Recalling World War I

Through the Letters of

Major Edward Ball Cole

By Dorothy V. Malcolm
Special to the Journal

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Article first appeared in The Hingham Journal, November 2001, Mariner-Community Newspapers, The Boston Herald. Was subsequently assigned to follow-up on both the Cole brothers’ (Major and General) war correspondences as a feature article for part of the Journal's 175th anniversary edition.

In a letter this year to her readers, “Dear Abby” sheds light on a “hot-off-the-press” book of war letters written by Andrew Carroll entitled, “War Letters, Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars,” published by Scribner/Simon & Schuster. Of the more than 200 letters in his book, Hingham’s own Major Edward Ball Cole—of whom the Cole American Legion Post is named—is honored in the very first chapter on World War I. In addition to the Cole entry in Carroll’s book, Mary Sayward Cole has kept an anthology of her late father-in-law’s letters from France, “A Bridge of Remembrance” which is now part of the Cole Family archives.

For those familiar with the yesteryears of Hingham, the name Cole is prominent in its annals of history and genealogy. Maj. Edward Ball Cole was born in 1879 near Hingham Harbor. He graduated from Harvard, which has also chronicled his wartime feats. He met, fell in love and eloped with a talented stage singer, Mary Welsh of Philadelphia whom he was clearly mad about, as attested to by his letters. They were a military family, traveling to wherever the U.S. Marines sent them. Their two sons, George and Edward “Teddy” Cole were still young when their father was sent away to France during World War I.

Not only was Edward Ball Cole an illustrious war hero, he was an expert and author on the “new machine guns.” Cole had made a special study of the guns and was in the front ranks, knowing minute details from their manufacture to quality control inspections at the factories. He published several articles and authored a field book for machine gunners. He also invented a tripod of the guns and portable cart with pneumatic tires and wire wheels to transport the guns and ammunition. In his cache of love letters to his wife and boys, which Mary Sayward Cole has prudently saved, Major Cole is revealed as a family man and soldier, loving his country as much as his family. The immediacy, humanity and agelessness of his words ring true in our ears and hearts even today.

In Maj. Cole’s first letter from France, he writes to his wife:
“Dear Mary:
…We arrived, as you know, safely in France…I shall never laugh at the women of America and their knitting again, for it had not been for them we should have suffered greatly from this cold…Charles [his brother, Gen. Charles Cole] is only twenty miles from here and I spent yesterday with him…I have a very comfortable room in the house of an old man and his wife…I am learning to speak French and find I get along fairly well …I hope I shall get a letter from you soon but the mails are very uncertain. Write me as often as you can and tell me all the news, for where I am we get no news at all—not even a French newspaper…Tell our boys to be good and that dad says to take good care of you.
With all my love, dear, Ed”.

Letters continued back and forth between Maj. Cole and his beloved wife. In several letters, he reiterates how he and his men are keeping warm despite the cold of the French winter. His letters are always upbeat and encouraging and we will never know the extent of the suffering he and his men had to endure during the dreadful winter of 1918:

“January 17, 1918
Dear Mary:
Yesterday I received a letter from you dated Dec. 10th, and addressed care of Headquarters. It was a beautiful letter, dear, and I shall keep it and read it every day. It was like an oasis in the desert to me to hear from you…I have three sweaters, two helmets, many pairs of wool socks, wristers and everything I need to keep me warm, so you need not worry a bit about my comfort. We are all very comfortable, thanks to the good women of the United has begun to rain — it nearly always is raining or snowing — really the most beastly climate…[and] I am writing this sitting up in bed by the light of a lantern. I have on my heavy underwear…Buff’s sweater, and the dressing gown you gave me last Christmas, and…a muffler about my throat. One would hardly call me a pink pajama man, would they?”

In the same letter, Maj. Cole reminisces about his life with his family back home and reassures her and the boys that there will be many more Thanksgivings to share as a family:

“…Thanksgiving is a wonderful memory for me, Mary dear, and I am very happy when I realize my two little boys love me so much. Bless them. I am as proud of them as I can be. No wonder they are fine boys with such a splendid mother, of whom they will always be able to be very proud. We will have many more Thanksgivings, never fear, and they will all be like the last one. Write me often, Mary for your letters mean a whole lot to me…”

On January 22, 1918, he writes lovingly to his sons, Charles and Teddy:
“…I rode my new horse today and he is a beauty and I have named him Prince. Prince is a red horse, who we call a bay, and is kind and gentle as he can be, 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’.”

“March 10, 1918
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 tongs. That is what we came over here for…
…Now, my dear girl, I shall not attempt to keep anything from you and will tell you plainly that from now on to the end of this war, I expect to be in the middle of the fighting. You must not worry, and remember, sweetheart, that if the worst should happen, that it is a wonderful cause, a cause for which better than I have given all they had to give. Worry will not help any so you must be cheerful and have as good time as you can.”

One of Maj. Cole’s letters chosen for Andrew Carroll’s book was the one written to his sons on April 22, 1918 about a humorous account and cartoon of a shell blast:

“Dear Charlie and Teddy…A short time ago, Capt. Curtis and I were in our mess room eating breakfast when ‘BLOOEY’ went a very big shell jut outside our window. I got a piece of toast mixed with a swallow of coffee in the wrong channel of my throat and Capt. Curtis — when the last I saw of him he was easily outrunning a 9.2 shell in the direction of the dugout. Somehow I caught up with him at the entrance and we passed in neck-and-neck for a dead heat. ‘It ain’t no disgrace to run when you are skeered.’ These 9.2 shells are almost as tall as Teddy…How do you like the picture of your dad, dug-out and the little accelerator behind him? One thing over here is that the more rank one has, the better the dug-out — sometimes that makes me wish I was president.”

Major Cole’s faith sustained him toward the end when he recognized it was fairly inevitable that he may not return home. Sensing this, he wrote some of the most profound words to have come out of that war:

“Therefore, if we make up our minds that we will love God and live as God — through Christ — told us to live, we will be happy…I have been in danger many times in the past month, dear, and I am going shortly where it is very likely that I shall not return. If I should not, my dear wife, remember that I go from this world with nothing in my heart for you but love and the hope that you will embrace [faith/religion]…It is beautiful and can but bring us closer together…My poor, dear little girl, may God lead you in the right path.
With all my love, Ed”.

His last words to his beloved Mary were:

“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, and can not help being noisy. They would not be worth shucks were it otherwise...
…Let me tell you one thing—this war is going to be a leveler of many things…We will have enough to live on whatever happens. Hard work molds character. I was rich as a boy and when I look back upon myself I realize…the wisest thing I ever did was when I married you…
…It is now 10:15 and I must get up at 5:15 so must turn in. 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, although one soon gets used to rats and rather enjoys their bright little ways. So, Ma Cherie, bonne nuit. Love to Mother, Cousin Sarah and those two young scalliwags.
A whole ocean of love for my little wife, Ed”.

At Harvard, Maj. Cole’s alma mater (Class of 1902), fellow alum, DeWolfe Howe highlights Cole’s courageous exploits which he assembled in his book, “Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany, “ 1920-24, Harvard University Press. Howe’s description best depicts Major Cole’s last fight:

“On June 10, an infantry attack supported by machine guns had been ordered to clear the woods [Belleau Woods] of the enemy and machine gun nests…he 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 [them] so they resorted to hand grenades.

“Ned was wounded in the arm and in the leg by grenades which he did not see when another one was thrown at him. He grabbed it 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. The fragments went through both arms, both legs at the thigh, his ankle and into his face. His right hand was shattered. His men went right ahead and captured the machine gun nests and thirty-five guns. Not satisfied with this, they kept on going and attacked a German offensive that was about to start and broke it up, chasing the enemy out of their positions.
“Ned, left alone, started to crawl back under rifle fire. He got back some distance when he was picked up by some of his men and carried to the rear.”

Unable to operate on him immediately at the field hospital due to tremendous loss of blood, Major Cole never gave up, and “his grit carried him through that night.”

When his brother, Brig. Gen. Charles Cole came to visit him bearing flowers, all the Major wanted from him 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. He pressed them to his face saying, “I have been thinking of flowers all day and now I have them.”

The first news that Mary received of her husband’s wounds at Belleau Wood was in a brief cable from her brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Cole. He wrote on June 13,1918 explaining the events that had occurred in information learned from the semi-conscious Maj. Cole and from the medical staff on hand:

“My dear Mary:
I know of course how anxious you must be to hear from Ned. [Gen. Cole referred to his brother as Ned.] He was leading, on the morning of June 10th, a gallant attack on a German machine gun position—which was successful but at the last moment, 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. Everything is being done for him that can be done… Tell Mother, Grace, George and all the rest that they should be proud of the wonderful courage of Ned Cole.”
Sincerely, Charles”.

On June 1918, Maj. Edward Ball Cole died of the horrific wounds he received in the battle of the Bois de Belleau. He won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Award, and the following awards posthumously: The Navy Cross, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France; the Croix de Guerre with Palm, the 4th American Brigade. Also posthumously, the U.S. Navy named their Torpedo Destroyer 155, “The U.S.S. Cole” in October 1918; and the American Legion Post in Hingham was named in Maj. Edward Ball Cole’s memory.

At the end of 1918, Mary Cole and her two sons, Charlie, 10, and Teddy, 8, visited the Cramps Shipyard in Philadelphia and crashed a bottle of champagne against the prow of a new torpedo destroyer as she bravely declared, “I christen thee, the U.S.S. Cole.” It was the first vessel to be named in honor of an American hero of World War I.

In the words of Maj.-Gen. John A. Lejeune, Commandant of the Marine Corps in paying honor to Maj. Cole: “…[He] from the hour he fell in battle, over fourteen years, faithfully adhered to the principles of a gentleman and officer of the United States…Personal conduct and character count over for most in those who would faithfully serve and be true to the ideals of their country, and Maj. Cole stands out as an exemplary possessor of those virtues which are the requisites of a real American.”

Maj. Cole is buried in the American Belleau Wood Cemetery at Belleau, France.

And in the words of author, M.A. DeWolfe Howe who mourned his fellow alumni: “Peace to his brave soul, and may the story of his death for his country stir the sons of Harvard as long as men honor gallant deeds and manly lives.”

For Maj. Edward Ball Cole, his name and legacy are the stuff of glory, sacrifice, moral fiber and heroism — ensuring a safer world for his sons to grow up in.

God bless America this Armistice - Veterans Day.


Special thanks to Mrs. Morton Cole “Betty,” and her grandson, John Anderson for all their assistance; and to Mary Sayward Cole for her lovingly-written anthology, “A Bridge of Remembrance” chronicling her father-in-law’s letters home; to Maj. Cole’s granddaughter, Carolyn Kingston for initiating the idea and sending the Major’s letters to Andrew Carroll for inclusion in his book, “War Letters, Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars”, published by Scribner/Simon & Schuster and produced into a major documentary for PBS (Public Broadcasting Corporation); and to Editor Mary Ford for choosing and directing me to tackle the volumes of data, to research and write this story on the heroic life of Hingham’s own Major Edward Cole.

“I expect to be in the middle of the fighting. You must not worry, and remember, sweetheart, that if the worst should happen, that it is a wonderful cause, a cause for which better than I have given all they had to give.”

“I am leaving tonight hurriedly for the big battle…Should I not return, sweetheart, remember that I love you and am thinking of you and our dear boys and mother. You have been a dear and noble wife and mother and I am leaving my dear little boys in the best possible hands. In after years they will comfort and take care of you. Kiss them for me and tell them that I consider that I am honored in being able to offer my country my life. God bless you and them and keep you safe from all harm.”

“To Charles and ‘Teddy Cole’
Some day my two fine boys will be able to read this little book and apply it. Perhaps by that time the machine gun will be as obsolete as is the Queen Anne musket today, or much better still, war itself may be obsolete. Until that millenium [sp.] arrives I want my boys to keep themselves in condition to answer their country’s call and I hope they will never wait to be drafted and they must remember that a good soldier must keep a clean mind and a clean body. Remember, boys, I leave your dear mother in your care.”

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