Somewhere in France, Aug. 25, 1918
Dear Mr. Wisman & Members of the High School;
Before leaving Hector for “Over There” I promised to write a letter from France, but I arrived too late for you to receive a letter from me before you vacation would begin. I hardly know what to write about that might be interesting to you outside of the war news, of that I am not allowed to write you know. Perhaps you would like to hear about France itself.
The country is very beautiful indeed to anyone loving scenes dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and one thing I like to do is to take my bicycle and ride out into the country to see all that I can possibly see while here. Just the other day I took a short ride west of camp and had only ridden a couple of miles when I saw off in the distance and old church which had aroused my curiosity several times before because it looked so clumsy and old. On approaching the church I passed the priest (for the Catholic religion is the common religion here) who was likewise riding a bicycle and he said in perfectly good English, “Good day my good friend,” and I greeted him in his own language with the word “Bonjour.” As I had expected, the church was very very old, dating back to sixteen-hundred-four. It was built of plaster, stone, brick and untrimmed branched of trees to lend strength to the masonery, the roof being corvered with tile, which in turn was covered with moss. On one side was an old tower with loop-holes showing that in the earlier times the building had been used as a place of protection. While standing looking at the ancient structure the clock in the belfry struck the hour as it had been striking for over three hundred years and it took me back to my class in German to the old story of Immenessee; it is needless to add that a feeling of home sickness stole over me and a feeling of longing for the good times I used to have in the good old Hector High School. The door to the church was locked so that I could not enter, but if it was like the other buildings of its kind which I have seen it is safe to say that aside from the usual church fixtures it also contained some very old and beautiful paintings.
To those of you who live on farms it might be interesting to hear a short description of a French farm. The farms here are very small compared to the ordinary American farm and the crops are somewhat different. The people seem to cling somewhat to the system used in the old days of feudalism; the farms divided up into a little patch of wheat, rye, oats, a few vegetables, pasture, and always that little vineyard of sour grapes for the year’s supply of wine. I might add here that while the people use wine almost entirely instead of water, they know how to drink it as such, and are not a nation of excess drinkers as we are sometimes led to believe. The cultivating is practically all done by hand and likewise the harvesting, only once have I seen the grain cut by machinery and that was done with an American mower drawn by a team of oxen. Usually they use the old fashioned cradle to cut the grain and the flail to thresh it with. Hauling is done with oxen as a rule unless the farmer is quite well to do, which case he may use two horses hitched in tandem style, but if he wishes to go for a Sunday ride he will put his family in a little two-wheeled cart drawn by a wee donkey and speed down the road at the astonishing rate of about six miles an hour.
The farm house, stable, goose pen, cow barn, chicken coop, hay shed you will almost always find in one and the same building, the living rooms being in the center and the others being arranged about these. Is it any wonder that infant mortality in France is so high with the people living as they do? I firmly believe though that before all the American troops leave here that these conditions will be somewhat remedied, which only goes to show that the United States is a big brother to those in need of aid. These farm buildings are very seldom found off by themselves but are grouped together about some large chateau, the owner of which is usually the owner of the land that these people are farming.
I have not been able yet to find out very much about the French school system. The schools I have seen are very small, employing perhaps two lady teachers, both of whom live in the building along with their families. They only teach subjects up to about the sixth grade at which place the pupil either quits school to help its parents of goes to a gymnasium in another town. The gymnasium in France is about the same as from seventh grade through High School, and I really believe that is would be a good system to introduce into the schools of Minnesota along with compulsory education up to the age of sixteen years, as it would tend to do away with that break between High School and the 8th grade which generally takes place just at the time when the child thinks it can get along very nicely in this life without further education. Regarding the French schools I can say nothing more.
At present I am looking forward to a trip to London for a period of about a week, as the government at the end of four months of foreign service gives us a real vacation of seven days and we certainly appreciate it very much.
I hope that some of you will find the time to write some letters to the boys over here as we certainly like to hear from home and to know all that is going on in our home town. I send you my greetings and may this school year be a successful year for each of you.
Sincerely, Pvt. Ray R. Hirt