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

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Duty, Terror and Survival: The World War One Diary and Art of Doughboy Cpl Harold W. Pierce

By Corporal Harold W. Pierce
Edited by William J. Welch
48 Hour Books, 2022
Michael Hanlon, Reviewer

Cover Art: Detail of Postwar Painting by Harold Pierce
Showing the Argonne Forest in the Distance

In the heat of battle, men do not realize that the enemy is only a scared, frightened boy like we are, killing for self preservation and because he has to and hating it as bad as we do. . . . I wish I could have met these fellows as friends instead of this. HP

Longtime newspaper editor and college instructor William Welch has done a remarkable editorial—or better—book packaging effort in  pulling together what turns out to be not just one Doughboy's war account, but what I believe is a tribute to all the men who fought in the "War to end all wars."

At age 18, Harold Pierce of Youngsville, PA, abandoned high school and joined his brother to enlist in the Pennsylvania National Guard, the manpower source for General Pershing's 28th Division.  That division was one of the earliest to arrive in France and would be called on to fight at Chateau-Thierry, the Second Battle of the Marne, the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and, finally, in the controversial attacks mounted on the morning of the Armistice.  At some point, the troops nicknamed their shoulder patch—shaped like Pennsylvania's keystone emblem—the "Bloody Bucket."  In his war diary, young Pierce is a great, sometimes almost clinically detached, observer of the turmoil enveloping him as he goes about the day's activities:

We have prunes. A French artilleryman, caught by the barrage on the road, is carried by on a stretcher with the top of his head blown off and his brains dripping out. He is unconscious and cannot live long. The prunes are very dry. HP

Bridge at Fismette (Detail) by Harold Pierce –
Depicting the Division's Toughest Fight of the War

The core of this book is, of course, Pierce's 79,000 word diary.  Besides the excellent observations he makes about the battles and life out of the line, there is another quality of his writing that separates it from most of the dozens of Doughboy diaries I've read over the years. He is not shy about sharing his fears. These are with him all the time.  At one point he reveals his wish for a wound ("even a foot or hand off") to take him out of the action.  His religious feelings are also important to him, and he reports his regular prayers to the Almighty.

The Harold Pierce diary was previously serialized in local newspapers in the 1970s and kept in archives where several authors, Ed Lengel for example, have found it and drawn on it for their own writings.  But, when William Welch decided it was time to resurrect the account, he decided to supplement the basic text with a number of other features.  This in my view really enhances the presentation. As you can see above, after the war, Harold became an artist of merit and produced a number of large scale paintings depicting the actions of the 28th Division. These are still on display throughout Pennsylvania.  Color plates of these paintings are included in the new book, as well as maps, photos of the men from Harold's unit, and well-written essays giving an overview of the operations to complement the worm's-eye-view of the author. Overall, it's a well-intergrated work that is easy to follow for the reader.  By the end, though, we find our Doughboy narrator has grown very tired of war. On 11 November 1918 he writes:

If there is an Armistice at eleven, it seems so foolish to keep up the killing till the last minute. But the killing the artillery does is so impersonal and miles away. [It] does not see the tortured, horrible looks of the slaughtered or feel the remorse the doughboy feels when he sees a man he has shot. I stay close to a hole, filled with horror at the thought of being killed at the last minute. HP

Brothers Harold (sitting) and Hugh Pierce

I hope you will consider purchasing this book. It stands above almost all the similar Doughboy accounts I've read over the last 35 years. It's only being sold in local bookstores now, so the one way to acquire it is by emailing the editor at Retail cost of the book is $19.95. With shipping, the cost is $24.00.

Michael Hanlon


  1. Thank you for this moving review, Michael.

  2. Excellent. Cheers

  3. Could not agree more with this review. Welch has done a wonderful job in presenting Harold's tale and hopefully we'll see more efforts by him.

  4. Thanks for the great review. I will add it to my collection.

  5. Thanks for this fine review. I think this another book that’s going on my purchase list…
    Pete Belmonte

  6. This is Bill Welch, the book's editor. I'll be happy to fill any orders.

    1. Hi Bill. I would like to purchase this book. Please let me know how to do it. Thank you! Jim Campbell

    2. It's only being sold in local bookstores now, so the one way to acquire it is by emailing the editor at Retail cost of the book is $19.95. With shipping, the cost is $24.00.

  7. Email me, Jim and we can make arrangements.

  8. Cannot find a copy of this book anywhere.