By Paul Wood
VILLA GROVE — A century ago, an Indiana farm boy didn’t know he’d be seeing the world from the trenches, in the muddy battlefields of France, Luxembourg and Germany.
Paul Bretz still has the letters his father wrote home about serving on World War I’s Western Front, and in the occupation of Germany.
Adolph Bretz, who died in 1982, wrote several letters to his parents in Bretzville, Ind. (named for the family), and the local newspaper ran some of them. They are also quoted in a book by Villa Grove author Chuck Knox — 2005’s “The Sound of Distant Drums.”
Paul Bretz is deeply moved by holding the letters his father wrote in the Great War.
After landing in Brest, France, his father’s unit, the 33rd Division, walked across much of France.
Around July 1, 1918, “we had a three weeks’ training on the machine gun range. From here we were put on a 20-day hike to … a forest containing about 150 acres of woodland. This is the first place where the companies went in the trenches as reserves. We were stationed here in the mud for about two months.”
Near where the great Battle of Verdun had earlier been held, “our boys were in trenches 52 consecutive days without any rest, except that which they could get when everything was quiet.”
Paul Bretz said his father had been selected to be a machine gunner, but jumped at the chance to do something that wasn’t at the very front of the line.
“I am still at my old job cooking for the boys,” his father wrote his parents.
Salt pork, navy beans, flour and brown sugar were the staples.
“They had given me a helper for a short while, but they have taken him away,” he wrote.
“This leaves about 60 men for me to cook for. We are having some pretty good eats, biscuits, doughnuts, pancakes and so forth. This requires much work for so many; and that is all we have to do at present, get up the wood and water and do the cooking. This is much, though, for a soldier, do you not think so?”
That war ended in 1918. Just after hearing the news about Nov. 11, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the sergeant wrote:
“The wish and prayer has been answered, and we should all thank our dear Lord that the war is over; and further we should feel especially grateful that He has carried us through so lucky. Just before this, the mighty guns have been raging unceasingly, day and night.
“Now, all at once perfect silence. An airplane came flying between the two contending lines and all activities apparently died away. Like the sound of the gong, it certainly sounded somewhat curious. Being used to it all this time, the big guns firing and roaring and shells bursting so close to us, we could see where they were landing, tearing big holes in the ground and damaging and destroying everything they hit; and oh, that terrible noise!”
His big question was: “When will we see the good old United States again?”
It would be a while. He served months in the occupation of Germany, and spoke some German, his son said.
Adolph Bretz ended up farming in Douglas County.
“He was a stalwart of the VFW here,” Knox recalled.
Since returning from the Air Force in World War II, Paul Bretz, 87, has been a farmer like his father before him.
He and wife Doris treasure the memories that the letters keep fresh.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.