When my grandfather, Arnold Bickett, served in the U.S. infantry in France in World War I, he was certainly homesick. Having been born in a log cabin in Kentucky, the young farmer had never been very far from home. He most likely had never aimed a gun at anything but game birds or squirrels. He knew country life, but had never been crammed into a tight space with hundreds of other people.
All of that changed in mid-1917 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After six weeks of very basic training, he and his fellow Kentuckians were transported to the ships that would take them to the battlefields in France.
When they got to France in August, they soon became acclimated to life in the trenches. The young doughboys learned about mud and rats. They slept at night to the continuous thundering of mortars. They were marched through the system of tunnels to the front, at first just as observers, to learn about what fighting would be like. For my grandfather, it was a horrifying experience. He missed the beauty of the Kentucky countryside. He missed his family and friends. He missed the old farm. He was scared.
During one of the “observer” tours, men were returning from the front lines, passing by the green recruits like my grandfather. Grandpa asked one of the men, whose face he recalled as blackened with mud, what it was like up at the front. The man could barely speak. He finally mumbled quietly, “It’s all hell.”
My grandfather never forgot that man, and wondered later in life what ever happened to him. Did he make it through the fighting? Did he survive?
At night, my grandfather would play his old harmonica for his buddies. It helped them pass the time and remember home. It helped them deal with the fear. He played lonesome songs about sweethearts back home. He played from his heart, because he was frightened too.
By summer of 1918, there was a major offensive in the works. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, or the Battle of Argonne Forest as my grandfather remembered it, began in late September. It was the battle that finally ended the war, with Allied forces driving back 40 German divisions through the six-week campaign. For many of the U.S. soldiers, my grandfather included, it was their first and last taste of battle.
Grandpa talked little of the actual battle in his later years. Grandma didn’t like him to scare his grandkids with the details. But he did say that he never recognized the beauty of the French rural countryside, because, by the time he passed through it, mortars, shells and soldiers had destroyed it. The country was nothing more than mud and blood.
Grandpa reflected in those later years how he made it out of the battle alive. Many of his friends did not. He said that it was only through the prayers of his family, particularly his mother back home, that he believed he was spared. The devastation was complete, and it is difficult for me to imagine it, although I have studied World War I and this battle extensively.
Grandpa passed away in 1986 at the age of 97. He survived the war, came home and farmed, raising a big family, and living out his life fruitfully and peacefully, in spite of those violent days of his youth.
Because of what he shared with his grandchildren about that war experience, I think a lot about how difficult it must have been, particularly for farm youth, to go to war. From my own community, nearly 30 young men went to France during World War I. Most of them were farm kids, with about the same experiences as my grandfather. Three of those young men did not come home. Two were killed on battlefields in France, and one died of disease while in officer training in Lincoln. I’ve read their accounts of battles through letters they wrote home during the war that were published in 1917 and 1918 in our hometown newspaper.
One young man wrote of working on a burial detail, and coming across the fresh grave of another young man from Crofton who had been killed a few days earlier. He wrote how difficult that experience was to see the grave of his friend from back home. He explained through his letters about the contrast between the violent, murderous battlefields of war, and the peaceful, loving setting of his rural home. No doubt, farm kids from all wars have had similar epiphanies during their service to our country in foreign lands. This knowledge helps me appreciate even more the great sacrifices all of our American soldiers have made in service of our nation and our freedoms, including the experiences and sacrifices of my grandfather.
Here is this week’s discussion question. What relatives in your family have served their country in the military? Let us know about their experiences so far from home.
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