did not even know where Charles was. Ralph was a cook during most of the war, and Charles was a soldier fighting in the trenches for months at a time. Because of censorship, neither could tell the family back home where they were.
Ralph's first letter shows that he rapidly found his place in France. Just as he made friends in North Carolina and in New York, so he did over there. And he was still trying to make extra money on the side:
"I have a surprise for you that I don't believe you can stand. I am (32) a cook. Both of our cooks were taken to the hospital and / was asked to substitute. / did so and made quite a success considering my experience and now / am a regular cook. / can make some hot cakes, puddings, cakes, biscuits, roasts and etc."
Since he mentioned in an earlier letter that he could not even boil water, this was some change. He continued:
"France is quite an interesting country and the people think nothing is too good for the Americans. One old lady who lost her only son in this war has practically adopted me. She comes around to the kitchen daily to see the 'chef. She is also doing her best ot teach me the French lingo, and whenever / learn a few new words it tickles her to death. Last night she brought me some (two) 'pijins' and potatoes with some greens. Her husband is equally considerate. He brings fuel to start the fires and does any thing he can to help me.
"I am saving my money to purchase a diamond ring. Most of the fellows are doing the same thing as it is a fine investment. They are 1/3 cheaper here, and its not safe to try sending money thn the mail. The stone I am buying costs 1000 francs, approximately $200 in our money. I can sell it to the U.S. for at least $300 ... " (Ma: 4, 1918)
Ralph was still singing, and this time Frenchmen cheered him on. After one month on the job as a cook, his lieutenant considered sending him to cooking school.
During his first two months in France, Charles saw the sights and continued his training. He liked the beautiful countryside and the people, but he was eager to get into the war. Then on March 11, 1918, he entered the trenches.
"I am mighty glad that I was not transferred to Ralph's company," he wrote, "for I knew we would be here long before his company and right here is where I am satisfted and happy. Right where you would think one had given up all happiness, he is the happiest. Do not worry about me for there is absolutely no need for worry. I know it is far worse for you folks over there than it is for us here, but if anything should ever happen you would know in a very short time."
In a letter to his sister he joked about the mud saying "you would think we were trying to camoflage ourselves." (March 11, 1918)
He thanked his family for (33) packages from home. He received a pillow from Eva and wristlets from an aunt. He also received the newspaper from home and shared it with everyone on the line.
On Easter Sunday, Charlie and his comrades were fed a meal of turkey and cranberry sauce like the rest of the troops.
He repeated in every letter to his parents or sister that they should not worry about him, he was safe and happy. He sent a franc home as a souvenir, explaining, "It is money that was made for the war only and is good for the year 1918 only. It is equal to 17 1I2¢ American money." (March 31, 1918)
Meanwhile Ralph was officially appointed cook and was drawing $42 per pay period - about $800 in 1988 dollars. And he was sightseeing:
"We have a new bunch of horses now. On Saturdays and Sundays we 'promenade' over this pretty country on horseback. It is very entertaining to go thru these small towns that are so numerous. With their narrow stone streets and side walls, their lime stone buildings and on every corner a group of quaint French children and women dressed in their neat white bonnets, black knitted shawls and wooden shoes. Sometimes the small children cry when we ride along, but the older ones recognize [us J and give us a royal reception. They are all very enthusiastic over the Americans." (April 10,1918)
He made friends with the people he met in France. The one old lady who gave him fried pigeons and whose husband helped get fuel for the fires, was rewarded with all the left overs from the kitchen.
The French were devastated from the war, and in this way families were probably helped out wherever Americans were stationed.
Perhaps because he was not on the front lines, Ralph was more patriotic than Charles: "Don't worry. Uncle Sam isn't letting any of these Dutch [Deutch] put anything over on him," he wrote. "Wish I was there [at the farm] to help, that is if these 'Bosch' were all picketed for their damn future fatherland -- Siberia." (April 17,1918)
While in France Ralph had a tooth pulled. Dentistry in the army must have been primitive since the dentist used 'pipe wrenches' to remove the tooth.
Ralph grew tired of cooking already and was ready to "prepare myself for the grand 'finale' which I think will be 'tout-de-suite.'" (May 4,1918) (34) Walter, the oldest Burch brother, had just enlisted in the army, and showing off his experience, Ralph asked him "Have you been on the latrine detail, K.P., or marked time far into the dreary night guarding a ware house or possibly a contented group of Conscientious Objectors if not you have not a start yet." (May 28, 1918)
The Face of War
On the front Charles was frustrated by restrictions that kept him from telling his family what he saw: "Writing a letter is the worst agony there is over here." (April 8,1918) Every letter sent to America had to be ok'ed by an officer - the initials are still there on each of his letters. He often commented on how much he could tell and how many stories he had, but that they will have to wait until after the war was over. Mud and the trenches were synonymous for Charles. He "would be homesick without it", but that was all he could say since "there is nothing we can write about except our health and the weather." (April 19, 1918)
The trenches were not all mud however: "We got a day off to-day and some of us hiked several miles from here and got 5 dozen eggs, some butter, canned fruit and with toasted bread we are proceeding to get up a regular feed to-night. It is a rather primitive way, but it tastes mighty good just the same. We have done this many times since we have been here; so you see we are a long ways from starving" (April 21,1918)
Charles described one incident that occured when he and a friend were at a French home near camp. Part of the letter was published in the Spokesman-Review; it shows his devotion to his mother:
"Dear Mothern I am writing today as is every one in the A.E.F. forces to the one who is dearer to us than anyone in the world. And one who spends days and nights of worrying while we, over here, are a carefree and happy as if there never was a war.
"All France also sets aside this day in memory of mother. In memory of the ones who are sacrificng and have sacrificed all that is so dear to them, and yet go ahead, facing the future with the grim determined smile, that, in itself speaks more than words. I know what it is mother, I have seen that smile many times in poor war-torn France. The night before leaving our first camp for the front, another fellow and myself were at a French home near camp, where we had gone many evenings before to get a meal of potatoes, eggs, beaf steak, 'etc.' There was just the old couple there. They had only one son, and he had been (35) killed in the third day of the struggle at Verdun.
"The fellow I was with could talk French. When she told us of her son, not a tear was in her eyes. But on her face was that sad, but proud and courageous smile, that I can't explain which in the pastfew years, has saved France.
"She bidfarewell to us with that same subtle smile of Q..fiisurance and courage, which came from the heart of one who had sacrificed all and understood. It was [through] that that I could really understand the courage and determination of the loved ones we leave behind.
"So mother dear, thru days that are to come look only on the bright side of things ,for there is no dark side. And always wear that cheerful smile that you have on in this picture you sent.
"I know and understand some of the lonesome hours you spend with three ofus in this, more than you know. But mother I am only more proud and love you all the more for it. Look forward only to the days when we will be together again; with a freedom won that will be so much more dear to us then. Remember me to all, hoping that this day next year will be spent together. Be cheerful always and smile, smile, smile.
"Your loving son, Chas.
"P.S. I am all o.k. I guess it is almost unnecessary to sat that. Write often. Chas." (May 12,1918)
In this letter home Charlie made the war seem like a picnic, but he had a different message for Walter:
"It's a great game and whatever comes you will never regret the day you enlisted. Take it from me - I've seen men killed and wounded, the dead in heaps, some mutilated beyond recognition and helped carry and give some of them the best burial possible in the three months that I spent at the front -- but never a moment did I regret being there. Even while we were burying them, the 'beloved Hun' started shelling that very spot.
"After one has seen men give their lives as the price for the cause we all hold so dear, he can face anything. I can't explain the feeling ,but you're just as happy as if you were home, yes, even happier .. ./ wouldn't send this home [to his parents] as it would probably only cause more worry." (June 8, 1918)
His letter to Charles hints at the brutality of the struggle. But even in the middle of the war, he sometimes found time while on (36) leave to buy souvenirs for his sisters Eva and Gladys and do some sightseeing.
He went to the "remains of the palace of Charles Vil" and to places associated with Joan of Arc.
He enjoyed the sights and wished he knew more about the area's history because "It's pretty good when you are seeing things of ancient history and making future history at the same time." (June 6, 1918)
The "beloved Hun" was one person that Charles, despite his easy-going manner and his abilty to smile, even hated. He wrote on May 19, 1918, "I have no feeling or human sympathy for a Hun. They are treacherous and brutal and have no sense of fairness whatever. But they will get an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Finally Charles did got a chance to take an eye for an eye:
"I was with the French heavy artillery a while ago while putting over a heavy barrage. They let me help load and fire the piece. Infact it tickles them to death to see the Americans take an interest in the fighting. And I'll say for them they are the gamestfighters there is. Always calm and joking, yet go at it like they sure mean it. The gun I was with was in the battles of the Marne, Verdun, Ypries and the Somme.
"A barrage at night certainly is a sight. Everything may be as quiet as a graveyard, when, at a cenain moment along the whole front, hundreds of big guns open up just like one, then it is on. You can't hear yourself think, the whole sky is dotted with balls of fire leaping from the muzzles of the guns.
"At this time we were behind the line, and I and my bunky had a bed in a clump of bushes as it was plenty warm. Before the barrage, two pieces of artillery were placed, one about three feet away on each side of the bed. When it started we were sleeping. When they 'let go' together, the concussion set us rig ht up in our bed. I knew on the instant what had staned and knew sleep was beyond hope, infact staying in bed was hard enough. So I got up and joined the crew. One feels a lot better when he is in it anyway." (June 1,1918)
Charles entered the trenches again after June 12,1918 with a different company. He had been transferred into the 26th division from the 41st, leaving many friends behind. Still he was (37) optimistic: in a short time he would be well acquainted with the "fellows."
But he never had the chance.
Shortly after reentering the lines young Charles Burch was killed. He had been bright, optimistic, and eager. One of millions of young men killed in the great war, he was seventeen when he died.
Ralph told the story in a letter on June 26,1918 to his mother:
"My dearest mother --
"Well, I suppose you have heard about it by now. I just heard last night. It is a hard dose to take, but mother, it was such an honorable, brave death that I can not help feeling a big, proud feeling, having had a brother who died so bravely, honorably, and for such a necessary, big and wonderful cause. He receives military honors for sticking to his post -- you will receive them eventually.
"There are some of the most wonderful particulars that I cannot tell you about until I get home, but these few are true: He and six boys volunteered for an outpost -- one of the most important duties a man can assume, also one of the most dangerous. There were three (four including himself) Spokane boys with him.
[As Ralph learned the facts in detail, he corrected himself. There were two from Spokane.]
'The Germans started a barrage early in the morning lasting three hours. The duties of these boys were to carry or transfer all information they could secure of the enemy back to the front lines. Their orders were to stick to their post till the end. Four of them, all Spokane boys, did -- they saw the Germans creep silently out over no mans land. This was reported and then they watched the manuevers of the enemy.
'They soon started a heavy barrage to drive the Americans into their dugouts, their intentions being to get as near as possible before being discovered. Our boys waited until they got within good range and then gave them the awfulest surprise of their life. The Germans came on, and Charlie and comrades stuck to their post like real heroes. They used their rifles until all their ammunition was gone.
"They were sent to the 'land of no wars' by a shell... "(38) Ralph was obsessed with his brother's death. Early in July he was shipped to Chateau Thierry. There he heard that Charlie had "died like a man" and was buried with the other men killed on the patrol. (July 11, 1918)
Charles "did not suffer the agony that two of them did," Ralph assured his parents:
"They were buried with military honors, each coffin draped with the American Flag, and pinned on each was the greatest testimony that can be bestowed upon an American --
"It is claimed that had it not been for the vigilance and accuracy of this outpost the American sector at this point would have been taken by surprise and completely wiped out.
"So altho he has left us physically, he has left to us deeds and memories that shall not only hold himforever with us, but likewise with the generations that shall follow us...
"Charles told me several times that his one wish was that he would never be badly crippled or rendered helpless as he much preferred death if it came would come quick, as he was ready for it whenever it should come." (July 16,1918)
The letter then abruptly changes into questions about the crops and the "machine" and news that Ralph has not been cooking lately.
While trying to encourage his parents about Charlie's death, Ralph yearned to get into the fighting himself, perhaps even to avenge his brother's loss. Finally he had the opportunity to visit the front:
"I spoke to Lt. McCullough, and he gave [Harvey} Lord and I permission to go to the front a few kilometres from there. We could hear and see all the artillery action from there [his encampment}, and we're raided and bombed by aviators every night.
"We left and caught a munitions train to Chateau Theirry and then hiked it thru to the left of Chateau T. -- to near Soissons. Our first night was spent about 1/2 mile back of our heavy artillery -- as luck would have it we slept in a German graveyard or rather a place where some Fritz had been planted. He [Lord} slept with a cross for a pillow, but I choose my pack.
"About 2:30 A.M. our boys started a barrage. It was our first experience, and it seemed great for (39) afew minutes, but we had hardly started for the nearest position to get in on the excitement when Fritz opened up with a bellow from the other side. Their lines followed a ridge around in a semicircle.
"It was not long before we changed all our notions of the pleasure of the front, but we stripped down and helped what we could with the artillery. We were juggling 6-inch bounders weighing nearly 200 lbs. It was not long before the air was filled with aviators and flares were dropping quite near our position.
"There was more excitement than I had ever seen in my life, but nobody seemed excited and [everybody] worked like the devil. About four thirty the barrrage lifted, and then things commenced.
"It was there we really staned our experience we got a can of 'corned bill' an extra bandolier of ammunition and staned to join the doughboys about 1 kilometre ahead of us. (I forgot to tell you that ten minutes before the heavy shelling ceased the second battery on our right was struck squarely and six men were killed .... ) The infantry had gone over and were meeting an awful resistance.
"We were making our way along an entrenchment a short distance in their rear when we were held up by a captain. He wouldn't let us go any further. He was going to send us back under guard, but after we explained, he left us go and told us to report to the 'first aid' station for duty. We did and was sent out with a stretcher crew. Then is when I decided that war was hell!
"We found men in all conditions but there was one man in particular I shall never forget (Harve and I were separated, and I was working with a young fellow from Mass. named Jordan.) We had, or were, passing this man up as dead when he turned and whispered: 'Can you give me a lift pal?'
"I won't tell his condition as it was unbelieveable. He was laying in about 1/3 of his blood. We started back to the dugout with him -- but he died before we got there.
"Things continued this way for three days, and we worked day and night, for you couldn't sleep or hardly rest, for you kept seeing and hearing those poor fellows crying for help, and you knew you were saving lives every minute you were busy.
"I finally reported back, and it was nearly like going home. Harve got back one day ahead of (40) me ... Our next location was Neuf Chateau on the St. Mihielfront. We followed Gen. Pershing's headquarters. We were put on Traffic duties here and shortly after the drive started on that front I left to help ... " (November 27, 1918).
Ralph continued to grieve for his brother. He did not mention his sorrow in his letters, but his need for consolation is evident in this letter to his brother, Walter.
"I picked up a little book today called: Glory of the Trenches and if you can possibly get a copy of it, do, for it is the most wonderful, inspiring interpretation of this war that I have ever read.
"It portrays spiritual and moral [life] as supreme and shows the unimportance of the physical in comparison, in such a way that it is elevating and is an explicable tale of the origin and source of courage and heroism of ours and other nations' soldiers who face death daily and unafraid. It is written by Coningsby Dawson -- author of Carry On, The Worker, Slaves of Freedom, and many other good books." (October 2, 1918).
Having lost his brother in the war and feeling a duty to fight, Ralph could not accept his assignment to directing traffic in the rear lines. And so he did a remarkable thing: he went absent without leave in order to join the fighting in the Argonne.
In a letter to his mother dated January 26,1919 - after the war was over - he explained what happened:
"1 never intended to tell anything much about this until I got home, but I'm as anxious to tell it as you are to hear it; so here goes. I stood it as long as I could with the old outfit -- I tried to transfer, but Lieutenant McCullough would not consent, for my own good he said.
"I talked several times with Harvey, and he wanted to go nearly as badly as I, and we had sworn to stick together since Chateau Thierry. But the night I left, I wanted him with me, but would not ask him nor even tell him where I was going, only that I'll be back in afew days.
"I left withfull pack and caught a trainfor Commercy (7 kilometres from where Chas is buried). The next day I visited his grave on the quiet little mountain above Aubnois, and about noon I left Commercy by truck trainfor Verdun. When I left Neuf (41) Chateau, where we were stationed, I really had no intentions of going to the 26th [Charlie's old Division] but to go to the front, but I guess when I visited [the grave] I felt where I belonged.
"It was about four o'clock when I got to the transportation limit, as far as trucks were allowed to travel during the day. It was about 8 o'clock when we advanced within range and stopped again. I don't know why. We soon reached the artillery position north of Verdun, and I started a long dangerous hike ro26DN~wnHeooquarte~. I waited at headquarters from 1 until 2 A.M. for a runner. I asked about the position of the 103 and 104, and finally the runner for K Company 104 started back to his company. I went with him.
"It was very quiet that night, [only] an occassional shellfrom Fritz and the persistent flares. The runner asked me what company I belonged to, and I told him I hadn't decided -- he looked at me and altho it was dark, I knew he thot I was shell shocked and when I explained to him, he seemed to think he was right, for he said he'd heard of men running away from the front, but never saw one run away to the front before.
"I asked him for Jay [a family friend from Spokane] and could not find him. I could not find any Washington boys there, and I'm afraid Jay was at least wounded, possibly he got sick tho. Finding no one I knew, I started for the 103rd Company E on the left about 1/2 kilometre.
"I stepped down those trenches full of mud which oozed up your legs. I talked to the fellows in E. and found most of them were new men, but I found a few that knew Chas, and they welcomed me in the practical business like way of the front.
"I learned from the first man that I spoke to that they were expecting a 'push'. This man became a very good friend of mine and is now mess sargeant of this company. I decided to get in on it and he (Sargeant Lassurd) told me to report to the captain as I might get detached from this world.
"I went back thru the mud to the captain's dugout and 'reported for duty'. He was a husky little spectacled man, and after I had told my story he said: 'I don't blame you son, but take it from me, be careful" (42) "He assigned me to the third platoon, and I had Sargeant. Lassurd for platoon leader. He showed me a dugout and I took a sleep.
"I awoke that night about nine o'clock; men were running in and out, and there was an awful barrage coming from our right flank. We stood to, expecting them to follow with infantry -- our infantry was making it hot for them and the sky seemedfull of lights, aeroplanes, and shrapnel.
"A big six inch shell hit in the second line to my left, and there was some of that noise that makes the front awful. Barely distinguishable but awful. The cry a man utters when he is hit. Some cuss, some groan and cry, and some don't know it.
"I am surely glad that Chas was killed instantly, and I prayed that if I got mine, it would be the same. I will never forget the horrors of that night but I felt satisfied and contented. We never got the raid we expected but 'stood to' all night.
"From then on we saw excitement continously.
Our own barrage started the afternoon of the second day, and we started moving in compliance with the St. Mihiel sector, but we had a tough one.
"The Argonne was nearly impossible. We went over the top about four I guess and met severe machine gunfire. We were forced to fall back and attack from their rightm flank. Again we met the same resistance, but kept going.
"I always imagined I would be scared. Maybe it was fear, but I was insane. I'll confess I had but one instinct and that was 'keep moving!' The machine gun is the most terrible thing I know of when you're exposed to them put-putand these bullets whistle thru the weeds like snakes.
"God must have some great purposefor some of us, for those that were hit seemed to be selected.
"We took our objective with heavy losses. My platoon lost ten --(32 to 40 to a platoon). We dug ourselves in, and again I got near Sargeant Lassurd. I liked him from the first, and seemed interested in me. He came from Maine.
"There was another man from the West on my right. I think he was California. We were in a sheltered position and could talk from our (43) little man holes. We were in these positions when the Boche put over a heavy barrage to drive us out of the woods. We were just eating when they started heavy.
"This man on my right made the suggestion that we separate for he felt uneasy and didn't want us all blown up by the same one. Lassurd and I felt satisfied with our holes, and he left and crawled away about two hundred feet and crawled in a shell hole. He had hardly got there when he was hit by a shell.
"We were sprayed with shrapnel, and my face was cut slightly and the calf of my left leg. My leg bothered me some, but I didn't go back to the dressing station as we were expecting to be relieved. The scar on my cheek can hardly be seen now. I still have a spot on my leg as big as a dime.
"Two days later I went out with a raiding party (patrol), and we found that the enemy had deserted their positions and were backed up about two kilometres and had taken up position on a small range of mountains or hills. We moved our positions up to the opposite range with a valley separating.
"It was impossible to capture their new positions by a new attack and stop. [So] we had to wait for our flanks. It soon came, but we were not in the hot part of it.
"Our duties were to care for the prisoners that we soon had, for they surrendered an entire regiment, and we had the position that the French lost thousands trying to take in 1914. I went with a prisoner escort . ..reported to the field hospital ... and I learned we were going to be relieved. We were relieved that night, and I left the old outfit to 'Go Home.'" (January 26, 1919)
The fighting in the Argonne Forest was, for the Americans, the last great battle of the war.
Ralph was assigned to a classification camp as a cook and traveled to Paris and Nice. He was apparently not punished for having "deserted" his unit, for he did go towards the front.
He only wished the war had lasted longer - he wanted to see the Germany completely defeated. So did General Pershing for that matter. (January 26,1919)
By the end of the war and his stay in France, Ralph was fluent in French, had had "cooties" three times, had "trench itch" for which he took sulphur baths, and he had plans for a business when he got home. (44) Because he was a cook, he had to stay in France longer than most men. In the summer of 1919 he was shipped home to Spokane.
Three years the Burch family was given the choice of leaving Charlie's body in France to be reburied in an American military cemetary or shipping his remains back to Washington. In 1921 they chose to bring him home, and his body now rests in Greenwood Cemetary in Spokane.