The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume I, Number 1, Pages 45-52
Only five letters survive of the many that Washington lumberman Dick Dickinson wrote about the war. But this remarkable correspondence tells the story of the inner experience of the Great War as well as any manuscript we have seen. A young man from Hoquiam and Seattle, Dickinson writes with pride about camp life at the Presidio in San Francisco. In France he is at first excited to be in the midst of "the real stuff' among soldiers who are "like a football team." Then in letters written shortly after the end of the war he tells what it was really like - the "deep personal trouble" of a doughboy at the front.
Friday, June 22nd 1917
3rd Company R.O.T.C.
Presidio of San Francisco
First of all I'm ashamed of myself for not having written you before. I've had time but it has been occupied in getting away from here for a little change over weekends, or a Saturday night dinner downtown. I don't see the Seattle fellows in camp oftener than once a week and sometimes not then.
The course of instruction is much more than a man is physically able to get away with, based on the theory that we will at the end know more than if we had been given an ordinary amount of work to do.
Just for instance; since last Friday A.M. about 10 o'clock I have had just 3/4 of an hour leisure during which I listened to the 3rd
Artillery Band last evening after supper. They came over to give us a concert. I have done just about 1/2 of the prescribed reading and have averaged about 6 1/2 hours sleep per night, mostly because I was so doggone tired at lights out that I couldn't get to sleep.
I'm not going to work tonight and expect to catch up with reading Sunday, if something special doesn't pop up, as it has a way of doing in the Army. I've gone in for it pretty hard because I'm trying my best to get a Captain's commission and figured that it might be possible, by showing up well here.
I won't be terribly disappointed if I don't but it's worth working for anyway. Most all the best fellows are plugging very hard, and most of us who were fortunate or unfortunate enough to come down here, with 1st Lieutenant (46) commissions or better have been pushed into it awfully hard and fast, because the commissions were given out rather indiscriminately by the examining boards before the camps started, and as the holders are liable to retirement to the inactive list without pay if found deficient, the instructors are fmding out what stuff they are made of.
Some men here with Captain's commissions I believe will never see an active command. They simply "ain't got if' when it comes to handling a company of 150 men. And the Army officers instructing have that damnable abrupt, curt way of telling one to do this or that, putting on a "poker mask," and suddenly interrupting one with a "what for" or a "why" which only a straight shoot will answer; any kind of an "alibi" is a worse offense than having a button off or unbuttoned.
It's really lots of fun and mighty interesting. You've simply got to have certain mental and physical qualifications and then catch the spirit of the game. Then hop as fast as you can think and act instantly, and you can make lots of bulls without severe censure.
But my heart has ached for some of the poor devils who didn't act as if they were trying hard and have had to stand up and take a "bawling out" before the whole company. I hope I never get one. I've been "called" lots of times, but I've managed to be hopping in the right direction or ready to hop so damn fast that they had to stop to find out what I was going to do next; so I've got off pretty easily.
They make us get out and act as instructors on subjects we have just been able to read over, I suppose, to see what we will do and how we will act. It is horrible. You just have to grit your teeth and jump into it head first without any idea of how you are going to end up -- something like a bayonet charge, I should imagine.
We are already in field and combat work. Trenches and sham battles will come with target practice during the next two or three weeks.
For heaven's sake don't tell anyone that I've written you so much, just say you've had a letter. I haven't had much chance to write and I just happen to get started and slop over.
October 29, 1917 San Francisco
Dear Bob and Mable -
Just got your letter and it all made me just a trifle homesick. Doggone it! Why should it? I love California. Never have I seen such beautiful weather in my life from May until November. Day after day of sunshine with mostly vigorous air. Pleasant surroundings and people both in my work and to play with weekends. Interesting work and lots of it.
Carefree sort of existence with only little daily bothers which practice and study and experience gradually eliminate. Everybody nice to me as to all officers. Best room in hotels, low price, sometimes car conductors won't take my money.
Everywhere we go it is always the glad hand waiters busting themselves to get us a good table and everything that goes with it and then taking 10% or 20% off our bills. Friends all writing wonderful letters, and presto if you want a girl all you have to do is to look toward one and smile.
Heavens on earth is right. I only hope it won't all spoil me and make me good for nothing when I get back.
Then I get a letter from you or Jack or Bob and sink way low down wishing with all my might that it were only a fairy tale and that I could wake up in the morning back at my own particular little job in Seattle. But no, I'm sewed up tighter than a drum for an indefmite period of probably years.
"Where do we go from here?"
We wait until we get some words printed on a sheet of paper and then beat it the next day wherever it says to hop. It's a regular human Grab Bag. And people say--
"Isn't it splendid?" "How we envy you?"
And, "fire salute to the Captain's boots in the teeth of the howling gale."
Oh well, what of it? The best time of the whole business and what makes it all worth while to me is to stand "retreat" in the evening and hold the salute to the flag as it lowers while the field music sounds "to the color" or the band plays "The Star Spangled Banner."
That is no joke. Like all the rest of the stuff. Then I don't give a damn* whether I'm a Captain or a private or a General or what happens to me as long as I can be (48) there.
Glad to hear you are all so busy and happy. Give my best to any of my friends. I never saw a regular $100.00 hog, but at least I know what one looks like.
*Dear Mable - Excuse me for swearing, but I hate to rub it out after getting it down so quietly.
27 October '18 France
Chaplain Beard of Hoquiam, Washington has joined our Regiment. At the time he reported he was greeted by a hell of a lot of German shells.We had been (those of us who were lucky) living and walking and running and eating and sleeping around between places where they were hitting for several days and while not exactly hardened to utter unconcern possibly our finer senses had become somewhat blunted.
At least the Chaplain took note that an officer to whom he was talking kept on uninterrupted when a shell lit within about 20 feet of them; so he thought that was fme stuff, and being a regular twofisted he-man himself, one would have to bust right on his head now to make him notice it at all.
He is a bear cat and you can tell his flock at Hoquiam also his friends that we are so keen about him that there is nothing we wouldn't do for the Chaplain, and that my experience has led me to believe that Regimental Chaplains, with all due respect to the cloth, do not as a rule make much of a hit.
When he told me he was from Hoquiam and knew you I liked him all the better.
The next time we go into action, it will seem good to have such a regular fellow with us at the start.
Well you probably get from the above that I'm a "vet." I'm enough of one also to have seen about every kind of fighting I've read about in the last four years and to carry vivid recollections all through life. But I suppose I'll get more, directly, and so it's merely a question of who can last the longer myself or the war.
This is real stuff over here and no mistake. So far I've had a bullet take a little strip of skin off my right arm and another one through my knapsack, also a shell splinter take the skin off my chin and another one tear a hole in the front of my breeches.
Most of the time we are too doggone busy to even take note of such close ones unless they hurt, and then they make us swear, spontaneously and involuntarily, and we want to get up and get the (49) son of a ---- that did that. If I live to get back home eventually, I guess I'll be a regular "toughguy. "
This is a tough place and it will surely get you if you weaken. One must remember that we came here for a purpose, and the Commanding General A.E.F. is certainly seeing to it that his troops pursue that purpose to the great discomfitures of the Boches.
We have sure kicked hell out of them every time we have been able to get at their infantry, and when we get into action we get at them pretty often; then they bust it, and so the merry chase goes on.
January 8, 1919 Belleme, France
75 miles S.W. of Paris
Got down here from Belgium on New Years Day and since then have been picking the mud out of our ears, taking much needed baths and getting ready to go home. Expect to leave here some time in February and ought to arrive home anyway about the latter part of March.
Your letter of Nov. 22nd just arrived with the card from Mable. It was great to hear from you, but if you published my letter, I'll skin you alive when I get the first chance. I don't remember what I said in it except that Chaplain Beard was a "bear cat" or words to that effect. Most of the letters we write to friends at home are full of a lot of junk which we would hate to have the public read. Fellows over here have been wild and some of them have got into difficulty over some stuff that has got into home papers.
I suppose letters from the front are interesting to those at home. We probably do not fully realize the privilege which had been granted us in being here. It has been mostly with us "all in a days work" and was becoming more and more so.
The deliberate coolness of everyone in our last action was very noticeable. We had old men enough left to steady our replacements who had never been under fire and soon they had caught the idea, which I can't quite describe unless it be a sort of fatalism coupled with a "know how," which minimizes rash acts of the grand stand type yet gains (50) ground in spite of anything.
It's like teamwork in football With it I've seen a battalion walk through severe shellfire without a man's faltering and with a loss of surprisingly few; without it the result is pretty bad.
Well I'll be down in Hoquiam before long and anticipate seeing the new mill Best to Mable.
February 4, 1919 France
Just got yours of January 5th.
Some letter! Every time I get one about lumber, which is seldom, I go right up in the air and wish I could jump out of my uniform and land right in the office.
It's very monotonous waiting here for our sailing date to crawl around to visit us. According to the powers that be we've finished our job for which we trained. All the rest is anti-climax, and I'll be so glad to be free again that I'll just hound around for the pure joy of being a civilian.
You can't conceive what military life is like to an ordinary civilian who has more or less got definite notions of what he likes and doesn't like. It is good for what it accomplishes, but one should be brought up in it from youth to really take to it. However this is in no way criticism. We play along drilling and training and doing our best every day.
We are proud of our men, but I suppose my feelings which crop up now and then are due to reaction from strain which presumably takes a little time to get over. Our life and duties have been comfortable, quiet, and routine for a month now.
I'm trying not to write a single "damn" in this letter. Honestly Bob I swear like the proverbial trooper. I don't know of any life which holds more grief to the square inch than campaigning and I'll have a hard time breaking myself of the habit of cursing to make things go right.
Jack did write me about Ralph and Howard Jayne. Hope they make a gocx.l team and don't see why they shouldn't.
The only book I'm going to have in connection with this war is a little Regimental History and scrapbook. I have a few papers which I shall always treasure and one or two other things and they will all be very private, at least not a bit public. Everything else I can (51) keep in my mind. That way will let me forget all that was unpleasant, and gradually the memories will become a sort of roseate romance I suppose, although sometimes even now I shudder a trifle when I happen to think of certain things.
I think almost no books give the reader a correct impression of battle. There is only one way to get it, and that is to be a doughboy on the front line, and it simply cannot be reproduced in any form.
The artillery man doesn't know, the aviator knows his air fights, but one landed in the lines, shot down in a fight, spent one night with us and next morning beat it with the remark "God pity us if I ever have to be a doughboy."
The outside world thinks and knows only of the fighting, but that isn't half. At the same time the misery of the other half is difficult to make anyone else understand. It is like a deep personal trouble. Nobody cares to hear it.
When a man gets so numb that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies and then goes on a few days longer in this sort of mental state he gets an impression of real suffering, but he would find it very hard to describe.
It just takes the stuffing right out of one. He ceases to be a man. He loses control over his natural functions. All semblance of that spirit known as manhood disappears completely.
His heart beats and he breathes; in a way he thinks, but I believe he gets pretty close to instinct alone. His training and character governs his action by habit, and unless aroused by excitement he sleeps peacefully in a puddle of water in the midst of an infernal racket, then when he is shaken out of it he gets up and goes on again like a machine.
Extreme excitement and desire for food will make him come to life for a short time, then he lapses again. He's feet get numb. He lies all night in a cold rain without even an overcoat, trembling and shaking in his sleep, and he doesn't catch the sign of a cold.
He would walk through a barrage for a cent's worth of sweet chocolate or a cigarette, either one, and though he doesn't feel like it he jokes from habit. He is a queer fellow isn't he?
If he is naturally strong it takes him about a week to commence to get normal again. Gradually his life begins to come back and finally his impulses begin to glimmer. (52) I wouldn't have any of this get into print for a thousand dollars and then some.