Letter from a Private in the Expeditionary Force Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Herbert H. White was enlisted in the 354th Infantry, Eighty-ninth Division, and arrived in France in June 1918. White was from Wisconsin, though the 354th was made up primarily of men from Kansas and Missouri. Though White identifies his location in this letter to his sister as “somewhere in France,” regimental history places the 354th Infantry at the Battle of St. Mihiel and then along the front line to the south, where it continued to harass the German Army. White, who would have been holding a dangerous position on the front line at the time that he wrote this letter to his sister, chose to focus on his entire experience in France rather than his situation at the specific time the letter was written. This letter captures the mood of a frontline soldier who is eager to get back home and has no particular affection for the country in which he is fighting.

Summary Overview

Herbert H. White was enlisted in the 354th Infantry, Eighty-ninth Division, and arrived in France in June 1918. White was from Wisconsin, though the 354th was made up primarily of men from Kansas and Missouri. Though White identifies his location in this letter to his sister as “somewhere in France,” regimental history places the 354th Infantry at the Battle of St. Mihiel and then along the front line to the south, where it continued to harass the German Army. White, who would have been holding a dangerous position on the front line at the time that he wrote this letter to his sister, chose to focus on his entire experience in France rather than his situation at the specific time the letter was written. This letter captures the mood of a frontline soldier who is eager to get back home and has no particular affection for the country in which he is fighting.

Defining Moment

Private White’s letter was written on September 27, three weeks after the 354th Infantry arrived on the front lines in the St. Mihiel salient, a triangular wedge of territory in northern France, between the towns of Verdun and Nancy. It had been heavily occupied and fortified by the German Army since the fall of 1914. The 354th Infantry saw its first action on September 8, as a German patrol attacked the line but was driven back. On September 12, the 354th was in a support position during the clearing of the St. Mihiel salient, a four-day battle that pushed the Germans out of the salient and the surrounding area. From September 12 until October 7, when the soldiers of the 354th boarded trucks to take them north into the center of the fighting in the Argonne Forest, White’s battalion fought in a series of small-scale engagements along the line to the south of the cleared salient. Though the 354th was not involved in large battles, it was in constant danger from shells, bombs, gas attacks, and enemy fire.

The 354th experienced extremely heavy casualties fighting in the Argonne Forest. It was on the front lines, facing the strongest German resistance. In some companies, all officers were killed or wounded, as were all but a handful of infantrymen. White himself lost an arm to a German bullet during the Argonne Offensive and was sent home, while the rest of the 354th continued its push into Germany and took part in the Army of Occupation there until the following spring.

In his letter, White expresses his gratitude to the YMCA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army, which accompanied the soldiers and provided key services that would later be provided by the Army itself. During the war, these organizations provided military support in the form of food, medical supplies, recreation, postal services, and spiritual counseling. Many of the letters sent from the front were written on stationary from the YMCA, which also provided humanitarian support for both German and Allied prisoners of war. The Red Cross experienced phenomenal growth during this time, as it staffed ambulance and hospital companies and sent twenty thousand trained nurses to the field. Though the number of Salvation Army staff in World War I was very small, never more than 250 people, staff members were known for distributing donuts, coffee, and lemonade to the soldiers, who, like White, were very grateful. Salvation Army members were also known for following soldiers to the most forward positions, placing themselves in great danger, and at times, when supply lines were outrun, the Salvation Army was the only source of food available. One correspondent in the field wrote that “the doughnuts and apple pies of the Salvation Army are going to take their place in history.”

Author Biography

Herbert Hewet White was born in 1890 and grew up in Stoddard, Wisconsin. In October 1918, he was wounded in the arm during fighting in the Argonne Forest, losing his lower right arm. He married in 1921 and had four children, one of whom died fighting in World War II. He lived in Minnesota his entire life, settling in Faribault, Minnesota. He died in nearby Rice in 1984. The letters that he wrote to his older sister, Dora Schubert, were passed down through her family.

Document Analysis

Private White’s letter to his sister has the easy intimacy of their close relationship and is a response to a letter she has written. In it, White does not go into any detail about the events of the war at the time he was writing the letter, but instead offers general information about his experience in France since his arrival. Though the modern reader will know that at the time he wrote this letter, White was on the front lines in difficult and dangerous conditions, he identifies his location only as “somewhere in France.” His family finds out what he is doing only by reading the newspapers; he says only that “we have been pretty busy the last couple of weeks.” His sister has asked how many Germans he has killed, to which he responds that he will have to get very good at running to catch any–the Germans are in full retreat. This was not true, and though the German Army was being pushed back all along the line, White exaggerates the pace of the retreat in a humorous way, also likely calculated to assuage any worries his family had about his safety. In response to his sister’s desire for a description of France, White delivers a list of complaints about the country: “I would not give father’s back yard for the whole country that I have been over.” He found the ground rocky, the weather was rainy and terrible, and the French people did not match “up to the people of the U.S.A.” The 354th had been billeted in private homes during August, and White saves special disgust for these country farm houses, “all made of stone and hav[ing] house, barn, and hog pen all under one roof.” White says simply, “That is too much for me.”

White’s response to other questions posed by his sister further clarify his opinion of France. His tone is humorous and cynical. Will he learn French? Certainly not, as he does not “believe in staying any longer than I have to.” Has he been swimming? There is not enough water to drink, let alone to swim in. White’s praise is reserved for the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross, which “are just like a little dog following us where ever we go.” White is grateful for the coffee and chocolate that is brought “through thick and thin… right up to the front line.” He grudgingly acknowledges that there may be something healthful in the climate as well, as he sees lots of “old people,” and has not had a sick day since his arrival. However, overall he is not impressed with the French people, landscape, or weather.

Essential Themes

White’s letter to his sister provides a glimpse of the state of mind of a frontline soldier in an intense period of conflict. White may have avoided giving information about his position in his letter to ensure it passed the censors, and he seems content to let his family read the newspapers for those details. He gives the only indication that he is on the front line when he comments on a sinkhole at home that his family has dubbed “no-man’s land.” The real no-man’s land, which White may have been facing directly at the time this letter was written, was “a hundred times worse.” White does not think much of the French, who are not as good as Americans in his opinion, and he despises the Germans, whom he describes as running away like jackrabbits. The tone of his letter is humorous, however, and his negative feelings about the conditions around him do not give way to depression or despair. He is homesick but healthy, and he is grateful to those service workers who risk their lives to get frontline soldiers food and drink.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Browne, George Waldo. The American Army in the World War: A Divisional Record of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Manchester, NH: Overseas Book Company, 1921. Print.
  • “History of Company F, 354th Infantry, 89th Division.” Trier, Ger.: Lintz, 1919. Print.
  • Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I. Philadelphia: Basic, 2014. Print.
  • Neiberg, Michael S. The World War I Reader. New York: NYU P, 2007. Print.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
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