|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|
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).
|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.”
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.
[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.
[vii] “Brief Notices,” Poetry, December 1932, pages 165-166.