During one of Ellen and Rick’s recent trip up to Sonoma County they saw the recently released documentary about World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old. When Ellen described the movie to us she asked about our family’s involvement in the war. This post was written to answer her question and to record what I know for other family members and friends.
Thanks to Ellen for the motivation and to Dick for his research support!
As far as I know only two close family members, both on the Riedel side of my family, served in the military during World War I: Aunt Sal’s husband, Arthur (Art) Bostwick, and Uncle Ray.
Both men entered the military during 1918 and returned in early 1919. They trained at Camp Custer, which was near Battle Creek, Michigan.
Art was a private in the 340th Infantry, and he shipped out (on the Ulua) to the European theater on July 31, 1918. He returned (on the Leviathan) on April 2, 1919.
Ray was a sergeant in the 338th Infantry and was training to be a lieutenant at the time he was mustered out. He left for the European front on the Canopic on July 21, 1918, and he returned on the Maui on February 28, 1919.
Both men were married in 1918 shortly before they left the States, Art on April 5, and Ray on June 9.
I don’t know much more about Ray’s service experiences, but I do have a letter from Art to his mother, Jennie Ridley Bostwick, which I’ve included below.
The war and the men’s participation in it had a devastating effect on the Bostwick and Riedel families. My mother (Nan) tells the story of Ray’s calling his superior officer to ask if he could please have one more day of leave after his wedding. The family, including my mother (who was about 12 years old at the time) waited anxiously as Ray completed the call. His final words to the officer were “Yes Sir, thank you, Sir” which led them to believe the request had been granted. Not so! Ray was told to get back to camp on time, or else! My mother remembers thinking that the officer’s refusal was the epitome of unfairness toward her big brother.
The young brides had a difficult time of it what with the loss of their husbands for almost a year and the uncertainty of the war’s course and end. The negative atmosphere was hard on other family members, as well, especially my family, who were German immigrants, and were sometimes blamed for the actions of Germany in Europe. My uncle Paul, who was about 6 at the time, was a proud young American and complained to his elders when he heard them speaking German to each other.
My grandmother, Anna Schreiter Riedel, found the stress unbearable and suffered what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” She was confined to her bed for a while, and when the doctor visited he brought with him enough laudanum (opium, morphine, codeine) for about a week and left it in a glass at her bedside. She awoke, saw the drug, and thought she was supposed to take it all at once. It apparently almost killed her! She described to my mother her “bad trip” featuring heavy, dark mountains threatening to crush her.
Fortunately for Art and Ray (and everyone else), it was late enough in the war that neither of them was in any active fighting. I don’t know where Ray spent his time in France, but Art was in Andard, which is southwest of Paris near Nantes.
Their time in Europe must have been nerve-wracking, even if not action-filled. Although their days were mostly filled with logistical challenges in small, out-of-the-way towns, one of their roles in the war was to “substitute” for other soldiers killed or wounded at the front, and there were still quite a few of those. How would it feel to be happily playing poker at night and unexpectedly headed for the front in the morning?!
Letter from Art Bostwick to his mother, Jennie Ridley Bostwick
Andard, France – January 19, 1919
I went down town yesterday and over to the zone major’s office, which is the headquarters of this billeting job, and there I found your letter of Dec. 17. I was glad to hear that you were all well. I have been a little anxious to get my mail since I heard the flu was so bad, was sorry to hear of so many deaths, it was sad about Elsa Zwicker’s dying. [Elsa was one of Art’s wife’s (Sal Riedel Bostwick) first cousins on the Schreiter side.]
Well I went out to what is left of our Co. at the camp and got another coat and pair of pants, a hat, a pair of leggins and a jerkin, which is a kind of padded jacket covered with imitation leather but has no sleeves. After I got my stuff I went down town and had my dinner at a restaurant, had beefsteak, fried potatoes and green peas. I thought I would go around to the French bathhouse then and take a bath, but when I got there I found it was not open yet so I was standing there waiting when along came Walt Derosia. [Walt was a friend from Art’s home town of Minden City, Michigan.] Gee but I was glad to see him, and he was glad to see me. Neither of us had seen anybody from home for a long time. He is coming over to see me and stay all night next Friday if he can get away. He told me that Baughman [another friend from home] went over the top twice and never got hurt; I thought Bill was in Russia but he says not. [Some American troops were sent on from France to fight with the White Russians in the Russian Revolution.]
This old Frenchman that owns the place where we stay is a great joker. This morning I was going to put on my new shoes and change my pants, so I sat my shoes down and sat down for a minute, and when I went to get my shoes they were gone. I looked all over and could not imagine where they went to and then he came strolling in with a smile on his face. I took my bayonet and jabbed him in the seat of the pants and told him to get those shoes “toot sweet” (very quick) and he went and got them. He is always doing something around here.
There is nothing new to write about today, everything is just about the same. I don’t know any more about when I will come home than I did when I last wrote, but I hope it won’t be long. I never felt any better in my life, and I hope this finds you all well.
Will close now with love and best wishes to all.
Many thanks for that Xmas present which I am to see when I get home.