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."