The Great Adventure
Letters to the Home Folks from the Battlefield
[The Independent, November 16, 1918]
It is when he sits down to write a letter home that the American soldier is apt to be most eloquent and to express himself most truly. He talks straight out to the home folks. His letters to them give the best composite picture that can he had of the part our men are taking in the war.
So back in 1917 we began asking the readers of The Independent to share with us the less personal extracts from the letters that they were receiving from the front. It is interesting now to see the change in tone from the first collection that we published in November, 1917, to the present one. Then it was a cause for special comment to have been within hearing distance of the guns up front; there were only a few rare cases of Americans who had received the Croix de Guerre. Now most of the men know from their own experience how it feels to be up front; their descriptions have become more objective, their impressions of the war based on a broader view.
But we will let the letters speak for themselves.
Beginning at the top, we have the experiences of our aviators, the men who have done most to exemplify the thrill of adventure in modern war. Here is a sample of it, from an American in France:
I went "hedge hopping" last night. "Hedge hopping" is the fanciful name for flying low. I think it is perhaps the most exhilarating—and dangerous—of all phases of flying, even including acrobatics. It is the splendid sensation of tremendous power and matchless speed. No other sensation is to be compared with it.
The air was lying as level as the Dead Sea. I sat there in the boat and tried to sing, but gave that up when I could not hear my own voice for the motor. Then there flashed across my mind the idea of giving Jacqueline a thrill. Jacqueline, you remember, is the "Rose of France" who lives in the big chateau on the hill. I climbed until I could see her tower and then, straight as a bee, I made for it. They came out on a "renerversement." It is not difficult with these machines because they take their time and one can go thru the formula, "Pull—kick—cut and give 'em the gun again," quite deliberately. The old bus pokes her nose up into the air to a stall, the kick on the rudder turns her over on her side, and she slips quite naturally into a straight dive, which is the only terrifying moment, and then comes out of it as smooth and easy as sliding down the banisters.
Then I came down the valley and came back on a level with them. I "gave 'er all the gun" and "zoomed" the chateau—that is, I almost went up the front of the place. It was too close for comfort, and I don't know what they thought of me, because I probably gave them a fright.
I dipped into the valley, picking up speed all the way. I headed straight for some tall Lombardy poplars and actually I climbed them, or, rather, jumped them. After that I zoomed every lone tree in a field and hopped every hedge, altho, in fact, it was getting so dark it was risky. I went down to speak to every farmhouse, and when the barnyard fowl began to run for cover I would shoot up into the sky again. It is .a hundred thousand times more thrilling than motor-biking. It. is smooth like motor-boating and you have the same wave motion and the sensation of rushing movement. It is really dangerous because, if the motor "poops," it means either sudden extinction or miraculous escape. There is no time to think, and, even if you thought, there is nothing that you could do about it.
Don't worry, I won't do it often—I can't afford to take the chance when I am needed up front.
Another aviator likes flying for its esthetic thrill:
One morning last week I was in the air before daybreak and witnessed the dawn from the air. It was a wonderful morning, cold and sharp on, the ground; but, at an altitude of 1500 feet, the south wind was blowing and the air was like satin, warm and balmy. "We got away while yellow lamplight still etched windows against the darkness, and headlights of street cars and automobiles threaded the surface." Just the first hint of dawn was showing on the tip edge of a mist bank. "We climbed quickly in the cold heavy air, and in a few seconds headed away from the field and into the dawn. Straight into the heart of it we flew, and watched the mist's slate-color change to rose, then to crimson, and gradually to orange and yellow. I wanted to float on forever into that wonderful mystery of morning light, in the sweet, silent sweep of the wind. And then the sun, red in the haze, appeared. Melds and gardens, roads and lanes, took shape beneath us, and we were back from the fairyland of day birth into the business of preparing men for war.
But there's very little of the artistic in this story of a flight written by an American who was just learning the game:
I had a curious creature for an instructor. He used to sit in front of me and by using his hands direct my movements. Perhaps suddenly he would wave his left arm violently in the air and I would lower the left wing. Up he would jump and at, say, 200 meters altitude turn around and shove his fist at me and yell to turn to the left and not upset the plane, Of course with the roar of the motor I could not hear him so I would lower the wing still more. With a snap the stick would be jerked out of my hand and down we would go. Then having levelled the machine he would sign me to take the controls again and make a landing and down we would go; the ground rushing up scared me to death. I forgot to redress and straighten out, when again the stick was suddenly jerked away from me, the plane levelled and we hit the ground smoothly and with no bumping. A friend rushed up. "Fine landing," he yelled. "You flew well." With a shriek the instructor turns around, "Oh, yes, you flew very well," his naturally high voice became a shriek, "Yes, you flew well to keel. When I say go down you go up. When I signed to lower the right wing you depress the left. I tell you to turn to the left and you go down. Oh, yes, you fly very well—very well to keel." He almost wept: "Three women love me, does no one love you? If you want to keel yourself, all right, but don't keel me. If I die, three women will die of grief. If you die everybody be very happy. Oh, yes, you fly very well to keel, but I no want to die. I let you fly alone after this," and he kept his word. It's a great life flying, but if this war ever ends, I am going to buy myself a donkey and a cart and go driving along nice quiet roads where there are no birds. I don't think I will ever want to see the clouds go by or watch the leaves rustle in the wind. Just a quiet life with no reminders.
It is interesting to hear what the men in the trenches think of the men in the air. This letter is from a first lieutenant in the field artillery who used balloons to register his guns:
We got splendid satisfaction from the balloons—much more so than from the aviators. They seem to be too temperamental a lot with too many reasons why, they shouldn't fly; all right, I suppose, but our work must, go on, rain or shine or wind. However, these balloonists won our immediate confidence. These two youngsters, altho forced to jump in their parachutes twice in one day—a perfectly nerve-racking experience—were around in the evening wanting to know what they could do on the morrow—anything to serve. I saw them come down once. They were in the custom of exchanging greetings with the aviators who flew past them, by waving, etc. So they saw nothing suspicious in five French planes which came winging up with a hundred meters or so. The answer to their waves was a shower of machine gun bullets and the balloon went up in flames. We could see the little dots as they jumped in time and dropt for a sickening period until the parachutes opened up. While they dangled helpless in the air a plane circled back and fired at them floating there, until it was driven off by the anti-aircraft below—a most unsportsmanlike thing to do, but who can expect any sportsmanship from the Boche? They had come over in captured French planes with the insignia still on.
A young infantry private adds his opinion of the Boche:
The Prussian officer when captured acts very haughtily and obstinately. He will tell you that Germany is sure to win the war, and he gets furious when you doubt his word and search his person for articles wanted by the Intelligence Department, but what "gets his goat" worst of all is to be treated along with the privates when he is wounded. We captured a machine gun crew the other day and among them was a young Prussian who looked to be about eighteen years old. This fellow fought from the time we took him until someone shot him. We took him to the dressing station and got his wound drest and leaving the station he made another pass at the guard and we shot his light out. That just goes to show what a Prussian will do.
An ambulance man gives his testimony:
The Germans were in this part of France for over two years, and when they left they did as much damage as possible. One place brought to my attention was that of an old lady seventy-five years old,' who had peacefully quartered several Germans since the outbreak of the war. When the Germans retreated they smashed the table, the windows, the lone stove and even destroyed the dresser drawers, besides taking two grand-daughters. When the women of the "American Fund for French Wounded" found the old lady she was trying to keep warm with a very inadequate shawl thrown over her shoulders and sitting before a makeshift for a fire on a three-legged milking stool the Germans had overlooked.
I don't want to fight any more than the worst pacifist, but when such activities that even put barbarism to pale are to be contended with, I'm perfectly willing to sacrifice everything for the absolute overthrow of the source of those activities.
What the private in a field hospital unit who wrote the following letter thinks of the Boche can be easily read between the lines:
We were under shell fire for six hours. There were fourteen hits in the hospital grounds,' four directly in the wards. All that time all our boys up and around exposed, carrying wounded to the dugouts. Even the cooks stuck to the job, making hot coffee and serving it to the wounded in the dugout and trenches. Some of the wounded were killed and others were wounded again during this time.
But we haven't space to print all that our men say about Fritz—or Jerry, as he is oftener called now. Their verdict is unanimous.
One letter, from a lieutenant in the artillery, gives us the reverse side of the picture—what the fighting Germans think of us:
I have read several communications taken from captured German intelligence officers, and in each case they lay particular stress upon our spirit, physical aspect, determination, and general fighting abilities. So, if our enemies pay us that tribute, the American people can be doubly proud of their army.
The Germans paid involuntary tribute to the fighting courage of our Marines when they nicknamed them Teufelhunde, Devil Dogs. Here is a letter from a Marine describing probably the beginning of the very fight in which they got the name:
We came into a small bunch of woods, just before dusk one night. Everything seemed quite peaceful there then, so we only dug a small hole for two of us to sleep in, only about a foot deep. We laid down and were about to go to sleep when I heard a thundering noise. In a minute the high explosives were dropping all around us. At times our little dugout seemed to be on fire and the concussion seemed to fairly drive us into the earth. In the evening when we came in the foliage on the trees was so thick that we couldn't see the sky, but when I looked up in the morning, there was nothing but blue sky above. I picked up my rifle, that I had leaned against a tree on the edge of our dugout, and it had three holes in the stock about one inch square, broken by the flying shrapnel. On the other edge my "buddy" had laid his canteen, and it was blown all to pieces. So you see they were bursting pretty close.
Soldiers' letters wax most eloquent when they describe the din of battle. As another Marine puts it:
To lie flat on the ground and endure that sting of the Hun gas, hear the whistle of his bullets, the roar of his machine gun fire and the shriek of his shells while the earth trembles and rocks, heaves and covers you with dirt, makes an ineffaceable impression. Thru it all I came unscathed, tho that seemed impossible and now appears credible.
An engineer behind the first lines feels differently about it:
The continuous artillery fire has become so monotonous that it has fairly become boresome and while I am only within earshot of it all I am at times under fire and appreciate what it means to seek shelter from the "Boche." The rainy season has set in and in a sense of the word it has proven a cloak and a blessing because prior to its coming we were under the beams of the moon which over here lost all of its romance and only spelled tragedy in the wake of the "Hun birdman" who found guidance in its rays. These attacks meant to us sleepless nights spent in the caves, trenches and dugouts.
To a man of the Rainbow Division we will give the honor of quoting a full description of one fight:
When the last big drive started we were somewhere on the line, where, I may tell you some day; 11:15 the telephone rang and we called the captain. The French had captured some prisoners at 11 o'clock who admitted that the drive was coming at midnight. We had fifteen minutes to put on our gas clothes with feverish energy. Exactly at 12 a wave of flame ran along the horizon followed by the roar of the German guns. The gun flashes flickered and flashed in waves and sheets of flame like the Northern lights, and I cannot find a similie for the smooth, steady roar of the guns as they poured a cascade of steel on our front lines. The bombardment jumped the secondary lines and fell again an our artillery, roads, rear lines, and the heavy guns shelled towns and cities twenty kilometers in the rear.
For four hours the guns roared. We just stood and watched. Big shells crashed around in the woods mingled with the ever present gas shell. A direct hit on our ammunition dump sent up a column of smoke, flame and bursting shells and a bunch of signal rockets made a display that put any Fourth of July celebration in the shade. It is a curious feeling to stand out and watch a scene like that. You feel as if all the guns were aimed, at you and you wonder why the shells fall some other place.
At 4:17 a.m. the barrage lifted and the Germans left their trenches. Then the French and American "batteries opened up. Nuff said. The rattle of the 75s was as the roll of a snare drum and it continued with unabated fury till noon, when the Germans quit. They had made eight distinct attacks, but the artillery had smashed them all aided by the infantry. In some places the infantry had little to do while in others there was bitter hand to hand fighting, but our doughboys proved equal and superior to the Prussian Guards. German prisoners said they simply could not pass the barrage and one captured officer wanted to see our "three inch" machine gun. But we held, and after four days the Germans withdrew their artillery and reserves, having their hands full elsewhere. Since then we've had lots of marching and night work and are again on the front. I've passed over a real battlefield with all its signs, equipment, dead horses, German trenches, and lots of souvenirs. I could send home a carload of helmets, rifles, swords, etc., but am not collecting anything. I've learned just how much I can carry.
A truck driver gives a graphic description of one incident in his day's work:
One car blew out a gasket in the exhaust line and caught fire twice—the crew had a merry job heaving mud on it—one boy lay on his back under the gas tank and chucked the mud which was handed to him, up over the gas tank under the seat, while the whole pan above him was on fire. He was taking a long chance and he knew it, but he got away with it and saved a $5000 chassis. He is but one out of many such boys whom I am working with—it is an honor to know such men and work with them—if you ever get in a tight place you can bank on such to get you thru if it is humanly possible.
And here is an infantryman's letter that puts the frills on fighting in true American style:
My Pal, Al Langen, went out one day with a message and he met a Tommy on the road who told him he had better get off of it. Al thought he was trying to kid him and scare him, so—thick like the Irish—he kept moping along and Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z they came! Well, he ducked behind a bush with a soap box over his head, thinking that would save him. He did get away safe, but not until one of the fellows came along and saw him hiding under the box, and believe me that was a great laugh for all hands when we got together again.
When Quigley and I came back from battalion headquarters we found that our company had moved the night before, so it was a case of mope for us to find them. After going a short way we stopped at another outfit for breakfast and had oatmeal, bacon, fried potatoes, bread, jam and coffee—not so bad! After eating we put our packs on and beat it. At dinner we had steak, French fried potatoes, fried onions, bread, jam and coffee—graft from another company—and were lucky enough at last to find our own outfit just as they were lining up for supper; so we were just in time but found that the next day we were due once more to mope.
The next night we all broke camp and hiked about ten miles and then got on our dear "8 or 40," which means our parlor car. They are freight cars, slightly smaller than the ones in the States, and they put either eight horses or forty men in them. Well, we got on our special and after getting in, found we could put our packs against the side of the car for a cushion and sit down on our slickers and put our knees up so we might rest our elbows on them and then go to sleep; but there was little sleep in our car that night as we all had a singing fit on and you could not make us feel bad after the wonderful name our infantry made. When daylight came we opened the door on each side and sat looking out at the country, and, Ma, it was certainly beautiful. Picture me, if you can, sitting in the doorway of a freight, eating a bean sandwich just as tho I was the happiest boy in the world.
Gee, this is a tough war, when you can see Harry Lauder for nothing, also play ball and go to the movies in town on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The same satisfaction is less picturesquely exprest by a sergeant in the A. E. F.:
To summarize the first annual invoice of my army life—I have gained in health thru roughing it, gained in experiences, gained in friends. It has been a hard life at times, but this is a job you can't quit if you did want to. Right at the same time we are here now and we fully intend to stay until we have finished the job and the Kaiser who wished it on us. "And we won't be back till it's over, over here." But then, Oh Boy!
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald