This collection of seventy-five manuscript items consists primarily of letters written by Second Lieutenant John H. Bollin, Jr., who was a member of Company M, 323rd Infantry, 81st Division, while serving in the United States Army during and immediately following World War I. The majority of the letters were written by Bollin to his mother in Columbia, South Carolina.
The first letter from Bollin was written from Camp Sevier, near Greenville, South Carolina, on 17 July 1918, followed by two written from Camp Mills in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, while he was waiting to board a troop transport ship. The next letter was written over the course of the almost two-week journey on the ship en route to Europe.
At first, Bollin found the seagoing experience exhilarating. "I really donít think I ever enjoyed anything so much in my life," he wrote. Part of Bollinís initial enthusiasm may have been due to the less-than-strenuous nature of the long trip: "We eat, sleep, and loaf except for the boat drill in the morning and the fifteen minute exercise in the afternoon."
Bollin and his comrades disembarked in England, and his first letter from Britain was written on 15 August 1918. "I never saw or heard such a welcome as we got. The people lined the street for miles and miles cheering," Bollin observed. The enthusiastic reception surprised him because "thousands of U.S. troops pass through every few days." The masses of British citizens were not the only ones grateful for American assistance. In an April 1918 letter circulated among the troops, King George V welcomed the United States servicemen on their way to "stand beside the Armies of many Nations now fighting in the Old World the great battle of human freedom" and wished he "could shake the hand of each one of you and bid you God speed on your mission." In his letter of 15 August, Bollin noted the beauty of the English countryside and also observed the lack of younger men. He did write though that "there are millions of kids. I never saw so many children in my life and they look fine."
Writing to his father from France eleven days later, Bollin was not so enthusiastic about the French countryside. "The way the people live here is awfull. Negroes at home realy live better," he wrote. "They use old out of date farm implements mostly and it would look to me as if [it] would be of great help to both the people and the government of France if they had men go through the country and show the people the more modern ways of farming," Bollin concluded.
A letter postmarked 28 August 1918 is notable in that many segments of it have been cut out, which may be an indication of wartime censorship of mail. It is also the first time Bollin wrote of being able to "hear a few guns shoot some distance away. All the men were turned out and marched into trenches for this purpose. Nothing happened but we heard there were some bombs dropped about thirty miles from us."
Within a month, Bollinís unit had been deployed to the front line in France. In a letter to his brother Alexander, dated 28 September 1918, John instructs him not to "say anything about my being at the front to the family. I havenít for it would only cause Mother needless worry and she has had enough of that."
Bollin did write that he was in "a very quiet sector," although the previous day "a Bosh plane flew over our village and our guns on the hills behind us opened fire on the plane. A short time after the plane left the German guns opened up trying for the guns that had fired at the plane. You could hear the report of the German guns and then the whistle of the shell as it passed over head going towards our guns on the hills behind us."
When Bollin next wrote to his mother, on 1 October 1918, he was hospitalized. Two days later he wrote to his father assessing how much longer the war could last. "With Bulgaria out of the war I do not see how Turkey can last long for I think this cuts the Berlin to Bagdad railway which is the only means the Germans have of shipping supplies etc to Turkey. I think that Turkey will have to stop soon," he wrote. "With the release of these armies that have been fighting the Bulgarians and Turks the Allies should be able to get back the rest of Servia and start giving Austria a bad time from that side and if the ĎWopsí (Italians) will only start something they should have Austria where she will be ready to squall enough."
He also remarked upon the ability of the French people to persevere, "going about their work one would never think that the Hun was so close or that he had swept over this part of the country." Despite all of the telltale signs of war amidst themódestroyed homes, trenches, gun emplacementsó"these people go about their work just as usual. They work like the devil too but all are cheerfull and seem to know that in the end the Allies will win."
Bollin sent few letters during the month of October because of his hospital confinement. In a letter to his mother dated 26 October, he wrote that he believed he got sick while staying in one of the French villages around the 9th or 10th of October. (Copies of letters by Colonel T.A. Pearce and Major James A. Willis of the 323rd Infantry, dated 31 December 1918 and 1 January 1919, identify pneumonia as Bollinís illness.) By 3 November, he was out of the hospital but had not yet rejoined his company.
"It is all over," is how his next letter, dated 14 November, begins. He wrote that he had wanted to send a telegram to tell that he was safe, but "we are in what is really Ďno mans landí and all the towers and villages for miles around are destroyed." Bollinís company had been deployed to the front on 9 November and subsequently attacked fortified German positions. "It was hell but the Lord must have been with us for our company came out fine."
In a letter written the next day, Bollin went into greater detail about his time on the front line. Following twenty-two days of confinement to French and American hospitals for what was thought to be something "worse than the flu," he rejoined his company. "The next night we moved into front line trenches in a sector that has seen some of the toughest most fierce fighting of the war.Thought things had been bad at times before but oh boy we did not know what was coming," he recounted.
His company marched throughout the nightóin rain, cold and mudó then endured German artillery shelling before mounting a slow advance. The German defense was stout, augmented by gas. "It has been my horror but the mask kept it from hurting me though several of my boys were gassed. It turned out afterwards not very badly."
After continuing onward, his unit was gassed again. "I got mine there. Just a bit but for awhile I thought I had it bad," he wrote. Feeling like he "would choke to death" and not knowing what to do, Bollin and his fellow soldiers staggered on through German machine gun fire and shelling toward the enemy trenches. Upon reaching their trenches, however, it was discovered that the Germans had withdrawn. Bollinís company was ordered to hold the trenches while other companies fell back to Allied lines.
"Early next morning orders came to be ready any moment to go over the top again" despite his menís fatigue and lack of sleep. "Final[l]y came the rumor that at eleven all would stop.Eleven came and a strange stillness. Thank God it is all over." Bollin and his company spent another night in the mud before marching back to a village.
In the midst of his companyís march away from the front lines, Bollin was ordered to report to the Infantry Weapons School, Third Corps School, which was located in a small town near Nevers, France ("think that is correct for the name of the town," he wrote). He was "taking a course in Automatic Rifles and Grenades. Why they are having schools and the war is over I donít see and you can guess how interested we all are in the school." His letter of 5 December provides a more precise indication of his interest level: "As I do not take any interest in the school I of course do not work very hard...."
In addition to lamenting that he was away from home at Christmas time, Bollinís letter of 26 December bemoans the fact that he had yet to receive his pay for November. However, he felt worse for some of the men in his company who "go months and months at times without pay." He also warned his mother that the family should not expect him to bring back many war souvenirs. "I have not gathered together any junk as most Americans do for it is too much trouble to take it around so donít expect a bunch of junk when I get back. Most Americans are crazy over gathering up stuff. They say you know that Germany fought for conquest of the world. England fought for freedom of the sea. France fought for Alsace & Lorraine and America fought for souvenirs."
The frustration of having to remain away from home once the war ended was only intensified by the death of young Bollinís father. His letter of 19 January 1919 responds to the sad news. "I donít know what to say for the news about Father was such a surprise and shock that I can hardly believe it as yet," the letter begins. He was still at the school in Clamecy and expected to remain there until February. And he was disappointed that "an order came out from the War department calling off all promotions received after Nov. 11th and saying there would be no more."
Nevertheless, Bollin wrote enthusiastically of their commanding general, noting in his letter of 3 February, "I sure hope Gen. Pershing runs for the big place in Washington. I have seen in the papers where some people want him to run. I know of just about 2,000,000 votes he would get." The same letter bespeaks his lack of enthusiasm for Prohibition: "...I see by the papers that since they have put booze out of the States that they now expect to stop tobacco, cussing and gambling. I wish them luck on the last three. They will have a sweet chance when this bunch from over here get back."
Bollin was determined to seek a discharge from the Army as soon as possible so that he could return home and take over at his fatherís office. On 23 February he informed his mother that he had submitted his application for discharge that day, and three weeks later, on 11 March, he happily reported that his "application for discharge came back today approved." He would be leaving his outfit the next day but cautioned that it might be quite a while before he got home.
Bollin wrote three letters to his mother on 25, 28 and 31 March from Brest, the westernmost peninsula of France, from which his ship back to the United States would embark. "We have been deloused, inspected for equipment, inspected for cooties etc, changed the Frog money to real money etc and all we have to do now is get the order and on the boat we go," he reported in the second letter. Bollin finally arrived at Camp Mills on 20 April and sent a telegram informing his mother of his arrival. Three days later, he sent another telegram telling her that his company was to be discharged the next day and he hoped to be discharged on the 26th.
However, Bollinís hopes were dashed when he was confined to a hospital to be treated for "the French itch." In a letter written from Mitchel Field in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, and postmarked 30 April, Bollin told his mother that he did not expect to be in the hospital for long and that "it usually takes only from five to seven days to cure the blame thing."
Bollin wrote that he had no skin trouble while in France and only had this malady turn up after he got back to the United States. "It is not serious at all so donít worry and besides itching like the _____ does not give one much trouble but cant say the treatment is very pleasant. You smear a yellow sulphor salve all over you thick and do this two, three or four times a day and keep that up until the itch is killed and never a bath is one allowed to take from the time one starts the treatment until they are well so you can see it is not very pleasant."
The first sign of this itching, it seems, had begun while Bollin was awaiting departure in Brest, and it persisted while he was on the boat and after he had reached the United States. But because he "was too busy to bother with it" once he got back, it grew progressively worse. "I suppose the best thing I can do is to get it cured before coming home even though it does delay me a week or a little more." Bollin sent a postcard from the Hotel Wallick in New York, postmarked 12 May, in which he indicated he was out of the hospital and expected to be discharged within a day or two.
The final letter in the collection is dated 19 April 1920 and was written to Bollin on letterhead from Grace Methodist Church, Wilmington, North Carolina. The letter references "your marriage to Mary Bruton" that is to take place in Columbia. There are also four stories from The State newspaper about the actions of Bollinís 81st Division during the war, two from June 1919 and two bearing no date.