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.
and on website:
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