Friday, November 2, 2018

Waiting for the Armistice

Harry S. Truman (1884–1972)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

Beginning of Harry S. Truman’s letter to Bess Wallace, November 11, 1918 (the day of the Armistice ending World War I). Courtesy Harry S. Truman Library.
Days after the soldiers commanded by Harry S. Truman in France experienced combat for the first time, Private (and soon-to-be Corporal) William O’Hare wrote to his father, “We have a captain who cannot be beaten.” For decades after World War I, virtually everyone in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, would similarly recall their commanding officer with admiration and fondness—but it didn’t start out that way.

Truman had been promoted to captain and given command of the “Dizzy D” in July 1918. The battery was a difficult and somewhat notorious group of nearly two hundred Missouri National Guardsmen, self-described “wild kids,” many of them Irish and German Catholics who had attended Rockhurst Academy in Kansas City. They had already gone through three previous commanding officers since arriving in France. When Truman first addressed the battery, these city toughs, many former athletes, scoffed at the bespectacled 34-year-old farmer who (as one recalled) “gave the impression more of a professor than he did an artillery officer.” The rebellious soldiers concluded the assembly on Truman’s first day with a noisy “Bronx cheer,” proceeded to stage a mock stampede using the battery’s horses, and ended the evening with an alcohol-fueled brawl that sent four men to the infirmary. The next morning Truman posted a notice demoting half of the noncommissioned officers, along with a good number of the first class privates for good measure. Their mirth instantly turned to disgruntlement—but he had got their attention.

During the next month Truman earned the grudging respect of at least some of the men. And then, on the night of August 29, 1918, in the Vosges Mountains, Battery D faced its first firefight. As Private Vere Leigh told an interviewer in 1970, “We were firing away and having a hell of a good time doing it until they began to fire back.” As Truman confessed two days later in a letter to Bess Wallace, his future wife, “My greatest satisfaction is that my legs didn’t succeed in carrying me away, although they were very anxious to do it.” Not all the battery’s members resisted the temptation to flee and an unknown number of soldiers turned tail. The usually genteel Truman let loose with a blistering barrage of words “in language that they could understand” and rallied his troops forward. After the war, as battery members disputed over who fled and who stuck with their captain, the episode entered Battery D lore as the “Battle of Who Run.”

Truman continued to lead his troops in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel (September 12) and the Meuse-Argonne campaign (‎September 26–November 11). As a whole, the National Guardsmen from Missouri and Kansas that made up the 35th Division were largely unprepared for war, and the division’s organization and command occasionally bordered on chaotic. Harry wrote Bess about one incident he witnessed in late October:
One of [the German] aviators fell right behind my Battery yesterday and sprained his ankle, busted up the machine [plane], and got completely picked by the French and Americans in the neighborhood. They even tried to take their (there were two in the machine) coats. One of our officers, I am ashamed to say, took the boots off of the one with the sprained ankle and kept them. . . . If a guard had not been placed over the machine, I don't doubt that it would have been carried away bit by bit. . . . I heard a Frenchman remark that Germany was fighting for territory, England for the sea, France for patriotism, and Americans for souvenirs. Yesterday made me think he was about right.
Yet the members of Battery D soon realized that their commanding officer had their backs and that he was just as generous with commendation and reward as he was with punishment. During three months of combat, the “Dizzy D” stood out from the other five batteries in the regiment not only because of its tighter discipline and its successes in the midst of heavy fighting but also because, under Truman’s command, none of its members were killed in action and only two were wounded. The other batteries suffered a total of 16 killed and 55 wounded.

On each of the last two days of the war Harry wrote a letter to Bess, and we present both of them below. For the duration of Harry’s deployment Bess lived in her family’s home in Independence and, after their marriage the following year, Truman moved into the house, which would be his Missouri home for the rest of his life.

Notes (first letter): Fred A. Boxley, was a Kansas City lawyer Truman had met in the Missouri National Guard. In the fall of 1916 Truman had become a partner in the Morgan Oil & Refining Company, a venture that failed in 1917. Old daddy Foch refers to Allied supreme commander General Ferdinand Foch, who had presented the Armistice terms to a German delegation on November 8. Lizzie was Truman’s nickname for the five-seater car he had purchased in 1914. Sausage balloons were observation balloons.

(Second letter): The great big 155 battery refers to a French howitzer, supplied to American forces, that fired shells 155mm (6.1 inches) in diameter and had a maximum range of seven miles. Bill’s letter, sent by Corporal William O’Hare to his father and then excerpted in the Kansas City Post, contains flattering comments about Truman, including the line quoted at the beginning of this introduction. Mrs. [Maud Gates] Wells was Bess’s aunt. “Stars & Stripes” was the U.S. Army newspaper published weekly in France from February 8, 1918, until June 13, 1919.

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If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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