Death. He saw it everywhere. It was hard not to see. The fragments of what once had been beautiful groves of trees and verdant wheat fields were scattered everywhere, mixed in with what surely must have once been men.
But at this point he couldn’t tell.
The night before, he had dreamt about back home. It was pure, pleasant torture, a dream like that. He was back on his family’s farm, tilling the ground. Cursing at the ever-present rocks that seemed to get gleefully in the way of the blade. Maine grew rocks. And if you could convince it to stop growing rocks, you could grow other things.
His hands had once gripped the traces of his horse team as they tilled the fields in the spring. But that was last year, 1917, before they had grasped a rifle, before the call-up came.
He looked down at his hands and opened them to see his grimy fingers. How many days had they been on the line? One. Two. Three. Four. He turned his hands over. Five. Six. Seven. He still had all his fingers, that was a mercy. Eight. Nine. Ten. He ran out of fingers to count with. That was too many days. He was lying practically on his face, his arms tucked under his chest as if to cradle himself back into someone not in the middle of some kind of hellacious landscape of mortality.
Glancing up, he saw the rain clouds scudding across the sky. It was past dawn, and he and his boys were late to the harvest. He could hear the chattering echoes of machine guns from the valleys to his left and right, and then the reverberating crashes of artillery rounds tearing open the fields. He winced. Those were good crops out there.
He rolled slightly to the left, avoiding what appeared to be an arm emerging from the earth, the hand pointing stiffly upwards, as if intent on demonstrating that death had not robbed the owner of his military bearing. Before, that wretched sight would have made him vomit, but now...well, today it was just another day on the line.
Far back he could hear the guns—their own guns—those little seventy-fives. He pictured the gunners, feverish in their movements, feeding the trim little shells into the belly of the breach, firing, reloading, firing, reloading, all in the digestive rhythm of war, the piles of shell casings rising like mounds of hay. He knew this barrage was theirs, to cover their movement, that at any moment they would hear the whistles overhead and the impacts out front—and yes, there they were.
Time to go.
He scrambled up, nearly lurching into a shredded tree stump to avoid running into his sergeant, a khaki-clad shape just outlined against the lightening sky. There was a pause as the thin line got to its feet and marshaled its collective strength, Doughboys hefting their rifles, unsure of the weight with the added bayonets. Bayonets against machine guns. It didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t fair. It was war.
The line waited, as the first two companies—the main effort—scrambled out of the rough trench and cleared the protective—if horrific—cover of Belleau Wood. Off they went, beautifully polished bayonets flashing in the daybreak. Then it began to rain. A waterless rain.
He couldn’t even hear the machine-gun fire, but the snap and whistle of the rounds over his head told him the Germans were firing from all directions. His own line crouched. Out in front, the advance companies simply laid down. This caused him to chuckle, inexplicably amused. Of course, the common-sense boys from Maine weren’t going to run into that hell, no sir.
Which naturally meant he had to. He shrugged, grabbed his sergeant’s shoulder, and pushed him forward. The line moved.
Out of the woods, at a rush, two companies, maybe three hundred men all told, with one thing foremost on their mind: get to the bottom of that damned hill and behind the blessed protection of a railroad bank. Feet flying, they passed the two other companies, passed the men who lay flat on their faces in the wheat field.
He was running, almost a foot race. Suddenly, men forgot the bullets swarming around them as they attempted to best their buddies through the waist-high wheat, over the road, down the hill, and scrambling, kicking, shouting until they slammed up against the railroad bed in front of a small stream. There, breathless and winded, they joked and kidded each other, as all around them the detritus of war ploughed the earth.
In their mad rush, he had seen the hill in front of them, and the hill to the left of them, and the ridge to their right, and they all had one thing in common: they were twinkling with the flashes of machine guns. From three sides came scythes of bullets, trimming the wheat fields with a precision he almost appreciated. There, as nicely as he would have cut it at home, lay windrows of fallen wheat. And fallen men.
He hefted himself up to glance over the top of the railroad embankment. Sharp metallic pings told him to put his head down. Bullets ricocheted off the tracks. Head low, he pushed down the line, checking his men. Somehow, most were still there, still cracking wise, still risking death to lean over the bank and fire off an unaimed round at their unseen adversaries up the wooded hill above and beyond them.
The railroad bank was the objective, he had been told at some point in the pre-dawn hours, as he was thrashing through downed trees and shredded stumps in Belleau Wood drenched in a thunderstorm fit to worry Noah. At the time he had thought about how easy it would all be, to quickly cross the open ground, take the objective, and wait for the rest of the Army to roll on by. Simple.
He remembered how he had once thought farming was simple as well—until he discovered that generating food from Maine rocks was only slightly easier than making them yield water. This was like farming, he mused, even shrapnel from German minnenwerfer drove great holes in the ground near him, tossing up clods of French mud that freckled his men’s uniforms. Victory, for the farmer, was the harvest: those rich fields of grain, letting the kernels flow through his hands like a smooth river of richness. In northern Maine, he had seen where they grew potatoes, which sprouted underground, out of sight, and he could not fathom farming something you could not see coming to life in front of you, day by day. Life was what farming was all about. Harvest was a culmination of life.
But not this harvest. Not the tumbled, jerking, twitching, screaming harvest of his men in the wheat field. He couldn’t take his eyes off that wheat. Most of his men had been factory workers, and so didn’t know, didn’t understand, couldn’t comprehend the freedom he saw in the crop. But his boys were dying in that freedom. He focused. Machine gun fire grazed the embankment above him. The July sun stung his eyes, the beauty of the day affronting the slaughter around him.
Rifle fire. Grenades. They had to push forward. He urged that thought to the front of his brain, to the exclusion of all others, stripping out the weeds of fear, beckoning the survivor of thirty-two Maine winters within—and he leapt up. Stood straight to his feet. And then—like a baby taking its first steps before tumbling into a run—staggered onto the railroad track, over the other side, and stepped into eternity.
His men followed. But most stayed on this side of the eternal, taking refuge in ditch carved out by a stream that lay to the far side of the railroad track.
When they buried him, three days later—after they had pushed the Germans off the hills and into a grudging retreat past Chateau-Thierry—one hand gripped his rifle. And the other clutched stalks of wheat.
Jonathan D. Bratten is an officer in the Maine Army National Guard, in which he serves as the command historian. His writing can be found in On Point: The Journal of Army History and ARMY Magazine. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Army National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: "The Tanks At Seicheprey" by Harvey Thomas Dunn (Army Art of World War I)