This edition of Narrative features an interview from StoryCorps, a unique oral history project that collects the voices of our times. In 2012, Wilson McElveen went to the StoryCorps mobile booth in Charleston to share letters written to his grandmother, Caroline Wardlaw Reese, during World War One. Her boyfriend at the time, a young man named Augustus Jerome Beck, enrolled in the army in Columbia 1918 and wrote to her throughout his time serving in Europe.
Here, Wilson McElveen shares a selection of letters from Jerome Beck.
This letter, written after Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, describes Beck's experience at the end of the war.
November 15, 1918
It seems Providence has followed me throughout the War, after having been taken out of the line and sent to school when the division was going in for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. I was then sent from the officer's training school to the front, where the greatest minute in the world's history came to pass. I was on my way to join my command, feeling that I was facing the hardest time in my life, not for my sake but for the realization that the lives of fifty men depended on my judgment and action. Then, for the first time in four years, a mysterious and deadly silence fell over the Western front. It was the most tense, dramatic and pleasant moment I ever experienced in my life. It was almost impossible to realize that "that which man had come to regard as his occupation" had ended as suddenly as it had begun. I wish the people in the US could have seen the demonstration on the front that night. Both sides tried to shoot up all the flares and rockets they possessed. It was certainly a display of fireworks.
Upon reporting to my command, I was reassigned to my old job, a signal officer. I like the other officers fine as they are a very congenial set. Most all them are from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Our game is one of watchful waiting now. We are in a place where “Jerry” had resided for four years. It sure was fixed up, too. Beds, stoves, electric lights, water works systems, etc. in the dugouts. You should have seen me reposed in the dugout of a former German Major. I am now doing business in what is left of a city hall in a village "Jerry" held for four years.
The question of how long will it last has changed to how long will it be before we go home. I think it will be six months but hope it will be sooner. Can you believe that the time is near when I will be back to dear old Caroline? (The state and the girl.) It is hard for me to realize it... As I have changed addresses again, I don't look for any mail for two months. Tough to be like a traveling circus, huh?
By the way, can you imagine how I felt when we were leaving for the front that night, when a tenor singer of repute and note climbed on the wall of the fort and sang his farewell and goodbye song to us fellows? The song was "Don't You Hear Me Calling, Caroline?" As I stood there listening to the soft mellow notes of that haunting melody gradually die away across the Valley, a choking lump rose into my throat and my heart swelled as though it would burst. It was about the saddest, yet most pleasant moment I ever felt. 'Tis beautiful to love.
Hoping to see you soon and tell you the many, many experiences I have had.
I remain as ever,