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.

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