Friday, October 30, 2009



            "A little while back, three or four years, a conflagration had broken loose in the midst of men—a war such as past history had never known. People by the millions had forsaken all else for the sword. The battlefield was brooding all over the world. Not the battlefield of storybooks, not the battlefield of pomp and glamour. This was the battlefield of stenches, of caked blood, of dirty bandages, lice, rats, eternal mud, and the smell of rotting corpses.

            Groups of men in trenches, thin lines of men on the firing steps. Cold, rain, fog, darkness. A shot, somewhere near, grey phantoms leaping out of nowhere into the trenches. A pandemonium of rifles, pistols, hand grenades, the sound of a bayonet driven home to the hilt, swift grappling with the raiders—the trench knife at play—a paroxysm of fury, the –silence—stifled groan—a gasp—hurried checking up for casualties—daylignt, and the sensing of a charge. A charge to kill, destroy the figures you knew lurked in the trenched across the field. No individual hate—no personal grudge. We were a pack of wolves—a million years back—and the pack in the other trenches wanted our blood. We were going to get theirs.

            It was not the language they mouthed, not the rags they wore, not the land they came from. We cared not at all for that. They were a pack of wolves and we were a better pack, we were going to blow them to hell—and we were going to survive. Days, months of it—endless vistas of muddy grim lines of men. ----

            Civilization--?—eigh! That's only pap for the demagogues and the politicians. The shrill of a whistle, a platoon of olive-drab figures leaping to action—a rushing headlong charge—deployed for action—a rushing headlong charge—deployed for action, action to win. Each man has to keep his place in the formation, to fire at a vital part of a fighting, advancing enemy. To fire with a steady, deliberate aim. A man is leading you. A man who gave all his life to learn how to lead you—and you naturally follow that man into the jaws of hell, and if he falls, you carry on; his leadership still lives after he is killed. That's what made him a leader. He made you self reliant; he made you a better rifleman than your antagonist; your bayonet is as familiar to you as your right hand; you KNOW you can knock the hell out of anybody who wears a uniform different from yours.



         "Before going further it is well to say a word in regard to runners. Runners are as vital today as they were in the days of Julius Caesar, for under heavy shell fire field telephones and buzzers go out at once, leaving runners the only dependable form of communication. The runners in sinister Belleau Wood, rendered splendid service of the most hazardous nature. The battalion commander passed one of them during the big attack lying with his leg badly mangled. He never whimpered, but only said, "Major, I can't run any more."

There were at regimental headquarters some 22 runners, men who carried messages to and from the lines, and with all the other means of communication gone, it was necessary to call on these chaps. One after another was sent forward  by Colonel Foote with messages and none returned. Eighteen men had gone, and of those eighteen, officers at regimental knew enough to realize that failure to return was due to one thing only.  Death or severe wounds were all that could keep the members of that faithful group from doing their duty.

            At last, Colonel Foote wrote out a message for the front once again and this time called for a dispatch rider. There were at regimental headquarters two such men, one belonging to the regiment and another loaned from divisional headquarters to replace one of the 104th regulars who was in a hospital. These dispatch riders had motorcycles and were used mostly in work between regimental and brigade or division. The one remaining 104th rider had been going most of the night and was lying on the floor behind the group of officers in an attempt to get a little rest—the other was on duty when the colonel called for a rider and responded.

            Then occurred one of those intensely dramatic incidents. The Colonel held out the dispatch and said quietly: "Take that message into Belleau to Major Lewis and bring me back his answer."

            The color died out of the rider's face. Looking at the commander he said: "Colonel, that means death."

            The onlookers sat spellbound. The Colonel's face never changed and without even raising his voice, he said calmly: "In the army when you get an order you do not question, you obey it."

            The frightened rider stood riveted to the spot for a second, and in that interval the regular driver, Pvt. Ray Therrien of Holyoke jumped to his feet, and ducking under the other's arm, saluted and said: "Colonel, I'll take that message in."

            The words were hardly said before one of the regular runners, one of the four who were left, stood at his side and said, "Make the message in duplicate, Sir, and I'll go with him."


             "It was evident that the first aid station was too far to the rear, but it could not well be moved up and still be accessible to the ambulances. However, when an additional surgeon was assigned to the battalion because of the heavy increase in casualties, it was decided to establish an advanced first aid station at battalion headquarters.            The new surgeon by the way, was an unfortunate victim of unpreparedness. He weighed over 200 pounds. He had been a doctor in a small town before the war and probably had never seen an army uniform. He had left the States exactly two weeks before the day he reported for duty in Belleau Wood, which at that time, was the hottest place on the western front, or any other front.             There was one thing that would indicate that he had something in him. Whenever a wounded man was brought in, no matter how ghastly and mutilated a sight he might present, the doctor promptly forgot his own troubles and became the cool, efficient surgeon. It is impossible to describe his attempts to put on his gas mask when the klaxon, for the first time, sounded the gas alarm. 

            I saw him toward the end of the war, during the Argonne, still serving with the same battalion. He weighed a little over 150 pounds. He had a clear eye, healthy color, alert manner, and the cool air of a veteran. And every officer and man in that battalion swore by that doctor. He had made good."

THE ATTACK             Then he had his mess kit out. With its cover, he carved away at the cheesy earth. Clumsily he stabbed earth loose with the handle. In the end he was underground, half buried alive in the shaking earth. There was nothing to do but stay there while it shook to pieces. Inside that hole he cowered, no better than the meanest grub or worm, no more heroic, no less ignorant of what was going on in the world above. He'd heard tales of how immaculate British officers walked about under fire encouraging their men. It must have been some other war.            Like a gigantic team and wagon the shaking rolled away. He crawled out blinking and stood up. There was a moment of vast calm, of deep relief. He started a long, slow breath, which instantly was cut in two. It was incredible, those two slow, solid blocks of Germans running clumsily, opening their mouths. They were coming up at him. Two solid blocks of Germans running clumsily. They were coming, nothing was stopping them. Fixed in a cold trance, he pulled out his automatic. Where were  his men? All gone? No, there ahead were two. They rose up from the ruined earth without their rifles and passed below him, running with fixed grins. Another came by, his mouth stretched open. "Halt!" he shouted and jumped out of the hole. He struck at him with the butt of his automatic; the blow glanced off the shoulder. The man dodged over the crest. He shot a cartridge into the chamber. He'd rather get the next man that ran back than all the Germans in the world.            And all the time the two small blocks of running men were coming up the slope. He stood alone in a bare, ruined world without fear, without hope, a dead man, cold and rigid, in the shroud of fate.            Then in the squares of Germans some running men went tumbling as sparse rifles cracked along the line; and then—a sound of joy and wonder—he heard slow tapping up the hill. Beneath his eye, the nearest square broke into fragments, stopped and streamed back down the slope. Now the crackling ran along the line and other crackling lines came up behind him and dinned about his ears, and a loud voice, "Jesus Christ, Lieutenant, get away from there! Beneath this crackling, the other square had melted and was drifting down the fierce stream of their fire.

            Emptying his automatic as he ran, he got among the fox holes of his men. There were fragments, and there were shrunken bodies half buried, face down, on the ground; but here and there, under the tin hats, close to the churned earth, eyes rolled up at him. He ran among them, his dry mouth open wide. "Come on, you buggers, come on! Are you going to let the second wave go through you?"


             As soon as the new Major arrived we moved into the neighboring town of Celeste, where an infantry headquarters was then established. For our own headquarters we took over a fine house, furnishings almost intact, including dishes and drinking goblets, a kitchen range, a pool table upstairs, and a wine cellar. With the Major came our first field duty Y.M.C.A. man who looked the part of a penny changing five and ten clerk. He professed great interest in the men, as a politician loves his voters, showed an exaggerated sympathy for them and displayed a profound respect for the Major.            A German sausage balloon idly poised a few kilometers across country interested us for two days. On the third day she ceased to be a curiosity. The Major and his aides were eating a hearty meal in fine style in the well equipped dining room. A half dozen of us were loafing in the kitchen with the cook when a shell swished into the cobbled courtyard and splattered against the building. The nose of the shell bounced through the doorway, struck the chimney and fell with a crash on the stove. The cook, a minute before a white man, gleamed thru the dust and smoke, frying pan in hand, as would the puzzled end man of an old time minstrel thinking out the answer to a poser.

            Before the ringing was out of our ears, the Major and his dinner guests had tumbled out of a back window and dropped behind the house. Three or four of us dived out on top of them. The cook and the others raced across the courtyard and plunged into the wine cellar, the last chap coming in thru the chute to land heavily on the floor. We lay in the pile of disturbed soldiers, huddled behind the flat, regardless of rank and dinner. Enlisted men counted off the shots as per the muffled commands issuing from the bottom of the heap. Gas was the signal given by our gentry, so we whiffed gingerly when the less savage shells burst or landed in softer spots. The shelling, never above the strength of a battery, lasted perhaps an hour. No casualties resulted here if we except the damage done to the Y.M.C.A. man's nose in the scramble thru the window. Some skin was rudely removed by an elbow of piece of glass, but hardly enough to warrant the duly-requested wound chevron."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Doughboy Diaries



            In the book Ranging in France with Flash and Sound we read:

            Nearly every organization has its "fat man." In our section it was Private Flora, of Harrisburg,Pa. Flora served as photographer at central. The dark room had to be enlarged when he went on the job. Flora was gaining weight day by day, and needed exercise badly. His opportunity came when Corporal Thompson formed a survey party to run a check of the microphone positions.

            Private Flora joined the party as a rodman, and he made an excellent target for either a transit or a German machine gun. For this reason he was given the job as rear rodman. This plan worked nicely until the party came to Microphone No. 7, when Flora was told to assume the duties of front rodman. It was with much suspicion the misgiving that Flora made his way out into forbidden territory where he had been directed to hold up his rod on an elevated point in the field.

            Scrambling through the trenches and barbwire entanglements, and over shell holes, he made slow progress. He stumbled and fell; he glanced downward and discovered he had tripped over a dead German. Then he was startled by a shout. Looking around he beheld a negro's head protruding over the edge of the trench. (The sector was held by negro troops of the 92nd Division.)

            "Fo' the land's sake; what yo'all doin' out yondah?" inquired the negro, at the same time looking over the barrel of his machine gun. Flora decided to retreat.

            "Come heah!" yelled the colored doughboy.

            Flora obeyed.

            "What yo' all tryin' to do?" questioned the negro.

            Flora explained.

            "Lawd be praised; I'se glad I don't belong with the engineers," replied the machine gunner, "but first let me shake you' hand good-bye."


            At the command "Halt" two of the enemy jumped into the trench, while three others hurdled it to get in the rear of the Americans. Assisted by others not in the trench, who grenade the post, the two closed in on Dahl and Whalen. But our boys held their ground, and as the first German approached, Dahl made a lunge at him with his bayonet; but the treacherous mud was his undoing and he slipped and fell on his hands and knees. In a flash the German was on him and laid him flat with a blow on the head from his pistol.

            Another member of the post, Private Roy H, Eaton, who was in the shelter trying to get a little sleep before his turn to go on watch, then rushed out, and seeing the German atop his comrade, grappled with him bare-handed. This time it was the German who was on the bottom, and Dahl remained on his feet. Whalen, in the excitement of the moment, after firing a clip at the Boches on the parapet, caught his rifle in the bank and lost it. Then the pin of the grenade he picked up stuck, so he made a dive for the P.C. just as the "potato masher" exploded and caught Dahl in the back. Even this did not dismay him, and he started after the second Boche. Grenades now seemed to be flying from all directions, and the two had no idea as to how many of the enemy they had to combat. All this was happening in a few seconds, and they had to act by instinct, for there was no time to formulate any plan. Their instinct led them to fight regardless of the odds. In another moment one of the flying grenades hit Eaton full in the body, snuffing out his life as quickly as one extinguishes a candle. At the expense of his own, he had saved Dahl's life.

            Dahl, now alone, picked up an automatic rifle, but as he fell flat to avoid a grenade, his adversary escaped. He then discovered that the previous burst had sprung his weapon, so he threw it aside and rushed after the Germans, grenading them as they retreated.

            Private Frank A. Brandt, on a neighboring post, hearing the fight started toward Post 4 as the Germans fled up the trench. He heard their quickened steps, and crouching behind a corner, lay in wait. His first shot struck the leading German below the lower right rib, whirling him completely around, at the sight of which the others jumped out of their trench and made for their lines. Brandt and Corporal Norman K. Bruner, who had come on the scene, jumped on the wounded Boche, but Brandt was forced to loose him with a cry as a grenade fragment tore his hand. The Boche, a giant in size, of powerful build, and apparently of indestructible composition, struggled up with Brandt clinging to him, so the latter was forced to clout him over the head with his rifle butt; but even that did not seem to faze him, so the American finished him off with another shot.

            In the meantime Privates Postel and Payne were firing with auto-rifle and grenades on the Germans scattering out through our wire. Several were seen to fall, but they were picked up and carried back. The entire engagement had lasted three minutes at the most, and was over before the rest of the post knew what was happening. It was evidently the intention of the Germans to swoop down upon an unsuspecting group, overpower them by sheer force of numbers, capture one or two, and then retire immediately. Instead of taking prisoners, they left one in our hands. It was the possibility of such encounters as this, even throughout long intervals of quiet and inactivity, that kept the men on duty in the firing trench constantly keyed up to the high pitch.

            The Germans were obviously piqued at the trend of affairs and resolved to even up matters. About half past eight, as darkness was gathering the sector in its shadow, a party of sixty or seventy Boches was reported approaching one of the outpost positions. Hastily collecting a few reserves, Lieutenant Priddy rushed to the threatened post, and got there just in time, for the enemy patrol was about to march in, attempting to put over the shop-worn ruse—the old, old Kamerad game that had been so overworked that to attempt to repeat it was an insult to the intelligence of any soldier.

            They were bold enough about it. The whole party advanced, hands overhead, calling "Kamerad" as they came. Lieutenant Priddy let them come as far as he thought safe, and then halted them. From their midst emerged a spokesman, who announced in good English that they wished to give themselves up to the Americans. The lieutenant admitted that the idea was a good one, and directed them to enter our lines at a designated spot one at a time.

            That upset their plan entirely. The leaders held a moment's consultation, and then bunching up, some of them still calling "Kamerad", they made ready to rush the line. Priddy hesitated just a second to make sure of their intention, and then gave the order to fire. The blast of rifle, auto-rifle, and grenade fire from the outpost caught the enemy full in the center. A number were seen to fall, and the piteous cries of the wounded indicated that the casualties were heavy. That decided them and the whole crowd broke in confusion and started for their lines, every man for himself, in spite of the attempts of an officer to check them.

            About a hundred and fifty yards away, the officer managed to halt the retreating mob. Berating them in no uncertain terms, he lined his men up again in squad formation, and could be heard counting in German, "Ein, Zwei, Drei, Vier", in preparation for a second attempt.

            Meanwhile, Lieutenant Priddy had strengthened his line and had secured a machine gun from the garrison of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion. The gunner found a good position atop one of the dugouts, and when the Germans again came within range they met with a reception even warmer than the first. The fight lasted for nearly a half hour, and it had got quite dark before the Germans finally gave up the attempt to break through. Aided by the thickening dusk, a few daring Boches got close enough to hurl grenades into our trench. With deliberate coolness, combined with quickness of wit, Corporal Vester A. Benson saved several of his men by kicking a sizzling grenade around the corner of the traverse, and in so doing was himself wounded in the leg and foot. One group of the enemy tried to flank the post from the left, but were discovered in time and driven off after one of their number was sacrificed to the marksmanship of Private Silas M. Teig. It was then that they admitted to themselves the futility of further efforts to get in by withdrawing for good, taking with them their dead and wounded, but leaving most of their weapons behind. The men had been kept on edge practically all day; but there was no relaxing yet, for the warning had gone out that another attack by the enemy could be expected before daybreak.


            Often the cooks were hidden in the deep, dark holes, the only things in sight being the smoking soup guns.

            Just previous to the coming of Captain Hardwick and the inspector, the farm had been subjected to a long and particularly heavy bombardment. Cooks and kitchen police had taken refuge in the dugouts. The inspector arrived at Kitchen No. 1 and much to his disgust the steaming soup gun had no attendants.

            Knowing the difficulties that often beset this culinary department, Captain Hardwick pounded on the sheet iron piece that served to protect workers from weather and possible flying shell splinters. Shortly afterward they emerged from a nearby hole, crawling from the darkness of the deep shelter and blinking blindly until they grew accustomed to the light. The inspector saw them make their exit from the hole. Glancing around he inquired for the cook. The good natured heater of army canned goods stepped forward and saluted.

            "You're not the cook?" the visitor inquired.

            "I am, sir," the cook replied.

            "Let me see your hands," he of the yellow gloves requested. From their hiding place behind his back the cook produced a dirty pair.

            "Are those your hands?" asked the owner of the cane.

            "They are, Sir," said the soup dispenser and promptly slid them out of sight behind his back.

            "Let me see your nails," demanded the inspector, and once again the bashful hands came into view.

            "How often do you shave?" asked Shiny Shoes.

            "Every day, Sir," came the ready answer.

            "Your beard grows very fast," the inspector remarked and turned to have a look at the kitchen.

            Pots and pans were laid out, and after these the utensils used about the kitchen. When they had all been exposed to view, he of the spotless clothes delivered the following oration:

            "My good man, I understand the difficulties of your position perfectly, but think you show a lack of interest in your surrounding. I suggest that you obtain at once a pail of whitewash and brighten up your kitchen, that your garbage pit be placed at quite some distance from its present location and that you employ your kitchen force to clear away the rubbish about you."

            Just then overhead came the Wheeeeeeeee of Fritz's iron rations and the inspection came to a sudden close. The immaculate gentleman began a hurried leave and, as he turned, the cook and the kitchen help dove headlong into the dugout. As the inspector and Captain Hardwick reached the top of the next hill and looked back, smoke of bursting bombs and dust of falling walls showed the farm was getting the full force of the activity.

            The following day as Captain Hardwick passed Antioche Farm on his daily rounds he stopped. The kitchen the inspector had requested whitewashed had disappeared. In its place only some giant shell holes remained. A much battered soup gun stood behind a bit of broken wall, but a grinning cook greeted an equally grinning medical officer by rubbing a well scrubbed hand across a hairless chin to show that he had carried out instructions, the scene being done in pantomime without the interchange of a word.

            The men who cooked the food and their helpers who carried it to the fighting line stood the shell fire with the rest. They toted endless marmite cans of steaming food to hungry men day after day, lived in filth and mud and ooze and served their companies without complaint. Yes, when it came time for glory, few remembered the cooks.

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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