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."


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