My paternal Grandfather, Irving Henry Crowne, served in the Infantry during World War One on the battlefields of France. Barely 20-years old, he penned the letter below to the folks at home, recalling what it was like at the front lines. His nephew, Roger, discovered the hand-written letter and transcribed it for all of us so that we might keep Grandad’s experience near. His words speak both for the fallen and for those called to find their inner bravery.
20 November 1918
Lt. I. H. Crowne
Air Service, S. C. A.E.F.
St. Maxient, Deux Jevres, France
As you read this, the excitement and joy over our victory have waned so, probably, that there remains only a stolid waiting for the Boys to come back – but “over here” we can still remember those infernal days, only a week, or so, back, when the “old iron” (shells) roamed hungrily overhead – and we roamed hungrily below.
I’m sure that my letter to mother has reached you all – and so you know that though my time “over here” hardly makes me a veteran I have seen something of the big scrap. I know that you-all can’t really realize just what “fighting in France” meant I know that I didn’t ’til I went up into the lines – shelled every foot of the trip “in” – shelled for days and nights while “in” and then to drag myself “out”, back to the rear, still to the tune of the shells.
Certainly newspaper “depêches” (dispatches) and accounts give no idea – of what really goes on. You will read, for our sector (I mean the sector where I was – just south of St. Michiel) for the 9th and 10th of November – Artillery activity all along the Metz road – our forces made several attacks upon Zannes. But I was there! And now, with the censors’ hands shackled – I can tell you something of what went on there.
I had been “in” with the 109th Machine Guns – (Corps troops with the 7th Division) for several days- but the shelling on the evening of Saturday, the 9th, was the worst I had seen- horribly accurate, so thick that liaison runners and mess details were prevented from moving out of our lines – or were killed as soon as they did attempt it – and falling so closely that the fumes from the “H.E. s” and “Jack Johnsons” were choking us into wearing our masks – the shells fell about forty per minute. The shelling lasted from seven p.m. to about nine – we expected now, of course, an attack, but at nine the shelling fell off- and for a few minutes the silence was oppressive. We were choking from powder fumes, and no water – hungry with an appetite two days old – but a “chow detail” was an impossibility – hungry ? why I never knew, before, what hungry meant. For two days, all we had had was a cake – chocolate (divided among six of us) and several sticks of chewing gum which I found in my pack. When you experience a dull growling – a constant heavy pain that you can’t just forget and with a mouth and tongue parched, dry, swollen, and almost black, from long neglected thirst – then you know the hunger and thirst of the front line.
About ten o’clock we sent the chow detail back to the Bevy road, where our kitchens were – and they returned (minus two men) about twelve with “canned willie” and hard tack – but no water – I was nearly the last one to drive myself to it – but it was that or suffer that Hell thirst – so I followed example, put my head down in a shell crater, and drank up the stagnant, filthy water that had accumulated from previous rain, and some, by far, less worthy sources. God – it was good, though – just something to wet your mouth – and take the crinkles out of your throat.
After “canned willie” and “tack” we all felt better – cheerful, even – and one of the boys remarked that “this wasn’t such a bad old war, after all”.
The Boche shelling now was light – and our own guns were silent, for we had several patrols out along the line. At four A.M. we were told to “stand by” – we were going over at 5:10 – Our guns now turned loose and the barrage they threw was terrific – but – all too short – the shells fell some hundred yards in front of us, and far short of the Boche line.
There is a terrible tenseness that always precedes an attack – the screaming and explosions of your own barrage have “gotten on your nerves” – and the pictures of some of those boys “out in front” – fallen across the barbed wire – lying scattered all across the ground out front – mangled, shattered, bodies rotting and – well you want to stand up on the parapet and scream! – but instead – you sit on the fire-step – light a cigarette – maybe your hand trembles a bit – and talk – laugh and joke sometimes – hide your own feelings – and wonder whether Lieut. Brandeis – or Pvt. Grey is experiencing the same shivers. The Captain passes along and it’s not the “Come on, boys” you’ve heard about – it is a terse “Snap into it – give ’em hell! and use the bean!”
At 5:05 the barrage lets up a bit – we crowd on the fire-step – and then – it’s all like a dream, now – you go over – it’s dark – but star shells flash all along the Boche line- you can just make out the “chevaux de-frise” (wire entanglements) a few yards in front of the Boche lines – the man next to you stumbles – and falls – you wait just a second, for him to get up – then a star shell bursts overhead and you see that half his head is gone. You trot along – shuffling gate – thinking, every now and then to dodge the “minnies” (bullets) and zig-zagging (as ‘though it were any use) – then forgetting – and going straight ahead, again.
And in a few seconds you’re over or through the Boche wire – running; dropping flat – then running again right up to the Boche parapet – then emptying your “45” magazine into that mass of green clothed things that are snarling and stabbing, and fighting like cornered rats.
And then the Captain blows his whistle – a private runs over to yo and says – tries to say – and finally just motions back – and you blow your whistle – motion to the men of your platoon – of anyone’s platoon – who happen to be near you – and all go running back through our wire – and down into our own “saps” – then you just throw yourself down on the first-step and shake with an unknown fear – when it’s all over.
Casualties – well out of my platoon (46 men), thirteen are gone – and that means “paper work” and a report – “damn them”
Do you get a view of all this – from the newspaper column of “Artillery action all along the line – – – -”