A Doughboy's Letter from the Front MENU
Civilians enter and doughboys depart at Camp Travis, near San Antonio, Texas

World War I Doughboy’s Letter from the Front

By Barbara Finlay
April 2017 • American History Magazine

A Texas baseball player turned soldier put his war into words

FIFE, IN NORTHERN McCulloch County, is about at the geographical center of Texas. Scottish immigrants settled the area in the late 1870s. By 1910, the “Fife district” census listed some 496 residents: landowners raising cotton, small grains, and livestock; tenant farmers; and farm laborers—almost all of them Mexican nationals who, with their families, made up about 20 percent of Fife’s population. Homes were scattered widely around a commercial hub that included two general stores, a post office, a smithy, a cotton gin, a garage that gassed up and repaired automobiles, five churches, and two schools—a two-room facility for Anglos and a small Spanish-language school for farm workers’ children. The Brady Standard, a regional weekly, covered Fife and environs.

Farming in Fife was a gamble. Dry spells roasted crops. Hail and windstorms flattened them; late freezes killed them. Pests attacked the cotton. Farmers got by, but as ever in such places, for some young people Fife was a place to leave. Others stayed, held by a hopeful community whose entertainments included traveling musicians, fishing parties, house dances, and schoolyard basketball games—at the time, a sport for girls. Fife’s popular baseball team consisted of men aged 16 to 40 who competed against local teams from other villages. Teams had no names except the towns they represented.

Dair Baldridge (left) with rancher Frank Bradley, a friend whose age ad marital status kept him out of uniform (Courtesy Barbara Finlay).

At big picnics, known locally as “dinners on the ground,” candidates expounded on politics amid the barbecue. Singing conventions and church picnics brought neighbors together. Booster clubs attempted to attract business and jazz the local economy, raising funds for projects such as building a “tabernacle” to serve as a social and religious center; maintaining or building schools; and reaching out to telephone and railroad companies to bring those services to the area. The railroad never came, but the telephone did.

Edwin Dair Baldridge, known by his middle name, grew up in Fife. A prominent landowner’s second son, Dair was one of the Fife baseball team’s topnotch batters. He also played for other amateur teams in the area. He was living at home and working on his father’s farm when in April 1917 the United States entered the war in Europe. Dair, 26, enlisted. That September, he and five other local men left for San Antonio to train at Camp Travis; all of Fife saw them off. Soon, another ten of the district’s men had donned the khaki.

Folks in Fife collected funds for the Red Cross, bought war bonds, and in other ways supported the national effort, such as by corresponding with local soldiers. The letter writers included James Finlay, a farmer, stockman, and community leader descended from a pioneer. Finlay was 38, the father of two, and active in many civic enterprises. A friend of the Baldridge family and of Dair in particular, James wrote often to the younger man and his fellow soldiers, seeing to it that the Standard sent the troops copies, even though the newspapers required weeks or months to reach the Continent. When James heard from Dair or any of the other fellows in Europe, he reported what they had written in the Standard.

In June 1918, the army transferred Dair Baldridge of Company D of the 315th Engineers, 90th Division, from San Antonio to New York and then to France, where he saw action in battles in the Argonne, at St. Mihiel, and around Verdun. When Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918, Dair was at Stenay, the easternmost point to which the American Expeditionary Forces had advanced. From Stenay, the men of the 90th Division marched a roundabout route into Germany, winding up in Lieser, on the Moselle River. There, on December 30, 1918, Dair Baldridge had time to write to James Finlay.

 

Lieser, Germany, Dec. 30th, 1918

Mr. James Finlay.

Dear Sir and Friend:–Received your letter some time ago, but owing to the fact that our outfit was at that time on the march, I did not have time to answer. Have a little time of my own tonight, so I will attempt to tell you a few of the little things that have occurred since I saw you people last. By the way, it’s just one year ago, today. As you know, we left Camp Travis in June, came to New York and after staying there a few days we embarked for somewhere–no one knew, but after going by the way of Halifax and waiting there on the St. Lawrence River for two days waiting on our convoy to come up, we pulled out into the Atlantic once more. We were fifteen days all together on the water, finally landing in Liverpool. Will say just here that the trip was far from what I call a pleasant one. We were only in Liverpool that day–the 28th of June, then that night we took trains for Southampton. This town is located on the English Channel, a distance of about 150 miles from Liverpool, and a little farther from London. Of all the countries that I have seen, I must say that in my opinion, England is the most beautiful; it is a rolling country of pretty meadows and trees, and dotted here and there with towns that appear to be nice and clean, quite unlike France. In fact, England is one big park, and I imagine under normal conditions it would be a great place to be for a while, anyway.

After resting in Southampton for two days, we again took a boat across the channel, landed this time in La Havre, France, stayed there about three days and were again loaded on a train and taken to Southern France—Colmier-Le-Bas—the name of the little place. We stayed there six weeks and trained, and then one day the long looked-for order came: “Make up your packs, boys, and get ready to move.” We all knew what that meant. We were going to the front for the first time to do battle. We were again marched a ways and loaded on box cars (for that is the way all soldiers travel in France) and started on our way. We were unloaded in Toul, and after walking about seven miles to a little place, we went into camp for the night and that night for the first time, we had our first war-like experience. Fritz came over in his aeroplanes and made a little raid. I was in one of the old shell-torn buildings asleep when he came over, but I was too sleepy and tired to get up, so I slept. The next day we stayed in this place. Then night came, and we were loaded in big Government trucks, and carried up near the seat of affliction. This time we could see the flares going up all along the lines and could hear those big German Berthas belching—this was all pretty shaky experience for a fellow that was just coming up for the first time. But the boys seemed to enjoy it, as though it was nothing more than we had been accustomed to seeing back in Camp Travis, on the movie screen, but at the same time it was not a moving picture performance, but a reality.

This time when we stopped we stayed several days. All the time we, the engineers, were working on dugouts just behind the lines, while our doughboys (the infantry) held the front lines. Then on the morning of the 12th of September, at one o’clock, the artillery that the French and the Americans had been hauling up and placing for several days began firing and to one that has never heard a barrage laid down, it sounded like the end had come. Then the news was whispered along that the doughboys would go over the top at six o’clock and they did—and with perfectly good success—plenty lives were lost, of course, but the objective was reached, and that means everything in battle. All the time we were on the job, we were on the heels of the infantry, doing road and bridge work. In fact, our platoon went over the top behind the infantry and spent that night, the 12th in the trenches just vacated by the Germans. Boche snipers were busy all during the night and several of the boys got picked off, but luckily, I escaped. This was on the Toul front in the St. Mihiel Sector. After that, excitement came fast and furious. You could look for most anything. The following day we got orders to go out on a road that the Boche had retreated over the day before, and had been absolutely torn to pieces by our heavy artillery. We were to put this road in condition for immediate use. Of course, on a job of that nature, you are under observation by the balloons that are used to direct fire. They had shelled us all day but no damage was done until late in the afternoon, when we were about to finish. A big six-inch shell hit almost directly where a bunch of men were at work filling up a big shell hole, and killed eight men. This was the bloodiest scene that I had witnessed up to that time, and believe me, it is pretty hard to see men that you have soldiered with for a year and good fellows too, with their bodies blown into a hundred pieces. Two of these boys heard this shell coming and jumped into a shell hole. This shell hit on the bank and covered these boys up. They were not hit by the shell, but it took us about fifteen minutes with picks and shovels to get them out, and when we finally got them uncovered, the one on the bottom was smothered to death. I believe that this man would have lived, but along with these high explosives, the Dutch were sending over gas shells also, and this poor fellow had his gas mask on.

We had many experiences then for the next month on St. Mihiel. We were then relieved and sent back for rest; went back in the rear of the lines about forty kilometers. This was along about the first of October when the grapes are ripe in France, and we were having a splendid time here in this little town (Lucy by name). We were out of danger of the big shells and machine gun, and believe me, it is quite a relief to know that you can step across the street without being in danger of getting picked off. During the few days that we spent here at this place, there were plenty of speculation as to where the 90th Division would go from there, but it wasn’t but a little bit until there was no argument. A long train of French trucks rolled up in the street and we got orders to roll packs once more. We rode these trucks all day and a part of the night and unloaded and the next day or so was spent in marching toward Verdun. Now don’t you have the history of the Verdun battle? This is where Hindenburg launched the biggest German offensive of the four years of war against the French and English. We marched the next night across this old battle field. You could see by the road side the skeletons of men that had been there since that battle. They were not all allies, either, by any means…. [After a long march,] we took our blankets and spread them down on the ground to get a little sleep for we were tired after a long march. But Thorn couldn’t sleep. He complained that ‘We had made our tent in a hell of a place.’ Why, he said, ‘this is nothing but a pile of rocks. Get up and let’s clean up a little.’ But on investigating we didn’t find any stones, but human bones instead. On looking around as best we could in the dark, we didn’t find a better place, so we raked away the bones and went to bed.

The next morning when I got out of my tent, the Red Cross boys had already set a pole in the ground and placed a skull on the end of it to mark the place where we got our first aid. We stayed here five days and worked on a hospital site, then we advanced up to the Argonne, no doubt you read about the Battle of the Argonne, and of the Argonne Forest. It was in this region that we spent the last days of the war. We were the farthest up when the firing ceased at 11 o’clock on the 11th of November. It was on this front that Charlie M. was wounded, his company was at Madaleine Farm. He just got back to his company three days ago after being in the hospital about six weeks. We were together last night. He says he is feeling fine since the armistice became effective. We have made many hikes by hobnail express (by foot). We have marched from Stenay, France, the place where we were when firing ceased, through Prussia to the Rhine. Quite a hike, but the boys in this army of occupation are very well paid I guess for we have seen many things of interest, but things of interest are growing old–and most of the fellows MYSELF included–know of places that they had rather be. Jim I am sorry that I didn’t send you a helmet or some souvenir of the front, but I didn’t, in fact, I haven’t plucked any for myself, but no doubt you have seen the German helmet before now, as lots of the boys have sent them home. You said in your letter when I see Bright again to find out if he was getting the Standard. I expect you know more about him than I do. That is, if you know anything at all, for I haven’t seen him since I came across. I am getting a Standard from someone. I don’t know who is sending it.

Must close, from your friend,

Sgt. E. D. Baldridge

Co. D, 315th Engrs., A. E. F.

 

Dair Baldridge remained a few months in Germany, arriving home in June 1919—in time for baseball season. He spent the next few years playing mostly amateur ball, but in 1920 he played a season with the Gorman/Sweetwater Swatters of the West Texas Minor Leagues. In the off-season, he continued to help out on the family farm, visiting other locales looking for greener pastures. In June 1922, he married Annabel Mitchell, a Fife girl then living with her brother in Colorado. Dair’s sister, Addie Vane, had married James Finlay’s brother, Robert K. Finlay Jr. before the war. They all settled in Colorado in the winter of 1923.

James Finlay’s neighbors had elected him their state representative. In January 1923, he and his colleagues toured the Rio Grande Valley, where a citrus and produce industry was getting started. James so enthusiastically described the “Magic Valley,” with its lush palm trees, green pastures, cheap land, and plentiful water, that in 1924 Rob Finlay and Dair Baldridge paid a visit. Each bought an orange grove, and the men formed the Finlay & Baldridge Company. That summer they moved their families from Colorado to Lyford, Texas, in Willacy County. The partners prospered, expanding their operation and eventually shipping produce and citrus by refrigerated train as far as Chicago. Dair’s parents followed the next year, as did his wife’s brother.

Dair and Rob ran the company’s branches separately. In 1936, Dair moved his operations to Edinburg, Texas, and in 1950 expanded again, this time into Mexico. Near Tampico, he began to develop large tracts. He was 80 when he died
in Harlingen, Texas, on November 27, 1970, leaving his three sons to run the Tampico business.

James Finlay spent his life in Fife as a farmer and stockman, except for his four terms in Austin at the state capitol representing the three-county district that included Fife. He lived to be 86, long enough to watch his friend Dair’s generation move on. James died on April 30, 1966.

Over the decades Fife lost population and businesses, especially as agriculture moved away from manual labor and other careers emerged. By 1960, census takers counted only about 50 residents. The schools and churches had closed. Most of the commerce was gone. The cotton gin shut down in the early 1970s. In 1983, the U.S. Postal Service closed the old store/post office. In the 21st century, Fife’s race is all but run—though a few old-timers hang on, recalling halcyon days of picnics and barbecues, house dances and ball games, dinners on the ground and stump speeches, and a town watching its doughboys march to war.

, , , , , , , ,



Sponsored Content: