My World War Experiences
By Morris Nelson of the Thirty-fifth Division.
Many years ago it was my ambition to visit Europe. Even after we had declared war on Germany, it was my desire to go as a soldier for my country. It was not because I was possessed of a roving disposition, nor because I bore hate in my heart for an unknown enemy, and much less for the sake of honor or romance. There were, especially, two fundamental reasons: first, to be one with the many to bring about the downfall of autocracy and the birth of democracy; and, second, to be one of the common throng. In the army, as in no other place, I could get in contact with all classes of men, could face the same temptations and feel the same thrills of the varying moods of mankind. There in camp, in trench, and on the battlefield I could touch elbows with the brave men who dared to die for justice and all that was dear to them, and thus through it all, I could better learn to understand the great needs of humanity.
My early ambition to visit Europe was fostered, largely, through the study of history, and to a great extent, because it was the birthplace of my parents. I had read of old Mont Blanc; of the snowclad Alps of Italy and Switzerland; of the Roman ruins, including the Temple of Diana, and ancient fortresses that had often withstood the ever-invading hordes. I had read, with awe, of Hannibal's Pass, traversed by that great Carthaginian general as he led the forces over the mountains and into Italy. All these scenes, together with many others, it has been my fortune to see during my stay in Europe.
How wonderful it seems now that my youthful dreams should be realized under such strange circumstances. The snow forts and sham battles of school days were only too symbolic of maturer years. The child's pleasures, to a great extent, govern his whole life and are quite prophetic of his future indulgments. Being no exception to the common rule, I, naturally came to serve my country.
On the 25th day of February, 1918, I was drafted into the service of Uncle Sam, and on the following day was sent to Camp Dodge, Iowa. It. was somewhat hard, for a time at least, to become reconciled to the new life of apparent servitude. The Cause, however, was urgent and I soon entered into the spirit of my responsibilities. Little did I surmise that I was soon to break home ties. Early on the morning of April 12th, after only a month and a half of training, I said good-by to the best friend in all the world, and entrained for a three-days' ride to the coast. It was a strange parting. Uncertainties, like spectres, stared us in the face; four thousand miles of ocean were to separate us; the clouds of war darkened our hopes of future happiness. Faith, however, in a greater Power, gave us courage to venture out into the unknown.
I had never been farther east than Chicago. The trip to the coast was, therefore very interesting. We passed through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and part of New Jersey. At some of the larger cities we were allowed to get off and parade up the main avenues. Everywhere the people received us with cheers and sent us away wishing us Godspeed. Many and varied were the scenes along our route. There were the hedge and rail fences of Illinois and Indiana of which my father had often told me, and the solid stone cliffs along the Ohio River covered with evergreen and shrubbery. There was the beautiful Lake Erie, as smooth as glass. We were fortunate to cross this lake just before sunset, and such a sunset I shall never forget! It simply was superb! It seemed as if the peaceful waters opened up to receive it; its very beauty seemed to mock me. I thought of home and dear ones, of the grandeur and freedom of my native land, and wondered why I was called to sacrifice my happiness for another world, a world of war and isolation.
At Weehawken, New Jersey, we got off the train and boarded a steamer which was to take us across the Hudson River to New York. This little trip was the climax of anything we had seen yet. The river itself is about a mile wide. It was literally covered with hundreds of liners, steamers, transports, flatboats, and vessels of every description; all of them busy doing their "bit" for Uncle Sam. On some of these flatboats I counted as many as thirty or more railroad cars, loaded with supplies.
On April 15th, we reached Camp Mills, New York, a camp situated on Long Island. At this place we stayed about nine days. On the 24th day of April, we broke camp, preparatory to going overseas. That same day, we boarded the Shropshire, an English transport, or in other words, cattleboat, for that is what it really was. The following day we were tugged out to sea and started off on a thirteen-day voyage. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty and the red building of Ellis Island loomed up, for a little while, through the morning mist, and then gradually disappeared from our sight. It was the last lingering glimpse of the good old U. S. A.
My trip across the ocean was far from enjoyable. In a few days my appetite vanished completely. My digestive organs reversed and I spent many gruesome hours along the railing of the vessel. I swear to you that I never was before so sick. One consolation, however, was that I had a lot of company going through the same performance. Our quarters were close and uncomfortable. We lived on English rations which consisted chiefly of goat, tea, and slum. That word "g'oat" or "go-at" soon became a by-word of derision. When the waiters appeared at the stairway, there arose from everywhere, a mighty chorus of "Go-at! go-at!" That was enough, I had to beat it for the hatchway.
On the 7th of May, we sailed up the Mersey River to Liverpool, and as we approached the beautiful city, our band played "America," and "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was very impressive. The English officers and civilians were there to greet us and they gave us a very hearty welcome. Immediately after landing, the unloading of the ship began. We were a large force of workmen, so the thousands of barracks bags, officers' baggage, and other paraphernalia were soon disposed of.
The next day, May 8th, we were entrained for Southampton, situated on the southern extremity of the British Isles. This trip was very interesting. It was a balmy spring afternoon, the scenery was at its best, the hillsides were covered with groves and orchards. Occasionally a patch of heather and a quiet stream added to the beauty of the picture. I had often wondered why England produced so many of our best poets but I can readily understand it now. Nowhere in my travel, have I seen more beautiful and varied scenery. The red-roofed buildings of the little villages and hamlets, with their odd construction and pleasant surroundings, were indicative of the carefree and happy peasant life. Numerous canals and waterways irrigate the fertile soil. Fruit farming and truck gardening is carried on extensively. The larger farms are divided into small irregular patches, each enclosed by a well-kept hedge. Much of this land is owned by the lords and nobles, who live in beautiful mansions, while their servants must be content with humble huts. For a time the stern realities of a world war were forgotten and I was enjoying a pleasure trip through Nature's gardens.
On the night of May 9th, we crossed the English Channel. Judging from the vessel's interior appearance, it must have been, previous to our voyage, used as a stock and freight transport. The discomfort was almost unbearable, for we were actually packed in like sardines. Many of us found no place in which to lie down. The ones who did were covered with pitch, lime, and other refuse. It was but a gentle foretaste of coming days, when we would have been only too glad to partake of its shelter.
The following morning we entered the harbor of Le Havre, unloaded, and hiked about eight kilometers (approximately five miles) to a rest camp. It was a warm day, the packs were heavy, and the greater part of us had not yet fully recovered from the strenuous ocean voyage. On the way, therefore, many of the boys fell by the roadside. To carry a hundred-pound pack, for hours at a time, is a man's job, especially on the hard and hilly roads of France.
The next six weeks were spent, principally, in training and hiking from place to place. A fifteen-kilometer hike was generally longer than estimated; therefore, instead of calling them kilometers, we would call them "kill-a-soldier." For several weeks we were under English training and lived on English rations. It was the usual diet of "go-at," tea, and slum, a combination that I abhorred. It was a happy day when we again changed to American ways of living.
With the exception of Russia, France has the greatest national riches of any European country and has a very agreeable climate. There are vast acres of pine and beech forests. Much of this has, of course, been laid waste by war. Potatoes, cereals, and grapes are the chief products of the soil. She has a good and safe railroad system, all crossings being well guarded. The public highways are also far superior to ours, having a surface of gravel or crushed rock. In times of peace, these roads are kept in perfect condition at all times. France is a land of history. Because of its natural resources and fertile valleys, it has for centuries been the envy of other nations. Such characters as Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, and even Napoleon, and of our own times such leaders as Joffre, Clemenceau, and Foch, have all helped bring France to her present high position. It is the land of the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Great Revolution, and the recent World War. Upon her soil more decisive wars have been fought than in any other land.
So far I have only mentioned the milder side of military life, but a more strenuous time was awaiting us. It was about the middle of July, when the Americans began their great offensive. At Chateau Thierry, our marines wrote themselves into fame by taking Belleau Woods. They pressed the Germans on all sides and fought their way through shell fire and machine-gun nests, often without food or water for five days at a time. A few days later the second battle of the Marne took place. Everywhere the enemy were driven back over the pontoon bridges and sustained fearful losses. In the fury of the battle they were forced into the river and drowned. At the same time that such fearful slaughter was taking place near Paris, our division, the Thirty-fifth, was being initiated in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. We started for the trenches on the evening of July 19th. It was a hard march. All night we climbed up the dark mountain side. Not a sound was made, save the heavy tread of hobnails. No smoking or lights were permitted. Occasionally a smothered curse could be heard from someone reeling under a galling pack. Just before daybreak we entered a dense forest on the mountain side. There we unrolled our blankets and hid through the day. To keep from rolling down the steep slope while sleeping, many of the boys tied themselves to trees. In the evening the hike was continued and we reached our dugouts about 11 o'clock. The next night a detail, including myself, was sent up to the front line to repair a breach in the wall. This line was within a hundred yards of the Boche and I assure you, we had a delicate and dangerous task before us. We could not work fast, as any little noise would attract the enemy's attention. Occasionally a flare or bursting shell would go up and illuminate No Man's Land, or a stray bullet would whistle by and we would duck down, then we would resume our work, only to duck again. Thus the first fearful night passed and the breach was repaired.
We spent a month in this sector. It was very hilly and covered with brush and forest. In many places only the barren stumps and numerous graves remained to tell the stories of past years when the two armies met in fearful conflict, each side suffering enormous losses. We did very little fighting on this front. There was one night, however, when something must have scared Jerry, for all of a sudden all Hell seemed to break loose. He was evidently preparing to come over. Our signal for a barrage went up and in two minutes, every valley and hillside was pouring forth a volley of artillery and machine-gun fire that no army could have withstood. Every available man was instantly at his post with fixed bayonet. Before daybreak everything was quiet again and, although serious enough, we couldn't help but joke over the excitement.
At night time, a sentinel's duty on an outpost was very nerve-racking. Objects seemed to be transformed into weird crouching figures. In a nearby tree a hoot owl would perch, doling its mournful notes, or a bold rat would scamper over the tin roof. During the daytime, our tasks were less strenuous. We would often go to the rear of the lines to gather raspberries and huckleberries of which there was an abundance.
In the early morning of August 17th, we were relieved by another outfit and went back in reserve. This period was of short duration, for things were happening all along the battle front, and so we were soon on our way to the St. Mihiel sector, where we were to be in support. We started on the eve of September 12th, and hiked all night with heavy packs, through mud and a drenching rain. Just before daylight we pitched pup tents by the roadside, under cover of brush and trees. All night long the cannon boomed and we were not surprised the following day to hear that our doughboys were driving the enemy before them and taking thousands of prisoners. At night time the airplanes would fly over us, dropping bombs and causing a little alarm.
On the 18th of September, we started toward the Argonne and Meuse front. The first day we were transported in trucks, the next few days we spent in hiding by day and hiking by night. On this sector, the Germans had concentrated scores of their best divisions. Among them were many of the Crown Prince's famous Prussian Guards. They were evidently expecting a drive, but were puzzled to know when it would take place. On the twenty-fifth we "pulled stakes" and started off for the "big shoot." Under cover of darkness, we hiked for about three hours and stopped just outside of a little ruined village. Here we waited on a hillside until about day-break. All night long the artillery barked unceasingly, flares and signal lights going up all along the lines. To the rear of us the giant marine guns were sending over their huge sixteen-inch shells, each discharge fairly shaking the ground we stood on. At 2 a.m., a three-hour barrage began and every piece of artillery was turned loose on the enemy's fortifications. It was a continuous roar. For once Jerry was having his "iron rations" issued in great style. At about 5 o'clock the barrage lifted. The zero hour had come and we went over the top! The One Hundred Thirty-eighth was in the lead and our regiment, the One Hundred Fortieth, followed in support. It was a grand sight. Not a man flinched or lost his nerve. Every command was obeyed and we were soon marching on across No Man's Land in squad column. It was hard to find our way through the fog and smoke. Communication lines, wire entanglements, and shell holes made progress very difficult. We had not gone far when we began to meet large groups of prisoners. Each group would be conducted to the rear by two or three Americans. The prisoners were shabby-looking fellows and were glad enough to fall into our hands.
The Germans' front line was well fortified. They had tunneled into the hillsides and were living in concrete apartments. Some of these were several tiers high. Judging from the food, fine furniture, and other conveniences, they had apparently lived in luxury and pleasure. For about four years these had been their permanent homes. It was too bad the Yanks should come over and destroy their playhouse.
Although we were only in support, that first day was not without its hardships and dangers. We carried light packs, but before night were glad enough to lay them down. We must have advanced that day about four miles. We soon came within range of the enemy's artillery fire, and often had to seek protection in some trench or shell hole till the worst was over and then advance again. At about 3 o'clock we came in sight of our first dead. They had evidently run into some machine-gun nests. At sight of these dead, my heart filled with loathing and hatred. Was this a demonstration of Prussian civilization? Was this the expression of German kultur? That night we slept on a hillside just outside of Cheppy. Our covering consisted of a slicker and the blue skies above us. It was chilly and by morning a drizzling rain set in. Just before daybreak we were aroused and were once more on our unpleasant march. We took the lead and relieved the One Hundred Thirty-eighth, which the previous day had suffered immense losses. We had left our artillery pretty well in the rear and soon realized that we were up against a stiff proposition. We needed support. The command was therefore given to "dig in" and wait for tanks. Our ranks were being shelled terribly. It was while waiting here that I had the bayonet blown off my gun. A shell burst almost within arm's length of where I lay, severely wounding a couple of machine gunners lying near me and almost covering me with earth. At about 3 o'clock, we saw the tanks approaching. They came up about twenty or thirty yards apart. They looked like monstrous caterpillars slowly wending their course up and down the hillsides, defying every obstacle, and apparently heedless of the withering artillery fire. As they passed us, the command was given to go over the top. Not a man hesitated. It was a grand sight to see the Yankees fearlessly advancing down the hill, against a terrific barrage. The men fell on either side and the stretcher-bearers were soon busy carrying off the wounded. Some of these were mangled in a horrible manner. We advanced to the next hill and that night slept for the first time in German trenches.
In the early dawn of morning, we were again aroused and once more the serious command was given to advance. Little did we realize that within a few hours the nearby hills and valleys were to be strewn with thousands of dead and wounded. Our advance as usual was obstructed by shell holes, trenches, and endless miles of wire entanglements. Through the latter the tanks soon made a pathway for the infantry. As we approached the crest of the hill, the Boche, from the opposite hill, turned loose on us all their war machinery and we were compelled to go down on the other side through a perfect sheet of shell fire. Men were hurled several feet into the air and in many cases they were wiped out in squads. This all happened in less than an hour. This sector might very appropriately be called the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" or the "Devil's Playground." An entrance made in my diary that afternoon gives a vivid picture of the battle: "September 28, '18” Still in the Van. Advanced about a mile but had to fall back a little and wait for tanks. Advanced again about a kilo, under heavy shell fire. Lost many in few minutes. At present, hiding in brush. Can hear a wounded soldier crying for water, his mouth and face shattered. War is HELL!" That evening, under cover of darkness, we retired to some dense brush. There through a drizzling cold rain, we sat down in the mud and waited for morning. Never before in my life had I felt so forsaken. I had borne a good deal, but this night's experiences were almost unbearable.
The following day, Sunday, September 29th, nothing of special importance took place on our part of the sector. Our regiment was, however, exposed to enemy machine-gun fire and during the afternoon it was necessary to fall back about a half mile and strengthen our positions. There was heavy shelling and at night a lot of gas was sent over.
Then next day was spent in the trenches prepared by the engineers the previous day. At last the welcome rumors came up to the front line that our division was to be relieved the next morning. The Germans must have heard it, too, for all night long they pestered us with mustard gas. This ruse of the enemy is often more deadly than shell fire. Death from it is terrible. It burns out the lungs and finally strangles its victims.
Just before dawn of October 1st, the First Division came to our relief. Our shattered division assembled at the foot of the hill. It was a sorry-looking outfit. Five days of ceaseless fighting had reduced us to less than half of our original strength. Our clothing was torn and dirty. For a week we had neither had time nor conveniences to shave or wash, but we had won our objective and could well afford to forget our worries.
What a field of waste and misery we had to cross that morning. Words positively cannot describe it. A person must use his own imagination. Vegetation had been totally destroyed. Guns, wagons, rolling kitchens, and other accessories laid heaped up everywhere. Horses and men were strewn from hill to hill. Many of the men were so fearfully mangled that they were beyond recognition. Their severed limbs, alone, gave evidence as to whether they were friends or foes. After five days rest (?) which consisted principally of hiking and drilling, we were again, on October 12th, sent to the front lines. This time to the famous Verdun sector, where the French had resolved that the Germans should not pass. I will not begin to describe the extreme ruin of this part of the war zone. Words cannot tell it. While here I had the rare privilege of seeing a Boche plane brought down in flames. One dark and rainy night a hundred of us were sent out on a scouting raid, with explicit orders to get a prisoner at any cost. We scoured No Man's Land all night but failed in our object. We stumbled over several of Jerry's trenches but he was nowhere to be found.
On November 5th, we left the lines and for several days made long hikes. We did not know where we were going, but we were told we were bound for something real lively, the Metz drive. But, thanks to Good Fortune, this was November l0th, and the following day, the Armistice was signed. Were we happy? Not as hilarious as the folks at home, but just glad. Could it be true? Was this really the end? Were we soon going home? Little did we think that there would be five more months of anxious waiting till that dream could be realized. These were trying months indeed! There was a monotonous grind of guard duty, hand drilling, and real soldiering. It was during the Holidays that I had the special privilege of going to Aix-les-Bain on furlough. It was a trip long to be remembered. Our fare, board, and lodging were, of course, paid by the Government; and the Y. M. C. A. did the rest. I will not go into detail as I have already mentioned some of the historical and ancient places it was my good fortune to see.
On the 9th of March we started on our relay for the good old U. S. A. On Sunday morning we entrained for Le Mans. Here we stayed till the 31st of March, on which date we again entrained, this time for St. Nazaire. Our ship was in port and we had expected to board it at once, but we still had two weeks left of rigid inspection while the vessel was being unloaded and made seaworthy for the homeward voyage.
On the 15th of April we bade farewell to foreign shores and boarded the Nansemond, a captured German transport, and on the following morning we were tugged out and started for "God's Country." It was a long and tedious trip. There were about 5,000 on board, including a large number of casuals. The sea was calm and everybody was in good spirits. On the morning of the 28th land was sighted and at about 10 a.m. we entered Hampton Roads, Virginia, and once more we marched out on American soil. It was a thrilling experience. The people greeted us heartily. Even nature seemed to rejoice. It was a clear, warm day; the trees were blossoming, and everywhere the birds were singing their happiest carols. How unlike a year ago—this was indeed the sunshine after the rain.
Things were moving pretty fast and we were soon on our way to Camp Dodge, where, on the 7th of May, I received my discharge. The fetters were off and once more I stepped out as a free man.
Vista's Part in the World War. Storm Lake, 1920, pp. 522-31.