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

Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Patton's Letter Home After St. Mihiel

This is Patton's firsthand account of the first tank attack in American history, which in large part he personally led.
Official Army Art Depiction of the Initial Attack of Patton's Tanks at Seicheprey

20 September 1918
Dear Papa, 

We have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped, not as exciting as affairs in Mexico, because there was ‘so much company. When the shelling first started I had some doubts about the advisability of sticking my head over the parapet, but it is just like taking a cold bath, once you get in, it is all right. And I soon got out and sat on the parapet. At seven o'clock I moved forward and passed some dead and wounded. I saw one fellow in a shell hole holding his rifle and sitting down I thought he was hiding and went to cuss him out, he had a bullet over his right eye and was dead. 

Patton after the War
Already the Army's Leading Tank Commander
As my telephone wire ran out at this point I left the adjutant there and went forward with a lieutenant and four runners to find the tanks, the whole country was alive with them crawling over trenches and into the woods. I t was fine but I could not see my right battalion so went to look for it, in doing so we passed through several town under shell fire but none did more than throw dust on us. I admit that I wanted to duck and probably did at first but soon saw the futility of dodging fate, besides I was the only officer around who had left on his shoulder straps and I had to live up to them. It was much easier than you would think and the feeling, foolish probably, of being admired by the men lying down is a  great stimulus.

I walked right along the firing line of one brigade they were all in shell holes except the general [Douglas MacArthur] who was standing on a little hill, I joined him and the creeping barrage came along toward us, but it was very thin and not dangerous. I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us. The infantry were held up at a town so I happened to find some tanks and sent them through it I walked behind and some boshe surrendered to me. At the next town all but one tank was out of sight and as the infantry would not go in I got on top of the tank to hearten the driver and we went in, that was most exciting as there were plenty of boshe – we took thirty.

On leaving the town I was still sitting sidewise on top of the tank with my legs hanging down on the left side when all at once I noticed all the paint start to chip off the other side and at the same time I noticed machine guns, I dismounted in haste and got in a shell hole, which was none too large every time I started to get out the boshe shot at me. I was on the point of getting scared as I was about a hundred yards ahead of the infantry and all alone in the field. If I went back, the infantry would think I was running and there was no reason to go forward alone. All the time the infernal tank was going on alone as the men had not noticed my hurried departure. At last the bright thought occurred to me that I could move across the front in an oblique direction and not appear to run yet at the same time get back. This I did listening for the machine guns with all my ears, and laying down in a great hurry when I heard them, in this manner I hoped to beat the bullets to me. Sometime I will figure the speed of sounds and bullets and see if I was right. It is the only use I know of that math has ever been to me. 

I found the Major of the infantry and asked him if he would come on after the tank. He would not as the next battalion on his left had not come up (he was killed ten minutes later) Then I drew a long breath and went after the tank on foot as I could not let it be going against a whole town alone. It is strange but quite true that at this time I was not the least scared, as I had the idea of getting the tank fixed in my head. I did not even fear the bullets ,though I could see the guns spitting at me, I did however run like H ***. On reaching the tank about four hundred yards out in the field I tapped on the back door with my stick, and thank God it was a long one. The sergeant looked out and saluted and said what do you want now Colonel. I told him to turn and come back – he was much depressed. I walked just ahead of him on the return trip and was quite safe. We now got five tanks and decided to attack the town but one of the tanks started shooting at our machine guns and I had to go out again and stop it. A third time I went out as the tanks were keeping too far to the right but the last time was not bad as the machine gunner were mostly dead or chased away by the tanks. We took the town, 4 field gun and 16 machine guns.

Then I walked along the battle front to see how the left battalion had gotten on. It was a very long way and I had had no sleep for four nights and no food all the day as I lost my sack chasing a boshe, I got some crackers off a dead one (he had not blood on them as in Polk's story) they were very good but I would have given a lot for a drink of the brandy I had had in my sack. The Major of the left battalion was crying because he had no more gas. He was very tired and had a bullet through his nose, I comforted him and started home alone to get some gas. It was most interesting over the battle field, like the books, but much less dramatic. The dead were about mostly hit in the head. There were a lot of our men stripping off buttons and other things but they always covered the face of the dead in a nice way.

I saw one very amusing thing which I would have like to have photographed. Right in the middle of a large field where there had never been a trench was a shell hole from a 9.7 gun – the hole was at least 8 feet deep and 15 across – on the edge of it was a dead rat, not a large healthy rat but a small field rat not over twice the size of a mouse. No wonder the war costs so much.

Jonville-en-Woevre, Captured by Patton's Tanks, 13 September 1918

On the thirteenth we did nothing but on the fourteenth the left battalion personally conducted by me went to hunt for the enemy. We found the only place on the entire front where for the space of half a mile there were no troops we went through and were attacked by the boshe, we drove them six miles, took a town of Jonville, on the Hindenburg line, [a] battery of field guns, 12 machine guns, but no prisoners.  Then finding that we were eight miles ahead of our own line, and that all the canon in that part of Germany were shooting at us, we withdrew with only four men hit. I was in at the start of this very fine feat of arms, but not at the finish as I was ordered back just after thet anks started and before we knew the boshe were there. We withdrew that night – total loses 4 men killed 4 officers and 4 men wounded. 

I am writing this in what was once a house but what is now a sort of quay. The boshe shell us at seven thirty each night. It is now that time so I will stop and put this in an envelope . This is a very egotistical letter but interesting as it shows that vanity is stronger than fear and that in war, as now waged, there is little of the element of fear, it is too well organized and too stupendous. I am very well much love to all.

Your devoted son


A week after he wrote this letter, Patton was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  He was hit in his posterior and worried afterward that he would become known as "Half-ass George".

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like WWII Patton in so many ways, like so:
    "I saw one fellow in a shell hole holding his rifle and sitting down I thought he was hiding and went to cuss him out..."