My grandfather fought in the First World War. He trained in New York and was transported in 1918 on the USS Magnolia. Eventually he was assigned to the Signal Corps, and brought home photographs of his unit and the scenes he encountered. Thankfully, he wrote the context on the back of every picture. For example, here is a Field Artillery soldier using a French 75 mm gun to support his trench mirror while he shaves. My grandfather even identified where they were when this shot was taken: near Bois de Belleau, France, November 10, 1918.
This is the day before the armistice and so perhaps things had settled down with rumors of an impending peace, at least long enough to allow a shave. Bois de Belleau is better known on this side of the pond as Belleau Wood, and where American forces proved themselves willing to fight to win that war. It was a turning point for the German army as they saw innumerable men from America ready to fight in the way the French and English and other forces had already. In June alone, US forces suffered 9,777 casualties which included 1,811 killed. The number of dead and wounded on the German side from that month isn’t known.
So what did this man, and the men looking on behind him, see in those previous months while over there? What must it have felt like to use a weapon so nonchalantly, as if it were nothing more than a bathroom sink?
Another favorite picture from my grandfather’s collection is the bridge to Verdun over the Meuse River, also in France. The battle of Verdun was fought in 1916, one of the longest and deadliest battles in human history. But doesn’t this entrance seem peaceful, just after the war? Telephone lines suggest the entrance of modern conveniences while the bridge and buildings themselves harken back to another age in history. A drawing of this same scene from a similar time suggests that the steeple of a church was damaged and removed, just behind the twin tower fortification. Don’t you wonder what the latter resting against the bridge was being used for?
I’m easily fascinated with details from this era. Interesting times are those which include drama, but that only means heartache since without that there is no drama. Sadly, this “war to end all war” proved anything but, since we’re still at war today. The players have changed as they always do, but the results are too similar.
All war stores have their heroes, like the one someone might write of the man shaving, above. He survived, as did each and every one of the men behind him. What interesting stories they might have told!