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World War I diaries tell a story of Camp Devens

Diaries and memoirs can provide intimate glimpses into the human perspective on common experiences people face in life. When such documents deal with events of historic significance, they give added meaning to that piece of history.

Pfc. Roscoe Herbert Gray, of the Pittsfield, N.H. area, was trained at Camp Devens from 1917 to 1918 and was involved in World War I in France.

A soldier in the 401st Telegraph Battalion, his voice reveals a human experience in the so-called “Great War” in diaries he wrote in 1918 and 1919. These diaries are an important part of the Gray Collection of artifacts presented to the Fort Devens Museum.

The diaries and other items are the gift of Gray’s daughter, Nancy Gray Mulcahy, who now resides in Sun City, Fla. Among items Mulcahy sent to the museum are Gray’s WWI uniform, helmet, gas mask with its special bag, a few photographs taken in the U.S. and in France including two formal panorama photos of the 401st, copies of his discharge papers, his dog tags and his high school graduation program.

Also included are copies of a letter he wrote from France in 1919 to his fianc e, Harriet B. Paige, and one she wrote to him just before he headed overseas.

Gray, Mulcahy’s father, enlisted on June 1, 1917, in Manchester, N.H., just five days short of his 26th birthday.

When he reported to Camp Devens, the career he had already started determined his assignment as a telephone installer with the 401st.

Born on June 6, 1891, in Chichester, N.H., Gray graduated from Pittsfield High School in the Class of 1909. The graduation program shows that Gray, one of a graduating class of seven, delivered the class oration. Mulcahy wrote that her dad’s first job was with the phone company as a night operator in a one-room office in Pittsfield.

The diarist at Devens

Gray’s 1918 diary picks up with his impressions of Army life at Camp Devens during winter training. On Jan. 1, he had been in the Army for seven months, a period about which he does not share impressions in a diary. While he may have served with the Signal Corps since his enlistment, the 401st was officially mobilized at the camp only on Oct. 4, 1917. By late February, he and the 401st left Devens for a New Jersey debarkation camp preparing to board a troop ship for France.

At Devens, Gray wrote that his unit was taking instruction and hands-on practice in phone line construction and testing. As part of the Signal Corps, the men drilled on visual signaling and even making use of a heliograph apparatus.

To prepare for combat conditions, the unit learned to carry out signal work with gas masks on. They passed through the camp’s training building into which poison gas was released and went into trenches where materials had been drenched with gas.

Gray’s unit undertook marches across the countryside into Shirley, Ayer and beyond toward Lowell, across a frozen Hell Pond (later named Mirror Lake) toward Harvard.

As a private, Gray did his share of kitchen, latrine and guard duty. He also got to drive a Jeffrey Quad, an early four-wheel-drive truck used in the war as an ambulance and transport.

Gray’s first entry for 1918 tells of a barracks building that burned down during the previous night. His unit, he wrote, had been on stand-by if needed to help.

Only once in this time period did Gray state in his diary that his unit took infantry instruction. Foreign instructors from the war zone talked on specific matters such as a British sergeant on poison gas and a French soldier on signal work and instructions in French.

The 401st was quarantined for a measles outbreak in mid January.

After a buddy died of pneumonia at camp on Feb. 3, a threat of another quarantine was posed, this time for diphtheria. Fortunately, the diagnosis indicated those suspected of the disease just had seriously sore throats.

In spare time at Camp Devens, Gray watched basketball games between units, and did well in two long-distance runs. He played whist and hearts, according to the diary, and occasionally got to Liberty Theater and the Knights of Columbus canteen on post.

With army buddies he occasionally had supper at an Ayer restaurant, Gaynor’s, and went to the Soldiers’ Club on West Street – he called it the Soldiers’ Home – for bowling or card games

While at Devens, Gray confided to his diary only twice about the war going on in Europe. On Jan. 25 he mentioned a rumor that Germany was “willing to make peace,” meeting President Wilson’s peace terms except for the disposition of Alsace and Lorraine. In the next day’s entry, though, he reported, “Papers denied Germany ready for peace.”

Into the war

On Feb. 27 Gray’s battalion moved out by train for Camp Merritt, a debarkation camp located near the troop ships at Hoboken, N.J.

As time for the move came, Harriett wrote, “Dear, don’t forget that I am waiting for you and want you to come back the good fellow that went away. I hear so much about the temptation in camp here and over there that I fear for you sometimes. I am sure, however, that if you remember I am waiting, you will ‘be good.’ I’m not going to preach anymore.”

The train trip drew Gray’s comment, “Many at the stations along the way to see the boys and much cheering.”

“We are much pleased with our quarters,” he once wrote at Camp Merritt. “We saw all kinds of soldiers from all over the country.”

A diphtheria scare at Merritt held up the debarkation process until March 10.

On March 7, during guard duty, he reported the “northern lights were very bright” from the camp. A quick train trip brought the men to the ship. Another wait came until March 12 to allow time for other troops to come aboard.

On March 13, once out of the sight of land, Gray and many others experienced seasickness. This did not prevent him from noticing “porpoises along side of boat” or seeing “many rainbows.” The sight of land, the Normandy peninsula, on March 20 was “a welcome sight,” he wrote. The landing was “a pretty ride in,” he said.

His first days in France at a temporary camp near Tours were devoted to unloading materials and supplies in a railyard.

In late March and early April he and others spent a day applying tar paper to a temporary building in the camp and another in helping roof a hospital barracks. The group set up stoves one day. About the wood gathered for the stoves, he said, “In God’s country, we would call it brush.”

While on guard duty one night, he “saw fellows in field and chased them out with a search light.” He had “picked (up a) stick for (a) gun” to help assert his authority. His efforts worked.

Despite stretches of rain, Gray saw “American aeroplanes in the air for practice,” and on another occasion he observed one plane “drop from clouds almost straight down until level with treetops.”

In late April, Gray’s battalion moved southeast to settle at Chalus, near Limoges, well to the south and a bit east of Paris. Since they evidently were “the first Americans to stop here,” Gray wrote, “the whole town was out to see us.”

Gray mentioned how some French children hung around the American soldiers. One “bright little kid named Leon” became a sort of mascot, adopted by the unit. Perhaps an orphan, Leon, Gray would in time report, “now stays here all the time when not at school.”

At camp, a Frenchman “gave Eddie Geary and me some cider,” a kindness which drew Gray’s comment that this was to him “the only good (act) I have seen in France.”

He had mentioned earlier, when he was still at Camp Devens, that a local resident – Gray cites the name Holden, perhaps of the family of that name living in Shirley – brought apples to Gray’s barracks for the soldiers in an act of kindness.

During the spring Gray wrote that his unit was setting up telephone poles, stringing out reels of wire, and trimming trees to keep branches from damaging the line. One camp the men operated from was near Argenton.

Of the community of Chateauroux, Gray wrote, this is “the most progressive city we have seen.” Here the Americans had located a base hospital, the French a training camp and both countries shared an aviation field.

There on June 23 Gray noted “an American band in concert,” and finding “the most beautiful roses and flowers I ever saw.”

Back at Argenton, for Gray, “a pretty little town,” he wrote, “France made the Fourth (of July) a holiday.” The Americans had “all the beer, lemonade and wine we wanted to drink. (Later), the police commissioner took fire crackers away from (one soldier), but the bunch took them back.”

In summary, Gray found “the people did all they could to give us a good time.”

Telephone line installation work kept Gray’s observance of the French people’s celebration of their Bastille Day, July 14, limited to “a few minutes in the evening.”

He “saw little Leon” briefly back at Chalus on Aug. 9, he said. The unit then moved steadily in a northeasterly direction, camping at Nevers and Autun, passing through Dijon and stopping at Neufchateau.

In this new area Gray reported involvement on a “detail running loops and installing phones” on Aug. 16, reporting to a telephone office the next day and going “to work on a switchboard at 8 a.m.” on Aug. 18.

The diary is blank for the remainder of the year, Aug. 19 to Dec. 31, except for a one-word entry on Sept. 27: Returning.

This is the time of the decisive St. Mihiel campaign of Sept. 12 to 16 and the Muise-Argonne offensive of Sept. 26 to Nov. 11. Having moved into the region of these campaigns, Gray’s battalion apparently became involved in both.

Gray’s diary does not record his impressions of what went on. Perhaps he was able to write of them in his letters home or to tell people back home about them when back on American soil. Or, understandably, he may not have wanted to convey anything of these experiences.

The 1919 diary

Gray’s unit remained in France after the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, as part of the U.S. Army’s postwar transition force there. His diary for 1919 ends with his troop ship’s arrival back in New York harbor on May 23. He was discharged from the army on June 4 back at Camp Devens.

January 1919 diary entries suggest an impatience with some aspects of army camp life following the conclusion of the war.

His first entry of the new year noted that men “worked all afternoon hauling rock and building path so Captain would not get his shoes muddy.” Two days later he stated that he “got paid in evening after standing in line for one hour.”

In his Jan. 12 letter to Harriett he said, “This is harder work waiting than it was working while the war was on.”

Meanwhile, the Army worked to keep soldiers on their mettle who were getting eager to return home. In his Jan. 26 diary entry, Gray noted putting a new regulation into practice that it is “compulsory to take baths Thursdays and Sundays.” He also noted down times when inspections took place.

At camp, soldiers could attend Sunday worship services at the YMCA tent where evening entertainment was available. There were intercompany boxing and wrestling matches and basketball games. Several nights Gray and others saw French movies and bought chocolates and cigars in a nearby French town.

Gray rejoiced when he received a pass for a stay at Nice, only to have it canceled. Instead, it seems Gray was to be transferred to the unit’s supply detachment. This brought him to American troop installations located near Bordeaux, Camp de Souge and Camp Genicart. To him, Bordeaux was “the nearest to an American city I have been in.”

The detachment’s main duty was to truck supplies from the depot in Bordeaux to each of the battalion’s companies in the field. Another job was to salvage telephone/telegraph wire from communications lines no longer active.

On March 23 he got a chance to take a four-day to Paris. A YMCA guide led soldiers on leave, including Gray, through the city.

On April 9 Gray wrote that he “joined a Masonic Club in the evening.” Back home following the war, Gray would continue membership for more than 50 years in the Masonic lodge in Pittsfield, N.H.

As early as April 12, Gray reported movement toward the trip home. “Motor equipment (was) turned in” and “many rumors about going home” had been circulating. These rumors resurfaced a but by April 30 Gray wrote “nothing doing as usual.”

“Everything ready to leave, but we have got no orders,” Gray wrote on May 9. The next day he noted, “The bunch beginning to get restless” and “betting we won’t move before the middle of the month.” Yet on May 12, “as nice a day as we could ask for,” the battalion marched to the docks and entered the troop ship.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean back to America took 11 days. Gray wrote May 13 of being “a little sick this morning, but I have not fed the fish yet.” The ship, “a small boat,” had 2,100 soldiers on board. Close to land the ship encountered fog, making it necessary to have the “whistle blow every minute of the day.”

In “fair, rather hazy” weather on May 23, the sight of land came at 7 a.m. The ship picked up a pilot at Ambrose Light, Gray said, and received a salute from Sandy Hook, N.J., as it made for Bush Terminal in New York harbor.

As the ship approached the pier, he observed “whistles all blowing and crowds cheering as we came in harbor.” At the pier Gray described “telephone officials at the dock to meet us.”

A ferry ride to Hoboken, a train ride to Cresskill and a march brought the 401st back to Camp Merritt by 4 p.m. led to Gray’s last diary comment, in which he reported, “a good bed to sleep on.” He pointed out “many changes in camp from when we left.”

The following years

The officer filling out Gray’s discharge papers summed up Gray’s record as a soldier with the statement “character deemed excellent.”

Following his honorable discharge from the American Expeditionary Force, Gray married the girl he had written to faithfully during his time of soldiering. She was 20 years old, and he had turned 27. In addition to Nancy, born in 1933, the couple had a son, Herbert, in 1921.

After the war, Gray picked up his career, returning to New England Telephone and Telegraph as an installer. One of his assignments, according to Mulcahy, was to place telephones in every guest room at the Mt. Washington Hotel.

“(It was) one of the first to have phones in rooms,” said Mulcahy.

The family moved to Haverhill, and then to Melrose when the company transferred Gray to Boston. During his career, Mulcahy indicated, Gray “worked on the development of a communication line across the Arctic to Europe.”

By the time he retired in 1956, Gray had become a toll test and maintenance supervisor for the New England area.

Gray died in Melrose in 1971.

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