Memorial Day 2017

The days in France in September can be glorious. The air is warm, freshened by the evening rains, the autumnal colors begin to show, and the wheat and the grape harvest are well under way with all their attendant festivals.

Not so in the year of 1918 after four years of war. 

I had two family members on my mother’s side who were involved in World War I. One is my grandfather, the other my great uncle. One is on a memorial in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on the 26th of September 1918, ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. More than one million American soldiers were engaged. My grandfather, James Madison Pearson took part.

So too did my grandfather’s cousin, Varlaurd Pearson*, as a member of Company I of the 137th Regiment. This regiment was formed in Manhattan, Kansas and was part of the 35th Infantry Division, composed of Kansas and Missouri National Guard units.

This is his story.

September 1918

It is a short week before the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last battle in what was then carelessly called The Great War.

The 137th Regiment, formed from members of the Kansas National Guard, have gathered their gear, their rifles and bayonets for the trip by truck from their staging area in the Foret-de-Haye, between the French towns of Nancy and Toul, for the trip to Auzeville, a small village west of Verdun.

Auzéville en Argonne, Clermont-en-Argonne is the French designation of the small farming community. There is nothing special about the village of less than one hundred souls. It is a place to gather troops for the coming offensive and there are dozens of similar gathering places.

Varlaurd Pearson is at Auzéville. His cousin Madison Pearson is at Graffigny-Chemin. Their existence to each other is probably unknown.

The evening of September 25th, 1918

Five days later, and the sun has set.

It is 7pm, the evening of the 25th of September, 1918. Under the cover of darkness, Sergeant Varlaurd Pearson and the men of the 137th Regiment march to their front-line position near Aubreville and Vauquois Hill. As they walk, an American artillery barrage is laid down upon the German lines and the evening sky lights up. The barrage continues well into the night.

There will be little sleep for soldiers on both sides.

The morning of September 26th

At 5:30 in the morning, the soldiers went “over the top”. The now familiar phrase meant that the troops left the relative security of the trenches where they lived with mud and rats, to cross into no-man’s land through barb wire and a cratered landscape all the while suffering the withering fire of machine guns and artillery fire, and occasionally having to deal with deadly gas attacks.

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Vauquois Hill

Vauquois Hill

The regiment’s initial objective is the formidable Vauquois Hill, won and lost many times since the beginning of the war and the scene of battles between French and German troops.The hill now resembles a moonscape with its pock marked landscape. Despite the constant warfare for control and the barrage of the evening before, the Germans are well-entrenched. The hill is honeycombed with tunnels.

Perhaps the Germans are tired of defending it, for Vauquois Hill is captured early in the day. Perhaps the Germans wish to draw the Americans in and then counter-attack. Perhaps it is simply a matter of giving up ground by attrition and hoping that the Americans will be bled dry.

In fact, more than 26,000 Americans will lose their lives in the six weeks of fighting and almost 100,000 will become wounded casualties.

The 137th Regiment is certainly glad to be rid of Vauquois Hill. It then fights its way through the woods towards Varennes and the smaller village of Cheppy, short of Charpentry. The regiment had advanced about three miles.

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View of Bois de Cheppy from Vauquois Hill, image taken several years later

September 27th

The 28th Division, fighting to the left of the 137th in the woods of the Argonne, is having a tougher go of it. So, the 137th Regiment shifts its actions to the west and northwest where together with the 28th, they take Varennes and Montblainville.

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Google map today of Baulny and Charpentry

Then they proceed on to Charpentry and Baulny.

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near Baulny, France

The 137th Regiment has now become a salient into the German lines. Other American units press on trying to keep pace but the battle lines are confused.

By the evening of September 27th, the 137th rests on a ridge east of Charpentry overlooking the ravine of Mollevaux. The Germans take this opportunity to regroup and place machine-gun units on the ridge overlooking the ravine.

September 28th

On the 28th the Germans counter attack with an artillery barrage and the 137th suffers its heaviest losses while pressing on towards Exermont.

The conditions are describes as this:

There was a cold autumn rain. The soldiers advanced through the open fields under heavy machine-gun fire. Their boots were soggy from the wet grass and the streams they crossed. Artillery support which would have suppressed the fire from the German lines was often missing because of delays in bringing the artillery units up.

Future president, Harry S. Truman was captain of Battery D. It is said that his unit was often in advance of other artillery units and his battery was forced to pull their guns one at a time by double teaming with 12 horses, in order to get them through the muddy, shell-torn and German mine-laid fields. They were lucky to arrive to their forward positions by 10 at night in order to prepare for the assault the following morning at 5:30.

Orders from higher up restricted the use of artillery in support of the advancing units, an order Truman often disobeyed.

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Varlaurd Pearson’s citation reads:

Varlaurd Pearson (Army serial number 1449077) sergeant, Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division. For extraordinary heroism in action near Baulny, France, September 28th, 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours, until he received a fourth wound, which proved fatal.

Distinguished Service Cross

Meuse-Argonne_US_Cemetery_varlaurd_pearson
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial
Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France
Varlaurd Pearson
Plot: Plot B Row 10 Grave 40

Notes.

There is a written history of Company C.

*Varlaurd is elsewhere spelled Varlourd.

I have tried to discover the origin of the name, but without success. Varlaurd’s father was General Charles Lafayette Pearson of Dadeville, Alabama, who spent time in France. The surname Varlourd appears there, but infrequently.

Harry Patch

I confess that I am fascinated with the veterans of World War I. It is a sad fact that there are none still living to tell their stories.

My grandfather James Madison Pearson was one. He arrived on the battlefields as a first lieutenant, in time to experience many of the battles, become wounded, then met and married a young French girl, Marguerite Chevallier Meine, who was my grandmother.

It is an irony that I, like so many, owe my existence to the tragedy of war.

Like my grandfather and father, I served in the Army. As a young Army captain in Germany, I took my wife to visit Verdun. I was in uniform, a rule the French imposed on visiting American soldiers. Driving into the hallowed grounds at Verdun I was greeted by a French soldier in uniform. He was old the, approximately the age of my grandfather who had died a few years earlier. He stood tall and erect despite his age. He sharply saluted me as I entered the grounds with my wife and I drove on.

I again confess, I was taken aback by the honor of his salute. It was he who deserved my salute.

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Harry Patch, Daily Telegraph, 2009

In 2007, Harry Patch, at the age of 109, the last survivor of the trenches of WWI, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/3633344/Ive-never-got-over-it.html). In this interview and in other interviews, he told of his experiences.

Much of it bears repeating, all of it bears reading.

We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.

We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.


And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.

Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.

He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.

Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.

It is a sad, solemn, and sobering fact, that the bodies of many dead soldiers were never recovered. And so, they never received a proper burial. Many of the bodies and body parts recovered were unrecognizable.

One night late September 1917, Harry Patch’s battalion, part of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Brigade, was pulled out of the line and moving to the rear over open ground when a German shell exploded. Harry was wounded in the groin by a shell splinter.

One other member of the five-strong team survived. Three were blown to bits.

“It killed Number Three – he came from Truro – and Number Four and Number Five. Jack and Jill we called those two. They came from Falmouth. Number Three was known as Maudy. There was an actress of that name. He had a good sense of humour.”

Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery in Belgium, the final resting place of those who fought and the names of those who bodies were never recovered. It is located 9 kilometers, about 6 miles, north east of Ypres.

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Tyne Cot, view from the southwest corner

There are 11,956 soldiers buried here, of which 8,369 are unnamed. The stone wall surrounding the cemetery markers makes-up the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, with more than 33,000 names.

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Tyne Cot

Old men, young men

Old men, young men, dead men on the battlefield. The last World War I veteran who served in the trenches was British veteran Harry Patch, who died on 25 July 2009, aged 111.

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Unknown British soldier (PBI) and family

Sad fact that old men make war and young men fight. Wouldn’t it better to be the other way around. Then families wouldn’t pay quite the price.

Harry Patch wisely said, “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”

Harry added:

“We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.

We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.”

Plan B

[Another in a series of posts about World War I and the Battle of the Somme. This year marks the one hundredth year anniversary.]

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September, 2016, Fields of Flanders.

I am in Europe on vacation with my two brothers-in-law. Adam, Andy, and Art, in case you were wondering. Three A’s. Three lawyers. At times, three assholes, some would say. Adam says I am contentious. What does that mean? Three of us in a car on our way to celebrate (is that the right word?) the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The fields of Flanders are all about us. Beautiful, I think. The picturesque homes and farms, the flowers. The very image of peace and tranquility.

I am driving down the highway minding my own business, gawking at the scenery, driving slowly, but not so slow as the small truck in front of me. The one with the blue bike on the back and the box. Just in case.

Thinking, thinking about all those lost souls on the battlefields.

“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything.” Anne Lamott’s words, but they ring true for most of us. I remember being thirteen, reading books on faith, even Thomas Aquinas, which is a lot for a thirteen-year-old to tackle, in church and wanting to believe, but struggling. Waiting for a sign but seeing and hearing nothing. Faith is not in a book and not in a mass. Faith is in believing in the bottom of your heart when there is nothing else. As I said, I have a lot of faith, I trust it is all going to work out.

But wouldn’t it be nice have a Plan B?

Thoughts on reading Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

P.S.

Faith is what you have when you cut and chop everything up. You pull it apart and look, deep into the inner recesses of what matters. So what if it is untouchable and unknowable. Lots of things are, but it is still felt, and felt all the more strongly because it comes from the heart.

First thing we do, kill all the lawyers

[Second in a series of posts on a trip to the battlefields of WWI]

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Les Halles Braisserie, Reims, France

 

It’s not “the” New York brasserie Les Halles – the restaurant best known for being Anthony Bourdain’s former home – but this one in France was a nice place to have an evening dinner. And pretend.

The hell with pretend. Here we are, we three, in Reims (city of French kings and Jean d’Arc – Reims, pronounced “Rance, it rhymes with dance. Go figure.). Having a great time. Anthony, I love you and your show, but give me Belgian beer and pommes frites. These days a Belgian euro goes a lot further than a New York dollar. An evening meal is an evening, not dine and dash. Okay, so the terrorists blew up the Delta counter in Brussels a month before we were scheduled to arrive. Not so many tourists and we flew United.


We three, you are wondering, who? Three brother-in-laws off on a trip to Belgium, France, and Luxembourg without the wives, the three sisters who are the common denominator. What is remarkable is that each brother-in-law has a name that begins with an “A”. – Adam, Andy, Art. Go figure. Moreover, each one is an attorney. What are the odds? Astronomical. Not really, but unusual, yes.

Oh Captain, my Captain, who shall the captain of three be?

Shakespeare knew well the bickering of noble minds, and the inevitability of armed conflict. No less a play than Henry VI to suggest, that the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers. That is a revolutionary idea, although one prone to greater anarchy than before.

Henry VI, part 2, Act 4, Scene 2

CADE

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,–

ALL

God save your majesty!

CADE

I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

DICK

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Unusual is the fact that we got along. Three is an odd number, usually given to pairings, pitting one brother-in-law against another. The white rose and the red. I am not going to say that it didn’t happen. It did. It is in the nature of things for men to disagree. Directions was the big thing. This way or that. To ask or to blindly go where no one knows. We’re lost.

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Across the way at a table for two sit two ladies on a girl trip to France. We chance to speak. They are American. Their husbands accept that their wives travel unescorted. They amaze us by relating that their Audi does a 150 km on the highway. We are not so brave. The conversation turns to girl trips and they tell us that they get along, but it is impossible for men to do so.

Are they right?

Vegas put the odds of a meltdown at 11-2. But Vegas lost on that bet.

We had a great time. Home again and still married. That is the long shot.

Tyne Cot

[First in a series of posts about the Battle of the Somme.

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View of Ypres from Tyne Cot

This is the Somme river valley. The word “Somme” is likely derived from Latin and French, “sommeil” suggesting a nap, a doze, or quick sleep. Others say it is Celtic and means “tranquil”.  It was neither for the soldiers who fought and died.

The battle for the pillbox at Tyne Cot has significance for all of us. First, it was part of the “War to End All Wars”, a misnomer. Second, it is a reminder of the fragility of life. Third, for myself and my two brothers-in-laws who went on this journey in September of 2016, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Somme Offensive, it was a connection with our grandfathers who fought and lived.]

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Date, September 8, 2016.

If we had waited three weeks and a few days, it would have been the 99th anniversary of the successful Australian assault on the hill along the Passendaele-Broodseinde road where the Germans were dug in and waiting. The weather is beautiful, unlike 100 years ago, and the countryside is serene and tranquil.

 

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Tyne Cot Cemetery Entrance

 

The view is of Fields of Flanders in the rolling chalk upland hills with Belgian villages here and there. The beauty is somber. In 1917, the second year of the Battle of the Somme, September rains and constant shelling by Allied and German howitzers have made the landscape a muddy morass and hellish scene. The entrenched Germans are ready with machine guns, barbed wire, deep dugouts, and pillboxes.

 

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Corner view, opposite side of grave markers looking towards the pillbox and cross

The name “Tyne Cot” was provided by the British Northumberland Fusiliers.

Far from home, far from their families, opposite the Germans, the Fusiliers are said to have seen a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes and the Fusilliers’ own stone cottages near Tyneside (Tyne cots) in Northumberland, England’s northernmost county.
On 4 October 1917, the hill and the bunker where Tyne Cot Cemetery CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)  is now located was captured by the 3rd Australian Division. New Zealanders, in support of Australians and advancing through mud that day, were caught in uncut German barbed wire and slaughtered. Elsewhere other British and Commonwealth soldiers attacked German lines.

After taking the hill, the pillbox where the cross stands was used as a medical dressing station for wounded. A cemetery for the 343 dead Australian soldiers was begun two days later.

 

The inscription reads, “This was the Tyne Cot Blockhouse captured by the 3rd Australian Division 4th October 1917.

On 13 April 1918, the Germans recaptured the hillside and it was finally liberated by Belgian forces five months later.

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Tyne Cot Cemetery wall

After the Armistice the cemetery was expanded to consolidate the graves of other battle sites around Passendaele and now contains over 11,500 graves of Commonwealth and British soldiers. Four German soldiers are buried here. The memorial wall contains the names of almost 35,000 soldiers who have no known grave.

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Ypres view from Tyne Cot cemetery

The city towers of Ypres are visible in the distance. The blood red poppies that are ever present in the green fields are a reminder of the lives lost.

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Red poppies Fields of Flanders

Worth watching – Youtube Tyne Cot drone view.

How does one assess the worth of the Battle of the Somme?

On the first day of the battle, British soldiers kicked soccer balls towards the German lines across “no man’s land,” in a belief the battle would be quick and simple.

It was neither.

In all, for the six miles that British soldiers advanced during the offensive, they lost more than 400,000 and both sides saw 1.3 million casualties. Intending to relieve the French who held out against a German offensive at Verdun, there too were a million casualties. This was bloodletting on a massive scale.

And what are we left with?

The days are gone by when, for dynastic ends, small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city, or a province, and then sought winter quarters or made peace. The wars of today call whole nations to arms…. The entire financial resources of the State are appropriated to a military purpose….

— Moltke the Elder, writing in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 1916, was the bloodiest day ever in British Army history.

Exhausted when the winter snows finally came, both sides hunkered down and repeated the bloodshed in 1917, when Tyne Cot was captured by the Australians, and in 1918 when it was recaptured by the Germans, until the Armistice came on November 11, 1918.