An Evocative Letter from the Trenches of World War I

SCPC is receiving papers of Sarah Leverette, a 1943 graduate of the USC School of Law who served as Law Librarian from 1947 to 1972 and who has been a leader in the South Carolina League of Voters for over fifty years.  An inspirational figure, she currently works as a realtor and continues to serve the League of Women Voters as a staunch voice for good government.  “Fritz” Hollings remembers Sarah with great fondness, noting he’ll never forget her for coming in early every day during the 1945 Christmas holiday to open the law library so that he and other students, many WWII vets, could study.

Grandfather Leverette WWI Photo

In the course of this work, I have gotten to know Steve Casey, Sarah’s nephew.  Many families are lucky to have one member who serves as the family historian and Steve is a most able historian for his extended family and he is generously sharing much of his family’s history with the University.   Among the treasures we recently received was a typescript of the following letter written from the trenches of France by Sarah’s father, Steve’s grandfather, Doughboy Stephen Ernest Leverette.  It is among the most evocative and moving wartime letters I have read.  A German offensive launched on July 15 began the Second Battle of the Marne and was to be Germany’s final push of the Great War.  It resulted in a major Allied victory.   For their steadfast performance during the attack on Allied lines, Leverette’s Division, the 3rd, earned the nickname “The Rock of the Marne.”

                                             France, Aug’st 20. 1918.

My Dear Wife and Babies:

    ​After two and one-half months of hard fighting at the front, we have at last been moved back for a few weeks rest. We have been on the front continually since June 1st with an occasional rest of only a day or two, but always in range of the German guns. It is impossible to tell you what we passed through during the last big drive in which the Americans played such an important part, especially our regiment. On July 16th the Germans sent over the greatest barrage of artillery fire in the history of the war, followed by an attack on our lines and succeeded in breaking through the lines held by the French. They crossed the [Marne] river, gaining a foot hold on our side. It was our regiment which checked this — the greatest drive of the war. We pushed them back across the river and drove them for about 25 miles. For this work our regimental flag is to be decorated with the Croix de Guerre, being the first American regiment in France to receive this honor. Of course we suffered many casualties. I am the only officer left in our company, all others either killed or wounded. I have been in command of the company since July 22nd, when our captain was killed and have been recommended for a captaincy by our battalion commander. I am enclosing copies of special orders from our commanding general complimenting our regiment for its work. Each officer in the regiment received a copy. While our losses were heavy, the enemy losses were much heavier. On either side of the river their dead were piled in heaps, while the river was full of floating bodies and ran red with their life blood. Its useless to say we suffered many hardships and had many tough experiences on this drive. I lost all my equipment, in fact everything I had. My only earthly possessions now are the clothes I have on. Guess you’ll think I have no chance of losing them when I tell you that I haven’t had them off in three weeks. I’m sure the kiddies will think “Daddy” is disgraced when they hear that I haven’t had a bath in so long. I slept with my shoes off last night for the first time in 16 nights. We don’t mind small matters like this so long as the Huns are on the run — and we’ve certainly got ’em going. I was in the drive from start to finish and came through without a scratch. I can never explain how I got through, unless it was by the prayers of you people back home. Its fierce to face German artillery, machine gun fire and gas, all of which we get in abundance, but rest assured the Americans have got the grit to stand it. I’ll never forget how our men went into this drive. Few if any of them had ever faced a gun, yet they went up like veterans and those who live to get back hom[e] deserve the best there is in the United States and I’m sure will get it.

    We are now 30 miles behind the lines, yet on July 22nd, the Germans were within 200 yards of where I am now writing. Although we were sent back here for a much needed rest. I have days of work ahead in straightening out company records as to killed, gassed, wounded, missing, etc., besides much other work I can’t explain. In my exhausted condition, I am in bad shape to take up the task of mental work which awaits me. 

    In addition to my other work, I have to censor all letters. Some nights when I am so dead tired and have to read hundreds of letters, I come to the conclusion that every man in my company must have two or three wives and two or three sweethearts. Its a great pleasure — no matter how tired– to read the beautiful letters the boys write to their mothers, which shows the kind of stuff a fellow is made of I also very often run across very nice things indeed they say about me whether or not they say these things just because they know I’ll read the letters, I can’t say, any way it looks good. 

    How I wish you people at home could see some of the battlefields of France. The desolation and destruction are awful. Also wish you could see some of the wonderful battles in the air. I have witnessed many. Sometimes as many as ten and twelve machines are engaged in a battle and its a most thrilling and awe-inspiring sight to see the daring aviators make their dives and dips after one anothe[r] — their machine guns firing hundreds of shots a minute and each trying to get advantage of the other. You often see them shot to pieces and come crashing to earth. 

    The sector where we have been fighting has been one of open warfare altogether. Our front lines were only fifty to 100 yards from the enemy. We couldn’t show our selves at all in the daytime as a rifle would pick us off, consequently our moving was all done at night. During the day we would crawl on our stomachs or stay in our little dugouts. During a battle the big guns boom so loud it makes the little infantry rifles sound like popguns. They get to firing so fast its just one continual roar. Men can shout right in your ears, but you can’t hear a sound. It makes your head feel like you had taken about a peck of quinine. To sleep we would just lay down on the ground and roll up in our blankets. When the big shells would explode near us it would turn us completely over. 

Patrick Military Institute Commencement 1888    It is a most beautiful sight to be back among the big guns and see them open up on the Germans. You can see them fire, then see them hit on German soil and as they explode acres and acres of ground are literally torn up, to say nothing of the Huns.

    This war is a great game and all the more fascinating because of the great danger. You soon become accustomed to the din and roar — and danger too. With shells falling all around me the other day, I actually caught myself singing that old son[g]; “I Love to Tell The Story.”

    I met a French sergeant the other day who told me many of his experiences. He said on one occasion in Belgium, when they pushed the Germans back, he found a little girl about six years old nailed to a door, and just a few yard[s] further on they came to a young girl with ten bayonet wounds in her body. This fellow’s wife and little girl were captured in this German drive. He got letters from his wife up to 1916, but has heard nothing from her since. Although only 31 years old, his hair is white:

    One of the most inspiring sights to the American boys is to see these brave French women patiently toiling from day to day – doing their bit to help win the war. Many of them have lost their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons — still they don’t give up. They are not only working in the shops, cafes, offices, etc., but you see women of refinement and culture working in the fields. Well the “half has not yet been told” but I must stop. Please say to the many friends who have written me such nice letters, that I have appreciated and enjoyed them more than I can say, but it’s impossible for me to answer all of them now. Nothing helps us so much as cheerful letters from home, unless its the Red Cross and Y. M. C. A. They are doing a grand work — follow us right up and do everything in their power for our comfort. Many a Red Cross nurse and Y. M. C. A worker will have stars in their crowns for the wonderful things they are doing for us. 

    Much love to you and all the babies. 

                                                                Ernest.

First Lieut. Co. D, 38th Inft. 3rd Div.

–Blog post contributed by Herb Hartsook

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