Thursday, June 22, 2017

Going Over

WWI postcard: Douglas Tempest (British)
The First World War’s popular song, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,” may have been more accurate than is commonly realized, for when setting off to war, troubles often accompanied the soldiers. 
American troops making the transatlantic voyage to the Western Front traveled under threat of torpedo attack; the Tuscania was the first ship carrying American soldiers to be sunk. Struck by a German torpedo on February 5, 1918, the Tuscania sank in four hours with a loss of over 200 men.* 

Thanks to the escort of American and British destroyers, however, most American troop ships arrived safely in France, although many doughboys vividly remembered the misery of overcrowding and seasickness. 

Frank L. Armstrong’s Frenzies from France or the Nightmares of a Doughboy (1919) offers a humorous sketch of sailing to France. (For a different perspective, see “Transport” by John Allan Wyeth). 

Going Over

From Frenzies from France
I’m sure I never shall forget
That trip across the Briny.
I didn’t take it for my health
I went to get a ‘Heinie.
We had to sleep way down below,
Down where they keep the cattle.
That seemed to me an awful way
To ship men off to battle.

And when the boat began to rock
Those guys down there got sick.
I’ll tell the world that was some time
Let’s pass the subject quick.
The grub I couldn’t recommend
It didn’t seem appealing.
Might be because beneath my belt
I had a funny feeling.

Of all the trips I ever made,
That was about the worst.
And if they want this bird again,
They’ll have to catch him first.
                        —Frank L. Armstrong

I have found no certain information on Frank L. Armstrong, although Frenzies from France was privately published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A man by the same name is credited with writing the lyrics to the World War I song “Knitting,” dedicated to “the soldiers’ girls at home.”

*“The Sinking of the Tuscania,”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Anonymous stars

French soldier near Verdun, 1916
Napoleon Bonaparte is viewed as one of the greatest military commanders in French history.  Rising to power as an artillery officer during the French Revolution, he was promoted to general at the age of 24.  When crowned Emperor of France in 1804, he was only 35 years old.

Napoleon's sarcophagus, photo by Livioandronico2013 
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840, his remains were moved to Les Invalides in Paris, where a lavish sarcophagus was prepared beneath the grand Dome of the royal military chapel. The Emperor’s body lies inside six nested caskets: tin, mahogany, two of lead, ebony, and oak.  

During the First World War, American poet Dana Burnet wrote of visiting Bonaparte’s memorial in Paris. Contrasting Napoleon’s grandiose tomb with the unburied bodies of soldiers on the Western Front, Burnet challenges us to consider the nature of war and who bears its costs.  

Napoleon’s Tomb*

Through the great doors, where Paris flowed incessant,
Fell certain dimness….
A calm, immortal twilight mantling up
To the great dome, where painted triumph rides
High o’er the dust that once bestrode it all—
Nor ever fame had fairer firmament!
Then I went in, with Paris pressing slow,
And saw the long blue shadows folding down
Upon the casket of the Emperor.
A soldier in faded uniform
Stood close beside me. He was one of those
Who die and leave no lament on the wind…
And straightway gazing on him I beheld
Not death’s magnificence; not fame’s hushed tomb—
But grim Oblivion, and the fields of France!
And on some nameless hillside, where the night
Sets out wild flaming candles for the dead,
Innumerable corpses palely sprawled
Beneath the silent, cold, anonymous stars.
                        —Dana Burnet 

Amidst the glittering gold, granite, and marble of Napoleon’s tomb, the observer’s eye is drawn to the man standing near him: a poilu, the informal name given to infantry soldiers in the French Army. The soldier’s uniform is worn and faded from the years he has spent in battle, sleeping in uncovered trenches and slogging through mud.

The observer considers that when this man dies, none will mourn his passing; his death will “leave no lament on the wind.” The sight of the poilu gives way to a profound realization that is in stark contrast to the scene of Napoleon’s tomb: death is not magnificent, the battle is not glorious, but rather war leads only to grim Oblivion. 

Dome over Napoleon's Tomb,  photo by Livioandronico2013
The hillsides where men fought and died will remain nameless, and the common soldiers who earned the victory will be forgotten. The only homage given them will be the “wild flaming candles” – the lights of the anonymous stars that shine on the countless, nameless corpses. 

Following the Great War, in 1929 another French general was honored with burial under the Dome of Les Invalides.  The body of General Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander of the First World War, was buried near the tomb of Napoleon. 

*The version included here omits early sections of the original poem that describe the tomb in further detail.  The poem can be read in its entirety at this link, the online edition of Clarke’s A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American poems of the World War, 1914-1919.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Mascot Speaks

Unknown soldier with dog, WWI

A previous post on this blog (“The Trench Dog”) discussed the important role that animals played in the First World War.  A further testament to the comfort and companionship that dogs brought to the soldiers is the poem "The Mascot Speaks," published in March of 1919 in the Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper that described itself as “By and For the Soldiers of the A.E.F.” 

Written by an anonymous American soldier after the war had ended, the poem reminds us that the end of the war brought new hardships to the pets who had been adopted by the fighting men. 

The Mascot Speaks

They say I can’t go back with him,
They say we dogs are banned.
They told him that. They didn’t think
Unknown soldier with puppy
That I could understand.

I’ve had him pretty near a year,
Since I was just a pup.
I used to be a sort of bum,
And then – he picked me up.

We’ve slept together in the rain,
And snow, too, quite a lot.
Cold nights we kept each other warm,
Some days we ate—some not.

Once he went to the hospital.
I followed. They said, “No.”
He swore a lot and told the doc
Unless I stayed, he’d go.

He’s going to go home pretty soon
And leave me here—oh well—
I wonder if dogs have a heav’n?
I know we’ve got a hell.

Italian soldier with dog on Asiago Plain

Sunday, June 11, 2017


USS Leviathan, AEF troopship (carried as many as 14,000 per trip)

When America entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, many politicians and members of the public assumed that the United States would continue to simply send armaments and aid, without any direct military involvement.  At a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee shortly after war had been declared, Senator Thomas S. Martin’s stunned reaction to Wilson’s war plan was, “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”[i]

Life magazine, Jan 31, 1918, Norman Rockwell
But on June 14, 1917, just over two months after the U.S. entered the war, the first American troops sailed for France14,000 soldiers of the First Division.  By August of 1918, the U.S. had sent nearly 1,500,000 men overseas.[ii]  Willard Newton, a doughboy sailing with the 105th Engineers of North Carolina, wrote in his diary,

As the transport steams slowly out of Hoboken it passes the statue of liberty, and though we are all supposed to be below deck several of us fellows slip up and take a last look at the statue and then go back below. The fellows congregate in small groups, some singing songs that have become popular since the war, and others are discussing the journey that lays before them. We are leaving the States to return no more until our task "over there" is finished.[iii]

Sailing with the 80th Division, Tingle Culbertson wrote to his family,

…there was a certain amount of drill and work to be done on board but we had plenty of free time.  Among other things on the boat were three bands and a large unit of nurses.  There was ample space on the stairway landings between decks, so every day from about two until sundown was like the Edgeworth Club on a Saturday night.[iv]

John Allan Wyeth, a French translator with the 33rd Division of the A.E.F., shaped his experiences of the war into poetry (This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets, 1928).

The Transport
USS Leviathan December 1917
Courtesy of CWO2 John A. Steel, USN
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph 


A thick still heat stifles the dim saloon.
The rotten air hangs heavy on us all,
and trails a steady penetrating steam
of hot wet flannel and the evening’s mess.
Close bodies swaying, catcalls out of tune,
while the jazz band syncopates the Darktown Strutters’ Ball,
we crowd like minnows in a muddy stream.
O God, even here a sense of loneliness…
I grope my way on deck to watch the moon
gleam sharply where the shadows rise and fall
in the immense disturbance of a dream
that black ship, and the pale sky’s emptiness,
and this great wind become a part of me.
                        —John Allan Wyeth

As the ship crosses the vast Atlantic, a soldier separates himself from the heat, noise, and smell of the thousands of men who are distracting themselves from the war ahead. Groping his way to the darkened deck, he confronts his own loneliness and realizes his own insignificance: “we crowd like minnows in a muddy stream.”  The simile suggests not only the landscape of the Western Front, but the moral ambiguities of the war itself. 

Shadows rise and fall with the rolling of the ship, appearing as ghost-like figures in a disturbed dream. In this, Wyeth’s poem is eerily similar to Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment.” Writing as he sailed for Gallipoli, Brooke also found himself alone on a darkened ship, imagining his fellow soldiers as “Perishing things and strange ghosts—soon to die.”
John Allen Wyeth (right)
& brother, Marion Sims Wyeth

Disconnected from the men around him, the solitary soldier in Wyeth’s “Transport” resigns himself to the loneliness of war, joined only to the emptiness of the sky and the invisibility of the wind. 

B.J. Omanson, the military historian and poet who rediscovered Wyeth’s war poems, notes the “many compelling aspects” of Wyeth’s sonnets: they skillfully adopt a distanced, neutral tone, while “capturing the fleeting essence of the moment.”[v]  And yet, as poet Dana Gioia writes, “Wyeth is not merely a forgotten poet. He was never noticed. Unmentioned in literary histories and critical literature even in his own lifetime, his work appears in no anthologies of any sort—not anywhere, not ever.”  Still Gioia and others (among them, Tim Kendall, editor of Oxford University Press’s Poetry of the First World War) argue that Wyeth may be “the finest American soldier-poet of World War I.”[vi]

It is intriguing to compare modern critical judgement of This Man’s Army with the review that appeared in 1932 in Poetry magazine: “A group of sonnets, strung with slang and soldiers’ patois, telling of the poet’s experiences in the war.  They are scrupulously exact descriptions with little comment, and they ring with vivid reality.  They are probably not poetry but they are good stuff.”[vii]

[i] Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker: America at War, 2 vols (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931), Vol. I, page 120.
[ii] C.N. Trueman, “America’s Military Power in World War One.” The History Learning Site, posted March 6, 2015, 16 Aug 2016.
[iii] Entry for May 27, 1918, Willard Newton Diary, published as “Over There for Uncle Sam,” Charlotte Observer, available online at this link.  
[iv] Private letter dated May 1918.
[v] B.J. Omanson, “Artistry & authenticity in the war sonnets of John Allan Wyeth,” The War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” posted March 11, 2012. Omanson’s insights on Wyeth’s poetry and the First World War are remarkable and can be found online at The War Poetry of John Allen Wyeth and History and Lore of the Old World War.
[vi] Dana Gioia, “The Obscurity of John Allan Wyeth,” Dana Gioia website.
[vii] “Brief Notices,” Poetry, December 1932, pages 165-166.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bingo, the trench dog

Jackie, South African baboon
Welsh Fusiliers goat
The pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille kept two lion cubs (Whiskey and Soda); the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment had a goat (Taffy IV); the South African 3rd Trasvaal Regiment awarded a baboon named Jackie the rank of Private; Australians took a koala to war with them, and the American 102nd Infantry Regiment proudly boasted the most decorated dog of the First World War, Sergeant Stubby, who participated in seventeen engagements and was wounded twice.*

The British Imperial War Museum estimates that at least 16 million animals served in the First World War, assisting in military efforts.**  The role of horses in the war has received increased attention since the 1982 publication of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse (as well as the release of the award-winning play and movie based on the book), but other animals also played a critical part.  Camels, mules, donkeys, canaries, pigeons, cats, and dogs were used to transport supplies, detect gas attacks, send messages, hunt rats, rescue the wounded, scout enemy territory, and keep watch as sentries. 

Care for wounded horses, WWI postcard from "The Sphere" (newspaper)
Just as importantly, animals provided comfort and companionship, reminding soldiers of home and of the ordinariness of life before the war. Many units had mascots, and soldiers often smuggled pets with them or adopted stray animals they found at the front. Cats were popular for their prowess in killing the millions of rats that swarmed the trenches, but for many soldiers, dogs were fondly regarded as man’s best friend. It is estimated that over 50,000 dogs accompanied the armies on both sides of the conflict. 

Tragically, animals also became military targets and casualties of war. It is estimated that as many as eight million horses died during the First World War, and countless other animals were also killed in the line of duty.  Edward de Stein, an officer in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, wrote in memory of a trench dog who had endeared himself to all who knew him.

                        —by the Trench Bard (Major E. De Stein)

Weep, weep, ye dwellers in the delvèd earth,
Ah, weep, ye watchers by the dismal shore
Of No Man's Land, for Bingo is no more;
Northumberland Fusilier with Sammy, the regimental dog
He is no more, and well ye knew his worth,
For whom on bully-beefless days were kept
Rare bones by each according to his means,
And, while the Quartermaster-Sergeant slept,
The elusive pork was rescued from the beans.
He is no more, and, impudently brave,
The loathly rats sit grinning on his grave.

Him mourn the grimy cooks and bombers ten,
The sentinels in lonely posts forlorn,
The fierce patrols with hands and tunics torn,
The furtive band of sanitary men.
The murmuring sound of grief along the length
Of traversed trench the startled Hun could hear;
The Captain, as he struck him off the strength,
Let fall a sad and solitary tear;
'Tis even said a batman passing by
Had seen the Sergeant-Major wipe his eye.

The fearful fervour of the feline chase
He never knew, poor dog, he never knew;
Content with optimistic zeal to woo
Reluctant rodents in this murky place,
He never played with children on clean grass,
Nor dozed at ease beside the glowing embers,
Nor watched with hopeful eye the tea-cakes pass,
Nor smelt the heather-smell of Scotch Septembers,
For he was born amid a world at war
Although unrecking what we struggled for.

Yet who shall say that Bingo was unblest
Though all his Sprattless life was passed beneath
The roar of mortars and the whistling breath
Of grim, nocturnal heavies going west?
Unmoved he heard the evening hymn of hate,
Unmoved would gaze into his master's eyes.
For all the sorrows men for men create
In search of happiness wise dogs despise,
Finding ecstatic joy in every rag
And every smile of friendship worth a wag.

The poem displays a tender humor as it uses formal language and an elevated style to mourn the loss of a small dog with the undignified name of “Bingo.”  Although he was “impudently brave,” the poem provides no list of the animal’s heroic deeds, and yet “well ye knew his worth.”

Bingo’s value lay in how well he was loved. Men showed their devotion to the dog by sneaking bones from food rations and stealthily liberating pork from beans – treats that were then shared with Bingo. From the highest military authorities to the lowliest sanitation men assigned to maintain the unit’s latrines, everyone loved the trench dog. Across ranks and assignments—cooks, gunners, sergeants and lonely sentinels— all felt his loss; some wept.

Sergeant Stubby, mascot of the AEF's 102nd Regiment
Bingo lived a short and hard life, never experiencing the simple doggy delights of chasing a cat, playing with children, or sleeping beside the calm safety of a hearth, “For he was born amid a world at war.” The war shaped the dog’s life, though he knew nothing of its causes or purpose.  Instead, he found his purpose in love. Above the roar of the guns, Bingo’s ears were tuned to his master’s voice. Surrounded by the chaos of human hate and killing, he “Unmoved would gaze into his master’s eyes.” Smiles and unlooked for treats brought him ecstatic joy and reminded his human friends of the precious worth of friendships formed during war. 

*Statistics on Sergeant Stubby are from Alan Taylor’s “World War I in Photos: Animals at War,” posted to the Atlantic website 27 April 2014.  Those wishing to learn more about Stubby may be interested in Ann Bausum’s book Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation.
**Imperial War Museum website, “15 Animals that Went to War.
† Spratt's was the first company to mass-produce dog biscuits.