Wednesday, March 12, 2008
AEF Doughboy in Battle
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.