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August 2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. A few years after the war began, a young man from Saginaw enlisted in the Army. William (“Ted”) Bandemer served from 1917 until 1919 and was stationed in France starting in 1918. His letters home to his family can be read in the Archives of Michigan (William Bandemer Papers, MS 99-67). They document the day-to-day lives of soldiers as well as the challenges of being stationed far from home before communication was as fast and easy as it is today.
The first letter in the collection was written on October 20, 1917. In it, Bandemer tells his family that he has enlisted in the Army and plans to join a regiment of engineers. He tells his mother not to worry because engineers “are never in the trenches but are always in the rear as far as twenty or thirty miles.” He is excited to find out that he will earn $60 per month and have his expenses paid.
Life in France
In January of 1918, Bandemer knows that he will be deploying to France and tells his family not to worry if they don’t hear from him for some time.” His letters home from France never detail the specific jobs his regiment performs, because he knows that the letters will be censored before being sent back to the U.S. Bandemer talks quite a bit about the weather and how much he likes the food his unit is fed (Meat, potatoes, and pancakes are mentioned often.). In a letter from July of 1918, he describes his dugout living quarters:
The dugout was built by the French and they know how to build them safe and strong. And our bunks are fine. We have chicken wire stretched across two poles and on top of this, we have some straw in our bed sacks. It is a regular spring bed.
Bandemer does express frustration with slow mail delivery. Letters could take anywhere from two to six weeks to be delivered, and Bandemer didn’t learn of his father’s death until more than a month after it happened.
“It Did Not Thrill Me at All”
Bandemer seems to find day-to-day living in camps to be tolerable in between attacks. In his letters home, he downplays periods of fighting and emphasizes periods of calm (Perhaps he was trying to keep his family from worrying about him.). After witnessing an airplane fight, he even says that the war is not as exciting as he expected it to be.
And so my wish [to see an airplane fight] has been granted. I must say, however, that I was disappointed in it as it did not thrill me at all. Neither has this war, so far. Guess I cannot be in the right branch of the service to get the thrills.
Bandemer stays in France until the end of the war. He writes about the devastation, as well as the resilience of residents returning to their homes.
Can you imagine yourself coming back to a place, such as the one depicted, and starting all over again? No. But the French people are. I saw old women sixty years old and older coming back to their homes within a week after the Germans had been driven back. They have a wonderful unconquerable spirit.
After the war, Bandemer went on to study at the University of Michigan, became a longtime resident of Ann Arbor, and served on the Ann Arbor City Council from 1960-1964.