The Cole Papers
World War I revisited

By Dorothy Malcolm
Special to the Hingham Journal

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Article first appeared in The Hingham Journal, June 2003, Community Newspaper Co., Boston Herald as part of its 175th anniversary edition. Wrote a previous article on Major Edward Ball Cole in November 2001 and was subsequently asked to follow-up on both Cole brothers’ war correspondences in this feature article.

When World War I was considered "the war to end all wars," poignant stories of brave men, love of country, and heroic deeds were the buzz of the day. Each city and town had its fair share of war stories and so does Hingham. What more fitting way to celebrate the Journal's 175th Anniversary than to honor Hingham's brave. While there were several, two of the most notable were the extraordinary Cole brothers: one lost his life for his country, while the other gave his life to his country. Descendents of these exceptional men, (still living in Hingham, the South Shore and metro Boston today) have shared their war correspondences with Andrew Carroll in his “Legacy” project, the book and PBS special, "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars" —as well as with the Hingham Journal.

Raised in a comfortably-Yankee family in Hingham, Charles and Edward Cole distinguished themselves in France during World War I. Both graduated from Ivy League schools and Charles attained the rank of general in the war; while younger brother Edward had earned the rank of major. Both men were true-blue patriots, eager to serve their country. Their letters from France, some handwritten some typed, now yellowed and fragile with nearly a century of attic habitation, continue to tell a story that could have been written today. These men were zealous patriots; as Stepfordian and unenlightened as “zealous patriotism” may seem to some here and now in 2003, there was an element of decency and grace and moral fiber in it. Few men exemplified those virtues like the Cole brothers of Hingham.

Most of the letters from General Charles Cole that still exist were sent to his nephew, Master Morton Cole. Morton Cole grew up and was prominent in Hingham up until his death several years ago. Morton’s wife Betty (who is still active in the town) was kind enough to share her husband’s boyhood letters of 1918-19 from the general with the Journal:

March 8
My dearest Morton,
I have just finished a letter to Grandma which I wrote during an aerial bombardment… the big guns began to roar, the machine guns to rattle, the aeroplanes to “put-put” as you call it, and the searchlights to seek out “les avions…Have you ever seen a German aeroplane? Do you know how we tell them from the French? The latter have a red circle o printed on each wing, while the Bosch have a black cross + thus. There they go at it again—listen! Can’t you hear their guns?…”

From your Uncle Charles
Brig. Gen. Chas. Cole, 52 Brigade

In another part of France, Charles’ brother, Edward Cole was heavily engaged in the ongoing combat and his letters that still exist were sent mainly to his wife, Mary and two little boys, Charlie and Teddy, who, along with their cousin Morton, were all waiting-out the war in Hingham:

Jan. 22
Dear Charlie and Teddy
…I rode my new horse today and he is a beauty and I have named him Prince…and we are going to be great friends…Now good night, my two big boys, go to Mother when you read this and each give her a big hug and kiss for ‘Old Dad’

While Major Edward Cole’s letters seem more heartfelt, sensitive and nurturing, Gen. Charles Cole’s are consistently newsy, upbeat and stalwart.  In a letter to his nephew Morton, Gen. Cole wrote:

Feb. 1
My dear Morton,
You would like very much to see the work that the soldiers are doing over here…You know, it is different from what it is in America. The men go out for drill and work in all kinds of weather, rain, snow, sleet with water, it makes no difference what, and the mud in this country is something terrible. Up at the front you have to strap your rubber boots on over your ankles to keep them from pulling off…Remember me to everyone at home.

Your loving Uncle,
Brig. Gen. Chas. H. Cole
52nd Infantry Brigade
American Expeditionary Forces

While Gen. Cole was busy with “upper management” of the troops, his no-less-busy brother “Ned” (as he called Edward) was also a going concern. Not only was Edward Ball Cole an illustrious war hero, he was an expert and author on the “new” machines guns. He had made a special study of the guns and was in the front rank. He published several article and authored a field book for machine gunners. In early spring of 1918, he wrote his beloved wife Mary:

March 10
Dear Mary:
Today is Sunday and I have just finished taking my bath in a bucket of hot water. ‘Oh ye with bathtubs, ye little know your blessings.’   Spring is here, the last two days have been beautiful and the first violets are in bloom. The peasants everywhere are ploughing and I think the cold weather has gone for good but while that means comfort, it also means fighting and we will all too soon be at it hammer and gongs…Now my dear girl, I shall not attempt to keep anything from you…I expect to be in the middle of the fighting. You must not worry and remember, sweetheart, that if the worst should happen, then it is a wonderful cause, a cause for which better than I have given all they had to give…
With all my love,

At one point the brothers were able to visit with each other in France. Those meetings were rare but morale boosters for them both. They were fond of each other and clearly respected one another. In what appears to be the only letter that exists, written by Gen. Cole to his niece (Morton’s sister) Betty, he writes:

June 22
My dear Betty,
Your “young” uncle feels very guilty because he has not answered your many letters…Vos lettres sont tres interessant, and I can see you growing into a young woman through them…I have your latest picture on my mantelpiece alongside of Morton, George, Jr., Charley the second, and Ted [Edward’s two sons].”
Your loving Uncle Charles

As the war escalated and the fighting became more and more grueling, Major Edward Cole relied on his faith and his family’s love to see him through the worst of times. In this, his last communiqué to his wife, he says:

May 26, 1918
My Dear Mary:
I received three letters from you tonight and one from a young savage by the name of Teddy. Boys are boys you know, sweetheart…
Let me tell you one thing—this war is going to be a leveler of many things…and when I look back upon myself I realize…the wisest thing I ever did was when I married you…
I have a bed to sleep in and it is indeed a luxury, and if it will ease your mind and the boys’ minds any—no rats…So Ma Cherie, bone nuit. Love to those two young scalliwags.
A whole ocean of love for my little wife,

In probing Gen. Cole’s letters, juxtaposed his brother’s, he seems to be less affected by the horrors of the war—or so it seemed. Perhaps he wasn’t as much in the vortex of the fighting as Edward was, but rather directing the battles. Edward, on the other hand, had the lionshare of the ghastly action. Nonetheless, Gen. Charles Cole, in a letter to his nephew Morton talks about the after-effects of perhaps the bloodiest battle of World War I:

3 February
My dear Morton:
We had some pretty hard fighting in the country north of Verdun. It was a very barren desolate place covered with debris, many graves and a great many dead bodies and skeletons lying around. We lost a great many men while in this sector. We attacked and attacked the Boche [the Germans] but could not gain very much ground until about the 8th of November when the Boche commenced to retreat…
Give my love to the family.
From Uncle Charles
52nd Infantry Brigade

A college companion of the major (Edward Cole), DeWolfe Howe highlights “Ned’s” final exploits:

“On June 10, 1918, an infantry attack supported by machine guns had been ordered to clear the [Belleau Woods] woods of the enemy and machine gun nests…Major Cole led [his men] to follow him and led them in a flank attack…It was then too late for the enemy to turn their machine guns on so they resorted to hand grenades.
“Ned…grabbed it [the grenade] up in his hand to throw back before it exploded to save his own men from the danger…but it went off while his hand was raised…Ned, left alone, started to crawl back under rifle fire…
“When Gen. Cole came to visit him, [at the field hospital] all the Major wanted from his brother was to bring oranges and champagne to the other wounded men whom he believed were worse-off than he. Yet, he was visibly pleased with the flowers Gen. Cole brought him. [Edward] pressed them to his face saying, ‘I have been thinking of flowers all day and now I have them.’”

It was to Gen. Cole that the abhorrent task fell of notifying his brother’s wife and two boys that Ned had been gravely wounded. He sent a cable explaining the events that had occurred in information he had learned from his semi-conscious brother and the medical staff:

June 13, 1918
My dear Mary:
I know of course how anxious you must be to hear from Ned. He was leading, on the morning of June 10, a gallant attack on a German machine gun position…he was wounded by the explosion of a hand grenade thrown by the Germans. The fragments went through both arms, both legs and in his face…Tell Charlie and Teddy there is no braver man in the American Army than their daddy…
“Now Mary, be a brave soldier’s wife. Your husband is one of the heroes of this war…”

On June 18, 1918, Major Edward Ball Cole — after whom the Cole - American Legion Post in Hingham is named — expired from his wounds. He is buried in the American Belleau Wood Cemetery in France. He was one of the most decorated heroes of World War I.

Towards the end of the war, General Cole writes in a letter to his nephew Morton and niece Betty:

“…I went down to the front lines in Belleau Woods and saw the place where your Uncle Ed was mortally wounded…”
“Now Mary, be a brave soldier’s wife. Your husband is one of the heroes of this war…”

On a brighter note he continued:

…But it seems almost too good to be true that we are going home…How glad I shall be to see you all… I expect Morton to meet me at the dock on horseback…I am sending some souvenirs to you with this letter…Did you all get the German helmets I sent you?…Give my love to all the family. I hope to see you before Patriot’s Day.”
Your loving uncle,
Brig. Gen. Chas. H. Cole
52nd Infantry Brigade

No one touched by war can fully know again the innocence and gentleness of life prior to it; but how one deals with and heals the damage seems to offer the only cold comfort to war-weary souls. Major Edward Ball Cole may have died in war but his brother, Gen. Charles Cole went on to further serve his country in civilian life. Still referred to as “the General,” Charles Cole’s public service included such posts and titles as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, Fire Commissioner, and Police Commissioner. In 1921 he was elected Commander of the Department of the American Legion; and in 1928, he defeated John Cummings for the Democratic nomination for governor. So popular was “the General” that Republican ex-servicemen had “party bolted” by wholeheartedly supporting him. Their anthem was, “Republican servicemen digging for Cole.”

In this respect, Charles Cole healed his own hallowed war wounds, carried on his life without his brother, and maintained his dignity with “zealous patriotism” up until his death in 1962. Both brothers served their country—and their beloved Hingham—well.

All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.