Twenty-two year old Clark Bruster of Waverly, New York, arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas on June 21, 1917, for training with the 20th Cavalry. Construction was just beginning on Camp Funston, one of 16 divisional cantonment training camps constructed during World War I. It was named for the famous Major General Frederick Funston, of Iola, Kansas, who died unexpectedly right before the U.S. entered the war.
During the time Clark was in Kansas, he wrote home to his parents every few days, describing life at Camp Funston in wonderful detail. Upon his arrival he wrote, “We just went out and got our cots. We put them up ourselves and they are brand new ones. When we went out a small troop of cavalry went past us. They all wear their strings that hold their hats on down under their chin like a Cossack. All of them had spurs on and their horses were sweaty. Probably been drilling. They sure looked great, all tanned up & hard.”
In World War I, horses were still used to pull some artillery and although the mounted cavalry was becoming obsolete, the soldiers at Camp Funston did daily drills on horseback. Sometimes there weren’t enough saddles or bridles to go around. On July 11th Clark wrote his mother, “Say talk about riding a horse. It sure was funny. I had a dandy trained horse but all it had on was a halter and piece of rope for reins. No saddle or blanket. I staid in the saddle for 1 hour without getting off. I said saddle there but that was a mistake. You had ought to have seen me ride. Of course the horses didn’t hardly get off from a walk, or I would sure have been on the ground. Lots of fellows fell off as it was. Gosh we had to ride without any hands and do a lot of stunts, but it was all fun for about half an hour. Then I commenced to get sore, you know where, but I stuck the hour out. Good-Night I was sore as the deuce for a while but now I feel better. Some of the poor fellows have got Blisters and skin rubbed off and one poor fellow bled right thru his pants. Of course it is nothing serious but it sure does hurt. Probably I will be writing that I have to stand up to eat in a few days, but I should worry. If there is any possible way to learn to ride I am the boy to do it.” By the time he left Camp Funston, Clark wrote proudly about what an accomplished horseman he had become–though he hated army mules.
Many of the soldiers, including Clark, had to live in tents until late September, although the weather had turned cold and rainy. When they moved into the barracks, there still wasn’t any heat. On October 11th, Clark wrote his father that the showers were still only lukewarm, and, “I wear my sweater under my shirt all the time now and at night I wear it to bed. I also wear the heavy woolen socks to bed that Susie sent me.” The War Department couldn’t get heat installed in the hastily constructed barracks until December.
Clark told his parents he would be safer in the cavalry, because it meant he wouldn’t be fighting in the trenches, where the men were more vulnerable to the opponent’s artillery attacks, sniper fire, disease, and poison gas. His regiment left Camp Funston in November, before the devastating flu epidemic that hit in March, 1918. He served overseas from July 1918 to June 1919, and returned to his family in New York after the war.
Scans and transcriptions of all of Clark Bruster’s WWI letters from Camp Funston are online at Kansas Memory at: http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/219584