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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
# # #
*Account by Lt. Bob Hoffman, quoted in “Tragedy at Fismette” by Edward G. Lengel. http://www.historynet.com/tragedy-at-Fismette-France-1918.htm.