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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I Was There! With the Yanks in France: Sketches Made on the Western Front, 1917-1919
Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte and David F. Beer

I Was There! With the Yanks in France: Sketches Made on the Western Front, 1917-1919
by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge
The LaFayette Co; 1st edition 1919

American Soldiers in Belgium at the Armistice

This is a slender booklet containing some interesting poems by a soldier-poet and some effective sketches by a soldier-illustrator, both in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Magazine-sized, with 34 pages, ten poems, and 20 or so sketches, it was printed in France in 1919 (the cover bears the notation "Price Five Francs"), probably as a souvenir for departing Doughboys. The sketches were done by Private C Leroy Baldridge, a staff illustrator for the Stars and Stripes who was to become a well-known artist, illustrator, writer, and traveler. At the beginning of I Was There! he describes the circumstances that gave rise to his work:

These Sketches were made during a year's service as a camion driver with the French army in the Chemin-des-Dames sector and a year's service with the A.E.F. as an infantry private on special duty with "The Stars and Stripes," the official A.E.F. newspaper. Most of them were drawn at odd minutes during the French push of 1917 near Fort Malmaison, at loading parks and along the roadside while on truck convoy, and while on special permission to draw and paint with the French army given me by the Grand Quartier Gènèral during the time I was stationed at Soissons. The rest were drawn on American fronts from the Argonne to Belgium as my duties took me from one offensive to another.

The sketches, some in color, are wonderfully crafted, and it's not hard to see how Baldridge was to progress from "Doughboy artist" to professional painter and illustrator after the war. Some of our favorites include a depiction of several men caught, perhaps by a German flare, in No Man's Land; this sketch accompanies and enhances the poem "Relief". The illustration for another poem, "The Line," shows men standing in a chow line in the rain, something that seemed an everyday occurrence for the men at the front. Other sketches show Doughboys in the trenches or dugouts; one shows men advancing under fire. In addition to the many fine depictions of American soldiers there are some nice drawings of poilus and colonial soldiers.

Some of the sketches are composites of several soldiers squatting or standing, cooking stew, or just putting up with the rain. One titled "The Lids We Wear" shows nine figures, including a nurse and an airman, wearing the various hats issued to them. Another shows the heads and headgear of five different French colonial troops, with captions partly in Arabic. Two other portraits are of several dogs, including messenger dogs, a Red Cross dog, and war dogs, all donated to the cause by local French families, we are told. One dog has given his life, or as Baldridge's caption states, "mort pour la patrie."

One of the Black Doughboys
Who Fought Under the French
The poems interspersed among the sketches were written by Private Hilmar R. Baukhage, who also served on the Stars and Stripes in Paris during World War I. He later covered the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and went on to become a noted radio reporter and commentator. The book opens with his dedication to both soldiers' mothers:

Ours the Great Adventure,
  Yours the pain to bear,
Ours the golden service stripes,
  Yours the marks of care.
If all the Great Adventure
  The old Earth ever knew,
Was ours and in this little book
  'Twould still belong to you!!

Baukhage's poems run the gamut (as much as ten poems can be considered to portray a "gamut") of soldier life. From "The Line", a poem "celebrating" standing in line (an experience most veterans can readily relate to), to "November Eleventh" celebrating the Armistice, the Doughboys' experiences are put to verse. "Prepare for Action" records the good-natured jibes given by an infantryman to an artilleryman and ends with the latter threatening the former when the infantryman dares to make fun of his beloved 75mm field piece. In "Salvage," Baukhage describes the soldiers' search through discarded clothing and equipment, some of which had belonged to men killed in action, in an effort to find usable shoes. "Relief" gives us a sense of the terror and nervous tension involved with taking one's turn on outpost duty in No Man's Land. Elsewhere we come close to the feelings of the grunt on KP as he peels potatoes or to the overburdened marcher as he slogs along:

My damn rifle and my helmet
Keep on getting in the way,
And my brains are numb and dopey
Try'n' to cuss and try'n' to pray.

My throat's as dry as sawdust
And my right arm's gone to sleep,
And the pack-strap on my shoulder
Cuts a slit two inches deep.

I just lift one foot and shove it
And it hits most any place,
Then I lift and shove the other
T'keep from falling on my face.        (from "Equipment C")

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A movingly nostalgic poem is about a soldier meeting a young French girl who reminds him of someone back home. Titled "Madelon," we quote it here in full:

It seemed years since I had seen one,—
Years of hiking, sweat and blood,
Didn't think there was a clean one
In these miles of men and mud.

Well, I stood there, laughing, drinking,
Kidding her on bon fransay
But the things that I was thinking
Were a thousand miles away.

Sewed my stripe on like a mother,
Gee! She was a pretty kid….
But I left her like a brother,—
Shake her hand was all I did.
Then I says: "Vous, all right, cherry,"
And my throat stuck, and it hurt. . .
And I showed her what I carry
In the pocket of my shirt..

After scrolling through Baldridge's sketches, which are vividly reproduced here, we gain a definite appreciation of his artistic skill and a deep feeling for the atmosphere of WWI army life. Although brief, this book can give us considerable enjoyment and makes a pleasant humanistic alternative to much that is written about the Great War.

Peter L. Belmonte and David F. Beer


  1. Wonderful post! The poem "Madelon" humanizes the men who went overseas to fight, as well as the women who meant something to them.

  2. Cyrus Baldridge was a very remarkable man. To learn more about him you might want to look at

    A large collection of his work, including some of his World War I pictures, can be seen at