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

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Amid the Ruins: Damon Runyon, World War I Reports from the Trenches, October 1918–March 1919

by Alan D. Gaff and Donald H. Gaff
Schiffer Books, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Damon Runyon
Embedded reporters and battlefield news coverage are nothing new. Scores of reporters accompanied the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) as it fought through France in 1917 and 1918. Damon Runyon was one of the well-known members of this small army of combat correspondents, and Amid the Ruins presents Runyon's wartime dispatches along with poems he wrote during the war. The editors are Alan D. Gaff, an award-winning military historian with several other books to his credit, and Donald H. Gaff, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa who has co-edited two other books with Alan Gaff.

In this book, the editors hope to show "that World War I was not a minor diversion from sportswriting [sic] and Broadway but that it was a vital part of his development as a writer…" (p. 19). Without the full context of Runyon's writing, it's hard to know how well they succeed in their stated goal, but the book does provide a detailed look at the wartime work of an important correspondent and news figure. It thus sheds light on the way American forces were covered and reported upon during the war.

The editors' 1-page introduction gives Runyon's background and sets his dispatches in perspective. It's interesting to note that, as the editors concede, all correspondents' dispatches were reviewed and censored by Army press censors. Thus, Runyon's "World War I dispatches should also be considered similarly censored and read with that critical fact in mind." (p. 15) Runyon, in addition to writing newspaper sports columns, war reports, and fiction, also wrote poetry, and this volume contains those poems that have the war as their subject. Runyon was also a war veteran, having served during the Philippine Insurrection, and he was thus no stranger to soldiers and their world.

The Reportage section, containing Runyon's wartime and postwar dispatches, runs to 148 pages while the Poetry section is 45 pages long. All of the dispatches are reproduced as they appeared in newspapers.

Since Runyon arrived at the front comparatively late (October 1918), his combat reporting was about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His coverage of battle is not of the kind to evoke the feeling of combat in the minds of newspaper readers. It is more akin to a general reporting of American forces. He wrote dispatches that touch upon the Lost Battalion and its commander, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, and about the fighting around Sedan and Stenay in the last few days of the war. His reports of the Lost Battalion and of American forces crossing the Meuse River at Dun-sur-Meuse are the closest to actual combat reporting in these dispatches.

In his reports, Runyon sometimes shows his irreverent humor. Speaking of the vast number of politicians, entertainers, reporters, and other personalities clogging the roads behind the advancing American army during the Meuse-Argonne, Runyon writes: "It will be seen a rather mixed aggregation cluttered the road to the Argonne. Celebrities could be picked out of the welter of traffic like flies out of a boarding house soup." (p. 29)

Runyon returned to the U.S. aboard the USS Leviathan along with part of the 27th Division and a large number of wounded men and "casuals." His dispatches covering the trip are longer and more detailed than his dispatches from France. Noticing the cheerfulness and bravery of the wounded men, Runyon wrote an almost off-hand comment that won't surprise students of the AEF: "What men they are-God, what men!" (p. 156)

Runyon Helped Build Two of the Legends of the Great War—
Captain Eddie and the Lost Battalion

The poems recorded here were written between June 1917 and March 1919. In them, Runyon writes of soldiers and veterans, sports, and politics. Poetry, of course, is largely a matter of taste, and Runyon's poems are a mixed bag. No doubt the poems reproduced here rang true to soldiers, veterans, and the home folks of a century ago. The first stanza of "Song of a Drafted Man (The First Night at Camp Devens)" will suffice to give the reader an idea of Runyon's verse:

I'm here with two thin blankets,
      As thin as a slice of ham.
A German spy was likely the guy
      Who made 'em for Uncle Sam.

How did I sleep? Don't kid me!
      My bedtick is filled with straw,
And the lumps and humps and big fat humps
      That punched me 'till I'm raw.

There are several photographs and illustrations and a few basic maps. The editors' prodigious endnotes—486 of them—provide amazing biographical and background details of the people and events mentioned in Runyon's dispatches. These end notes are almost a separate book unto themselves; the editors put in an appreciable amount of research to provide this supplemental data. The four-page bibliography, understandably heavy in periodicals, will help readers find additional information on Runyon and the Great War.

Amid the Ruins will appeal to readers who are interested in learning about how an accredited war correspondent reported on the U.S. military during the final days of the war and during the American occupation of Germany.

Peter L. Belmonte

No comments:

Post a Comment