The only thing great about The Great War was its dead. One million of its soldiers died in August 1914.
In America, those once regarded as neighbors became suspected collaborators of the Germans. As the war entered its second year, the Hilemans’ number of customers at their Kentucky restaurant dwindled. Mr. Hileman was surprised when Hank Richmond, armed with his shotgun, appeared at his door one evening.
“What is wrong, Hank?”
Hank stepped inside of the small home. “The rumor has it that there’s going to be trouble for you tonight.” Hank glanced through a parted curtain. “I’m just here to pull guard duty is all.”
Mrs. Hileman trembled. “But we have done nothing wrong.”
“Mr. Hileman, please take her to the back room. I’ll be out front.”
After the couple had obeyed, Hank moved a rocking chair out to the front porch. Shotgun resting on his lap, he rocked in time to the chirps of the crickets. Double aught buckshot shells lay in both of the gun’s barrels. Ten extra shells filled his pockets. At ten minutes after eight a noisy crowd turned the corner from the main street. The town’s mayor led the mob of fourteen. He appointed himself as spokesman for those behind him.
“Stand aside, Hank. We got no beef with you.”
Hank leveled the shotgun at angry faces, all of which he recognized. “Well, I got one with anyone who says or does anything to the Hilemans that they ought not to.”
“Why are you sticking up for them Krauts?” The town’s mayor asked.
“Yeah. You a Hun lover or what, Hank?” another yelled.
“You all go on home now and no one gets hurt.” Hank pointed the gun at his belly. “What’s in here will cut you in half.”
“All’s we want to do is run ‘em out of town, Hank. Your family’s about the only one eating at their place any more anyway.”
“Okay, folks. Break it up!” The sheriff’s voice caused every head to turn toward the one striding toward the mob. “Time to go home. Now!” His drawn .44 Colt Revolver made the crowd scatter. “I got a good look at all of you. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to the Hilemans, I’ll know who to arrest.”
Hank’s pounding heart slowed its pace. He retreated to the rocking chair and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face as the sheriff rested on a rail of the porch.
“Thanks for warning me about this, Hank. Damn it all. It was bad enough dealing with the Klan. Now we got all this craziness because of some war thousands of miles away. Where’s it all going to end?”
In the spring of 1917 the French General Nivelle advanced his army along the Western Front. The German troops fell back from their front lines, which allowed the French to pour into the empty trenches. With the trap sprung, German artillery blew the French troops to pieces.
Unwilling to suffer under incompetence any longer, French soldiers everywhere mutinied. General Petain took Nivelle’s place and tried to restore order. News of America’s entry into the war did little to motivate the mutineers back into obedience to their superiors. “Why die for the glory of France when the Yanks can do it for you instead?” became the call to inaction.
But first the United States had to mobilize. Its army of 210,000 in 1898 had shrunk to 110,000 by 1916. In May 1917 Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required twenty-four million men aged eighteen to forty-five to register. Three million were drafted, including Hank Richmond. He spoke the reaction shared by thousands of draftees, “Why can’t England, France, and Russia take care of it themselves?” Because draftees and volunteers alike had to be trained and shipped to Europe, most of the American troops did not see combat until 1918.
The French soldiers’ conditions were wretched compared to their American, British, or German counterparts. They did not earn enough to support a family. Most spent their leaves getting drunk. Only Russian soldiers suffered more, as one third of them had no guns. By June 1917, half of the French Army was refusing to fight. The French government used the loyal troops to restore order so that tens of thousands of the slackers could be court-martialed. About 25,000 were found guilty. Of those, fifty-five were shot by firing squad and 377 sent to penal colonies.
French troops held their lines but few any longer crossed into no man’s land in attacks whose only results were heavy casualties. So successful was the censorship of the press that the Germans never learned of the situation to take advantage of it. The smoldering revolt reduced the French Army to barely holding a defensive position. Even General Petain confided that his army must “hold out for the Americans.”
Meanwhile the British army led the offensive and gained ground at the cost of tens of thousands dead and wounded. Heavy rainfall in early August 1917 turned the front into muddy fields and trenches and shell holes full of water in which advancing British troops drowned. Morale sank until British troops were no longer allowed to take their rifles home to England on leave because some would shoot from their trains at houses. German civilians fared little better. The main course for the starving became cats and dogs, referred to as roof rabbits. Bread was made from chalk, sawdust, and potato peelings.
By January 1918, 100,000 partially trained U.S. troops were in France, by March, the number had grown to 325,000. They left home singing:
We’ll be over
We’re coming over
And we won’t come back
‘Til it’s over
A huge German offensive toward Paris that spring panicked the French. They called on the newly arrived Americans, not yet trained in trench warfare and often without food and water because of logistical bottlenecks, to stop the advance. The American Expeditionary Forces’ Commander in Chief, General John Pershing, listened as the British and French commanders fought over which army would get how many American soldiers. While other issues such as who would be supreme commander over all Allied fleets in the Mediterranean Sea raged, the Germans continued to roll on toward Paris. The Italians protested mightily when they were not chosen because they wanted to continue to keep their ships safely hidden in ports and could only do so only if they were in charge.
Into this maelstrom stepped Sergeant Hank Richmond. A commanding officer early on informed Hank of the reason for his demotion.
“You’ve got to be realistic, Sergeant Richmond. Sure, you served as an officer over the Philippine Scouts in that war. But you’re only capable of being a sergeant over Americans. We need West Point men and college boys as officers in this war. That will be all.”
Hank had shrugged, saluted, and walked back to his drafty tent. Wiser than during his days in Cuba and the Philippines and old enough to be the father of many he led, he planned “not to make waves, keep my head down, and survive” his third thankless war.
Four-legged draftees fared worse than Hank as they helped the American troops to maneuver. Six to eight-horse teams pulled the artillery pieces. Donkeys delivered water wagons and mobile kitchens to the troops. When rain turned the roads to mud the horses and mules struggled with their loads, sometimes slipping and falling or sliding off into ditches.
Desperate to save Paris at all costs, the Allied commanders finally compromised. American forces were assigned alongside the French to counterattack the German advance from July 18 to August 6. The French Cavalry suffered the heaviest casualties. Some Allied troops went crazy and fired at friendly troops. Each night the dead were buried. The corpses that could not be retrieved bloated and decayed rapidly under the summer sun. At times a skull was left grinning from the top of a still uniformed skeleton.
By August 1918 more than 1.4 million American soldiers had landed in France. Both British and French leaders described their armies as “war weary,” perhaps to excuse instances when surrendering Germans were shot instead of taken as prisoners.
So far, Gen. Pershing had retained a unified command over his troops. Now the French wanted to split his forces to back up two French armies. Pershing held out for weeks but then was assigned to use his army to launch two separate attacks on battlefields sixty miles apart within twenty-four days. Led by officers such as Gen. Douglas McArthur and Col. George Patton during the St. Mihiel Offensive, a half million American troops pushed the front ten miles eastward in four days.
The offensive was a success for the Allies, with over 16,000 German troops and 443 artillery pieces captured. It demoralized Germany as a whole to the point that the Kaiser confided, “I’m gradually cracking up” and that he had lost “all confidence” in his troops because of their retreat.
Hank Richmond was part of the second American attack. First, 220,000 weary French soldiers had to be moved to the rear. In their place came over half a million U.S. troops. To move the supplies about 90,000 horses were used; thousands of them became exhausted and died on the muddy, waterlogged roads. The resulting traffic jam backed up men and material for miles.
Sgt. Richmond could not pronounce the Melise Argonne Offensive that began on September 26. But he could sense the false bravado and fear of those around him. When the French wanted to insert one of their armies into the battle to absorb part of the American divisions, Gen. Pershing ordered his troops to fight without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed condition of their flanks, a poor strategy in any battle. This resulted in much higher casualties than necessary, which first enraged and then saddened Hank.
“If the damn British, French, and American generals would just work together, we wouldn’t be getting our butts shot off near as much,” Hank told his men. They appreciated that their sergeant was honest and accurate in his analysis. His ability to make the best of a dangerous situation had kept them alive more than once.
At first, his platoon encountered little resistance. The bulk of the German troops they met were only boys who shouted out “Kameraden” as they raised their hands to surrender. Twice, Hank had to send one of his men with groups of such prisoners to the rear. When the men could not rejoin his platoon because of the enemy fire from along the flanks, Hank grew worried.
I knew this was going to happen, he thought as he studied the terrain to the front, left, and right. We’re surrounded on three sides, which means that any reinforcements coming from the rear are caught in crossfire. That means there probably aren’t going to be any. I wonder if this is what they teach the officers who ordered us to advance here at West Point. He called his men together.
“Well, boys, we’re surrounded on three sides, which means that any reinforcements coming from the rear aren’t going to make it as far as our position.”
“What’ll we do, Sarge?” The youngest trooper asked. “I ain’t never been this scared.”
“Don’t worry, Private. If we come up with a plan we’ll get out of this mess.” He patted the boy’s shoulder. “All of you notice how almost every prisoner we’ve taken are just boys younger than Maguire, here? That means the Kaiser has run out of his regular, well-trained soldiers for the most part.”
“That’s right.” A wave of hope spread among the band of stinking, famished men. It had been a week since the luxury of a bath. Only the scattered decaying corpses and improvised latrine smelled worse than they did.
“Here’s what we do. We dig in with six of us facing west, six to the south, and six to the north.”
“But what about the east?” a corporal asked as he pointed that direction. He always seemed to have at least one question.
“Take a look.” Hank handed him the binoculars that he had retrieved off of a dead officer. “See anything?”
The corporal scanned the cratered muddy fields totally devoid of vegetation to the east. “Yeah. There’s some Krauts about 2,500 feet from here over there.”
“Do they look dug in?”
“That’s ‘cause they want to be ready to skedaddle all the way back to Germany just as soon as they can. Now there ain’t no way in hell I’m leading you across a half-mile of no man’s land just so’s they can shoot us down like fish in a barrel. They most likely feel the same way.”
“But why do you want us to be watching to the west?”
“Just in case the Heinies on our flanks get the bright idea of sneaking in and attacking us from the rear.”
“Okay. We got any pigeons left?”
“That’ll do. Corporal, you’re the best map reader here.” Hank handed a torn, mud splattered map to him. “Give me our coordinates so I can put them into our air mail letter.”
“Right.” The inquisitive soldier relished any duty that made use of his skills. He studied the map, then the surrounding terrain, and then the map again.
Hank scribbled a short message while he waited for the coordinates of their location:
Cut off. Have plane drop ammo, food, and water at …
A minute later he added the corporal’s estimated location to the message, folded it into a tiny metallic capsule attached to the pigeon’s leg, and tossed the bird into the air. It fluttered in a circle and then homed in on the headquarters seven miles to the west.
“Go birdie, go!” Private Maguire waved as he hollered out his encouragement.
Their morale gone and ammunition running low, the nearby German troops rarely shot at such tiny moving targets any longer. The reply to the message came just before dawn.
Pilot Jedadiah Trombley had enlisted over the protests of his mother. He finally calmed her fears by promising to keep “far away from the trenches” by learning to fly. In flight school he had trained in a Curtiss JN-4. One of his instructors told him: “You were born to fly.”
His first plane in France was a Nieuport 28, which was shot full of holes by the superior German Fokkers during his first three missions. His squadron next transitioned to French SPAD XIIIs. Faster than the Fokkers and British Sopwith Camels, Trombley’s SPAD bore four iron crosses on its fuselage to mark the number of Fokkers he had shot down. His commander deemed Trombley the perfect pilot to deliver the requested supplies to Hank’s platoon.
However, the plane did not maneuver well at low speeds. This meant he had to approach his drop zone at a high speed, which made sense to him on another count; enemy soldiers would be taking potshots at him from both his left and right. Trombley took off toward his target a half hour before the sun rose above the horizon because he did not want to battle its blinding rays. One mile before the drop he descended to 200 feet and pushed the throttle wide open for maximum speed as the enemy’s bullets began to whiz by and into his plane.
Two crates were balanced to his front. They contained ammunition for the M1917 American Springfield rifles and food and water for the men below. Though he did his best, one crate landed 200 yards to the west of the platoon; the other hit the earth fifty yards to its east. Sgt. Richmond decided to wait until dark before retrieving the crates.
Most of the ordinance fired at his plane appeared to have come from the pilot’s left as he flew the gauntlet. To repay the gunfire, Trombley put his SPAD into a sharp climb and banked to the left. Well known to friend and foe alike for its ability to handle rapid dives, the plane sent waves of panic among the Germans that it now targeted. After reaching 6,000 feet, Trombley sent his plane into a long tapering dive as he emptied his two .303 Vickers machine guns on the enemy below. Hank’s men cheered at the sight.
“Well maybe now we won’t have to worry as much about that flank,” Hank said. “Unless that pilot, God bless him, just pissed the Huns off a bit too much. They sure are a proud bunch.”
Dehydration escalated into heat exhaustion as the sun warmed the air, earth, and soldiers who had no shelter from its rays. Just before midday the Allied artillery to the west opened fire on the enemy positions that bordered the platoon on three sides. For every two shells that landed on or near the Germans, one fell dangerously close to Hank and his men. They crouched ever lower in their shallow foxholes. When one round exploded sixty-five feet from them the shrapnel tore into two of them. Their comrades applied the last of the dressings to stop the bleeding.
Angered by the errant friendly fire, Hank crawled to the nearest crate and dragged it back to their position. The artillery barrage provided him with enough cover that the enemy did not notice his venture into no man’s land. As he pried the top of the crate open the entire platoon crowded around him. It was filled with bundles of bread, tins of meat, and canteens of water. Hank uttered a prayer of thanksgiving:
The men clawed at the rations. As they swallowed barely chewed bread they opened the tins of meat with their bayonets.
“Where’s the ammo, Sarge? I’m all out.”
“Must be in the other one.” He listened as the sounds of the artillery barrage faded to a halt. “Too late now. That other one’s too far away to go out and get. We can stop by it on our way out of here tonight.” He swallowed a piece of bread without chewing it.
“We’re going back?”
“Yep. If we hang around here much longer our own guns will start blowing us to smithereens.”
They fell silent as they feasted on the first food and water they had tasted in two days. It revived them to the point that the faint hearted became more agreeable to their chances of making it back to the main lines under cover of darkness.
But the enemy on their flanks had other plans. Shortly after dark two platoons of Germans crawled toward them from the rear.
“Sarge, it looks like Krauts!” The sweating private pointed at the shadowy figures 200 feet away.
Hank gave the order for his men to run toward the crate with the ammunition and regroup there.
They locked the long sharp blades into place.
“Okay, those of you with ammo left form the first line. The rest of you follow behind them. Let’s go.”
As always, Hank led the charge. The unexpected maneuver startled the enemy, most of who believed that American soldiers were crazy. The youngest of the Germans dropped their weapons and ran back toward their lines. One equipped with a flame thrower started shooting bursts of fire from the contraption strapped to his back but the Americans ran so quickly that only two were set aflame. They kept sprinting and rolled the remaining ten yards to the crate. The rolling motion extinguished the flames and left them with second and third degree burns instead of being burned alive. Three others from the platoon fell as bullets pierced them.
Hank had the crate open by the time the last of the survivors reached him. All reloaded and began a withering fire at the Germans who still pursued them. Pinned down, the enemy’s commander shouted the order to retreat to their trenches. Furious, he screamed a new order and shells began bursting around the isolated Americans.
“Gas! Get your gas masks on!” Hank yelled the order.
They clawed at the pouches attached to their belts and ripped them open. Unable to shout loud enough through his mask, Hank signaled with his arm to continue their escape. Two more men died before the others reached their own lines and answered with the correct password.
Once the survivors were in the safety of a well-lit tent, Hank ordered them to strip and inspect each other for signs or symptoms that the mustard gas had done its damage. Five of them had swollen eyes or shortness of breath or were pink colored in their armpits and groins. Hank displayed all three symptoms from having removed his gas mask to better see and guide his platoon to safety. When the doctor who had been summoned examined him, he shook his head.
“You’re red instead of just pink.” He pointed at the affected areas. “Get this man to the hospital.”
By October 15 the German front had been reduced to pockets of resistance. Back on the home front the will to continue had disintegrated. Strikes and revolts by civilians spread across Germany. Crews of six battleships at Kiel mutinied and refused to go to sea. After the war millions of German soldiers would blame those sailors for their defeat.
Now a fully trained orderly, German Sgt. Arnold Weiss had returned from a short leave at home to a hospital located a safe distance from the Western Front. As was his habit, he checked with the doctor on duty for the status of each patient.
“What about that corporal who was temporarily blinded by gas? How is he doing?”
“Adolph? He was okay until he heard the news of the Kaiser’s abdication. Then his blindness came back. He stayed in bed for days. Then he said he heard voices telling him to save Germany.”
“A little bit late for that now. It’s all over for Germany. We lost.”
The doctor closed the file. “I know. But he now swears he will become a politician and follow his calling to save the Fatherland once he returns to Munich. He said only national socialism will work for Germany.”
Thousands of miles to the west, American President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the world was at last safe for democracy.
Hank’s exposure to mustard gas dictated his transfer to a hospital in Paris. While he recovered he daily walked to a nearby park. One afternoon he made an acquaintance with a crusty British sergeant on crutches due to his missing left leg.
“At the end of the day it was you yanks that pulled the fat out of the fire for the bloody French.”
“Thank you. You’re the first one I’ve heard say that.” Hank extended his hand toward the one sharing his bench. “I’m Hank Richmond.”
The friendly Englishman grabbed it. “Ronald W. Jones, sergeant of his majesty’s royal army at your service, sir. Will you allow a somewhat shot up soldier such as myself the honor of buying you a drink so’s I can thank you right proper like?” He pointed a crutch at a sidewalk café across the street.
“Lead the way, Sergeant. Such hospitality is all too rare in this land we find ourselves stranded in.”
Once seated, Jones ordered two glasses of wine.
“Where’d you learn to talk in French?”
“Picked it up here and there. I’ve been here since 1915 you see, minus the leaves home they gave me.”
Hank shook his head. “This is the first sort of leave I’ve had. They’re shipping me home next week.”
“And I’ll be right behind you. But back to England for me. When I get there and take me uniform off I think I’ll tell the first politician I see that he can bugger off for all I care. Outrageous it was the way they ran the war. Bloody blighters can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. Their stiff upper lips got many an English lad killed before his time.”
Hank smiled and lifted his glass in a toast.
“You got someone back home waiting for you then?”
“Yeah. A wife and three kids.” Hank sipped his red wine. “How about you?”
Jones pulled a tattered, bloodstained photo from his breast pocket and handed it to Hank. “Her name’s Nancy. I’ve been writing her every week because she’s watching over my mum.” He finished his wine. “Nancy’s fiancé got killed at the Battle of the Somme a couple of years back. I’m going to propose to her first thing when I get on back home. Wish me luck.”
Adapted from The Wolf Is Crying to Be Heard