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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Diggers Introduce a Yank to No-Man's-Land

[In the summer of 1918 the newly arrived U.S. 78th Division was assigned to French Flanders near the village of Pradelles to train with the British Army. Sgt. Albert Haas's unit was placed with an Australian unit, which he does not identify in this account of the experience.] 

Sgt. Albert Haas
After a few remarks, the [Australian] captain asked us we would have a cup of cocoa with him. I had an idea he was joking, but knew that he was serious when he actually produced the beverage. It was about the last thing I had expected there. He explained that these little luxuries were furnished by the people in Australia through what was called "The Australian Comfort Fund." Then we were shown our position on the map and some aerial photos of the enemy trenches and those we were in. We were in the front line of trenches, although there were four outposts in advance of this line. 

A road separated two of the four outposts from the other two. It was necessary to cross this road in order to get from one outpost, or rather one group of outposts, to the other. There was no trench dug across this road. At night, the enemy swept the road with machine gun fire at varying intervals. The crossing was dangerous and had to be made very quickly. 

While in training at Camp Dix, we had spent considerable time and labor constructing trenches. Much care was taken to make them according to certain specifications. The trench should be a certain width at the top and a little smaller at the bottom. The ground removed in digging had to be placed in a certain manner, the sides revetted to prevent cave-ins and many other little details were extremely necessary in the construction of a good trench. Accordingly we had formed certain conceptions of trenches which were rudely shattered when we observed the real thing. Most of the trenches in this sector was little more than ditches, shallow ditches, connecting shell holes. Than they had been hurriedly made was evident. 

Returning from this little tour of inspection, we were introduced to a Sergeant Major who was to take us in charge for further instruction. He devoted a great deal of time to explaining and answering the many questions with which we plied him, many of which must have seemed foolish to him. We met many men, all of them friendly and sociable. They were willing to do all they could for us, answer all of our questions, and give us many little hints regarding trench warfare that were to be of use to us later. By this means we were able to profit from the mistakes they had made, without undergoing the same experiences in learning them. They were particularly glad to know that American troops were in France and said they expected a great deal from them. 

The Former No-Man's-Land at Pradelles (2003 Photo)

Just after dark, I was invited to go for a walk. Not knowing where or why, I consented to without question. But when I was told to put my rifle in working order and to take a few hand grenades with me, my enthusiasm was not quite so keen. But I said nothing about my feelings to anyone. I had never seen a loaded hand grenade and we knew nothing about its operation except what I had learned from our lectures. I did know one thing and that was if the pin was pulled out of the grenade, it was time to throw it away as I had no further use for it. 

I followed my two companions up and out of the trench into "No Man's Land," the area between the two front lines. At one time this area had been a prosperous farm. It was covered with wheat, now nearly ripe. While we moved along as quietly as possible, it seemed to me that the sound would be audible for miles. We proceeded until we reached a line of barbed wire in front of the Australian trenches and passed along the line until an opening was found, thru which we passed. Several times we were forced to remain perfectly still while a flare burned overhead. These flares transformed the night into day and while they burned for a comparatively short period of time, it seemed as though they would burn forever. When I heard the first machine gun bullets crack I wanted to get down on the ground, but followed the actions of the other two and remained standing. I soon learned that you could be reasonably certain that you could not be hit by a bullet that sounds that way. 

Yanks and Aussies Fought Side by Side in 1918

Once we had to get down and had to do it very quickly too! In doing so, one of the Australians encountered the putrid body of a dead German who had been there for some time. The stench from it was almost unbearable. The [Aussie] proceeded to hold a monologue in which he gave vent to his feelings with a series of oaths that would have made Satan himself blush. Without further excitement, we proceeded until we reached the enemy line of barbed wire. Passing along and examining it showed that there had been no gaps cut in the wire, which indicated that no action of any consequence was planned over the next few hours. 

We returned to our starting position again and sat down in the shelter of a small dugout to rest and await further developments. 

Sgt. Albert Haas, 309th Infantry, 78th Division, AEF


  1. I love first person observations such as his. So vivid and interesting.

  2. There are first person statements aplenty (although they concern aerial combat) in the book entitled “Bill Lambert: World War One Flying Ace”. There are also plenty of stories from life at an Aerodrome. He was America’s second highest scoring ace. Highly recommended reading.