MHQ frequently receives unsolicited first-person accounts of veterans’ experience of battle, and in March 2001 an unusual contribution immediately grabbed our attention. According to Laura Linn Wright‘s letter: “My father, Louis Carlyle Linn, left a collection of short stories, woodcuts, drawings, photos and two letters from his experiences in WWI. He joined the Marines enthusiastically at the age of 21. Notebooks and sketchpads were always in his pockets.“ She added: “The stories were written after a perspective of ten to fifteen years. It was probably a necessary cathartic, as he was plagued by nightmares.”
A native of Laurel, Maryland, Linn served in the 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion–part of the famous 2nd Division‘s 4th Marine Brigade. The brigade manned trenches near Verdun in the spring of 1918, then in June participated in the bloody struggle for Belleau Wood. The marines’ next fight, near Soissons on July 18-19, is described in the follow ing chapter from Linn‘s unpublished book, A Soldier of the “A.E.F.,” which includes the accompanying woodcuts.
Linn’s account is impressionistic, putting the reader in a Devil Dog‘s muddy boots while leaving out names of landmarks and towns. He nevertheless evocatively describes events that he experienced and that have become part of Marine Corps lore, including the exhausting, rainy night march through the Retz Forest along a single crowded road and the harrowing German artillery bombardment of the town of Vierzy.
Ah, the Godforsaken memory of the night hike, when night succeeded night, through endless eons of suffering, until the actual arrival on the scene of battle was almost a relief. Exhaustion long past, movement was phlegmatically automatic and mentality so numbed beneath waves of physical weariness as to be no longer interested in relative merits of life or death. Hour after hour of unrelieved monotonous exertion while the rains of heaven poured down; when the only dry spot on your body was the top of your head, and you went on and on, step after step, while your load grew heavier and heavier as it absorbed the water. Nothing to see but blackness and rain; only the road to feel beneath your feet. Nothing comes nearer, nothing is left behind. You stagger on through ruts and stones, while your muscles are burned away and a faint wonder arises in your brain at this thing you call your body, which goes on when you have long since stopped.
At gray dawn of such a night, we defiled into the woods at the roadside and ‘literally fell asleep. Some of the men did not even drop their packs, they fell asleep still in them. As I pitched exhausted, prone, I felt the rain strike hard and cold upon my face, but even as my mind encompassed the idea of shifting my helmet to meet this new condition, I was asleep with the act unaccomplished.
Hours later, through a tortuous lane of unreality, where fire gave no heat and food could never quite be eaten, consciousness came struggling back into the wet and stiffened thing, lying in the mud, that was I. All about me men were undergoing the same process. It still rained, and in the gray and curtained light we stared strangely at one another, and no word was spoken.
My chum next to me was abstractedly examining a malodorous brown smear across his collar and face. He examined a finger test of the substance with a grave aloofness, found his worst fears realized, and seeing us watching him remarked, “I knew I smelled it, but I hoped I wasn’t in it.” The thing struck me as funny and I essayed to laugh, but on the instant my jaws became unmanageable and struck up such a burst of independent chattering that we all went off into fits of hysterical laughter.
Not far off was a French rolling kitchen with a fire burning in it, and we descended upon them. With our teeth chattering in our numbed and soaked condition, no word was asked or given. The French soldiers warming their hands at the blaze, in tacit sympathy moved aside to give us room, and oh, the unalloyed joy as we thrust our arms to the fire and felt the life once more creep down those stiffened members, felt the blessedness of warmth as our jaws relaxed and then once more came under the control of our wills. As we thawed into life, the French became more vivacious and joining in the circle about the blaze began to talk to us. Their cook gave us each a scalding drink of black coffee and we were restored. I say “Hurrah, for the Frogs.” They were real comrades to fight with.
I lost all my money in a crap game, 60-some francs, and got up from my cramped position feeling discouraged. Not at the loss of the money, that was just so much paper gone, but with the discovery that I was disqualified for any further play. The loss of this distraction, this escape out of the reality of life, was dispiriting.
For a time I stood watching the play as fortune or misfortune followed the clicking ivories for the different members of that group. Some score or more of men in a tight, enrapt circle, with a few French soldiers standing around as spectators. These later followed the interchange of piles of money with almost protruding eyes. The stakes were fairly high, probably two or 300 francs were won or lost on the pass. There was no enjoyment watching others play, so I turned my hopes to new fields of diversion and strolled away.
Ratting joined me, and we left the grove in which we were camped for the day and walked over to the chateau nearby. We had arrived at day break, after hiking all night, slept until noon, had our dinner, and were now killing the afternoon. As soon as it was dark we would go forward again. We were in some doubt as to our reception, as we crossed the lawn, for we knew the chateau was headquarters for some French outfit.
We met no opposition and strolled idly along the graveled walk to the front of the great rectangular pile of masonry. A straight facade of stone with square holes for windows in monotonous regularity, unrelieved either by blinds or awnings. A sort of uncovered stone porch ran along the front, its steps descending to a great flagged ellipse in the center of which was a mirror pool, now dry and empty.
We sat on the raised edge of the pool and regarded the building with disapproval, and it, supremely oblivious of us, stared blankly at nothing. Two bright silk guidons fluttered at the door and a lounging chasseur-de-alpine on guard were the only relieving items in the view. Heavy afternoon peace drowsed over everything, and the faint continuous boom of distant cannon only emphasized the quiet. We were too much depressed to criticize and sat on, inert and voiceless. Two or three times I noticed it and then turned simultaneously with Rats to say, “Do you hear that music?” We strained our ears to listen and presently picked up again the faint rhythmic beat of a drum, with some trace of accompanying melody.
“A band,” we both ejaculated in wondering surprise. “Right under the Heinies’ guns too; that’s French nerve for you. Let’s find it.”
We descended a broad stone stairway into a sunken garden where the peace of ages seemed to dwell. Marble statues of fauns and nymphs peeped at us from screens of bushes, and fall-saddened breezes alternately ruffled all the leaves above us into music, or left them mute and still. We gained the end of the garden and climbed another stairway to the level of the drive, just before the entrance gates. Here four great stone posts stood guard, their ornamental iron gates standing open on a long avenue of maples. At each side there were stone lodges, doing duty now as a galley and barracks for an outfit of chasseurs. Two of these latter lounged smoking before the barracks, and before the galley a large monkey on a chain was hopping about some boxes and baskets of supplies. We went over to examine him.
Discovering us, suddenly he made such a furious rush at us that we both backed up automatically in some uncertainty as to the amount of liberty his chain allowed him. At the end of his leash he stood braced and glowering at us, and we stayed on staring at the animal in voiceless uncertainty. We were troubled which was the monkey after all; neither its savagery nor foolishness equaled ours. This damnable little brute was making madmen of us on this somnolent dreamy afternoon.
The plump pink-faced cook came out and, probably to amuse us, gave the monkey a stoppered bottle in which he had put some wine. Very deliberately the animal accepted the bottle, seated himself comfortably, drew the cork with his teeth, and drank the wine. Then he handed back the empty bottle. The cook cocked his head on one side and smiled at us as though to say, “Smart, don ‘t you think?” We did not think so. Oh! The enviable monkey. Oh! The stupid monkey who kept him chained and gave his blood and life for the privilege. In another minute I should have screamed or cursed to find relief, but just then the band started to play, near enough to distinguish the melody. After two or three deep breaths in which we got our feet back on the earth we turned away.
In a grassy open dell a little way below the gate, we found the musicians, probably at practice. They were all alone, seated on camp stools, the leader standing before a music rack. We picked a grassy bank drenched in sunlight and lay down near them.
Half dreaming, lost in thought and melody, with the hot afternoon sun beating full upon us, and flashing in dazzling areolas from the polished instruments, time slid unheeded by. The music, which had been progressing by fits and starts and much explosive language from the leader, finally swung into a good rhythm and proceeded uninterrupted to the end with some dash and vigor. There being now a definite pause and as the whole band had observed our arrival, to show our appreciation and encourage them on, we applauded with a good deal of spirit. To our surprise the leader turned smiling to his audience of two and bowed in the most formal manner.
For a short intermission we lay on our backs blowing cigarette smoke into the unclouded blue dome of heaven, then turned on our elbows as the baton rapped smartly on the steel rest. This time they played “Madelon,” beloved of soldiers of that time.
“She conquers one and all, Yet favors none at all,
And as the wine goes through Their veins, they say,
This time at the conclusion our applause was generous and sustained, helped out by three or four chasseurs who had lounged in during the piece and joined us on the bank . This time the conductor gave us three bows and then turning back to his men, said something that set them all fluttering their music sheets. While they hunted, the leader consulted his watch and looked up into the sky puzzled. The sun no longer shone, and in the pause, a soft sad little breeze ran ruffling through the bushes. Again the master rapped smartly for attention, held a short pause, and then to full sweeping gesture, the band swung into sound, and this time the tune they played was “America.” Involuntarily we burst into applause, and the director turned slightly toward us to smile and nod.
In the act of turning back, the bank beyond raised in a cloud of smoke, and a detonation like the cannon’s mouth sent the musicians sprawling on the ground, their music lost in the mighty roar of the explosion. On the second, another detonation shook the hill above us at the chateau, and amid the sound of falling earth and breaking tree limbs we heard the frantic blowing of a bugle.
From the shelter in the woods we looked back, but the glade was empty. The musicians were all hurrying toward the gate, casing their instruments as they went. In the comparative quiet, for the bugle had left off blowing, the departing hum of a Gotha came faintly to our ears and the occasional boom of an anti-aircraft gun taking a shot at it.
The day had changed completely, heavy clouds blackened the sky, and as we came up on the drive a cold drizzle struck our faces. Coming back through the sunken garden the place had the feel ing of a sepulcher. The marble statues looked cold and aloof, far from life.
Some hours later, as we waited for the last lingering departure of light in the edge of the woods a mile below the chateau, a company of chasseurs carrying stretchers, each with the white band and red cross on his arm, came swinging down the road in the now-pouring rain. As they came opposite to where we lounged voiceless and depressed at the side of the road, I recognized our band of the afternoon. The steady stern-visaged man at the head was none other than the smiling wielder of the baton.
They passed in silence, and after them we too drew out upon the road and moved off silently into the night, and my mind went back to the monkey stuffed with food and wine, comfortably curling up for his night’s rest.
We were dumped from a line of trucks on the roadside. We had been riding all night and up until then, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the trucks had been full of men and equipment, and that ride had been more of an ordeal than a respite. There had not been even space for us all to sit down at one time, and we had been jounced and banged about unmercifully on the rough roads. Yet we had managed to catch some sleep in short interrupted naps.
From the roadside we climbed a wall into a meadow, crossed it and the brook at its border, and arrived at the base of a great forest clad hill. This forest teemed with life and soldiers of all nations. There were French batteries limbered and ready to go forward, English tanks and tank corps, Italian engineers, Polish and Belgian infantry, and Bengalese and Sengalese and Chinese, all milling through these trees, intent upon their own affairs and going up or coming down that enormous hillside.
It took the better part of an hour to gain the summit. The day was blazing hot, and we breathed a sigh of pleasure when we got there. We were told to prepare our suppers and rest; at midnight we were to go in.
Over little fires of hastily collected sticks, we soon had bacon sizzling and the appetizing odor of boiling coffee in the air. It was a picturesque scene. Our whole company down a glade of that forest, squatting in groups around the squad fires, cooking their suppers beneath those enormous old trees.
Then we all spread out blankets for a nap we never got. We were called away to make another trip to the bottom of that hill for more ammunition. We left everything upon the ground for we were promised our nap when we got back.
There was a great deal of delay getting the ammunition. Half of the company had probably regained the hilltop before we even started to climb, my squad being the last to receive its assignment. The daylight was rapidly failing, and great inky-blue storm clouds were rolling up into the sky as we again crossed the meadow. The heat of the day had not abated at all, only now it was murky and enervating. We began that long climb through the twilight woods with about 60 pounds of ammunition on our shoulders. We climbed slowly for we were tired, and the air was heavy and dead. Beneath those enormous trees and the gathering cloud bank, it was nearly night already.
Halfway up, there came a blinding flash of lightning that turned the tree leaves and boles to silver, then an ear splitting crash of thunder. In the lull that followed, as though that had been an arranged signal, all the bugles on the hilltop burst into frenzied cry of “assembly.” Again the lightning flashed, and the bugles’ clamor was lost in the mighty thunder roll of the heavens that followed. Then down came the rain, roaring on the leaves above our heads.
We mended our pace. Everyone was madly hurrying up the hill. It had grown quite black, and only when the lightning flashed could you see at all. In desperation of ever gaining the summit with our loads, we threw the ammunition away and hurried on, gasping for breath, the perspiration streaming down our bodies. Over our heads the storm crashed on and the rain roared in the tree leaves. There was almost a stampede now. In the darkness and confusion we got separated from our comrades and there was nothing to do but go it alone.
Gaining the top of the hill at last, in the blackness, running into men and horses and falling over piles of supplies, I sought our glen and my company. In the blackness and storm everything seemed changed. I thought I found the glen, but I could not find my arms and equipment. I was lost. All about me men were yelling for companies and companies calling for men, but I could not find mine. For a time I ran madly about, falling down and getting up, desperately yelling for my company and only answered by the jeering crashes of thunder from above. Then I took a plunging header into a tree, and only my helmet prevented knocking my brains out. This sobered me up.
There were dozens of companies all about me. They were all going to fight. What difference did it make which one I fought in? As soon as the first men fell I could arm myself, and someone was sure to fall before I would be in need of a weapon. This was reassuring, and I was debating whether I should join a company of Highlanders who were calling their roll near me or hunt up a company of Americans, when in walking forward I ran hard into a company standing quietly across my path. A voice familiar to me cried: “Jesus Christ, guy! You damn near cut off my ear with your helmet.”
It was my own company. My chum had brought along my equipment in the faint hope of finding me, and I was again armed and in my place. I don ‘t suppose I had been a hundred yards from them at any time, yet in the roar and blackness it was little short of miracle that I found them.
We had thought that we were nearly at the front. That proved a mistake. Somehow we forced ourselves into a road already packed to overflowing and started forward. Such a mad jam of struggling humanity would be hard to conceive. Soldiers, horses, trucks, cannons, caissons, and tractors, jammed so tightly together we trod upon each other ‘s heels. It was miserable work. We would go for a while, then everything would come to a packed stop, and we would wait and wait, then forward again for a while, then another stop and an other wait. Aggravated, tired, never able to swing into a lasting stride, we went on hour after hour, without rest or cessation. At every road intersection, the jam became greater as more men, horses, and trucks hurled themselves into the congested mass.
The roadway was rough and irregular cut into ruts and mounds by the engines of war that had gone before us and covered with slithery mud from the rain that still fell heavily. In the blackness it was impossible to see where your feet were going, and so we lurched and wallowed and staggered. It was impossible to fall, we were so packed together, but added to all the other trials of that march was the buffeting one received from his fellows in their flounderings.
My chum, shoulder to shoulder with me, nearly drove me into insanity. I know now he must have been forced to walk in a rut, but he continually struck my shoulder, throwing me out of stride, and when he caught me off balance causing me to stagger. At first it was only annoying, but its continual repetition as we dragged on hour after hour raised in me a burning fury of hatred. My mind dwelled continually on the joy it would be to draw my bayonet and at his next buffet drive it through his side. Over and over in my mind, I enacted this scene, seeing his agonized lurch and distorted face in the faint light as he sank beneath our feet, to be trampled to a formless pulp in the roadway. And yet, such is the queer workings of the human mind, at daybreak seeing his face drawn with the agony of exhaustion, I took his rifle from him and added it to my own load.
Soon after daybreak we left the road and deployed for action. We had come up on the line at last, some four hours later. A short rest was imperative; we could hardly drag one foot after the other. While we rested, we rifled the packs of the dead for our breakfast. Then forward again.
That morning, crossing an open field, a retreating German infantryman fired a cannon at us point-blank. He must have known something about artillery for he succeeded in loading and firing a smashed and abandoned cannon whose crew had all been killed. There came a flash and roar from the hedge before us and Sergeant Murphy’s helmet rang like a bell, then the shell exploded half a mile behind us. Murphy walked slowly around in a circle, looking into the sky, then he fell in a pile. Falling seemed to bring him to, for he popped up on the instant. That shell in passing had crimped the edge of his helmet.
Behind the crest of a hill we lay as tight to the ground as we could stick. We were in a nasty box, caught in a crossfire of our own and the enemy’s artillery. The air above hissed with flying bullets from the German Maxims that plugged into the ground, or our bodies, as the case might be.
We had outrun our schedule, as usual, and our own artillery, instead of lifting to clear away before us, was drilling the hillside on which we lay with holes and our bodies with metal. How many of our own men at that spot were killed by our own shells, I would not like to say. So we lay praying that at least our own fire would raise; the German fire was heavy enough. While shells came screaming in from front and back, tearing up the ground and rolling over the men like inanimate bundles of rags, we lay with our faces thrust hard into the dirt, slightly contracting our features as each shell scream ended in a roar and cloud of blown up earth and smoke.
From the crest of the hill, all hope of descending that shell-beaten, exposed slope alive looked impossible. The earth fairly danced beneath a hail of exploding “eight eights.” We ran straight into that fire. In no order at all, we
ran down that hill. Who fell in that run, we neither saw nor cared. Throwing our selves into the ditch that edged it, we thrust our rifles through the hedge, on its bank, and began to fire. We were in action again, and that was some relief.
By noon we had taken the town in the valley. That was our objective. We lay in the drain of a road now, on which enemy shells cut queer antics, jumping and skipping about on its hard surface. The sun wheeled slowly across the sky, and still we were kept in our ditch while what had been a picturesque little town disintegrated into a smoking mass of rocks and tiles and broken timbers under the steady downpour of German shells. We were still kept so tight to earth we were unable to guess how badly the company had been hit.
At about 4 o’clock, our relief divisions being pushed in behind us to go on with the drive, the German fire let up on us a little and began to worry them. We were able to ease our cramped joints and sit up. There were plenty still whizzing about, however.
The first house, with only a walled vegetable garden separating it from the road behind which we crouched, had a pump on the wall facing us. We all eyed it with thirsty longing, and each time the house was hit, prayed for the safety of the pump. It came through safely, and being my turn, I took four canteens and made a dash for the pump, running through between shells.
With all four caps off I was holding the canteens all together under the flow of water with one hand and pumping with the other, a clumsy and inefficient operation. Then two furtive Frogs, also in search of water, showed up. One of these began to pump, while his companion and I filled canteens. By the time mine were filled, some 15 or 20 men, encouraged by our success, had collected there. With the intention of returning the favor done me by the Frog, I offered to relieve the man at the handle, so he could fill his canteen.
“My buddy’s filling mine, I’ll keep her going.”
What happened next I can neither tell nor understand.
Some higher sense made me conscious of black death about that well. I fled in mortal terror, half back across the garden and plunged down, conscious of a roar behind me. A minute later, when the whiz of flying metal stopped, I looked around. Only a gaping hole still smoking, the shattered stock of the pump, and a pile of debris of rocks and human bodies remained. Two or three, of the 20 or more, had life enough left to struggle weakly on the ground.
With our thirst satisfied, we were next conscious of ravenous hunger, and as if in our necessity we created the thing we needed, word came down that a Red Cross man had by some miracle gotten into the town with bread and syrup. To prevent any concentration, we were only allowed to go two at a time, if you cared to go at all. Going meant running a shell gantlet a couple hundred yards along an exposed road.
My turn came with Tadpole, and we successfully made the run. There were men before us from other companies, and we waited our turn. A soldier knelt beside the road by a sack of bread, busily slashing a loaf into slices. As each slice fell, a greedy hand snatched it away. Be side him knelt the Red Cross man with an open can of syrup between his knees. Upon each of the snatched pieces of bread he daubed a spoon of syrup. Our concentration on this procedure was enormous. Everything terminated so suddenly and quickly in this life, even to live to eat a slice of bread and syrup was a great step gained.
There came a crashing detonation. I felt the road fly beneath my feet then strike my hands and face. My helmet went clanking away before me. There was a yell of “Gas!” and almost instinctively I was pulling on my mask, my head still dizzy from its contact with the road. All of this in the space of a second of time.
Thus engaged, I saw Tadpole hastily stuff the bread the soldier had been cut ting into the syrup can, which had been knocked over and was running its precious contents on the road. On top of this he stuffed his raincoat, then snatched out his gas mask and dived into it. As a guard for his safety, he told us later, he held his breath.
Help had arrived, and put masks on all the wounded. The Red Cross man and his assistant were both dead. The shell had exploded almost between them. Tad pole and I were slightly burned under the arms and legs by the gas, but we ate the bread and syrup, after some cutting and skimming.
Later in the afternoon the fire had slackened still more, and we were now sitting on the side of the road, or the ditch. I had just poured tobacco into a cupped paper when before my amazed eyes the tobacco suddenly leaped away of its own accord. Simultaneously I felt myself traveling rapidly through space, then the crash of my fall. I was up again almost on the instant, dizzily staggering in the road. Something wet and hot was running down the side of my face into the corner of my eye and into my mouth and along my chin. I had the sensation of a sharp stick being stuck in my back. It was not so painful as annoying. I kept asking to have it pulled out. Someone caught my elbows and dragged me into the ditch. Someone else had pulled out my first-aid kit and torn it open. I was still groggy in the head and could not identify persons about me. Feeling the bandage going around and around my head, it came to me that I was hit. Sergeant Sike was bandaging my head and neck then my back.
This done, the same kindly hand washed the blood off of my face with my canteen water and gave me a drink. The cool water and the drink completely brought me around. Thereupon I proceeded to give an exhibition of nerves. I became perfectly furious. I expressed my determination to kill every “God damn German” on earth and went hunting through the debris for my rifle. I couldn’t find it, so I wept. The stooping over must have sent the blood to my head, for I fell over. I was helped up again and, with someone steadying me, staggered off to the dressing station.
To me it was a long and agonizing trip to that station, but we got there. My helper wedged me into a seat on the staircase in the hall. He gave me an encouraging pat and, asking me to give his love to the mademoiselles of gay Paree, departed. I sat on that step a long time. The whole stairway was a ladder of wounded men, and they sat all around the hall with their backs against the walls. The worse off ones lay full length on the floor. The whole house seemed in a like condition, but no more of it was within my vision. Nothing was done for them, and they were all mute. A strange dull apathy rested here, where one would naturally have expect ed a great deal of bustle. A surgeon occasionally strolled somnolently among these suffering men, smoking a cigarette. He regarded them with the aloof abstraction of some foreign matter such as vegetables. The stream of wounded never ceased to arrive. They were brought in and either sat or laid down, according to their condition, and those who brought them departed without a word. Occasionally the surgeon would come out of his trance long enough to direct where one of these arrivals be put, but he would immediately revert into it, without so much as a glance at the soldier he had arranged for.
Outside, the sun, a great red ball, was dropping down to its setting, on that hot summer day, but there was no movement of the air and the heat of midday still lingered in that house. Staring out of the door, directly before me, the bright colors of a staff pennant caught my eye. Near it was a group of French officers, their red-topped hats and two-colored uniforms making a pretty spot of color against the gray of the buildings. There came a scream in the sky, and the spot was gone in an upburst of dirt and smoke. The settling and eddying away of the cloud disclosed the blue uniforms mixed with dirt of the road and contort ed into uncomfortable positions that remained strangely still.
An American water cart, a tank on two wheels pulled by two mules and driven by a skinner, crouching far forward and urging his tired beasts to greater speed, turned into the road. For a second a black hole made a perfect bull’s-eye in the tank, and then the whole thing dissolved in whirling smoke and reappeared as a pile of debris at the roadside. The two mules were down, one of them trying valiantly to rise, the other quite still. At the side of the road, one wheel all alone spun around and around on the side of the hub, slowed down, and finally became still too.
My eyes ached, hot and burning, yet I could not close them. I was sick and weary and my head throbbed like a beaten drum, but I could not relax. I could not shut out my consciousness of life. I remained sitting on that step in that hot breathless hall catching my breath, gasp after gasp, until I felt that unless I es caped I should surely die.
An empty ammunition truck stopped at the door, and everyone able to stand the ride was offered the opportunity to go back. The truck was soon filled. I was lifted to a seat on the sloping tailgate. The driver said to us, for we were in a line across the board, “You fellows hang on. I am going like hell now, and I can’t stop to pick you up if you fall off.”
We said we would, and both of us kept our word. When we had about reached the end of our endurance and I had been for some time speculating on whether I would have enough life left to crawl out of the way of the next vehicle if I inten tionally fell, the truck drew up before a farmhouse at the roadside and stopped.
We were helped out by many hands , the owners of which said kind of amusing things to us, and taken through the gate of the farmyard and up to the door of the house. The soft twilight of the midsummer day was settling now into dark. Figures moved about through the semi-obscurity to the soft trilling of crickets. Beneath a shed, the Red Cross had a fire going and was busy cooking soup. They offered us this in little tin bowls, also chocolate and cigarettes, but few of us accepted.
Inside the farmhouse, by the light of a couple of lanterns, a surgeon and two orderlies were busy upon their tasks. We were taken in one at a time, and the bandages put on by our comrades were cut off and fresh bandages put back. A ticket was made out and tied to each man like a side of dressed and inspected beef. After this some were told to go back and get on the truck, others were put on stretchers and carried away.
When my turn came, I suddenly discovered I had lost my voice. Straining to my utmost, with my lungs pumping like a pair of bellows, I managed to whisper my name, rank, company, and division. I caved in during my rebandaging, and the task was completed with me sitting weakly astride a chair, holding the back. I struggled up when it was over and started for the door, without waiting for an invitation. It was not that I had any great love for riding that truck, but my nerve was gone now and I was in mortal terror of the guns. I wanted to get as many miles between us as possible before I stopped. Besides, I had noticed the surgeon nod for a stretcher and was afraid it was for me. I was sure if I were put on a stretcher, I would die. The orderly caught me in two steps. To my whispered assurance that I was all right the surgeon said: “Why sure you are. You just lie down for a while and you ‘ll feel stronger. There will be plenty more trucks.”
The stretcher, with me on it, was carried away and presently put down in company with many others under a huge canvas fly. It was night now, and the stars twinkled brightly all along the edge of that canvas.
I lay fighting for my breath. Each respiration required a willed effort on my part. Next to me was a French soldier thrashing about on his stretcher and moaning continually, “D’eau, d‘eau.“
But no one gave him any water. After a while he essayed to get up and balancing himself for a second, fell heavily out on the ground with a moan. Someone came and put him back on his stretcher. I tried to get their attention to tell them what he wanted, but all ability to make a noise had left me now, and they departed. In putting him back on the stretcher, they had reversed his position, and his feet were now to my head. He continued to thrash and moan for water, and in his thrashing he kept kicking me in the head and shoulder, where I was wounded, with his great hobnailed boots. I could not save myself. I could only turn away my face and bear it. He kept this up for some time, muttering inarticulate words, dispersed with moans of “water.” Finally after a last flurry in which he split my lips and cut my ear, he straightened out and died.
At some time during the night my stretcher was taken up and placed in an ambulance with three others. We were driven until day light and then put down again in an open field. As the daylight increased and the morning mist dispersed, a whole field of banked stretchers was disclosed to view. We lay there all day staring up into the sky. The fierce heat of the sun brought on a kind of torpor in which suffering was lessened, but the whole field moaned in concert. I didn’t moan. I couldn’t make a peep.
In the afternoon a thunderstorm broke over us. The lightning flashed and forked, and the thunder boomed in mimicry of the guns. We were soon soaked to the skin from the torrents of rain, and our stretchers made little tubs of it for us to lie in.
This, however, was rather pleasant and reviving, as most of us must have had some fever. The usual bitter cold French night setting in and the rain continuing was not so good.
On the brow of the field above us were a number of big tents, almost like a circus. Into one of these I was eventually carried that night and placed upon an operating table. A whole line of these ran the length of the tent, with wounded soldiers on them all and busy surgeons and orderlies at each. The place was full of glaring light, the odor of ether and stale wounds. Overhead the rain drummed steadily on the canvas.
Again I was bandaged. Then as the stretcher bearers took me up from the table, the surgeon said, “Don ‘t take him back out in that rain, find some place for him in there.”
I was put down in a corner of the tent next to what I thought was a pile of salvage. From time to time more was added to this pile, and, the dull thud of its falling catching my attention, I looked at the pile with more attention. Salvage in deed. There was a whole pile of miscellaneous arms, legs, feet, hands, and all the variegated salvage that may be lopped from the human frame, in a great mound that continued to pile up.
Two days later, in a base hospital, where I had been X-rayed and marked out like a land plot, with little black cross marks indicating likely spots to dig for iron, I awaited my operation in a hall beside the operating rooms. I had much company, for the hall was lined with pa tients. Busy nurses and orderlies flew about administering hypodermic injec tions and ether. This place ran day and night and had been going at that speed for a week , under pressure of the drive.
From one of the operating rooms there issued a great fat surgeon with a face like a full moon. His apron was one mass of bloodstains from chin to waist. He reminded me so forcibly of meat butchers I had seen in the market that I lay grinning at him. He was lighting a cigarette and happened to notice me, the fact that I was grinning caught his attention, and he regarded me more closely. Finding I was grinning at him, he leveled his cigarette at me, and said, “Just for that I’ll take you next.”
I often wondered if he did. Well, after that I had nothing to worry about. MHQ
LOUIS C. LINN was again seriously wounded, on September 12, during the St. Mihiel offensive. After the war, disabled because of the lingering effects of his injuries, he attended the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art and later supported himself and his family by painting. He died in 1949.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2003 issue (Vol. 16, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Memories of A Devil Dog
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