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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Artillery Scout: The Story of a Forward Observer with the U.S. Field Artillery in World War I
Reviewed by Peter Belmonte

Artillery Scout: The Story of a Forward Observer with the U.S. Field Artillery in World War I
by James G. Bilder
Casement, 2014

Leonard Fairfield, the subject of this book, was author James Bilder's grandfather. Bilder knew his grandfather had reservations about U.S. involvement in the war; he suspected that many other Doughboys shared those reservations. Many of these Doughboys, like the country as a whole, reluctantly entered the war. Bilder wrote this book to tell his grandfather's story. In the process he shows how these Doughboys persevered and helped to defeat Germany.

American Artillery Firing Near Exermont, Argonne Sector

Fairfield was born in Chicago in 1892, the son of an English Protestant father and Irish Catholic mother. Len's father had a drinking problem and wasn't an adequate provider, and the family struggled with poverty. Despite disadvantages, Len studied and was able to become a stationary engineer. As war neared, Len had serious doubts as to the validity of U.S. involvement. Doubts aside, Len was drafted as part of the first quota in September 1917. Told there were too many inductees at the armory, Len was ordered to return home and report again on 3 October. He did so, and was sent to Camp Grant, near Rockford, Illinois, for his training.

Len was assigned to Battery A, 124th Field Artillery Regiment, 58th Field Artillery Brigade, 33rd Division. Going overseas in May 1918, the 124th underwent more training at Camp Valdahon before going into action. Typical of some artillery units, the 58th Field Artillery Brigade didn't serve with its parent division (the 33rd) during the war. Instead it supported a number of different divisions in combat. At St. Mihiel, the 58th supported the 1st Division in its assault against the ground overlooked by the dreaded Mont Sec. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive the 58th supported, in turn, the 91st, 32nd, and 89th Divisions. During the last phase of the offensive, Len lived through a horrific shelling of his column as it moved forward in close support of the infantry. The days of constant combat, exposure to gas, and the terrible climate slowly took its toll on Len; the war ended none too soon for him as he teetered on the brink of serious illness.

After a brief period of occupation duty in Luxembourg, during which time Len spent a month in the hospital suffering from influenza and pneumonia, Len finally returned home to his wife Maggie, whom he had married in Chicago just before departing for military service. Bilder includes a brief epilogue that covers Len's post-war life, much of which was filled with raising his large family.

Order Now
Statements made in the Foreword, Introduction, and Acknowledgements sections of the book indicate that Bilder used letters and secondhand recollections of his grandfather, as well as other family archives, for the foundation of the story. For background information, he consulted several military historians and artillery experts and used diaries of some unit officers. Unfortunately, the book is not footnoted and there is no bibliography, so it is impossible to determine the origin of the information presented in the book.

Readers familiar with Robert Casey's The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears: A Diary of the Front Lines (New York: J. H. Sears) will recognize many of the episodes in Bilder's book. Casey was the executive officer of Battery A, and Bilder must have used his published diary as a reference.

At the Business End of a French 75
Using the perspective of what students of literature call an "omniscient observer", Bilder recreates thoughts, conversations, and actions based upon information gleaned from the above-mentioned sources, particularly Casey's diary. While some quotations might be from an officer's diary, for example, others might be based upon Bilder's assumption of what probably was said or done given the situation at hand. The resultant story reads like a novel. With foregoing in mind, I would not categorize this as a scholarly study. However, in telling Len's story, Bilder covers training methods, artillery tactics, and tools and equipment used by artillerymen plying their deadly trade. We learn about their duties, to include working with recalcitrant horses and moving mountains of ammunition crates from depots to the gun pits. Len, a dutiful if reluctant soldier, was smart and cynical, with an acerbic sense of humor.

If you don't mind a book with recreated dialog and occasional salty "soldiers' language" in the dialog and the narrative, then you will appreciate this book as an addition to the overall history of the experiences of the American soldier in the Great War.

Peter Belmonte

No comments:

Post a Comment