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Christmas in France

For the first time in nearly six months, Corporal Ted Fish wasn’t jolted awake by the bugler’s cornet, blasting out another early-morning rendition of Reveille. It was the U.S. Army’s way of giving the men a gift on Christmas Day.

The 22-year-old farmer’s son from Phoenix had just returned from a four-day pass, where he had journeyed through the countryside of WWI France. “Of course, we all wanted to go to the center of fashions (Paris),” he said in a letter to his parents, “but we were forbidden.”

From Gien, near his assignment along the La Lorie River, he randomly chose the town of Angers as his destination, some 190 miles away by train.

“I had to change cars twice and had to stay all night at a little town halfway to my destination,” he said.

Back on the rails, early the next morning, Ted arrived in Angers four hours later. He strolled through the town and had lunch at a small cafe. There he realized that there wasn’t much to see or do. He decided to hop back on the train and continue on to the larger town of Nantes. The town had double the population and was only 55 miles farther east.

“I left at 3 p.m., and after the slowest ride I ever took, I reached Nantes at 10:30 that night; too late, because everything closes at 9 p.m.”

By the time he managed to find a hotel he was beat, and that, combined with his long journey, kept him in bed until 10:30 the next morning.

“There were many interesting things to see,” he said, “but I was getting homesick, so I left for camp. I arrived late on Christmas Eve and was rewarded by finding your Christmas package waiting for me.”

Even before the first selective service draft registration in June 1917, Ted had seen an advertisement looking for “forest men,” and urging them to join the U.S. Army’s 10th Engineers Forestry Regiment.

“The men will work behind the lines in France,” it said, “and will be made up of woodsmen and sawmill workers. Its duties will be to convert the French forest into railroad ties, bridge timbers, pilings, telephone poles and lumber.”

Ted signed up and left Southern Oregon by train July 11, 1917. Less than a month later he was aboard a ship on his way to France.

After breakfast on Christmas morning, and surrounded by his friends, Ted opened the Christmas package his parents had sent.

“I was greeted with, ‘Ho, you lucky devil,’ on all sides,” he said. “Canned tobacco, you see, is unknown here. I’m certainly thankful for such thoughtful parents; even though I’ve only been using this filthy weed for two months.”

War duties were on hold for a morning baseball game followed by a Christmas feast in the afternoon.

“We all lined up 15 minutes before time and, when the mess call whistle blew, a cheer went up that startled all the natives. We had turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pie, nuts, figs, dates and coffee.”

While the men waited in line, Lt. Walter Blair, the regiment’s leader, walked by carrying an overloaded dinner plate. He looked at the men with a big grin and shouted, “Who said war is hell?”

Ted returned home in January 1919, married, and raised a family. He died in 1967 and is buried in Medford’s Siskiyou Memorial Park.

“Well I hope you all had a fine Christmas,” he said, “and I know you did. Must close now and write thank-you letters to all those who remembered me. Merry Christmas to all.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “Forgotten Voices of WWI.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.