English major Buz Ecker ’79 is teaching writing at several colleges in the Cincinnati area. He found original letters from his grandfather to his grandmother while his grandfather served in the army in France during World War I. On the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, Ecker wrote about his grandfather, who he calls “Lolo.”
The Cincinnati Inquirer shared an article Ecker wrote:
“It had rained lightly during the night and it was still damp outside when the first dawn bird sang. It was the 6th hour, and Ronald Ralph Pyne, a 1st Lieutenant in the 48th Coastal Artillery, in charge of Battery F, woke his battery up for a quick breakfast of coffee and bread and bacon. At the seventh hour he took his battery for a fifteen kilometer hike around the countryside of Rennes, France.
When they returned to their camp, they were sitting around a campfire smoking cigars and cigarettes, speaking their minds about the outcome of WWI, which they all agreed had to be close at hand. They had been hearing rumors for weeks. Countries had already capitulated. His men were in the mood to celebrate. Where would they be on the day when all the savagery was over? When could they think of going home, rather than being shot or gassed?
The day was closer upon them.
In the eleventh hour the Armistice was signed. Word reached Pyne and his Battery, and they cheered and hugged one another as they proceeded to the nearest houses in the nearby village, drinking wine and dancing with the French people. It was over. No more fighting, no more wondering if they would ever see their wives, or children, or mothers or siblings. The fighting had ceased. The Western Front, the “no man’s land” of poisonous gases, trenches, mines, and corpses was no longer. Pyne, his Battery, and all the surviving doughboys would leave the savagery behind and go back to their lives of peace and family and a promising future. The entire world was celebrating.
At about the 18th hour, and in the midst of this wild celebration, Pyne thought of home and felt compelled to write his B.W. (best wife) and “Bill,” their unborn child still in her womb:
Nov 11, 1918
“I must write again tonight and tell you about all the celebration that is going on in every village and city in France tonight. As soon as the Armistice was signed, a telegram was sent to every “Hotel de Ville” (City Hall) and “Marie” (town hall) ordering that bells be rung and the flag of France and her allies be hung from all public buildings. Every French woman set lanterns and candles in each window and opened their oldest and best wines. France is drunk with joy! I know that the Armistice has removed that constant fear that must have been in every wife’s heart; that her husband was in danger of being killed at any moment. From now on, Dearest, although we are far apart, it will be the separation, and not the other that will be the worst for you, and soon for Bill.”
Lolo spent a lonely time thinking of his pregnant wife and wrote her often, looking forward to a future of hope with his wife and son. I can hear the yearning in his voice when I read the letters written by 1st Lieutenant Ronald Pyne. I call him Lolo; he was my grandfather, and I have many of the letters he wrote home to my grandmother while he was stationed with Battery F somewhere in France.
Nov. 18, 1918
“About your dream on October 14th –now that the Armistice is signed, of course I am in no more danger here in France than I would be in any place in the States. It is very strange tho, that it was either on that morning or the day after that I first smelled the smoke of battle. Can you infer what I am referring to? The censor (me) will not permit me to say more, but I think you will understand.”
Lolo’s letters are filled with hope, and love for his B.W. and soon to be family, but it did not happen that way.
Bill turned out to be Margaret, and she was stillborn on January 29, 1919.
Feb. 7, 1919
“The cable gram arrived yesterday and I was so homesick for the B.W. all day that I did not attempt a letter to you until the first shock had left me. I am a firm believer in the law of compensation, B.W. that into every married life that trouble must come, but to offset these things is sure to be an equal amount of pleasures.”
Lolo had to discover an immense amount of courage, and I am certain my grandmother had to do likewise. What choice did they have? They were both determined to move on with their lives, even though their daughter was stillborn, and await “an equal amount of pleasures.” Lolo would be returning to the States, where he could pick up the pieces, start a career, re-start a family, and put World War I behind him. Armistice Day, the very day his Battery longed for was over, and now they waited to return home. It would be several months before Lolo and his Battery returned to the States – staying in shape, obtaining food, and waiting for the pleasure of being home again.
Lolo continued to take his men on long marches to stay in shape. Young French children along the way ran up to Lolo’s Battery to sell food. He stayed in the homes of French families, eating their food and being given a bed to sleep in while his men found whatever they could. The days were cold and rainy, and he saw women carrying babies, which made him wistful for the son he never had. He foraged for food to feed his men and places where they could stay warm and dry and write letters home. Mail sometimes took up to six weeks to reach Lolo and his men, because his Battery was often on the move.
November 17, 1918
“Have not received a single letter since I have been in France. Hope my letters catch up with me soon will you write as often as possible instead of once or twice a week. That will distribute the chances of lost letters and I might get one eventually.
“The first mail for the 48th detachment arrived today altho none arrived for me. Mine is probably chasing me around France for I have moved four or five times while the men I have come directly from the Port of Debarkation. They were a very happy bunch tonight & kept the Mess Sergeant waiting while they collected their numerous letters, some of them receiving as many as ten.”
Lolo’s Battery had to make do with what they had. If someone’s shoe came in disrepair, he had to fix it himself, or go without, as Quartermasters who supplied the army were few and far between.
Feb 14, 1919
“We have gone into the shoe repair business now. The quartermaster issued us a company repair kit and we have three men who are experts at that sort of work, so we are able to keep the shoes in good condition without going thru the red tape of military channels.”
In WWI Lolo found much more than courage. He censored every letter written by the forty men in his Battery, reading what each of them endured while being away from home, most of them for the first time. It was a painful part of each day for him to read those gripping letters of loved ones missed on another continent and the dangers of being killed at any moment.
“I have just finished reading the love letters & others of about 150 American soldiers which is now my regular evening pastime. As you always insisted that I am very conceited I will say it anyway – I can write as good a love letter if not better than any man in my regiment. I have read nearly a thousand in the past week & have therefore become well versed in the subject.”
It was war, and his men wrote of dying precisely because it was war after all, and that is what occurred. Men died, and they thought of dying. They wondered what home life was like without them. It was not every day that Lolo’s entire Battery wrote home, but there were many days he censored numerous letters to loved ones without receiving one!
November 15, 1918
“Dearest: Another day is nearly past & still no mail has arrived from the B. W. That doggoned chesty Lieutenant received several again today from his B. W. altho he is the only officer that has been so fortunate.”
Before the Armistice, there was always that distinct possibility that they would be sent to the front to “No man’s land” near Belgium, and then their fortunes would change dramatically and home would be a place they would never return. Lolo and his men had long hours during each day when they would ponder their immediate future. They were in the army, it was war, and they only had each other.
The pleasures, it turned out, were few and far between for Lolo. He lost everything during the Great Depression. His son was killed by a hit and run driver in 1945. Yet he continued to maintain his love for my grandmother, and together they found the courage to move on.
Change had come on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Lolo was there. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, led our country through the war. Women would not be able to vote for at least another year. But there was peace, the men of Battery F and the 48th Coastal Artillery would go home to a future filled with hope.