Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book exerpt--American Battlefields of World War I

There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes
--- Geoffrey Young
Stars and Stripes, 1918
Generations of Americans born since 1918 scarcely remember or appreciate what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers experienced in France during World War I. Knowledge of the battles, the battlegrounds, and the American participation in that war is no longer in our national memory. It is a sad commentary that "the war to end all wars" has been relegated to the dustbin of history less than a century after the final shots were fired. During World War I, over four million Americans wore the uniform of their country; two million soldiers went overseas, and 116,708 of them gave their lives--53,513 in combat action and another 63,195 from disease and other non-hostile causes.
This volume is dedicated to all of the American soldiers, sailors and marines who fought so valiantly on land and sea and in the air during the greatest struggle for liberty in the history of the world prior to 1914. 'Lest We Forget', this book is written with a determination that "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds." As such, it is a labor of gratitude and respect for those who served so well.
Soldier Courage
The American soldiers were not press-heroes; they were young, idealistic men who fought hard for a cause they felt was right. This book does not seek to highlight the glories of war. But this does not mean there is not room to spotlight the courage inherent in war. There is no greater quality than courage, especially when demonstrated in the process of saving one's fellow soldiers. Such selflessness is an endearing quality often formed in the crucible of combat. This selflessness is genuinely one of most important, albeit, unheralded legacies of war. Certainly it is a heritage worth preserving and perpetuating. It is for this reason that the author constantly kept one eye on the list of citations and decorations of the AEF.
Deeds of valor by units and individuals are picked out for description, but no claim is made that these men were the best or bravest on the battlefield. Rather, these descriptions were chosen only as representative samples. Thus, they owe their inclusion herein to the double chance of being on conspicuous record as well as being pertinent to the story. Medal of Honor citations are freely quoted because they give a vivid picture of the fighting and accurately represent many other acts of supreme courage and sacrifice. Citations and decorations are not the final standard by which to judge the service rendered by individuals. For every man who received the Medal of Honor there were thousands of other men who did as much or more than those who were cited or decorated, who performed similar deeds of heroism and received lesser awards or no reward at all. The Medal of Honor recipients given in this book are merely representative heroes of the AEF, those whose valorous deeds were witnessed and recorded. To recognize all the deeds of heroism performed by members of the AEF, recorded and unrecorded, would be like calling the roll of the stars in the sky. Ninety-four men were awarded the Army Medal of Honor during World War I. As the majority of these men were in the infantry, the branch of service is indicated in the text only in case the soldier was affiliated with some other combat arm or branch of service.
Author's note: It is improper and inaccurate to refer to World War I Medals of Honor as the "Congressional" Medal of Honor." Modern Medals of Honor are awarded by the President of the United States and in the name of Congress. During World War I, however, each service issued its own Medals of Honor--the Secretary of War for the Army, and the Secretary of the Navy for the Navy. There were no lower medals for conspicuous bravery at that time.
For the most part, U.S. Marines serving with the AEF were awarded both the Army and Navy Medals of Honor because the Marines were actually part of the U.S. Army in France. No Marine officers of the AEF were awarded Medals of Honor by General Pershing (one, 2d Lt. Talbot got a Navy MOH while flying with the U. S Navy in support of the British Front). Some consider this to have been a blatant slap in the face; at least two marine officers (George Hamilton and Logan Feland) displayed enough mettle to qualify. Ironically, virtually every Navy officer serving in the 4th Brigade at Belleau Wood received the Medal of Honor. Marines of the AEF were not eligible for the Navy MOH because they were under the jurisdiction of the Articles of War; Navy officers attached to Marine units were under Article of the Navy.
After the war, the Medal of Honor was converted to a national (rather than service) award. At that time the word "Congressional" was unofficially added--this was done so all dual (i.e., Army and Navy medals awarded for the same action) Medals of Honor were consolidated into a single award.
World War I, fought between 1914 and 1918, was a significant event in U.S. history because that massive conflict changed our nation forever and set the pattern for America's current dominant role in world affairs. The American Expeditionary Force of almost two million soldiers provided the strategic counterweight that tipped the scales of victory in favor of the Allies. Without American intervention on the battlefield in 1918, no one knows how the "Great War" might have ended or how the course of history might have changed. All we can say for certain is that the "Sammies" (our French allies referred to American soldiers as "Les Amis" [Our Friends], a phrase that the Doughboys mistook to be French slang for "Uncle Sam") went "Over There" and that the Allies emerged victorious within a year and a half of that influx. In 1917 the United States of America entered World War I and left behind forever its role as a bystander in global affairs.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Exerpt -- American Battlefields of World War I: Chateau-Thierry: Then and Now


"The fields of the Marne are growing green
The river murmurs on and on;
No more the hail of machine-guns
The cannon from the hills are gone.
The herder leads the sheep afield
Where the grasses grow o'er the broken blade;
And toil worn women till the soil
O'er human mold, in sunny glade
The splintered shell and bayonet
Are lost in crumbling village wall;
No sniper scans the rim of hills,
No sentry hears the night bird call
From blood wet soil and sunken trench,
The flowers bloom in summer light;
And farther down the vale beyond,
The peasant smiles are sad, yet bright.
The wounded Marne is growing green
The gash of Hun no longer smarts;
Democracy is born again,
But what about the wounded hearts?"

The verses were signed Sergeant Frank Carbaugh, and below his name was this note: "Written while lying wounded in hospital; died August, 1918."
"Everyone felt that the Americans were present at the magical operation of blood transfusion. Life arrived in torrents to revive the mangled body of a France bled white by the countless wounds of four years."
Jean de Pierrefeu
Staff Officer, French Army Headquarters, 1918


Germany's plan for her military campaigns in 1918 called first for the destruction of the British Army in the Spring, then, all forces were to be concentrated to crush France. In furtherance of the strike at the British, attacks were launched in Picardy and Flanders during March and April. These failed in their announced purpose. Meanwhile, German preparations had gone steadily forward for a blow against the French along the Aisne River line.

The Allied High Command realized that a German attack was in the making, but it was considered improbable that it would come against the Aisne front.

On the morning of May 27, German assault troops struck the Aisne front from between Berry-au-Bac and Anizy-le-Chateau. The blow was a complete surprise and the Germans overran the Chemin des-Dames positions and crossed the Aisne River by noon.

Aisne 27 May – 5 June 1918. The next major German attack fell on 27 May on the thinly held but formidable terrain along the Aisne River known as the Chemin des Dames. The original objective of this new offensive was to draw southward the Allied reserve accumulated back of the British sector, in preparation for a final German attempt to destroy the British Army in Flanders. The French and British defenders were taken completely by surprise, and their positions were overrun rapidly on a forty-mile front. German progress on the first day was so rapid (advances up to 13 miles were made at some points) that Ludendorff altered his plans and decided to make the diversionary attack a main effort. Most of the Aisne bridges were captured intact. The thrust toward Rheims failed but Soissons was taken, and by 31 May the Germans had reached the outskirts of Château-Thierry on the Marne, less than 40 miles from Paris.

In the next few days the Germans sought to exploit and expand the deep and exposed salient which they had established. But by 4 June they had been stopped everywhere. Some 27,000 American troops took part in the check of the German advance. The 3d Division foiled enemy attempts in the period 1-4 June to secure a firm bridgehead across the Marne at Château-Thierry. West of the town the 2d Division, which included a Marine brigade, defended the road to Paris, and on 6 June successfully counterattacked in Belleau Wood.

American troops played an important part in turning the tide of World War I in favor of the Allies at the Second Battle of the Marne. Château-Thierry saw the first fighting of American forces as a separate unit—and their participation under their own officers was decided upon as a final desperate effort to stop the triumphal entry of the German troops into Paris.

At about the time the Second Battle of the Marne ended, German Field Marshal von Hindenburg, attempted to explain and justify "strategical retreat," declaring that "the decisive victory" of German arms had merely been temporarily postponed. The scales had begun to weigh in favor of the Allies and, however long it might take to bring about the final decision, the second Battle of the Marne was the beginning of the end of World War I. For the third time in its history, the Marne had proved to be the bulwark of the free nations of the world.
The part played by U.S. divisions at Château-Thierry, in what is very properly termed the second battle of the Marne, forms a remarkable chapter in the history of the AEF in France. It was an initial effort, and although the American forces at this time were under French control, it saw the first actual functioning of the American Army Corps, it produced the army commanders who controlled American units under General Pershing, and it was essentially the battle of baptism of the American fighting forces.

Eight American divisions took part in the Marne salient battle; four saw real fighting, and one took part in an offensive operation. The other four had either seen no fighting at all, or so little during their training in calm sectors that they had not yet received the classification of fighting units. But they gave so clear a demonstration of the fighting quality of American troops, even though not fully trained, that they had completely restored the morale of the Allied battle line.
Château-Thierry was an emergency; it had no part whatever in the plans prepared by the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) or in the original French scheme for the entry of American forces upon the Western Front.

The result of the German attack on the morning of May 27, 1918, was that in four days, or by the evening of May 30, the leading elements of the German troops had driven from the Chemin des Dames and were at Château-Thierry. The following day the German communiqué stated,"We stand along the Marne" No greater measure of self-satisfaction was ever reflected in an announcement than in this. It was a big advance, nearly forty miles in four days. An advance of forty more miles would see Paris in German hands and end the war in favor of the Germany and the Central Powers.

But on this same fourth day at Château-Thierry the German troops encountered a small American fighting unit, the 7th Motorized Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. 3rd Division. The 7th had traveled a distance of 110 miles in thirty hours in its own motor transport and set up its machine guns to defend Château-Thierry.
For seventy-two hours the 7th Machine Gun Battalion successfully contested the crossing of the river. The delay occasioned by the French-American resistance at Château-Thierry gave French General Foch and his staff the needed precious time to plan for the organization of the defensive strategy which culminated in the battle of Belleau Wood and the defense of the Marne east of Château-Thierry. Subsequently, American divisions initiated and sustained the counteroffensive that marked the turning point of World War I.
By the second day of June the infantry of the U.S. 3rd Division was in position along the river from Château-Thierry to the east for a distance of about twelve miles. The U.S. 2nd Division, which included the Marine Brigade, arriving from a point north of Paris, was in position from Château-Thierry to the west for a distance of about eight miles, standing astride the Paris-Metz Road, and the German drive halted at this point.
At this point, the battles northwest of Château-Thierry, and in particular the savage fight for control of Belleau Wood, took on an importance far beyond the strategic or tactical value of the area or of the Wood itself. Belleau Wood took on a new dimension, discounting the limited value of the terrain in question and emphasizing the psychological aspects of winning and losing—and neither side wanted to lose. From having been a formerly valueless little wood, and one having really no strategic or tactical importance, Belleau Wood now became a battle for supremacy of forces. If the Americans were beaten in the battle for the wood, the Germans would publish the news in every world newspaper, thus giving the American and Allied morale a severe drubbing which might change the course of the war. If the Germans lost the battle, it would prove the value of American arms to the world at large, thus giving a great boost to sagging Allied morale. The outcome of the fighting in Belleau Wood and elsewhere in the Marne Salient would decide once and for all who was the master of the battlefield—the Germans or the Americans.

Although most European military historians (and some American ones also) tend to discount the value of American arms in 1918, most will, if pressed, reluctantly concede that American intervention on the battlefield in 1918 changed the course of the war.

Château-Thierry is a small town in the valley of the Marne about fifty miles east of Paris, now once again picturesque, but sadly battered in 1918. To the AEF Château-Thierry signified the whole area over which its divisions contended through ten-weeks of bitter fighting. More than all else, it signified the fact that the tide of military fortune had turned at that point, that the AEF had taken the measure of the Germans, and were no longer anxious as to the final result. They were then certain that victory would surely be theirs at sometime in the future, though even the most optimistic did not count it possible in four short months.

Just a few miles east of Paris, were enacted the combats of the second battle of the Marne. They took place within a picturesque theater of war, a panoramic stage of forested hills and fertile valleys, with vineyards, fields, meadows and woodland in between. It is a rolling terrain intersected by streams and rivers flanked by steep ridges and webbed together by rail and highways, roads and towns. Villages and hamlets nestled in the valleys, perched on the hills or clung to their slopes. Here also an appalling number of young Americans sacrificed their lives to capture and hold the hills and towns. The men of the AEF thought that, for every yard they conquered, it was at the cost of a doughboy's life. It is there that we begin our tour of the battlefields of the AEF in the Marne salient.

Drive the country roads in and around the valley of the Marne in northeastern France, and you will pass by prosperous stone villages flanked on all sides by fields of wheat. The country north of the Marne was a pleasant place in peacetime. The thick greenery of forests rimmed the yellow of the wheat fields. Here and there were the red-tiled roofs of a farm homestead or one of the tiny rural villages so familiar to the traveler in France. A beautiful landscape, indeed, but a bitter place for men to be in when every woodland hid masses of artillery and every innocent tuft of forest shrubbery concealed a machine gun. The terrain along the Marne was mostly woody and the fighting that took place there was mostly from tree to tree and rock to rock. It is said that the Germans, cleverly concealed in the forests and woods, had a machine gun for about every ten yards of their front.

But in previous days, this area, like the other battle areas of France and Belgium, was besieged by artillery, gashed with trenches and shell craters, and shrouded in the black and foul air of war. The Germans deluged woods and wheat with mustard gas, thrown in liquid form from artillery shells, which hung, an invisible blanket of poison, over the ground which the Americans must cross to reach their foes. The appearance of the American skirmishers always gave a signal for the German artillery and machine guns to open fire. So skillfully were their guns placed to sweep the ground that a soldier could scarcely stand upright and live; to drop flat and crawl forward was hardly better. A dozen courageous machine gunners could make an assault battalion pay a fearful price for a few hundred yards of ground. Then, if conditions favored, the defenders might withdraw to fresh positions before the oncoming Americans could get to grips with their exasperating foes.

Following each rush there would ensue a period of silence during which none moved except the groaning wounded crawling back, when they could, through the spattered wheat. But for these and the twisted bloody bundles that lay motionless here and there, an observer might fancy, during these deceitful lulls, that he was alone in a deserted countryside. But presently, emerging again from shelter of the woods, the brown steel helmets of the Americans would appear, wave upon wave, the bayonets of the men flashing before them and their heads bent to resist the storm they knew would break. In just an instant the opposing woods would burst into an angry metallic chatter, the wheat suddenly to swarm with vicious invisible insects, and overhead the air was flecked with the countless white and black puffballs of the bursting German shrapnel-shells. Men heard the sickening sound of a bullet against flesh, saw their comrades vanish utterly in a swirl of flame and smoke, and finally, after an eternity of this, the shadow of the woods would fall across their front. From that point until the woods were cleared of the enemy the action would resolve to scores of individual fights. Men, grim of eye, hunted one another like quarreling wolves from copse to copse and from tree trunk to tree trunk, moving with a kaleidoscopic rapidity that made one feel that soon one would emerge from this ghastly nightmare and find oneself in a motion picture theater watching those shadowy characters on the screen. Such was the daily, almost hourly experience of the American soldiers in the Marne
salient battles of 1918.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Doughboys and Refugees--continued

Refugees Meet Advancing American Columns
Meanwhile, the two American divisions, split up into as many detachments as there are thoroughfares available in order to facilitate their march to the front, are gradually approaching the battle lines, and presently encounter the rearward columns of the refugees on all roads and by-paths. When the khaki-clad, happy-go-lucky soldiers of America, with joking and singing in their ranks, troop suddenly into their midst, the weary wayfarers are for a moment spell-bound. It is at first difficult for the homeless wanderers to realize what it all means,—that America, with the first of her manpower, backed by her great resources, is going forward into battle! Going forward to throw her sword onto the Scales of War! Finally the truth dawns upon dulled minds and carries hope to fear-stricken hearts. Yes, yes, it is true! These stalwart young men are the Americans, going forward to help the poor Poilus, to stiffen wavering lines, to stop the Huns! Ah, youth, with its hope and confidence, was right!

'Les Américains! Les Américains!'

Hope and Courage Revived
Sudden silence falls upon the hysterical and garrulous lips of middle and old age. Rumor and fiction take flight before truth and fact. Old age plucks up hope and courage. Perhaps even they, the old, will still see victory! Little children cease their weeping and gaze with infantile wonder at the passing troops. With the bubbling impulsiveness of youth, young women and girls assail the soldiers and shower flowers upon them. With gladness and laughter, and in utter disregard of impeding accoutrements of war, some of them shamelessly embrace serious young warriors and plant warm kisses upon startled doughboy faces. Old age grasps swinging soldier hands to carry them to trembling lips in benediction; while middle age, gaining voice once more, takes up the cry—"Vive l'Amérique! Nos sauveurs sont arrivés!" [Long live America! Our saviors have arrived!"]

Marking the sudden transition from settled hopelessness to quick hopefulness of which the human soul is capable, this cry gives tongue to long pent-up emotions and soon swells to a chorused salutation that greets and follows the soldiers as hey march on all the roads and by-paths toward the front.

And thus heartened and reassured, with a new and growing faith, before which all their fears have now fled, the refugees look at the khaki-clad columns until distance shuts them out from view; then the wayfarers take up their burdens once more and trudge on to the rear, while the young soldiers of America approach closer to the battle lines—and the enemy-to play their real parts in the forthcoming drama. For what we have thus far witnessed, though an essential part of the drama, is in point of fact a prelude to the more important and stirring action that is to follow."

In George B. Ford's book entitled, Out of the Ruins, we read:
"The refugees were destitute. In 1918 I saw seventy-five thousand of them pour through Paris in the last days of May and the first days of June, driven back by the German advance at Château-Thierry. They arrived a thousand or fifteen hundred to a train at all hours of the day and night, with the stations pitch black while the air raids were going on: bent old men and women, children in arms, with goats and chickens and baby-carriages and endless bundles—whatever they could manage to save and carry away with them. Most of them had only the clothes they wore. Many of them had ridden a day, or even two days, without food. They wandered about in a daze, quite helpless; most of them peasant farmers who had never in their lives been more than a few miles away from their homes."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Doughboys and Refugees

When the thousands of American soldiers entering the Marne Salient of 1918 met an almost overwhelming number of pitiful French refugees coming out of the salient and ahead of the advancing German Army, their will to defeat the Germans was reinforced and steeled. Many a Doughboy either said to himself or aloud, "This country and its people are worth fighting for," or "I hate the Germans for what they are doing to these poor people."

To give you, the reader, a feeling for what took place behind the battle lines in June of 1918, the following quotation from the AEF newspaper, Stars and Stripes, 1918, tells it all:

"Refugees flocking to the rear
A drama poignant with tragedy, is being enacted in the theater of war behind the lines toward which the two American divisions are advancing. For, upon every road and by-path leading out of the Marne salient, including those you will travel going toward the battlefields, weaving their way through the traffic of transport and soldiers going to the front, are war's victims, the refugees, streaming to the rear,—old men and young, decrepit or crippled; women of all ages, and little children, the flotsam and jetsam of war, forced from their homes by the rising tide of battle.

Nondescript Transport and Loads
In contrast to the spick-and-span business-like aspect of military transport, the means employed by the refugees to aid them in their flight present a bewildering and nondescript variety of vehicles drawn by jaded horses, mules and oxen, with an intermingling of carts, varying in size, pulled by donkeys, goats and dogs. Lacking animal friends to aid them, men and women tug at the traces of wagons or push baby carriages and wheelbarrows along; while others, with no means of transport save their own poor bodies, struggle wearily on afoot, burdened to the limit of their strength. Loaded down with whatever they were able to rescue,—bits of furniture, bundles of clothing and food, bottles and casks of wine, chickens, canary birds in cages, kittens and puppies, etc.,— the burdens carried by the refugees present an equally bewildering and nondescript variety of prized possessions, making a picture that lends a touch of the grotesque and humorous to the tragic drama of people thrust from their homes in flight before the enemy.

They play the game in good part
Lest they interfere with the imperative business of rushing men, guns, ammunition and supplies to the front, the flow of refugees to the rear is frequently halted or diverted into fields to relieve congestion and blockades in traffic on the roads and by-paths, but all of them,—old and young,—play the game of war in good part, obeying orders quickly, with sighs of resignation, with tears or smiles and laughter.

It is an indescribable drama in which these refugees play their parts, one that the imagination, with the aid of these word, must visualize. With minds and hearts already filled with fear and hatred of the enemy and preyed upon by wild rumors of impending disaster at the front, fact and fiction inextricably mingled, without the links of truth and reason to connect the twain, they cry."
"Our poor Poilus are falling back! Ah, Messieurs, hundreds, nay thousands, have fallen! And the Boches come on! We cannot stop them! Oui, oui, it is true. Messieurs! You can hear Mademoiselle Bertha even now bombarding Paris! Hundreds of thousands are leaving the city and the Capital will fall! Our country is lost!"

Military policemen, regulating traffic at cross-roads, aid them and seek to reassure them in their flight, but rumor, gathering speed and substance on the wings of fancy, had terrified them beyond reason and understanding. Some among them, too old to care, burdened too long with Life's sorrows, are indifferent to further blows from Fate. For them the end has come or will soon come, please God!

"C'est la guerre, Messieurs!—and we are old."

The Indomitable Soul of France is Reflected
In spite of the tragedy that weighs so heavily upon their elders, the younger people, boys and girls and young women, though they have suffered, reflect, by word and deed, the indomitable soul of France and with cheerfulness of spirit and courage of heart, laugh at their troubles.
Ah, la, la! Why so glum and fearful, Mes Vieux? Did not Papa Joffre stop the Boches once before? Foch will do likewise, never fear. Oui, oui! Our Poilus may be falling back, but it is only to make a stand and stop the Germans. Soon les Américains will come to help them and together they will drive the Boches from France!

And thus does youth, with its hope and confidence, seek to comfort and reassure old age and put to shame hysterical and garrulous middle age.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

One Minute Before Twelve—Then Beat A Long Roll For The Doughboy

At the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I in Europe, there were five million men under arms in the American Army, and two million of them were in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France and Belgium. Before the last of the old veterans leave us forever, it behooves us to take a nostalgic look backwards at our inimitable Doughboys of 1917-1919.

1918 there were almost five million Americans wearing the military uniforms of their country. Today, less than one thousand of the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces

Expressions of time are often used to reflect pending deadlines. "It's almost the twelfth hour" or "It's almost midnight," both meaning that time is running out. Sadly, when we apply these metaphors to the few living veterans of World War I we realize that it is very close to the final tolling of the clock referring to the little time these few very old soldiers have left on earth. It will not be very long before we read in newspapers and other media that the “Last American World War One Veteran is Dead”

Veterans of World War One, Inc., the congressionally chartered American World War I veterans organization in America, reported in the final edition (Jan 2000) of their newspaper, The Torch, that as of 1 January 2000 there were 1,179 living American veterans of World War I. The U. S Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in September 2004 that only 100 World War I veterans remained alive. At this date of writing it is reported that a total of 37 veterans of World War I are still living (of the 65 million men mobilized by all of the belligerents) worldwide, and that five of them are American veterans.

It will be only a few years from now when we will see a newspaper headline reading "LAST AMERICAN WORLD WAR ONE VET DIES." Even as this article is being written there are more and more frequent. The last veteran of our past wars died at the following ages: War of American Independence - 109; War of 1812 - 105; Mexican War - 98; Union and Confederate veterans of the American Civil War at the ages of 109 and 112, respectively; Spanish/American War - 106; Indian Wars - 101. The average age at death for the last veteran of all of America's past wars was 105 years.

The average age of our soldiers, sailors and marines of 1917‑1918 is now 107 years of age and they are "going West" at the alarming rate. All of them live in nursing homes and require constant care. To use a metaphor--the last dry, aged leaf is about to fall from what was once a full tree. In a few more years they will all have "gone West."

The boys in olive drab, navy blue and forest green are now but a token handful of very old men, full of sentiment, reflecting back on full lives that will remain alive forever through the stories they have shared with us. When the last of that grand generation of men has gone on to join his comrades it will be like a light beacon going out. However, the light will remain shining through our remembrance of these brave men.

We see them today, in faded sepia-toned photographs, with their high-crowned felt hats, their spiral puttees and high-collared wool tunics. The songs they sang, “Over There,” “Good Morning, Mr. Zip-Zip,” “K-K-K Katy,”-- the weapons they used, the bolt-action 30/06 Springfield repeating rifle, the Model 1917 Enfield rifle--their very concept of the world of 1917-1918—are nothing more than idle curiosities to most of us today.

The Great War, as it was initially known, was indeed global, involving twenty countries on five continents. Today, among most Americans, the war is only vaguely recalled, a misty promontory obscured by a war that preceded it and the one that followed it, the Civil War and World War II. In surviving images it has something to do with poppies, ghostly figures in gas masks, a rousing tune, “Over There,” and a fading photograph in an album of an unbelievably young grandfather or great-grandfather wearing a doughboy’s tin helmet and a collar that appears to have been choking him.

It took a special type of man to fight in World War I, and many of the soldiers did so voluntarily. Some did not go voluntarily—72 percent of the AEF was composed of draftees. During the war almost three million men were denied any choice about service in the armed forces of the United States; they were simply drafted at their numbers came up. At the time of the Armistice in 1918 there were almost five million American men under arms both at home and overseas.

Many historians have said that you probably would not be able to get succeeding generations of young men to fight such an abysmal war again. It was a war considered to have been without equal for the sheer brutality inflicted on the soldiers who were fighting in a comparatively confined area for four long years. The majority of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in France late in the war and conducted large scale military operations only from September to November of 1918. Fortunately, they did not have to get involved in the war of the trenches which had gone on for over three long years, and which killed off an entire generation of their Allies, the French and British—the American war was fought out in the open.

The American soldiers poured into the ports of France during 1917 and 1918. The American Expeditionary Force arrived with a determination to show the world that they were better than any soldiers that Europe had ever produced, and this definitely included the Germans.

They were from all parts of America and were of the most varied origins. The AEF is recorded as having spoken and written about fifty different languages! Most of our immigrant soldiers could barely speak English! The AEF, like all armies, spoke its own language, and with great fluency. It was a mixture of certain linguistic spices and savors that gave their speech a certain pungency, including references, on many occasions, to definite illegitimacy and canine ancestry on the part of the “Boches”(Germans) as well as numerous colorful Anglo-Saxon monosyllables of their own.

The average American soldier was not the introspective Russian novelist that certain war fiction would have us to believe. He appears not to have been concerned at all about the status of his soul, nor the many and muddled causes that had dragged him out of an Alabama back-lot or from a New York City push-cart to make the world safe for anything in particular. Certainly his primary, and frequently his only, questions in regard to the murderous trade to which he found himself apprenticed were:

(a) “When do we eat?”

(b) “Where do we go from here?”

(c) “What outfit, buddy?”

They were poorly trained, ill-equipped, and had to rely upon the French and the English for all of their artillery, tanks, horses, and for a large part of their food, but even these handicaps did little to stifle their spirit and their enthusiasm. The Americans were young, healthy, always clean-shaven, and of a different appearance and demeanor than the Europeans, and they radiated confidence in themselves.

And, according to the unanimous testimony of experts, psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers of religion, social workers and all of the earnest men and women who were associated with it and studied it, the American Army in France was at once the sanest, the soberest and the least criminal body of men ever gathered together as any army in human history. The French civilians and soldiers alike, and not upon affection and prejudice in its behalf, felt similarly about the AEF.

They made themselves at home in France and established a reputation with and among the French people as having been kindly, happy, very ingenious, and very helpful to everyone. They somehow hurdled the language barriers and made friends with the peasant family with whom they were billeted and with every child that was within reaching distance.

They came, roughly two million of them, infantrymen, artillerymen, machine‑gunners, railroad men, loggers, engineers, mechanics, and constructors, and almost overnight they changed the face of France. Nothing astonished them and nothing was regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. Mishaps and mistakes there were but the lessons were quickly learned.

The AEF was initially a little bit unsure of itself before it was put to the test on the field of battle. They were prematurely thrown onto the battlefields during the extreme crisis period of the war in mid-1918, when the morale of the Allies had sagged to an all‑time low, and when the Germans were on a spree of victories and came very close to winning the war. At one point Paris was but 40 kilometers away from the German front lines and was almost theirs for the taking, and might have been except for American intervention at Chateau‑Thierry, northwest of Chateau-Thierry, at Belleau Wood and along the Marne River.

The Americans showed the utmost of resolve, determination, and frequently recklessness on the battlefield. It was this last factor that accounted for most of the proportionately high casualty rate of the AEF, and which greatly saddened the soldiers when the final tally was made of 53,500 of their “buddies” killed in action. They knew that Death had enlisted (or been drafted, as the case may be) with them, but of course they felt only an impersonal interest in the matter. Every infantryman and cannoneer knew that somebody would be mustered out. But each one knew that he would not be the one. The psychology of battles is that somebody else’s widow is going to collect the insurance.

The assistance of the Americans at this time was of incalculable value. It is admitted now by just about all historians that, although the Americans did not physically win the war, they did provide the boost in Allied morale which enabled the Entente to surge forward to final victory in 1918.

When asked if they could capture Cantigny, the Americans said they could, and they did. The same applied to Belleau Wood, Blanc Mont ridge, the St.Mihiel salient, and to the Argonne forest. The most experienced and hardened French cried, Rien les arreste—“Nothing stops them! Nothing stops them!”

The deeds of the old AEF on the field of battle are of such brilliant stature that they will ever be remembered by our sister country, La Belle France, and wondered at by every generation that has succeeded that of those who went to France to "make the world safe for democracy."

Some years ago, and in cities and towns all across America, a few aged World War vets would gather together for monthly meetings and pot-luck lunches of their “Last Man Clubs.” These meetings are now extinguished as their membership, originally begun in the 1920's and 30's with some 40 to 50 vets, dwindled down to nothing. There were stories appearing in newspapers all over America relating to the passing of final members belonging to the “Last Man Clubs” composed of veterans of “the war to end all wars.” At their final meetings there would be only one or two very old and frail veterans still `present and accounted for' when the final roll was called. Now there are not enough doughboy veterans left alive to form an infantry squad.

The old soldier's knurled and trembling fingers would gingerly caress the aged bottle of French wine which was bought by all when their club was formed, as it now represents his buddies who have already answered their final roll call. The once new wine is supposed to be opened by the sole survivor of their club at which time a toast will be drunk to those ex‑soldiers of the AEF who have already gone over the horizon into history. The wine has by now probably been turned into vinegar by the passage of time. None the less, the bottle is still looked upon fondly by the rheumy eyes of a very old man. What does the ancient soldier see in the glass of the bottle--the faces of the men who went with him into Belleau Wood or into the Argonne Forest ? Whatever he sees and feels it is enough to cause a tear or two to course down his wrinkled cheeks. A little later he will slowly smile, for he is no longer saddened by the thought that very soon they will all be together once again on some distant field. From the shadow of his memory comes the sound of distant battlefields, the crash of cannon, crack of rifles, the rattle of machine guns. Now comes the sound of voices from men on that battleground, calling to him. The now fragile man will become young and strong as he once was, and will take his place in the long ranks, look to the right and left at his buddies of yesteryear, smile happily to himself and reply with a loud and clear "here" when his name is called. The American Expeditionary Forces of World War I will now all be gathered together in the Valhalla of heroes. The last survivor of a magnificent generation will have left us forever in body but never in spirit. The memory of the AEF of 1917‑1918 who went to France will remain with us. They will know that we care and that their service and sacrifice is remembered by those for whom they fought.

So, in the very early years of the 1920’s, and when the last Doughboy was returned from occupation duty in Germany and mustered out of the service, the AEF ceased to exist and its history was brought to a close. But the deep feeling of loyalty and comradeship, strengthened through long months of deprivation and cemented continually by memories of hardships and dangers shared, can never be “mustered out” as long as one of AEF veterans still lives.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Memorial Day 2006

Only 77 World War I Veterans Remain Alive Worldwide; Honor Them This Veteran's Day With an Armchair Trip to Château-Thierry

SAN MATEO, CA: When the last World War I veteran dies, a chapter of world history doesn’t have to close forever. The 77 remaining veterans of the War to End All Wars—including just 20 Americans—are at least 105 years old; soon they won’t be able to tell their stories of living in damp foxholes, mounting an offensive using ancient and deteriorating equipment and inadequate supplies—and altering the course of history.

But their stories and images will live on in a remarkable new book that will make sure this history is passed down: the saga of how in 1918 the American army turned back the German invaders along the Marne Salient, and especially in the village of Château-Thierry—and saved Paris from enemy occupation.

Part military history, part travel guide, part a collective memoir and photo album of hundreds of soldiers, and all heart, American Battlefields of World War I: Château-Thierry—Then and Now uses the actual words of soldiers and eyewitnesses, along with 258 photos, 58 drawings and illustrations, and 22 maps, to capture a moment that changed the world—the first time U.S. soldiers defeated a conquering invasion army in Europe.

Made up largely of the writings and photos of the soldiers themselves, the book makes real and relevant these accounts of nearly 90 years ago. Here, for example, a U.S. Army reporter describes the exodus of local refugees after the area had fallen behind German lines, as it looked to the approaching American soldiers:

…Lacking animal friends to aid them, men and women tug at the traces of wagons or push baby carriages and wheelbarrows along; while others, with no means of transport save their own poor bodies, struggle wearily on afoot, burdened to the limit of their strength. Loaded down with whatever they were able to rescue—bits of furniture, bundles of clothing and food, bottles and casks of wine, chickens, canary birds in cages, kittens and puppies, etc.…(p. 78)

And in this passage that could have almost been written about today’s Iraq, a soldier describes his brave company’s response to inadequate fuel:

Trusting to luck that the Model Ts would manage the few remaining miles without refueling, the convoy up-anchored and squeaked its way out of Conde-en-Brie. But luck played a dirty trick, for shortly after leaving town the head of the column encountered a steep grade. The gravity feed, coupled with the low gas supply, proved too much for the 1918 Fords; they took a look at the hill, uttered one or two despairing gasps, and died with their boots on. The men detrucked and in approved Doughboy fashion hiked the last four miles carrying their guns and a limited supply of ammunition.

Homsher’s book, which can be previewed at, has won high praise from several military historians. It has also won two book awards for best Military Book of 2006.

For example, Matthew J. Seelinger of the Army Historical Foundation and Editor of On Point: The Journal of Military History, said, “While invaluable to anyone traveling to France to view the battlefield up close, this volume should also appeal to anyone hoping to gain a greater understanding of America’s role in the Great War.”