The Kibbe/Sipple Correspondence Collection consists of 26 letters written by Windsor resident Fred S. Kibbe to Mrs. Jessie Taylor Sipple during his World War I service in the US Army as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. Kibbe’s letters cover two years (1917-1919), starting with his time in drill camp and finishing with his time as a Military Police Officer in France after the war. We know little about Kibbe’s life in Windsor or his relationship with Mrs. Sipple, but his letters comprise a significant historical account of one man’s involvement in the Great War.
Shortly after arriving in France, Kibbe expressed his disillusionment about being an infantryman. He shared his unglorified perspective of life on the front and wearing the uniform in a January 26, 1918 letter. (All spellings, punctuation, and capitalization are from the original letters)
[The new recruits] think they are having it hard But just wait till they get over here and then they will pop up. I was reading in one of the papers about them only getting Butter two times a week…we was lucky to get Butter Xmas and Thanksgiven. They have got a lot to learn and I am not kidding you a bit. You tell John I said he was one wise Boy for staying out of it. These Brown suits are alright in the states But over here They are not What they are said to be. Some of the People in the states think It is fun over here But I wish they could be in some of our shoes and then they would change there minds. It isn’t all apples and cream and other good things to eat.
Despite the propaganda of the time, the reality of war had profoundly affected his opinion of military service. It didn’t take long before Kibbe felt the pains of depression, which he expressed in the same letter:
There are lots of things that would make a fellow have the Blues over here and have them good and hard if he took every thing to heart when I get Blue I just start out and look up some fun or go up and get a few drinks.
Faced with the harsh conditions and pressures of war, Kibbe sought conventional means to keep his spirit up while suffering so far away from home. However, even this could not spare him from the realities of turn-of-the-century warfare.
On April 6, 1918, Kibbe detailed some of these realities on the front lines carved through France. His words offer us a vivid view of his duties and living conditions.
We went into the trenches at night through mud almost up to our knees. I was on guard with a loaded gun and fixed bayonet and also two Gas maskes around my neck let me tell you the bravest of men would shake up there. Not knowing what minute the Germans would come in up on me. We also had to sleep in Dug-outs over 60 feet deep. And lots of night we went out on no man’s land to put up Barb wire Then the shells would sing over our heads. You can tell the world our little bunk in the dug-out was a fine place after all. Tell John that I said that somewhere in France may sound good to him but that somewhere in the Good old USA sounds better to me and I’m not kidding you a bit I was layed up for about four days with a sprained ankle. You see I had to bring water from a near by town. So instead of going through the trench, I took a short cut over top of the trenches. And it was so dark that I couldn’t see where I was going and fell in an old Trench It is a little sore yet.
The injury Kibbe sustained here would not be the most severe that he suffered in combat. A few weeks later he described being exposed to gas leaving him “on the blink” for a month. Just a couple of months later he was hit by the gas again and hospitalized. He wrote,
You see I got a hold of some Gas on the 26 of July. And was sent to the Hospital…A swell Hospital and I got fine care. I was there just two days. An Phnemonia set in I sure was a sick boy. Out of my head packed with ice bags. And two nurses by my side all the time. The Dr’s gave me up there once I got along fine with the nurses there. I got all I could eat of what I could eat that wouldn’t make me more sick (August 25, 1918).
Kibbe’s experience drives home the horrors and consequences of modern warfare. World War I was the first occasion chemical and biological weapons were used in combat and Kibbe was an unfortunate victim. Even after he recovered and the war ended he still suffered from these attacks, “I have been on the bum or about two weeks now. That old Gas came back on me again” (March 14, 1919).
During his time on the battlefield in France, Kibbe reflected on just how much his life had changed after the passage of one short year. He wrote on June 13, 1918 “I am somewhere in France just think where I was this time last year. On that Dear old Windsor bridge having the time of my life Don’t I wish I was there now.” Being so far from home and surrounded by death, Kibbe became sentimental and reminiscent about his home. This homesickness coupled with the consciousness of his fragile mortality often left him very depressed. In the same letter he wrote,
You know Mrs. Sipple my people and my girl think that I am on the water wagon yet but I have my wine whenever I want it also my beer whenever I hit a town or city where I can get it I went out one night and had a big time I might as well. No telling how long I will live might be knocked off any time but little it bothers me. They have some wonderful beer over here some that kind you drink here and then run out on ‘no man’s land’ and die.
Fortunately, Kibbe did not perish in the war and he was able to serve out the rest of his time in France as a Military Police Officer during the postwar reconstruction. He arrived back in the United State to a hero’s welcome on August 16, 1919.
Such primary, or first-hand documents are extremely valuable in preserving the memories of those who participated in world-altering events. Fred Kibbe’s letters to Jessie Sipple were common during World War I, but they have increasing historical significance with the passage of time. His experiences offer valuable insight into the horrible realities of modern warfare. His exposure to lethal gas, although in its infancy at the turn of the century, remains a very credible threat to American service officers today.
All of the Kibbe/Sipple letters have been transcribed. To read more, contact librarian/archivist Michelle Tom at email@example.com.
by Kevin McCullough, volunteer, 2002