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 16, 2019

A Machine Gunner in France: The Memoirs of Ward Schrantz, 35th Division, 1917–1919

Edited by Jeffrey L. Patrick
University of North Texas Press, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Capt. Ward Schrantz

Ward Schrantz served in the Missouri National Guard and the Regular Army before World War I. During the war, Schrantz became the commander of Company A, 128th Machine Gun Battalion, 35th Division. After the war, Schrantz, a newspaperman and unit historian, wrote about his military experiences, and this book is the portion of his memoirs covering World War I. Editor Jeffry L. Patrick is the head librarian at the Wilson's Creek Battlefield in Missouri. He has previously edited and published the first part of Schrantz's memoirs, covering his military service from 1912 to 1917, including his time on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Patrick provides an introductory section for each chapter, wherein he sets the historical stage and provides other background. His footnotes are thorough and helpful, and he gives supplementary information on most of the people Schrantz mentions in the text. Like Schrantz in the narrative, Patrick supplies additional quotes from soldiers taken from letters and newspapers. The result is a highly readable and instructive memoir of a machine gun officer in World War I. Indeed, A Machine Gunner in France could almost double as a unit history of the 128th Machine Gun Battalion.

In the opening chapters, Schrantz discusses his company's mobilization and training in 1917. In common with most of the U.S. Army in 1917, the men struggled with inadequate material and equipment. After training, the men shipped out to France and, following some additional training, manned the lines in the Vosges Mountains. Schrantz goes into detail about his time in the Vosges "quiet sector." Although this section is long and almost tedious, serious students of the war will enjoy reading about how a machine gun company operated in a quiet sector in 1918. For example, they will learn how a relief was conducted and what officers' roles were. Throughout the book we're also treated to such tidbits as a description and diagram of how machine gun trucks were loaded for transport and a description of various marching formations when moving up to the line. And we learn of the technique of suspending wet gunnysacks in front of the guns; this served to hide muzzle flashes from German observers in the hills.

Unidentified Machine Gunners Firing in the Opening of
the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Anyone familiar with the performance of the 35th Division during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive will appreciate Schrantz's extended and candid coverage of his unit's participation in the battle. The 35th was justly criticized for its performance and the rapid deterioration of its command, control, and liaison shortly after the battle began. Schrantz's recollections bear this out. Although Schrantz and his machine guns performed well, the confusion and disorganization of the division are evident in his memoirs. At one point early in the action, Schrantz came upon Lieutenant Wilber Maring, commander of the 137th Infantry Regiment's Machine Gun Company. According to Schrantz:

[Maring] had a map in his hand. He showed me where his guns were in position and firing. He showed me the enemy position on the ground and on the map, all in a few brief moments and under considerable small arms fire. … So far as I recall he is the only man I saw during the hurly-burley phases of the Meuse-Argon who knew exactly where he was, exactly where the enemy was and exactly what was going on on his immediate front (p. 310).

Schrantz's coverage of the phase of the battle in which his unit was involved runs to about 130 pages and is very interesting. In these pages we're given a rare glimpse into the duties and activities of a machine gun officer in combat in World War I. Schrantz thoroughly covers his movements and decisions during the five days of heavy combat.

The 35th Division was relieved by the 1st Division on 1 October and they then moved to the east side of the Meuse River to man defensive positions. Schrantz recounts his unit's activities in this relatively quiet sector of the Meuse-Argonne area. Given some time to think about his division's ordeal, Schrantz smarted under the thought of their losses. His feelings about his unit's comparative inaction in their "new" sector is revealed in a very human statement—"I wanted to see dead Germans piled up in front of my guns as I had seen our own dead of the 138th Infantry windrowed along that road at Cheppy" (p. 439). His use of the word windrowed, usually meaning the raking up of hay into rows before being baled for drying, is particularly apt.

The remaining chapters of A Machine Gunner in France cover the 128th's postwar activities, Schrantz's promotion to major, his subsequent appointment to command another machine gun unit in the 35th Division, and then his return to the United States.

A few maps and many photographs are sprinkled throughout the book. Patrick's bibliography reflects his research in primary materials, government publications, and contemporary newspapers. Schrantz was a very competent officer who cared for his men as well as for the overall mission. That he was also a gifted writer is a lucky break for us. This book is a fine contribution to the historiography of the American Expeditionary Forces and is highly recommended.

Peter L. Belmonte

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