EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is Matthew Hugh Chism. My friends call me Hugh.
I was born in Pilot Point and raised mostly in Texas, but I spent two years of my childhood in Oklahoma. My dad was a minister and we were known to move around every few years. I was one of seven children, having two brothers and four sisters. My mother died when I was just 10 years old, but I had the good fortune to be raised by a stepmother that was indeed a real mother to me.
After getting out on my own, I moved to Ennis to take a job, and it was there I placed membership at the Church of Christ. During my time in Ennis, my parents lived in Hillsboro, where I visited them as often as possible.
When the war came. I did not sign up immediately as my Christian beliefs were in opposition to war. But when I was called upon to serve, I put aside my personal reservations and did not claim exemption. I figured that if someone had to go that it might as well be me as anyone else. After all, I was still single and without a family of my own.
I enlisted in the army in May of 1918 and was sent to Camp Travis in San Antonio for six weeks of basic training. I was assigned to Company D of the 359th Infantry Regiment, 180th Infantry Brigade of the 90th Division. Company D was made up almost entirely of fellows from Ellis, Navarro and Hill counties, so there were several guys in the company that I knew.
We were trained in trench warfare on the east side of the MKT railroad tracks beyond Salado Creek in a complex of trenches and fortifications that the engineers had built. We received our Enfield rifles and went to a rifle range at Leon Springs for small arms practice. There we set up a tent camp and trained long and hard in tactical exercises and such. After much practice, I turned into a pretty good shot. Every opportunity was taken to write the homefolks, and I eagerly awaited each and every letter that came my way.
Our division was known as the “Alamo Division” because we had trained in the Alamo City at Camp William B. Travis. Our shoulder patch was a big red T-O emblem, which stood for Texas and Oklahoma, which is where all the guys were from. But it didn’t take long for us to come up with a new name for the division, the “Tough Ombres.”
Following basic training, we boarded trains and headed for the east coast in June of 1918. On the 20th of June the Regiment sailed and 11 days later arrived at Liverpool, England. The stay in England was no longer than it took to change ships, and on the following day we sailed for France. By this time I started to figure that maybe I wasn’t so tough after all, for I was already missing home.
Upon landing on the continent we loaded onto trains and made our way to the area of Aigney-le-Duc, France. We were garrisoned at Recey-sur-Ource and there commenced with our training all over again. There was drill, bayonet exercise, gas mask practice, minor tactics and maneuvers, eight hours a day for the next six weeks. Finally in August our unit was deemed ready and sent forward to the front.
After a long tiring march we took up trench duty and patrolling along the front lines. This place was beyond belief. There was a massive trench system that ran as far as the eye could see and it was miles and miles across. In between there were unending wire entanglements, obstacles, shattered tree trunks and shell holes. There were shell holes everywhere and mud. Mud everywhere! There was very little green left here, everything living had already been killed. What a Godforsaken place this was, St. Mihiel.
Across the way, the Germans had been years building a maze of concrete dugouts and pillboxes. At first when I saw them moving about, it was hard for me to think of them with any hatred. But the first time I heard them shooting at us, it actually dawned on me that those fellows were really trying to kill me.
There had been rumors of a big offensive on our part, and in the middle of September it came to pass. During the night there was a four-hour artillery barrage, and then at 5 o’clock we went up and over the top. We ran across “No Man’s Land,” over a mile of tangled barbed wire and torn earth. The German shells began to fall among us, and I heard the machine-guns begin to fire. My mouth was so dry, as hard as I tried, I could not spit.
Dozens of machine-guns were cutting through our boys and I could hear screaming and the bullets zipping past my head, but I ran on, as did most everybody else. I had to jump over fallen comrades and run blindly though the flying dirt and thick choking smoke. When finally we reached the German trench, we fell upon them with a wild rage and fury. There was heavy gunfire, close up killing, bayonet thrusting, and hand-to-hand fighting. I had never seen a man die up close, not until now.
When it was over, I looked for a suitable place to rest and collapsed there. There were strange smells in the air: gunpowder smoke, fresh earth and something sickeningly sweet. I was surprised by how savage and violent we had been.... I looked up at the clouds moving overhead, and asked forgiveness, and at that moment I realized how thankful I was to be alive.
Over the next weeks as the enemy pulled back, we moved forward to another place on the front line near the Argonne forest. It was a long hard march that left us exhausted. And to add to our worries, the Germans even tried to bomb us from their airplanes.
There was bitter skirmishing between the lines. Several times the enemy would counterattack following a heavy artillery barrage. Each time they were beaten off by rifle and machine-gun fire, and a lot of nerve and stout-heartedness by the boys. During those attacks, the two most important friends that you had were the man on your left and the man on your right.
The artillery fire was brutal and it caused many casualties. The shells came in without much warning and killed indiscriminately. One minute a soldier could be sitting there eating his breakfast, minding his own business, and the next minute only his boot and his rifle were left to prove that he was ever alive.
Along with the rain, the mud and the cold, there was a lot of flu sweeping through the ranks. Many good men were lost to sickness. This is not how I had figured France would be. This place is so awful, I long for the day that I will go home.
I wrote home at every chance that I had. It was my way to keep myself rooted, and the mail from home, I was so glad to receive. In a letter to Mamma I wrote, “I received several letters while I was in the trenches this time, and I tell you they do help out too... How is everything? Fine I hope. We are doing fine, the sun is shining this morning, so we don’t know how to act over here. Tell sister I received her two letters and was glad to get them, and that I will write her as soon as I can... I wish I could be with you today (Sunday, Oct. 20), to attend church.”
The last few days of October we made ready for a big push that was planned for Nov. 1. According to the rumors, the war would be over soon if we could just break through the German lines and take the high ground on the ridge overlooking the Meuse River. That high ridge would not come easy, and the thought of this being the end of my time weighed heavy on me. But I was resigned to do my part, whatever be the cost.
On the morning of the attack, we were up early, by 3 or 4 o’clock. Some of us never slept at all that night. I stayed up, just thinking and remembering. At 5:30 the whistle blew and we went up and over the top.
There was heavy resistance from the very start. Some of our boys fell dead and wounded just a few yards from our own trench, but we pushed forward. Deafening shellfire flashed bright all around us. Hot steel and lead tore through our ranks. I saw several good friends go down, and struggled for the courage to keep going.
The machine-gun fire was murderous. But we kept pushing forward, one by one taking out the enemy machine guns. Pushing forward, dying and killing with every few yards gained. The fighting was vicious, but in my mind we were fighting to end this war ... and to go home.
Just a few yards from our objective, at 9:30, I was hit in the right side. My sergeant, Marvin Wynne, came over and gave me first aid, and asked if I could make it back to the aid station. I told him that I could.
It was a Friday morning, and I was 25 years old.
Remember us, for we were soldiers once and young.
* The war ended 10 days later, on Nov. 11, 1918. Three years afterward in September of 1921, Private Hugh Chism and a fellow soldier, Robert Vaden, were buried with full military honors in the Ridge Park Cemetery in Hillsboro, Texas. It was reported by the Hillsboro Evening Mirror newspaper as the largest funeral ever held in Hill County with 5,000 people in attendance.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.