Wednesday, August 26, 2009


    John F. Gilder writes of the psychology of the American soldier in his book Americans Defending Democracy, Our Soldier's Own Stories:            "The conduct of our men was characterized at all times by a remarkable spirit—a spirit difficult to define, but which reached in battle a veritable state of exaltation. It was a spirit which breathed confidence, determination and willingness to make any sacrifices to win.            This spirit was so marked as to be frequently commented upon in the British area. I am sure that no man who has not experienced the ordeal of battle can appreciate the feelings of the officer who sees his men coming out of battle after, perhaps, three or four days and nights of continuous fighting, plastered with mud, scratched and cut by wire and shell splinters, lame and stiff from the water of shell holes in which they have spent the nights, half dazed from shell-shock and loss of sleep, half sick, and frequently burned from poisonous gas and depressed by the loss of comrades whom they have seen killed or wounded about them.            Certainly one must admire the discipline of men who under such conditions keep in column and observe the many rules of the road as they patiently make their way to the rest camp over roads pounded with never-ceasing shellfire, but the officer's admiration turns to devoted affection when under such circumstances he receives from his men the responsive glance and the labored straightening of the exhausted body, which indicates that it is the physical machinery alone that is "all in"—that the spirit remains unimpaired. This has been the experience of our officers with their men.            Cases by the score have occurred where officers and men struck down in battle, in response to their spirit had struggled to their feet and gone on with their companies in the attack only to be hit again. Cases exist in every regiment where men have done this as many as three times before being killed or rendered helpless. This spirit cannot be produced by discipline alone.            The character of our cause had some relation to it. A spirit so intense cannot be developed in a period measured by months. In our case it was the growth of years of zealous effort to compel the recognition of the efficiency of their regiment—effort which involved not only sacrifice, but lack of appreciation and even hostility from some sources. Our men and the new men who gained their spirit were prepared to make any sacrifice to justify their confidence in themselves and their unit, and to this end they seemed to be willing to give their

lives freely."

EXCERPTS FROM SOLDIERS' DIARIES" Rats? What did you ever read of the rats in the trenches? Next to gas, they still slide on their fat bellies through my dreams. Poe could have got new inspiration from their dirty hordes. Rats, rats, rats, tens of thousands of rats—I see them still, slinking from new meals on corpses, crunching between battle lines, their hellish feasts. Full fed, slipping and sliding down into the wet trenches they swarm at night—and more than one poor wretch has been attacked and his face partly eaten off by them while he slept.            Stench? Did you ever breathe air foul with the gasses arising from a thousand rotting corpses. Dirt? Have you ever fought half madly through days and nights and weeks unwashed, with the feverish rests between long hours of agony, while the guns boom their awful symphony of death, and the bullets zip-zip-zip ceaselessly along the trench edge—that's your skyline—and your deathline, too, if you stretch and stand upright.            It was such a horrible grind that one of the boys in the company, who had been studying to be a minister before he left home, learned to swear worse than any man in the whole outfit.            A bayonet charge is a street fight magnified and made ten thousand times more fierce. It becomes on close range almost impossible to use your bayonets. So we fought with fists and feet, and used our guns, when possible, as clubs. We lay in our captured trench for about four hours. The boys, excited, because they still lived, sang and jested and told of queer experiences and narrow escapes they had had.            We were soon in the wood, where it was so dark that we could hardly distinguish friend from foe. I ran in and out among the trees and asked everyone I met who he was. I came upon one big fellow. My mouth opened to ask him who he was, when his fist shot out and took me between the eyes. I went down for the count, but I knew now who he was—he was a German. I got up as quickly as I could, you may be sure, and swung my rifle to hit him in the head, but the stock struck a tree and splintered. I thought I had broken all my fingers.            Gas? What do you know of it, you people who never heard earth and heaven rock with the frantic turmoil of the ceaseless bombardment? A crawling yellow cloud that pours in upon you, that gets you by the throat and shakes you as a huge mastiff might shake a kitten, and leaves you burning in every nerve and vein of your body with pain unthinkable; your eyes starting from their sockets; your face turned yellow green.            Death is everywhere, but we do not believe in it any more. And when on certain mornings, to the sound of cannon, that mix their rumblings with mystic voices of bells, in the devastated church which cries to the heavens through every breach opened in its walls, the chaplain blesses the regiment that he will presently accompany to the firing line.             The soldier in the front line trenches does not hear the enemy's artillery which is firing at him, or if he does hear it it is only as a confused, distant roar or rumble. The American artillery is some miles behind him. All he hears of his own guns is a moderate boom and roar. There is a sound of the clear whistle over his head as the shells pass on their way to "Fritz," which give him a feeling of assurance that he is being well supported and protected. So many of the German shells pass over his head or fall short, or land some distance up or down the line from him, that the constancy of their arrival in close or dangerous proximity is not nearly so great as might be supposed from the enormous number incessantly hurled in his direction.            In places the two lines were not one hundred yards apart, and no movement was possible during daylight. In some of the trenches which were under enfilade fire, our men had to sit all day long under the traverses, as are called those mounds of earth which stretch like partitions at intervals across a trench so as to give protection from lateral fire. Even when there was cover, such as that afforded by depressions or sunken roads, on the hillside below and behind our firing line, any attempt to cross the intervening space was met by fierce bursts of machine-gun and shell fire. The men on the firing line were on duty for twenty-four hours at a time, and brought rations and water with them when they came on duty, for none could be sent up to them during the day. Even the wounded could not be moved until dark.            There are many funny incidents in war, and one I particularly remember was that there were three or four of us in a group when a piece of shell dropped almost in our midst. There was not any great force in it, because before falling it had struck a tree; but as it dropped we started turning up the collars of our coats and rolling ourselves into balls—just as if things like that would make any difference to a bursting shell. However, it is amusing to see how men act like children at such times.             METHODS OF GERMAN SNIPERS               At Alsace, where I was in charge of a sector, with twenty men, it was my duty to study the terrain within my vision, and I had it down so plainly that each morning I could look out and see bushes that had not been there the night before, therefore proving to me that they were put there during the night by enemy patrols either for airplane signals or sniper's posts.            On August 1, 1918, about 9:30 a.m., a sniper in my platoon detected a black object some distance out on No Man's Land. Calling my attention to the mark, he said he saw it move. I was very cautious, because if we were to start firing, it might prove to be only a burnt stump, which it closely resembled, and therefore betray our location to enemy observers.             I studied the object until late that afternoon, when I finally decided to let the boy try his luck. He did, and it was a fine shot, as we saw the object fall. That night our patrol went out and investigated the spot and found the body of a young German skillfully camouflaged the color of the adjoining tree, with a bullet through his forehead. So the boy on the job was responsible for there being one less Hun sniper.             Another night I was sitting at the entrance to what was once an old German dugout when I heard a very mysterious noise out on the barbed wire.            I sent up an illumination rocket to try and see if I could find who the intruder might be. But I could not make out anything because of the density of the shrubbery and old wire. I waited for a while and again I heard noises, but of a different nature this time.             It was a German patrol. One German was crying for help in English, trying to get our boys to answer and go to the supposed American boy's assistance. They would ambush our boys, thus causing many casualties.             Some of these tricks could be detected, such as the cry of cats, birds and dogs, or anything that would cause our boys to waste ammunition or sacrifice their lives by answering.             The ruse of making our boys waste hand grenades and bullets worked successfully one night. On the following night the discovery was made that up in a tree, not far from our trench, sat a camouflaged German, cutting short strands of wire with clippers, thus making us believe there were German patrols breaking through., For a while before the discovery, our boys poured machine-gun and rifle fire into the wire entanglements, only to find that their shooting was in vain. After he was detected, the little Boche in the tree had no more use for his wire cutters or wire.

            Lack of space prevents reference to other methods of warfare that the American boys had to contend with, but it did not take them long to show the Hun that no matter how smart a man might be, there is always one born smarter.

            In William L. Langer's book Gas and Flame in World War I we read:            "We are proud of our Uncle Sam because he didn't show us up before Europe. And American soldiers have taught Europe a few things. I wonder if they'll profit from our system of sanitation? I wonder if they'll learn how to shave a man properly? An American is the only barber who shaves down on the upper lip. Every time I got shaved in France or Germany I thought the end of my nose was going off. Manners we ain't supposed to have, but we showed cultured Europe a few of the fundamentals of a gentleman. Did you ever notice Private Buck, how quickly Private Buck gave his seat to the European ladies? And did you notice how the European men stared at him? And the women graciously thanked him. Here in the home of Kultur the Herrn shove the women around by the scruff of the neck. This little act of chivalry—Americans giving their seats to Frauen and Fräulein—is the talk of all the Rhineland. "Americans are rough and loud and all that, especially in their cups," said a Frenchman to me; "at first we thought them as wild as Mangin's Algerians, but they're gentlemen under the skin." Europe will remember us for things other than the beaucoup francs and viel gelt. And for these, Europe is ever ready with the itching palm.

            It's America first when we get back home. We know what we are now. We were deferential before. We used to feel in the presence of old polished Europe like a country bumpkin suddenly lifted by his bootstraps and thrust on Fifth Avenue in New York City. "When a man comes to himself, " says Woodrow Wilson. The returning soldiers have come to themselves all right. Like the ancient Greek we are ready to call all barbarians born outside the big old land—we've had the Pentecost of Americanism, the fiery apostles are returning. Get ready the incense, ye politicians and editors. You can't fool us anymore."

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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Friday, August 7, 2009


             In Ernest Piexotto's book The American Front, we read:            "The 155's hidden under the trees, were firing in salvoes of four, while up in the Grande Tranché the crack, crack, crack of the "75's" was uninterrupted, barking and yelping like hounds on the chase. Our big barrage was going over.            But very little was coming back. So, as the road was absolutely deserted, we kept straight on until we struck traffic: ambulances and ammunition-trains going up. We hid our car again and soon had reached the P.C., passed it, and were out in the trenches. Here we were told that the infantry had already gone over the top and were now in the German first-line trenches.             Out in the blasted wastes of No Man's Land, however, where hill succeeded hill, once covered with dense forests, not but shell-torn barrens spotted with a few blackened stumps, nothing was visible but the shell bursts that kicked up clouds of dirt or broke in dense balls of smoke. The "doughboys," as had always been the case up to this time, were practically invisible, hidden in shell-holes, in trenches, or under any cover that they could find.


            But soon the wounded began to filter in through the trenches—poor fellows, some walking quite erect with head or hand bound up; others stooping doubled up with pain or fear, their khaki coats spotted with great brownish stains, their faces and hands bloody. Then came the litter-bearers, staggering through the slippery mud up the hill, steadying themselves by a hand pressed against the trench walls as they bore their heavy burdens—still forms stretched flat, immobile, covered with an O.D. blanket from which protruded a pair of spiked shoes with the toes turned up. When we returned to the regimental P.C. these pathetic figures increased in number, for near it a first-aid dressing station had just been established. The stretchers lay upon the ground with the doctors stooping over them. The ambulances came up one by one, were filled as fast as the wounds were dressed, and dispatched to the rear.             To our left was a division of French Colonials, Senegalese as black as ink. Their wounded were also coming in, and one of the most striking pictures  I saw that day was one of these negro giants borne like a bronze knight on the shoulders of four prisoners—a group reminiscent of the statues on some mediaeval tomb.            By now the prisoners were arriving in squads; then they were brought in by droves. In the first lot I counted no less than a hundred and forty; in the second over a hundred, and still they steadily poured in. Most of them were serious-looking men of middle age, who certainly seemed glad to be through with it, flinging down their helmets with gestures that plainly said: "Thank God, that's over." A few were slightly wounded but the great proportion wore new uniforms, clean, unspotted with mud, showing clearly that they  had given up without a struggle; in fact, had dressed to go into captivity. Their sergeants lined them up in double ranks, under the watchful eye of their own lieutenants, while our men looked on with frank curiosity. Then they were questioned by our own Intelligence officers and marched off to the rear, shambling off with stooped shoulders under the guard of a few alert and rosy-cheeked young New Englanders.

            All day long they continued to pour in, and that evening, at Rarécourt, the accommodations provided were so inadequate to the numbers that had come in, that I saw hundreds of them huddled together, crowded into temporary pens, fenced round with barbed wire, passing the night in the drizzling rain—living evidence of our victory."

            In The Story of the 168th Infantry we read:            "Suddenly, with the instantaneity of a lightning flash, the whole north seems to rise up in flames and hurl itself forward—like an agile, hungry tiger leaping down upon its prey. With a thunderous, dismaying roar it fall upon the Chamois, raining steel and destruction. There is no need to waken anyone; air and earth tremble with the concussion of bursting shells, and the men at the front, in the support, back in town, all find themselves on their feet without being conscious of the force that placed them there.            In the trenches every post, save those of the lookouts is instantly abandoned. Terrified bodies come rushing, slipping, stumbling, splashing to the dugouts, dodging bits of flying debris, ducking showers of dirt, their path lighted by flashing explosions. Already the wires connecting the front with the reserve are out, and all communication is suspended. From each G. C. rockets shoot heavenward, to be answered almost immediately by the alert artillery—half French, half American. Guards at dugout entrances breathlessly watch and wait, eyes and ears strained for the slightest variation in the deafening turmoil that may signify a shift in the barrage and give warning of the approach of the enemy.            Soon the bombardment resolves itself into one steady roar in which it is impossible to distinguish the individual detonations. The heavy concentration of enemy shells is turning the whole Chamois system into a hecatomb of horror and confusion. Trenches that were, cease to be and leave in their place gaping craters which in turn are torn afresh. Carmine flashes from the northern sky translate themselves into carmine splashes and pools on the furrowed soil. A heavy cloud of smoke and dust, like a gigantic pass to enshroud those torn bodies whose spirits have fled, obscures the waning moon.            Awed and shaken, the men crouch in the dark, oppressive dugouts, waiting for the signal that will send them forth to determine their fate. And while no man of them would avoid the responsibility about to be placed upon him, sudden memories crowd to the fore to make life seem more dear. An attempted jest, a bit of forced laughter, falls unheard from the lips of a comrade, for the pounding of the guns is equaled only by the wild pounding of their own hearts and the heavy breathing of their trembling bodies. A sickening sensation thus to be caged helpless like a hunted animal which awaits only the finishing stroke. At any moment one of the larger shells may bury them all—they  have the alternative of forsaking the inadequate shelter and being blown to pieces in the open trench—or the outnumbering force of picked Stosstruppen may fall upon them before they have an opportunity to defend themselves. The suspense is enough to drive one mad.             For a half hour there is no diminution of the fire. On the front line the enemy continues to rain a devastating storm from his field pieces, while the heavier guns, the 210's are directed on the support, and churn up the trenches about the headquarters of Companies B and D. The communicating boyaux have long since been obliterated, and with all wires severed the front is completely isolated.

            Shortly after five, as the first cold streaks of dawn are rifting the morning sky, the observers at the dugout mouths perceive a slight shifting of the barrage and immediately pass down the information. "Every man to his post," shout the commanders."

             "American Expeditionary Forces, France.                              August 1, 1918.             DEAR MOTHER,--Yesterday I had a wonderful experience; I saw an actual battle from a hill. I lay in a big field of crimson clover, all in blossom, on the top of a sunny hill. It was a beautiful Summer day, hot and brilliant. White butterflies fluttered everywhere; the air was full of the hum of bees; far overhead I could hear two larks singing. Below was a broad valley, a checker-board of yellow and green, ripened wheat fields and green clover; with here and there patches of velvet woods. There were old farmhouses along the road which dipped over the rolling fields and wound away through the tiny forests. On the right was a toy-like village with a big church steeple rising out of the center of it, controlling the whole country.            Then suddenly, our barrage began, like a mighty thundering behind me. The air was filled with the whine and shriek of thousands of shells and the sleepy road in the valley became an inferno. Dust clouds rose hundreds of feet; trees shook, trembled and fell; a shot hit the old tower and it crashed over. Relentlessly, the barrage kept up, beautiful to watch because of its dreadfulness; then it began to roll steadily forward, so that every square yard seemed to be covered. Then like a flash it stopped—the world was deathly still; so still that the hum of the insects became prominent again. Out from the woods below filtered a long thin line of brown American troops, their bayonets flashing in the sun. There came the monotonous rat-tat-tat of the Boche machine guns from the further woods; still they kept on, here and there a man went down, his bayonet making an arc of fire as he fell. Behind them came another wave, and another, and another, till every field was full of advancing men. They entered the woods and the fields were empty again, and—as if someone had pushed an electric button, the deafening barrage began anew, sweeping the woods clean before the hidden infantry.             Suddenly the barrage stopped and from the woods came a long grey column of about 600 BochePrisoners, a snake-like line, that wound away down the dusty road to the rear. The attack was over for the day—the woods that had so menaced our advance with their machine gun nests all clean and free. To-night we shall be on the march once more—still going forward, close on the heels of the Crown Prince's veterans. All my love, TREVENEN."                                                                                                                                                                 August 15, 1918            "I passed through several villages which have come into our hands only within the last week,--every one of them the scene of fierce and bloody fights. You can have no idea of the devastation, the complete desolation, of these pretty French villages which the artillery of each side has reduced to a battered mass of ruins; where the roofs and walls of the houses are still standing they are pitted with shell holes; of the rooms inside, perhaps one corner is left untouched with pictures on the walls, furniture standing, and in some places the tables set with dishes and the remains of a meal still there; the other corner is a heap of rubbish, piles of stone and timber which have fallen from a gaping hole in the roof above. The roads are full of shell holes, gardens destroyed, fruit trees sawed down, and the beautiful shade trees shattered and torn by the hail of shells and bursting shrapnel they have suffered. Everywhere along the roads and in the houses are scattered old rifles and uniforms, equipment of all kinds left behind or abandoned in the struggle, piles of shells and empty shell cases, guns and cannon destroyed or deserted, everywhere waste, ruin and destruction that makes one sick to look upon. How I pity the poor French inhabitants who will return to find their homes shattered masses of stone, in ruins as complete as if a mighty earthquake had leveled each house to the ground.            Yet the French will come back and immediately set about restoring their houses as best they can. In Chateau-Thierry the inhabitants followed the troops so closely that two days after the last German had been driven back from the town the French families began to come back.

            Surely no people with such indomitable courage as that can ever be crushed or conquered."

             "We had revised our idea of an offensive, and decided that, with all its disadvantages it had its good points, an admission never  found in the best-seller versions of warfare. In a quiet sector, life is fairly comfortable, with deep dugouts, trenches, and all that,--but you get stale. There is a  nervous strain and various other unpleasantnesses, yet no results are ever apparent. You simply get stale. It begins to look like an endless job.—But in a drive it's different! You can see the results of your work. When you go into action over dead Boche horses which are still warm, you realize that you are advancing. You are doing what you enlisted to do, and doing it hard. There is a chance for the enthusiasm and dash of other wars—so hopelessly lost in the deadlock of trench warfare. The roads teeming with armed men, columns of artillery stretching for miles, fields alive with troops infected with the spirit of the advance, prisoners streaming back, great panoramas of open country, changing scenes, excitements, quick alarms; all of these jumbled together produce a state of exhilaration."              In James Cooke's book, The Rainbow Division, we read:            "There is a strange transformation that the soldier undergoes. The report of any gun, at first, makes him jumpy, but the report of his own guns—these being nearer usually—make him jumpiest of all. But when he becomes acclimated, becomes accustomed to the work at the front, there is nothing that adds to his peace of mind and contentment like the crack of his own guns near at hand. When your own guns are belching a heavy torrent of  steel over your heads, you, if you are a seasoned campaigner, sleep a sweet sleep that know no dreams.            Lt. Thompson's feeling of isolation increased as he saw GC 9. The untried lieutenant recalled:            The sight that greeted us brought an immediate and positive reaction. "Desolate" was the only name for it. A mass of rusty barbed wire was sitting on crisscrosses of posts that seemed to grow from the ground. Ghost-like trees to the right were splattered with shell scars. Some had fallen into the mass of twisted wire and upturned earth. Others were broken off at various heights, like so many match sticks. The expanse of desolation sloped up a gentle rise. The German trenches were hidden behind the crest some two hundred yards away.            As he toured the line, Thompson was overpowered by a sickening stench. French intelligence was examining the body of a dead German soldier to find documents and to confirm the dead man's unit for order of battle information. The young officer became so violently ill that he staggered back to the dugout, where he was still overwhelmed by the smells of death, unwashed bodies, human excrement, rotting equipment, and spoiling food.             He watches as the ever-present "Slum" was served to the troops, who had no rags to clean their mess tins. An old wad of newspaper or crust of bread was used to wipe the greasy mess-plate that a few minutes before had held stew. All the lessons in military hygiene that Thompson had learned were invalid once in GC 9. A few minutes later, he looked at his wooden bunk, one of many in a tier, and underneath the bottom bunk stood ankle-deep water. On a small table a single flickering candle illuminated the dugout, and all Thompson could feel was a sense of isolation and desolation."