We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is Joseph Ira Green. I was born on a farm in southwest Ellis County. I went to the public schools around Bethel and Five Points. Later, I attended college at Trinity University in Waxahachie. I had plans to better myself and leave Five Points behind.
When the Great War was declared, I volunteered for the Army and was sent to train at Camp Merritt in Georgia with the 5th Division, known as the Red Diamond Division. In those days the Army was growing about as fast as mushrooms.
They were making thousands of new soldiers every week, and we had very little in the way of useful equipment. They used a saw-horse with a rifle on top to train as if we were firing an actual machine-gun. And they gave us concrete hand-grenades for grenade throwing practice.
The winter of 1917-1918 was a bad one, and the sunny South where we were stationed was not exempt from its share of chill, rain, and snow. That khaki uniform of mine did not keep me from freezing during all that outdoor training. Drill, drill, and more drill, it sure seemed to me that we were bound to have the best marching outfit in this whole army.
There were dummy-men stretched on frames for bayonet practice. Much time was spent on the rifle range and pistol range, and we were introduced to gas mask drill. Complete trench systems were laid out and dug. We occupied those trenches as if fighting for real. The only problem was, those dummy Germans didn’t fight back.
In early spring, we got instruction for methods of boxing up equipment and preparing baggage for shipment, which let us know that we were going overseas soon. Then there were rigid inspections to see if we were ready. I reckon we passed because orders came down to ship out.
The route to France took us through Hoboken, New Jersey. The journey across the Atlantic was a big adventure for someone from an Ellis County dirt farm. We went by convoy, guarded by some Navy destroyers. There was some excitement when some submarines were spotted. The destroyers darted around and dropped some depth bombs. Nothing more came of it; the subs must have gone away.
We landed at Liverpool. The English were cordial and friendly people, not at all like I had pictured them. These British folks were wild over us American troops, hailing us as the saviors of the Allied cause.
They took us by train across the beautiful green-clad hills and dales of England to Southampton. There were a few days rest at the Winchester rest camp. Despite the cheer of the local people, you could feel the terrible pinch of war, as the food was dear and very scarce. Everyone here appreciated every little piece of bread. Now I was beginning to miss Five Points a little.
We crossed the stormy English Channel and landed at Le Havre. There were a few days of so-called rest at a debarkation camp to help us recover from the rough sea voyage. Everything here was grim and depressing.
The atmosphere in France was a shock after the cheer of England. The effects of four years of war had laid a pall on the people; everyone wore a funeral-air about them. Scarcely a family had not been touched by the death of a son, a brother, a father.
We boarded box-cars and traveled by train to our advanced training center at Bar-sur-Aube. There we went through still more trench warfare training. Our instructors were all officers of the French Army, and I didn’t care for them much.
Most everything they taught us was based on conservation. The instructors taught us methods of fire that saved ammunition, and methods of construction that saved material. We were forbidden to buy eggs, butter or milk from the locals, as it would diminish the supply for the children, the sick and the wounded.
We were constantly reminded of the privations of the people and were forbidden from buying anything in the markets except for mess kits. The longer I was here, the more I missed the liberal ways of the States.
No lights were displayed at night, and great care was taken to curtain all doors and windows. The barns that we shared with the local cows, chickens, and pigs were inspected at night to be sure that no tell-tale streaks of light were escaping through the cracks in the roofs.
Those first months in France were grave and menacing, as the Germans had launched a great offensive. Our gas mask training became more frequent and realistic. I heard tell, that the Boche meant for this big push to once and finally win this long war.
In June, our division was moved up to the front lines in the Anould section of the Vosges Mountains. The nature of this place made organized warfare next to impossible. There were deep ravines, steep slopes and woods as thick as I’ve ever seen. We hear there has been no change in the lines here in the past three and a half years of fighting.
The main activities here were patrolling and raiding missions across “no man’s land.” And hardest to get used to, there was harassing fire from artillery. The Germans knew the locations of all our roads and trenches, and any time that they noticed activity on our side, we were promptly subjected to heavy shellfire.
I was assigned to the Ambulance Corps Number 161, and my job was mainly carrying the wounded back from the front lines to the aid stations at the rear. We moved through the communication trenches but were often spotted by the Boche and fired on whenever we moved about.
When the Germans detected the presence of Americans on the front line, they went out of their way to weaken our morale and take advantage of our inexperience. During that month we fought off repeated attacks along our lines, we lost a few men, but the enemy soon learned that we were fairly good riflemen. Before long, the Huns were calling us the Red Devils, I reckon on account of our red 5th division arm patches.
These positions here had been stationary for so long that Mother Nature provided good camouflage. The observation posts, gun positions, and machine gun nests were overgrown and hidden by vines, moss, and bushes. But you dared not raise his head above the trench for fear of being plugged by a German sharpshooter.
Trench warfare was practiced in a very settled way here. The shellfire rained down on us most every day, more dependable than our mail call. The trenches were permanent, reinforced with timbers and concrete, with deep underground dugouts for us to live in. It would have been a lot easier to sleep down there if not for all the rats that kept us company.
In the middle of July, we were re-assigned to the Saint Die sector, to relieve the French troops there. Our unit, now battle-hardened, had developed an esprit-de-corps and morale was high. Even so, this was a miserable place to be, and it was impossible not to long for the comforts of home. If only I can someday make it back to Five Points.
On August 17, our division went on an all-out attack. Our artillery opened up on the Boche at 3:54 a.m. with a heavy barrage. Ten minutes later our boys went over the top and attacked at the town of Frapelle. It was brutal fighting, and I witnessed a many an act of supreme bravery that day.
The Germans were driven out. It was the first advance by any of the Allies in almost three years. Over the next few days, the Boche counter-attacked with a heavy artillery bombardment. All the German guns in the entire sector seemed to redirect on our newly-won territory. But we held our ground.
As a stretcher-bearer, I saw many things that I had never imagined in my worst nightmares. You just steel yourself to it all and do the best you can.
Amidst all this madness, whenever possible, I would read and re-read my letters from home. I never threw any of them away. You just keep on reading them until they were worn out and fall apart. I wish more mail would come my way. I sure will be happy to get away from all of this.
On August 21, 1918, there was a beautiful sunrise. I peeked up over the trench top and took it in, every peaceful minute of it... The birds were singing beautifully this morning.
Today my job was to relieve the stretcher-bearers of Ambulance Company Number 29. I was moving up to the aid station near the trenches in Frapelle. As we approached the dugout, I heard a big shell coming in… We scattered… I remember the bright flash.
It was a Tuesday, and I was 29 years old.
We were soldiers once, and young. Remember us.