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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