My mother would tell you that her father never talked much about his experiences during World War I driving an ambulance on the battlefields of France. Talking choked him up and was just too difficult, although he did enjoy old songs from that era – “My Buddy”, “There’s a Long, Long Trail” and “Over There”. But late in life, when maybe only the grandchildren were around, he did seem fond of talking about it. I wish I could have those conversations back, to learn more about why he joined the medical unit instead of a regular Army unit, and to find out what troubled him so much that he didn’t talk about it for decades. He mostly amused us with stories of learning a foreign language (“they don’t call it a hospital, it’s an oh-pee-tal”) and some grim references to the ever-present gangrene and mud. I don’t ever recall him saying that his hearing was damaged by exposure to a bomb blast, and his health was compromised by mustard gas. But it was something we all knew.
Miles Edward “Ted” Baldwin Jr. was born in April, 1893. His mother died when he was 4 and he and his younger brother were not especially welcome in the home of their quickly-remarried father. Grampa had a childless aunt and uncle that were fond of him and stayed close to him. Perhaps it was the Civil War anecdotes of that uncle that made Grampa think that enlisting would be a good idea. Was it his interest in science that steered him toward the medical unit? Or was it a desire not to harm anyone?
Unfortunately Grampa’s military records were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. So I am reconstructing the story from his discharge papers, photos, drawings and letters.
Ted enlisted in the Army on April 10, 1917 in Providence, Rhode Island. He trained in Camp Quonset, Rhode Island. U.S. Army, 26 Reg, 5th Div., First Rhode Island Ambulance. And notice – they are actually staying in tents. According to something scrawled on the back of the photo, I believe they called themselves the “Rhode Island Ruff Necks”. I’m sorry, Grampa, if 95 years later, that just seems adorable.
It was still 1917 when they boarded a train, then a ship, for France. In France, Ted served in the Medical Department, Field Hospital 161, U.S. Army at Meuse-Argonne, Oise Aisne, Lorraine and Champaigne.
The few mementos from France are not as cheerful – a metal match box with German words “Gott Mit Uns”, a metal cigarette box, a souvenir scarf, a red cross armband. His job was to bring the wounded off the battlefields and into the field hospitals. I’m sure, many times, he wished he were back in the rural camp environment of Quonset.
Ted, like his whole family, was a bit of an artist. The drawing from 1918 is entitled “Pill Rollers in the Argonne”.