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."