- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Can it be recaptured? I wondered as the Verdun train rocked south through the, darkened farmlands of Champagne. Can another generation really grasp this old lost thing that you have held and heard in imagination and in long night talks? Have another drink. The whiz-bangs were the worst . … The solid men with the beefy, cheerful faces, those big hands like stones on the red Formica table top. I remember the first time I went into the lines . … Can it be recaptured, that already ancient time, shadowed by the racing madness of another war, those days and nights you heard about so often?
The Argonne. …
The greatest battle in American history. That is what they called it in the twenties, and even today, in terms of mass, concentration, and carnage, it still deserves the title. A million and a quarter Americans, jammed into a fighting front little more than twenty miles wide and forty miles deep. But it is not history you are riding toward now. It is memory, it is part of the large pulse that still beats deep in your body at the word father . You hope, this once, to write a different kind of history, a personal, perhaps impossible thing. You want nothing less than to recapture him—and all the rest of them, those puttee-clad doughboys with upside-down tin dishes on their heads, the Americans of 1918 who marched, singing, into the Argonne.
There was no generation gap between my father and me. He treated me like a man from the age of fifteen. I went with him to political dinners and veterans’ reunions, spent innumerable midnights sitting up with him and his friends in our Jersey City kitchen while my poor mother remonstrated feebly from the upper floor. My ears always grew sharp when the talk turned, as it inevitably did, to the war. The stories would spill out, almost always funny but sometimes brutal. About cooties, the lice that made sweaters walk. About three days in the lines eating nothing but carrots. About the nervous sentry who bayoneted his own pack in the dark. About the shell that plowed into the mud a foot away from a private, who dug it out and found he and it had the same serial number. About the Garden of Allah, the first French whorehouse they found when they got off the boat at Calais. About the air attacks a few hours after they debarked, and the enraged few who slung hand grenades into a German prisoner-of-war compound to revenge their wounded buddies. About Harry Ross, the company screwball, who marched an entire platoon onto a Paris train, without a leave pass among them.
My father had been a sergeant in the y8th Division, and most of his fellow Jerseymen had soldiered with the same outfit. Almost all the World War I divisions were organized along state or sectional lines. The y8th was at first called “the President’s Own” division, because Woodrow Wilson had been New Jersey’s governor. Later the men voted to call it the “Lightning” division, in honor of the famed Jersey brew surreptitiously distilled in the pine woods around Fort Dix.
Inevitably, once past these preliminaries, the reminiscing turned to the Western Front. I listened hypnotically to names that meant nothing to me. St.-Mihiel, Thiaucourt, the “Limey Sector,” Argonne, the Bois des Loges, Grandpré, Talma, Bellejoyeuse Farm. But it was all discussed in a peculiarly unheroic way. There was never a trace of braggadocio in the battle stories. Only from others did I discover that Sergeant Fleming had been made an acting lieutenant in the Argonne. Only when I asked to see them did he show me his meticulous notes on infantry tactics, the huge black .45-caliber automatic he had brought home, the division’s battle maps filled with those French names that rolled so readily (if inaccurately) off the tongues of all veterans.
At the same time, my knowledge of the battle remained curiously vague. I had the standard American impression that the Argonne was a vast forest through which the Yanks had swarmed tumultuously to defeat the Germans in the decisive battle of the war. When I began planning my trip to France a few months ago, my father had been dead almost ten years. I realized I did not even know his regiment or company. A visit to the forty-ninth reunion of the 78th Division at Fort Dix cleared up these minor mysteries. “Teddy” Fleming, or “Red” as some of the old veterans called him, had been a sergeant in Company C of the 312th Regiment.
Otherwise the reunion was a sad and somewhat frustrating experience. All my father’s close friends were dead. In discussing the Argonne, the surviving old soldiers were unbelievably vague about details. Like my father and his friends, they preferred the funny memories—stealing chickens, chasing French girls, outwitting second lieutenants or MP’s. It made me realize, with something of a shock, how little death or wounds, fatigue or hunger, fear or bravery, had been mentioned in the stories I had heard when my father was alive. The commanding officer of the contemporary y8th Division, Major General John G. Cassidy, slashed all sorts of red tape to give me access to company and regimental histories. But I left Fort Dix with little more than the raw material of personal history. It was clear that if I was going to recapture my father’s Argonne, much would depend on what the place itself gave me.