A Soldier's Story

by Pat Bradford
November 2019

Honoring Our Fathers Part I

The first of a two-part story of World War I as describedby Edward Manning Hardin of Wilmingtonin fascinating letters written home to his family and friends.

Nineteen years ago, 52-year old Ed Hawfield, a merger integration expert living in Libertyville, Illinois, was given three boxes of family correspondence by his mother as she downsized. The boxes contained letters and over 20 Field Service Postcards all now 100 years old, written by his maternal grandfather, a man he had never met, but was named for.

Most of the 150 or so letters were still in their original envelopes. Beginning with a few from 1914, the remainder span the years the United States was embroiled in the First World War and its aftermath -- 1917 to 1919 -- during which Edward Manning Hardin faithfully wrote from wherever he was, back to his hometown of Wilmington.

About 30 letters are from Camp Sevier, the United States Army training camp hewn out of the Greenville, South Carolina forest. Another 30 or so were written during train transport to New York for troop embarkment to the European war theater by ship, followed by the battlegrounds of France and Belgium. One or two were written from a hospital in France. Others are from the seven months following The Armistice waiting to return home.

While a few were typed, the letters were mostly written in longhand using pen and ink, sometimes pencil, on a variety of pieces of paper. Some had identifying letterheads, like that of Army/Navy YMCA or even the unused back of an ice delivery form.

Through them, Edward's family and a few close friends shared his experiences serving his country in World War I, from his life as a new soldier, to the horrors of war on the grim frontline trenches of France and Belgium, to The Armistice and the war's end.

Edward was the oldest son of Wilmington pharmacist John Haywood Hardin. After graduating from Cape Fear Academy, he began his college career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In what is attributed to poor judgment and a college prank gone bad, Edward and friend "Duddie" Taylor were asked to leave school after just one year.

Duddie and Edward next attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. For Edward this lasted just one year. He found his place at the Medical College of Virginia, where the 6-foot-1, 180-pound young man was active in fraternity life, played football as a tackle, and was deemed the best-looking and largest in his graduating class.

He earned a degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Pharmacy in the spring of 1914. After a year working at the college's school of pharmacy, he returned to Wilmington and Hardin Pharmacy, founded by his father in 1880.

While Edward was celebrating his college graduation and planning for the future, disastrous events occurred in Europe. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary, triggered a Great War between the Central Powers, primarily Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the Allied Powers, which included France, Great Britain and Russia. The United States entered the conflict in 1917.

July 1917-April 1918 Training at Camp Sevier, S.C.

Edward was a 24-year-old bachelor when he enlisted on July 25, 1917. Now 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and very athletic, he arrived at Camp Sevier in September. He and thousands of other recruits were issued two blankets apiece and housed in canvas tents amid heavily wooded acres in the low mountains of western South Carolina. They endured a frigid winter, with temperatures frequently below zero, and trained in snow and mud. It would be fortuitous.

In the drafty camp tents after dark, the only light was by candle. Despite it being so cold the ink froze in its bottle, grandson Ed Hawfield says Edward's letters, written by No. 2 pencil, exhibited flawless penmanship and were easy to read.

Sept. 12, 1917

From a three-page (large pages) typewritten letter sent to his family from Camp Sevier.

"When we roll out of our bunks at 5:15 a.m. it feels as cold as we ever have in February at home, so that sweater Momma is making for me will come in mighty handy and if no one is going to wear that big heather mixture sweater I wore last winter, I can use that very well too, because they haven't issued us any heavy clothing at all and there is no indication that we will get any time soon. You see we have about 14,000 in camp here now and more coming in every day, so it is quite a proposition to clothe them ..."

Serving alongside Edward were friends and acquaintances from Wilmington, mention of them peppered his letters. They included Hargrove "Hoggie" Bellamy (future mayor of Wilmington), Arthur "Bluey" Bluethenthal, (the first Wilmingtonian and second North Carolinian killed in the war, and for whom the Wilmington airport is named), brothers Paul and Pete Cantwell, George Clark Sr., Harry Hayden, Hugh Hines, Col. Thomas J. Gause, J. Douglas "Duddie" Taylor, Walker Taylor, and Frank Williamson. Others he encountered were Beulah Armstrong, Mrs. Nichols (living in Paris), Tom Orrel, Sarah Storm and Walter Storm.

Sept. 17, 1917

This excerpt from a five-page typed letter was sent to Edward's family from Camp Sevier.

"We started in this morning with our regular camp routine which includes eight hours of drilling each day with ten minutes rest in each hour. ... Our company is to be recruited up to 150 men shortly, or rather we will be filled up to that number with "drafts," and will have five commissioned officers who will be sent to us from the training camps (Sears, Roebuck officers, as they are called here). There will be only seven men mounted on horses (the five officers, the top sgt. and the line sgt.) and Lt. Peck has already told me that (we) will be mounted on mules, so I am just living for the day when I can ride by Duddie on my horse (he be-mounted on one of the mules) and yell at him to 'buckle her down, Uncle Duddie.' I know that it will nearly kill him."

Through his treasure trove of letters, some as developed as eight to 10 pages, the details of camp life and preparing for war emerge in vivid pictures. In his letters during this eight months of intensive training, Edward's exceptional character and integrity emerge.

Sept. 26, 1917

This from a three-page letter from Camp Sevier was written front and back on "Army and Navy Young Men's Christian Association" stationery on Sept. 26, 1917, and was addressed to his father.

"You have probably heard that Lt. Wilbur Dosher has been transferred to our company. He has taken charge of the drilling and believe me, he works us. I have been detailed as the non-com of our company to attend the school for company instructors of physical exercise and have to ride about two miles every morning on my horse to the school, take an hour and a half of physical and bayonet drill, ride back, unsaddle, groom, water and feed my horse and then I get my own dinner from 12 to 1 and then it's back to work till 5:30 so by night, I'm usually rather tired, but I seem to thrive on it for I've gained five pounds and am getting as hard as nails..."

Interspersed in his correspondence are deep gratitude for the weekly letters and frequent boxes of delicacies sent from home. Edward expressed fondness for cakes and other favorite food and drink, a blanket and pillow, or a welcomed article of clothing, including hand-knitted socks.

Sept. 26, 1917

Later in the same letter.

"I received the sweater and box that Mama and Mary sent, also the cig's. that you sent by Mrs. Gause. Many thanks for them all -- enjoyed them immensely. Tell Sue, Mary and John that I certainly enjoyed their letters, and am so glad to see that the boys have been improved so physically. Tell them to keep it up -- it's the greatest thing a man can do for himself. I am so anxious for them both to go to a good military school, for the value of a military training cannot possibly be measured. As a disciplinary and physical factor, the training is invaluable, and it teaches a boy to become a true leader of men, and that, in my opinion, is a rare and great accomplishment. I know it is a very unpleasant subject, but if anything should happen to me, and I shouldn't come back, I don't think that my insurance money could be put to a better use than to give them both a thorough military education."

In nearly three dozen camps across America like this one, men were being trained and over time, equipped. Camp Sevier lacked any comforts of home, it was rigorous, cold and crowded, but in his letters Edward never complained.

His letters reveal a lively back-and-forth about a number of young ladies. He references fun times he and a friend had at Wrightsville Beach. Edward had the gift of communicating his thoughts in his writing. The letters are eloquent, humble, nearly unfailingly positive, and highly endearing. Through them we learn of his fierce patriotism, deep and abiding love of and devotion to family, and heroic commitment to his fellow soldiers.

Every now and then Edward's letters contained tidbits of leave time experiences and interaction with locals. Some contained the responses to questions posed in previous letters by family members, or responses to news of friends, births, sicknesses, college, marriages and deaths. He wrote to his siblings, nieces and nephews, always encouraging them in whatever endeavor they were occupied in. He began most letters with "Dearest," closing with "Your Devoted Son," "Devotedly, Edward" or "Devotedly Brother." Most of the letters were to his stepmother, Mary Benthall Brooks Hardin, and his oldest sister, Lauris (Mrs. Thomas C. Darst of 508 Orange Street, Wilmington).

Edward Hardin entered the Army as a private but was continually promoted, achieving his goal of making 2nd lieutenant before reaching the battlefields. His unit was the 2nd Corps, 30th Division (known as "Old Hickory"), 60th Brigade, 120th Infantry Regiment, 115 Machine Gun Battalion, Company C.Making up the 30th Division were National Guard troops mainly from North and South Carolina and Tennessee, augmented by draft troops from the same states as well as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.

At Camp Sevier with the 115th Machine Gun Battalion, Edward became proficient in knowing every part in the four basic machine guns used on the field of battle by touch and could reassemble any of them while blindfolded. After mastering the 1,763 parts he was promoted to instruct others.

Edward and his company left Camp Sevier in April 1918, traveling by train for 34 hours to New York before the 10-day troop ship Atlantic crossing, landing in Calais, France May 18 and began training in southeast France.

May-August 1918 to the Frontlines and the Hundred days offensive

After five weeks training in France, the 30th was assigned to the 2nd British Army Corps. in Belgium, then in September it was transferred to the 4th British Army. In December it became part of the American Expeditionary Forces, where it remained until the war ended.

June 24, 1918

From a letter to his Father, soldiers were not allowed to say where they were. The enemy was referred to as Fritz or the Boche.

"My dearest "Dad"- This may be my last letter for a week or two, as I leave this place tomorrow with no idea of where I am going, or how, so of course, don't know what my chances for writing will be ...

"Hoggy" has just come in and told me of "Bluey's" death. I was so distressed. Good old Bluey -- that's just one more score I have to settle with those damned Huns and you can bet your bottom dollar my machine guns will get their share of the Boche, and then a whole lot more! Father-o'-mine, I believe that I am fast becoming a barbarian myself, for I find myself very often just longing for a crack at Fritz. I can't think of anything that would give me more pleasure than to train my battery on a mass of "Fritzies" and just mow 'em down. Each day we hear of new atrocities and cruelties they have perpetrated and we hear them from men who have actually seen and know what they are talking about."

July 15, 1918

Part of a letter written to Edward's family.

"Had a talk with Capt. Robeson yesterday. He held services at our camp here. It was the most novel service I ever attended. On one side of us in full view, the aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns were engaging in their never-ending dual and on the other side the incessant roar of the big guns seemed to emphasize all the preacher's remarks."

July 20, 1918

From a letter to his father that depicts a most grueling six days in the trenches of Belgium.

"Never before have I imagined what war really was. Where I am now there is never a minute of day or night that the big guns are not roaring on all sides and shells singing overhead or shrapnel bursting all around or maybe dropping within 50 to 100 ft away and jarring the ground like an earthquake and then when they explode the bits humming and singing around one's head like swarms of bees. The noise that the shells make is the most indescribable, and at the very first, as terrifying a sound I ever heard. You can hear 'way off in the distance a faint hum which grows louder and louder as the shell approaches and then a sudden rushing sound followed by a huge "Bang" and the earth suddenly seeming to rise in a tremendous shower fifty or more feet high. But the most wonderful thing of all is how quickly one becomes used to it. After two days of it, I could tell by the hum of the shell whether it was going to hit in front of me or going overhead or whether it was shrapnel or High Explosive. The boys in my company have become so used to it that the only action they take when a bit of shell flies within a few feet of their heads is to look around and say, "D---, that one was close." It's a great life, Father, but one is not exactly surrounded by luxuries. I have averaged about two hours sleep per twenty-four for the past week and haven't had a bath for fourteen days, nor have I had any of my clothes off except my boots. Am living in a little hole in the ground with nothing to sleep on except terra firma and one blanket to wrap up in, and eating bully beef and hard tack ..."

It has been a year since Edward's enlistment. The bloody trench fighting on the Western Front would continue four more months. Of the 4.7 million men and women serving in the U.S. forces, 2.8 million of them served overseas. Total casualties, civilian and military, is estimated at 37 million people.

August 1, 1918

From a letter location "somewhere," addressed to his mother.

"We have just completed fifteen days on the front and were very fortunate in losing only one man killed; one wounded; and two who lost their minds from shell shock. It's a great life, and a hard life, and yet where life is held so lightly, it seems particularly dear to us all."

August 4, 1918

From a letter to his Father.

"Oh yes! here is a bit of news --- I told you about having been recommended for a first lieutenancy. Well, I have taken my exams and am now awaiting my commission. Today I was designated as second in command of our Company, succeeding Lt. Turner who was killed."

August 5, 1918

From a location again described as "somewhere" he wrote to his mother letting her know a little of the danger he constantly faced on the front lines.

"Speaking of thrills -- there is one gun position which the Captain and I have to visit every night, the path to which is constantly being swept by M. G. fire. Every time we go down this path, we have to lay down three or four times to avoid being hit. The Boche seeks to prevent the bringing up of rations, water, etc. by firing on the roads and paths with artillery and M. G.'s. but of course he doesn't succeed. Naturally, our troops suffer frequent losses..."

In the second installment in our December 2019 issue we will pick up with the horrific trench warfare in France and Belgium, the joy of mail call, manning the forward guns on the frontlines, the month-long push to take the "impregnable" Hindenburg Line, and liberating war-weary French and Belgian towns and villages held for four years by the Germans, then the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice.

 


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