- from 'the War Illustrated' 14 th September, 1918
- 'On a Road in France'
a Talk with Some War Boys of the Western World
American soldiers in France - pages from 'Leslie's'
If there are any doleful Jimmies who have not been inspired to courage by the way the Hun has been resisted, despite his recent overwhelming advantages, a ride for an hour at the present time in almost any part of Northern France would serve them as a fine tonic.
On almost every road they would meet solid phalanxes of American troops, marching gaily, gamely, gallantly. They sing and whistle just as our Territorials did in English country lanes, but there is a difference. On the whole, the American physique is superior, for, after all, these are the men picked by the draft, and conscription applied from the beginning ensures a more even level of physique than volunteering.
Again, there is a difference in looks, for some of these "Sammies" wear owl-like horn spectacles, not yet a popular fashion in England, and nearly all have the strong nose and protruding chin of the Red Indian. But these differences are superficial. The heart and spirit are the same as those of the British lads, civilian soldiers, who landed in France in 1915.
Stop the car here and talk to some Of these fellows resting by the roadside. Ask their names. Joe Pfeiler, Max Rittenburg, Carlo Benedetto, Pat Leary, Isaac Straus, Jacob Hochstein. Those are some actual names, picked at random, but showing what a cosmopolitan army has arrived, all fused with the same ideal, for their fathers or grandfathers all came to the States in order to find liberty. Let us talk to Benedetto.
"Delivering the Goods"
"My father was a native of Naples. I worked in a silk mill until I was called by the draft, and I'm glad to be here ; and though there's no chance of leave back to America for us boys until this war's over, I hope it will go on until we've driven the Germans across the Rhine. I know now what they are like. I saw the remains of a bombed house. Yep, I'm glad to be here."
But the major in command walks up. On remarking to him how varied are the nationalities, he answers :
"Yep, that is so. We've got ten different nationalities in our crowd, and thirty-two different religious denominations. And out of the three thousand seven hundred men enlisted in the regiment, some eight hundred odd could not speak English when they joined, and had to be taught."
The major believes that his bunch are the finest bunch in the American Army, but generally states :
"For the machinery of modern warfare all American youths have an advantage, for one out of three can drive an automobile. That mechanical knowledge is handy, not only for aviation, but for the machine-guns of the infantry. It simplifies and shortens the period of training."
The major is very unassuming, but is resolute in his outlook on the fortunes of the Allies.
"Why, my viewpoint is this. The last thirty days have seen the turn of the tide. Our men are now here, despite the submarine, in formidable force. We have begun to deliver the goods, and the Kaiser will just miss the bus."
In answer to a word of praise of the men, the major points out how truly national the force is.
"There is in my regiment a man who is second, if not first, violinist in the States. People paid their two dollars to hear him in New York. Waste ? Yes, war is waste. He could have applied for an exemption; but no, he preferred to come along. He does his sixteen miles march with a heavy pack in company with the others, and sometimes plays for us in the evening, for we carry his violin round on one of the waggons. If he comes through, I bet that his future compositions will be some of the most remarkable music this world will know."
Leaders and Lessons
He then speaks of his officers :
" They are used to handling men, and that's half the game. They are dead keen, and they'll get hold of the military part in due time. As for our generals, they've been scrapping all their lives. Well, one general was a ' ranker,' like your Sir William Robertson. He's been to West Point, and then worked his way up to the top from a private. He's had plenty of experience, too, in our little wars, and, thanks to the Allies, knows a good deal from actual experience over here."
Farther along the road a hillside appears to be covered with heather which, when approached, resolves itself into clumps of men, gathered in circles, listening to lectures on the different aspects of modern war. They sit there with an intent, keen look on their faces, absorbing every word, and almost straining at the leash in their effort to get hold of the lesson.
An hour later, and they have scattered to their billets. Here a party are bivouacked in an orchard, two to a little dog-tent, with the red roses in bloom over their heads, and the hay thick around the bivouac. Others sleep in the quaint farmhouses, where the peacock and the pig both stroll over the manure deposited in front of the main door. They are enthusiastic for the French, but express surprise at European methods of sanitation.
Yet human nature is exactly the same, and both "Poilu en permission" and "Doughboy" may be seen trying to amuse a group of French children. In fact, when an Englishman talks to an American with any intimacy, the love of home seems to be predominant, and home-sickness is the most painful form of sickness which the "Doughboys" have had to endure.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
But the sights and sounds of the French life around them, so they say, keep up their resolution to get at the German beasts as quickly as possible. Every day a stream of refugees comes down the road past their billets, the fortunate ones with their household furniture piled high on to a farm cart, the others shambling along, carrying all their worldly possessions in a string bag in each hand. Then at nighttime they hear the Boche aviators dropping their "eggs" indiscriminately upon targets of military importance, or upon civilians, upon women and children shivering in kitchens, and upon the sick and dying in hospitals.
Then news comes through to them of their own comrades' experiences in the front line. They hear of the American sentry who was found one morning on the Lorraine front stabbed in the back and ferociously mutilated. Refugees, bombs, atrocities they all add fuel to the fire of the Crusaders from across the Atlantic.
One of them speaks proudly of his ambition :
"I come from Texas. Texas is a country into which you could put- Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, and then, have plenty of room over. Never thought I should leave Texas to fire a Lewis-gun in France. Still, I'm out to win our Distinguished War Cross of the American Army. Never seen it ? It has the eagle on one side, with the words 'E pluribui unum,' and on the reverse side a laurel crown, with the inscription, 'For Valor.' That is what I hope to take back to show to my old mother down Texas way."
We pass farther along the road, and in a field see an infantry regiment drawn up, with its training period practically over, prepared to receive the regimental colours which have been offered to them by the descendants of those who fought with Lafayette in America. We stop the car and watch the ceremony.
Pride and Self-Sespeet
To the Frenchmen the presentation of the colours is symbolical of the union between the young American Republic and Old France, To a man-in-the-street Englishman the grave solemnity of all the faces would be the most impressive feature; and the business-like kit, the steel helmets, officers neither mounted nor wearing swords, all part of a stern and formidable war machine, would be the most cheering. With the exception of the flag, which always accompanies American troops, there is little of the glory and panoply of war about these men. They are over here to see the show through in the most efficient piston-rod style ; yet these troops in the field, marching by, express not a Prussian automatic discipline but the free adherence of a collective will to the common sacrifice.
As the car rolls on the road you will not meet a single American soldier who does not salute properly. Anyone who has trained civilians knows how difficult it is to ensure smart saluting. But ask an American commanding officer how he has taught saluting so quickly to his men, and he will reply : "By telling them that it is a mark of their position as a soldier in uniform, by appealing to their pride, to their self-respect, to their sense of competition with the other Allies in France."
It is precisely this pride and self-respect which make any observer in France to-day confident of the ultimate victory of right over wrong, and sure that these new American armies have turned the tide of the war.
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