John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

On Veterans Day, reliving a young soldier’s journey through his letters

(John Kelly/ The Washington Post ) - Moina Ratliff poses for a portrait at her house in Alexandria.

(John Kelly/ The Washington Post ) - Moina Ratliff poses for a portrait at her house in Alexandria.

On Sept. 25, 1918, Gabriel D. Harle, a private in Company A of the 306th Infantry, American Expeditionary Force, found a relatively quiet place to write a letter. He had been at the Western Front for five months. Though Gabriel had seen some battle, he’d spent most of his time in France engaged in the monotonous work of any soldier: marching and training.

He apologized that his note to Mrs. Edward Sweeley of Washington, D.C., was a brief one. He had, he wrote, “just received an order to get ready for business so I hope you will excuse this short note this time. I will write you as soon as the action is finished.”

The wartime letters of Gabriel D. Harle

The wartime letters of Gabriel D. Harle

In eight letters, Private Gabriel Harle sketched his life as a soldier in World War I, right up until his death.

He folded the letter, sealed it inside an envelope, mailed it, then readied himself for an advance through the Argonne Forest to help push the Germans beyond the Meuse River.

Buried treasures

Moina Ratliff lives in a lovely 1920s house on a hill overlooking the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. She retired from the federal government and runs a bed and breakfast called the Treasure House.

In the summer of 2009, the air conditioning stopped working. After the workmen were done poking around in the attic, one checked in with Moina. By the way, he said, we found some old papers under the insulation. Do you want them?

Moina said, “You bet.”

The stack of papers included eight letters from Gabriel D. Harle. Some were brittle, ripping as she pulled them from their envelopes and unfolded them. But the writing on each was still legible. They were all addressed to a Mrs. Sweeley, who lived in Portsmouth, Va., and Washington. After the war, her family moved to the house Moina would later own.

Writing on stationery provided by the Knights of Columbus or the YMCA, Gabriel asked after Mrs. Sweeley’s husband, Edward, and daughter, “Miss Helen.” He described life at Camp Upton on Long Island, where he spent more than a year training. He wrote about his somewhat mediocre shooting prowess (“I got 35 out of 50 so you see there is room for improvement”) and speculated that German saboteurs were at work (“In Newark, N.J., they set fire to the barge lying in the river which spread to a shipyard”).

In 1917, he sent Mrs. Sweeley a New Year’s card designed by a fellow private. Next to an embossed image of the regimental crest was printed: “Our New Year’s Wish. To the Allies: Peace through victory. To the Enemy: Expiation through defeat. To our Regiment: The strength to conquer.”

The letters bore the formality of the era — Gabriel began most the same way: “Just a line hoping it finds you all in the best of health as it leaves me thus at the present” — but were also personable. He thanked Mrs. Sweeley for her gifts: cigarettes, a cake, a medal — probably a St. Christopher medal — that he promised to wear always.

“Not being a Catholic I am sure makes no difference,” he wrote on Jan. 4, 1918.

Gabriel was born in England. He emigrated from Britain in 1913, arriving at Ellis Island aboard a ship called the Caledonia. With one letter, Gabriel included a photograph — apparently lost — of himself with some fellow soldiers. He wrote: “They are all American born fellows but myself, but I am a citizen so what’s the difference.”

In the spring of 1918, the 306th finally left Camp Upton for France. Now that he was in Europe, Gabriel explained, he was hearing from his mother much more often. “As you know it only takes 3 days for a letter to reach me from England,” he wrote.

The weather that summer was hot, the still air punctuated by the sounds of distant guns.

By August 1918, Gabriel had seen more action. He had marched through farms and towns, seeing the depredations of the enemy: “whole villages torn down and churches without number willfully wrecked.” He had scurried along the trenches that criss-crossed the countryside. He had crawled over no man’s land: “rather creepy but one gets used to it.”

He still wore his St. Christopher medal, but it had undergone a startling transformation. It was now jet black from German gas attacks. “Chlorine turns all bright articles black,” Gabriel explained, “even the money in our pockets.”

In his letter of Aug. 7, 1918, Gabriel included a quote from Homer: “My hour at last has come; yet not ingloriously or passively I die, but first will do some valiant deed, of which mankind shall hear in after time.”

On Sept. 25, 1918, he wrote of his pride at serving with his fellow soldiers: “I am so happy to be here.”

It was his last letter to Mrs. Sweeley. Her subsequent letters to him were returned marked “Killed in Action.” He was 25.

A legacy

According to Eric Voelz, an archivist at the National Archives in St. Louis who consulted Army records for me, Gabriel was killed instantly by shell fire in the Argonne Forest on Sept. 27, 1918, just one of 117,000 U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in the offensive. He was buried by his comrades, but after the battlefield had been churned by a nearly nonstop artillery barrage, his remains could not be found.

The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery is inscribed: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

It is for soldiers such as Private Harle.

All that’s left of Gabriel Harle are eight crumbling letters and, I hope, the gratitude of a nation that on this Veterans Day pauses to remember his sacrifice.

For previous columns and to read all of Gabriel Harle’s letters, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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