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.
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1 comment:

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