Memorial for Jenny Bennett

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The Smoky Mountains Hiking club has announced the memorial hike for Jenny on September 13, 2015, on the Porters Creek Trail, with a potluck lunch time of fellowship and reflection at the Porters Creek Pavilion. Times and details will be announced as they are confirmed. Please watch the club’s website for further details:

For those of you who have not already Googled “Jenny Bennett Smoky Mountains hiking”, here is a brief outline of what happened.

Jenny was planning on moving to Vermont to be closer to her sister Betsy at the beginning of June. She had packed most of her belongings and must have decided to make one last hike to her favorite area of the Smokies. She went up Porter’s Creek (setting for her first novel, Murder at the Jumpoff) and never returned.  It was about a week before her landlord went to the house she was renting and realized that she had never left. He called me (Peter) and we were both very concerned. A search was launched, her car was found at the Porter’s Creek trailhead, and her body was found the next morning.

Details of what actually happened to Jenny are unclear. The Park Service launched an investigation after her body was found, but they still don’t know everything. It is likely that we will never really know what happened. We do know that Jenny died in her favorite place in the world, the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Peter Bennett

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Jenny has passed away


Hello to all readers of Jenny’s blog. Tragically Jenny has passed away. She was following her passion, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, and evidently she had an accident. She was located in one of her favorite hiking areas, Porter’s Creek / Lester Prong.

There will be a memorial hike into this area sometime in the future, probably later in the summer. The hike will involve the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and all of her hiking friends are invited.

This is written by her brother Peter Bennett of Bozeman Montana. I will be posting more information about Jenny and the memorial hike as the plans develop.

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Words of endurance: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917.

Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2013.

Embedded within the pages of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, you will find an account of a British second lieutenant on the Western Front, complete with vivid scenes of the Somme and Arras. But the book’s unique value concerns events off the battlefield, a personal and solitary journey undertaken by Sassoon.

Infantry Officer is the second volume of Sassoon’s trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston, a fictionalized autobiography. Names have been changed, events rearranged. The crux of the book is a description of Sherston’s growing disgust with the conflict and his decision in 1917 to make a public protest against “the War.” These episodes run pretty close to Sassoon’s real experience, and they tell how Sherston/Sassoon was eventually packed off to a mental hospital. The top brass were embarrassed by this protest on the part of a decorated officer, but they feared making a martyr of him. Rather than sending him to prison, they decreed that he suffered from shell shock, and he was quietly removed from public view.

"Group of Hunters." From Vanity Fair, 1905.

“Group of Hunters.” From Vanity Fair, 1905.

Sassoon endowed the character of Sherston with the hearty sportsman side of his own past (fox-hunting, cricket) but omitted the writing of poetry (Sassoon was a successful poet at the time the war started). Sherston does happen to read quite a lot. At one point during the Somme campaign:  “Late that night I was lying in the tent with The Return of the Native on my knee. The others were asleep, but my candle still guttered on the shell-box at my elbow… I felt very wide awake. How were things going at Bazentin, I wondered? And should I be sent for tomorrow? A sort of numb funkiness invaded me. I didn’t want to die—not before I’d finished reading The Return of the Native anyhow.” (79)

The reader of course understands this is a bit of amiable self-mockery, not an insane devotion to Thomas Hardy. The greatest pleasure of reading Infantry Officer is getting to know a character you’d like to have for a friend. He’s brave but willing to admit self-doubt, amused at times by the wartime world but sensitive to its horrors. He can entertain with a bit of devastating social insight, as when he describes a “large dining-room… full of London Clubmen dressed as Colonels, Majors, and Captains with a conscientious objection to physical comfort.” But his take on this sort of thing is never bitter. He goes on to say: “But, after all, somebody had to be at the Base; warfare offered a niche for everyone, and many of them looked better qualified for a card-table than a military campaign.” (135)

An episode at Mametz Wood shows Sherston in his best brave-yet-foolhardy combination. Two companies make a midnight attack on a German position below the Wood. As the battle sputters along, there is considerable confusion on poorly reconnoitered terrain. Sherston is first ordered to take his bombers forward, but shortly thereafter told to bring them back (bombers meaning soldiers carrying Mills bombs). He sends them toward the rear but continues forward himself without really knowing why. A man named Kendle of his company loyally stays with him, and they wander across shell-pitted ground in the pre-dawn hours. They stop for a short rest, and Kendle falls asleep with his head on Sherston’s shoulder before they struggle to their feet once again.

Photo of Sassoon by George Charles Beresford.

Photo of Sassoon by George Charles Beresford.

Along the way, the pair encounter all varieties of human response to the terrors of combat. An unhinged officer runs toward Headquarters in the rear, babbling of not being able to “find the Germans” until Sherston takes out his pistol and threatens to shoot him unless he returns to his position. Sherston knows that if the man reaches HQ in that condition, he will end up court-martialed for cowardice. He and Kendle stagger on until they reach a recently captured trench. Three apathetic officers sit listlessly on the firestep, in striking contrast to an energetic NCO named Fernby who briskly discusses the situation with Sherston. They agree the trench must be dug deeper immediately, as the men are exposed to enfilading fire and the sun will soon rise.

The ever-unfolding contrasts between courage and cowardice fill Sherston with incoherent but intense emotion. They come under fire from a sniper, making out a helmet bobbing up across the valley. Kendle crawls out from behind the bank to fire back, gets off a shot, smiles back at Sherston and Fernby, and is felled by a bullet to the forehead as he turns to fire again.

Burning with rage, Sherston races alone across the valley to “settle that sniper.” Panting with exertion as he climbs the opposite slope, he throws a couple of bombs and reaches the enemy position. “Quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it. Fortunately for me, they were already retreating. It had not occurred to them that they were being attacked by a single fool; and Fernby… had covered my advance by traversing the top of the trench with his Lewis-gun.”

He sits down in the trench, wondering what to do next, now that he has “occupied” it. Realizing the Germans might return any moment, he calms his thoughts by counting sets of equipment left behind by the fleeing soldiers. “There were between forty and fifty packs, tidily arranged in a row—a fact I often mentioned (quite casually) when describing my exploit afterwards.” (67)

Eventually, knowing he can do nothing more, he runs back to his trench. He stays in the combat zone all morning, ignoring an order to report to HQ, finally returning that afternoon to face the blithering rage of his colonel. His little excursion, it turns out, had forced a delay in a planned artillery bombardment while they waited for “Sherston’s patrol” to come back. So his actions were, in a sense, counterproductive. But how many of his comrades must have felt much-needed encouragement when they learned of the deed?

More and more, as the Somme campaign drags on, Sherston struggles with a sense of helplessness in the face of interminable war. One evening he takes a stroll, watching the pale orange beams of the sun streaming down on a fading, melancholy landscape. “For me that evening expressed the indeterminate tragedy which was moving, with agony on agony, toward the autumn.” (82) As a solitary observer, he can do nothing to stop the war, he feels, but only observe an Armageddon that surpasses understanding.

At the end of the summer he is invalided out with a severe case of enteritis. Given his praiseworthy record—he has by now earned a Military Cross—he is allowed a generous leave back in England. Once there, he finds himself matching the attitudes of civilians back home against the actualities of war. At the hospital he observes a father-son pair who embody this disjunction. The solicitous father comes every day to wheel his sullen son across the lawn. The son has lost a leg, and often glares at his father. But the father is proud of his boy. “I heard him telling one of the nurses how splendidly the boy had done in the Gommecourt attack, showing her a letter, too, probably from the boy’s colonel. I wondered whether he had ever allowed himself to find out that the Gommecourt show had been nothing but a massacre of good troops.” (95)

(c) Portsmouth Museums and Records Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Autumn, Weald of Kent” by Benjamin Haughton, 1904.

Once released from the hospital, he stays with his Aunt Evelyn at her estate in the Weald, a famous area of woodlands and fields in the southeastern counties of England. He wanders about the grounds, noticing signs of wartime decay: the neglected stables, the overgrown garden. England has progressed from patriotic enthusiasm to fatigue and deprivation—but still, the vast majority of citizens express support for the war.

In late November Sherston is cleared by the medical board and reports to his regiment’s home camp, near Liverpool. For weeks he endures a tedious existence, relieved by the arrival of his friend David Cromlech (a fictional name for Robert Graves). They have contentious literary discussions, Cromlech deliberately taking bizarre positions (Homer was actually a woman, Milton was worthless). This extends to music as well (Northern folk-ballad tunes are superior to Beethoven’s Fifth). These assertions are contested by Sherston even while he realizes Cromlech delights in pushing his buttons.

Robert Graves (1895-1985).

Robert Graves (1895-1985).

In February Sherston returns to France. He moves steadily back toward the inferno, from the divisional base camp at Rouen to his battalion’s camp at Morlancourt, behind the lines, and finally along a series of dilapidated trenches. He is being drawn inexorably into the Battle of Arras. “Stage by stage, we had marched to the life-denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and growl of its bombardments. Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed to us in the zone of inhuman havoc.” (161)

The immediate objective of his battalion is to occupy a portion of the Hindenburg Line, and this is accomplished in a swirling chaos of bombardments and advances past the bodies of earlier casualties. Sherston notes the presence, at this stage of the war, of increasing numbers of ill-trained men in the ranks and a lack of competent NCOs. He finds himself in close quarters with two officers new to the front: an uncouth Welshman and a snobbish Oxford grad. Despite bad table manners and excitable talk, the Welshman will be able to take care of himself, Sherston decides. But he worries that the disapproving Oxonian will become unhinged, and he takes him on a tour of the battlefield during a quiet moment to give him a gentle introduction to the horrors. Both newcomers are killed within a few months.

Captured English tank at Arras.

Captured English tank at Arras.

Sherston is soon wounded himself as he explores along a trench in that sub-battle of Arras known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe. It’s a gift from a sniper: a bullet that neatly drills him through the chest, narrowly missing his jugular and his spine. Soon he is back in England, first in hospital and then, thanks to a little string-pulling, convalescing at “Nutwood Manor,” a Sussex estate.

Advance dressing station at Arras.

Advance dressing station at Arras.

In his first days at the hospital, Sherston ponders his nation’s involvement in the war. “I cannot claim that my thoughts were clear or consistent. I did, however, become definitely critical and inquiring about the War.” (187) His experience at Nutwood Manor reinforces these critical thoughts. Although the resident lord and lady do everything they can to care for their four convalescing officers, “Lady Asterix” complacently believes they should be happy to have done their duty and will be rewarded in the afterlife. Sherston does his best to suppress rude thoughts of disagreement, but the difference in their attitudes becomes increasingly apparent. Lady Asterix happens to be present when Sherston opens a letter informing him that two good friends in his battalion have been killed. When he blurts out the news, the lady serenely says, “But they are safe and happy now.”

Sherston has four weeks before he is required to report back for duty. Soon he decides he must make a public statement against the war, even if he will be court-martialed for it. But while he has all the necessary determination and courage, the way to proceed is not so obvious. His first thought is to ask the editor of the “Unconservative Weekly” (“The Nation”) to publish his statement. In a meeting with the man, “Markington” (H.W. Massingham), he is suddenly introduced to a world of political analysis quite foreign to him. Markington speaks of Russia’s request for England to clearly state her “War Aims,” and England’s refusal. “And now Markington had gloomily informed me that our Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells.” (209)

Henry William Massingham (1860-1924).

Henry William Massingham (1860-1924).

This episode of a soldier/sportsman’s introduction to the realm of global politics ends up being quite humorous. Sherston wants to hit Lloyd George on the nose, and to “stop strangers in the street and ask them whether they realized that we ought to state our War Aims.” (209) Throughout the following period, Sherston is constantly bedeviled by incongruous doubts—not about his purpose, but about the annoying details. He is advised to meet leading pacifist “Thornton Tyrell” (Bertrand Russell).  Should he first read the works of that famous philosopher and mathematician? He does eventually obtain one of Tyrell’s works, starts underlining what seem to be the important passages, consults the dictionary, scratches his head, and ends up casting it aside as a hopeless enterprise—the book is too “full of ideas.”

But with Tyrell’s help, he is introduced to a sympathetic M.P. who will read Sherston’s declaration in the House of Commons. He sits down to draft the actual statement. After much agonizing labor, he produces something simple and eloquent. “I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest…. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust…”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

The M.P. will wait to bring up the matter in Parliament until Sherston has submitted a copy of his statement to his colonel, which he will do only when he is required to report for duty. In the meantime Sherston goes through the motions of military procedure, applying for an instructorship with cadet officers as his chosen duty when his leave will expire. In reality, he believes he will go to prison. It is painful for him to chat with fellow officers while the time bomb of his declaration is set to explode. He has to spend two weeks with his Aunt Evelyn without revealing his seething thoughts. At a train station bookstall he searches for something that will give him consolation and grabs a copy of The Morals of Rousseau, a thinker with whom he has no familiarity. But rather than consolation, he finds only that a nonsense couplet by Cowper goes incessantly through his mind: “I shall not ask Jean Jacques Rousseau/ If birds confabulate or no.” “I mention this couplet because, for the next ten days or so, I couldn’t get it out of my head.” (234)

Oddly enough, it is these details and incongruities that get at the essence of the man. He is brave and determined, but always gently mocking himself. You might even say the self-mockery is a matter of principle.

At last his leave expires and he receives the expected order to report to the Liverpool depot. Now he sends off his statement to the colonel, saying he refuses. The military wheels start to turn. He is interviewed first by an embarrassed major and then by the colonel, who demands to know why he isn’t still interested in “crushing the Prussians.” Sherston returns to his hotel and awaits developments.

He doesn’t want to be rescued from his situation, as he is in it by choice. But his friend Cromlech materializes with important news. It turns out Cromlech has spoken with relevant officials and helped to arrange that his case be treated as a medical one. A “big bug” at the War Office has gotten involved, and they will refuse to court-martial him. For Sherston this is a let-down of sorts, but on the other hand, he has made his statement, and he won’t have to go to prison. Waves of relief wash over him.

As he stands before the medical board, the silly couplet about Rousseau comes into his head again, and he feels tempted to say it out loud. “Probably it would be the best thing I could do, for it would prove conclusively and comfortably that I was a harmless lunatic.” (246) A “kindly neurologist” meets his distracted eye, and before long the matter is decided. He will be treated for shell shock at “Slateford War Hospital” (Craiglockhart).

The volume ends there, and Vol. 3, Sherston’s Progress, describes his time at the hospital, where he meets an admirer, Wilfred Owen. Eventually he returns to the Front.

Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen, killed 1918.


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Words of endurance: All Quiet on the Western Front

Cover of first English edition.

Cover of first English edition.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War.There are many editions of Erich Maria Remarque’s
All Quiet on the Western Front. I used an e-book edition.

This is the best known by far of any of the books I have included in these works of World War I. Yet I had not read it before I began this series. I did so at the very start but put it aside, as I did not like it very much, for the most part, though I couldn’t say exactly why. Now I have reread it, and I understand why it leaves me unsatisfied.

Of the ten works that preceded All Quiet in my “Words of endurance” series, seven were memoirs. The one other novel was The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert, and that has such a strong autobiographical element that it reads like a memoir. The extraordinary long poem In Parenthesis also contains a lot of autobiographical material. All of these works brim over with the concrete particulars of everyday life in combat—with the random, the arbitrary, and the peculiar elements of real human experience. In fact, these writings are so embedded in the actual moment that often I found it difficult to get a sense of the historical context. A.P. Herbert doesn’t bother to tell us that the major battles of his book were the Third Battle of Krithia at Gallipoli and Beaucourt sur l’Ancre at the Somme. Hans Carossa, in A Roumanian Diary, never identifies the location of his most important experiences—through much study of maps, I determined it was the Csik Mountains of eastern Transylvania.

Not only are these works highly personal and subjective, but the authors seem uninterested in drawing out larger themes as to war’s futility or, conversely, its glory.  The reader comes away with a strong sense of each author’s personality—Fritz Kreisler is patriotic, Carossa is sensitive and introspective, Ernst Juenger lives for adventure—and yet we aren’t reading these people’s opinions or interpretations.

Erich Maria Remarque, 1928.

Erich Maria Remarque, 1928.

Of those ten authors preceding Remarque in this series, only one—the poet Wilfred Owen—universalized his experience. He wasn’t interested in the random, but in the significant. His poems carried the unmistakable message that war is a futile and grotesque experience.

All Quiet was written deductively rather than inductively—going from the general to the particular. Remarque had several themes. They were: the grotesque nature of war; the importance of comradship among soldiers; the pointless nature of conflicts between nations, which after all are made up of fellow human beings; war’s disfigurement of the psyches of soldiers, especially the younger ones who go into combat wholly naive, lacking the steadying experiences of wife, children, and profession. Related to the latter, another theme is the impossibility of returning unblemished to normal civilian life.

All Quiet has to be respected for its depiction of a viewpoint unpopular in Germany after the war. But by the time of its publication in 1929, its themes resonated with many readers, and it is said to have sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in the first 18 months after it went to press.

Remarque’s themes were important ones. They had been addressed in various ways by the British—Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, and others—but they hadn’t been discussed to any great extent in Germany, and readers in other countries hadn’t heard much about the German experience. In the years immediately following the war, many in the Allied nations still languished under the baneful influence of anti-German propaganda. All Quiet told these readers that German soldiers were human beings like themselves.

Why, then, do I not care for this book? It has after all some lovely writing. Take, for instance, this description of a bombardment: “The dark goes mad. It heaves and raves. Darknesses blacker than the night rush on us with giant strides, over us and away.”

But the one thing that really stood out to me on my first reading was the artificial nature of the ending. The protagonist, Paul Baumer, is killed in October 1918—just before the end of the war. His comrades, especially the ones who as schoolmates all enlisted at the same time, have one by one been killed off or seriously wounded over the course of the book. Now Baumer dies—oh, how ironically—within a few weeks of the Armistice. Remarque has to switch awkwardly from first person to third person at the very end in order to let us know this is what happened. And, of course, at the moment our hero dies, a report goes out: “Im Westen nichts Neues”—on the Western Front nothing new—ah! the irony!

First German edition.

First German edition.

The book contains details from Remarque’s own experiences, and those are the parts that, in my thinking, carry more weight. He served on the front from June 12, 1917, to July 31 of the same year. At that time he was wounded and spent the rest of the war in an army hospital. Therefore the book’s scenes of wounded soldiers in hospitals have a special authenticity.

And no doubt many other scenes come from Remarque’s experience, and those ring true: the fixation on food, the stupidity of the dreaded Corporal Himmelstoss, the schemes to seduce French women. But, on my second reading, I perceived a certain blurred quality to much of the writing, as if the experiences were generic rather than particular. No places are mentioned, no battles are named, no regiments are identified: not because the subjective particulars are more important than the objective, but because Remarque’s fictional world simply lacks detail.

It was the chapter about the camp of Russian prisoners that affected me the most. They are practically starved, and they pathetically carve wooden figures that they offer in exchange for better rations of food from the Germans. They are so feeble that they no longer masturbate—now, that is a detail you won’t see in many depictions of war. The prisoners sing hymns when any one of them dies, as happens every day. “The prisoners say a chorale, they sing in parts, and it sounds almost as if there were no voices, but an organ far away on the moor.”

With the ugly details—the mention of masturbation, or the description of men suffering from dysentery who sit on poles over the open-pit latrines—one can easily see why the book was banned by the Nazis. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels arranged for copies to be publicly burned. And eventually a dreadful thing happened. Remarque had gone to live in Switzerland, and then to the U.S. His sister, Elfriede Scholz, still in Germany, was arrested for “undermining morale.” After a farce of a trial, she was beheaded—and the costs of her imprisonment and execution were billed to her family. The president of the court said to her, “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach, but you will not escape us.”

With these outrageous circumstances surrounding the book, one must acknowledge the courage of the author in daring to express an unpopular viewpoint. Yet there is a reason why All Quiet is so commonly assigned to students in high school. The language is simple, the message is obvious—the author explains it to us many times. And the ironies within the  plot creak loudly on their hinges.

German soldier, Western Front.

German soldier, Western Front.

Posted in History, Literature, World War I | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Words of endurance: The greatest WWI poem—In Parenthesis

David Jones, 1895-1974.

David Jones, 1895-1974.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to David Jones,  In Parenthesis. New York: New York Review Books, 2003. Originally published 1937.

A reader who can’t let go of literal and linear modes of thought will have trouble with In Parenthesis by David Jones. Everything about the work blurs the categories. It was published by a man known as an engraver and printer, not a writer. He had served in the war from 1915 to 1918 but seemed at the time more like a child than a soldier. The photo of him above shows him looking frail and vulnerable. How could this person fight at the Somme and at Ypres?

It’s hard to know even what to call this work. I’ve seen it labelled as an epic poem, a prose poem, and a “deconstructed novel.” But the likes of Yeats and Eliot peered into its pages and liked what they saw. Eventually it won the Hawthornden Prize. In the 21st century world of corporate editors, I don’t think it would have been published at all. I say that, even though personally I think it is a great work.

I first learned of Jones in an essay by the poet Tom Sleigh in Poetry magazine, November 2013. Sleigh homed in on Jones’ use of Cockney rhyming slang, his standing shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary foot soldiers in their struggles with “the Brass.” He drew a contrast between Jones and Wilfred Owen, an officer, man of a genteel social class. Sleigh admired Owen as well, but he argued that Jones was the one who gave us the true feel of the moment, the grind and fatigue and the wise-ass banter among the men. There was no elegiac elegance in Jones (a thing Owen did so well), there was no overarching interpretation, no wringing of hands at the horror of war. Just the smell of it, the very taste and smell of the fleeting here-and-now.

Moving up for the Mametz attack. From the Knatchbull Collection. Jones fought at Mametz.

Moving up for the Mametz attack. From the Knatchbull Collection. Jones fought at Mametz.

And so, on the very first page, we are plunged into the predicament of Private John Ball—Jones’ alter ego. No setting of the scene, no introduction. We hear the barking of the captain as he hustles the untested men into parade ground order. They are about to sail to France.

” ’49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ’em up, pick ’em up—I’ll stalk within your chamber.
Private Leg. . . sick.
Private Ball. . . absent.
’01 Ball, ’01 Ball, Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball—you corporal, Ball of your section.”

Now Jones goes into a different voice as he describes the sounds of the men moving in formation.

“Heavily jolting and sideway jostling, the noise of liquid shaken in a small vessel by a regular jogging movement, a certain clinking ending in a shuffling of the feet sidelong—all clear and distinct in that silence peculiar to parade grounds and to refectories. The silence of a high order, full of peril in the breaking of it, like the coming on parade of John Ball.

“He settles between numbers 4 and 5 of the rear rank. It is as ineffectual as the ostrich in her sand. Captain Gwynn does not turn or move or give any sign.

“Have that man’s name taken if you please, Mr. Jenkins.
Take that man’s name, Sergeant Snell.
Take his name, corporal.
Take his name take his number—charge him—late on parade—the Battalion being paraded for overseas—warn him for Company Office.” (1)

Jones’ father was Welsh, and Jones chose to enlist with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Wales, to him, was a land of myth and tradition subjugated by the dominant order—the speakers of English. He spoke only English himself growing up (he taught himself Welsh later on), as his grandparents believed that the speaking of Welsh handicapped a person in making progress in the world. As a sensitive lad who saw the world differently than most people, Jones had a sympathy for the downtrodden and the conquered.

His regiment consisted partly of Welshmen and partly of those Londoners born within earshot of the Great Bell of Bow. As Jones said in his preface, “As Latin is to the Church, so is Cockney to the Army, no matter what name the regiment bears.” (xii)

By tradition. a true Cockney is born within earshot of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London.

By tradition. a true Cockney is born within earshot of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang crop up like vigorous weeds: “Get ready, me china-plate” (158), as a fellow says to his neighbor in the trench—“plate” = “mate.” You can hear the voices singing in your ear. As when an officer calls into the trench to the men to clean their rifles:

“Get on those rifles at once—get on with it.
Orl right Corp—got any gauze.
Wot we want is gauze.
Wot we want is boiling water,
Boiling bleedin’ water.”

The man is coming to inspect, but they have neither hot water nor oil to do the job:

“Got any oil.
Why don’t you go to Sergeant and get
for yourselves,
Why didn’t you ask the Quarter-bloke
back there.
Only a drop, china, just for the bolt—just a spot—be a kind virgin—he’s coming round the bend—he’s doing No. 5—just a spot.” (63)

This rough talk makes its own poetry, if poetry can be described (as I think it can) as loose and allusive, concrete and vivid, rhythmical, repeating in refrains. And underneath all this chanting, bantering talk flows an underground stream of legend and myth, for Jones gives us stories of ancient Wales and Britain. As he tells us in his own notes to the poem, he speaks of:

—frozen regions of the Celtic underworld, which Jones associates with “intense cold and yet lights shining”
—King Arthur’s descent into Hades to obtain the magic cauldron which would hold the drink of no coward
—the raid of 300 Welsh of Gododdin into the English kingdom of Deira, when only three survived. Of one brave Welshman it was said, “His sword rang in mothers’ heads.” Jones gives the Welsh, which has an inscrutable look: “Seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu.”

The Gododdin, one of the earliest Welsh texts to mention King Arthur.

The Gododdin, one of the earliest Welsh texts to mention King Arthur.

So we have the transcriptions of soldiers’ talk with the gleaming strands of myth interwoven all through. Atop that, like urns or bowls found in an archeological layer of Troy, we have objects and words from the ordinary lives of the troops. “Gooseberries” were arrangements of barbed-wire hoops. “Johnson hole”—large shell hole called after a mythical Jack Johnson. “Cushy”—any easy time or comfortable place. “Wipers”—Ypres, but “only proper in the mouth of a man out before the end of 1915”. “Square-heads”—Germans. “Toffee-apples”—English trench-morter projectiles. “Ox-blood kid”—officer’s servant who uses ox-blood polish to clean Sam Browne belts, etc. “S.R.D.”—stamped on every ration rum-jar, interpreted by the troops as “Service Rum Diluted.” “Woolly Bears”—heavy German shrapnel.

And atop that in turn lies a layer of description that is intense color and movement seen not according to the way anyone else would have seen it. Take this moment from Mametz Wood, when John Ball encounters an enemy in the brush. The enemy has a stick bomb; he has a grenade.

“You loose the thing into the underbrush
Dark-faceted iron oval lobs heavily to fungus-cushioned dank, wobbles under low leaf to lie, near where the [enemy’s] heel drew out just now; and tough root-fibres boomerang to top-most green filigree and earth clods disturb fresh fragile shoots that brush the sky.
You huddle closer to your mossy bed
you make yourself scarce
you scramble forward and pretend not to see,
but ruby drops from young beech-sprigs—
are bright your hands and face.
And the other one cries from the breaking-buckthorn.
He calls for Elsa, for Manuela for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg You grab his dropt stick-bomb as you go, but somehow you don’t fancy it and anyway you forget how it works. You definitely like the coloured label on the handle, you throw it to the tall wood-weeds. So double detonations, back and fro like well-played-up-to service at a net, mark left and right the forcing of the grooves.” (169)

That colored label on the stick bomb: does this mean Jones is so indifferent to the death-cries of his foe that he focuses on a trivial detail? Shouldn’t he have said something to excuse himself, to explain himself? But the whole point of this work is that it has no explanations, only the honest recounting of experience.

Slightly wounded at Mametz (Knatchbull Collection).

Slightly wounded at Mametz (Knatchbull Collection).

You can reduce the whole poem to a simple sequence, if you like. Part 1—John Ball’s battalion goes to France. Part 2—They move to the front. Part 3—They make their way by road and trench to the front line. Part 4—A typical day on the front line. Part 5—They go into reserve and march toward the Somme. Part 6—They take their positions in preparation for the Battle of Mametz Wood. Part 7—They fight a severe battle. Many are killed and many wounded, including Ball, who is wounded in the leg.

Jones returned to the front after a period of convalescence. But his poem ends with Mametz, as that undoubtedly formed the hardest hour of his war experience. It was a place of vicious combat such as the wood where the last king Llewelyn of Wales was killed. As Jones wrote in a note, “His contemporary, Gruffyddap yr Ynad Coch, sang of his death: ‘The voice of Lamentation is heard in every place… the course of nature is changed… the trees of the forest furiously rush against each other.” (22)

Read it if you can. Don’t try to understand every reference, though much is explained in the notes. Just read it for its truth to one man’s experience of the war.

Memorial at Mametz Wood commemorating the 38th Division, of which the RWF were a part.

Memorial at Mametz Wood commemorating the Welsh 38th Division. It depicts a Welsh dragon tearing at barbed wire.

Posted in History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Words of endurance: War Story of a Violinist

Fritz Kreisler.

Fritz Kreisler.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist can be found here.

This short account by an officer in the Austrian Army tells of his experience fighting on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Galicia—a drawn-out affair that resulted in a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Russians.

The subtitle War Story of a Violinist  is mainly a publisher’s hook: Fritz Kreisler was an accomplished violinist who had already won international fame. Seeing this title, the reader might expect a theme of contrasting identities: sensitive artiste versus soldier in combat. But Kreisler’s two selves harmonized surprisingly well, and at one point in the battle his musical ear played a military role, one of the most interesting incidents in his story. I’ll come to that a little later.

Kreisler produced this memoir at the publisher’s urging. He had never intended to author an account. His prose flows smoothly enough but it isn’t the writing of someone who seeks to express original ideas via the written word. He expressed himself in music rather than language. As a result, he tended to lapse into stereotypes. All the officers were “brave” and all the orderlies were “faithful.” People were always behaving splendidly under trying circumstances. This also came from his personal ethic. He strongly believed in a stoical adherence to duty—which made him a good soldier.

Kreisler as an officer of the Austrian Reserve and his wife as nurse.

Kreisler as an officer of the Austrian Reserve and his wife as nurse.

On July 31, 1914, the 39-year-old Kreisler and his wife are vacationing in Switzerland when they learn that the Austro-Hungarian troops are mobilizing. As a former officer in the Austrian Reserve, Kreisler immediately returns to Vienna to report for duty. He finds the city transformed. “Feverish activity everywhere prevailed. Reservists streamed in by thousands…. Autos filled with officers whizzed past. Dense crowds surged up and down the streets.”

A patriotic fervor spreads through the city in a way we haven’t seen since WW2 and perhaps hard for the contemporary reader to understand. Kreisler notices a young couple seated at a sidewalk cafe, a reservist in uniform and his young bride or sweetheart. They sit, “hands linked, utterly oblivious of their surroundings and the world at large.” Suddenly someone in the crowd recognizes this fundamental scene of wartime and calls out words of encouragement. People throng around the table, applauding and waving handkerchiefs and hats. When the couple realize they’ve become the center of attention, they are at first embarrassed and confused, but the young man soon rises to his feet and bows, to further applause. He struggles for words. Finally raising his hand to his cap in a salute, he begins to sing the Austrian national hymn.

“In a second every head in that throng was bared. All traffic suddenly stopped, everybody, passengers as well as conductors, joining in the anthem… soon it was a chorus of thousands of voices…. We were then on our way to the station, and long afterwards we could hear the singing, swelling like a human organ.”

Officers and wives.

Officers and wives.

Concert given in support of the Red Cross, shortly before departure for the front. Kreisler with violin.

Concert given in support of the Red Cross, shortly before departure for the front. Kreisler with violin.

Kreisler joins his battalion at Leoben, near Graz. He is to command a 55-man platoon.

Kreisler's battalion.

Kreisler’s battalion, at Leoben.

After a week of drilling and organizing, they join the rest of the regiment and board trains headed through Budapest to an unknown destination. They soon learn they are bound for Galicia, an eastern province of Austria-Hungary, now part of western Ukraine. They deboard at Strij, south of Lemberg (now Lvov or L’viv).

Lemberg in 1915.

Lemberg in 1915.

Reports filter through that Austrian forces have driven back the Russians so far that they now occupy Russian soil. Because the Russian border is far away, Kreisler and the others believe they are to remain at Strij for some time, training and maneuvering. They are in for a rude surprise. In fact, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, is about to rush his armies forward in the hope of engaging and defeating the Russians before they can mobilize forces greatly superior in number.

I should note that it is difficult to coordinate Kreisler’s account with histories of the fighting in Galicia. He himself apologizes for the lack of clarity, noting that he didn’t keep a diary. “My memories are uneven and confused,” he pleads, but it’s clear that he remembers quite well the things that interest him. His place names are another source of confusion, since they are largely extinct. We are visiting that mysterious Central European region with its malleable boundaries and its complex ethnic mix, little known by most people in the West.

So I can’t tell whether the reports of Austro-Hungarian success heard by Kreisler and his comrades were simply false or perhaps stemmed from advances in what is called the Battle of Krasnik in the area of Lublin (then part of Russia, now Poland). The timing seems off for that. I have to bear in mind that his account is meant to describe the inner experience, not to serve as a chronology.

At any rate, the men receive no information about the situation or the strategy, only orders to march out immediately. By night, troops of the entire Third Army march 20 miles, pause to feed themselves and their horses, then march on through the next day another 22 miles. The unconditioned men stagger along under their heavy loads that include rifle, bayonet, ammunition, spade, canned foods, cooking utensils, spare boots, winter overcoat, and part of a tent. Kreisler later estimated the weight at 50 pounds. Men drop out of the line, rest a few minutes, and struggle on once more.

The second night, they camp beside a monastery in the midst of a forest. I quote at length the description of a scene that touches deep recesses of imagination: “It made a weird and impressive picture in the wonderful starlight night, these soldiers sitting around the camp fires softly singing in chorus; the fantastic outlines of the monastery half hidden in the woods; the dark figures of the monks moving silently back and forth amongst the shadows of the trees as they brought refreshments to the troops;… the snorting and stamping of the horses nearby; an occasional melodic outcry of a sentinel…. That night I lay for a long while stretched near the smoldering ashes of the camp fire, with my cape as a blanket, … my soul filled with exaltation and happiness over the beauty around me.”

In the morning they march another 22 miles. By now the men are exhausted. They rest another night, and the following day, they hear what sounds like thunder. Still imagining the front to lie beyond the Russian border, they never suspect they are hearing the rumble of artillery until the colonel summons his officers and says, “Gentlemen, accept my congratulations. I have good news for you, we may meet the enemy today.” This comes as a shock: “We were thunderstruck at the sudden realization that the Russians had penetrated so far into Galicia.” But they press forward and soon come under the fire of shrapnel shells accurately aimed by gunners guided by a spotting airplane. Eventually the Austrian artillery responds and the Russian shellfire is diverted in that direction. The troops advance to a line of hills and take up a position there, digging a line of trenches.

It is here that Kreisler’s musical ear comes into play. While advancing between the positions of Austrian and Russian artillery, he at first notices that Austrian shells have a dull sound while Russian shells are shrill. As his unit continues to advance, the difference dissolves and the sounds reverse—Austrian shells become shrill and Russian ones dull. He confirms his perceptions by observing flashes of the guns. He concludes that as the shell rises in an arc it produces a dull whine in a falling cadence, followed by a rising shrill after it reaches the acme of the arc and descends.

He speaks about this with an artillery officer, who of course knows about the changing sounds, “but this knowledge was not used for practical purposes…. I told him I could actually determine the exact place where a shell coming from the opposing batteries was reaching its acme.” He is sent on a reconnoitering tour, marking on a map the precise spots where the hostile shells hit the high point of their arc. He’s later told that he had succeeded in giving the exact range of the Russian guns.

They are soon ordered to relieve an isolated detachment struggling to hold out against a surrounding Russian force. As they make their way in that direction, Kreisler sees a small drama unfold, so poignant that if I saw it in a movie, I would consider it  contrived, a tearjerker. He happens to ride beside the colonel commanding the brigade, a man he hadn’t met before. The colonel speaks proudly of his two sons serving in the Third Army. One of them is with the regiment under attack. As they proceed, wounded men are carried back from the fighting on stretchers. One passes by, and the colonel jumps down, recognizing his son. The boy says nothing of his wound. “He cried out, ‘Father, how splendid that the relief should just come from you! Go on… don’t stop for me. I am all right.’ The old colonel stood like a statue of bronze.”

The father-son exchange was recollected much later by Kreisler without benefit of a diary, and it is fair to ask whether he embellished the scene. Of course there is no way of knowing, but I hazard a guess that his account is essentially true. The ethos of stoical self-sacrifice was very strong among these men.

The Austrians engage the Russians and eventually force them into a disorderly retreat. They take 240 prisoners, who seem not overly distressed about their capture. Kreisler forms no conclusion here, but the reader suspects conditions in the Russian army might be less than ideal. Later observations by Kreisler bear this out.

Russian prisoners in Galicia.

Russian prisoners in Galicia.

That evening Kreisler visits the field hospital in search of the colonel’s son. He arrives at the bedside too late. The young man lies looking peaceful, a bouquet of wildflowers placed on his chest. Cause of death: a shot to the abdomen. Together with the young man’s orderly, Kreisler goes to convey the terrible news to the father, who is busy conferring with other officers. As soon as the colonel sees Kreisler with the “faithful orderly,” he knows what has happened. He says nothing. The orderly sobs as he hands over the son’s personal effects. The colonel dismisses them without a word and resumes his conference.

Later that night Kreisler passes the colonel’s tent. “I saw a dark figure lying on the floor, seemingly in deep sleep…. Then I saw that his shoulders were convulsively shaking and I knew that the mask of iron had fallen at last. The night was chilly so I entered his tent in search of his overcoat and laid it around his shoulders. He never noticed it.”

For some days the troops remain quiet in their position, until a scouting airplane brings word that five Russian army corps are approaching. Soon they come under bombardment. Shells burst around them hour after hour. “Suddenly there appeared a thin dark line on the horizon which moved rapidly toward us…. It was Russian cavalry, swooping down.” Just as the Cossacks reach the range of Austrian rifles, they swerve to left and right, revealing advancing infantry. They “moved forward in loose lines, endlessly rolling on like shallow waves overtaking each other, one line running forward, then suddenly disappearing by throwing itself down and opening fire on us to cover the advance of the other line, and so on.”

Just as the waves of Russian troops threaten to engulf the defenses, Austrian reserves succeed in performing a flanking movement. Caught in a cross-fire, the Russian line finally falls back. That evening Kreisler watches Red Cross parties visiting the piles of Russian casualties heaped up against barbed wire defenses. “These grotesque piles of human bodies seemed like a monstrous sacrificial offering immolated on the altar of some fiendishly cruel, antique deity.”

The tide soon turns, for Russian troops continue to advance in overwhelming numbers. If my inferences are correct, these are the Russian Third Army under Nikolai Ruzsky and the Eighth Army under the famous Aleksei Brusilov.


Aleksei Brusilov.

Aleksei Brusilov.

The Austrian Third Army commander, General Rudolph von Bruderman, determines that the only course is to fall back in a series of retreating battles. A period of gloom and hardship follows, when drenching rains turn the roads to sludge incessantly churned by wagons and artillery. Supplies of food become sparse and infrequent: at one time Kreisler goes three days without anything to eat.

The strategy of “retreating battles” has the sound of preserving a modicum of honor, but in reality the Austrians do little fighting—mostly fleeing. After some weeks they reach the swamps of Grodeck, south of Lemberg. Here the decision is taken to make a stand. After bouts of skirmishing, the two sides dig lines of trenches only 500 yards apart. By using field glasses, the Austrians come to recognize individuals in the opposite trench, “the favorite of my men being a giant red-bearded Russian whose constant pastime consisted in jumping like a Jack-in-the-box from the trench, crying over to us as he did so. He was frequently shot at, but never hit.”

A remarkable fraternization develops. The red-bearded Russian grows bolder and finally springs out of the trench, shouting and waving his cap. The Austrians stop shooting. One of Kreisler’s men, inspired by this bravado, jumps out of his trench and stands facing the Russian. They beckon to each other and draw closer until they stand at arm’s length. Neither one has carried his rifle, and Kreisler expects a fist fight—with a crushing result for the much smaller Austrian. “But lo, and behold! The big Russian held out his hand which held a package of tobacco and our Austrian, seizing the tobacco, grasped the hand of the Russian, and then produced a long cigar, which he ceremoniously presented.”

After the tide turned: Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia.

After the tide turned: Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia.

Similar incidents occur over the next days. One night, a Russian officer and his orderly come under a white flag, asking in broken French whether the Austrians can spare any food—they are starving. The visitors offer in return a small barrel of water and a little tobacco. Seeing the two emaciated faces, the Austrian major decides to comply with the request even though food is nearly as scanty on his own side. Contributions are collected from the trenches, and soon the two Russians are seated among the Austrians, feasting on canned beef, cheese, biscuits, salami, and chocolate. They return to their trench carrying a sack of the stale bread with bits of moldy cheese that the Austrians can afford to spare.

The very next day, the Russians storm a hill on the Austrian flank. In keeping with the fundamental paradox of war, this is not for a moment seen as a betrayal of the previous night’s generosity. Now we fight—now we have a truce—now we fight again. It’s all part of playing by the rules of an enormous and terrible game.

The Russian flanking movement cuts off Kreisler’s unit from the main body of the army. They soon find themselves in an impossible position. They run out of food and water, and ammunition is used up. To make matters worse, swampy water constantly oozes into their trench. They resort to bailing it out with their caps.

After four days a decision is made to evacuate the trench. But before they can accomplish this, they hear galloping hoofbeats: the Cossacks attack. The defenders seize swords and bayonets. A dark figure swoops down on Kreisler, a horse’s hoof strikes him hard on the shoulder, and he feels a sharp pain in his thigh. He passes out.

Over the next four weeks, Kreisler is transported in stages to a hospital in Vienna, where his own wife works as a Red Cross nurse. Naturally, their reunion is joyous. By November he has recovered sufficiently to appear before a medical board, which rules that he is unfit for further service. Perhaps they are also considering his age. He and his wife decide to leave overcrowded Vienna, where prices have skyrocketed. They go to New York, where Kreisler already has connections in the world of music, arriving late November.

In the meantime, Russia has decisively defeated Austria-Hungary in Galicia. It lays siege to the Austrian fortress of Przemysl in the Carpathian mountains until the fortress capitulates in March 1915.

Aftermath of the Siege of Przemysl.

Aftermath of the Siege of Przemysl.

In the summer of 1915 Austria-Hungary joins forces with Germany in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, pushing the Russians back behind their own borders. The Russians advance again in the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. They are gradually halted, but at a cost of 650,000 casualties for Austria-Hungary. Casualties for Russia amount to 1.4 million. Neither side ever recovers. The loss of men and material on the Russian side factors heavily in the discontent leading to the 1917 revolutions.

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Austria-Hungary coat of arms.

Austria-Hungary coat of arms.


Posted in Military History, Russian History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Words of endurance: Toward the Flame

"Fighting Trim" by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge from his book of words and pictures, "I Was There with the Yanks on the Western Front."

“Fighting Trim” by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge from his book of words and pictures, “I Was There with the Yanks on the Western Front.”

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Hervey Allen, Toward the Flame. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

At last, an American memoir! I’m glad I read Hervey Allen’s book only after I’d read ones by Europeans who’d started fighting much earlier—most notably the poilu Louis Barthas, whose service began August 1914 and went through the whole war. As I pored over those books, the voices of British, German, Russian, and French soldiers eventually combined in a chorus, a minor-key mass—mingled voices singing of their years of fighting and suffering.

The optimism and innocence of the Johnny-come-lately Yanks seemed striking to me by contrast, just as it must have seemed to Europeans at the time. Even a sensitive observer like Lt. Allen came on the scene undaunted by the immensity of the situation, wholly occupied with the small tasks of the day—making sure the men of his unit had enough hot food to eat and a decent place to sleep, or navigating a route for them across the open countryside.

"He Used to Hunt Rabbits in Kentucky."

“He Used to Hunt Rabbits in Kentucky.”

As Allen’s 111th Infantry regiment from Pennsylvania marches toward its destiny—they will fight in the Second Battle of the Marne—they pass through towns that are physically unscathed by war but whose residents bear mental scars. Most likely all of them have lost family members. “The whole population turned out to see us. Women held up their babies to Les braves Americains as we went by down the streets between the shuttered stone houses. We remarked the absence of any cheap cries or ‘home town’ cheers; only a tense exclamation once in a while, or the fierce exhortation of some wounded poilu. For the most part there was complete silence, except for the everlasting ring of steel boot-nails on hard stones.” (6)

Though Allen is far from a chauvinist, he goes on to say with pride: “There was a sameness, a uniformity, about our army that was new to the French, used to so many different styles of uniforms; a Saxon vigor and sternness, too, which for all their dash and gallantry, our Latin allies lacked. This was a bigger race of men passing, company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade and division.” (6)

It was the familiar Old World – New World contrast. These Europeans not only had their past four years of war but their endless history of enmities. You could look back past the Franco-Prussian to the Crimean to the Napoleonic wars, and on and on through the dim centuries.

Not that Americans were innocent of war. Fathers of some of these doughboys had fought in that imperialistic venture, the Spanish-American War, and the generation of their grandfathers had been severely blighted by the Civil War. Yet these young men thought about how capable they were, not about the trauma that might lie ahead.

Within six weeks, Allen and others from the 111th were to enter into a small but horrific conflict, the Battle of Fismette. The “Flame” of his title is the “Flame” of Fismette, and his book has the unusual feature that it ends quite abruptly in the midst of the battle, when men are literally being consumed by the German Flammenwerfer. It is the moment when Allen descends into Hell. He is wounded, and the rest of his company is virtually wiped out. The whole situation comes about because of a certain general’s shortsighted strategy—a French general, by the way.

I Know a Girl at Home Who Looks Just Like You"

“I Know a Girl at Home Who Looks Just Like You”

The book is full of homey American colloquialisms: “mad as a hornet,” “in a dead heat,” “I tried to use all the brains I had,” “the bigwigs had a powwow,” “a gossiping bee.” My favorite, describing a scene early on when the men didn’t realize the danger of enemy fire when halted for the night: “The Yanks went wandering around like a plumber’s picnic until they had enough men killed off to get wise.” (13)

They pitched pup tents and played baseball—at least, when not in enemy range. When they passed another American unit along the road, they’d call out, “What outfit, boys?” They were “anxious to get a swat at Fritz.”

All this is deliberate on the part of Allen, who wrote novels, poetry, and biography throughout his life. (He is best known for the historical epic Anthony Adverse, made into a Hollywood movie.) He speaks to the reader in the same casual way he’d speak to a friend. He could have used a tonier diction, but as he says in his preface, he wanted to write “a narrative, plain, unvarnished, without heroics, and true.” (xix) He shares his fears and hesitations, for instance: “After a little struggle with myself I determined to go and try to locate the two battalions.”  (135) This is a guy you’d like to have for a pal.

It is not until Fismette that Allen experiences close combat, though his battalion often comes under shellfire. Early on, two platoons are selected to provide support for an assault on Hill 204 at Chateau-Thierry, but Allen’s is not one of them. The chosen men, untested in battle, shake hands excitedly with their comrades and go off hardly understanding what lies ahead. The ones left behind hold little notes and keepsakes given to them for delivering to the families, if need be. Hill 204 turned out to be an important victory for the Allies, but just two-thirds of the men from the platoons come back. It is only after two weeks that the dead on Hill 204 can be buried. “They… lay just as they had fallen, some had evidently being trying to help a wounded comrade. One man, a fine young bank clerk… had been killed after being wounded…. Others had been shredded by shrapnel beyond recognition, and all were in terrible condition. The flesh had adhered to the identification tags which were corroded white, and hard to read. They smelled dreadfully in the envelope in which my friend delivered them to me.” (98-99)


"Veterans of the Marne"

“Veterans of the Marne”

Fighting in the Marne sector featured long marches along roads and across fields and woods, quite a contrast to the stationary trench warfare that paralyzed armies for years across the Western Front. Allen faces a perpetual challenge in keeping his men together and on the correct route. As they march through a town of twisting streets, some men go left and some go right. Or a long convoy of French army wagons rumbles through, cutting the file in half. Or they find themselves wandering by night through a dense wood, hearing strange voices here and there: French, American… and German. The front isn’t clearly defined.

One night, as they march across a “moonlit tableland” under sporadic enemy shellfire, someone gives a false gas alarm and the men hasten to put on their masks. The small, clouded goggles make for a strange undersea view. When the masks are removed, Allen finds that the leading platoon of the company has marched on with the guide and left the others behind. He explores ahead along dark roads to try to find the way. He comes to a telephone station and has to throw a bucket of water on the sleeping operator to wake him up and ask directions. He gropes his way along to a regimental headquarters and meets a chatty officer who wants to compare notes on acquaintances in Pittsburgh. Exasperated, Allen finally learns he should go “somewhere along the Paris road.”

He continues through a ghoulish landscape littered with corpses in gas masks. “Some had been blown to pieces two or three times; others lay as if asleep; some were just torsos. There was a head with glasses still on.” (38) He stumbles over the stiff legs of a dead mule. “Here I was ghastly sick of heart and body for a while.” (38) By a miracle, he eventually finds battalion headquarters. What causes even more frustration is that in these dark, unfamiliar places his superiors have textbook ideas of military science about proper marching procedure, for instance requiring a triangular-shaped advance formation with the top-ranking officer keeping position at the exact point of the triangle.

"Cut Off from Rations for Three Days in the Woods, With One Can of Tomatoes for both Food and Drink"

“Cut Off from Rations for Three Days in the Woods, With One Can of Tomatoes for both Food and Drink”

They come to abandoned houses, melancholy and despoiled. Allen wanders through their rooms, noting the odd, poignant remains of the inhabitants’ lives: an old swimming medal, family photographs and letters scattered on the floors, ruined items of clothing. “One’s chief impression of these looted houses was the litter of plaster, glass, and tramped articles on the floor. The heavy hobnail shoes ground everything to powder and came out slightly whitened after each trip. It was not hard to tell where a man had been. All you had to do was to look at his shoes.” (81)

Allen’s battalion operates in the vicinity of Chateau-Thierry for a month. Eventually he is told that the Germans are making a stand on the Vesle River, near the town of Fismes, and they are to proceed to the Vesle. When they arrive at Fismes, they find it is mainly held by Allies, save for a few snipers concealed in the houses. But the Germans are strong on the other side of the river, around the smaller village of Fismette. From the hills behind Fismette, the Germans keep up a steady bombardment of targets on both sides of the Vesle. Part of the 111th’s sister regiment, the 112th, is holed up in Fismette, under tremendous pressure.

Imagine a town separated from its satellite village by a river 45′ wide and 15′ deep. The bridge across has been continually shelled, and a hole gapes in the middle, extending halfway across the roadway. Soldiers crossing can peer down and see the river flowing underneath. One section narrows to a two-foot-wide bottleneck, forcing troops to go single file.

It’s hard to imagine a place more ideally suited for defense. Crossing the bridge is suicidal by daylight, and even by night, enemy flares light up the crossing at unpredictable moments. From the heights, the Germans have a clear view of any approaching force.

So why did the Americans throw away so many lives in this hopeless place? Because they were ordered to do so by Major-General Jean Degoutte, commander of the French Sixth Army. He had the idea that capturing and holding the bridgehead was essential. It wasn’t until shortly thereafter that an independent American army was formed under the command of General John J. Pershing. Meanwhile, the fighting raged on at Fismette, where Allen’s company soon found themselves locked in vicious house-to-house combat.

The orders upon arrival in Fismes: they must cross the Vesle and relieve their comrades in the 112th. The flames, smoke, and rattle of machine-gun fire over there do not especially encourage Allen. But an order is an order, and he leads his company over the bridge after dark. Once across, they are supposed to proceed to a tannery a mile downriver and join a second battalion. When Allen speaks of his orders to a lieutenant of the 112th, he is greeted with incredulous laughter. “‘Mile! nothing! You can only go another block. We have only half the town; ‘Fritz’ owns the rest. The Prussian Guard is right across the street.'” (239)

"Warming up the Canned Willy"

“Warming up the Canned Willy”

But Allen’s captain orders them to attack up the hill behind Fismette, where a nest of machine guns has been spewing bullets into the village. They make their way precariously, moving house-to-house, until they reach an open area. There, they make perfect targets. The captain and many others are killed: the situation seems insane. The survivors retreat to a dugout and talk things over. It is an impossible place to make an attack. Someone must go back across the river to battalion headquarters and explain what a mess they are in.

Since Allen is the best swimmer among surviving officers, he volunteers to cross back to Fismes. He inches along under the bridge, going hand over hand using the bridge supports until he reaches the gap in the middle, where he has to swim. Just underneath the water’s surface lie big coils of barbed wire. He tears off his gas mask when it fills up with water—there is plenty of “mustard” along the banks. At the far end he is stymied by an area raked by machine gun fire, until he discovers a culvert he can crawl through. At last he reaches headquarters and staggers in, finding the major telephoning to the colonel that the attack in Fismette is going well. Allen quickly corrects this notion before he collapses in a corner, overcome by the effects of the gas—and by simple exhaustion.

He rests only a few hours before he is awakened and told he must guide reinforcements back across the river. By now it all seems a nightmare. Somehow he manages to recross the bridge, reentering fierce combat on the other side. Another participant in the fight recalled the vivid sight of German infantry running down the street: “Clumpety-clump, they were going, with their high boots and huge coal-bucket helmets. I can see them coming yet—bent over, rifle in one hand, potato-masher grenade in the other; husky, red-faced young fellows, their eyes almost popping out of their heads as they dashed down the street, necks red and perspiring.”*

Under orders from the French general Degoute that they must continue to attack and to clear the enemy from the hills, the men try to force their way up the slope, only to come immediately under relentless shellfire. They are forced to retreat to cellars under the village houses, where they collapse, men crying out from wounds and from shell shock.

The German bombardment continues from that morning to the next. Throughout the night Allen watches a strange, melodramatic scene: “A shell fell in the garden, and by its red flash I saw a picture of Christ on the wall. The thorn-crowned face leaped suddenly out of the frame at each devil’s candle. Simple-hearted Catholic peasants had lived there once.” (274)

In the morning, an ominous silence sets in. It can only mean that the Germans are about to attack. The survivors straggle out of the cellar to improvise a ragged line of defense behind a wall. And then the German flamethrowers advance, bearing tanks of fuel  on their backs and carrying hoses that spew fire many yards ahead.  “Suddenly along the top of the hill there was a puff, a rolling cloud of smoke, and then a great burst of dirty, yellow flame. …The men along the crest curled up like leaves to save themselves as the flame and smoke rolled clear over them. There was another flash between the houses. One of the men stood up, turning around outlined against the flame—‘Oh! my God!’ he cried. ‘Oh! God!'”

And so, with that cry of  horror and agony, Allen’s account ends. He was evacuated August 12, 1918, with burns, shrapnel wounds, gas poisoning, and shell shock. The Americans eventually won control of the village August 22, but the Germans still held the heights. On August 27, the Germans retook Fismette.

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*Account by Lt. Bob Hoffman, quoted in “Tragedy at Fismette” by Edward G. Lengel.


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