Doughboy’s Diary, by Chester Baker, Burd Street Press, Shippensburg, Pa., 1998, $24.95.
World War I was Corporal Chester Baker’s war, fought as a soldier of Company F, 112th Infantry Regiment, of the 28th Division. In Doughboy’s Diary, Baker chronicles his unit’s actions from the recruitment drive in his home county of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and training in Texas during the punitive expedition against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916 to the war in Europe.
Baker’s most vivid wartime memories were not of battling Germans but of fighting body lice, also known as cooties. Baker, in fact, became so obsessed with killing them that one night he actually smeared himself with lighter fluid–only to burn his own skin so badly that he scrambled out of his bunk and rolled in the snow as he frantically stripped off his clothes.
When Baker does see combat, he skims over the details in his diary. He describes running a message to his battalion commander through an artillery barrage, somehow managing to deliver the note without getting as much as a scratch. In another incident, Baker watched in horror as an old German emerged from his hiding place, only to be killed by a young doughboy who did not know that “Kamerad” meant “surrender.” But most of the combat narrative is brief.
The daily drudgery in the trenches is the heart of the memoir, made all the more poignant because his fellow soldiers were friends and relatives from home, which was typical in National Guard units. During the Battle of the Argonne Forest, for example, Baker treated his wounded cousin, whom he had promised his uncle he would take care of. In spite of such casualties, Baker’s division pushed the Germans back two miles before being relieved.
Doughboy’s Diary, with its depiction of the daily miseries of life in the trenches and Baker’s stories of camaraderie, makes for interesting reading.
Kevin M. Hymel