Over there: Letters found in Alexandria attic tell story of World War I soldier


In 2009, workers repairing the air conditioning at Moina Ratliff’s house in Alexandria discovered a cache of documents in the attic of her 1920 home, seen here. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist November 10, 2013

In 2009, workmen repairing the air conditioning unit in the attic of Moina Ratliff’s Alexandria home found a cache of papers. Among them were eight crumbling letters that a World War I soldier named Gabriel D. Harle wrote to Mrs. Edward Sweeley, who once lived in the house.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Here are transcripts of the letters, which tell the story of one soldier from the Great War.

Jan. 15, 1917

Camp Upton, L.I., N.Y.

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line hoping it finds you all in the best of health as it leaves me thus at the present and to thank you for that fine cake you sent me. I am sure I never expected such a present and assure you I appreciate your kindness and as for you being considered a fairly good cook, well Mrs. Sweeley my squad all agree that you are an expert. It arrived Monday afternoon and we had quite a party.

The camp is about 72 miles from New York at Yaphank, Long Island. It was hardly known until a few months ago when it was a forest and had to be cleared to make the camp. Today I think it is the second largest containment in the country. One can hardly realize that it was made in such a short time. Everything is perfect so you see it is quite a distance from Far Rockaway.

I was sorry to hear that you could not get to Mrs. Fork for Xmas but can understand what the traveling would be like as they curtailed the service to the Camp. Previous New Years we could get into the city every two weeks but now we can only get in once every 5 weeks. While it does not affect me very much it is a pity for the boys who live in N.Y.

I read about the finery in Norfolk. Isn’t it terrible to think that there are so many spies in the country. It is to be hoped that they will not harm the navy yard. They are always doing something in New York. Only last week five hundred ton of coal and two carloads of equipment was being towed across the East River to be sent to this Camp when the cars became uncoupled and the whole lot slipped into the river. While it might have been an accident the general opinion seems to be spies.

I was rather surprised to hear that you had such cold weather in Virginia. I always thought that state was warm. It was very cold here but thanks to Uncle Sam we have plenty of warm clothes and he is continually adding to them. Today we all got new hats made especially for cold weather. They turn down right over the head and neck, so you can see we are well taken care of.

They are repairing all the German ships here too. So we have quite a fleet of transports running now. I was glad to hear the boys are so anxious to get over and believe it is the feeling all over the country.

It must have been hard for Miss Helen to go to school after having had such a fine holiday. I am sure she must wish it was Xmas every week.

The cards were designed by a private in this regiment and the Colonel was so pleased with the crest that he adopted it for the Regimental coat of arms.

I am sending you a copy of our camp paper, Trench and Camp. If you wish I shall be glad to send it every week as I think you will like to see what good times we have here. I think I must close now, hoping I have not taken up too much of your time and again thanking you.

I remain yours faithfully,

Gabriel D. Harle

Jan. 25, 1917

Camp Upton, L.I., N.Y.

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line hoping it finds you all in the best of health as it leaves me thus at present, also to let you know I received your welcome letter. It is a treat to me to get letters such as yours as it takes so long for a letter to come from England. Although Mother writes regular to me the mail is very often held up which is to be expected in these days.

I was very sorry to hear that your little girl had been so ill but do hope by now she is alright again. It pleased me very much to hear that you all had such a fine time together but sorry to say I am not much of a card player myself but have often seen 5.00 played and it is great fun.

There is not much new around the camp just at present. We were out on the range Wednesday and I got 35 out of 50 so you see there is room for improvement. But taking into consideration that this is only the second time we have used our new rifles I have great hopes of doing much better next time.

I am sending you on a photo of myself and a few of the boys. They are all American born fellows but myself, but I am a citizen so what’s the difference. ...

I was glad to hear that your husband is a Knight and I think he will be glad know that without the Knights of Columbus and Y.M.C.A the camp would be a very sad place. They are continually working for our welfare. We have shows and movies nearly every night so you see this life is not so bad after all.

I will be very glad to get the Fleet Review as I am sure I would like to see how Jack is making out. I have sent 2 copies of Trench and Camp hoping you will have received them by now.

The weather here is not so cold now. I think the worst is about over. How is the weather in Virginia? I see by tonight’s paper that the spies are at work again. In Newark, N.J., they set fire to the barge lying in the river which spread to a shipyard. A fire was also discovered on the liner Adriatic (White Star Line) but fortunately no damage was done. So you see, New York is kept very busy.

I think I have given you all the news this time. Hoping to hear from you again I conclude with best wishes to all,

Gabriel D. Harle

Jan. 4, 1918

Camp Upton, L.I., N.Y.

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line hoping it finds you in the best of health as it leaves me at present. I received your letter and hope you will forgive my delay in answering it. We had a very nice Xmas and New Year here. Hoping you had the same.

I am sure the boys from the navy yard must have enjoyed themselves. Tell them they are very lucky in having such a good friend as you. You will think it very funny getting this New Year’s card so late but I could not get one earlier as there was such a great demand for them that the Post exchange was sold out ahead of time but managed to get this one. I think they are a great novelty.

I was sorry to hear that your husband might be called to the Colors. I am sure that there are plenty of single young men with no home ties who are willing to go out and do their little bit to keep this country’s homes together. However, should he have to go I am sure he will be glad to be on the winning side.

The medal you sent I shall always wear in memory of you. Not being a Catholic I am sure makes no difference. In answer to you I must say it was the Xmas bag I received through Chaplain Dumme of this regiment. I was very pleased to hear that you are doing such fine work for the Red Cross and may you long be prepared to carry on such merciful work. It is to the Red Cross that we always look to in our times of trouble.

Hoping I may have the pleasure of hearing from you again, I remain yours faithfully,

Gabriel D. Harle

March 12, 1918

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line to let you know I received your ever welcome letter and the box of cigarettes for which I am indeed grateful to you. I am a smoker and shall appreciate them as only a smoker can. I was so pleased to get your photos and think it was simply splendid. I shall always carry it with me.

It must be nice in Virginia just now. We are having a rather cold spell here just now but it is quite dry which is a good thing as everyone in the regiment is getting a 48-hour pass. Some went on Monday. Others will go on Wednesday. It is to be our last leave before going over.

The Captain made a big speech last night at retreat in which he asked anyone who objected to going over to step forward. Mrs. Sweeley not one man had moved. Instead one fellow said, “We are sick of practicing on wooden dummies.”

We had Miss Wilson here last week and we all enjoyed her singing. They certainly look after our entertainments here.

I understand that we will not be able to send any mail after Thursday so in case this is my last letter to you from this side. I wish to thank you for your kindness to me. I am sure I looked forward to your letters coming just the same as I did those from home. Without them, Mrs. Sweeley, this training would have been very monotonous.

I shall drop you a line as soon as we arrive. Hoping you, Mr. Sweeley and Miss Helen will enjoy the best of health in the future. I must close now and beg to remain, yours faithfully

Gab. D. Harle

May 16, 1918

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line hoping it finds you all in the best of health as it leaves me at present. By now you will have received a card telling you I had arrived safe. We had a very fine trip across, hardly a ripple on the water. I would like to tell you the route we took but it is against regulations. However, we were in 3 countries before we finally got to France.

This is a great country. We are having very hot weather just now although I suppose you will be having it fine in the U.S. We are all in billets here only 22 miles from the Front and can hear the guns very plainly. We are all anxious to get there which I think will be soon.

Our work now is mainly target practice, bayonet work and sham battles, also route marching. We had a beauty last week end: 40 miles. But everything went well. How is Miss Helen? I do hope she is keeping well. Also Mr. Sweeley. My new address is:

Co. A 306 INF

American ET

A.E.F.

France

And I assure you I will always enjoy hearing from you. I must conclude now, hoping you will excuse this short note.

I remain, most respectfully,

Gab. D. Harle

June 2, 1918

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a note to let you know I received your welcome letter. It arrived 4 days ago but was held here till I got back from a 5-day cross country hike. It was a surprise to have such a nice letter waiting to come back to. That was certainly great news to all of us to hear.

Bravo for Portsmouth. It was as good as a trip home to hear about the navy yard boys. They did wonderful, also the children. Great credit is due them for depriving themselves of their candies and I am sure when the war is finished and they read its history they will never regret it. One has to be on this side to see the real benefits derived from these things.

And the Red Cross. It is impossible to say too much. From the time we left the States they looked after us, providing post cards, games and refreshments all along the route. The boys all say they never thought the Red Cross could be anything like it is.

I hear from Mother a great deal more oftener now, as you know it only takes 3 days for a letter to reach me from England. I was as glad to hear you are all keeping so well and it is needless for me to say that I never felt better in my life.

This life certainly agrees with me. We were inspected by General Pershing last week and a couple of days before by Sir Douglas Haig, so you see we get plenty of time to see the real men.

Now I don’t think there is much more to say this time except we had an air raid and saw 3 Germans brought down. It was very thrilling. Luckily they were caught before they did much damage. Trusting you will continue in the best of health and thanking you again for the kind letters.

I remain, yours faithfully,

Gab. D. Harle

August 7, 1918

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line hoping it will find you all in the best of health as it leaves me thus at present. Not having heard from you for so long I was wondering if you had received my letters. I sent 2 and a post card to Helen.

Well Mrs. Sweeley I have had 2 terms in the trenches since last I wrote you and leave tomorrow for a more active front. It must be some distance away from where we are as we take a 24-hour train ride.

It’s rather amusing the way we travel in France. The cars are certified to carry 38 men or 8 horses. In fact they are ordinary freight cars but we all enjoy it. It adds to the pleasure of the journey.

The boys are all looking forward to the next few days. As you know the sector we were in was very quiet. Breaking us in about the only thing we did was patrol, although we had a couple of busy nights. I must say the first time I went on patrol was not my happiest because crawling over no man’s land at midnight is rather creepy but one gets used to it.

I am sorry to say the Huns are just as bad, if not worse, than what the papers say. We get plenty of chances to see this dirty work, whole villages torn down and churches without number willfully wrecked. Wicked. I was in one where they had even chopped the altar down with axes.

Then again I spoke to a man who before the war was a prosperous farmer. He showed us the outline of his farm. Outline is all it could be called. There was nothing left. Every fruit tree had been cut down and he swore that his wife and two daughters had been murdered because they refused to cook for the German troops while they occupied this part of the country. I assure you it only makes us all the more anxious to get after him. I read in the paper one day “Americans Go Into Battle With a Smile.” Probably this is the reason.

I see they have sunk the Justicia. She was a fine ship and came over with us.

You will be glad to hear that I am putting on weight and am not quite so small as I looked in the picture. The weather here is very hot but it still keeps cold at night. Mother writes me twice a week but I never mention the war to her in my letters. She is keeping in good health and is looking forward to my getting a furlough which I hope to get when things get more settled. I think after being here for 6 months we get a few days leave so should I get one I will go to England and see her.

Now I don’t think there is much more to say this time except that I should like to quote a few words from Homer which appeal to me and every man in the U.S. Army:

“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.”

I am still wearing your medal but have been in one or two gas attacks which burned it jet black. Chlorine turns all bright articles black, even the money in our pockets.

I must close now. Hoping you will all continue in good health.

I remain, yours sincerely,

Gab. D. Harle

Sept. 25, 1918

Dear Mrs. Sweeley:

Just a line to let you know I received your welcome letter dated 19 and very pleased I was to hear from you that you are all settled and like Washington as I can imagine it must be a fine place. Also Mr. Sweeley, he must be happy to be serving under a man like Mr. McAdoo.

Well Mrs. Sweeley things are just about the same here, just continually pushing them back. I am so happy to be here. While it is such hard work one never hears as much as a grumble among our boys. The Draft army has certainly proved itself true. You will be glad to hear that this regiment has been cited so that is one on Kaiser Bill.

Before you received this I will have gone over one more. It was a glorious feeling. I was hit on the hand the last time but it did not amount to much. Did not even go to the hospital so you can see things are not so bad over here after all.

I was down to an aeroplane school for 3 days learning signals. It was very interesting. I sent a postcard to Helen from there. I hope she got it alright.

We have 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.

With best wishes to all I remain, yours faithfully

Gab. D. Harle

Two days later Pvt. Gabriel D. Harle was killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. His remains were never found. On Nov. 11, 1918 the armistice ending the war went into effect.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Local