A Boy Becomes A Man: Bill Fulton Goes From Auburn, N.Y., To The Front During World War I
William Alexander Fulton (1896–1955), for whom I was named, was for most of his life a jeweler in Auburn and lived a very normal life. But between 1917 and 1919, Bill Fulton was a member of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. He chose to enlist rather than be drafted — in the parlance of the time, he was a “went” instead of a “sent”.
During that time, he sent many letters, postcards, and souvenirs — many of them to my father, Robert H. Fulton Jr., who was a toddler at the time. Most of the letters were sent to our grandfather, Robert H. Fulton Sr., Bill’s older brother. There are perhaps 20–25 of them — written on YMCA or AEF stationary, with beautiful penmanship, often written in pencil. After a century, they are crumbling and especially the pencil-written letters are fading.
The letters themselves tell the story of a boy becoming a man — a 21-year-old kid who had never been anywhere but Auburn and Syracuse (all large cities in France, including Paris, are “about the size of Syracuse”) growing up by participating in an extremely bloody and, according to most, pretty pointless war. He was an infantryman, but over time was promoted to a supply sergeant. Because of war censors, his letters were sometimes kind of cryptic about where he was and what he was doing
Uncle Bill was a member of the 108th Regiment. That regiment was part of the 54th Brigade of the 27th Division of the U.S. Army. It was a New York National Guard unit. The 27th division was formed at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, in September 1917.
Bill’s regiment trained at Camp Wadsworth from September 1917 until shipping out for France in May of 1918. During this time he wrote many letters, talking innocently about people he ran into from Auburn and experiences he thought his brother could relate to — for example, going to the local Masonic Lodge. In one touching letter in December, he asked Bob to buy his girlfriend a Christmas gift — confidentially, if possible, at Tice’s, the jewelry store in Auburn where they both had apprenticed.
While at Camp Wadsworth, Uncle Bill was promoted to supply sergeant — a role he apparently proudly played later on at the front.
The 27th arrived in France on May 26, 1918. This was Uncle Bill’s first anniversary of being in the army; he refers to this in his letter of May 29, and also the clipping from the Auburn newspaper noting his joining the army (which I have along with the letters) is dated May 26, 1917.
The 27th Division was assigned to the British-French Army, and moved to the Rue-Buigny training area, about 20 kilometers north of Abbeville, in northern France not far from Amiens. A letter dated June 11, 1918, describes the beauty of the countryside, and I think he wrote that letter from the Abbeville area.
The division kept bouncing around and ended up with the British Second Army. On July 9, it was assigned to defend a portion of the East Poperinghe Line, in the Dickebusch Lake/Scherpenberg area (despite the German-sounding names, this was in France near the Belgian border). This is why when Bill wrote on July 14 he apologized for not writing — he’d been assigned to three different armies in a month. The July 14 letter also reflects his proximity to the front; he notes that he no longer has more than one uniform. He begins dropping close to his position in this letter, trying to get around the censors. He refers to a city which has been the scene of great battles, which was only five letters but is pronounced “a great many different ways.” He was referring to Ypres, in southern Belgium. In a subsequent letter he commends his brother Bob for being “a good dopester” for figuring this out.
Bill’s regiment did not see action for a while. On August 18, he wrote another letter, written on the back of a message-and-signal form, in which he complained about the routineness of his work. That was because his brigade was being held in readiness and not seeing action. In this letter, he also describes the British, Scottish, and West Indian troops — noting the Scottish troops’ kilted uniforms and saying he wished his father (who was born near Glasgow) could see them. He saw the British, Scottish, and West Indian troops because his division was still assigned to the British Army.
The next letter I have is dated September 1. At this time the 27th Division was participating in the Ypres-Lys Offensive, a campaign designed to liberate Belgium and part of France. But apparently his unit was still in France and they were still waiting, because he continued to do his supply sergeant job, sending rations to troops at the front.
I have no more letters before October 21st. That’s because Uncle Bill was pretty busy participating in the Somme Offensive. Uncle Bill helped break the Hindenburg Line, which was the massive German defensive position in France that had withstood all attacks for two years.
On September 20th, the 27th Division was reassigned back to the British Fourth Army, commanded by Field Marshal Douglas Haig (who was later captain of the St. Andrews Golf Club in Scotland, the club where golf originated). The 27th Division was in action from September 27 to October 2, participating in the Battle of the St. Quentin Canal, typically described as “a pivotal battle” in the war. The canal was part of the German defenses and so therefore had to be traversed. Some of the solders crossed the canal in rafts or with lifebelts. Otherwise crossed on the footbridges the Germans hadn’t had time to destroy. Still others swam across — all to confront German trenches on the far bank. It was very tough to flush the Germans out because (1) the canal was 70 feet wide and 60 feet deep, and (2) the Germans were entrenched in a tunnel underneath the canal. The 27th experienced heavy losses.
Once the Hindenburg Line was broken, the 27th Division moved without much resistance. But then they participated in abattle in the Bazuel/Sambre Canal area on October 19–22, near what is now the Avenois Park Natural Preserve in northeastern France. This too was a bloody battle, because the Allies had to once again cross a heavily fortified canal.
It was from this battlefield on October 21, 1918, that Uncle Bill wrote his most remarkable letter. “We are now miles beyond the Hindenburg Line,” he wrote, “here in country the Germans have held for four years, up until a few hours ago, and furthermore we are going deeper into his lines every day.”
He went on: “I wish that I could describe an experience that I had the other morning. My work necessitated my being ahead of our artillery guns during a barrage and under the opposing artillery fire of Fritz. The only thing that comes into my mind as a fit description is that old expression, ‘All Hell Breaking Loose’. With high explosives breaking over head and contact shells bursting on the ground along with the terrific noise of our own guns it was a mighty uncomfortable place.”
Then he said he was sending home a German helmet (which my father remembered), a German gas mask, and a few other souvenirs, and assured everyone he was in the best of health.
At that point the war was basically over and the 27th Division was moved back to an area near Brest, a French seaport. Uncle Bill had seen all the action he was going to see.
The war ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). As it happened, Uncle Bill’s mother — Katie Hopkins Fulton, an Irish immigrant who had married a Scottish immigrant — died in the influenza epidemic three days before the Armistice. We do not have the letters that communicated to Bill that his mother had died or revealed his immediate response. The next letter we have was posted from Paris on December 18, when Uncle Bill inquired about his father’s wellbeing after his mother’s death and noted that he had seen President Wilson, who had arrived in Paris to participate in the Versailles Peace Conference.
His last letter was dated February 8, 1919, just before he returned to the United States. The 27th returned to New York on March 19, 1919, receiving the greatest welcome accorded anyone from the war. Nevertheless, as he said in one of his letters, “I have seen enough of Europe to last me the rest of my life.”
And it did. Uncle Bill returned to Auburn, opened his own jewelry store, and developed a reputation as the nicest and friendliest guy in town, always inquiring after other people and their families. He married and raised several children, though he was widowed at a young age.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a coda about how Uncle Bill’s life ended. On September 19, 1955–37 years after his experience in France — he went into the back office of the jewelry store and committed suicide by swallowing a toxic jewelry cleaning agent. He was such a nice guy and so well-liked, his suicide was a shock to the whole town. Whether he was sick, or depressed, or suffering from PTSD because of the war, no one will ever know.
However, seven days later, I was born, and I was named after him.