July 16, 2019
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Christmas gave Mainers a welcome break from preparation for trench warfare a century ago

Maine National Guard Archives | BDN
Maine National Guard Archives | BDN
French and American soldiers on the western front in World War I

By December, the Maine National Guard contingent in the American Expeditionary Forces in France were settled into their winter training quarters. The 26th Division’s 103rd Infantry Regiment, composed of 2,000 Mainers and 1,500 men from New Hampshire, was quartered in the small town of Liffol-le-Grand in the northern French countryside.

The Mainers arrived to the worst winter on record in France. The men were billeted in barns, outbuildings and other structures where space could be found while officers were able to rent rooms from local families. The weather worsened as December arrived. Pvt. Ralph Spaulding from Madison noted on Dec. 17: “We have had quite a Snow storm here to day.”

Still, training continued as scheduled. Band member William Cobb wrote home to his family on Dec. 23, “Gas masks were issued this week. We have to wear our steel helmets and carry one mask with us at all formations.” Rain mixed with snow, creating a miserable mud, which plagued the soldiers during their daily routine 14-mile toughening marches. The soldiers dug training trenches and learned how to live out of them under the instruction of French trainers.

[A century ago, Mainers marched to war to make the world safe for democracy]

Christmas brought a welcome break from the monotonies and hardships of training. Cpl. Ralph Moan of East Machias in Company K formed a singing quartet with Cpl. Leo Brown, Cpl. Foster Tuell and Pvt. John Royce, and this group livened the holiday festivities with their singing. Mail brought packages from home with Christmas presents and sweets. The regimental leadership pulled some strings and got the men a Christmas dinner of “turkey, peach pudding, nuts, potatoes, gravy and all the other little things that go with a feed.”

The men of the University of Maine band, which was now the regimental band, sent a note of thanks to their alma mater for the Christmas packages they had received: “They surely brought back fond memories of our dear Alma Mater and believe us, we will never forget Maine. We can assure you that every article in the packages will be used, in fact the contents were exactly what a soldier needs over in this country. We are now up against a different proposition than we were a year ago at this time… Whatever the Band does in its line of duties on the front, it surely will bring credit to the University of Maine and you can depend upon this small handful of men to put the University of Maine on the map of Europe, as we spread its glorious name from Maine to Mexico last year.”

George Thompson of Bangor’s Company G wrote that the troops were “a happy and jolly crowd. Some had on funny looking masks, others paper hats of all descriptions, others with horns and whistles. You’d never think they were fighting men to see them act.”

[War waited for Mainers a century ago as they set sail for Europe]

New Year’s Day also brought on more festivities, with prize fights and other competitions. Sgt. Russel Adams from Rumford’s Company B brought one of the local French farmers along, and the old man appeared impressed at the Yankee toughness. He later revealed that he had lost his own son in the war and so appreciated the New England hospitality even more.

The Maine farm boys helped the locals bring in hay, chop firewood and collect coal. In fact, the relationship between the Mainers and the locals of Liffol-le-Grand grew so strong that the town wrote to Gen. John Pershing after the 103rd Infantry left in February, asking if possible to see the New England boys again.

When Bangor-native Maj. William Southard was recuperating from a wound in the hospital in the summer of 1918, he ran into an officer who was then billeted in Liffol-le-Grand, who asked what the 103rd had done there because “All we hear is the 103rd, the 103rd, the 103rd. One would think the 103rd was the only outfit in the American Army!”

But this peaceful time was nearing an end. As the Allied Armies prepared for another year of war in 1918, the French asked for more American troops to man the frontline positions. By February, the Mainers in the 26th “Yankee” Division would be headed to their first active front.

First Lt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian.

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