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Interview on experiences in World War I

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This is an interview with Mr. Ellis G. Christensen at his residence at 1723 Rural Street, Emporia, Kansas, on November 9, 1977. Mr. Christensen, who is a veteran of World War I, is being interviewed by Steven Hanschu.

Hanschu: Could you give me a brief history of yourself? When and where you were born, your education and occupation.

Christensen: Well I was born in Ramona, Kansas on June 17, 1896. I went to high school there and graduated, and then went to the Institute in Marion County, Kansas and got a teaching certificate. Then I taught school at a country school near Tampa, Kansas. After the school term was out I went to summer school in Emporia. Then next year I went back and taught school near Ramona—four miles south of Ramona, Kansas. After that term was out, I went back to summer school and the next year was a principal at the grade school at Lost Springs. At that time it looked like the war was being declared and I resigned my position there at the school in Lost Springs and came to Emporia and enlisted in Company L.

H: Now what year was this or what month?

C: [1917].

H: [1917?] Do you remember what month you joined?

C: War was declared in April, and I joined in April. The day after the war was declared.

April 17,1 think it was, [1917]. I joined Company L here. Most of the men in Company L at that time were men going to school at Kansas State Normal School.

H: Did you have a family then? Did you have to move your family?

C: I was an orphan to begin with and I had no family. I had a brother who was also

originally in Company L. He was on the border with Company L when they went on the border.

H: When they went to the Mexican border.

C: Yes.

H: So when you enlisted you were single and you. . ..


C: He was in the company too.

H: And you were single at the time you enlisted.

C: Yes, I was single.

H: Were you anxious to enlist or what made you enlist?

C: Well, at that time most young men had a sense of responsibility and some patriotism left

in them and probably a little idea of wanting to see a little action of some kind. H: So you felt it was the thing you should do for your country. C: Yes, that's right.

H: And you thought the country was doing the right thing by entering the war? C: At that time, yes. You know when you're young and immature, you don't know. I've

always been a believer that "my country right or wrong." If you want to live in it, you'd

better defend it. H: What was it like when you enlisted in Company L when you got here? Can you tell me

about Company L, what it was like when you enlisted? C: Oh, I knew a lot of the men because there were five or six boys from Lost Springs that I

had gone to high school with. Then a good many of them were from the Normal School

here, and my brother was in it. And I felt I was in with friends and all. I enjoyed it. H: Can you tell me what it was like when you enlisted the first day or something when you

were. . .. C: Oh, not too much. We had a drill hall here at one of the buildings where we drilled once

a week until we were called into Federal Service later on in the latter part of that summer

in 1917.

H: Now, Camp Heritage, was it functioning at the time you enlisted or had it been set up yet? C: Oh no, it hadn't been set up then. Camp Heritage was a place set up at the Country Club

after we were called into Federal Service on August the 5th, I think it was. They weren't

ready to take us and they told us to get out and establish a camp and get ready to drill and

all. So the Country Club out here gave us a piece of the ground and we went out there and established a camp. We put up tents and the kitchen equipment, and all. We camped out there for several months, drilling, and going through all the preparations to get ready to serve our country.

H: Can you tell me what camp life was like? A typical day or anything? What you did during the week?

C; It was different than what we had been used to because you had certain hours and you had to be in bed at certain hours. You got good food. But it was regular. You got up at a certain time in the morning and you made your bed and fixed your cot up nice. You cleaned up the area around there and had breakfast. Then you got ready to drill most the day. Drill or other classroom work that would help you. Then at night they had what they called taps and you were supposed to be in bed. So it was good. It was a lot different that what most of us had been used to. It was regular. Regular diet, regular hours, and good exercise.

H: Now you mean by what you were used to. Was this before camp or between April and August? Is that what you were talking about?

C: My civilian life. You know, you didn't get up at a certain time or you didn't go to bed at a certain time in civilian life. And a lot of times you piece-mealed. It was different in that respect.

H: Where were you located between April and August before Camp Heritage was set up?

C: I was going to school up here.

H: So you were in school even though you were enlisted.

C: Yes, I was in school.

H: You were not mustered into service until August. Is that what most men did that had enlisted?

C: A good many of them who were enlisted were in there. Of course we had men from

downtown too. But they were doing their regular work yet and going to drill. H: But you still drilled periodically during these....

C: We drilled until we were called into Federal Service (once a week) on August 5. H: What did Emporia think of Camp Heritage? C: The people were very, very nice to us. On Sundays, most of the people invited some of

us out for Sunday dinner. They tried to see that we all had a place to go for Sunday

dinner. No, they were very wonderful to us. H: Did they come out to visit the camp often? C: Oh yes. They would come out to watch us drill. It was quite interesting to a lot of people

because it was new. It was new. H: Everyone was excited about the war. C: The war was on and they were glad Emporia was being represented because Emporia had

units in the Civil War and all the wars up until that time. They gave very freely to the

service of their country when they needed them. H: Do you recall reading in the paper things about the camp or anything like that?

Editorials? C: No, I don't believe so. I didn't read the paper much at that time because we didn't have

time. That is you mean local news of the camp? H: Yes.

C: Oh no. I personally had knowledge of that. I didn't need to read about it. H: Well I thought maybe Mr. White had mentioned something in the paper that. . . . C: Oh no. I got very well acquainted with Mr. White because my fraternity was close to

where their house was and I knew Mary White real well. H: So you had Sundays off then?

C: Yes. So many had to be there for guard duty and kitchen duties and all. Not all of them were invited because people didn't know some of them. But the regular camp went on as usual. You could get a pass unless you were on kitchen police or guard duty.

H: How long were you at Camp Heritage?

C: I don't recall—maybe a couple of months. I didn't keep track. I never keep track of a regular day count.

H: Do you remember where you went from Camp Heritage?

C: Oh yes, we went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

H: Was this Camp Doniphan? Was that the name of it?

C: Yes. That was the name of it.

H: The whole company went there. They weren't split up.

C: Yes, and then we got there and joined the rest of the regiment. At that time it was the Second Kansas Regiment. When they got there they joined the First Kansas Regiment. The Second Kansas made it the 137th Infantry.

H: So how was camp life different from her in Emporia then? Did the two camps differ quite a bit?

C: It was more rugged there because it was nothing but wind and sand down there. The

drilling was more rugged, more intense. We had bayonet drill and long marches. Some marches were short and some long. It was rugged. It was rugged.

H: Much more intense than it was here.

C: Yes, and boy you got tougher than a boot. It was a tent camp and you had outdoor latrines and bathhouses. They had those bathhouses in the winter time that were still pretty chilly. We got a lot of snow down there, and dust and sand. When they left there they were tough. Tough and rugged. That's right, the best of health. Those that survived the flu.

H: Did you have epidemics then?

C: Well, there were quite a few. Our outfit didn't have too much flu. But there was lot of

them that did.

H: Do you recall why they sent you to Fort Sill instead of Fort Riley or some other place? C: No, that was something from higher headquarters. They figured that was the place we

would go. And that's where we went.

H: Now I assume you were in a platoon of men. Do you recall your commanding officer? C: Well, Lt. Ericsson was one of our officers there.

H: I just wondered if you had tough drill sergeants or if you recall any unusual experiences. C: No, no tough ones. I eventually became one of the so-called "tough drill sergeants" if

you want to call them that. But, no they were all good. They were trying to do their duty.

And they knew that you had to be tough and you had to give each other the best because

these were your buddies. These were people you knew. You had to do good because you

might have to come back home and live with them. That's what Lt. Ericsson and I and

Private Riegle and some of us had to do. We went through that war and came back and

still don't have anybody mad at us. H: That's very good I would say. C: Yes, good. You had to be sure that they knew what they were doing because the better

trained a man is, with other things being equal, the better chance he has of coming back.

That is if you keep your head and your hind-end down. So if they can't see you and go

when you needed to go and all. H: So everyone took it quire seriously. C: Yes, oh yes. H: Do you recall any unusual experiences or excitement or anything while you were there in

Fort Sill? C: Not much there, not much at Fort Sill. It was routine, very routine. We had a lot of big

snowstorms we had to shovel out of. But that was natural. It was winter. That's all.

Nothing that I know of that was really outstanding. H: Did you have any entertainment during the winter months? In the evenings? Or what did

you do when you were off-duty or drilling? C: We didn't have too much entertainment down there that I can remember. We could get

passes into town once in awhile, But when you got there, you were run over by other

soldiers looking for excitement. So most of the time we stayed around camp and went to

the PX's and stuff like that.

H: Do you recall when you were mustered out of Fort Sill? C: No, we weren't mustered out. We went from Fort Sill to the port of embarkation back in

New York for overseas.

H: So you went overseas then with Company L. C: Yes.

H: Do you recall when that was? C: Oh, I think it was in early 1918 maybe May or something like that. We landed at

Liverpool and got English weapons. We were brigades with the English for some time,

got their rations and all. H: Was this quite a change? C: Oh yes. They had different weapons and different rations. Instead of the type of rations

we had, they issued a hunk of bread in a paper sack, not in a paper sack, a cloth sack.

You had to put that over your pack, and if it rained while you were marching along, why

that was too bad. You still had your wet bread. The nice thing about that was that they

issued the soldiers when they were in the trenches a ration of rum. Boy, you'd get down a

big pot of black coffee and throw that rum in there early in the morning, why you were

ready to whip a buzz saw.

H: Quite a bit different from training at Oklahoma and Emporia. C: Oh yes, they never wanted us to have any grog or rum, or stuff like that.


H: Were you expecting this when you got over to England? This change?

C: Accepting it?

H: No, expecting it. Were you expecting to use different weapons?

C: Oh no. We didn't know we'd be brigaded with the British for awhile. But we were. They

lost heavily n the war. They needed some help there for awhile. Then later on we

crossed the English Channel and landed at Le Havre. There we got our old weapons back

and we were put under the command of American troops again. H: So while you were in England you were brigaded with the English and used their

weapons and rations. Then when you went over to France you came under American

command again. C: Yes, under Pershing. H: How long were you in England then? C: We weren't in England too long. H: Were you stationed at Liverpool or did you— C: No, we went out. I don't remember some of the places we were, but I know we weren't

far from the white cliffs of Dover. H: Now you didn't have combat action then.. .. C: No, some of us went up there on the Somme with them for awhile. I was up there for

awhile managing a machine gun for them. But that was not too long. H: When did you go into France then?

C: I don't recall just when it was. I remember we landed at Le Havre. H: Was this all of Company L? Did they keep together pretty much? C: Yes, we still had our old Company L. together. H: And so everybody landed at Le Havre? Do you recall what that was like when you landed

there? And what you had to do then?

C: Oh we still had to drill land march. Finally we had to gradually edge up toward the front and eventually into the trenches with the French.

H: Do you remember how you got up there or where you were at then. .. .

C: Well, we were in the Vosges Mountains. We'd marched all through there and ended in the Vosges Mountains with the French. The Germans had overrun a lot of that and the trenches were intermingled. As you drove the Germans back, you still had the trenches that they could swing back and maybe run a surprise attack on you. So you had to fill those runways with barbed wire and place a guard there at night. From then on you had to post men at what we called outlooks and stand two in the mornings at daybreak because that's when they would push over and attack you if you didn't watch out.

H: Daybreak was when they attacked most often?

C: Yes, and out in front between those places they had barbed wire entanglements. You had to put tin cans and so forth on the entanglements so that if the Germans would try to crawl through there, and cut those barbed wire entanglements, why it would rattle those cans. A lot of times there were so darn many rats down in there; that a lot of times it was the rats hitting those cans instead of the Germans trying to get through. We had several fellows make that mistake and think [the Germans] were coming, and they'd open up with their machine guns and all it was just the rats getting around every night. Some of those trenches that we occupied had been occupied so long that they were just filthy. Everyplace we went on that score we had to clean up and kind of renovate so that we could live, if you wanted to stay in [the trenches] very long.

H: Were you with the first American troops that joined the French in these trenches.

C: I think there had been maybe some of them before us, I don't recall that. There were quite a few before us on the Battle of the Marine and several of those places. I admired the French. They weren't bad soldiers at that time. Of course in World War I they lost so

many of their men, that by the time World War II came along they didn't have any wise old soldiers. That's why they got their tails whipped in the Second World War.

H: Were the French glad to see you then when you landed?

C: Oh, First World War? I'll say they were. The Germans were pretty close to Paris. They had to call out all their taxi cabs and everything else to pull soldiers up toward the front.

H: You were first along the Vosges Mountains. Did you move around quite a bit then?

C: Oh, yea, back and forth. Then we went up in the reserve in the Saint Mihiel drive.

H: Can you tell me about that?

C: Well there wasn't much to do there. We just kept marching and it was raining all the

time. We were reserved in the force and all. We didn't have any action there. Just maybe patrols but no real action where we lost any men.

H: Where did you go from the Saint Mihiel drive?

C: Up through the Argonne offensive. That was the big one that broke the Germans back. We marched up there. That was the big one.

H: Can you tell me about it? What it was like?

C: Well, the guns were almost side by side for miles. They had French 75s for miles.

H: These were the machine guns?

C: No, they were French 75s artillery. Then back of them they had some bigger guns and then back of them some railroad artillery guns. And the morning of the 26th, when we started the drive there, went over the top, and all those guns started booming, the whole earth shook for miles. Boy, that was something! That's when we began to lose men.

H: Did you wonder what you were doing there then?

C: Oh, yes, I wondered what in the hell I came for!

H: I imagine so.

C: Yep.


H: Can you tell anything more about it that you recall? What it was like or how long the drive lasted?

C: Well, I think they relieved our outfit in about five days. We had broken their backs by then and had lost quite a few men.

H: Was this out of Company L or out of the 137th. . ..

C: Out of the whole division. Yes, Company L lost quite a few men there. Some of our

local men and all. I remember when we started over the top, I had the first platoon. I was in command of that when we went over the top. I thought I'd try to show these guys I wasn't afraid. I was kind of calm and all and I had a pipe. I lit that pipe and when we started to go over the top there my teeth were chattering so much I lost the pipe! But anyhow we went over. I think it was the third day. [Lieutenant] Ericsson and I were going over a tough spot there, and we'd seen men hit right and left that we knew. One of his runners got hit and the [Lieutenant] said to me, he says, "Well, Christie, if we live through this and get back to Emporia we'll have a lot to talk about, won't we?" We never have talked about it.

H: You never have talked about it since?

C: No, that's the way it is. Well, we both got relieved and later when I'd come back from the hospital I went with them. We had a few other places on the front there. Finally we were marching up toward Metz for the last big battle when we got word that the Armistice was coming. So, they stopped us. That was the last of it. We later stayed there a long while at a place called Commercy. Near there was the place where Joan of Arc was born, or had some of her escapades. We stayed there and eventually we had a parade for the Duke of Windsor and all of the generals of the Allies. We marched fifteen miles in the rain to go to the parade and fifteen miles back. But everybody thought it was great that they paraded before the Duke of Windsor who was later made the king and then abdicated. Well that's about it.


H: So how long were you over in France after the armistice?

C: Well, we were there a year and a couple of months from the day we went over until the day we came back to United States.

H: So you were mustered out then when you came back over here, or. ...

C: Yes, we were mustered out at Fort Riley. Private Riegle and I were mustered out

together. I brought what remaining soldiers were left in Company L back to Emporia under my command. When we got her the town gave us a banquet that evening.

H: Did you parade for the town then?

C: Yes, we paraded from the railroad station up to the place where they had the banquet.

Then later on Lt. Ericsson and I formed another company here. The same one that would represent Emporia in the Second World War. And we both went into that with them.

H: So were you glad to get back to Emporia?

C: Yes, I was glad to get back. I went back and finished school then.

H: What was Emporia's reaction when you landed at the railroad station?

C: Oh, they were wonderful to us. I didn't tell you that William Alien White while we were over in France made a trip over there with Henry Alien. Mr. White brought me a great big box that some of the people that had me out for dinner one Sunday had sent with him. They asked him if he would take and deliver it to me. And he did. He took it way up there. We were a long way from Paris where he landed but, by gosh, he came up there and delivered it to me personally. I thanked him for it. He was a good friend of mine.

H: Were you ready to go into war again the next time or did your feelings change any or....

C: Well, I went again for the Second World War. Then I went again in the Korean War. So I'm one of the few that were in the three wars. Too old to go in the next one.

H: Well hopefully there won't be one. Do you have any other experiences or unusual things that happened while you were overseas that you might want to tell about? Or what life was like over there or anything?


C: No, I don't know of any unusual experiences. The usual soldier experiences. That's about


H: Ok, well if you don't have anything else I guess that's all I have too then. C: Well, I hope that does you some good. H: Thank you very much.


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