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My View: Grandfather's letters bring World War I insights

By Paul Denning

Approaching the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (Armistice Day, Nov. 11, now called Veterans Day), I find myself rereading a collection of letters from my grandfather, Paul J. Denning. My father and I are both namesakes of his. It seems to me that our society hardly ever thinks about WWI anymore, except maybe this centennial year.

We've had so many wars since then and few of us were alive in 1918. We don't have the personal connections to remind us of how momentous it was then, and still is. My grandfather's letters give glimpses of the humanity, the deprivations and the import and patriotism of that long ago event.

My grandfather was from the small town of Smethport, Pa. He was considered to be a war hero and led the Armistice Day parade and the Memorial Day parade every year.  He had been a sergeant of scouts with the 112th Infantry, 28th Division, American expeditionary force, and was in several major battles of the war in France. He was awarded several military honors for valor, including the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation's second highest military award for members of the Army.

I would like to quote parts of his letters in order to impart some of these factors. His stationery was from the YMCA and the American Red Cross, and the letters were marked "somewhere in France."

"I have seen the refugees in their quaint two-wheeled carts with all of their earthly goods packed on them and I pray to God that they shall be safe and that we Americans can fulfill the trust they put in us."

" ... every village we passed through the girls throwed us roses and kisses."

Paul Denning.

" ... but always there is that feeling of a stranger in a strange land but I just knuckle down to work when that feeling comes over me."

"I hope you all escaped the influenza, wasn't that a terrible epidemic?" (His mother died less than a month later from the influenza, known as the “Spanish Flu," which was a worldwide pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people around the globe.)

"Dear Sister, at last this terrible war is finished and God has spared me through many trying moments. When I stop to think of the battles and places I have been through, it all seems like a dream; a horrible nightmare from which I have awakened."

"God has been merciful to the world. He has given us peace and brought us back again to man as He intended man to be."

"When we quit firing we heard loud cheering from the German lines and a few minutes later they began to show themselves and little by little they became confident and finally walked towards us without arms and exchanged souvenirs ..."

" ... As I lay in the cold mud and slop, scarcely daring to breathe with a drizzling cold rain, and I was mud from head to foot and very close to Jerry's (the Germans) wire, these words were my thoughts ...

(Grandfather's poem): "Were you ever out in the Great Alone/When the morn was awful clear/And the icy mountains hemmed you in/with a silence you most could hear/Then you've a hunch what the music meant/With the hunger and night and the stars/Hunger not of the belly kind that's filled with bacon and beans/But the gnawing hunger of lonely man/For home and all that it means.”

What strikes me the most in his letters are his concern for family, descriptions of the enemy, what it meant to "be a man" and the comradeship during their "down time," his spiritual faith and his patriotism. It seems to me that we need to think about these things more often these days. I salute my grandfather and all his comrades.

Paul Denning, of Cheektowaga, thinks his grandfather's faith and patriotism are values that society needs more of today.

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