Robert E. Schalles was my grandfather. He was born and raised in Colorado, signed up for the Great War because, he said jokingly in his old age, he had run out of money. He fought in and survived that war, then over a decade later married my grandmother, Esther, when he was forty and she was twenty-two. They had an only child, my mother, Carolynn. He died at the age of 97 less than a year after my grandmother died. This site is dedicated to him and his service in World War I.
I did not know my grandfather well. He was not a man who spoke freely or often. I have wondered over the years what effects the war may have had upon him. A few years ago my mother gave me some copies of letters that he had written home after he joined the service. As I read these I began to think even more about his involvement in one of the great conflicts of our time.
Fortunately, he did not die in that war, but much of my reading over the last few years about war indicates that surviving a war, particularly for those who faced combat situations, is no easy task. My grandfather was a medic on the front lines in France. The explosion that injured him killed the man next to him. The experience of the war, as my grandfather writes in one of his letters, made an “impression” on him. Exactly what that impression was—I do not know—nor do I think, as much I’d like to understand it, that ultimately I can know.
In another letter my grandfather wrote:
I have learned a good deal more than I expected since crossing the great pond, but am more the worse for it.
Down some cold field in a world unspoken
the young men are walking together, slim and tall,
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;
there is no sound however clear they call.
They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,
but the air is too thin to carry the thing they say.
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.
Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,
“What have they done with the lives we laid aside?
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?”
Down some cold field in a world uncharted
the young seek each other with questioning eyes.
They question each other, the young, the golden-hearted,
of the world they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.
by Humbert Wolfe, Requiem: The Soldier (1916)
One of the greatest war novels ever written is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. In the epigraph to the novel Remarque writes:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
As I write this I’ve only read a handful of my grandfather’s letters, but I’m very curious to know what I may learn about him from his correspondence. There have been a lot of war movies in the last couple of decades that have attempted to demythologize the war experience, to counter what one might call the “John Wayne Effect.” I think of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and A Thin Red Line, but as good as these movies may be my grandfather writes in another one of his letters that the realities of war “can never be realized except by being there.” I think he is right.
In another letter he writes about another man who knew of the realities of war:
I have come to the conclusion that Gen. Sherman was right when he said war was Hell. Although he did not know any thing about warfare of the present day.
Most of the images on this site come from things my grandfather left behind after his death.
It is my hope that you enjoy this bit of history through the words and artifacts of Robert E. Schalles.