The following is the transcription of a letter written by my granduncle, Benjamin Harrison Saucier – that’s Ben in the photograph above – addressed to his younger sister, Josephine (Saucier) Cowan. The letter came to me through a Howell cousin, who was also the source of the bios written by Henrietta (Saucier) Pace.
Yes, I hear from you from time to time but not as often as I’d like, so get on the job and show your class – Am writing this in a greenhouse that is attached to a chateau that’s surrounded by the most beautiful grounds you ever saw. We are in a small village 6 or 8 miles from Nancy and about the same distance from St. Nicolas – both good towns.
With the possible exception of the day I was born, yesterday was possibly the biggest day of my life. Two of my corporals & myself were strolling around a little and wandered over to the aviation field – going down I remarked that all I needed was to take a fly over Nancy. They ran out a light bombing plane and one of the assistants asked – Who’s going along. I said – “I am” first, so we soared for awhile — He started straight for Nancy and reached it at an elevation of 5000 feet. The view was something that I shall not soon forget.
We circled over the city rising to 8000 feet in doing it, then went out in the country. It seemed more like a dream than anything I’ve ever experienced – We went to 11,000 feet high and came back over Nancy at that height at a speed of 96 per. Could only see the earth then in spots for the sky was cloudy & the clouds were all below us.
The only thing I regret is that I did not enlist in that branch. It’s too late now to think of transferring. We were up for about an hour and I wouldn’t exchange it for any other hour I ever spent. It sure was great – The clouds as seen from above with patches of mother earth here and the mountains in the distance etc. etc. is the most wonderful picture I’ve ever seen.
We came back from the front lines again a few days ago and will most likely be back for a month or 6 wks. We are altogether yet and feeling fine. – We are out of the mountains – in a beautiful rolling country almost level and for a change it looks pretty good.
There are worlds of damson plums in this vicinity. I wish you might see this country – Pass this on to some of the rest for I’ve neither time nor stationery to write to all – been writing to Mother at Stanton today — Haven’t seen anything of Eugene’s bro. yet. Would like to run across him. Write – Good luck & lots of it to both of you —
Ben — Cack is right with me & is ok.
Sleuthing: It’s Not Just For Hard-Boiled Detectives
Many happy hours I’ve spent daydreaming while reading this letter. Besides the letter being a cherished piece of family history, I’ve often wondered what kind of impact it may have had on my father, who later became a pilot. Dad would have been eight years old at the time this was written, and it’s easy for me to imagine the family gathered to hear Uncle Ben’s letter from France being read.
What’s hard for me to believe is that this letter has been on my ‘to-do’ list for well over a decade – funny how time gets away from you. My goal was to date it as closely as I could with something other than “Sometime during WWI: April 1917-November 1918”.
I was recently provided with a new clue from a Cowan cousin that rekindled my interest in the letter. That one item, along with the clues supplied in the body of the letter itself have allowed me to narrow down the date considerably.
For a dove of long standing, I find it just a little embarrassing to admit to an interest in military history, but it helps that I’m aided and abetted by a husband who shares that interest. Sifting through source material is an engaging pastime for us – so here’s hoping that you don’t find the journey a dry one.
Look Out… This May Be Your MEGO Moment
Benjamin and his brother Charles ended up in the 138th Infantry, Company E of the 35th “Santa Fe” Division made up of National Guardsmen and draftees from the states of Missouri and Kansas. They trained for over seven months at Camp Doniphan near Fort Sill, Oklahoma (which by the way, is located less than fifty miles from my back door).
Those seven months must’ve been eye-openers for a couple of farm boys hailing from a green and ‘water fat’ state, finding themselves just a stone’s throw from the 100th Meridian, the onset of the great American desert (only about sixty miles from my front door).
As mind boggling as southwestern Oklahoma may have been to them, the pair probably had little time to gape – the infantrymen of the 35th were drilled intensively by British and French instructors in the use of bayonet, hand grenades, and gas masks.
I’ve provided a few online sources below that you may find interesting, but what it boils down to is this: the 35th division was mobilized, leaving Camp Doniphan in late winter, 1918. They were moved to the east coast by train, embarking from New York Harbor arriving at LeHavre, France May 10, 1918. The infantry received additional training in Amiens until June 6, 1918. Then traveling by rail – 40 men and 8 horses per boxcar – the destination was the Wesserling sub-sector on the Western Front in the Vosges Mountains where they remained through mid-August. On September 1st, the 35th moved forward to St. Mihiel where they fought their first battle. Between September 12th-16th, the American Expeditionary Forces liberated the town of Nancy and the 35th bivouacked in the Foret de Haye just a few miles west of town. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began September 26, 1918 lasting until the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
The 35th Division collapsed after five days of fighting in the Battle of the Argonne, which has been described as the greatest battle in the history of the American military. In little more than four months, the division casualty list totaled 7,296 (killed in action – 1,018; wounded in action – 6,278).
It saddens me when I think of Ben’s last line: Cack is right with me & is ok… less than two weeks later, Cack was killed in action.
Charles Clide (Cack) Saucier born April 6, 1895 in Sullivan, Franklin County, Missouri – died September 27, 1918, age 23, in the Argonne Forest during the second day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
United States, Adjutant General Military Records, 1631-1976 (p. 191-2)
The 35th Infantry Division in the Great War
The Diary of a Doughboy
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive
From Vauquois Hill to Exermont by Clair Kenamore