Edward Carlsson – Story from 28th Division AEF

I have translated this text into English, in the best way I could. There are probably some flaws when it comes to words and grammar, but I think the situation in itself is fully understood.

Source: Main text: Anna-Karin Schander, text transcribed from her original article. Anna Karins photos marked with her name.


In my serie of articles regarding Swedish born soldiers who fought at the Western Front in The Great War, World war 1, I hereby present my second article regarding the Swedes who fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As you know my project contains facts about those who fought and fell in the War, but here I present the story from one of those who survived. My last article were about six other Swedes who fought for the 28th Division in the American Expeditionary Forces, AEF, and here we get the description from one of those who participated in the same unit but survived and in the end came back to Sweden. Edward decided late in his life to write down his experience, and for that I am very happy.

Towards America

Edward Carlsson (Karl Edvard) was born on January 24, 1891 in Stora Bråbo in Kristdala parish in Kalmar county as the son of the homeowner Karl August Nilsson and his wife Anna Josefina Johansdotter. Edward was the eldest of seven siblings, six of whom lived to adulthood. The family was large and like so many other young men, Edward dreamed of the great country in the west where many Smålanders had already settled, so did some of Edward’s relatives. His uncle Aron Emil Nilsson or Aron E Nelson as he called himself in the United States, had emigrated as early as 1876 at the age of 22. He settled in Knox county, western Illinois, where he lived with his family on a farm in the Oneida area near the town of Galesburg, where many small towns had already settled.

On December 29, 1911, Carl Edward took out a moving certificate for the trip. He went with three other young men from the area and the journey went via Denmark by boat to Harwich in England and then by train to Liverpool which was the major shipping port for emigrants even though in recent years it had received competition from Southhampton.

In total, about 2,341 people from Knox County would take part in the war. Just over sixty of them were born in Sweden and significantly more had Swedish-born parents or other Swedish relatives. In January 1918, Edward was informed that he had been drafted into the military, and just before midsummer 1918, he and many other young men, among them another young Smålander, Valfrid Magnusson, born in 1895 who emigrated from Almundsryd to Chicago in 1914, were called to training in the camp. Camp Grant near Rockford, Illinois.

Training and travel to Europe

Cape Grant was established in 1917 and became one of the largest military training camps during the First World War. The camp had at least 180 barracks, its own hospital and in total the camp would train about 5,600 soldiers during the period 1917-1918. Upon arrival at Camp Grant, Edward was served, among other things, brown beans with pork. The new recruits had to fill their mattresses with straw themselves. The next day the seriousness began, and they had to send home their civilian clothes and put on their new uniform. It began to exercise in the summer heat and Edward noted:

It was hot, but the farmer boys they did well, but the city boys they “died” of sunshine.

After the short training, the trip went to New York, where the recruits from the various training camps were gathered for the trip to Europe to join the rest of the American Expeditionary Force. On the eighth of September, Edward and his comrades boarded the ship that was to take them across the Atlantic. The convoy consisted of 18 ships with a total of 35,000 soldiers. Nearly 1,800 soldiers were crowded on Edward’s ships. They lay in the hold of hammocks under the roof. The wind was fresh and many were seasick. Despite the harsh weather, the soldiers had to be kept clean and forced up on deck to shower in seawater. Edward says:

Everyone must take a shower. It was a soldier, he could not get up. An officer came and asked if he had taken the shower, but we said no, he cannot get up. Then he said, “Take off his clothes and carry him up and turn on the water.” So he pointed to two men to do it. They did so and carried him up and within two hours he died. It was not wise to do so with such a sick person, but such is the life of a soldier and you would probably see more sadness before the war ended.

Due to the danger of German submarines attacking the troop transport ships, they were escorted halfway by the US Navy and the other half by the British Navy. After 13 days of sailing, the ships called at Liverpool. From there the soldiers were transported by train to Portsmouth for further travel at night across the English Channel and arrived at Le Havre the next day. From there they traveled by train for two days to a place near Bordeaux. According to Edward, the conditions on the train were extremely spartan:

You have to believe, we did not ride as well as in the United States. It was not a sleeping car, but a small freight car. 28 men were lying on the floor with their clothes on. It was worst if you had to get up and make your needs and try to get to the big sliding door and step on each other with the big nails on the boots. So we finally arrived so we had to unload as we had gone as animals, but it was war!

The Spanish flu

Edward and his company were housed on a large farm. The soldiers could lie in the barn on the cement floor. Then an unknown enemy struck, but not the Germans as expected, but the dreaded span will get sick. The Spanish flu had gone as an uninvited guest with the troops from the United States to Europe. It had broken out in the large training camps in the United States, where many young soldiers had gathered from different parts of the country. In Camp Grant alone, about 1,400 young recruits died, among them four with Swedish credentials. The American troops took the disease with them to Europe, where it then spread over most of Europe and large parts of the rest of the world. Edward’s unit is hit hard:

So out of 265 men, we were the only ones who did not get it, including me. Said I took care of 17 boys for two nights, gave them medicine and water. I had to put my arm under their neck and raise them so they could drink from the bottle. We were 265 men from the beginning with officers in the company. Now we were only 13 left so our division was disbanded and we who were left were sent up to the front to fill the gaps. You understand with each attack there are losses so we had to travel by train to unknown fates. We did not know where they took us.

About 10,000 American soldiers died of Spanish disease in October-November 1918 and another 50,000 soldiers died of the disease after the end of the war. Most of them in the military camps in the United States.

The battles at the front

What remained of Edward’s company was divided and sent to reinforce other units and fill in the gaps that arose during the fierce battles on the Western Front. Edward says:

So we had to lie in a forest all day. Then we had to go four men to wide. We were in another regiment now. It was old soldiers who had been at the front once before. They said, ‘We just got back, so now we’ll not be up again. We knew nothing, so when it got dark we had to go again four to wide. When we had gone about three hours, an order two men to broad, then for a while then one and 20 steps in between. We walked until we came to deep ditches and then three soldiers jumped up and me and two comrades had to jump down instead. It was a ditch six meters long water and mud halfway to the knees. We heard some cannon shots sometimes. This happened at three in the morning. Then an officer came and asked how we were. He said you are three men here, where is the third? He’s laid down in a corner. No one can sleep here because this is the first battle line! It is 200 meters to the Germans, but it is calm here, we will only keep the line if the Germans come, he comforted us with

It was like having a bucket of cold water on your back. We thought we were on the second line. It was quite calm the first night, but it would get worse. Then one night we were going to storm the line of the Germans, but the Germans started bombing with their cannons instead, so an officer came running with a report. The Germans will just shoot and turn the rifle right and left so that there will be crossfire. They could not take us, we could keep our line, but we had suffered great losses.

We lost 180 men and many were wounded. When we got to the front we were 265 men and after seven days we were 76 left and the last five days no food and no sleep. When we were relieved at night, we got a jump march, but when we had run a bit, my friend and I could not take it anymore. We lay down on the ground, but when we had lain for a while we got new strength again and we caught up with the rest of the company. At dawn we had to lie in a stable where the Germans had horses. It was about a meter deep horse manure there: We got some food and we had a small tent cloth that we spread out on the manure and so the officer said now you can sleep as long as you want! We slept for a day and a half. I do not think I have slept so well either sooner or later. Then we had to continue further back until we came to real trenches. That was the backup line. We had to rest there for eight days. During that time, our company would be supplemented to full force, i.e., 265 men. I was on the first line four rounds, i.e., 28 days and that was enough. But imagine I was preserved and now sitting here writing, is not it a miracle!

After his original unit was disbanded, Edward served in the 28th Division, 109th Infantry Regiment. In early September, the division was south of the Argonne Forest and on September 26, it participated in the massive French-American Meuse-Argonne offensive with a 60-kilometer front from Champagne to Meuse. It was the largest offensive in the final stages of the war involving about 1.2 million American and French soldiers under the command of US Commander-in-Chief General John J Pershing (1860-1948).

The 28th Division suffered ten percent losses and was moved on October 9 to an area northwest of Commercy on the River Meuse in Lorraine. This is probably where Edward was put into battle. The second phase of the battle had begun on October 4 and some of the soldiers from the first phase of the battle were replaced by new ones. During the following days fierce battles were fought and the 28th Division was involved in rescuing 9 companies of the 77th Division which were isolated and accidentally shelled by their own. Between October 14-17, the American troops carried out several attacks that eventually broke through the German lines of defense. On October 16, Thiaucourt was captured and Edward was certainly involved in these battles. By the end of October, the American troops had advanced about 16 kilometers and finally cleared the Argonne forest.

After the fierce battles, General Pershing called the 28th Division his “Iron Division”. The division also became known as “The Keystone Division” after the red wedge-shaped cornerstone it adopted as a symbol. The American troops lost about 26,000 dead and about 50,000 wounded, which is more than on any other battlefield in the nation’s history. In total, an estimated 116,000 Americans died or died of disease during the war. Of the Swedish-born or Swedish-American men from Knox county, some were buried in the great American war cemeteries in France.

Return home and back to Sweden

As early as September 1919, Edward decided to travel home to Sweden and visit the family. His uncle Aron Nelson, who a few years earlier moved to Minnesota, decided to follow and the application for his Pass is dated October 8, 1919. On December 6, he and his uncle sailed with the Swedish American Line’s ship Stockholm to Gothenburg. They stayed in Sweden over the winter and on May 18, 1920, they returned to the United States.

Edward returned to the area of ​​Oneida and Galesburg where he farmed on a farm. He stayed there until 1930 when, due to his parents’ pension and the bad times in the USA during the depression, he decided to return to his homeland in Sweden and take over his parents farm. With him home, he had his field equipment from the war consisting of, among other things, a helmet, protective mask, field bottle and knife.

In 1939 he married and later got the daughters Iréne and Ingrid. They urged him to write down his experiences during the war, but it was not until the end of the 1960s that Edward felt ready to do so. In the early 1970s, he traveled back to the United States to visit the areas around Oneida. It became a melancholy reunion with brother Gottfrid who stayed in the United States and other relatives and friends. Carl Edward died in December 1984 in Backebo in Kalmar County. As a US war veteran, he received a war pension and his funeral was paid for by the US government.