Americans don’t remember much about the First World War, mostly probably because the second one came so soon after the first and was such a huge event for the U.S. by comparison. We forget how miserable, stupid, useless, and horrible the first one was. Half of the deaths in the war were from Spanish Flu, which was spread far and wide by having men first contained in crowded barracks and then shipping them all over the world. Spanish Flu (an H1N1 virus) could fill your lungs with fluid and kill you in one day. On Grandpa’s ship, the U.S.S. President Grant, 14 men died on board on the way to France. I have a picture of their coffins stacked on the ship’s deck.
In the spring of 1918, Grandpa’s unit (now Co.F of the 21st Engineers) was sent to Baccarat, France, which was right at the front, although in a relatively “quiet” sector where it was mostly an artillery war. Armies were in their opposing trenches, but were mostly just having a "quiet" face-off because large numbers of troops had been diverted to the big battles on the Marne River, closer to Paris. Grandpa’s unit was supposed to be getting training at the front and was building narrow gauge railways from the main station up to the trenches. Although he was a mechanic, he had to pitch in on the track building. My mom remembers him saying something about having to fell trees for railroad ties and that they would have to run into caves sometimes if there was artillery fire or bombing. A letter home (found on the internet) from the cook in Co. F said that they slept at night in the famous Baccarat crystal factory, sometimes having to go down and sleep in the basement if the bombs got too close.
In the summer, as Pershing finally had enough trained troops in France and the Americans had proven their battle worthiness in places like Cantigny and Belleau Wood, the American First Army was assigned its own sector of the front line for the big Sept./Oct. push that was to come for the British, French,and Americans against the Germans. Grandpa returned to Sorcy, where the 21st Engineers had their HQ, and worked in the engine shops getting the "tractors” ready for the big attack on the St. Mihiel Salient, a bulge in the front line that the Germans had held since 1914. (See photos taken by the Signal Corps. Got them from the National Archives and, lo and behold, there was Grandpa!)
We went today to a site where an extensive network of trenches is being excavated and restored by archaeologists. They have stripped off all the vegetation that has grown there since the war so it is presented in the same starkness as when the constant shelling had denuded it. (The while, chalky soil in this area of the country (the Champagne region) is apparently what make champagne grapes perfect for, well, champagne.)The dugouts and lookouts in the trench system, as well as the barbed wire and spiked steel barriers, are amazingly preserved. There are items of personal use (helmets, canteens, mess kits, wine bottles) as well as artillery shells and shrapnel, everywhere. In the excavation, they have found new human remains of some previously classified as MIA, which they have marked with small crosses.
For World War I, the military technology had changed so much in the 50 years since the Civil War that the medics and doctors were completely unprepared for the kinds of injuries they were seeing. Whereas a Civil War soldier might come in with a mini ball hole in his chest, or a cannon injury that required amputation, they had not faced machine guns, artillery shells, poison gas, hand grenades, or bombs dropped from planes. In some cases, in WWI, officers were still lining up their regiments and marching them headlong across fields against an enemy that had machine guns never before used in battles. So the injuries were much more numerous and horrendous and the stretcher bearers were carrying almost unrecognizable men off the fields to small aid stations that could not hope to save them. This was before antibiotics, too, so the wounds become horribly infected. These were the kinds of cases Grandpa saw on the hospital trains that came back from the trenches. And, later, he would become one of them.