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

Thursday, October 7, 2021

A Chaplain's View of WWI Combat, the Spanish Flu, and the Impact of War, Part 1 of 2

The Rev. Stewart MacMaster Robinson, D.D. (1893–1965) was born in Clinton, NY, on 21 July 1863, he grew up in Philadelphia, the only child of William Courtland Robinson, a Presbyterian minister, and Augusta Horner Robinson. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University in 1915. He prepared for Christian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, 1915–17, where he received a call to serve as an Army chaplain in late 1917. March–May 1918 he attended Army Chaplain’s School at Camp Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky, and was commissioned as an Army officer on 29 May 1918. He shipped out from Hoboken NJ and arrived at Brest France aboard the USS Covington on 27 June 1918. [The Covington was sunk on its return voyage to the U.S.]


Chaplain Stewart MacMaster Robinson


Upon arrival in France, he was assigned to the 78th Division, AEF, and promoted to Senior Division Chaplain at age 24. He served as the division burial officer at the St. Mihiel campaign until he was infected with influenza in late September 1918. After his recovery, he returned to the front lines with the 78th Division in mid-October in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. His diaries record the impact of the war on him and his comrades in arms.  

In September, the 78th Division found itself initially in reserve for the opening of the St. Mihiel Offensive.

September 12, 1918, Thursday, Rainy +60; Great American Offensive at St. Mihiel Salient

“At 1 a.m. the Great American Offensive. Listened with mingled feelings to the thundering of the guns. I did not sleep much. Mingled feelings kept me from sleeping very well. At 5 a.m. the barrage went down and our boys went over. We are back in the reserve. Everything went along very smoothly. Towards evening I saw at least 3000 Hun prisoners marched back. It was a very impressive sight. I worked a lot on getting our cemetery established. We will put it well forward because we have moved a great way today. It has been a great day in many ways. I hope to tell my dear ones at home all the details that will spring to my mind. DV (Dieu Veulent, God Willing) when in God’s loving time I am with them again.”

September 13, 1918, Friday, Partly Cloudly +60; Burials begin on battlefield.

“Left Rogeville to lay out a cemetery near to Regnieville. Took a lorry load of unfit soldiers. The body of an officer came along behind in an ambulance. Finally we reached a secluded hillside and buried the man as the great guns boomed over our heads. There was no need for any firing squad (to salute). It was a great sight to see all the signs of the recent battle. There was all kinds of material scattered about, guns on the road, and long lines of cars and wagons. We have taken very many prisoners. Rode home by moonlight past the crashing of our big guns.”

September 14, 1918, Saturday, Clear +66; Gathering the dead, I found all too many.

“Moved the division headquarters from Rogeville to Limey. The later town is only ¾ mile from the front line on Sept 11 but several from the present line. Explored the old No Man’s Land and the trenches of the Hun. All his apparatus was very interesting, the signs especially. I was out gathering the dead and I found all too many. They were a sad spectacle. One especially called forth my sad pity. Now at last we are in the midst of real cruel bloody war! I have seen blood enough this very day. Tonight we have been down once in the dug out already. I pray to tell my sweetheart all this.”

September 15, 1918, Sunday, Clear +68; Many burial services as St. Mihiel battle rages in NE France

“Limey-France-(Meuse et Meurthe). Had a little service of Horace Infusine and Sgt. Cornne. Went out and held burial service for Carpenter of 353 over 11 Mess. Went on later in p.m. buried more of our U.S. men and one Hun. Saw a Hun plane bring down 2 observation balloons. Held another service over the 14th chapter of John which I could read without any light because I know it. Talked to a Hun prisoner of the 397 Prussian Infantry. Our men are going up in the line tonight. The day has had many experiences. I feel so sorry for the poor folks at home who will hear of these dead I buried.”


German Trenches, St. Mihiel Sector


September 16, 1918, Monday, Clear +72; Slept in captured Hun dugout.

“Moved over into some of the Huns’ dugouts at Loge Mangin. The drive pushed Fritz back quite a way but the country between is pretty well smashed to pieces. There are all kinds of mementos of the Hunnish occupation, in the shape of stuff the he left behind him. For a retreat that was planned for so long a time as his communique said he certainly left a lot of stuff behind including many thousand prisoners. Went to sleep in the telephone exchange down in a dugout where nothing but a good big bomb could get me. The night was not very satisfactory because of all the phone activity and movement of people.” 

September 17, 1918, Tuesday, Rainy +68; “Terror and death is the only teacher for 78th Div on the line.”

“Our troops have begun to actually take over their part of the line. It gives me a queer sensation to realize that the crowd I went down to Dix to see last Fall is now in fact here on the firing line. The training is all over. The die is cast and now the ordeal of battle grim experience terror and death will be the only teacher. We all hoped these divisions would have been spared by the ending of the war but it seems not to have been planned. God has some lesson to teach us by these portents. "

September 18, 1918, Wednesday, Partly Rainy +67; Sadness and fear, shell shock and gas…

“We have laid out a cemetery down the road from Thiancourt to Regnieville. The Hun puts a few shells over it about once a day or more. We heard of 18 men and officers killed last night at the front. The awful work has been begun. Sadness and fear will be rolling across the ocean now as news of these deaths confirm the fact that we are in the line. There are stern experiences ahead. We need grace to stand them. Rode with Col. Eckwurzle through battered towns and saw shell shock and gas cases in of Field Hospitals. So, the war is indeed on for the Seventy Eighth Division of peaceful Camp Dix.

September 19, 1918, Thursday, Rainy +65; “I saw 7 bodies gathered in an alley, I hate the Kaiser!”

Rode on horse down to see how our cemetery had been laid out. In p.m. went up to Thiaucourt out of a sense of duty to see how things were getting along there. The place was shelled all the time. I saw 7 bodies gathered in one little alley and some wounded. I was about terror stricken myself. Every time I went out one of the things (shells) would shriek and crash. I see plainly where they will have to catch me to pin any medals on me for valor. My chaplains are doing their work in a wonderful manner and I only wish I had the nerve that they are showing. I hate the Kaiser!”

September 20, 1918, Friday, Clear +60; “I have a miserable cold in the head…” Flu starts.

“Rain abated and I put my clothes out to dry. The dugout makes a good place to sleep in some ways but there is no very great supply of air. However, it is part of this game and the dugout was made be the Hun and made well in order that he might be very snug and we are living in it. Stood in the observation post up in a tree and watched our shells knock down one of Fritz’ vantage spots. Their aim was very good. Find I have a miserable cold in the head and feel a bit mean for that reason. Now I am going to bed~”


Robinson with the Division's Chief Surgeon


September 21, 1918, Saturday, Clear +60; …many of our boys have been killed…hard days…”

“Spent the day with some office work and going over to the 2nd Battalion of the 312th that came out of the line today. The YMCA had some stuff ready for them to eat. There is a beautiful moon which means Jerry will be over in all probability to look for some of our guns. One thing is a help, he is not interested in us and does not throw much stuff overboard. A good many of our boys have been killed. These will be hard days for many of the folks back at home. So goes life.”

Then illness would strike Chaplain Robinson

September 22, 1918, Sunday, Cloudy +57; “It is a sad business, this war.”

“Arose at 7am. Held Communion at 8:30. Preached for Smylie at 3 Battalion 312 Infantry in the morning. They were just back from the line. They came out in very good shape. In p.m. I had a little service at HQ for my own men. They have been shelling some of the areas in our neighborhood but they have not found our woods out as yet. Four Hun prisoners came through today. They were pretty good looking in health and were very glad to be with us. This is a typically Fall day in the woods. I only wish we were to go back to the city directly. A good many of the boys are losing their lives around this country. It is a sad business, this war.”

September 23, 1918, Monday, Rainy +60; Doctor pronounced my case to be influenza, shipped off in ambulance…”

"Lay in my little wire bunk all morning feeling very poorly indeed. The wet and damp of this dugout has given me a real hard cold in the head. The whole outlook from here is dull in the extreme. The doctor pronounced my case to be influenza and I was shipped off in an ambulance to our Field Hospitals and thence on to Toul. It felt very good to get down in a white bed and sleep. There are real American nurses!” 

In Part 2, Stewart Robinson describes his treatment for the influenza, his duties for the remainder of the war, and his voyage home.

Thanks to Dave Robinson of McLean, VA, for bringing his grandfather's diary to our attention.


5 comments:

  1. What a story! I wonder what he preached in his sermons to the men--how he dealt theologically with all the death and destruction.

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  2. The 78th remained NJ's Army Reserve division through Vietnam, at least

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  3. These stories really puts you in the shoes of these guys and is so sad.

    Thanks for these stories.
    Bruce Burge

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  4. Interesting stories, thanks for the diary.

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