John Dos Passos: A Letter from the Front

John Dos Passos wrote this letter to his friend Rumsey Marvin while serving as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. It will appear in The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos, edited by Townsend Ludington, to be published by Gambit in the autumn.

August 27 [1917]

By candlelight in a dugout—Outside it is raining & German shells falling sound like infinities of heavy chain dropped all at once

Dear Rummy—

I’ve wanted time after time to write you & have produced many unwritten letters—you know the kind—Also two delightful letters from you have spurred me on—

But I’ve had so much to say & so much of it will be so hostile to your ears, you old militarist, that I haven’t known where to begin.

Let’s see When did I last write? It seems that it was in Sandricourt, when I was enduring the sorrows of training camp—After that we formed our section, S.S. U60 in Paris & jaunted by easy & unwarlike stages to a town on the Sacred Way, a little above Bar le Duc of blessed reputation—Ah but I’ll continue in the morning—Imagine me stretched out on a stretcher on the floor of the dugout listening to the German shells whistling overhead & wondering if a chance one’ll hit our roof—

Aug 29

I am sitting in the charming weedgrown garden of a little pink stucco house whose shell only remains & if fortune favors I shall finish this letter. It is a delightful day of little sparkling showers out of thistledown clouds that the autumn nipped wind speeds at a great rate across the sky. I’ve not been on duty today—so I’ve been engaged in washing off to the best of my ability the grime and fleas of two nights in a dugout. Nos amis les boches have been keeping us excessively busy too, dropping large calibre shells into this town; as if the poor little place were not smashed up enough as it was.

We stayed for two weeks with our feet in the mud at Erize la Petite—a puny & ungracious hole—There the only interest was watching the troops, loaded on huge trucks—camions—go by towards the front where an attack was prophesied.

For some reason nothing I’ve seen since has affected me nearly as much as the camion loads of dusty men grinding through the white dust clouds of the road to the front. In the dusk always, in convoys of twenty or more escorted by autos full of officers, they would rumble through the one street of the ruined village.

The first night we were sitting in a tiny garden—the sort of miniature garden that a stroke of a sorcerer’s wand would transmute into a Versailles without changing any of its main features—talking to the schoolmaster and his wife; who were feeding us white wine & apologizing for the fact that they had no cake. The garden was just beside the road, and…

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