The Kegel Chronicles, Part Two

The second 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

“Somewhere in France”

After months of hard work and preparation, the Kegel Brothers and the 1st Company 109th Machine Gun Battalion, shipped off overseas. First was a pit stop in England, where Tom says, “There was some places in England that sure was fine nut we did not stay there long enough to have any real life, so we will have to let the real life go until we come home.” The boys weren’t able to sightsee as much as they would have wanted at the beginning of the war as they were gearing up for battle before reaching France.

Next came their final destination: France. As they traveled to their base, Tom writes, “We sure did see a lot of the country [England and France] since we are over here, but none as good as U.S.A.” They were already beginning to long for home and even their old life at camp, due to the horrors that they were beginning to witness, once stepping into the war zone that was France.

Once they arrived to their base, the Kegel brothers were sent off to the battle zone. Tom wrote about the trenches, and even talks about where they slept while they were in the trenches. Tom wrote:

I am not living in my little tent anymore I am living in a hole out in the ground and put a lot of limber over it and then threw the dirt over top again and just left a little hole to crawl in and out. All the boys are living in holes now we must do it to keep shady.

mudstained letter

While that is one of the few details included in the Kegel letters about their life in the trenches, there is another fascinating addition in the collection about the trenches. One of the letters Tom wrote in the trenches was dropped in the mud of the trenches, and the stain can still be seen at the top of the page! Tom, apologizing for the mud stain on his letter, said, “This paper fell in the mud but as long as you can read it what is the difference and paper is to[o] scarce to throw this away.”

They could never tell their family members exactly where they were in their letters home. They could only write “somewhere in France.” This was either due to the fact that they were moving around so much that they couldn’t possibly know their whereabouts, or for the sake of the censor. Possibly in response to a comment that was made about their letters’ lack of news and juicy details from the war, Tom writes in a letter from July 16, 1918:

[…] news is so scarce here that I really don’t know what to put in a letter, but if I could write all about the war I could send you a book but I dare not write a thing about the Military game. If I would the letter won’t go through, so as long as you hear we are well and getting along alright it is sufficient.

However, some details from the war would leak into the brothers’ letters. Possibly to shine the apple and reassure their parents, or as a defense mechanism in order to process the horrors he witnessed on the daily, Tom often wrote comically about the battle in France.

We were up in the trenches and we were getting a few shots at the Limburger shooters and believe me we sure are got them on the run, all you see flying in the air is boots and their coat tail flying straight out. It is more fun than anything, it puts you in mind of some comic moving picture.

He also mentions some of the weapons they used or had used against them. The Kegel brothers were machine gunners themselves, and Tom writes about how the men in his unit especially didn’t like “those ‘coal buckets’ old Fritz [the German soldiers] sends over to us, but when he sends one over we give him quite a few in return […].” The “coal buckets” Tom is referring to may be a weapon that was also, amongst many names and slang terms, the “Black Maria,” “Coal Box,” or the American version, the “Jack Johnson.” These weapons, it seems, were shells that omitted a heavy black smoke upon detonation, when they made impact on the ground of the trenches where the Allies fought.

Despite their being on the war zone, the Kegel brothers commented often on how they and the other soldiers were so far removed from reality that they were out of touch with what was going on in the world. Thomas writes:

I am writing to ask you to send us some magazines because we don’t hear very much news of the World where we are located, the only thing I read the last month was an Intelligencer dated May 24th, so you can easily tell that some good old Magazine news will do us boys some good.

Despite this lack of knowledge in the goings-on in the world news, no matter what, the Kegel brothers always tried to reassure their family back home that they would be arriving home safely and soon. Tom often reassured his family that “the way things looks […] we won’t have to do very much fighting anymore.” Very sweetly, Tom Kegel even ends one letter to his mother saying:

Mother you said in your letter you are praying to see us come back safe, I am doing the same, and if it goes as nice as it did when we were up on the line all the time we will all come home alright.

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