The Kegel Chronicles, Part Three

The last in a series of three articles
on the Kegel: World War I Papers of Thomas, James and Victor Kegel, 1917–2014

Written by Elizabeth McIlhenney

The Kegel Chronicles, Part Three: In the Hospital and Heading Home

All three Kegel brothers ended up in the base hospital at one time or another while fighting in the First World War. However, Thomas Kegel was admitted in late September or early October of 1918, and stayed there until he was shipped back home after the war had ended. He had been admitted for a minor injury, but stayed in the hospital due to “shell shock,” or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Tom, however, didn’t stay idle during his time at the hospital. While he was healing from his injuries, he writes about working in the hospital.

Always making sure to reassure his family, especially his mother, of his good health and healing, Tom was as positive as possible in his letters coming from both the war front and the hospital.

Just a few lines to let you know everything is still going fine, hoping they are going the same with you and all the rest at home. I sure am coming along fine. I had my arm stitched up and the stitches are taken out already, I expect to be here for a couple of weeks yet, until I get broke into hard work again because I certainly did have a long rest and I sure did have a good advantage of it. I am in a very large town, about 150,000 population but I dare not say where, so I can tell you when “the boy’s come home.” How is that.

All throughout the entirety of the Kegel brothers’ letters, each brother independently expressed how much he missed being home. Each brother had his own reasons. Whether it be hunting season in Pennsylvania, home-cooked meals, or even their own beds at home, each of the brothers were chomping at the bit to get home.
However, in reading the letters that he wrote, one does get the immediate impression of Tom’s personality. Lighthearted and jovial even in the darkest of times, Tom joked about his stay at the hospital. For example, the boys liked to joke with their mother about surprising the family by bringing home a French girlfriend. Tom joked, “I am still singing that song “I am in Love with a beautiful Nurse.” In one November 15, 1918 letter, written a few short days after the end of the war, Tom writes:

I guess you people have read about the war being ended and believe me I sure am glad of it because I was about fed up with war. My arm is sure fine and I am able to do any kind of work now and I sure am glad of it and the Nurse told me to tell you “I am a sweet child.” Oh joy what the Nurse told you is true as the said she is only forty-seven years of age but what was age got to do with “Love.” Mother don’t you care if I do bring a Nurse home with me then she can take care of us like she did me when we get laid up in bed. Oh well this is only a joke so please don’t take it too seriously.

This playful spirit that all of the brothers’ letters had must have been what kept them going during these dark and hard times. As for their family at home, it is also the reassurance they needed to give them hope that their sons and brothers were making it through the war okay.

After the end of the First World War, then just known as the Great War, on November 11, 1918, soldiers stationed in Europe were both celebrating and waiting. With so many men on the battlefield, every soldier found himself waiting for their boat ride home. The Kegel brothers were no exception, and they had to wait several months to get back home. According to a Safety Arrival card given to Victor, the Kegel brothers arrived at Camp Dix in New Jersey on April 29, 1919, only a few days after Easter, which was on April 20 of that year. So, what did the Kegel brothers do in the five months in Europe after the end of the war?
arrived safely postcard
The brothers were initially separated, since Thomas was still in the Base Hospital at the end of the war. As Tom wrote in a letter home, “I am not back with the company and the way things looks I will never get back with them I may be sent home instead.” So, Tom traveled around France as he waited for the word that it was time for him to go home. First, he traveled to the South of France. He wrote about his experience in a letter to his parents:

I am way down in the Southern part of France, and it certainly is a beautiful part of the Country, we are located along the coast of the Mediterranean sea in a town called “Cannes.” We are in one of Uncle Sam’s hotels one of the buildings of King Edward, and is the most beautiful place in the Country. I guess we will stay here for a short while and then we will be sent back to our Company’s from our room we can look out the window and see out over the sea, I was in the Country and it also was a beautiful sight to see. I really cannot explain all in a letter but will be able to tell you all about when I return back home again.

From here, Tom toured some of the little towns in the South of France. In a letter to his mother, Tom says:

Mother after you are done reading this letter look on the map of France and you will see where I am. Do you know mother dear that my twenty-fourth birthday was on the eighteenth of this month, and I sure did celebrate it very nice, on that day I was in a town called Marcelle’s, that is another large town in the Southern part of France. After all this I sure will be able to tell you lots and lots of beautiful country and places when I get home. I guess if we will be in Africa and all we have to do to go there is cross the Mediterranean, and if I had the chance to go I sure would because I would like to go just as far as I can for I will never have this chance again. Down here where we are now we are among the beautiful rose gardens, orange and palm trees. And to think of living in King Edward’s home “some class eh.”

Next, Tom traveled to the Northern part of the country, too. Tom seemed to really appreciate his travels in France, and he wrote to his mom, “As I told you in my last letter I am down in the Southern part of France it is the most beautiful Country my eyes ever laid upon.” However, as always, Tom made sure to point out his true love for his home, saying “But there is still a much better Country than this and that’s Home [Sweet] Home and it won’t be long anymore until I am there the days are getting shorter all the time.”
It is for this exact reason that it is clear this was a bittersweet journey for Tom. Since he was so far away from his brothers he missed being close to them and traveling with them. He commented to his mother on January 19 that he hadn’t heard from James and Victor. Tom said, “I sure do wish Brother Vick and Jim was with me down here in this part of the Country.” He continued by saying, “I hear our Division is soon going to sail for home and I guess if they leave before I get back to them I may come home as a convalescent, but that doesn’t make any odds just so I get home safe and sound across the pond.” A convalescent meaning somebody who is recovering from being wounded or ill.
When the day finally did come, Tom was relieved. He said in a January 29, 1919 letter, “As I am down here in this warm climate it sure will be some change to get back in the cold weather again. But I don’t care how cold it is just so we get back to dear old USA once more I sure am tired of this country over here.” So the relief they must have felt in April 1919 when they were sent back home to America must have been overwhelming. Thomas Kegel was honorably discharged from the Army on April 29, 1919, and bounced from the base hospitals in Camp Dix and New York, until he was finally sent home.
discharge document

After the family was reunited in Lancaster, there are of course no more letters to document their feelings about their safe arrival. One can only imagine their joy about finally being home again after three years of being away in the Army. Of course, the Kegel family was ready to celebrate the safe arrival of their three sons and their company. In fact, after their arrival home, Charles and Mary Kegel hosted the entire 109th Machine Gun Battalion in their home for a “turtle soup supper.” Below is the article written for the local newspaper about the event, and one almost wishes they could have taken part in celebrating the safe return of some of Lancaster’s sons, while also remembering those who were lost in the fray of the Great War.

If you would like to read any one of the Kegel Brothers’ letters, please feel free to contact the Archives at LancasterHistory to set up an appointment for a visit! Visit www.LancasterHistory,org for more information about the Archive’s collections.

From Archives Blog