Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Didn't We Listen to Their War Stories?

As I have been contemplating the 92nd anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, I had planned on writing a piece examining why this crucial battle is nearly forgotten today. But then I realized, why do this when my friend Ed Lengel has already done so in masterful fashion?

The following article was originally published in the Washington Post on May 25, 2008.

The last known surviving U.S. veteran of what was once called the Great War, Cpl. Frank Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va., recently toured the World War I memorial in Washington. Accompanied by his daughter and an aide, the wheelchair-bound 107-year-old rolled around the small, temple-like structure, stopping occasionally to acknowledge the applause of the small crowd that had gathered to watch. He did not comment upon the memorial's unkempt appearance -- it has been neglected for three decades -- but noticed that it honored only veterans from the city. "I can read here," he said in a soft, barely audible mumble, "that it was started to include the names of those who were local."

No one, apparently, had told him that the United States has no national World War I memorial. Buckles later modestly accepted tributes from President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, asking only that all of the recently deceased U.S. veterans of World War I be honored alongside him. It was little enough to ask, after nine decades of neglect.

As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."

Back then, civilians justified their indifference by claiming that the veterans refused to share their stories. In reality, the ignorance was self-imposed. "The boys would talk if the questioners would listen," said one embittered ex-doughboy. "But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, 'It's all too dreadful,' or, 'Doesn't it seem like a terrible dream?' or, 'How can you think of it?' or, 'I can't imagine such things.' It shuts the boys up." Far from remaining silent, U.S. veterans wrote hundreds of memoirs, diaries and novels of their experiences. In Europe, Canada and Australia, such books were big business. In the United States, they went mostly unread.

World War I never made its way into U.S. popular culture. Movies, documentaries and miniseries about the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam are common, and trade publishers are always ready for new histories of Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge. But what about World War I? "Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades," noted Gates. Since "The Big Parade" (1925) and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), no significant movie has appeared about the U.S. experience in World War I. ("Sergeant York," from 1941, is a propaganda piece, and 2006's "Flyboys" is a silly excuse for special-effects wizardry.) Television offers similarly little, aside from the atrocious 2001 A&E movie "The Lost Battalion" and the 1996 PBS series "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century," which gave only passing mention to the U.S. role.

Nowhere is our neglect of the doughboys more noticeable than on the battlefields themselves. Although memorials to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often swamped with visitors, the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne remain unvisited and largely unmarked. They have changed little since 1918. The French churches and houses are pocked with bullet holes, and bunkers, trenches and rifle pits surrounded by rusty barbed wire, old equipment, shell fragments and unexploded ordnance are visible almost everywhere you look. During a recent visit to the wooded ridge in the Argonne Forest where the "Lost Battalion" fought German troops in October 1918, I kicked aside some leaves and discovered a spent rifle cartridge and a piece of a flare gun -- not something one would expect to happen at Gettysburg or Antietam.

Memorials erected in the 1920s by veterans' organizations are scattered around the battlefield, but many have fallen into decay. Others are carefully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission but receive few visitors. Romagne, the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe, contains the graves of more than 14,000 doughboys. Located on the site of an old German stronghold in the Meuse-Argonne, it centers around a Romanesque chapel, overlooking rows of crosses and Stars of David on a gently sloping hillside. No U.S. military memorial is more welcoming to visitors; the site enfolds you with a feeling of reverence and peace. The superintendent, Joseph P. Rivers, gladly takes visitors -- he says he gets about 25,000 every year -- on a tour of the cemetery, pointing out individual graves and telling stories of the soldiers buried there.

But on a typical summer day, when the gravestones at World War II's Omaha Beach echo with the squeals of busloads of teenagers shipped in from Paris, Romagne remains deserted. For the most part, the only visitors are British, French, Belgian and German; and it is they, not Americans, who lay flowers on the graves. (So much for French ingratitude.) Gordon Morse, a freelance journalist from Virginia visited the cemetery on Armistice Day in 2006 and was asked to read the presidential proclamation. "I got the job by default," he said. "There were no other American visitors available."

I recently asked the hosts of a Charlottesville radio talk show on war and remembrance why Americans seemed so uninterested in World War I. It all boiled down to circumstances, they answered. The United States wasn't in the fight for long and suffered relatively few casualties. Then the Great Depression intervened, followed by World War II, and people naturally forgot old sorrows. There must be more to it than that, I protested. World War I was hardly a forgettable conflict; during six months in 1918, 53,513 Americans were killed in action -- almost as many as in Vietnam, and over a much shorter period of time. Perhaps, I suggested, Americans simply found trench warfare too depressing. Annoyed, the hosts cut me off with a flippant remark. As the receiver clicked, I could not help feeling that they had helped prove my point.

Historian David McCullough has said that all teachers of history should be trained storytellers. But there are some stories that Americans would rather not hear. If war tales aren't thrilling, readers and armchair Napoleons aren't interested. The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits. They appear to have clear beginnings and endings, with dramatic heroes and villains. They move. World War I, by contrast, with its images of trench warfare and mustard gas, is not so easy to manipulate in a marketable manner. Popular historians consequently avoid it. As one trade publisher recently told me, World War I has "poor entertainment value." Attempts to discuss it, even with avid students of military history, often end with the same comments that veterans heard back in 1919: "It's all too dreadful," and so on. So powerful is this perception that even genuinely exciting stories -- those of Medal of Honor winners Charles W. Whittlesey, Alvin C. York, John L. Barkley and Freddie Stowers -- are ignored.

We should step back and think for a moment about what this says about Americans as people. Do we honor our veterans for all their sacrifices, or do we care only if they can tell us a good story? And who, then, is guilty of ingratitude?

Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of "To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918."


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Trench Dictionary

As is the case in every war, the weary and bedraggled soldiers who have to endure suffering and hardship create their own unique vernacular. Exhibiting dry wit, the exasperating inability to pronounce French place names, and a remarkable ability to maintain a sense of humor in the most trying of circumstances, here a few samplings of what one might have heard during a tour
of the trenches in 1918..

Aches-and-Pains – this was the name given by American soldiers to the area in the French Alps where they went when they were on leave. The proper name was “Aix-les-Bains” but some sarcastic American soldier renamed it “Aches-and-Pains” – something the Doughboy of 1918 would be very familiar with.

Balloonatic – with the airplane still in its infancy, armies of the First World War still relied upon observation balloons to monitor enemy troop movements. Many soldiers thought that being suspended in the air for all to see was not a sane idea and they therefore starting dubbing those who went up in the balloons “balloonatics.”

Cootie – still heard in elementary school conversations around the country, the World War I meaning of “cootie” was a body louse. Thus, in 1918, “to have cooties” meant to be covered from head to toe in body lice. Lice were also known to be called “galloping freckles” on occasion.

Dog Biscuit – just like his Civil War ancestors, the Doughboy of World War I was issued hardtack – a type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and salt that was very hard on the teeth and the digestive system.

Forty and Eight – name applied to the French rail cars that would take newly-arrived American soldiers to the front lines because their maximum capacity was either forty men or eight horses.

Honey-dipper – name applied to a soldier who got into trouble and was forced to clean out the latrines.

Kanned Wilhelm – derogatory name given to canned beef; in “honor” of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II; also called “kanned willie.”

The Meatgrinder – alternate name for the battlefield 

Parleyvoo – nickname given to French citizens

Pigsticker – bayonet

Scuttlebutt – rumors and gossip

Whizzbang – nickname given to a German .88 millimeter shell due to the noise it makes

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Be Grateful For Your Hot Water

What, you ask, does this have to do with WWI?

Well, consider the following letter, written by Richmonder Lt. Harold Calisch on September 26, 1918:
Baths are very infrequent occurrences. In fact, my first bath was an adventure. We found a sign “Bains” and went thru a tunnel into a very pretty court. Madame, the patronesse was also, “Caisse.” She was a typical looking Frence woman with her hair drawn tightly back into a knot. An apron the size of a dime and a greed the size of a dollar. A bath cost three francs. It included an old zinc tub, 2 towels, a bar of soap, a private bath room, comb and brush tied to Madame’s desk, a volume of hot water. This last made the big hit. I soaked thoroughly. They also gave me a rag which looked like a wash cloth so I used it as such. Afterward I found that it was to put on the floor to stand on. Really it was not a foot square….The French people are very picturesque. Their wooden shoes and the white caps of the women are particularly noticeable. In spite of their idea that all Americans are millionaires they are a great people.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Painful Discovery

In my last post I discussed some of the inherent joys in doing original research on the First World War.

However, this can be a double-edged sword, as I found out in the midst of my research for my upcoming exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I.

Case in point, Lieutenant Newton B. Ancarrow of the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division.

Lt. Ancarrow’s letters to his mother can be found in Folder 3, Box 80 of the Virginia War History Commission files at the Library of Virginia.

The first letter I came across was written on July 2, 1918. Here’s a portion of the letter:
The American soldier is as a general rule, very keen for the trenches, and I think that when the opportunity comes, he will prove himself quite worthy. There is a spirit of daring in our men which our Allies and the Germans do not now possess, because of the fact that they have spent four years in the trenches and are now rather “war weary.” This spirit causes the American to be forever pestering the enemy rather than to sit and wait. We all know that among the men who have been through it there are some who say that it does no good to “kill one.” Their argument is that one man more or less won’t win or lose the war. The boys from “over there” think differently.
Newton’s enthusiasm was infectious and I was happy to read more of his observations of life in France.

On August 18, 1918 he wrote:
I suppose I told you that I have been in command of the company for over a month and am having no trouble at all. The trenches the last time up were not so bad for the weather was nice and we were not strafed quite so much by Jerry. Still it is quite wonderful how one will appreciate life after having a taste of the trenches, dug-outs etc.
It should be noted at this point that the 80th Division had not seen combat on a large scale up to this point. However, on September 26, 1918 the largest battle that the United States Army has ever fought – the Meuse-Argonne – commenced, and Lt. Ancarrow was caught up in the middle of it.

After experiencing the harsh realities of combat, Newton had this to say on October 15, 1918:
Dear Mother,

I suppose you have been a bit uneasy about me for the last three weeks because you have heard nothing from me. You have probably seen by the papers that we have been in action. We started in the drive on the 26th of September and were at it steadily until the 14th of October when we were relieved. Our Division made quite a name for itself, I think. I am sending you one of the congratulatory messages sent by the Division commander. There were two of these. I shall send you the other later. They are very valuable souvenirs.

There were quite a few casualties in the fight. We had four officers in the company but came out with two. Dago Campbell was shell shocked and is now in hospital. Barry came out all right. I wasn’t touched.

We are now back for a rest and I don’t know how short it will be. We needed it as we have been living in woods, trenches and holes in the ground for a month and a half. I hadn’t seen a woman or a house that was standing for a month and something even worse I hadn’t until today, had a real bath since late in August.

I guess that the people back home are talking and thinking Pease quite a bit. It doesn’t do any good. If there could be a fair clean-cut statements and not so many confounded notes and so much loose talk in the papers matters would be much better. The wonderful head-lines in the papers won’t do any good. Our papers have made it appear that the Allies are holding out for the Earth. The men won’t fight when they think there is nothing to fight for. I don’t believe that there will be Peace for a month or so yet. I wish the talk would stop.

I haven’t heard from Granger or Parker lately nor have I ever heard but once from Rob. The boys were down in Alsace in a quiet sector but I believe they are now near us where the latest American Offensive, Sept. 26, started. As far as I could find out they haven’t been used yet.

The hopes of everyone have been raised mighty high by the latest talk. I hope it doesn’t fall through. It would hurt awfully. The men have undergone lots of hardships and they are tired.

By the way, our Captain was gassed and later transferred to another Battalion. I have been recommended for promotion and expect that I will be a Captain in a week or so. I think I wrote you this before.

I shall write you very soon and cable if I have the opportunity. Love to all.


To see the obvious shift from giddy enthusiasm to jaded realism was certainly distressing. However, a few months after reading through his letters I came across a typewritten document listing all of the men from Richmond who were killed in World War I.

Listed at the top was Lt. Newton Ancarrow.

He was killed on November 3, 1918 – just eight days before the Armistice ending the war was signed.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Foos” Fighter

As any curator will tell you, one of the best parts of creating an exhibit is doing original research. Spending time with original letters, diaries, and memoirs that have wallowed in obscurity for decades is a thrilling experience.

When I was conducting the research phase of Ready To Do My Part, I spent many hours at the Library of Virginia going through the files of the Virginia War History Commission.

Established in January of 1919 to collect, edit, and publish source material on Virginia’s participation in the Great War, the Virginia War History Commission fulfilled it’s mission for nine years before finally disbanding. While the Commission failed to publish a comprehensive history of Virginia’s participation, it did manage to collect a wealth of material that is now stored at the Library of Virginia (in over 100 cubic feet of storage space, I might add).

I was very happy to find that there were around 2,500 letters and 50 diaries in the collection and it was great fun holding these forgotten missives in my hands and poring through their contents.

I was amazed to find wonderful firsthand accounts of what life was like as a soldier in the AEF and I thought I would periodically share some of what I found.

I found the following letter written by Eugene B. Foos of Richmond with the following note scribbled on it – “believed to be the first and only Richmond boy to serve in battle in a tank.” Needless to say I was intrigued and it turned out that Mr. Foos did not disappoint.

Here’s what he wrote:
It sounds like a continuous Fourth of July around here at nights. You see a blaze pop up in one place and turning around you find three or four. One night after we had gone to sleep they moved a big gun up by us and started firing. I thought the Germans were shelling the place. I mean to say when they fire it is enough to wake up the dead, but now I don’t pay any attention to them.

We have had five or six air battles around us, but every time we drive them back and bring down a couple of German planes. It is surely interesting to watch an air battle; it looks like a bunch of birds fighting for something to eat.

I noticed in a paper from ‘over there’ that machine gun bullets do not have any effect on us. Somebody has evidently not been in one while in action. There are little slits in it for us to look out of, they are about four inches long and about a quarter of an inch wide. There are ten of them, and when the bullets would hit around them the hot lead would come through, and I mean to say it surely does sting when it hits you in the face. It feels like a bunch of bees had lit on it and that makes you all the madder. Outside of that, the small bullets do not bother us.

Here are a few things we have to stand: The barking of our gun; the darkness, for it is pitch black on the inside with the exception of two small green lights; the racing of our motor which is always humming at your ears; the bullets hitting on the outside playing ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Oover There’ at the same time and looking out for Fritz; so you can see we cannot get lonely.

With all of that I would not transfer to any other branch. The people over here think it is the highest branch and so do I, and so will the people back home when we get a little older. We are in our infancy now. Just wait until we put on our long pants, then the world will know of us.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New WWI Exhibit Opening 9/16/10

The following will be featured in the upcoming edition of the Henrico Historical Society’s Newsletter and details the exhibit that I referenced in the opening post. Enjoy!

The exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I explores the events and historical legacies of how American participation in the First World War directly affected the citizens of Henrico County.

When an assassins’ bullet claimed the life of Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, no one could have foreseen that in three short years 2 million American soldiers would be shipped overseas – or that over 116,000 American soldiers would die in the conflict.

That 675,000 Americans of all walks of life would be killed by the influenza pandemic that broke out as a result of the war was unfathomable. As we approach the 94th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, it is only fitting to look back and reflect upon the trying times of 1917-1918.

The idea for the exhibit came from the immense collection of letters, photographs, and artifacts that were left to the County from Sheppard Crump. Many in Henrico today know Crump as the man who donated Meadow Farm to the county. Fewer citizens know that Crump served in the military for over fifty years and that he was sent over to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I. Crump served as an officer with the 29th Division and was instrumental in the formation of the American Legion in 1919. The items that he left behind to the County and the story of his service in France served as the springboard for the exhibit.

However, Sheppard Crump represented only a small portion of the larger story of a county – and a nation – at war. Research in the files of the Virginia War History Commission at the Library of Virginia soon revealed other soldiers and citizens of Henrico whose stories had lingered in obscurity for nearly 100 years. Henricoans living in Sandston may be surprised to know that they are living on ground that was once a thriving munitions plant during World War I. Graduates of the Medical College of Virginia will be interested to know the story of Base Hospital 45 – a group of nurses and doctors from MCV who went overseas and treated wounded soldiers close to the front lines.

In addition to the stories that are told in the exhibit, visitors will also get a chance to see dozens of artifacts from the conflict. Many of the items that Crump had with him in 1918-1919 will be on display in addition to rare artifacts on loan from the Virginia Historical Society, The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, and private collectors.

The exhibit will open at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 16th with a special reception at the Meadow Farm Orientation Center. It will remain on display through the end of the year.

For those who want to dig deeper into the story of Henrico and World War I, HCTV Channel 17 will be airing a 31-minute documentary entitled The Great War Remembered: Henrico’s Story of Service and Support starting on August 23rd.

Finally, a symposium will take place on Saturday, October 23rd at Henrico Theater featuring some of the leading scholars in the field of World War I studies. Dr. Edward G. Lengel of the University of Virginia, Dr. Mitchell A. Yockelson of the National Archives, and Brig. Gen. (Ret.) John W. Mountcastle will discuss different aspects of American involvement in World War I and participate in a question and answer segment open to all attendees. This event will run from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and will cost only $20 per person. Registration is required.

For any questions regarding the upcoming exhibit and symposium, please contact the exhibit curator, Jimmy Price, at 652-3411 or pri64@co.henrico.va.us.

It is hoped that Ready To Do My Part will serve as a fitting reminder of the high price that was paid by those who lived through the tumultuous events of 93 years ago.

The Blog To End All Blogs

Hello, and thank you for taking the time to stop by and read the inaugural post for a blog that I hope will fill a niche in the greater blogosphere. Some of you may be familiar with my other blog, The Sable Arm, which pertains to United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War.

My plans for this blog are much bigger and, due to the scope of the content that will be covered, the range of topics examined will be necessarily broader.

Over There stems from research that I have been conducting on the experiences of one county in Virginia during the Great War. This research has been converted into a museum exhibition that will be opening on September 16, 2010 (more on that later).

After two years of familiarizing myself with the topic, I figured it was time to “go public” and see if anyone out there is interested.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

In the words of a popular song from the war, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way”…