Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hell’s Observer: The Epic Wartime Journal of Private William J. Graham
Reviewed by Jolie Velasquez

Hell’s Observer: The Epic Wartime Journal of Private William J. Graham, American Expeditionary Forces

Transcribed and Edited by C. Stephen Badgley
Published by the Badgley Publishing Company, 2012 

This book is a rare gem: the daily journal of a serving American soldier who faced danger and saw the results of total warfare.  Journals were prohibited by the military, and all letters were censored during the war, so this “real time” account’s existence as well as its survival until discovered by the editor in 2001, make it a unique opportunity to learn what the AEF soldier saw every day on the Western Front.  We are used to memoirs written after the fact, sometimes by years, when recall has been altered by time.  This document lets the reader know in detail what daily wartime experience was for the soldiers of the AEF.

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It should be noted that Private Graham did not see battle on the front lines as an ordinary soldier. At 39 he was older than most other privates, and his maturity lent itself to a position with more latitude for decision making. He was part of a mobile (as in mounted) unit that served several functions for the infantry: reconnaissance, messaging, and traffic control. And the latter task was particularly crucial for the AEF as the war in the last months of conflict was not trench-based but highly fluid as American units were pushing forward on complex routes to capture areas long held by well-fortified Germans. Movement of men, artillery, animals, trucks, supplies, and casualties along unmapped or poorly mapped roads was a dangerous and vital service. Graham often came under shelling or gunfire as he rode over ground quickly changing hands, and he saved many lives by redirecting lost soldiers wandering leaderless into waiting machine gun placements. At one point he got lost himself behind enemy lines.

Graham also experienced the same privations and organizational nonsense that all soldiers find in war. Supplies, especially food, was often bad or missing altogether for long periods, and the collusion between NCOs and  suppliers  to pamper the officer class comes in for a lot of deserved grousing. 

The tone of Graham’s writing may be a little hard for the modern reader to appreciate. While his empathy for the participants, even the Germans, was clear, and his horror at the devastation and death was heartfelt, his expressions of patriotism and enthusiasm are so very different from the war-weariness of most war writers. Paul Johnson, conservative British historian, argues that America’s greatest contribution to the war effort was the soldiers’ unflagging optimism. Graham displays this characteristic time and again, despite every trial or setback. The “gung-ho” alacrity seen in so many American war movies was actually quite genuine among many of those serving, and Graham certainly felt it.  

A unique feature of this book is the format, a large folio style with large typeface. And most of the illustrations are of never-before-seen photos from a private collection. It is a serious subject, but easy to read, and the pictures will be a great help for any novice WWI students to see images that Graham may have seen. The one suggestion I have for future editions of Hell's Observer is that the reproduction of the photos should be sharper to allow the reader to see the details sometimes referred to in the captions.

Jolie Velazquez 

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