We are the gods at play
July 4th, 1917
Letter from Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt to his wife Edith, sent from an undisclosed location on the Western Front
They have had me in an underground map room with other officers for nearly a month now. While the generals make a big show of consulting my opinion over that of the other junior-grade officers, I can tell that it is a show. Perhaps it’s well-meant. I cannot disclose exactly where I am or the exact nature of what I do, but I can tell you that it involves pushing small soldier and tank figurines around on a large map, using a stick. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I pretend to make them fight, making explosion sounds under my breath.
I spent Independence Day fetching coffee for my British superior officers. Now that our boys are over here, it makes my position all the more ridiculous. Me, Edith! A British officer! It was silly enough to begin with, but now that we have entered the fight I should be wearing an American uniform. But alas, I cannot. I must uphold my duty here, knowing that I still help my country, even if only indirectly. Furthermore, Wilson — that pencil-necked tortoise — would not budge about letting me in the military where I belong. I would happily join the U.S. Army as a buck private! Just get me to the guns!
There are some fine horses they hold in the reserve calvary battalions here, and not enough officers to keep them in condition, so I am encouraged to ride them in my off-hours. I have a favorite. He is an older, bony, swayback gelding. His name is Grainy. The calvary boys ride him least of any of the war ponies because in addition to his other faults, he is also trench sour. That is, Grainy has a favorite trench he likes to wander back and forth in; he gets ornery whenever we take him out of it — probably because he’s a bit myopic. He can buck some of the lighter boys — he has spirit — but he can’t throw me, so I am his master and he begrudges me rides now and again. The air does us both good.
Please write me with any word of the children. I hear rarely from Quentie-qee and very little word reached me from Ethel at the American Ambulance Hospital. We are all in the dark here, it seems.
July 12th, 1917
Letter from Edith Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill to Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt, somewhere in a map room on the Western Front
It pains me to see you so grumbly after getting your wish. My love, you are in the war and have a vital role in it. Do not be so quick to discount your service. Did they not give you a gun and a uniform already, Theodore? It is only logical that 18–30-year-old’s will be asked to do the bulk of the fighting first. Don’t worry. They will call 50–70 year-old’s to the front as soon as everyone younger has expired, which should not be long now. I hear that in Italy they are already calling up the grey-hairs to the lines. Grace lies in doing a duty we do not deserve, but are forced to shoulder none the less. You know this.
I can, I hope, soothe your heart with news of the children. Quentin tinkers with his engines as always. Alice is now working with Ethel at the American Ambulance Hospital. While nurses are strictly forbidden from serving at the front, twice Alice has been reprimanded for dressing as a man and going to the front as a stretcher-bearer — with a pistol tucked into her belt. Ethel doesn’t know why her letters haven’t reached you. She had a very unusual encounter. She attended Dr. — now Lieutenant — Horace Browntrout and his batman (a kind of valet) Sergeant Stanley the Saysquack after they were injured at the Somme. Evidently, Horace and Stanley lead a combat platoon. They have been in the war since 1914. Ethel said Browntrout even offered to care for her in a fatherly way — not having any idea you were in Europe, of course. I thought that was very magnanimous of him.
I took the liberty of writing Mrs. Browntrout and telling her that her husband was alive and recovering, as we never know when letters will make it home from the war front. I daresay she was both disturbed over the grievous nature of the wounds and also ecstatic that he survived and was expected to fully heal; she was also quite surprised to be getting the news from me; indeed, she’d heard no news from the army about her husband’s health, only that his unit was decimated. I know you have ambivalent feelings toward Browntrout over the Saysquack expedition, but I know too that you have let bygones be bygones. I think it’s wonderful that our families have come together like this. You and Horace even serve in the same army.
July 18th, 1917
Diary of Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt
The darkness closes in all around me. The map room is stifling. I stare into the maps and move the figures around them all day blankly. My own children won’t write me. No, instead they take up with that cur BROWNTROUT. It seems that insidious snake is trying to steal my own children out from under me. I brought them to this war. This is MY war, but nobody wants my service. Browntrout is barely ten years younger than me but he gets to serve in active combat and nearly get his intestines blown apart??? Him? But not me. I’ve done far more for Britain than he ever has or ever will. “Lieutenant” my foot. He couldn’t lead a brigade with a bell on his behind. And that savage! I thought the British army would have better sense! Are they that desperate that they would allow an ape-man into their ranks? Does the Saysquack wear a uniform with the Union Flag on it and carry a gun too? Are they calling him a “Tommy?” Tell me this is a joke. No, it MUST be a joke. It simply isn’t right. Has the whole world lost its sense of right and wrong? I have to get out of this map room job. At night, I have fevered dreams on my cot. The sinister talking moose that harassed me when I ate the green meat during the Saysquack expedition comes to me at night. He keeps telling me to run for a third term. I talk back to the moose. I tell him politics are behind me now. I’m finished. He calmly chews his cud and shakes his head no, and again and again he utters this inane riddle:
In Life’s forge the die is cast
The Ruler’s fate he cannot flee
Death stalks the hunter between two peaks
Progressives walk with me.
The doctors here are talking about a new malady called “shell shock.” It’s just a form of mild unmanliness. There is no need to mollycoddle it. From my tent I can see the artillery barrages against the German lines. It lights up the sky like lightning strikes. We are not the playthings of gods. We are the gods, at play. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in all my life.
July 18th, 1917
Letter from Gen Douglas Haig to Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Mr. Roosevelt seems uneasy in his current position. I suggest we promote him to Captain and make him attaché to Gen Biggby. This will keep him moving and also take him further from the front. The lines are moving south and the map room where he is assigned, while safe, will soon be dangerously close to the lines. I would suggest moving him to the navy, but his personality is too strong for Churchill and indeed, too strong for the sea. It is best to keep him on land for the time being.
July 19th, 1917
Cable from David Lloyd George to Gen Douglas Haig
PUT THROUGH PROMOTION. TRANSFER IMMEDIATELY. MULTIPLE COMPLAINTS. DO WITH ROOSEVELT AS YOU SEE FIT BUT KEEP HIM OUT OF THE TRENCHES.
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Care to read a hilarious account of Theodore Roosevelt hunting Bigfoot? Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Squabble-Titans-Recollections-Roosevelt-Rainforest/dp/B097X4R4LN