Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost Battalion Site Update

Well, as some of you may know, last week’s post about the destruction of the site where the Lost Battalion was surrounded for five days in October of 1918 has caused a bit of a stir. Within 24 hours after I posted the story, I was very fortunate to begin corresponding with Robert J. Laplander, who is the world’s foremost expert on the Lost Battalion, having written a massive 613-page volume entitled Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths, and Legends of America’s Famous WWI Epic. After getting his take on which portions of the battlefield have been destroyed and which are still intact, I asked Mr. Laplander to write a piece which I could share on this blog and he was kind enough to do so. The following is what he has to say about the recent activity at the Lost Battalion battle site:
Some of the bottom of the Charlevaux Ravine has been logged off. This means that many of the shell holes that were down there, as well as the few outpost holes from early in the event, are now gone. Although I have not seen the extent of the damage (outside of a few photos), it may mean that a couple of the sites where German machine gun nests were located might also have been taken out as well. However, I do not think the actual hillside where the Lost Battalion was trapped (the Pocket) has been affected. The hillside where the Pocket was located is separately owned from much of the land surrounding it. Statements said to have been made by the owner of the surrounding land are unsubstantiated. On last visit, and by further report since then, serious illegal digging for artifacts had been going on along the Pocket on the hillside, as well as gathering of unexploded ordinance. I can confirm that the spring that emanated from near the left flank of the Pocket has been dug out and a pipe driven into the hillside to create running water, which has flooded a section of the left flank, where a small camping trailer was moved in on a semi-permanent footing. This occurred prior to 2005 and was the beginning of the 'transformation' of the Pocket.
Logging along the Ravin d'Argonne extending from the 'Small Pocket' up to the Pocket in the Charlevaux Ravine have eradicated important positions and stretches of former trench line of the Giselher Stellung at the foot of Hill 205, as well as 'Turner's Ravine' and sections of the former narrow gauge rail bed along the bottom of the ravine. This is confirmed, as I saw this with my own eyes.
Fortunately, I and my team made a complete, detailed photo record of the Pocket and much of the important surrounding locations between 2002 and 2008 before any damage was done to the area, as well as gathering an extensive collection of period photos of the same area. Despite recent events, the Pocket can be remembered through the collection.
 For the most complete story of the Lost Battalion, please see my book 'Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America's Famous WW1 Epic'. Available at, or my website at
Robert J. Laplander
Many thanks to Mr. Laplander for taking the time to share his expertise on this matter!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Question For You, Gentle Readers

First of all, let me apologize for the paucity of posts “over here” (pun intended). I recently completed a Civil War battle history that is being published next week and all of my time over the past year has been devoted to its completion.
That being said, I have certainly not lost the WWI “bug” that led me to create this weblog in the first place. With the exception of the post on the Lost Battalion site, there really hasn’t been much substantive posting on this website, so before I delve into my next project, I thought that I’d ask you all some questions. Since the stated purpose of the blog is to write about the AEF and the First World War in general that means that the possibilities for topics are endless.
With that in mind, what would you like to see more of on this blog?
What stories do you think have been languishing in obscurity that you would like to see brought to light?
Who are the unsung heroes that deserve biographies?
What regiment or division within the AEF deserves to have their story told?
What skirmish, incident, or battle needs the dust blown off of it for a new generation of WWI historians to examine?
Are there any preservation issues in the US or elsewhere (such as the Lost Battalion site) that are in danger of being lost or have been swallowed up by the passage of time?
What recent books need to be recommended or reviewed?
Do you think that Centennial of the war will be observed in the U.S. in any meaningful way?
As you can see, asking the questions is the easy part.
It’s answering them that will determine "the shape of things to come,” to quote President Wilson.
I look forward to your answers.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lost Battalion Site Destroyed

In 1921, L. C. McCollum wrote the following stanzas in a collection of poems he christened Rhymes of a Lost Battalion Doughboy:
At night, when all is quiet,
And I’m lying alone in bed,
There comes a vision of battlefields,
The fight, the maimed, and the dead.

Will I never forget that hell “Over There,”
And the tales the battlefields tell,
Of the price my “Buddies” paid with “their all,”
And the place in which they fell?

Illustration from Rhymes of a Lost Battalion Doughboy
Many of you are no doubt familiar with the ordeal of the famous “Lost Battalion” and the nightmare that they experienced in October of 1918. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, roughly 700 survivors of two battalions of the 307th and 308th Regiments of the 77th Division were cut off and surrounded at a place called Charlevaux Mill. When help reached them five days later, they had endured intense combat, a tragic friendly fire incident, and a flamethrower attack, all with very little food and water. They would lose 500 casualties and four men would be issued the Medal of Honor. Dubbed, “The Lost Battalion” by American newspapers, McCollum would not be the only survivor who would struggle to come to terms with the trauma that he endured – Major Charles Whittlesey, who was in command and himself won the Medal of Honor – committed suicide in 1921.

For nearly 93 years, Americans have been able to travel overseas and visit the site where Whittlesey’s men fought and died. However, I recently saw on Facebook that the owner of the ground on which the Lost Battalion fought has leveled the site. The note states that, “The intent of the owner is unknown. However, a friend in France suggested that he was becoming increasingly frustrated / upset with the stream of pilgrims to the site.” The note further states that the owner was well within his rights, since the ground is private property, and that the ground south of the hill D66 is still preserved.
Location of former Lost Battalion foxholes. Courtesy Randy Gaulke.
Still, this news is very sad since we are now only three years away from the Centennial of the First World War.
It appears that the word “lost” has now taken on a more tragic and immediate meaning.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Honor of Elmer Holmes, 538th Engineer Battalion, AEF

On Memorial Day, some of you may recall reading this tragic story about the rediscovery of an African American Doughboy’s final resting place.
To give a brief recap, this spring a Spotsylvania resident who commutes to the Pentagon via the local bus network happened to notice a military headstone in an overgrown area directly beneath the major road he passes over every day. After investigation, he found out that it was the grave of a black World War I veteran. The grave is located across the street from the church that the soldier belonged to and is sadly within spitting distance of the local trash dump.
The soldier that the grave belonged to was Pvt. Elmer Holmes of the 538th Engineer Battalion. Holmes was a local farmer and veteran who was killed in an automobile accident on October 31, 1928 at the age of 38. Ten years before his death, Holmes found himself an engineer in the AEF, serving in France during the “war to end all wars.”
To give some background, the 538th was a service battalion organized in May of 1918 at Camp Meade, Maryland. It moved overseas in August and was later converted into a Transport Corps unit in December of 1918 (after the Armistice had been signed). The 538th belonged to an organization called the National Army, which was made up solely of men who had been drafted into military service. While we know next to nothing about what Holmes experienced in France, we can glean a little bit about what his daily life entailed by looking at what engineer troops did during the First World War.
While it is easy to focus only on those members of the AEF who served in combat roles, it is worth considering that engineer troops in WWI were responsible for the following:  building roads (including 1,035 miles of railroad track) and hospitals, providing proper sewage drainage at camps and cantonments, constructing electric power plants, cutting down trees, maintaining and repairing  their own equipment, digging trenches, putting up barbed wire (sometimes under enemy fire), making docks and building bridges and – if the situation called for it – picking up their rifles and fighting as infantry.
At the end of the war there were over 174,000 men serving as engineers in the AEF, and they received the highest praise from their commander, General John J. Pershing.
In my research I was unable to find anything pertaining to Holmes himself, but I did find the following from a man who served in the same unit. When asked to reflect on his service overseas, James Crawley of the 538th said that he was as “patriotic as any man” but described his overseas experience as “deplorable.” He said that he “worked all the time [but] felt as if my country did not appreciate my service as a true American.” Although he continued to believe in “the principles for which we fought” he thought African Americans had “given all to gain for everyone except ourselves.”
Crawley’s words made me consider once again the very question that led me to do the research behind the exhibit Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow – why would young black men and women risk their lives for a country that so often failed to provide them with the basic rights promised to them in the Constitution?
In the case of Elmer Holmes, we may never know. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to look deeper into the location of his grave and what I found astounded me. The pictures below show the grave in its current condition, swallowed up by nature an abandoned. If you’re a Fredericksburg native, I cannot recommend that you go and see this grave, given that you will have to deal with crossing four lanes of traffic and negotiating a fairly steep incline. But let us all hope and pray that this final resting place of one of America’s forgotten wars will be neglected no longer.
As you look at these photos, keep in mind not only what it was like to serve “over there,” but also what it was like for the thousands of African American troops who served nobly and came home to a country that still didn’t quite feel like home.

Coming down the hill, the grave is invisible.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Our Last Doughboy Passes On

In 1917 and 1918, close to 5 million Americans served in World War I, and Mr. Buckles, a cordial fellow of gentle humor, was the last known survivor. "I knew there'd be only one someday," he said a few years back. "I didn't think it would be me."
His daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, said Mr. Buckles, a widower, died of natural causes on his West Virginia farm, where she had been caring for him.
Buckles' distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. As time thinned the ranks of those long-ago U.S. veterans, the nation hardly noticed them vanishing, until the roster dwindled to one ex-soldier, embraced in his final years by an appreciative public.
"Frank was a history book in and of himself, the kind you can't get at the library," said his friend, Muriel Sue Kerr. Having lived from the dawn of the 20th century, he seemed to never tire of sharing his and the country's old memories - of the First World War, of roaring prosperity and epic depression, and of a second, far more cataclysmic global conflict, which he barely survived.
Mr. Buckles, who was born by lantern light in a Missouri farmhouse, quit school at 16 and bluffed his way into the Army. As the nation flexed its full military might overseas for the first time, he joined 4.7 million Americans in uniform and was among 2 million U.S. troops shipped to France to vanquish the German kaiser.
 Ninety years later, with available records showing that former corporal Buckles, serial No. 15577, had outlived all of his compatriots from World War I, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him the last doughboy standing. He was soon answering fan mail and welcoming a multitude of inquisitive visitors to his rural home.
"I feel like an endangered species," he joked, well into his 11th decade. As a rear-echelon ambulance driver behind the trenches of the Western Front in 1918, he had been safe from the worst of the fighting. But "I saw the results," he would say.
He saw the world
With his death, researchers said, only two of the approximately 65 million people mobilized by the world's militaries during the Great War are known to be alive: an Australian man, 109, and a British woman, 110 .
Mr. Buckles said he was just a naive schoolboy chasing adventure when he enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, after the United States joined a war that had been raging for three years, with millions dead. "I knew what was happening in Europe, even though I was quite young," he told a Washington Post reporter when he was 105. "And I thought, well, 'I want to get over there and see what it's about."
After the armistice, he traveled the globe as a purser on commercial ships and was caught in Manila when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. He endured 38 months of cruel deprivation as a civilian prisoner during World War II before being freed in a daring military raid.
In 1953, he and his wife bought a cattle farm with a Colonial-era stone house near Charles Town, W.Va., and there Mr. Buckles quietly spent the rest of his life, his doughboy tunic hanging in a closet. As his generation passed away, he held fast as a centenarian, doing daily calisthenics and immersing himself in books and newspapers.
Then, on Feb. 4, 2008, a Florida man who had been in Army basic training when hostilities ended in November 1918 died at 108. As best as the VA could determine, that left only Mr. Buckles, who warmly indulged people's growing fascination with him.
He was an honored guest on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in the Oval Office. School children, history buffs, journalists, younger veterans, and even Britain's defense secretary visited him at the farm, admiring him like a museum piece.
"Well, I guess I'm famous now," he said slyly. Not surprisingly, some were quick to declare him "a hero" - a notion he dismissed as sentimental.
The VA, established in 1930, does not have complete records from World War I. But amid all the attention Mr. Buckles received, no one surfaced claiming to have also served in the U.S. military before the armistice. Mr Buckles's secret to longevity: "When you think you're dying," his son-in-law once heard him quip, "don't."
Letters from strangers, some seeking autographs, arrived at his home in stacks. He signed as many as he could until a frail hand forced him to stop. And despite the ailments of age, he went on championing his favorite cause: a proposal to refurbish the District of Columbia's neglected World War I monument and rededicate it as a national memorial.
Appearing before a U.S. Senate panel in 2009 in support of the idea, Mr. Buckles greeted lawmakers and others as they filed toward him in a reverent procession. With his old Army ribbons pinned to his blue blazer, he seemed a memorial in his own right to a dimly remembered catastrophe that left an estimated 16 million people dead worldwide.
 'I was just 16'
Wood Buckles - his given name, recorded in the family Bible before birth certificates were required in his home state - was born Feb. 1, 1901, on his parents' farm in Bethany, Mo. He said destiny seemed to side with him early, in 1903, when he and his brother Ashman fell deathly ill together with scarlet fever.
Ashman, 4, succumbed; Mr. Buckles pulled through and experienced a century. Few others born during the McKinley administration lived to have a Facebook page, as he did.
"My father took newspapers," he told the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project a decade ago. "I read about the war."
The tangle of alliances and volatile rivalries among Europe's old empires, the diplomatic deceits and blunders that ignited the conflict in 1914 were hard for an adolescent to sort out. But the din of rabid patriotism surrounding America's entry into the war in April 1917 stirred his imagination, Mr. Buckles said.
"I was just 16 and didn't look a day older," he once wrote. After Navy and Marine Corps recruiters shooed him away - "they'd take one look at me and laugh" - the Army, expanding massively, inducted Mr. Buckles, who swore without proof that he was old enough to join.
A sergeant insisted that he needed a middle initial, Mr. Buckles recalled. So he adopted an uncle's name, Frank Woodruff Buckles, and never stopped using it.
"Every last one of us Yanks believed we'd wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest," he said. "In other words, we were the typical cocky Americans no one wants around until they need help winning a war."
In December 1917, as his Army detachment steamed for Europe on the British liner Carpathia, Mr. Buckles said, crewmen shared stories of the grim dawn less than six years earlier when their ship had been the first to reach survivors of the Titanic. From England, he said, "I was anxious to get to France, and I used several methods, including, I should say, pestering every officer of influence in the place."
A lifetime later, recalling the scorched French countryside from the comfort of his den, he spoke of the weary, grateful German POWs, some of them teenagers like himself, who he helped repatriate after the vast bloodletting of the world's first industrialized war.
One gave him a souvenir, a soldier's belt with a buckle inscribed, "GOTT MIT UNS" [God with us], which he kept for the rest of his years.
In war and peace
The nation's official toll from 19 months of war: 116,516 deaths, about half in battle, most of the rest from illnesses, mainly the 1918 influenza pandemic.
After his discharge, Mr. Buckles said, he paid for typing and shorthand classes and took a clerical job with a steamship line - a generation before the first G.I. Bill would make college and home ownership possible for millions of returning World War II vets.
He weathered the Depression at sea on his purser's salary, regularly making port calls in newly Nazified Germany. He saw Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Summer Olympics, he said, and watched Jesse Owens anger the dictator by sprinting to victory in Berlin's Reichssportfeld.
Then, in December 1941, he was working in a shipping company's Manila office when Japanese invaders landed in Luzon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Three years, two months," he said of his captivity in the Philippines, eventually at a notorious camp in Los Banos. There, under pitiless Japanese guards, hundreds of Allied civilian and military internees lived in squalor, subsisting on often wormy rations.
"The starvation was so bad . . . it is surprising that any of us survived," said Mr. Buckles, who was among 2,147 Los Banos prisoners liberated Feb. 23, 1945, in a risky assault by U.S. paratroopers and Filipino guerrillas.
American commanders in the fight to retake the Philippines had ordered the rescue mission, 25 miles behind Japanese lines, fearing that the guards would begin massacring the captives before the main U.S. ground advance reached the camp.
Mr. Buckles turned 44 that winter, suffering from beriberi and dengue fever. Deciding he had had enough adventure, he said, he worked in sales for a West Coast paint company after marrying in 1946. Then he settled on his 330-acre Gap View Farm, driving a tractor past his 100th birthday until the years finally caught up with him.
His wife, Audrey Buckles, died in 1999 at age 78, after which Flanagan, their only survivor, moved to the farm to help care for her father.
Because Mr. Buckles served just one hitch in the Army and returned from France with no wounds or medals for bravery, he was eligible under Arlington National Cemetery protocols only for inurnment in a vault for cremated remains. In March 2008, however, the Bush administration ordered a rare exception for an old corporal of the so-called war to end all wars, and for the passing of living memory.
Mr. Buckles wanted a grave site at Arlington and a traditional white marble headstone. And he will get his wish.