In 1918, 27-year-old Hugh E. Mosher left his home of Roanoke, Virginia for the battlefields in Europe. During his time in Co. B, First Battalion, 602nd Engineers Regiment of the American Expeditionary Force, Hugh continually updated a diary describing his experiences in the war while sending letters and postcards to his friends and family back home. These documents, alongside an extensive memoir written after the fact, were gifted to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture by Hugh's sister, Anne M. Copley, in 1981, one year after his death.
Hugh's writings paint a detailed picture of the last few months of World War I and the months following. Through them, readers can better understand the struggles that a soldier may have faced back then, but also how exciting it could be for him to enter a foreign land.
Follow along on our Facebook page and in this article thread as we feature excerpts from Hugh's diary, with his insights into life as a Virginia soldier abroad during WWI. In commemoration of the World War I Centennial Commemoration, we are posting "in real time" on or around the same days he wrote his entries, 100 years later.
To view these items in person, please visit our library and request the VMHC Manuscript Collection # Mss1 M8533 a.
Hugh and the rest of his unit arrived in Brest, France on the coast of Brittany after three months of training and twelve days at sea. The weather was rainy and the citizens did not cheer “as these people were worn out with the war and alien soldiers and other hardships.” Hugh also lost all of his personal belongings to thieving soldiers upon arrival. Despite these setbacks, he remained optimistic. He made note of the rich history and culture of the country by remarking on the cobbled streets, learning his first French words, and bathing in an old fortress of Napoleon’s. “I think I’m going to like it,” he wrote.
After a few days on the coast of France, Hugh headed east through the cities of Tours and Orléans. On July 27th, he settled into camp in Torcenay, a small village with only three stores in its business section. The town’s largest building was a Catholic cathedral, which Hugh visited every Sunday while camped there despite not understanding the language. Of the 1,000 men in his regiment, over 800 were Catholics. Hugh believed he was the only Episcopalian in his Company. Right outside the village were farms that celebrated a communal lifestyle, giving milk, cheese, butter, and eggs to the soldiers. Some of the Americans, not accustomed to wine, became drunk in the first days at Torcenay and were scolded by their commanding officers.
Being hundreds of miles south of the Belgian border, Torcenay was removed from the fighting between the Germans, French, and Americans. Hugh's Co. B spent this time training by drilling with bayonets, cleaning rifles, hiking with gas masks, and standing on guard duty. Here, he watched French and American troops pass through the town by train as they headed to the battlefield. A German plane passed over the town daily, observing them. On Aug. 4th, Hugh and his men inspected an old fort last used against the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The guns were moved to the front. Hugh wrote in his memoir, “We are still in ignorance as to what will be done with us. We know we are somewhere near the action.”
Shown here is a photograph from Hugh's collection of two of his commanding officers, Capt. Krumm, along with Lt. McGallow. You can see Hugh's handwriting on the back, identifying them.
Part 2 of Torcenay (July 27-September 15)
Hugh continues his stay in Torcenay and befriends the locals, particularly the Guyer family. He has dinner with them often and learns French from their daughter, Adele, while he teaches her English. He reflects in his memoir, “I visited one family several times whose daughter -Adele Guyer- was about sixteen or seventeen. I wonder where they all are now. I was invited to have meals with the family several times. The family sat at a long table in the dining room with the father and mother at the ends. After a devout and lengthy blessing we were served meat by the mother and bread by the father. - also jams, cheese, wheys, strong coffee.” He talks a lot about the food and how it was prepared, observing that, “good hard, fresh baked French bread can’t be beat.” After the meals, he describes how, “Father reads the paper and Adele plays the violin for us. She has some natural talent but it is obvious that she has had no training.”
On August 18th, Adele’s brother returns home from the war after being injured. Hugh remembers, “Mamselle Guyer’s fourth brother was brought home. He was shot in the thigh but he will live. I tried to comfort her with my vocabulary of ten French words.”
Hugh and the Guyers continue to exchange letters after he leaves Torcenay. In April 1920, Adele responds to a letter from Hugh when she returns home briefly from school in Wassy (about 65 miles from Torcenay) where she is studying commerce. Writing in English, she says, "But you will have correct me many mistakes, my sentences are so bad," and asks Hugh if he still knows French, instructing, "Write me in French, if you can and I'll correct your mistakes." She describes how she continues to play the violin and practice English, how her brother is a sous-chef for the French railway, and writes, “My mother and father speak with me very often about you and we are very happy to know that you will come very soon in France and at first, at Torcenay? We are hoping that your Government will allowed your request!” It is unknown if Hugh ever returns to France.
Shown here is the letter from Adele to Hugh on April 3rd, 1920.