Wednesday, March 12, 2008
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
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
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
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.