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." www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15937.

“Fighting Trim” by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge from his book of words and pictures, “I Was There with the Yanks on the Western Front.” http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15937.

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.

#    #    #

"Exhausted"

“Exhausted”

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

 

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in Military History, World War I and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Words of endurance: Toward the Flame

  1. patholscher says:

    Great illustrations!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I like them—as soon as I saw a couple of them, I decided I’d use them exclusively for this piece. (I would have added a photo of Hervey Allen, but could not find a good one.)

  2. Well, I read Anthony Adverse back in the dark ages…but had no idea that the author had written more…particularly in this genre.
    What a rude awakening for the American troops, too!

    • Jenny says:

      When I was working on this piece I glanced at a plot summary of Anthony Adverse and soon realized the book is too long and complicated for me… I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie (it stars Olivia de Haviland). Would you believe that Hervey Allen also authored a biography of Edgar Allen Poe and wrote Kiplingesque verse?

  3. Jenny says:

    It’s on IMDb. It’s not on Netflix, which is what I usually watch… maybe I need to switch!

  4. An astonishing memoir! We forget that by mid-1918 the period of trench warfare was over. New technologies and techniques, including tanks, allowed the Allies to return to a war of movement. The problem, as Pershing observed, was that when Germany collapsed politically the Allies were still some weeks off actually beating the German army in the field. The fact that post-war Germany was filled with unbeaten soldiers forced to shoulder the burden of defeat, it has been argued, essentially made a further war inevitable.

    • Jenny says:

      An interesting point, though I wonder if many in the German army really believed at the time of the Armistice that they could still win the war. It’s just that they hadn’t been annihilated. It’s something I’d like to read more about.

      • patholscher says:

        You are quite correct. After the failure of Operation Michael in the Spring of 1918, the Germans no longer retained any hope of winning the war. Instead, they shifted to the hope that as they retreated back towards their frontier, their lines would shorten, and beating them would become more and more expensive to achieve, to the point where the Allies agreed to negotiated peace that Imperial Germany could tolerate. What the high command had not foreseen was the beginning of revolution at home, starting with the German navy and then rapidly spreading to troops in the German interior, which made it impossible to carry on with that strategy. By the fall of 1918, the German command was in the point where it had to end the war as things collapsed at home and the overwhelming fatigue of the German soldiers at the front became more and more evident, or they were going to end up with a Red Germany or a complete collapse, both of which they wanted and needed to avoid.

      • I covered that in part in my book ‘Shattered Glory’ (Penguin 2010), which is being used as a university text here in New Zealand. I am looking into ways of having it republished. The essence of the historical debate pivots around the extent to which domestic German morale had collapsed vs that of the field army.

    • patholscher says:

      All this is quite correct, but there’s an aspect from the German side (in addition to the outbreak of near rebellion at home, which I posted about immediately below), that’s sometimes missed. The Germans army was truly defeated at the enlisted level and was beginning to show it.

      When the Germans launched Operation Michael in the Spring of 1918, they’d hoped that their effort to break through the juncture of British and French forces would allow them to advance on Paris and end the war before the Americans could effectively enter the war at the combat level. Their problem was that at that point in the war horse attrition on their side had become so severe that they no longer had any cavalry. They tried to make up for it in part by training specialized rapid infantry. That tactic did in fact work at the onset of the offensive and the Germans did in fact break through the Allied lines and begin to advance. However, lacking a cavalry asset they could only do that as fast as a man could walk. It soon became they case that their infantry, already worn out from trench warfare, simply halted. German officers could not even get infantrymen to resume advancing under threat of death, a very real threat in the German army. So the offensive collapsed, the British and French managed to start to push back, and American troops were really deployed in action for the first time.

      In contrast, and contrary to what is generally imagined, when the Allies started their following 1918 offensives, they, and the British in particular, were able to do them as combined arms offensives. So, for example, at Cambrai not only were tanks deployed, but tanks with infantry and actually cavalry (with tank commanders sometimes actually mounted on horses). Cavalry actually outpaced the other branches, as tanks were so slow in this period. By that later stage of the war, at the infantry level German troops were still fighting, but they simply weren’t what they had been.

      The allies expected the Germans to fight into 1919 (as did the German high command), but with revolution at home, technology outpacing Germany, the return of mobile warfare, combined arms operations, and sheer German fatigue, the war wasn’t going to last that long.

      • Jenny says:

        I appreciate your perspective about the importance of cavalry. I can see how essential the horses would be in a campaign that involved a steady advance and occupation of a fairly large land area.

        I remember Ernst Juenger’s changing perspective (discussed in the last item in this series, about his “Storm of Steel”)—going from great enthusiasm about the Spring Offensive to the gradual discouraging knowledge that it would not succeed.

      • I agree in general. The debate over the reasons for the failure of the German 1918 offensive and the degree of defeat felt by the field army is an interesting discussion which has certainly exercised historians of the war. As has the way the British introduced ‘combined arms’ warfare for the August offensive. I covered those events as part of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ (Penguin 2010) with due referencing.

  5. patholscher says:

    Wow, even more great illustrations on the link to the Gutenberg text!

  6. Allen also wrote a series of novels set on the 18th Century Pennsylvania frontier. “The Forest and the Fort,” set during Pontiac’s rebellion, was a bestseller.

    The German army was well and truly beaten by the time of the Armistice, but allowing it to return home under arms definitely allowed for a myth to take root that they had not been defeated, but stabbed in the back. Pershing was among several combat generals who foresaw that an incomplete victory would have pernicious consequences.

    • patholscher says:

      Pershing indeed did have that view, and if I recall correctly was amongst those urging action right up until the last hour, on the basis that the Germans needed to know that they’d been defeated in the field.

      While the Germans were defeated in the field, in a way, they were stabbed in the back at the same time, except they did the stabbing. That’s the part they forgot. The rising spirit of revolution in the German Navy and Army wasn’t a fifth column, but the armed desperate edge of the German people, much like the Russian navy and army had been the same in revolutionary Russia. There would have been no revolutionary impulse without battlefield defeat and blockade induced privation, but those who were going over to revolution weren’t prewar revolutionaries so much as those elements of the armed forces that simply happened to not be stationed at the front and which were therefore in contact with the home front and its conditions.

  7. patholscher says:

    Matthew, congratulations on your book being published, and I hope that it is republished.

    • Jenny says:

      He’s published quite a few books on subjects historical and otherwise. Click on his name to take a look at his website. And that reminds me of a question—would anyone care to recommend a memoir or novel by an Australian or New Zealander?

      • patholscher says:

        That’s a nice site!

      • Jenny says:

        I am going to respond to my own question. There is a book titled “The Desert Column”
        by Ion Idriess, about Aussies fighting in Gallipoli and Palestine. Unfortunately my conclusion from reading various people’s thoughts about it is that Idriess was a writer who churned out countless books without putting a lot of original thought into any of them. I am not interested in that. There is an account supposed to be good by an Australian on the Western Front (I don’t have the author or title in front of me right now). I might be interested in that. But I am really looking for an original, interesting account of Gallipoli or other non-European fronts of the war. I would love to find a good Turkish account of Gallipoli but have come up empty on anything that’s been translated into English (there might well be something decent in Turkish). I know very well about a good account of the war in Germany’s African colonies, and I may have something to say about that.

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