Sunday, September 13, 2009


        In the book World War I in Retrospect  we read:            "But all in all I was certainly less miserable there at Brest prior to embarkation than my comrades, for while the company was off unloading lumber in the rain and cold I sat in our sheet-iron billet by the camp stove and, pad on knee, devoted myself to the work of chronicler.            Even without the bargain I had made with the captain I would have been unavailable for heavy work because of an amusing, although extremely painful, episode. One cold and rainy morning in January the company was marched off to the delousing plant, where men and clothes were to receive the kerosene treatment. As right guide of the company, I was first to enjoy the delectable shower, after which, while waiting for my clothes, I stood naked with my back to the red-hot barracks stove. Others soon appeared and there was the usual banter and chatter. Presently one of the men asked me for a light for his cigarette. In the process of obliging I leaned forward just far enough to touch my rear on the stove. To this very day I remember the sticking sensation and my mad leap to safety. Next morning, when I reported for sick call, the doctor exclaimed: "Why, Sarge, you have a burn as large as a pie plate." For a time I was quite immobilized, never stirring from my pillow, but spiritually free and deeper than ever immersed in my narrative. Only one mistake I made in this connection. I wrote my mother that I had had a rather painful mishap and should probably not have been surprised when, on my return home, she greeted me with the question: "Now where were you wounded." "Wounded? Me? Nowhere." Well, you certainly wrote me of a mishap and of course I knew what you meant." Demonstration was hardly feasible, so I had to rely on argument to put her mind at rest.

            Life underground is the order of things within the scope of the enemy's guns. By the light of candles and lamps, soldiers live down here and eat and sleep. And yet men laugh and joke over the most serious things. A new habit of mind seems to have been created so suit this new outlook, one in which the exposure and danger and shell fire and the blood of comrades are usual factors, instead of the strange and shocking horrors they would be in normal life conditions."



            "In many ways, the French civilian customs provided entertainment for the American soldiers of 1918. The Headquarters Company at Moyemont were daily aroused by the shrill blasts of the community stock-herder's trumpet. At the first peep of dawn, when all the good doughboys were pounding the blanket hard, he would sound off, shambling down the village street in motley garb—perhaps the regalia of his high office—dragging his wooden shoes with difficulty over the cobblestones. The first blast of his tin horn usually produced the desired result. Out of barns and yards tumbles sundry sheep, goats, cows and pigs to fall in behind him. Returning from the fields at dusk, the animals would instinctively fall out and retire to their respective habitations. Two members of the Regimental Band yearned for trouble. The machinations of their fertile brains sent the loudest and strongest First Cornet down the street one morning long before Reveille, blowing the Call to Arms. The Pied Piper of Hamlin boasted no such array. With stately tread, he conducted his unique platoon of animals around the town. Wither he went they dutifully followed. He stopped playing, but they still hung on. The joke was revealing complications. Showing signs of deep concern, the cornetist attempted the soothing strains of "Go to Sleep, My Baby," without result. Far be it for such loyal adherents to desert their leader in the midst of drill. But hark! What is that old familiar sound? The shrill call of the herder's old horn resounding through the village! With tails erect, or flying, or kinked or not showing at all, as the case may be, the animals dashed off in all directions. Pandemonium reigned, during which time the First Cornet made good his escape."


            They maintained the brutal march until human endurance could no longer maintain them, then they fell by the wayside, sick, exhausted and oftentimes unconscious. 'Long about midday, General Wittenmeyer came upon a pathetic figure by the roadside, propped against his pack which he hadn't the energy to take off. "Dogs," he soliloquized, gazing ruefully at his feet, "you've gone back on me. For many a year you've been my main support and you've done your duty noble. I've been careful of you right along; but I guess I was too easy with you. And now, because you've had to take some hard knocks, you're laying down on me, ain't you? But I guess you done the best you could an' I can't blame you for putting me out of the running.

            Any feeble attempt at mirth and hilarity had long since failed. Conversation was at a standstill, but what the boys thought about the army at that time was unfit for publication. Yet the hike was productive of many surprises, among them General Wittemeyer's decision, after hearing the doughboy's lament, to order a lengthy rest at noon and—Sidney Wennick's quality of endurance.

            Sid had been cooking for the Signal Platoon all the time we were out with the British climbing the hills of Northern France. We had carried the pack a bit, nearly every day in the week. Sid hadn't. So, when we started on this jaunt the hardened veterans thought that Sid would be one of the first to drop out. Along about the fifth hour of marching, when fully ready to call it quits there was Sid Wennick marching blithely along, seemingly with no cares or worries. He was in at the finish, and probably the freshest man of the lot. That night, his Bunkie happened to be looking when Sid unrolled his pack. It comprised one blanket and a lot of straw; all the rest of his equipment was on the ration cart." 


            A British general, in whose area and under whose jurisdiction we happened to be training, said to the American officer who accompanied him on tour of inspection one morning: "And are your men well trained in the matter of gas-defense?"

            "Oh yes indeed, "replied General Johnson.

            "Gas!" screamed the general at a passing American doughboy, for the purpose of making a practical test. Nothing but blank amazement masked the Latin-American countenance on the roadside.

            "Gas!" howled the general, thinking that the boy hadn't heard him. No response; not a quiver of intelligence.

            "Don't you know enough to put on your mask when you hear that warning?" cried the excited general.

            "Me no speak-a-da Eenglis," answered the American."



            "Five chickens have disappeared from a shed near your Signal Platoon," the captain said. "This is nothing less than plain stealing and cannot be glossed over. Investigate."

            The captain goes over to one of the French neighbors and says in fluent French, "Avvy voo lost cinq chickens? The neighbor says "No." The captain reports the findings to the Town Commandant, who 'lows as how that ain't the right neighbor and proceeds to investigate, for himself. Here is the shed; foot-prints, gore, feathers. Unmistakable signs of a terrible carnage. Five hens are still cowering, wild-eyed in a corner, suffering from nervous prostration. If Monsieur Legrand formerly had ten and a rooster it is certain that the others must be A.W.O.L. Oh, no! He couldn't have sold them.

            The Supply Company advertises a big chicken dinner for the coming Sunday; but such evidence is purely circumstantial. H Company is billeted in the next street over; looks bad for H. E Company had a couple of recalcitrant's picked up in the street that fatal night; but that is nothing out of the way. The finger of suspicion undoubtedly points to Headquarters Company, though the First Sergeant swears the blood on the Orderly Room door-sill resulted from the company mechanic having cut a finger. Therefore, all four companies are finally ordered to chip in, purchasing out of their company funds an ephemeral portion of vanished chicken for every man in town."

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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