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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The AEF’s First POW

Later, the AEF Would Capture Many More Prisoners

By Paul Albright

American infantry made their first cautious ventures into no-man's-land in late October 1917. It was there that an AEF patrol captured their first German prisoner of war. He was a teenage mailman. The wounding and capture of this young mail courier was headline material in newspapers across the U.S. The most detailed account was in the New York Tribune by correspondent Heywood Broun, who later in his career became a nationally known journalist, author, sportswriter, columnist, and a founder of the Newspaper Guild.  Broun wrote in his despatch: 

“There had been great rivalry as to which company would get the first captive, but he came practically unsought,” Broun reported. “The American patrol were (sic) almost back in their own lines, after an excursion into No Man’s Land, when they heard the noise of somebody to their left. He was making no effort to walk quietly. As he came over a little hillock of ground, his outline could be seen for a second. The doughboys recognized the German helmet.

“The German saw the Americans at the same time and turned to run, but one American, after calling out for the enemy to halt, took a snapshot with his rifle and hit the man in the left arm. Another soldier’s bullet lodged in the German’s abdomen. 

“The patrol carried the prisoner to the trench. He seemed more dazed by surprise than by the pain of the wounds.

“'You’re not French,' he said several times as the curious Americans gathered about him in a close, dim circle, illuminated by pocket flashlights. The prisoner guessed next what they were English, and when the soldiers told him they were Americans, he said that his comrades had not been informed the Americans were in the line opposing them.

“Somebody gave him a cigarette, and he grew more chipper, in spite of his wounds. He began to talk, saying: ‘Ich bin ein Esel (donkey).’ There were several Americans who had had enough German for that, and they asked him why. The prisoner explained that he had been assigned to deliver letters to the soldiers. Some of the letters were for men in a distant trench which slanted toward the French line, and so to save time he had taken a short cut through No Man’s Land. It was a dark night, but he thought he knew the way. He kept bearing to the left. Now, he said, he knew he should have turned to the right. He said it would be a lesson to him.

“The little German was a pretty sick boy when I saw him for a moment in the field hospital yesterday (October 29, 1917). He gave his age as nineteen, but he looked younger and not very dangerous, for he was just coming out of the ether. The doctors were giving him the best of care. He had a room to himself and his own nurse. The doctor in charge was a young reserve officer and seemed professionally anxious about the case. 

“’I could pull him through sure,’ he said, ‘if it wasn’t for that second bullet,’ and then he added, almost reproachfully: ‘That was an awful bad place to shoot a man.’”

Broun's  Article

The German mail courier died on 30 October 30 1917, with the press reporting that he would be buried with military honors. 

The Associated Press reported that there had been two Germans near the American trenches. They bolted when called on to halt, with the slightly built blond teenage soldier being fatally wounded. Some of the letters he was carrying were reported to have some value to the AEF. 

“He declared that the German soldiers did not know that Americans were on the front or in France, the officers telling them nothing,” reported the AP. At the time, only American and German artillery were exchanging shell fire. 

Speaking from his hospital cot, the mortally wounded mail courier was quoted in the New York Times: “The soldiers do not know you Americans are here, but the officers probably do. They tell us nothing. The German soldiers in the ranks are tired of the war and want it to end, but the officers want it to continue, as they are well paid. Our food is good, but we know nothing of conditions in the interior of Germany. Sometimes no mail is permitted to reach us for eight weeks at a time.” 

  • The AEF in Print: An Anthology of American Journalism in World War I, by Chris Dobbs and John-Daniel Kelley, eds., University of North Texas Press, 2018.
  • Our Army at the Front, by Heywood Broun, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.
  • New York Tribune, 30-31 October 1917.


  1. If he was shot in the abdomen, he probably died of blood-poisoning from leaking intestines. There was little treatment for this in those days, hence the doctor's comment. A particularly senseless waste of life.