Sunday, March 9, 2008
AEF Doughboy in Battle
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.