Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Lt. - Col. George H. Kelly
Lt.-Col. George H. Kelly sees France from motor car. Portland lumberman now overseas with 20th Engineers, Forestry, gives graphic account of motor trip across Northern and Eastern France.
Lieut. Col. George H. Kelly of Portland, with the Twentieth Engineers (forestry) in France and who now is attached to regimental headquarters, finds in the discharge of his duties which take him to the various forestry outfits located throughout France, most interesting views of the country. His travels are told in letters of recent date written to Mrs. Kelly and her daughters, who are residing at 521 Vista Ave.
France, August 13, 1918.
July 30th I left here for a two weeks’ trip in Eastern and Northeastern France for an inspection of our various operations and also to decide whether some forests we have acquired should be exploited at this time.
We [Major R. A. Johnson and I], left early in the morning in a Winton seven passenger limousine which has been assigned to me and which proved to be most comfortable. We first visited one of the largest American supply depots where there were several hundreds of miles of trackage, miles of warehouses and thousands of men. Here also is located the American Military Prison, a big lot of wooden barracks surrounded by a very high barbed wire fence. All the "Hard Boiled" prisoners [bad eggs] who are up for long sentences are sent here. Also thousands of Boche prisoners are sent here for examination and classification as to trade, character of work, etc., and then they are sent out where they can be used to the best advantage. We have here, also, the largest ice and refrigeration plant in France. We went on in the afternoon and stayed over night in a little village where we have a mill. In the village square, is a monument stating that this is the exact geographical center of France. In this hotel I slept in the "Indian" room in a bed that had the biggest canopy over it I have ever seen.
In the morning I was wakened by at least a dozen different bugle calls and found that the place was full of infantry who had just arrived that night from the U. S. A. After a good breakfast we went out in the big oak forest we are cutting. Sell Stewart is in charge here and I had a nice visit with him. In the center of the forest is a big triangular stone table, to commemorate the winning of the forest in a three-handed poker game by the Duke of Meillant, from two other dukes, his neighbors, who owned most of the forest. The game was played on the spot where the table now stands.
We went on a few miles south and examined a nice forest where we will soon put in a mill. Here I saw a little girl, about the size of George, with a herd of geese, at least a hundred. She was much concerned at the auto but stuck bravely to her charges, as these little workers always do. We saw four men in a row, one following the other, moving wheat with scythes and women following with hand rakes and binding the grain by hand. Late that evening we crossed the great Saone Valley, rich in grain and vines, in the southern part of the old Burgundy. At sundown we came to and crossed the great gorge of the River Aisne, of which I sent you a picture on a former trip. It was too late to get another picture of this wonderful river, so we hurried on and just at night arrived at Lake Nantua, at the Swiss border. The Alps slope down on all sides of the lake, which is tree miles long and one mile wide and very beautiful.
The next day we went up to one of our mills in the Alps and saw some fine spruce and fir. We had only been saving here a couple weeks, but the logs were large and fine and the boys were doing well. We have six feet of snow here and had eighteen inches fall in April.
We went on north and took lunch at an operation of ours where we cut right up to the Swiss line; then on to a beautiful lake and summer resort where we stayed over night and decided on a site for a new operation. The next day on to a new mill just starting; that I sent you a lot of pictures of, about six weeks ago. Just before we got there, a big British plane returning from a bombing raid on Stuttgart, got lost and tried to make a landing--they landed on a steep hillside and the machine went down into the river. Two lieutenants were in the water up to their chins seven hours before help reached them, but they escaped all right.
We reached a big town the next day and remained over night. The next morning as we were leaving we met the women coming into the town with milk. They were seated on little three-wheeled carts, with a brake on the front wheel and drawn by two dogs. They were going like the wind and it was surely a comical sight.
We got along up toward the frontier of Alsace and had lunch and a little village where the hotel had no bread. We "bummed" some from some French soldiers and had just finished our lunch when up came a big auto with five or six Americans in it. It was Burton Holmes, the great lecturer and traveler. You remember we used to see his travel pictures at the Sunset Theater. He has been taking moving pictures along the front and was on his way to Italy.
We next struck the Vosges Mountains where we saw Orrie Johnson and had a couple days with him. Also Capt. Horstkotle, who had just received a cable announcing the arrival of a baby girl. We struck him for three bottles of wine and wished it had been twins.
You see nothing but thousands of fine American soldiers here--as good as any. We started west from here and came to one of our saw mills that the Boches had been bombing. They attacked it at 11:30 one night while the night shift was running, but the boys heard the planes coming and turned out all the lights. One of the bombs just missed the Y. M. C. A. and struck in the catcher’s box on the baseball field and almost ruined the diamond, This made the boys pretty mad and if they ever lay hands on the Hun, he will be sorry he dropped that bomb.
I went south next day, about a hundred miles and found that at one of our little mills the boys had to dig a deep well. At sixty feet in the limestone rock they found a cave. In it was an old tombstone and about a quart of Roman coins of the 1st and 2nd century. Some gold and some copper. The French officials took them all for the National Museum, that is, except two, which I have.
Love to all,
George H. Kelly
My Dear Bertha:
I left Tours on August 15th for a trip to the Pyrennes Mountains, which lie partly in France and partly in Spain. The object of the trip was to examine a great tract of beech timber lying on the south slope of the Pyrennes, and which the French desired us to operate.
Just south of Tours is a great farming country, where much grain of all kinds is produced, but handled and harvested in a very crude way. At one place we saw a farmer threshing oats with an old-fashioned flail. In another, an old man was beating out the grain on some flat stones, by striking small bundles of the grain on the rocks. At one place we saw a bunch of women cleaning the grain with old-fashioned fanning-mills turned with a hand-crank. All over this region are big windmills, such as you see in pictures of Holland, and these are used for grinding the grain into flour with old-fashioned burr stones.
We made the run from Tours to Bordeaux, 245 miles, in seven hours and, after transacting some business there during the afternoon, went to the Chapon Fin, reputed to be one of the best restaurants in France. We had a very fine dinner and then went to the hotel and tried to sheep, but the mosquitoes would not let us. It reminded me of Olallie Mountain, which you no doubt remember. The Bordeaux mosquito, however, does not raise a bump like the Oregon mosquito, but merely a red blotch like a very large flea bite. You do not feel any effect until about twenty-four hours later and then they begin to swell up and burn. For a real, regular mosquito, go to Bordeaux.
From there we went to Dax, in the southern part of France, famous for its hot baths, fine hotels and reputed to be the place where Julius Caesar kept his harem. We stayed at the Hotel Thermes, built over a big hot spring, and at this time this hotel contains the throne and court of the King of Montenegro, who has been, as you know, driven out of his country by the Austrians. The King is a fine hooking old fellow, about sixty years old, rather heavily built, with a gray beard and looks like a prosperous banker more than a king. At this hotel, also were a lot of Serbian refugees of apparently some rank and importance in their own country. The dining room was full of them and after a good dinner, when everyone was feeling good, a big, tall Serbian, with plenty of whiskers, came over to our table to thank us for some cigarettes we had sent over to them. I told him about meeting the Serbian mission in Washington and described to him a good-looking Serbian officer I had met at the time and who had lost his right hand. At the mention of this, the old man grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks, and, as I was not to be outdone in politeness and in order to uphold my reputation as a kisser, I not only kissed him but all the other Serbs in the dinning room, including one good-looking woman. This made Captain Good, who was with me, so sick that he could not eat any breakfast the next morning. The Serb told us that 167,000 young men, "the flower of Serbia," as he expressed it, had died from starvation. This little country has certainly had much to endure.
From Dax we drove to Bayonne, a big port at the mouth of the Adour River, and only about four miles from Biarritz, the finest ocean resort that I have ever seen. We did not stop at either place, but went direct to Jean-Pied-de Port, which is at the end of the railroad in France, at the foot of the Pyrennes. It is a walled city with both outer and inner walls, as you will see by the post cards I sent you about a week ago. The houses here are all dated and most of them were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, We saw a few modern [?] houses that were built in the seventeenth century.
The next morning we drove on a few miles further to the end of the wagon road, where we took four mules and a pack mule, with a few blankets, a little food and five gallons of wine and started up the Pyrennes. The Pyrennes look exactly like the Coast Mountains in California, particularly in Mann County, except that they are very much higher. The inhabitants here are Basques and speak a dialect of their own. As they are of Celtic origin, like myself, I had very little trouble in making myself understood, Captain Good, who accompanied me, speaks only pure Parisian and could do nothing whatever with the Basques.
We finally reached the summit of the Pyrennes, had a couple of snapshots taken of the American Army crossing the Pyrennes on mule back and went down on the south side about three miles to the edge of the forest. There was a house there inhabited by the forest guard, where we stayed over night. A fine trout stream flows thro the tract, but we did not have time to fish but had a fine mess of trout just the same, procured in the usual way that fishermen get them--by purchase.
There is about 100,000,000 feet of beech in this forest and we expected to cut about 60,000,000 of it, bunt decided the proposition was too rough and remote to exploit at this time. We saw eight graves of French soldiers here who were killed by the Spaniards about 1812, in the war with Napoleon. There is another place nearby where about fifty more are buried.
The pack saddle that they packed our stuff up on was a curiosity and I would have liked very much to have had Jean see it. It would weigh at least a hundred pounds, and, instead of using a blanket, it was quilted on the inside with long sheep’s wool to the thickness of six or eight inches. Then the whole thing was covered with calf skin, with the hair on. Altogether it was about as big as the mule that carried it.
We returned the next day to Dax and then started on east to the Auvergne Mountains. We passed thro a tract of about 10,000 acres of pine timber that had just been destroyed by a forest fire, and then stopped at a little village for dinner. While the old lady was preparing the meal, we went up and visited the old cathedral. Under all of the slabs at the entrance of the cathedral were buried all of the rich and famous men who had ever lived in the little town, and the faithful had been walking over them for centuries.
We started up the River Lot over a beautiful highway, the road passing through six tunnels in about fifty miles. In every little spot of tillable land along the river were fields of tobacco and corn. The tobacco was the first I had seen in France and the corn was very good. This was on a Saturday, and Saturday seemed to be wash day in Lot Valley. What especially took Captain Good’s eyes were the hundreds of barefoot women, with their clothes up to their waists, washing the clothes in the river. There is no such thing as a washtub or clothesline. They do their washing in the river, or in pools, and dry their clothes on rocks and stones. The enclosed postal illustrates the general method, but this particular lot of washerwomen were standing out in the river. Captain Good could not refrain from turning back and I had to remind him of Lot’s wife, as I felt he might be turned into a pillar of salt.
We passed thro a village where the main street was blocked by a steam threshing machine operated by three or four old men and a dozen women. They had to move the outfit before we could get by. Further along we punctured a tire right in front of a big stone quarry, operated by Boche prisoners, about 100 of them, under the charge of one solitary old French soldier. To one very intelligent looking Boche, who seemed to be a kind of straw boss we gave the latest French papers, showing the great victories that the allies were making, and he did not seem to care much which way it went.
From there we went to Aurillac, which I visited last February and had the honor of being the first American soldier who had ever been there. This was my third trip and I am getting to be quite well acquainted there. There is beautiful scenery in this region and it is near here that the road goes thro the big tunnel that I wrote you about once before.
After visiting a sawmill operation near here, we started north for home and stopped at a little town called Montaigu, where it seems that we were the first Americans who had ever been there. Most of the population turned out and gave us a regular reception and the landlady had to chase out the swarms of kids who followed us into the dining room. After dinner we walked around the streets and Captain Good met some French ladies at a very fine house. They were sitting in the garden and asked us in, stating that one of their daughters spoke English. They brought the little girl out and we had quite a visit. There were eight or nine in the party, and Captain Good, following my example with the Serbians at Dax, kissed them all good-night, young and old, much to my shame, but, not to he outdone by a young man, I followed suit, but Captain Good sneaked back afterwards and I am of the opinion that he became engaged to one of the young ladies before leaving.
The next morning we got up early, as we had a long drive to make, and the whole population was at the town fountain getting the daily supply of water, as in most of these villages there is only one or two places where water is available. We got into Tours about the middle of the afternoon, having visited the exact center of France, where I saw Lieut. Laselle Stewart.