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.

1 comment:

mlpruett said...

Harold H. Wadleigh in this passage is my Grandfather, I believe. I was very surprised to find this.