Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Clarence R. Hotchkiss
Captain Clarence R. Hotchkiss, of Portland, commander of the largest American camp in England, writes interesting letter to Chester A. Moores, private secretary to Governor Withycombe.
The rest of the battalion came back to England, and after four months at the general headquarters, I and part of my company were ordered back to England, and I have been here with the battalion since the first of May. I have naturally been pretty busy in these eight months, for the 162d was among the first hundred thousand in France. While on duty at the general headquarters the company did the work of the headquarters battalion while that was being organized, and though the work was hard the men enjoyed it, as they were near the front where something was happening every day, and the messages were received regularly.
We saw General Pershing quite often and learned to know of his soldierly qualities first hand. He is a very capable officer and popular with both officers and enlisted men of the American expeditionary forces. We believe that we had one of the best companies sent to France at that time. About 85% of the enlisted personnel were highschool or college men and all of the officers of the company had been educated at some American college or university, besides having had long military service. Fourteen men, former members of Company E have been commissioned officers since the regiment was called into service, and we now have four non-commissioned officers at the Army candidates' school for officers in France and I have recommended three more who are leaving some time next month.
Since our return to England the Duke of Connaught, brother of the late King Edward, visited this camp area, and this company furnished the honor guard. This honor guard has usually been furnished by some crack English regiment. But things of that kind are only incidental to the work we are doing. The AEF has put up railroads and warehouses and camps and ammunition and supply depots, and brought in all the paraphernalia of war in about a year, and there was plenty of work for everyone. There has always been just a little more work laid out than there were men to do it. Many a time while we were in France the men of the company worked all day and then had to go after supper and work until 1 o'clock to unload and free the overworked French cars that brought in American goods to the GHQ.
Placed alongside the railways we are used to in America, these French and English roads are ridiculous, especially the French roads, and the wonder is that they have been able to carry on a war for four years with them. The freight cars hold from six to ten tons and the little engines, with whistles that sound like the shriek of a woman, are beyond description. I saw but one switchyard in France where the tracks were laid out parallel with decent switches, and that was in a yard that had been sent into a French system by American engineers. All the French cars have big spring bumpers in each end, and in making up trains they use a flying switch and throw a car down the track at such speed that I have seen one car strike and start a string of twenty-five on the dead level.
For handling single cars, they have a cross track with a truck running on it. A horse is fastened to the car, and pulls it on to the truck, is then hitched to the truck and pulls the truck and car across to the new track, and then hauls the car off the truck again and moves the truck out of the way. We had been in France for about three months before we saw an American engine. Finally one came in over the almost completed American line, and passed through the general headquarters. The men at the station heard the whistle long before the engine reached the bend and the big bridge, and when it pulled into sight and shot through the town with the bell ringing and the whistle blowing, the Yankees fairly woke the dead, and the Frenchmen who had never seen an American engine before, were so surprised they could only stare.
All of our service in France was in sectors or areas where we saw mostly French troops and in England we are associating with English, so we have had exceptional opportunity of observing the armies of both countries at close range. They are both great in their way, but radically different in temperament and training. The French have a certain dash and courage which is typical of the race, while the English are possessed of a sort of bulldog tenacity and determination based upon a long and thorough training. But we believe the American troops possess both of these qualities and when the war is over will have shown the world the best troops that Europe has ever seen.
When we first reached England, that is, in December, the English had a pretty poor opinion of us. They had been reading everything that our papers had said about what we were going to do, and they didn't know much about what we were actually doing, results were not very spectacular at the start, and they were not acquainted with the American methods, and could not understand just what we were about. They had the impression that the Americans were all pretty much of braggarts. It is pleasing to us who are here to see that that feeling has changed, that the British and French respect us as we respect them. They are surprised at the number of men who have come over since March, they have learned something of the American preparations in France, they realize that it was American food economies that kept England from going hungry, and they have found out that the Americans can fight.
Since the formation of the American division has been announced, there have been no major operations carried on by the Americans except the flattening of the St. Mihiel salient, which, while quite a piece of work itself, is only an incident, when compared with what the English and French have already done and what we will probably be called upon to do in the future. Now Winter is coming on. Although it is still early September, the Summer is over, the air has the freshness and the bite of Autumn, and the showers we have every few days are not warm like they were a month ago. It is possible that this years campaigning is practically over. But even if bad weather should make all further advances this Autumn and Winter impossible, the armies and people over here feel that the advantage is definitely on their side, know that they are growing in strength every day, while Germany, at best, is standing still, and the spirit this Christmas will be altogether different from what it was a year ago.
In fact, that change in morale that has come over France and England since we first saw these countries nine months ago is one of the remarkable things of the war. Everyone has supreme confidence in General Foch and his ability to outwit all the Generals Germany can command. Those of us who are being held in England feel very much out of it, of course, for we are among the very first here, volunteer units, and we are seeing tens of thousands of men pass through England on their way to France after being in the service only a few months. But I am confident that before the war is over we will get a chance to do some of the fighting, and as we are doing essential work we will have to be contented.
In addition to my work as company commander, I am also commander of one of the largest camps in England, one of the few permanent camps I have seen in the A.E.F., with real huts suitable for Winter quarters. Besides these duties I have been serving as a member of the general courtmartial and this, together with a few other special boards and garrison duties, do not allow much time for thinking or bemoaning my fate because I cannot be with the favored ones in the front line.
Meanwhile, being stationed in England has some advantages. London is not far from here and takes only two hours to get there. We are stationed in Winchester, the old capital of England, a city that was the heart of England for 400 years. It is full of historical interest, almost every old house has some great man or event connected with it. Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Cromwell, and dozens of other great names are common places of the past here. The great cathedral is the oldest in England and Winchester College is one of England's first colleges. The Romans once occupied this region.
Southampton is 14 miles away, Portsmouth about 30, and Edinburgh is only about 350 miles away, the distance from Portland to Seattle. We celebrated the 4th of July in London, and on Memorial day an English band took part in the memorial services which were held for our dead on Magdalen Hill. Those were memorable days, for they have cemented in a most definite way the new good feeling between the United States and England, and a good feeling based upon a more thorough understanding than we have ever had before.