John Steele was convinced American soldiers would have been lonesome but for the fury of artillery.
“During the night the firing of the heavy guns shakes the ground where we sleep,” the Carlisle man wrote the city editor of The Sentinel in a letter dated June 16, 1918. “At first, we could not sleep for the noise, but now the noise is music to our ears, and the constant firing of the big guns rocks us to sleep.”
Steele was assigned to a group of men tasked with locating and registering the graves of American war dead killed on the Western Front of World War I.
With each grim discovery came the ritual of erecting a cross with the soldier’s name and unit designation. Steele had arrived in France six months before and lived out of a pup tent.
“I have waded in mud, slept in mud, travelled second-class, third- and fourth-class, rode in boxcars, trucks, hiked and about every way it is possible to travel,” Steele said. “I had the pleasure of spending some time in Paris; quite a wonderful place. We had a swell dinner (and) plenty of excitement.”
Under the gun
Frank Lay could say the same. He was stationed in the French capital on July 15, 1918, when the Germans lobbed heavy artillery shells from a rail gun 75 miles away.
In a letter dated July 18, Lay made the common mistake of calling the Paris Gun “Big Bertha,” which was not a rail gun at all but a heavy howitzer the Germans used earlier in the war to reduce forts to rubble.
Designed as a terror weapon mounted on a railroad car, the Paris Gun was the first platform used to launch a manmade object into the stratosphere – 26 miles up, according to The Military Factory.
One incoming shell landed yards away from where Lay was sitting by a window using a typewriter. “The space between me and the landing of the shell contained no obstruction to my view,” he wrote in the letter. “Window panes about a foot from my elbow broke so that I thought the whole window was falling in ... The chair I was sitting on fell over backwards. It was so comical and even in that critical moment I thought ‘Oh won’t they laugh at home when I tell them ...”
The Paris Gun was used to try to demoralize French civilians into thinking no place was safe. The terror campaign lasted from March 21 to August 1918 killing 250 Parisians and injuring 620. Lay was unconvinced of its effectiveness.
“(I) will say the Germans are wasting their time if they think to scare anyone,” he wrote. “It only causes one to hate them more. After a second shot, they continued to fall at intervals of 15, 20 and 30 minutes until dark. It doesn’t get dark here until 10 o’clock.”
The Germans ceased firing the Paris Gun at nightfall because they didn’t want the Allies to spot the muzzle flashes and train artillery on the rail gun. He tried to visit the locations of shell damage in the city but French police kept the onlookers back 100 to 200 feet.
Not everything about Paris was a warzone. Lay took French lessons at the local YMCA from a native speaker. “My teacher is a very nice lady, even if she does paint her lips a bright sparkling crimson.”
The village people
Merrill Hummel arrived in a village in France after an uncomfortable train ride. “When one tries to get any sleep in a so-called first-class compartment of a railway car he is performing heroic,” Hummel wrote in an Aug. 19, 1918 letter to his father. “The only thing to do is to sit bolt upright, close your eyes and imagine you are sleeping.”
The village that had a pre-war population of 200 to 300 residents was down to about 75, most of whom were senior citizens. “All the able-bodied men are at the front or have made the supreme sacrifice,” Hummel wrote. “The young women have gone to other parts of France, and the few children left do not make noise enough to remind us that they are present.”
The only street in the village went by the name “Grand Avenue,” and a stream flowed alongside it. Each stone house had a stable beside. The stream was fed by a spring located near a chateau of the local marquis on the outskirts of the village.
Before the war, village life was centered at the town hall, which became the headquarters of the American troops occupying the settlement. One day a routine duty became a show of solidarity.
“The day after our arrival ... we unfurled the stars and stripes to the breeze from out of a second floor window of the town hall, and one of the French ladies dug out the French colors, fastened them on the iron fence in front of her house and announced that the French colors should always be displayed with the American flag.”
This prompted the village school teacher to ask permission to have her students file by the American flag and touch Old Glory. The scene touched Hummel in a very real way.
“The stars and stripes mean much to these people who have suffered intensely from this war, and their reverence for it and all that it stands for would furnish food for thought for some people who enjoy its protection 3,000 miles from here. Most of the villagers turn out at 7 in the evening when we have our retreat formation and they seem to take considerable interest in whatever the soldiers do.”
Lost in translation
For many of the soldiers, it was their first time away from home in another country. Everything was new and strange to them including the native language. “A fellow felt funny trying to make the French understand what we wanted,” Private Hugh Heckman wrote The Sentinel in a letter dated Sept. 10, 1918. To overcome the language barrier, Doughboys referred to guidebooks.
Heckman shared the funny story of a soldier in a restaurant who endeavored to piece together his entire meal order in French, only to learn the waitress spoke English when she asked if he wanted dessert.
Shoe leather was so scarce in wartime France that many of the civilians were walking around in wooden shoes.
“Most every place you go you see the women working in all the factories,” Heckman said. “It is remarkable how well France has held up for being in war for over four years.”