|4th Division Artilley in the Meuse-Argonne Advance|
Gerald Howell tried unsuccessfully to get his memoirs published in 1946, at a time when publishers were concentrating on World War II, and “no one seemed to care about the long-past struggle of doughboys in France” (p. 2). Howell died 15 months later. His manuscript survived, however, and Jeffrey L. Patrick, librarian at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Missouri, has edited this fine volume. Patrick supplies introductory material and editorial comments that are helpful and concise. He is not afraid to correct or clarify Howell’s observations, but at the same time he is careful to let Howell speak for himself. His memoir, while covering the service of the 39th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, is heavily centered upon that basic unit, the squad.
Private Howell used fictitious names for the men in his squad, and he reconstructed dialog using “typical” soldier grammar and slang. In one example, a platoon sergeant chastises men who are complaining about their ride in a “40-and-8” boxcar:
Pipe down, you birds!” orders Sergeant Nolan, “Yer in here and yer gonna stay in, if yer likes it er not until we gets ta Chartres. Then ya kin stretch yer legs. Git away from that door, ya big bohunk! Ya wanna git killed before ya sees the Kaiser? [p. 63]
The recreation of dialog and the use of this grating lingo might be off-putting to some readers; it reminds one of the typical dialog recreated for “colored” soldiers of the era. Certainly it gives one the flavor of how some Doughboys spoke and how they reacted to their environment. Fortunately, Howell, who uses this patois even for his own quotes, wrote his narrative in standard English.
Howell’s narrative covers his experiences from the time of his induction, through training in the United States, his trip to and arrival in France, combat, the Armistice and occupation duty, to his return to the U.S. and discharge from the Army. After induction in April 1918 and training at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, Howell was assigned to the 39th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, a Regular Army unit that, in common with all others, was infused with draftees and other transfers.
In France, Howell participated in the Aisne-Marne Offensive, the St. Mihiel Offensive, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His descriptions of the horrors of war are vivid, and he provides a few accounts of how his squad advanced and fought in the various engagements. Howell also reports on off-duty activities including the constant search for food and wine. His observations extend to commentary on Army leadership. Howell and his squad-mates have very little good to say about officers, seeing them as comfort-seeking hindrances for the most part.
As an example of Howell’s frankness, he even recounts his escapades when he and a few friends went absent without leave for a few days right after the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, at a time when his regiment desperately needed every possible man on the front line. Despite his frequent disgust with officers, the Army, and war in general, Howell was a man who was very proud of his regiment and his part in the war. He praised the Regulars and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in general, while at the same time recognizing the transitory nature of memory: “It is doubtful if the whole people of France or even the U.S. have ever fully appreciated what the A.E.F. did here in 1918” (p. 233).
After the Armistice, the 4th Division was assigned to the Army of Occupation of Germany, and Howell recounts his experiences during the march to Germany. During this period, Howell served on detached duty to the regimental supply company and then to the Quartermaster Corps where he managed an electrical station. His memoirs of this time are replete with descriptions of the countryside and villages, as well as accounts of his off-duty activities. Finally, in July 1919, Howell and his regiment returned to the United States; he was discharged the following month.
If one recognizes this book for what it is, with its recreated, stylized dialogue, and fictitiously named soldiers, one can understand the method Howell chose to convey his experiences during the war. That said, this book is a welcome addition to the historiography of the AEF’s common soldiers; it’s highly recommended to those who want to read a soldier’s unvarnished view of the front lines.
Peter L. Belmonte