Sunday, June 28, 2009


            In A Corporal Once, by Leonard Nason, we read:            The afternoon wore on, the shadows began to lengthen, then, as the column slowly dragged its weary length up a long slope, the setting sun gleamed redly at them through the ghost of a long dead wood, set on fire by shells and burned weeks ago, and that now leered at them like a skeleton. They halted here again in the ditch. There were no ambulances now, and no talking. The men sat silently in the gathering darkness, some leaning back against their packs, trying to sleep, others peering about them anxiously, trying to see what lay ahead, or to gather some idea from the black woods before them as to what was going on. From time to time one could hear the soft thud of a pack being punched into more comfortable shape, the clink of a stopper striking against a canteen as some thirsty soldier drank, the crash of a rifle falling against the hard stones of the road.             For all there was a battle raging, the road was very still, save once in a great while, when the wind blew from the north, there would be a faint rattling, like a distant trolley car crossing a switch. What were they waiting for? No one knew. But down the road a few yards was the place where the drive had started that morning. The unburied dead lay thick in that road and on the fields, and the place was strewn with abandoned rifles and equipment. There is nothing so shattering to the morale of green troops as the sight of dead, so this column was being held until darkness before being taken through the zone where the troops had jumped off that morning.             "Godamighty!" exclaimed someone. "Lookit the Huns!"

            Exclamations ran along the column, a mutter of excitement. Coming up the road, escorted by a mounted M. P. was a long grey, column, prisoners. They marched calmly along, four abreast, looking neither to the right nor left, stolid and taciturn. The leader of the column was an officer, evidently of high rank, judging by his glittering boots and gleam of gold on his high collar and wide shoulder straps. He had a monocle screwed into his eye, at which the doughboys jeered derisively, and were promptly taken to task by their officers. Wasp-waisted, erect, his grey uniform fitting him like a glove, the officer stalked on, more as if he were leading a Potsdam review than a march to the prison pens. After him came several ranks of non-commissioned officers, distinguished by their superior bearing and the white facing on their collars. Then the rank and file, the cannon food, dirty, bearded, stinking with a small that is beyond belief, shambling, scuffling by, some wearing their coal-scuttle helmets, others the round cap, many bareheaded. They were of all ages, from smooth-faced boys to gray-bearded men. The uniforms were ill fitting and worn. Some of them plodded along stolidly, as though one place was as good as another, which it probably was, as far as they were concerned. The younger ones grinned bashfully at the Yanks. One or two of the older ones let the hate that was in them show in their eyes, and when one crossed looks with an infantryman, the Yank felt his spine creep."

            In God Have Mercy on Us!, by William Scanlon, we read: "The Attack:            "Tanks now came up from the rear and pass through us. The German artillery swings into action with a vengeance. Most of the fire is directed at the tanks, but as usual they shoot high and the shells burst among us. We curse the tanks.            We move forward…The tanks are about three hundred yards ahead…The German artillery and machine guns are working fast…And there is no sound in back of us of our own artillery answering…The wheat through which we are moving is full grown…We advance continuously, at a walk, without getting down…Our bayonets are held down, so they will not flash in the sun. They get tangled up in the long wheat and we have to tug to get them loose, pulling up the wheat…            The machine gun fire encountered before the town of Bouresches was bad but the fire now is a thousand times worse….It is like a hailstorm…My body is bent forward as though forcing myself through a heavy rain…My free hand clutches my blouse, pulling it tighter about my body…There are little crooked paths through the wheat…At the end of each little path lies a dead soldier…They would be hit, then stagger and drop…The bullets mow down the wheat…            Sergeant McFadden has the group next to me, on the left…He is leading…All of a sudden he swerves around, facing our group…He has a terrified, surprised look of agony on his face…His hand clutch at the air one moment, then they wrap themselves about his stomach…His teeth gnash…Biting the air, he staggers back and falls, close to my group…            Young runs over to help him, but McFadden is dead.            We approach a road lined with trees. Someone in my group cries, 'Look!' I turn. He is pointing up at a tree in the road. The figure of a man shows through the leaves. The men drop to their knees and fire. A German machine-gunner and his gun crash to the ground. No orders to fire had been given.             Across the road a tank stood motionless. The front of it had been damaged. Through an opening in the side we could see the charred remains of the operator. The whole inner portion of the tank had been lined with shells. A direct hit had penetrated the tank and caused all these shells to explode. It was a fiery oven with no chance to escape. It was still smoking as we passed by.            Three of our officers were down on the right behind some tanks when several shells crashed in the midst of them and messed them up pretty badly.            Word came from the right to swing back in the original direction. This meant we had to cross back over the road with the trees again and out into the open stubble-field. I was on the left flank now. This meant I had to go far enough out in the field to permit the other groups to get in.            I started across on a run, but as soon as I figured there was enough room for all, I faced to the east. The men crowded up, and first it was, 'Give way on the left,' then, 'Close over on the right.'             The machine guns were soon trained on us again and the men dropped fast. Two hundred yards ahead was an embankment that meant certain protection.

            Spud Murphy was over on my right, about ten men between us. I saw Spud stop, turn, and crumple down. He had been ripped open with machine-gun bullets. He died instantly."

            In the book Fix Bayonets! by John W. Thomason, Jr., we read:"Battle Sight...There was always good feeling between the Marines of the 2d Division and the Regular Army units that formed it, but the Marines and the 2d Engineers—"Say, if I ever got a drink, a 2d Engineer can have half of it! – Boy, they dig trenches and mend roads all night, and they fight all day! An' when us guys gets all killed off, they just come up an' take over the war! They's no better folks anywhere than the Engineers…"The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him, and he came again. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine-guns scourged the place, but he could not make head against the rifles. Guns he could understand; he knew all about bombs and auto-rifles and machine-guns and trench mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle-fire, that comes from nowhere in particular and picks off men—it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him.

And trained Americans fight best with rifles. Men get tired of carrying grenades and chaut-chaut clips; the guns cannot, even under the most favorable conditions, keep pace with the advancing infantry. Machine-gun crews have a way of getting killed at the start; trench-mortars and one-pounders are not always possible. But the rifle and bayonet goes anywhere a man can go, and the rifle and the bayonet win battles. Toward midday, this 6th of June 1918, the condition around Hill 142 stabilized. A small action, fought by battalions over a limited area of no special importance, it gave the Boche something new to think about, and it may be that people who write histories will date an era from it."

Friday, June 12, 2009


    Sleeplessness, days and nights at a time, was the lot of front-line troops. Those who got used to carnivorous insects and omnipresent rats and could sleep jammed next to one another in dugouts and foxholes or chose to doze off in soaking uniforms were wakened by gas alarms, some of them for real gas attacks. In Sergeant Charles R. Blatt's unit, about a dozen gas alarms sounded between sunset and daybreak, forcing everyone to put on uncomfortable masks. Repeating nightmares, in which he felt unable to move, terrified Corporal Pierce and made him afraid to doze off. Many men saw the horrors of the battlefield reenact themselves in silent dreams. Even a trip to recuperate behind the lines did not guarantee rest. Then the Twenty-ninth Division was taken out of action for a time, 2nd Lieutenant Joseph D. Lawrence was assigned to a billet with another officer, but each man smelled so badly that they both found it hard to fall asleep.            Rats as big as half-grown opossums would run all over the battlefield and the trenches, some even falling through the tar paper in the ceiling of dugouts, landing on the soldiers inside, and then running like frightened rabbits. It was hard for the men to keep the rats from getting under their blankets. Sergeant Mosher told his mother he had gotten used to rats dropping on his blankets and playing around his feet. But when he woke up suddenly and found himself knocking one off his neck, it was "something else." Sergeant Walter J. Strauss, asleep in a pup tent on an old battlefield in Belgium, woke with a start. A rat was chewing on his hair. "It was tough sleeping after that," Strauss said, "and I became exhausted from lack of sleep."  Another soldier awoke from a stab of pain—a rat had bitten a piece out of the man's ear lobe!             To find in the morning that, during the night, a chummy rat had sallied forth from his quarters under the floor, had broken through the barricade that the boys had erected each night around their haversacks to keep them out, and had cut the strings of a shoe or the thongs of a haversack and had helped himself to hardtack or—worse yet—cookies, was an ordinary occurrence that merely drove home the truth that we were indeed living close to nature."              "For what seemed like years, life had consisted of death in a thousand forms, of rifle and machine-gun fire, of artillery barrages, of attack and defense, of woods and shattered trees, broken bodies, cries of the wounded, tiny gouges of earth as home, a candle in a tin can for a stove, a thirst never assuaged, a body never clean, the same clothes, filthy and lice-infested, bowels tortured by foul rations and relieved in stinking slit trenches, cold nights without blankets, hot days in wool uniforms, everywhere the stench of dead—the complete, awful, humiliating sordidness of combat that once they supposed to be grand."In The American Army in France, General James G. Harbord tells us:"The heroes of the AEF in front of the enemy sprang from every racial strain that has contributed to our national life. They wore names that have been the best names among every modern people. Largely derived from the British Isles, there were also many from the German lands; not a few from Scandinavia; some from lands where names can  hardly be written except with a predominance of consonants; many of the soft-sounding names along and around the Mediterranean; a sprinkling from the Balkans and Slav countries; some from distant Asia and the isles of the Eastern sea. Caught by the draft, the men came from every part of our great country. The wounds from which they suffered and some died, and the sacrifices they made were as varies as the instrumentalities with which men make modern war. Remaining at the front when wounded, until carried back or compelled by orders to go, was a common case. Rushing out under withering fire to rescue a fallen comrade, carrying him sometimes hundreds of yards to safety was so frequent as to be the expected thing. Taking over command of a unit at the death of disabling wounds of all seniors and instantly rising to the responsibilities thus assumed was the rule of the hour. As we say in the Army, "the Commanding Officer never dies." A successor always takes over. Runners shot as they ran with messages and reports, and dragging themselves with broken legs or other disabling injuries to insure the delivery of the message—it happened many times. The taking of a machine gun or its nest at the cost of a man's life was an ordinary sacrifice. The deeds of heroism came from all ranks and from all units. Many a man gives his life sheltering or carrying a comrade. Medical officers and corpsmen dress wounds under fire as coolly as if in an isolation ward in a city hospital. Field hospitals partly blown away by a shell leave the surgeon uninterrupted at his operating table. Men with eyes blinded by gas stay in line and keep the touch. Man with an arm or hand shot off carry on until they drop from shock or loss of blood. A soldier puts his foot on a hand grenade which there is not time to throw away, losing his foot but saving his comrades of the group. Seizing hand grenades to throw them away happened often." 13In War Notes of a Casual, Harold Riegelman tells us:"Our exhausted Battalion—what was left of it—was relieved at last. The men were tired, completely tired. Just the knowledge that relief is at hand releases the feeling of utter weariness which is held at bay so long as there is work to do wherein weariness has no place.It is wonderfully good to come out of the line—to come away from the incessant bombardment, the ever-alertness for gas, the casualties and the millions of flies which are inescapable. When you go in, you are tuned up to those things. While you are in they are part of a day's job. The cold meals of canned stuff are part of it. The hole one sleeps in, the clothes one wears interminably, the occasional meal cooked in the rear and cooled en route are part of it. You don't realize that those things are repellant until the promise of rest comes and the reconnaissance by officers of the incoming units begins. That sort of lets down the floodgates and you want to be out and clean and fed and rested. After that it doesn't matter. In battle you are suddenly plumped down amidst roofless buildings with gaping walls, stinking with swollen lifeless livestock, shuddering with an occasional rush of steel overhead and the scream and burst of a shell that finds a nearby mark. Your mind and body are prepared for the ordeal. The thing is expected. It is part of the game. All of you is tuned up to it. You automatically appraise the possibilities of shelter when the carnage was at its height. The answer is not easy. You remark the impossibilities—an unscathed bottle standing on a shelf next to a shell hole in the wall; a pitcher filled with water, the handle shot away; a child's doll unscarred astride the wreck of a baby carriage (you do not examine the carriage too closely); a perfectly intact glass plate over the entrance to a home, every other portion of which has been reduced to debris—debris destined for the re-making of the road. You wonder how these dwellings will be re-built, whether they will be rebuilt, whether they will be re-created with their former century-old inadequate arrangements. And so you go on, your eyes penetrating into nooks and corners that had not seen the light of day for ages—discovering every conceivable form of destruction, until you have had your post-graduate course in the modern School for Vandals and have been duly Kultured. And all this is as it should be. It is expected.Out in the open country it is also as it should be. The road-side, marked by German printed signs, is littered with German equipment, helmets, packs, clothes, gasmasks, extra canisters and piles of abandoned ammunition, casings, fuses, projectiles. The further on you go, the more dead horses in various stages of decomposition soil the air and, for the first day, lift the floor of your stomach. The fields are freshly shell-ploughed. The roads less passable. Distant booming becomes sharpened and the ear-splitting orchestra is before, beside and behind you. Troops are forming to take their place on the crest of the advancing wave. High above, an observation balloon hangs. Airplanes are humming over-head. In front, a black speck appears in the sky and becomes the center of little dark puffs of smoke that hand motionless a while and dissolve. The black speck wheels and vanishes in the sky. Scattered about, under trees and vari-colored tarpaulins are groups of artillerymen, some in their undershirts. Horses and mules are picketed under cover. Trees broken, torn and twisted by shell-fire. This is just behind that intangible ever forward-moving "line" which is not a line at all but an irregular, slow, resistless, forward moving surge of dirty blue and muddy brown.In its wake are a number of detached things that force their pictures upon one's brain. The temporary graves, side by side, of American, French and Boche soldiers, little mounds surmounted by stark crosses by the road. You gaze across the valley and over the Marne to a point where two hills meet shoulder to shoulder, a sort of miniature Thermopolae where the modern Spartans were clothed in khaki.You note in passing the spot where an American major held his battalion in reserve and, when the French broke, stepped before his men, revolver in hand, and gave the order to shoot any Frenchman who attempted to pass. And on that spot the French turned and with our men beat back the Hun. 14Don Lawson, in his book The United States in World War I, says:

"Many doughboys felt, however, that actual combat above ground was not nearly so grim as day-to-day life below ground in the trenches.  Most trenches and dugouts were wet and cold even in good weather. When it rained, which it seemed to do most of the time at the front, the walls and floors would be awash with water. The only light was provided by feeble candle flames, and those often went out in the foul air. The men also lived in constant fear of the sounding of a klaxon horn announcing a gas attack."

        "We're living in the dark underground vaults with the snails," was the way one Yank described it in a letter home. "A few days of this and you begin to wish for 'Zero Hour' and an attack against the Hun. Actually the Hun seems to be the least of our problems. In addition to the snails coming out of the dugout walls when it rains we have trench rats visiting us nightly. They can shred leather shoes like razor blades."

David Homsher
American Battlefields of World War I: Chateau-Thierry--Then and Now
ISBN: 97809702444307 $19.95.
Winner of three National Book Awards. Available at bookstores everywhere.
and on website:
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Monday, June 1, 2009


    "Every soldier at the moment of going into battle, trembles, is afraid, wishes he could escape from it. The noise is dreadful; the men rush forward, never walk; each one is watchful lest a companion may read fear in his face; no one cries out lest he be shot down; thus a whole regiment goes into battle, playing the part of bravery, yet sick of the whole business.     Under bombing and artillery attack, troops felt utterly helpless, incapable of responding to what was being done to them, uncertain, paralyzed, afraid to perform basic physical functions. Ralph Seifert, a sergeant with the 103rd Sanitary Train, had gone behind a stone wall to relieve himself when he heard a shrieking sound directly overhead, and almost in the same instant, a bang. "I knew it was a shell"; he wrote his father. "It scared me, so I used all my paper in one wipe and grabbed a handful from a pile that was along side of me, used it and pulling my britches up, made for a dugout.            An emotion that battle commonly evoked in these men, even in the brave, the stoical, and those eager to fight, was fear, which took many forms. Before their first battle, new men not only worried about combat itself but were afraid they would succumb to fright. Veterans feared crippling and disfigurement. Lieutenant Allen remembered how he heard someone playing a sentimental song as he was getting ready to go into battle and how the music aroused in him fear and nostalgia at the same time, an acute longing for his loved ones, despair and anxiety about the next day's "indignities," together with a sense that the war would last forever. He called all this the "Just-Before-the-Battle-Mother" feeling and noticed that others felt it too. It paralyzed him mentally and physically until "the great machine of the army" laid its "iron touch" on his mind and body and enabled him to go on. Before his first battle, Corporal Pierce heard a band in a nearby valley playing taps for the dead of its regiment. The music left him with a "helpless, hopeless," frightened feeling."              Author of Ambulance 464, Julien H. Bryan tells us:            "I have finally seen what I came over for, and a lot more besides—war, real war, stripped of glory. For what chance has a man against a shell? And how does the awful suffering of trench life compare to the thrilling battles of the Revolution? I don't mean that it doesn't take ten times the nerve and endurance, but there's the rub, for we have become machines, not men. I know that God will protect us over here, but you realize how absurdly weak and helpless you are when a load of dead are brought in, some with arms and legs gone, others with heads and trunks mixed together; and quite often you learn there wasn't anything left to bring." 12            "The student of tactics soon realizes the difference between fighting a battle in imagination and in reality. Imagination cannot bring home to any human brain the extent to which the chess-board dispositions of modern strategy are tempered by the actualities of modern fighting—in other words, by the strain upon the human machine. All the five senses are affected—hearing by the appalling din; seeing, by the spectacle of a whole group of people being blown to shreds; smelling, by the reek of gas and explosives; touching, by the feel of dead men's faces everywhere under your hand in the darkness; and tasting, by the unforgettable flavor or meat in the mouth after forty-eight hours continuous fighting in an atmosphere of human blood. The War is going to be won, not by strategists, but by the man who can endure these things most steadfastly.            Still, we have come to school knowing more than most new boys—far more, indeed, than our seasoned French and British companions knew when they embarked upon their martial education. The American soldier takes to the field today, thanks to the recorded experiences of others, with a serviceable knowledge of trench warfare. Gas is no surprise to him, and he is familiar with the tactical handling of bombs, machine guns, and trench mortars.            Up to date, however we have not by any means drunk deep of warlike experience, for the good reason that authorities are breaking us in by stages. We now regard ourselves, justifiably, as initiated.            We have been bombarded fairly regularly. We do not like it, but we can stand it, which is all that matters—as eels probably remark while being skinned. We are getting used, also, to the sight of sudden death and human blood. These things affect us less than we expected. It is all a matter of environment. If you were to see a man caught and cut in two between a street-car and a taxi-cab in your own home town, the spectacle would make you physically sick and might haunt you for weeks, because such incidents are not part of the recognized routine of home town life. But here, they are part of the day's work: we are prepared for them: they are what we are in the War for. And, curiously and providentially, it seldom occurs to any of us to suspect that it might be his turn next. Thus all-wise Nature maintains our balance for us.            We have made another interesting discovery about Nature, and that is that habit can be stronger than instinct, and pride than either. The first law of Nature is said to be the instinct of self-preservation. Yet the average soldier, even in the inferno of modern warfare, gives less trouble to his leaders when under shell-fire than when his dinner does not come up to the usual standard, or he has run out of cigarettes."              "Leaving my little pack, I wandered a few rods onto the battlefield, for I indeed was curious. There were fresh holes, thick in proportion as those in a sieve, and there were dandy rifles, now rusting, any one of which I would have welcomed with a scream of delight when a boy. Dozens of little bombs were scattered about, not yet exploded. There were machine-guns, all smashed up, with blood and helmets near. The German "potato-masher" bomb was everywhere. Whole bands of ammunition lay about. Little wires ran here and there all through the grass, and I was almost afraid to step lest I explode a mine or something. I sidestepped around many of the big shells, yet unexploded, and bent over close, time and again, to peek at those curious deadly little bombs half hidden in the grass. I wondered why so many good ones were there, but supposed someone got tired carrying them and dropped them or else in their flight the Boche had deserted them.            Now I had seen a battlefield. Since a little chap, I had read of such things but little expected to see a real one."             "What they observed on the battlefield troubled many of these men, particularly those new to battle. They fought on a gloomy landscape with shattered stumps of trees and ruined buildings and ground so torn up that they could hardly associate it with the earth they knew. Everywhere they saw the bodies of men and animals, blackened maggot-covered objects. The sights made Corporal Vaughn E. Timmins vomit. Wilder C. Hopkins, a teenaged private, responded in a clinical way, taking careful note of the shapes and positions of the dead; "In one place a man's head was lying with none of the body anywhere in sight. Another part…with all of the facial features  remaining but the center of and back of the head completely gone as was the body." After a platoon in Corporal Ralph T. Moan's company attacked some Germans with machine guns and hand grenades, Moan noted in his diary that one of the Germans had his head blown off. "It made a ghastly sight, suspended in the barbed wire." A shell landed not far from Lieutenant Lawrence, who had to walk carefully to avoid stepping into "a bloody mess of flesh and scraps of an American uniform."             "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 traveling for two miles over a recent battle site that reeked of decaying flesh. Several days after the battle, Private First Class Thurmond Baccus of the Eighty-second Division wrote from an area where the burial squad still had 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 dead French Moroccans lying near his command post "or else be almost driven out ourselves. Sights don't trouble me, but the other—no one ever gets used to that."