After my grandfather’s death, I helped my mother sort through her father’s trunk. Stuck inside were ration cards from the early 1900s with pencil scribbles in his familiar hand. Written no doubt during WWI by firelight and faded almost beyond recognition.
The first was a prayer published in the Lavonia Times newspaper in 1917 when my grandfather was stationed in a post along the German/French border.
The Prayer of a Soldier Boy Before Going into Battle
O Father in Heaven, Long suffering and compassionate God of Justice, Lord of Hosts,
I give my life into Thy hands. A weapon for the using. Let it not be thrown away with all its hopes and loves and opportunities. But take it as an offering for Thy purpose of justice and brotherhood on earth. Guide the thoughts of those who plan the battle. Remember my comrades of all the ranks — and keep us and arm us with steadfast and adventurous hearts. And if it pleases Thee give us the victory, we so desire. Remember O Lord all of my loved ones back at home. Uphold and deliver them and bring us together at last, whether through life or death into Thy hands. I commit my spirit Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven, thy kingdom come. In the name of Christ who gave himself for our deliverance. Amen unto death.
[Corp. Otis C. Chitwood, Somewhere in France, 1918]
I wept as I read this essay describing a major battle that was written on a used ration book. This hastily scrawled excerpt was submitted to a contest in a New York newspaper:
“Moments Not Forgotten”
It was on September 16, 1918, in Meuse Argonne Section, the day the big drive began. We had been in the woods under cover for two or three days awaiting the hour to go. So at 11:30 P.M. on September 25 about one third of our American Artillery guns began firing. At 2:00 A.M. on the 26th the second third began firing. At 4:00 A.M. the greatest artillery bombardment, the world had ever known was underway. Near the town of Eise, we had orders to drop our packs and march in a single file through lines of belching and roaring guns placed almost hub to hub and everyone casting its deadly burden on the doomed Hun lines.
Marching on in darkness and over shell torn fields, over Hill 304 and Deadman’s Hill, we were on time to go over at the zero hour, pressing on throughout the day taking a number of prisoners and a section the Germans had held since 1914. Late in the evening after many skirmishes, I lost my rifle. I have never been able to remember just how it happened. Leaving me with a 45 for close quarters, darkness coming on. Myself and squad got lost from our outfit. So, crawling under barbed wire entanglement, we remained through the night. At daybreak the next morning, I began to look for another rifle. I found a number of them both American and German. Also, many soldiers lying all around. We were afraid to move about for some time. This was my third and last front to serve on and was my biggest and most exciting moment.
[O.C. Chitwood, 1919, Germany WWI. Entered in “Big Moments Contest,” 521 Fifth Ave., New York, New York]
And Grandpa didn’t just write about battles, he expressed his deep faith which sustained him during the darkest days of the war. Another prayer from 1918:
Over the Top
Almighty God, Father of all Mankind, Have mercy upon us. We feel the stern loving pressure of Thy will upon us. Therefore, we pray Thee, purify our souls and fit them for the times and tasks that face us. We offer ourselves and all that we have to Thee, to be used in life and death to bring larger life to all men of every race. May those of us who are called to take up arms in this battle for a better world, be everywhere true followers of Jesus Christ.
May our hearts be kept true, and the Gospel words be on our lips. In the fierceness of fighting, may we be unafraid. May those of us who will bring our brothers to death, do the deed without hate and eager to meet them again sometime, somewhere, to do the will of God together.
Grant to those who minister in hospitals power to bring not only healing to the bodies but peace to the souls of the sick and wounded far from home. Give patience to all who in suspense wait and pray at home. Fortify their souls for whatever message they will receive. Give peace to the nation in Thine own time. O, God in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior of the World. Amen
[O. C. Chitwood, U.S. Army of the AEF]
These glimpses of a young man’s personal journals, poems, memoirs, and prayers recorded on whatever blank space he could find fill me with pride and sadness. My grandfather left a library of love etched in ration cards, market bulletins, and tablets written by the glow of a campfire. More valuable than any treasure, Grandpa’s writings are a heritage passed down from one writer to another.
And the legacy continues. Jonathan, my oldest grandson, recently discovered Grandpa’s writings as I passed on his great-great-grandfather’s poems for a class assignment. How wonderful that a prayer written almost a hundred years ago remains relevant today.
Later I received another call from Andrew, a second grandson, who asked to interview me about our family. Another budding writer seeing that Grandpa’s writing legacy continues.