Letters Home by a Supply Officer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sylvester Benjamin Butler was an officer in the 301st Supply Train, stationed in France from August 1918 until June 1919. This selection from his letters home comes from the months when he was adjutant to a major at the headquarters of the 301st. His letters describe a life that is quite comfortable, even luxurious at times, in marked contrast to the hunger, danger, and discomfort experienced by troops at the front. Butler’s role as an assistant to a senior officer afforded him access to the best food and housing as well as easy access to letters and packages from home. The marked difference between the experience of officers well behind the lines and enlistees on the front not only reflected societal differences that existed before the war, but also exacerbated resentment and social unrest after fighting ended.

Summary Overview

Sylvester Benjamin Butler was an officer in the 301st Supply Train, stationed in France from August 1918 until June 1919. This selection from his letters home comes from the months when he was adjutant to a major at the headquarters of the 301st. His letters describe a life that is quite comfortable, even luxurious at times, in marked contrast to the hunger, danger, and discomfort experienced by troops at the front. Butler’s role as an assistant to a senior officer afforded him access to the best food and housing as well as easy access to letters and packages from home. The marked difference between the experience of officers well behind the lines and enlistees on the front not only reflected societal differences that existed before the war, but also exacerbated resentment and social unrest after fighting ended.

Defining Moment

Sylvester Benjamin Butler arrived in France as the United States fought a highly mobile, bloody series of battles with the German Army known collectively as the Hundred Days. Beginning in August 1918, the Allies launched numerous offensives that ultimately cleared France of German occupation and led to the end of the war. It came at a high cost, however: just over one million Allied soldiers were killed, injured, or taken prisoner during these battles, while 785,000 German troops were lost, injured, or missing. Troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat, slept in trenches littered with the bones of those who had died in previous battles, and went hungry when they outran their supply lines. These lines were the responsibility of the likes of Butler, who served at the headquarters of the 301st Supply Train. The 301st headquarters was right in the center of France, at the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond. Trucks, horses, and other means of transport were stored, fueled, and serviced in Saint-Amand-Montrond and then sent to relay stations nearer the front. Mobile repair units traveled close to the front lines to repair and refuel equipment. The supply line ran a constant relay from the depots, where supplies–arriving first by ship–would then be sent by rail to the relay stations and then to the front line. If the line moved quickly, as it did during the Hundred Days, supplies could not keep up and soldiers were unsupported. The contrast between officers serving in supply train headquarters–where they ate sumptuous food and were surrounded by luxurious chateaux in the medieval town of Saint-Amand-Montrond–and the enlisted men in their muddy trenches was stark and not lost on those at the front.

Commissioned officers during and after World War I tended to be well educated and middle class. Though there were certainly class differences between officers and enlisted men in the field, studies have shown that, overall, officers in battle areas were well-respected by those in their charge, while those off the field were viewed as soft and out of touch with the men on the ground. Headquarters staff were often personally selected by senior officers, who gave preference to those with connections. It was a prime posting, as they were far from battle and relatively safe and comfortable. Butler was a Yale graduate and happy when he was able to include a Harvard graduate in his office staff. Enlistees often resented officers’ greater opportunities to take leave and their access to food and mail. Butler acknowledges the contrast between his experience and others’ throughout his letters, saying, “It’s hard to realize I’m soldiering.”

Author Biography

Sylvester Benjamin Butler was born in 1892 in Cromwell, Connecticut. His father owned a nursery and was a noted horticulturalist. He was the oldest of three children, and after attending Middletown High School, Butler studied history at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1913 and worked as an office assistant at Landers, Frary, and Clark, a hardware manufacturer. In 1916, Butler took a position in New Jersey teaching high school history and mathematics. In May 1917, Butler joined the US Army and attended officer training school. He was assigned to the 301st Supply Train and was made a captain in May 1918. Butler arrived in France in August 1916; there, he was adjutant to the major in charge of the unit and then commanded the unit before it returned to the United States in June 1919. After he left the Army, Butler earned a graduate degree from Columbia University in 1928. He later worked as a school administrator until his retirement in August 1956. Butler died in 1970.

Document Analysis

This excerpt contains two letters written by Butler to his mother in late October 1918. Both letters describe the pleasant accommodations and plentiful food and recreation that he can access as an officer and headquarters staff member. The first letter begins with his acknowledgement that his life is quite different from that of other soldiers, even other officers. When he receives a letter from his brother describing guard duty, he finds it amusing. Butler writes, “It’s been so long since I had anything to do with guard duty or any military formations, for that matter, that it’s hard to realize I’m soldiering, particularly at my distance from the front.” He describes the tent he shares with the major–actually a double tent complete with slab walls, handmade furniture, carpet, a living room, and a wood stove. He contrasts this to being “billeted forty ways,” or lodged in private homes, though he admits to missing their “canopied feather beds.” Butler’s troops slept in tents across the road, though he “hope[s] to have barracks for them within a reasonable time.” Butler’s biggest challenge is to keep a fire going in his tent, and so he has someone come in and start the fire before he and the major get out of bed. He tells his mother, “I hope that it will be a comfort to know your son doesn’t have to get up in the cold any more & can even have water all heated up for washing and shaving.” Butler has someone who seems to perform the role of valet, whom he calls “our little Greek.” When the man wanted to clean Butler’s razor for him, Butler thought that was a bit too much. He writes, “Something seemed to say I shouldn’t sink to quite a state of helplessness & luxury.”

Butler also spends significant time in his letters thinking about his Christmas gifts, though he admits that it is odd. He asks his mother to send him toothpaste, a toothbrush, and anything else she can fit in the package and asks her to share with his fiancée the label that they need to use for the one Christmas package he is allowed to receive. He has purchased French lace for his family and describes it to his mother for distribution to his relatives. He also describes an outing to the marquis’s chateau, where they dined on “cookies & jelly, & grapes, & tea, and a delicious nut-raisin cake,” admired the cats, and took home books to read from the “spacious library.” His mother asks if he has eaten horsemeat, and he replies that his food is very much like that at home.

Butler spends very little time talking about his work or the actual fighting going on; it is possible that he is reluctant to discuss potentially upsetting topics with his mother. He notes that “things are surely moving fast in the war’s history,” and that the Allies are advancing rapidly. He makes no comment on his work, except to say that they have a new motor park and that he has recruited some additional office staff, a schoolteacher from West Virginia and a Harvard graduate.

Essential Themes

Sylvester Benjamin Butler’s experience of the war as an officer stationed at headquarters stands in stark contrast to the experience of troops fighting at the front. His letters deal with a lifestyle that is fairly luxurious, even by civilian standards. Butler has others waiting on him and making beautiful furniture for his tent. He has time to buy French lace and read books borrowed from a marquis’s library. He asks his mother to send along his weekly magazines. While others are fighting all along the front in a bloody, protracted series of battles, Butler is miffed that his fancy purple pen has run out of ink and he has to write in pencil. He does not appear to be working hard on the supply train, coming directly into contact with the dead or wounded, or suffering the hunger and deprivation that were common at the front. The contrast in the resources available to headquarters officers and those on the front often led to resentment by enlistees. However, though Butler’s war experience seems unusually comfortable, he is still far away from home, and the unfailingly positive tone of his letters may also be for the benefit of his audience, his mother, who must have worried after the health and safety of her son.

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.
  • Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I. Philadelphia: Basic, 2014. Print.
  • Muth, Jörg. Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901–1940, and the Consequences for World. Denton: U of North Texas P, 2011. Digital file.
  • 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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