Ralph’s War: Homeward Bound

Arrival at the new billets in the countryside surrounding Bordeaux was no guarantee of immediate departure.  Days or weeks might pass before the troops would board a ship.

When a ship arrived, the Navy informed the personnel officer at the docks that transport was available for a set number of troops.  The dock personnel officer contacted his counterpart at the camp, who would then check his priority list and morning report to determine which units could ship out.  The message would be relayed to those units to report for embarkation.

As soon as a ship left, more troops would be called up from local billets to replace them at the Bordeaux Embarkation Camp.  All soldiers sailing from Bordeaux traveled through this camp, which was actually made up of two separate camps in close proximity.  The Entrance Camp, or Embarkation Camp No. 1, acted as a holding area.  As space opened up in Embarkation Camp No. 2, also known as Camp Genicart, units would be dispatched for delousing at “The Mill” and final preparations for embarkation.

camp genicart
Aerial Photography of the Embarkation Camp at Bordeaux, held by the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/94376

A photograph of Camp Genicart can be seen at Yakima Memory

When Ralph’s unit, the 309th infantry, was called up, they would have proceeded to the embarkation building.  This was an enormous corrugated warehouse, large enough to hold thousands of men.

The building was divided into three sections.  The largest section was for well men, the smallest for stretcher cases.  The walking injured, aided by crutches or not, were held in the third section.

A kitchen was located off the smallest room.  Here, cooks prepared hundreds of sandwiches, along with huge kettles of coffee that could barely be lifted by two men.

Prior to boarding, the men were fed and given last minute supplies by the Red Cross.  These were often small items such as handkerchiefs, candy or cookies, and packets of cigarettes.

“Next stop, Hoboken!” was a common refrain.

From the time the Americans entered the war, they had relied on a number of sites within the Gironde-Garonne system to land troops and equipment.  A French military commission had recommended the establishment of a naval patrol station at Le Verdon, discharge of troops and supplies at Pauillac and the building of new docks at Bassens.  It was these new docks from which Ralph and his fellow infantrymen would sail.

gironde -garonne system
https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/us-naval-port-officers-bordeaux-region-1917-1919.html

The Bassens docks were located between Bassens and Lormont, four miles from Bordeaux on the east bank of the Garonne.  Construction of the dock was complicated by the extremely low, flat terrain and unusually high ocean tides, which inundated the land twice daily.  In addition, rail facilities in the area were practically nonexistent.  However, such was the pressure to move troops into Europe that the docks and associated railways were constructed in less than six months by Army engineers, including those of the 15th and 18th regiments.  This was considered one of the greatest feats of modern engineering ever accomplished in such a short time frame.

bassens docks
Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, PA), 28 Apr 1919

The 309th Infantry sailed from Bassens docks aboard the Santa Paula on May 14, 1919.

santa paula

The Santa Paula had been built as a freighter for the Grace Line in 1917.  She was requisitioned in August 1918 and, prior to transport service, she carried military supplies to France.

Amazingly, video of the troops boarding the Santa Paula that day is available online through the National Archives.  After you click the link, scroll down until you see the following and click on the video labeled “13”:

how to

At 5:47, a band is playing as troops board the Panaman.  Immediately following this scene are several scenes involving the Santa Paula, ending with a group of officers watching the men board, seen below:

officers watching boarding

Imagine the excitement of these men, who had waited months to go home to their families.  In the case of Ralph and the others transferred from the 84th Division, they had spent more time in France following the armistice than they had during the war itself.  According to one reporter witnessing the departure of a ship from Bordeaux, “The hilarious happiness was infectious enough to make a stone dog wag his tail.”

another regiment gone
The St. Bernard Voice (Arabi, LA), 24 May 1919

Next Time: His Story is Your Story

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Ralph’s War: Marching Orders

On April 2, 1919, an advance party from the 78th Division left Semur for the three-day train trip to Bordeaux.  Their mission was to make preparations for the advance of the rest of the division.  Division headquarters would be at Castres, while the infantry would be located around Cerons and St. Selve.

cerons st selve
Locations of Saint-Selve and Cerons relative to Bordeaux

In the meantime, the troops were given the order to “get clean and stay clean”.  If even one man was discovered to have lice, the entire division would be unable to sail until they had repeated the entire delousing process.  Men with venereal diseases were to be retained in Europe until they had been satisfactorily treated.

The soldiers were also assigned to clean and organize their billets.  Each village in which they were stationed would be checked for cleanliness by its mayor.  All would need to pass inspection before the troops could proceed to Bordeaux.

Anyone who went AWOL would be transferred to a labor battalion.  Instead of heading home with his fellow soldiers, he would remain in France indefinitely, cleaning up various camps after the troops had left.

On the 21st of April, surprise orders were received to send six trainloads of troops from the 78th Division to Marseilles, where several Italian ships had arrived unexpectedly.  Within the next three days, over seven thousand men, primarily taken from the field artillery and machine gun companies, departed from the entrainment points at Les Laumes, Montbard, and Semur.

Starting April 30th, the remainder of the division would begin its move to Bordeaux.  Ralph and the rest of 309th infantry were already stationed around one of the entrainment points at Epoisses.  Katherine Shortall, author of “A ‘Y’ Girl in France”, was there on the day Ralph left, serving the departing soldiers cakes and hot cocoa.  The weather that day was “abominable, a driving wet snow all the time”.  The loading of the trains took hours, but the men were no doubt buoyed by the fact that they were finally heading home.

USM1490_635-1103
Katherine Shortall’s passport photo, 1918

Miss Shortall’s emotional account of the departure of the 311th infantry, the unit to which she had been attached with the Y.M.C.A. at Pouillenay, demonstrates just how close these people had become over the last five months,.  Undoubtedly the men of the 309th would have formed similar relationships:

“The day of departure dawned, warm and cloudy. I was to ‘hike’ with my platoon over to Les Laumes, the entraining point, a distance of five kilometres. In my heart I knew that this was my last day with the battalion, though most of the boys expected me to go down to Bordeaux after them. But Y.M.C.A. headquarters had ordered me to stay three days at Les Laumes, serving cocoa. So we marched over.

In an hour we were at the ugly little railroad town where the Engineers have been quartered all winter. I left the battalion to march off to their lunch, while I went down to the Y.M.C.A. to help the cocoa contingent. There I found the other girls working. Pretty soon the boys came in to get their last sweet, hot, “hand out” from the “Y”, then I went with them to the station.

There at the railroad gate I said goodbye. How I shook hands! Sometimes my voice would break as I talked, which made me furious with myself. They had all gone through the gate and a group of officers stood around me to say goodbye. “Well, Sis, how are you standing it?” said one. “She hasn’t cried yet,” said another. “Don’t set me off,” I begged. So Lieut. M. mercifully stuffed a cake into my mouth, which made us all laugh. These kind boys! Well, they had all passed through the train gate. I didn’t follow them because I couldn’t seem to get command of myself and I wouldn’t send them off with anything but a smile.

I went back to the “Y” hut. There I worked like fury, and talked and laughed with the men, and in half an hour I was all right again. The long train of freight cars loaded with my family was still standing at the station. I went out on the platform. A cheer came from every carful. I started at the engine and went down the line, stopping at every car. I threw myself into a rollicking mood and got them all to laughing. “But we’ll see you in Bordeaux won’t we, Miss Shortall?” came from all sides, and I would have to explain.

When I got to the first platoon of F Co. Sergeant R. picked me up and put me in the car, and many were the half humorous, half serious threats of keeping me, and making me go with them. I certainly was tempted to do it. Major S. came along and found me there. How I hated to say goodbye to him, this kind friend whose attitude of respect, of comradeship, has typified that of the whole battalion toward me! He has been my great encourager through it all. The splendid morale of his men, as you must realize, has been largely due to his fine spirit which permeated the battalion.

And so—they were gone. Some strange officer in a car kindly took me back to Pouillenay. That deserted town! For me, its soul had departed. There was the familiar scene, inanimate. No figures in khaki anywhere, no one whistling to me or waving, nothing left of them but their fresh tracks in the mud everywhere, and wave on wave of loneliness surged through me, that was almost terrifying in its intensity. Thank heaven the sun had come out! I walked up my street, talking to the disconsolate French women who stood in the doorways looking out as though all the joy in life had departed. Truly, the best comment on the behavior of our boys is the genuine sorrow of the French at seeing them go.”

Next Time:  Homeward Bound

 

 

Ralph’s War: Cooties

Finally, the long-awaited news had arrived.  The 78th Division was headed home!  However, there was a bit of business to attend to first:

delouser
from “A ‘Y’ Girl in France” by Katherine Shortall, published 1919, p. 50

The delouser was a large steam-cleaning machine in which the soldiers’ clothing and gear were placed for 45 minutes to kill the “cooties” (body lice referred to during the Civil War as greybacks) and their eggs.

3497430729_23c928fe4d_o
highly magnified views of male and female body lice (Source: flickr feed for National Museum of Health and Medicine)
3540265914_3dd612d73f_o
from the flickr feed for the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives

While their clothing was being sanitized, the men themselves had a hot (if they were lucky) bath and a haircut.

haircut
The Morning News (Wilmington, DE), 29 Jan 1919

For most of the men, this was the first time in months that they had been free of infestation.  Cooties, also known as “seam squirrels” for the way they congregated in the seams of soldiers’ clothing, were a normal part of life for soldiers in the first World War.  Countless letters were written home about them:

cooticide
Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, MT), 19 Jan 1919

Some men even wrote poetry about the experience:

cootie poem
The Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, KS), 12 Jan 1919

The notion of “cooties” had so thoroughly penetrated popular culture that by the Christmas season, 1919, a cootie game was being offered as a toy for children:

toytown

 

game of cooties
Altoona Tribune (Altoona, PA), 29 Nov 1919

 

Despite the humorous nature of the many descriptions of cooties, the creatures themselves were a rather serious concern.  Firstly, their bites were painful.  Many men described them as feeling as if the insects were treading over them wearing hobnail boots.

hobnail boots
Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, MT), 15 Dec 1918

Transmission of disease was another significant problem:

disease
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), 5 Jan 1919

During the war itself, it would have been nearly impossible to rid oneself of a cootie infestation.  Troops at the front rarely had any quantity of fresh water to wash with and were often wearing the same clothing for long periods of time:

wearing same clothes
Boston Post (Boston, MA), 15 Jun 1918

The following training film from WWII contains images of the lice themselves along with much information that had been learned about them during the course of the first World War:

It was no doubt an incredible relief to Ralph and his fellow soldiers to finally be free of infestation.  Unfortunately, for the most part, this initial delousing treatment was not the only one they had to undergo.  Frequently, soldiers became reinfected aboard the ship home.  Another round of treatment was required at the base from which they were discharged.

Next Time:  Marching Orders

Ralph’s War: The Grand Review

The morning of March 26, 1919, witnessed 20,000 men up before dawn to march, in full battle dress, to the plain of Les Laumes.  Contemporary newspaper articles pointed out that the site was near the location where Vercingetorix, who united the Gauls in a revolt against the Romans, finally surrendered to Julius Caesar in dramatic fashion.

vercingetorix
Poster for the French film Vercingétorix by Cândido de Faria for Pathé, 1909. Collection EYE Film Institute Netherlands.

On this morning, however, the men of the 78th would form up for review by the most celebrated American leader of the war, General John J. Pershing.

general pershing
General John J. Pershing (Source: http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/world-war-i-western-front-general-pershing-pushes-for-meuse-argonne/)

Katherine Shortall, a young woman employed by the Y.M.C.A. in Pouillenay, beautifully describes the scene in her book, “A ‘Y’ Girl in France”:

“I had not realized before what an immense body of men an Army Division is.  On the vast muddy field stood, motionless, ranks and ranks of khaki-clad soldiers, their protective coloring blending with the green-brown of the field.  Here and there the Stars and Stripes and the vivid blue and red of the Infantry and Artillery flags made bright spots on the monotonous brown scene.”

pershing le laumes

According to Miss Shortall, the general arrived on horseback an hour later than anticipated.  He rode around the formation and then dismounted to walk among the men:

pershing inspection
The Courier-News (Bridgewater, NJ), 19 Apr 1919

This inspection lasted for nearly two hours.  Next, the colors of each unit moved to the front and General Pershing presented those who had earned the Distinguished Service Cross with their prizes, pinning them on the men and shaking each by the hand.

He then proceeded into the grandstand and the review began, described here by Katherine Shortall:

“The Infantry came first in their orderly files, dipping their colors as they went by.  Then came the Artillery in its seeming magnificent disorder.  The great horses plunging, caissons rattling, drivers holding the reins taut, scarlet flags fluttering, it galloped over the muddy, bumpy field with a wonderful rush.  This was followed by the Motorized Artillery which came out of the woods like a swarm of huge creeping beetles.  Weird monsters they were, and their deafening rattle reached us at a distance like some great magnified buzz.”

Generals Pershing and McRae on Reviewing Stand
https://www.cardcow.com/490793/generals-pershing-mcrae-reviewing-stand-military-world-war/Generals Pershing and McRae on Reviewing Stand

The 78th Division was commended by the general for their performance on this day:

pershings praise
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 25 May 1919

Certainly it was a matter of great pride for Ralph and the other men of the 78th Division, but, practical girl that she was, Katherine Shortall pointed out how tiring the day had also been.  The soldiers had been on their feet for nearly 12 hours and all welcomed the hot chocolate and fresh cakes available at the Y tents.

Mere days after General Pershing’s visit, the 78th received welcome news:  they had been given permission to head directly to Bordeaux without passing through Le Mans, the main embarkation center.  Ralph was no doubt pleased not to have to retrace his steps before he could finally leave France.

Next time:  Cooties

 

 

 

Ralph’s War: One Step Forward, Another Step Back

On December 8, 1918, the headquarters companies of the 334th and 335th infantries were transferred from Le Mans to line companies of the 78th Division.  The 78th was based approximately 250 miles away in the Cote d’Or near Dijon, headquartered at Semur-en-Auxois.

le mans to semur

semur en auxois telegraph
The medieval center of Semur-en-Auxois http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/Burgundy/Features/burgundy-travel-guide/

According to History of the 78th Division in the World War 1917-18-19, Ralph’s unit, the 309th Infantry, was located at Epoisses, 12km from Semur.  The following video shows clips of Semur, Epoisses and nearby Les Laumes.  Though it is an advertisement for train travel, you can get a general feel for the surroundings:

 

Following the newcomers’ arrival, the December training schedule for the 78th Division was boosted to a solid 8 hours of drill and instruction per day.  The result was that, by the end of the month, the preexisting 78th and its new additions had become much more closely knit, “presenting a wonderfully fine appearance–splendid morale, and excellent discipline, with a smart, snappy execution of drill.”

Christmas at Semur was quite an event.  The soldiers held an old-time American Christmas party on Christmas eve, 1918.  Local French children and their parents were invited guests.  A lovely tree had been decorated with tinsel, ornaments, and lit candles.  A soldier dressed as St. Nick, long white beard and all, to hand out small gifts of toys and candy to the delighted children.

The men themselves had a wonderful Christmas dinner of roast pig, dressing, potatoes with gravy, squash, bread and butter, “and all the other good things that go with a good dinner, even candy.”

Each received a small gift:

christmas box
The Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY), 3 Feb 1919

Many also received a package from home.  Back in October, each man had been given a coupon to send home, allowing his family to send him one 9 x 4 x 3 package as a Christmas gift.

 

christmas coupon
http://herolettersww1.blogspot.com/2009/09/christmas-package-coupon-wwi-american.html

The requests in terms of the contents of the box varied from man to man (watches, photographic film, candy, gum, tobacco products), but the feeling seems to have been constant:  what a delight it would be to have some small piece of home!

lie awake at night
The Emporia Weekly Gazette (Emporia, Kansas), 21 Nov 1918

With the start of the new year, divisional schools were established, offering English classes for soldiers born outside the U.S., other topics traditionally taught at grammar schools, agriculture, blacksmithing, motor repair, wireless telegraphy, electrical wiring and many other trades.  These courses went a long way toward keeping the men occupied during the long winter of 1918-1919.

One gentleman who was previously in the 334th headquarters company with Ralph, having been a teacher in his civilian life, was chosen to teach an English class:

teaching english
Brazil Daily Times (Brazil, IN), 31 Mar 1919

His company, Company K, was billeted in Montiguy-sur-Armancon, just a few miles from Semur.  He writes that some of the local French people became almost like family to the soldiers:

grandmere
Brazil Daily Times (Brazil, IN), 31 Mar 1919

Every ten days to two weeks, several hundred men would board a “leave train” for a government-sponsored vacation of ten days.  Many of the men were taken to sites in the French Riviera such as Nice, Cannes, Monaco (Monte Carlo), and Menton.

cannes beach

To keep the men occupied at “home”, shows were held on a nightly basis, with motion picture equipment and YMCA entertainers making the rounds to the various camps near Semur.  Below is a sample of a movie that might have been shown at this time, Charlie Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life”:

Additionally, each unit within the 78th Division formed its own show troupe.  The quality of these troupes was very high.  With most of the men of the 78th having coming from New York and New Jersey, men had been drawn from the cream of NYC entertainment.

In fact, the stars of each unit were chosen to form a divisional entertainment group that toured through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania after the 78th returned home.  The show was called the “Zig Zag Follies”.  It featured original music written by Corporal Joseph Ritchie and took the audience through many of the experiences of the 78th while overseas in a humorous musical format.  Proceeds were donated to a foundation to support members of the 78th Division who had been injured in the war and the families of those who were sadly killed.

zig zag follies
The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY), 7 Jun 1919

Several portions of the show involved female characters, such as a Red Cross nurse or a young French woman.  Amusingly, the performers publicly requested that the female characters not be sent flowers, chocolates and love notes, no matter how enamored the audience members might be with them, as these women were, in fact, men:

zig zag ladies
Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), 4 Jun 1919

Despite all these organized distractions, all anyone could really think about was what would happen to the unit and when they would be allowed to go home.  Wild rumors flew about the place, causing some men to write home that they had heard they were going to be sent to Siberia as reinforcements against the Bolsheviks or to Turkey to enforce the mandate of the Peace Conference.

It wasn’t until February 1919 that solid information emerged in the form of General Order No. 35.  It set forth a rough schedule of embarkation for the divisions remaining in France.  However, the 78th was 15th in line, with a tentative departure date at the end of May.  The wait would be long, but at least now the men had an idea of what to expect.

embarkation schedule
The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY), 26 Feb 1919

Next Time:  The Grand Review

Ralph’s War: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Within days of the war’s end, talk of the return of the soldiers overseas had begun.  Families and friends were naturally eager to have their boys returned to them and for normal life to resume.

homeward bound
The Lima Daily News (Lima, OH), 16 Nov 1918

The men themselves were just as excited, with many writing home about dreams of a Christmas among family.

christmas 1
Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, IN), 28 Dec 1918

Unfortunately, demobilization was a tricky issue, both strategically and politically.   At the end of the war, roughly 2,250,000 American men were serving overseas.  Secretary of War Newton Baker confessed just after the armistice was declared that the war department had been so busy with plans for conducting the war that it had not had time to work on a full plan for sending the troops home.  The only decision that had been made was that the process would be gradual and done in a way to prevent upset to labor conditions or destabilization overseas.

Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder proposed a plan in which local draft boards would be responsible for finding jobs for returning servicemen.  Original draft cards listed the jobs the men held prior to their time in the service.  The draft board would contact the companies the men worked for to find out if they wanted the men returned to the same job.  Companies could also place orders for workers.  For example, the local draft board could inform the commander of a demobilization camp that it could employ 50 machinists.  Fifty men falling under the jurisdiction of that draft board could immediately be discharged into civilian jobs.  This plan was ultimately rejected by the General Staff and Secretary of War.

Demobilization began with the boys who hadn’t yet shipped out and the sick and wounded overseas.  The stated goal was to release 30,000 men a day from service.

Meanwhile, Ralph Benington was in Le Mans along with thousands of other soldiers.

le mans
http://www.cparama.com/forum/le-mans-t2741.html

Celebrating the End of the War

On November 11th, 1918, at 11 a.m., millions around the world celebrated peace.  The city of Le Mans was not left out of their number.

peace celebration
The Hoisington Dispatch (Hoisington, KS), 5 Dec 1918
celebrations
The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, IN), 21 Dec 1918

It is worth noting that the soldier who wrote the letter immediately above was aboard the Aquitania on the way to France and mentions by name in this letter several others who were in the 334th with Ralph, so it is quite possible that the scene above would have been one that Ralph would have witnessed.

Similar celebrations in Paris can be seen by following this link.

Seeing the Sights

The post-war schedule for the troops involved the typical reveille at 6:30 and five hours of drilling.  As one would imagine, a great deal of the sense of urgency behind their training would have drained away after peace was declared.  On the bright side, after the training day was done, the soldiers were free to explore their surroundings.

le mans cathedral
http://www.cparama.com/forum/le-mans-t2741.html

While I do not know specifically where Ralph went during his free time, I can speculate based on other soldiers’ letters home.  The cathedral in Le Mans is mentioned by many men, including those in Ralph’s unit.  Dedicated to the city’s first bishop, St. Julian, it was constructed in the 6th to 14th centuries.

le mans cathedral interior
https://structurae.net/structures/le-mans-cathedral/photos

The square in front of the cathedral, used in this post-war period by the Americans as a football grounds and a location for band concerts, was the home of the Roman circus.  The old Roman wall still stood in some areas, along with a couple of crumbling towers.

Also in the square was the House of Queen Berengere, the entrance to a vast system of underground tunnels, dungeons and catacombs used initially by the Romans.  Many men mention taking tours of these tunnels with local guides.

ymca

At the time of Ralph’s initial arrival in Le Mans, the YMCA had a hut at the forwarding camp, “Hurrah Hut”.  From October 1918 to January 1919, Hurrah Hut was the only place at the camp for soldiers to get out of the rain and mud, the only location with wooden benches for seating and a few heating stoves.  The YMCA operated a dry canteen there, where soldiers could smoke and have something to eat.  The dry canteen designation meant that no alcohol was served.  Three nights a week, movies were shown.  The other nights, talent shows were held.  These entertainments were so popular that all available seats would fill up hours before their starting times.  Men would skip dinner to be able to attend the show.

Economic Conditions

The American perception of the French people seems to have changed greatly from Razac-sur-L’Isle to Le Mans.  No longer did the soldiers wax rhapsodic about the quaint surroundings and the charming, generous people.  While they did seem impressed by Le Mans’ historic beauty, interactions with the citizens seem limited to the strictly economic.

A second lieutenant from Kansas, V. L. Durand, when asked to list the battles in which he had engaged, said:  “I will only casually mention mine as those of ‘Battle of Le Mans’ and the Battle of ‘Combiens.’  The former you know of, the latter is the French word for ‘how much,’ which we all battled with until we got onto the French money.  All we could do was to hold out our hands full of French, Belgium, English, Italian and Spanish coins (all the same over here) and tell them to take their pick, and believe me they are as good at picking as the ‘cooties’ here in France.”

By this point in the war, inflation had hit the French hard.  According to some sources, the purchasing power of the French franc was reduced by 70% between 1915 and 1920.  This fact is reflected in the prices soldiers encountered in the shops at Le Mans:

cant turn around for a franc
Adams County Free Press (Corning, IA), 25 Dec 1918

The French people had suffered greatly during the war and it is likely that this suffering would have been felt much more keenly in a city like Le Mans than in Razac-sur-L’Isle, a rural area far from the front.  At least in an agricultural community like Razac, the people could grow their own food.  While the American soldiers may have perceived them as mercenary, the citizens of Le Mans had to survive.

wheelbarrow
Adams County Free Press (Corning, Iowa), 25 Dec 1918

Waiting for News

By the end of last week in November, the first overseas troops were expected to arrive home in the U.S.  General March, the chief of staff, announced that 382 officers and 6614 men of the air service and other detachments training in England were aboard the Minnekahda, Lapland, and Orca.

All three of these ships were British.  It was pointed out at the same time that a major problem in demobilization was going to be the number of ships available to transport the men home.  When the U.S. had entered the war, the British had provided them with a number of ships, including the Mauretania, Olympic, and Aquitania, in which to carry troops to Europe.  However, now that the war had ended, the British ships would be needed to transport troops home to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Secretary Baker said that it was possible that German ships might be used to transport troops home, as well as to send food to Germany, but that no definite plans had been made.

For the next several weeks, the transports would be filled with the sick and wounded, as well as those from the air service in England.

Ralph and his fellow soldiers would be left to wait and wonder when their turn would come.

Next Time:  One Step Forward, Another Step Back

 

Ralph’s War: To the Front

Ralph Benington was not one of the 12,000 men sent to the front after the call on October 10th.  The headquarters companies, as well as about 30 men from each of the infantry and machine gun groups, were left in Razac-sur-L’Isle to await reinforcements.  The respite was only a brief one.

On October 30th, a wire was received ordering the remainder of the 84th Division, along with the 34th, 38th and 86th Divisions, to the 2nd Depot Division at Le Mans.  Like the earlier group, the men would be transferred to units at the front as needed.

moving toward the front line
Moving toward the front line. Source: https://legionmagazine.com/en/2011/12/historic-wwi-photo-moving-toward-the-front-line-1917/

On the morning of November 5th, the men of headquarters company, 334th infantry, boarded a train headed north to Le Mans.  Along the route, they passed several Red Cross trains filled with the wounded to be evacuated from the front.  It is difficult to imagine that any man would fail to dwell on thoughts of his own mortality when faced with such grim reminders as he headed into danger himself.

red cross train
A Red Cross train transporting invalids. Source: https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/ambulance-trains.php

By this point in the war, the Red Cross ambulance trains had become quite specialized.  They were composed of ward cars, which had seats that could be folded down into beds for patients on stretchers, a pharmacy car, a kitchen, and even an operating theater!

ward car
A Ward Car. Source: https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/ambulance-trains.php

The afternoon of November 6th, Ralph and his fellow soldiers arrived at Le Mans and marched the five miles out to the forwarding camp in a heavy rain.   The weather did not improve the following day and most of the men spent their time looking for somewhere dry to wait and something to eat.  That evening, they received orders to move again the following day to a camp only a mile away.  Still the rain fell.  By this point, the men must have been feeling extremely anxious, knowing they were destined for the front and having nothing to do to distract them from the thoughts racing through their heads.

On the 9th of November, the men were woken at 3 a.m. and told to roll their packs and march to the train.  They were on their way to the front.

order to hold
Brazil Daily Times (Brazil, IN), 31 Mar 1919

The new order was to turn back to Le Mans.  It was here that they received the news:

armistice signed

armistice
Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, IN), 28 Dec 1918

The end of the war had come, and not a moment too soon!  It’s likely that the men of the 334th would have had mixed feelings about this development:  the obvious joy, of course, but perhaps also a bit of regret that they had not “done their part” at the front, especially after the emotional build-up of the last two weeks.

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