Thursday, July 31, 2008

Doughboy Diaries

   Our exhausted Battalion—what was left of it—was relieved at last. The men were tired, completely tired. Just the knowledge that relief is at hand releases the feeling of utter weariness which is held at bay so long as there is work to do wherein weariness has no place.
     It is wonderfully good to come out of the line—to come away from the incessant bombardment, the ever-alertness for gas, the casualties and the millions of flies which are inescapable. When you go in, you are tuned up to those things. While you are in they are part of a day's job. The cold meals of canned stuff are part of it. The hole one sleeps in, the clothes one wears interminably, the occasional meal cooked in the rear and cooled en route are part of it. You don't realize that those things are repellant until the promise of rest comes and the reconnaissance by officers of the incoming units begins. That sort of lets down the floodgates and you want to be out and clean and fed and rested. After that it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

    In the foreword to Henry R. Miller's The First Division, published in 1920, we read the following thought provoking words:
    "It is easy to forget. And we, it seems, are fast forgetting that but lately men in thousands were dying, in hundreds of thousands risking death, mutilation, enduring the agony of battle, creating a new tradition of American manhood, at our command. Our fine fervor has vanished as the summer mist, souls have gone cold. The lonely limping figure in khaki, still sometimes met on the street, we pass with careless glance; gold stripes on both sleeves, bit of ribbon on breast, meaningless symbols to us to whom the war meant petty sacrifice, a trifle of discomfort, or even profit. One does not talk of the war nowadays. We are tired of the war and of hearing about it--the most dramatic, stupendous fact in our historyf! The clustered graves overseas, the path of glory that led to them? A tale that is told!
    I, who in unheroic role saw much of what this booklet shall tell, cannot forget. May I set down one of many reasons that grow more poignant as they recede?
    During the third day before Soissonss there was a tiny knoll that, they told me, was taken and retaken six times, at the end remaining in our lines. Toward nightfall there was a lull in the storm; one could go forward with comparative safety. Just at dusk I came to the slope leading up that knoll. And everywhere I looked the trampled wheat was dotted by recumbent figures. There was one field, two or three acres, on which it seemed you could not have stood ten feet from some one of those figures. They might have been wearied troops that had thrown themselves down to sleep. They slept indeed, the sleep no earthly reveille could disturb. I wish you could have seen that silent company under the summer twilight. It was not gruesome then, and it was not all tragedy. There lay the best of America, not dead nor sleeping, but alive as long as we will it to live. For America, if it is anything lasting, means what they showed--free, unswerving loyalty to an ideal. Who shall say that they who died there lacked vision of that ideal, even though on their unschooled tongues it could never have become articulate. They paid to the uttermost for their faith.
    And an even greater thing was found a little beyond--the thin line of the survivors; too weary for words, four days and nights sleepless, without food save the crusts they had gleaned from the packs of the enemy dead, souls lacerated by their ordeal. They had just been told that the expected relief was not at hand, that in the morning they were to leapfrog the first wave and go over again; most of them, and they knew it, to join their comrades in sleep. And not a quiver, not a doubt, not a fear, not a regret. They were ready.
    While that spirit endures, America shall live. When America can forget, that spirit will die.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

The Dugout:
    It was a queer place for boys to sleep.
    A hole in the ground, lined and braced with planks. Covered with rusty elephant iron. Damp.
Smelling of clay and decaying leaves. Old, narrow steps led downward, like a ladder pointing the wrong way. There were bunks, two deep, along the four walls
    Faintly, outside the board lining and between the cracks, water trickled day and night. It came from the fog to the tree-tops, down the bare branches through channels in the bark, then back to the clay.
    Wet boots smelled dismally. There was continual coughing and spitting. Blouses were folded and rolled for pillows. Some of the boys were lousy for the first time and their bodies were covered with ugly red scratches. There were marks down the backs of their necks as far as they could reach. The underground air was heavy and soggy. The ominous noises from the busy road did not reach so far.
    Once or twice each night, the boys awoke, tight and oppressed. Their brain floundered around the darkness a moment, their fingers dug at the itch under their collars and over their moist bellies. They fumbled for boots, lifted their sore and aching kidneys over the edge of the bunk, stumbled up the ladder, tripping over loose shoe-laces, and lingered for a moment in the rain. Then they crawled back into their blankets and fell asleep thankful that it was not yet morning. It is odd how a boy gets used to this.
    Life at the front was always interesting, lifted far above the levels of drudgery by the indomnitable humor and clear-cut fatalism of the average American soldier. A whole battery laughed at the story of how a chip of shell landed in Private Smith's coffee cup while he was drinking, when every single man of them knew the chip might just as easily have landed in his own eye. Because the butt of that particular joke happened to be a visitor from a rear echelon, the laughter increased. Rear echelons, to the cannoneer, form part of the S. O. S. [Service of Supply] until the cannoneer goes back to one himself. Then there was Corporal So-and-So, who spent most of his time searching for stray cows, left behind by the peasant refugees, so that the larder of the Regiment might be better stocked. Quips were tossed around about the rapidity with which battalion and battery commanders moved their headquarters when the enemy batteries had adjusted fire on nearby points.
     The death, the killing, the empty stomachs, the vermin-infested uniforms, the mud-caked bodies, the stench of rotting flesh, all this had become a way of life, day to day living, the hour to hour existence--waiting to killf or be killed, was giving way to the feeling that permeated every being. All of it very soon would be part of the nightmarish past.

Monday, March 3, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

Continuing Hervey Allen's memoir Toward the Flame:
"Here we again ran across some of the 26th U. S. Division. At that time they had seen so much more fighting than we, that they seemed veterans, by comparison. Their clothes were in very bad shape, the set expression of their faces, and their small platoons advertised what they had been through. They sat along the roads and told us stories of the fights and recounted details of their losses. I thought it disheartening for our men, but the "Yanks" did not seem to feel that way about it. They held an absolutely fatalistic viewpoint, telling us we would never get through the game. "Wait," they said, "wait." Later on I understood. There was a great pride about these fellows.
Men who have faced death often and habitually can never again have the same attitude towards life. It is hard to be enthusiastic about little things again. The fact is that everybody is soon going to die is a little more patent than before. One sees behind the scenes, the flowers and the grave-blinds, the opiate of words read from the Good Book, and the prayers. For there is Death, quiet, calm, invincible, and there is no escape. Yet there are compensations.
For instance, one loses one's horror of the dead themselves. They have so patently lost all personality, and to the soldier, the process of their incorporation with the mineral kingdom is a visible one. Earth is claiming them again. It is my honest opinion, a very humbleone, that the sight of battlefields must always be a great blow to the lingering belief in personal mortality. The least that can be said is that the subject was never mentioned by any one, contrary to the statements of religious enthusiasts and the stock cant of journalism.
There is no man who is so totally absorbed by the present as the soldier. It claims all his attention and he lives from moment to moment in times of danger with an animal keeness that absorbs him utterly. This is a happy and saving thing. With time to brood, conditions would often seem intolerable. To the soldier, now is everything. It is in the piping times of peace and leisure that a man has had the time to afford himself the luxury of an immortal soul. When the present world is not engrossing enough, we begin to ponder on another."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

Hervey Allen gives some vivid descriptions of battle with the AEF in his book, Toward the Flame:
    "A big high explosive shell came over so close to us we felt sure from its sound it was going to burst very near. There is nothing worse than listening to the increasing howl of a shell and realizing that this time it really is going to burst near you. How near? That is the vital question. This particular shell burst several hundred yards away, tearing through the trees and crashing with a red flash that lit up the road and the columns of troops. Then we heard those awful agonized screams and cries fo rhelp that so often followed. It is impossible to make people at home understand what listening to them does to your brain. You can never get rid of them again.
    What had happened was this: the big chap who rode the horses on our company kitchen had been caught in the burst and mortally hurt. Every bit of flesh from his waist down had been blown off his legs and yet he lived for some time. The splendid bit grays were killed.
     An experience of that kind can never be described. Death is very near. There is a constant howling shuddering the air, and shells were dropping everywhere about us.
The roar of the explosions about us was almost continuous. The air was full of peculiar black smoke, dust, debris, and the stifling odor of high explosive, luckily no gas.
     "The dim columns of men coming out of the woods, the lines of carts and kitchens assembling in the early, grey dawn, all without a light, and generally pretty silently, was always impressive.
     We were beginning to be pretty tired by now and even here needed relief. One no longer got up in the morning full of energy. Hunger, dirt, and strain were telling, and we felt more or less "all in" that day in particular. One was consciously weak.
      In a few minutes we were headed back in the direction from which we had come. There was a full moon, or one nearly so, hanging low in the west. As I jolted along, on legs that seemed more like stilts than limbs with knees, the heavy equipment sagged at every step, and seemed to clink one's teeth together weakly. At last the weariness and the jangle took on a fagged rythm that for me fell into the comfort of rhyme.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

     Every soldier  wonders about his first time under fire. All my life I've wondered what my sensations would be, how I should act.  My great hope was that I shouldn't run if ever I was fortunate enough to be actually under enemy fire. Here we were in that position at last. The sensation was a peculiar one. We didn't run, we were not afraid. It all seemed so impersonal, not meant for us. The sensation to us was one of joy and intense interest. Milliken said: "They can take away our rank, they can send us home, and take everything away from us, but they can't take away this experience." We really were delighted. Soon our delight was tempered with a bit of nervousness, for it seemed the boche had planned to send some more things our way.
     The Dead! It is no more than your duty to read of the things that are not nice about war. You give your money, your comfort, your sons, brothers, husbands, sweethearts; you sacrifice for us, pray for us; you support us as you should; but you are thousands of miles from the mental and physical suffering and a million miles from the truth. You don't know what war is! You haven't a conception of it. All the stories, lectures and pictures of war in the world would not give you an idea of it as it actually is. To realize war you have got to see it and get the stench. You got to see the dead bodies and mutilated bodies and smell the stink.
     The stink! --the "atmosphere" of a battlefield a day old! A battlefield--scene of a battle--is glorious, inspiring, like any great display of power, like the heavens at night when a fierce, ragged-jagged electrical display shatters the sky and shakes you where you stand or sit, partly fearful, partly in awe. But a battlefield after a battle; before there has been time to bury the dead, or when the burying squads are out dumping the dead Huns in shell holes and covering them in their machine gun pits, and making an attempt in handling the bodies of Americans as gently as they would like--it's after that one realizes something of war.

David Homsher
American Battlefields of World War I: Château Thierry--Then and Now
ISBN: 97809702444307 $29.95.Winner of three National Book Awards, Available at bookstores everywhere.

Monday, February 18, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

     I have been in a big fight now, the first big American drive, and am beginning to feel that I have been a soldier. I have gone for more than 48 hours at a stretch without sleep: have slept in a trench half full of water, in the rain; have curled up in my rain-coat in the mud on the side of the road and slept; have slept on my horse; have gone without eating for 48 hours; have eaten horse meat, and I think dog meat; have worked my horses to death; seen them drop in the traces and feel that I have seen some real campaigning.
     I certainly will be glad when Wilhelm realizes that he is licked, for he he is undoubtedly licked, good and proper. It may be some time before we can make his people see it, but I believe he knows it now.
     John B. Hayes, U. S. 42nd Division, describes the fighting along the Vesle River in the summer of 1918:
     Presently, we attained the summit of a high hill. From that eminence we had an unobstructed vieww of the blazing battle lines for miles in each direction. The panorama that unfolded before our spellbound gaze contained all the elements that suggest themselves in a mental picture of a battlefield.
     In both directions--to the right and left--the battle lines reached the horizon wrapped in a pall of smoke and dust that half conceals, half discloses, a battle scene. Fighter planes zoomed and maneuvered overhead and were followed in many places by a trail of smoke puffs from bursting anti-aircraft shells. Along the roads and trails back of the front could be seen moving vehicles and men. some bound for the front, others to the rear. The steady rumble and roar of artillery was punctuated by nearby bursts of exploding shells and the rattle of machine gun and rifle fire. All low places held the constant and all-pervading smell that comes from the combined odor of bursting shells, mustard gas and the stench of rotting men and horses. Truely a battlefield is a picture both grand and terrible.
     It is a fearful thing to advance into battle over a terrain littered and strewn with the wreckage and debris of military combat, and reeking with the odor of the dead combined with the smell of corrosive mustard and chlorine gas and the penetrating and acrid fumes of bursting shells charged with high explosives--past dead and swollen horses, their legs jutting stiffly into the air, and past human corpses blue and discolored and frozen in the grotesque positions assumed in sudden and violent death.
     Eventually, it is an encouraging thing to discover that you are not as afraid as you thought you would be. It gives green troops a wonderful and immeasurable life in their first days under fire. After these initiations they reflect with satisfaction that they have discovered they are not cowards, and can do their duty in spite of of their fear and dread.
     Unfortunately, the discovery loses its potency and effectiveness in repetition: never-ending hikes, patrols, gas attacks, barrages and assaults follow one another in rapid and meaningless order. Finally the soldier finds that simple courage is not enough.
     Providentially, help comes. A strange, exalted spiritual emotion from the depths of the soul takes over and sweeps the endangered soldier along to the destined end of the road, fiercely resigned, let come what may. For the survivor, the memory of the experience lingers long and wields a powerful and stimulating influence that uplifts the spirit in the heart of man. This experience is a consoling, sustaining and imspiring obsession which fascinates and creates a craving for more indulgencee. Men inflamed by the excitement of battle will go back from safety to the battle when for them there is no compulsion. I once saw this demonstrated when a dangerously wounded officer tried to escape from the dressing station to which I had helped carry him and made his way back to his beleaguered company.
     But the danger craze, excitement or lust is more remarkable in ordinary men, doing their job as best they can, and finding no pleasure in it except the satisfaction of a job well and conscientiously done. These the fever and excitement of battle can wholly transform into something utterly foreign to their natures.
     That in the end is how a soldier is made--through fear. Fear for your life--until you are so afraid that you can be afraid no more.
     Mr. Hayes wrote of his comrades: "An exceedingly great army--who enlisted in the service of our country for $15.00 a month, hazarding life, limbs, and health. Many of them now sleep eternally in Flanders Fields. In one battle alone my company lost 30 men killed and 100 wounded, casualties of more than 50 per cent. My company was composed of 250 men, but during its service overseas more than 1,000 were on its roster...replacements occasioned by disease and battle loses."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

     Every soldier at the moment of going into battle, trembles, is afraid, wishes he could escape from it. The noise is dreadful; the men rush forward, never walk; each one is watchful lest a companion may read fear in his face; no one cries out lest he be shot down; thus a whole regiment goes into battle, playing the part of bravery, yet sick of the whole business.
     Under bombing and artillery attack, troops felt utterly helpless, incapable of responding to what was being done to them, uncertain, paralyzed, afraid to perform basic physical functions. Ralph Seifert, a sergeant with the 103rd Sanitary Train, had gone behind a stone wall to relieve himself when he heard a shrieking sound directly overhead, and almost in the same instant, a bang. "I knew it was a shell"; he wrote his father. "It scared mee, so I used all my paper in one wipe and grabbed a handful from a pile that was along side of me, used it and pulling my britches up, made for a dugout.
     An emotion that battle commonly evoked in these men, even in the brave, the stoical, and those eager to fight, was fear, which took many forms. Before their first battle, new men not only worried about combat itself but were afraid they would succumb to fright. Veterans feared crippling and disfigurement. Lieutenant Allen remembered how he heard someone playing a sentimental song as he was getting ready to go into battle and how the music aroused in him fear and nostalgia at the same time, an acute longing for his loved ones, despair and anxiety about the next day's "indignities," together with a sense that the war would last forever. He called all this the "Just-Before-the-Battle-Mother" feeling and noticed that others felt it too. It paralyzed him mentally and physically until "the great machine of the army" laid its "iron touch" on his mind and body and enabled him to go on. Before his first battle, Corporal Pierce heard a band in a nearby valley playing taps for the dead of its regiment. The music left him with a "helpless, hopeless," frightened feeling.

Monday, February 11, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Combat

     The acrid scent of exploding shells and charred buildings; the odors of poison gas, of muddy ground, of excrement; and the sweetish smell of corpses that pervaded the battleground affected AEF troops deeply and lastingly. Corporal Pierce remembered travelling for two miles over a recent battle site that reeked of decaying flesh. Several days after a battle, Private First Class Thurmond Baccus of the Eighty-second Division wrote from an area where the burial squad had still not finished its work: "I had rather smell gas than the odor of men and horses." The men in burial details lived with the stench of the dead, which permeated their clothing and stayed with them when they went to eat and sleep. Major Raymond B. Austin of the First Division sent his men out to bury the dead French Moroccans lying near his command post "or almost be driven out oursellves. Sights don't trouble me, but the other--no one ever gets used to that."
     Facing fire was something elsee most men never got used to--the experience of hugging the forward inside slope of a foxhole while bullets buried themselves in the side behind; walking or running while clouds of metal whistled through the air; being bombed or shelled. "To be shelled is the worst thing in the world," Hervey Alled declared. "It is impossible to adequately imagine it. In absolute darkness we simply lay and trembled from sheer nervous tension. There is a faraway moan that grows to a scream and then a roar like a freight train, followed by a groundshaking smash and a diabolical red light."
     Lieutenant Lawrence recalled how he gritted his teeth and clenched his hands and drew his muscles rigid while shells exploded near his foxhole, and how when a large shell screamed a few feet over the heads of his men, they fell to their kneess as if they were one man, throwing the column into disorder. Lawrence noted that even veterans jerked and twisted as they lay under a heavy barrage. Some men began to cry. During his first bombardment, Lieutenant Ranlett's whole body shook convulsively, as if he had a terrible chilll, his knees shook, his fingers and hands moved involuntarily, and he noticed that his voice had a strained, high-pitched sound. Corporal Pierce recalled: "I am soon a nervous wreck. I lose control as the bombardment wears on into hours. I want to scream and run and throw myself. My gas mask irritates me and I am on the verge of throwing it off, gas or no gas. My throat is dry and cracked from the mask but the saliva runs from my mouth and swishes around on my face. When I hear the whistle of an approaching shell I did my toes into the ground and push on the walls of the dugout.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Doughboy in Battle

     Troops saw comrades and enemy soldiers grievously wounded. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a German artillery barrage tore through Harold H. Wadleigh's unit, part of the Eighty-ninth Division. "My platoon was unlucky." Wadleigh recorded in his diary. "We lose heavily." He described how a private in his unit tried to run with both legs off at the knees. In the same battle, Wadleigh observed a German soldier in the same condition begging the Americans to kill him.
     Distance sometimes made it possible to watch the most horrifying sights with detached fascination. Second Lieutenant Louis F.Ranlett observed two columns moving up a hill half a mile away. A fountain of smoke rose into the air between them, and after it cleared, one figure in each column struggled to stand up and staggered away; two other figures raised their shoulders and "fought like mashed ants" to free their shattered legs. Most of the figures looked like dead rags, and some had vanished altogether. Corporal Pierce watched through field glasses as a battalion of green American troops with inexperienced officers moved across a field about two miles away. Pierce realized that many of them would be deadddd in a few minutes when the enemy artillery caught them in the open, but he could not stop watching. He felt like a bird hypnotized by a snake. As the troops reached the middle of the field in perfect order, he heard a distant "crumph" from an enemy battery, followed by a long whistle. Then he observed the shells blowing them apart.
     Some battle noises, like the sound of friendly artillery, were reassuring to those who had learned to distinguish them from hostile sounds. Lieutenant Ranlett recalled how an Allied barrage seemed to shield him as he prepared to move across no-man's-land: "The sound of the shells passing overhead formed a solid, invisible dome. The sound filled the air. It seemed as though one could reach out and touch the sound, pull it away from one's headd, butt one's helmet against it." But troops in battle were usually disturbed and frequently terrified by what they heard--whining and cracking machine-gun and rifle fire; screamins, screeching, and freight-train sounds of large shells; the head splitting concussions of bombs and artillery rounds; and ominous noises of lower amplitude: the dull thud of distant mortars; the swishing, humming and whistling of large projectiles, the "flop," "flop" of poison gas shells; and the screech of a Klaxon horn sounding a gas alarm. Sometimes, after a salvo detonated, they heard screams of such intense agony that it seemed no human being could make them--sounds impossible to rid from one's brain--and the cries of men begging to be shot to death. Shreiks and moans of the wounded tore at the feelings of their friends who could not try to rescue them withoug becoming targets for waiting snipers. For Lieutenant Allen, some of the most terrible sounds of battle were the faint noises in caved-in trenchds where explosions had buried men alive.

David Homsher
American Battlefields of World War I: Château Thierry--Then and Now
ISBN: 97809702444307 $29.95.Winner of three National Book Awards, Available at bookstores everywhere.

Friday, February 1, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

     Allen, Hervey. Toward the Flame, p. 112. Allen's description of a delayed burying-detail is notable for its horror and absurdity, together with a detailed, understated narrative: "Lieutenant Glendenning and I took some men and went back to the 4th platoon trench. We took shelter halves and blankets and went through the ditch and picked up arms and legs and everything else. Some things we just turned under, and the most we buried in a great shell-hole. Then we pulled out the men that were smothered in the dirt; some were cut in pieces by the shell-fragments and came apart when we pulled them out of the bank. Lieutenant Quinn was so mixed with the two men who had lain nearest to him that I do not know yet whether we got things just right. We did not feel this so much at the time--you get numbed after a while." (p.49).
     Theodore Fredenburgh, Soldiers March: (New York, 1930), p.112. Fredenburgh describes the front-line, where "patrols skirmished amid the putrefaction of the valley":
     "On all sides lay great shell holes, half-filled with water. The chalky soil had been churned and rechurned until its vitals were spewed to the surface. Fragments of stained and rotten uniforms projected from the ground. The dirty bones of corpses reached despairingly from the soil that gave them no rest.
     On the floor of the valley a sickly stream flowed. Its banks of yellow mud looked slimy and unclean in the sun. As far as the eye could see the valley continued--a yellow, pestilent muck-heap.
     March, Company K, p.27:
     "The dog sniffed the air. He lifted his voice and howled.
     I got up, then,and put on my pack and a moment later Al joined me. for a moment we looked at the white wall, stil standing, and at the sacred picturee untouched in its place.
     Al walked over to the wall and stood regarding it curiously: 'why should that one wall remain?' he asked. 'Why should it be spared?'
     Then as he stood there adjusting his pack, and fumbling with the rusty catch of his cartridge belt, there came a tearing sound, and a sharp retort, and down fell the wall in a cloud of dust, smothering the heart from which flames weree ascending, and crushing him to death with its weight."
     Hervey Allen, in "Report to Major Roberts," (a novella) in It Was Like This (New York, 1940) combines irony, rhetoric, and objective action in still another vignette, set in the small French town of Crezancy:
     A battalion of Americans and a regiment of Germans had left their dead behind them. The place had been shelled into a shambles. Streets of empty and desolate houses with collapsed roofs and fronts ripped open, the contents gushing out of the doorways like vomit out of a dead man's mouth. The large church in the town square stood with one side cracked open, a large painting of Christ on the Cross looked out over the shivered roofs and gazed at the gentle works of his followers in the year 1918. In the courtyard of the town hall twelve abandoned horses, their eyes swollen shut with gas, milled about miserably and made bleating noises. Dick had them shot."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cooty Bill--continued

     "Well we got up on the hill and then after they told us all about what they wanted us to do they desided they would get 2 or 3 tanks to go with us so they sent somebody to parley with the tank commander but after he was gone about haff an hour he come back and says the tank man told him it would be imposible to get up over the hill at that place and that they would have to go a kilo or 2 out of the way and couldnt be with us for 3 or 4 hours. Well then the officers went off to parley with somebody else or somethin and before long they come back and says that it had been desided not to send out any advanse party but that a general attack had been ordered so we went back to our companys and was pritty glad to get back to you can take it from me and then before long the hole outfit got orders to advanse.
     We all went out over the hill in battel formashun and for a long ways ahead of us there wasn't nothin but a plane with no hills and no trees. We got lined out in 2 waves and squad columns and pritty soon we started. There wasnt no oppisishun at all for a while and at 1st they didnt even shell us and we begin thinkin again they had all run away when all of a sudden a shell come singin along and exploded out ahead of us and nocked a part of a squad to peices like they was so much paper and then we knowed hell was on oncet more. We kept on walkin ahead like there wasnt no shells or nothin and they kept comein faster and faster and all the time we was waitin and expecktin 1 to hit our squad and we wondered where our own artillery was and then orders come to retreat back to the shelter of the hill. We started back and then they said that them orders was wrong and so we had to line up and start forward again and after we had got on out there in the fields and some more fellos got bumped off orders came to take cover in the shell holes which we done toot sweet. The corporal which was in charge of my squad had got mislaid in the shuffel goin back to the hill and so I was put in charge of the squad.
     Well I don't know why we ever done it but we layed out there in them shell holes all that day lettin the botches pour down shells into us and all that time we didnt have no artillery that I could hear but 1 batery of 75s or 3 in. guns which come up late in the afternoon and begin firein. From what I could find out the advanse was held up on the flanks and along in the afternoon 2 platons from my company was sent over to attack with some machine gun outfit which was bein held up and we didnt never get back with them durin the fight untill the last day. I suppose they was expecktin to go any minit and so didnt want to expose us to any more fire goin back to the shelter under the hill.
     The worst part about a battel is waitin for orders to do somethin espeshaly if your waitin at the same time for a shell to come along and bump you off any minit. I never learned nothin so quick in my life as I did about where a shells goin to light from the noise it makes. There aint no way of describin what kind of a sound it is bekause you wouldnt know if I told you but if I would live to be 100 years old and all of a suddin somebody would let out a whine or a skream or whatever you would call it a shell I bet I would jump 20 ft. and light a runnin and make 100 yards in a littel less than nothin flat. The worst skare we had that day all most was in that shell hole. We was layin there when all of a sudden we heard a shell comein right for us zz-e-e-e-o-o and while we was all tryin to push the bottom out of the earth Blooey! she lit only about 50 ft. from us and hurt a coupel of fellos in another shell hole and then when we was just raisein up again and our hearts was gettin down to where they belonged z-z-z-o-o-e-e-e-o-ou and another 1 that didnt hesitate a minit come right strait for us and we shut our eyes and waited for St. Peter and the angels with the littel harps to apear on the seen until they had ought to of had plenty of time to welcome us in and then we opened our eyes again and there only about 3 ft. outside our hole was a coupel of in. of a dud stickin up out of the ground where it had buryed itself. Well dad Ill bet a gost would have had a fine compexxshun compared to us there for a few minutes and for quite a while after that.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Combat

Upon his return to America, Daniel E. Morgan, author of the book When the World Went Mad, wrote an intense letter to the United States Veterans Bureau:
"United States Veterans Bureau,
Washington, D. C.
     Soon after the European war startet, I, Daniel E. Morgan, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. By the time this country declared war I was a well-trained soldier. Being prepared, of course I was among the first to go over.
     During the thirteen months that I stayed on foreign soil, it was my lot to engage in five pitched battles, on five different fronts, as a Sergeant of machine guns in the very midst of the hardest fighting. Records show that these men remained in the front lines longer, and suffered more casualties, than did any other machine gun battalion in the American Expeditionary Forces. In most battles we had to stay in the lines twenty-four hours after our supports were withdrawn, being supports to the troops new in warfare.
     At the offset of a battle the sick and wounded are evacuated, and at once begin to regain their lost strength and vitality. No so with those that must remain to see the thing through. Theirs is a never-ending grinding out of their existence in obedience to the command, "Hold at all costs," the agonies, hardships and horrors of which the half has never been told. I lived three days in an abandoned toilet in the muck and filth, in order to keep alive my half-wrecked body, digging down the dirt from the sides to cover up the dung.
     In my haste to get down below the surface of the earth I dug through the body of a dead man that had been buried, and lived in that hole with the decayed and rotten feet of the dead sticking out. Like a rat on a garbage dump, I crawled from one dead body to another, seeking a crust of bread or a slab of bacon, and when any food was found one could hardly stuff it down for it smelled like decomposed or rotten human flesh. Dead men cannot win a war. Myself and others ate this filthy food. The very atmosphere in those hot July days smelled like an abandoned butcher shop. It was the most horrible kind of sickening, nauseating smell.
     With a bursting headache, eyes sunken in, twitching and jerking nerves, with every fibre of my body strained trying to hang on to life, I lived in this battle along about 27 days without as much as washing my hands or face. In addition to robbing the dead to keep alive, there was the never-ending fear of being blown to pieces. Thousands of big and little shells were tearing their way through the woods. God only knows how we stood it.
     The casualty list  for this battle, Chateau-Thierry, were over 9,000, as the record states. This was the end for them. For me it was only the beginning, one of five battles.
     At another front I lived in the slime and mud of the trenches more than a week without any shoes. I sat at the trigger of a machine gun with my feet wrapped in old bags, in an abandoned patch of barbed wiree, in no man's land. When I took my report to headquarters I borrowed the shoes of one of my boys. In the day time we hid in an old dugout that was half filled with water, shooting the rats and watching them fall into the sump.
     The summer days were passing, and the cold Winter days were rapidly approaching, with additional hardships that must be met by strained and exhausted bodies. Hundreds of boys fell exhausted in the grind. As a Sergeant in charge of four machine guns and crews, I had to keep going. Others could drop out, but not I. I had to keep going, even unto the end. Shall thqt be charged up to me now? I had no thought of compensation or reward.
     Long weary days of forced marches, untold hardships and suffering I manned my guns. Had I evacuated there would have been one less in the struggle. My training as a Marine forbid the slacking of the hand as long as there was a spark of life in the body. The official records bear out this fact.
     Did we not push into the terrible slaughter to the extent of 24,432 casualties? In the one division, namely the Second. Those who evacuated wounded, sick and exhausted, have a clinching argument for compensation. Half dead, it was always my lot to be in the very thickest of the battle, not only dragging along my own wrecked body, but to at all times be on hand to instruct and advise the recruits, of which our division used up 35,343 as replacements who know nothing about the art of war. Shall this be charged against me now?
     November the first saw me still in the lines, fighting fighting for my flag and for my country, a war to stop all wars, so we were told. The bursting, shrieking shells, tearing through the bodies of those alive put the poor devils out of their misery. But by the grace of God I lived through it, drinking the water from the shell holes, crawling among the German dead, drinking the stale beer from their canteens.
     November the tenth, or in the early morning hours of the eleventh, I laid between the ties of a railroad track all in. I could go no further. My limbs were numb and I laid there pounding my legs to keep them from freezing while the newer and fresher men forced their way across the Meuse River."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

                                                                   Somewhere in France
                                                                      October 6, 1918
Dear Dad:
        Well dad were still here in the same place so I will write you another letter today and tell you about the 2nd day of the drive. I have been on the sick book every day for almost a week and have been marked quarters which is pritty lucky for me as usually you have got to have a leg gone or combinashun rumatism and saintvitusdance as Bud says in order to get out of drill by bein sick but sense I aint doin nothin else I might as well tell you about our fight.
       Well the 2nd morning we got woke up about haff past 5 or sooner and say mabe it wasnt a sensashun to open your eyes and find yourself on a hill and wonder where you was and then sudinly realize that you was in a battel and remember what you seen yesterday and what might hapen to you today. 1st we eat a little bully beef and hardtack and then they called the companys together which it was near imposibel to get together bekause of the slippery mud all over the hill and then they says "Boys theres a lot of machine gun posishuns over the hill right ahead of us and we have desided that the best way to clean em out is to send out a detale of men to flank em and take em and we want volunteers to go on this misshun." Well that was some proposhun right early in the morning that way before you hardly got your eyes open but after a littel bit they got the number of men they wanted and I found out I had volunteered to go to though you mustnt think it was bekause I wanted to be a hero bekause by that time I had lost all my ambishuns to be a hero and everything like that and simply went bekause I seen it was my duty and nothin more. As we climed that hill and lined up  to go ahead and get them nests my old heart began tryin to clime out again and I'' bet if I lived to be 100 years old and went to battel every morning my heart wouldnt of learned to act no better on the last mornin than on the 1st bekause theres 1 thing you wouldnt never get ust to or would learn to like and thats havin peopel shoot at you with a rifel and blow you to peices with shells and pour lead into you with a machine gun like a garden hose. If anybody ever says they wasnt skared up in a drive you will know that there ether liars or aint never been there 1 or the other bekause there aint nobody that can wach a man get bumped off without feelin pritty sure that the next shell has got his name wrote all over it and when he hears it comein and aint skared why my names Bill Kaiser thats all and hes just a plane liar if he tells you he wasnt. It aint the man that aint skared thats the brave man its the man thats so skared he cant hardly breathe bekause his heart is where his lungs should ought to be but still goes on anyway and fights till its all over or hes nocked off and theres only 1 way to keep from bein so bad skared and that is to keep goin just as much as you can bekause the more ackshun you get into the less time your goin to have bein afrayed somebodys goin to get you. If you give yourself time to get skared the chanses is that you will do a good job doin it.
                    Excerpted from Cooty Bill by Kirke Mecham, 1919. To be continued

Thursday, January 24, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

     The first experience of the American soldiers in actual warfare cane in the raids into No Man's Land, between the two lines of battle. To crawl at night up to the listening posts in front of the enemy's position in order to obtain information, to seize the occupants of the post if occasion offered, to meed and kill or capture, or at least to drive off an enemy's scouting party, to cut the enemy's wire entanglements--to do any of these things was to acquire training, to become indifferent to mud and danger, and to learn how to take care of oneself in emergencies. These nightly expeditions brought a large number of soldiers into the experience of this particular kind of warfare, the like of which had never been seen in Europe before this war began.
     As the American soldiers became accustomed to night raiding their raids took on a more serious nature. They were carried out by large numbers of men and resulted frequently  in encounters in which several casualties occurred. March 4 in the Lunéville sector the Germans made a strong attack on the Americans and were driven back after some sharp fighting. Their action prompted their opponents to retaliate on the 10th in three large raids planned for simultaneous delivery against points close together. After a heavy bombardment had leveled the German first line trenches the Americans went forward. They found the first line abandoned and went as far as the second line, 600 yards in the rear, before they were ordered back to their own lines. Some of these trenches, it was reported a few days later, were held permanently, thus making the action at Badonvillliers the first sustained advance of the Americans, although it was not the first fighting that may be called a battle.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doughboy in Battle

     What they observed on the battlefield troubled many of  these men, particularly those new to battle. They fought on a gloomy landscape with shattered stumps of trees and ruined buildings and ground so torn up that they could hardly associate it with the earth they had known. Everywhere they saw bodies of men and animals, blackened, maggot-covered objects. The sights made Corporal Vaughn E. Timmins vomit. Wilder C. Hopkins, a teenaged private, responded in a clinical way, taking careful note of the shapes and position of the dead: "In one place a man's head was lying with none of the body anywhere in sight. Another part...with all of the facial features remaining but the center of and back of the head completely gone as was the body." After a platoon in Corporal Ralph T. Moan's company attacked some Germans with machine guns and grenades, Moan noted in his diary that one of the Germans had his head blown off. "It made a ghastly sight, suspended in the barbed wire. " A shell landed not far from Lieutenant Lawrence, who had to walk carefully to avoid stepping into "a bloody mess of flesh and scraps of an American uniform."
     At Château-Thierry, German gunners made several direct hits on a trench near Hervey Allen. The next day, Lieutenant Allen and another officer took a detail to the trench and, using blankets and shelter halves, picked up hands, arms, and other parts and buried them. The explosions had smothered some of the occupants and shredded their bodies, which fell apart as Allen's men pulled them out of the dirt. Later, Allen came upon the wreck of a downed airplane. The aviator, whose buttons identified him as an American, was still sitting in his seat. He had been burned to death and there was nothing left of him but a "blackened, egg-shaped mass."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

AEF Doughboy in Battle

    "I have finally seen what I came over for, and a lot more besides--war, real war, stripped of glory. For what chance has a man against a shell? And how does the awful suffering of trench life compare to the thrilling battles of the Revolution? I don't mean that it doesn't take ten times the nerve and the endurance, but there's the rub, for we have become machines, not men. I know that God will protect us over here, but you realize how absurdly weak and helpless you are when a load of dead are brought in, some with arms and legs gone, others with heads and trunks mixed together; and quite often you learn there wasn't anything left to bring."                                   ---Julian H. Bryan, from Ambulance 464, World War I
     "You who have never seen the horrors of war, who have never seen a man disappear, literally blown to atoms, on being struck by a shell; who have never heard the shrieks of  wounded human beings, who have never heard the hysterical laughter of a man as he gazes at the stump where his hand was a moment ago, who have never heard the cries, the groans, the swearing, the praying of men with festering wounds, lying in the first aid station, waiting too long and in vain for ambulances; who have never witnessed the terror of those men when the aid station is gassed and there are no gas masks, who have never seen convalescents, totally blind and with both hands amputated above the wrist--can you say that we should stop at anything in order to prevent this frightfulness, this savagery, this horror from occurring again?"
   ---Letter dated March 18, 1919 from Wyman Richardson, a wounded soldier, to the editor of the New York Times.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Doughboy in Battle

     The student of tactics soon realized the difference between fighting a battle in imagination and in reality. Imagination cannot bring home to any human brain the extent to which the chess-board dispositions of modern strategy are tempered by the actualities of modern fighting--in other words, by the strain upon the human machine. All the five senses are affected--hearing, by the appalling din; seeing by the spectacle of a whole group of human beings being blown to shreds; smelling, by the reek of gas and explosives; touching by the feel of dead men's faces everywhere under your hand in the darkness; and tasting, by the unforgettable flavor or meat in the mouth after forty-eight hours continuos fighting in an atmosphere of human blood. The War is going to be won, not by the strategist, but by the man who can endure these things most steadfastly.
     We now regard ourselves, justifiably, as initiated. We have been bombarded fairly regularly. We do not like it but we can stand it, which is all that matters--as eels probably remark while being skinned. We are getting used, also, to the sight of sudden death and human blood. These things affect us less than we expected. It is all a matter of environment. If you were to see a man caught and cut in two between a street-car and a taxi-cab in your own home town, the spectacle would make you physically sick and might haunt you for weeks, because such incidents are not part of the recognized routine of home town life. But here, they are part of the day's work: we are prepared for them: they are what we are in the War for. And, curiously and providentially, it seldom occurs to any of us to suspect that it may be his turn next. Thus all-wise Naturee maintains our balance for us.
    We have made another interesting discovery about Nature, and that is that habit can be stronger than instinct, and pride than either. The first law of Nature is said to be the instinct of self-preservation. Yet, the average soldier, even in the inferno of modern warfare, gives less trouble to his leaders when under shell-fire than when his dinner does not come up to the usual standard, or he has run out of cigarettes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


     Rats as big as half-grown opossums fell through the tar paper in the ceiling of his dugout, landing on soldiers, and then running like frightened rabbits. It was hard for him to keep them from getting under his blanket. Sergeant Mosher told his mother he had gotten used to rats dropping on his blankets and playing around his feet. But when he woke up suddenly and found himself knocking one off his neck, it was "something else." Sergeant J. Walter Strauss, asleep in a pup tent on an old battlefield in Belgium, woke with a start. A rat was chewing on his hair. "It was tough sleeping after that," Strauss said, "and I became exhausted because of lack of sleep."
     Sleepleshess, days and nights at a time, was the lot of front-line troops. those who got used to cooties and omnipresent rats and could sleep jammed next to one another in dugouts and foxholes or doze off near-frozen in soaking uniforms were weakened by gas alarms, some of them for real gas attacks. In Sergeant Charles R. Blatt's unit, about a dozen gas alarms sounded between sunset and daybreak, forcing everyone to put on their uncomfortable masks. Repeating nightmares, in which he felt unable to move, terrified Corporal Pierce and made him afraid to doze off. Men saw the horrors of the battlefield reenact themselves in silent dreams. Even a trip to recuperate behind the lines did not guarantee rest. When the Twenty-ninth Division was taken out of action for a time, 2nd Lieutenant Joseph D. Lawrence was assigned to a bed with another officer, but each man smelled so badly that they both found it hard to fall asleep.
     Going without sleep, marching long distances with a heavy pack over roads that sometimes turned to liquid mud, and the exertion of battle wore troops out physically and mentally. According to George C. Marshall, a colonel on the AEF staff, during the last offensive of the war many American soldiers died of exhaustion.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Doughboy Attacks

   A few minutes were spent in clearing up some minor points and then each of us went to his particular work. How many of that group of fine young men, as they stood there wishing each other "the best of luck," ever thought that within a short time many of them would be dead or badly wounded. It is a good thing that we cannot see into the future. If we could have seen what was to happen within the next twelve hours, how would we have felt?
    At 6:45 the First Sergeant reported that the company was ready. Giving the company a brief outline of our plan of attack, cautioning against wasting ammunition, I directed them to push the attack and to get at the enemy with the bayonet. Then I allowed the men the few remaining minutes before zero hour to themselves.
    Of those who have waited in position for the signal to attack, who can explain the feelings or thoughts of a soldier during the last few minutes before a battle? He fixes his bayonet, sees that his rifle is working properly, loads it, turns the safety lock, doing a dozen things, automatically from force of training. Just a faint trace of nervousness. Still there is a great deal of 'kidding' among the men. One young soldier drew the edge of his bayonet back and forth across the sole of his shoe just as a man would strop a razor. His 'Buddy' asked, "What are you going to do, shave the Kaiser?" The reply was, "Just preparing for a painless operation on my friend 'Fritz'." Another pair of habitual gamblers were trying to make bets on each other as to who would get wounded first. Never a thought of themselves, or of what might be their individual fate; no patriotic 'ballyhoo' as to why they were in France or the enemy in front of them. A few of us were thinging of a wife and children, hoping if it was our turn to 'GO WEST,' that the folks back home would not feel too badly.
During the short interval the hands of my watch moved to 6.50 to 6.55, then to 6.56. When the smoke bombs fell on the enemy line at 6.59 the platoon commanders were signalled to get ready. Watching the second-hand make the last trip around, as the minute-hand reached the hour I gave the signal to attack. Company B 'Goes over the top.' We are in it at last and hell breaks loose. Since that day as a commander of other companies, battalions and various units never have I seen a finer body of men. They went at the task as calmly, and under perfect control, as if they had been on a drill field.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Doughboy in Combat

America's participation in World War I, though short, was a ghastly and harrowing experience for the men who reached the front line trenches. There death was so omipresent that it was in sight and in the air. Many doughboys lived through such days and nights they would never forget. A young lieutenant, after the battle of St. Mihiel, told his parents that of all the horrors of war--the overwhelming smell of death, and life in the trenches--the one sight he could hardly bear was of "brave fellows lying to blacken in the sun and rot where they fell." Yet, he concluded, the "Hun, man for man is no match for the American."

Everywhere along the borders of "no man's land," men "slept with nerves taut with anticipation and in the consciousness of a nightmare." Some tried to evade the sounds of war by sleeping in deep dugouts; others, oppressed with a consciousness of space, slept in the open. Everywhere, and always, there was shock.

A young Marine wrote his mother that the fighting in Belleau Wood was so horrible that it was sheer luck, and not prayer or supplication, which allowed for survival. A young officer described death as a horrible sight, "tho one becomes more or less accustomed to seeing the dead."

In the Argonne, the fighting resembled all of the horrors of past Wildernesses and of future Ardennes. As one First Division soldier put it: "I have lost all track of time and hardly know when one day ends and another begins--and, as for the days of the week, I haven't known that for weeks."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What was it like to live as a Doughboy?

When they reached their destination, the Americans encountered hardships that few had endured until that time. At the front, their basic needs went unsatisfied or were appeased just enough to keep them fighting. They sheltered themselves in water-soaked foxholes and cold muddy trenches, covering their bodies with filthy, tattered clothes and mud-caked blankets. For days at a time they lived without enough to eat.

"To be in the front line of the American army at that time was to go hungry," wrote Lieutenant Hervey Allen.

Letters and diaries of other men record how they craved food all of the time and how monotonous their rations were. Troops in combat suffered from an almost unslakable "battle thirst."

Private William A. Francis of the Fifth Marine Regiment told how at the battle of Belleau Wood, after a water detail failed to appear, "we felt as though we would go mad for want of a drink. I started digging as fast as I could and came to some wet clay. I put this to my tongue. It helped a little as it was very cool."

There was plenty of water in ditches and shell holes--along with poison gas, decaying bodies and body parts, blood, and human and animal waste. Nevertheless, soldiers drank it and suffered the consequences, including dysentery, or blinded themselves by rubbing mustard gas--tainted water into their eyes. The army had taught them how to dig slit trenches and build latrines and had given them equipment to purify drinking water, but some men either could not or would not follow correct procedures. Private Wilder Hopkins of the Thirty-second Division wrote that, "at the battlefront there was no such thing as sanitation."

Some men relieved themselves whereever they happened to be. Soldiers lived in filth continuously, sometimes going for months without taking off their breeches.