Saturday, June 2, 2018

Wounded—How It Feels to Be Shot

Floyd Gibbons (1887–1939)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

“How Twenty Marines Took Bouresches,” oil on canvas by American illustrator Frank E. Schoonover (1877–1972), reproduced in “Souvenir Pictures of the Great War,” The Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1919. The caption reads, “June 6, 1918, saw one of the most spectacular bits of fighting that occurred during the Belleau offensive. Two hundred and fifty Marines, facing a terrific machine-gun fire, charged across this wheat field. The wheat, nearly waist high and still very green and dotted with poppies, was their only protection. Of this number only 20 were left to take [the village of] Bouresches, which was held by 300 Germans.” The capture of Bouresches was one of several incidents that occurred that day in the first wave of American attacks on Belleau Wood. Scan from the U.S. Military Forum.
In the history of the U.S. Marines, the Battle of Belleau Wood is as iconic an event as Iwo Jima. A defining moment of World War I, the month-long struggle over the 600-acre forest effectively halted the German advance to Paris, sixty miles away. During the first week of June 1918, two Marine regiments, with help from two Army infantry regiments, drove back repeated advances from the German forces firmly ensconced in the forest. Meanwhile, American intelligence officers returned from behind enemy lines with the news that the German army appeared to be consolidating its positions inside the wood in preparation for a major offensive.

On the afternoon of June 6 two battalions of Marines advanced against a constant barrage of machine-gun fire across a field of wheat, “nearly waist high and still very green and dotted with poppies.” One of the war’s most celebrated moments occurred when Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly led his company forward with the shout, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” By day’s end, a contingent of men succeeded in reaching the wood and holding a position there—but the Marines suffered heavy losses, with more than a thousand casualties, and one of the two battalions was so decimated that it was relieved from the battlefield on June 8. It would take three weeks for Allied forces to flush all the Germans out of Belleau Wood, at a cost of 1,800 American lives and nearly 8,000 wounded.

American journalist Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune was one of twenty-one “accredited” American correspondents embedded that spring with American forces in Europe. Unlike the dozens of “visiting” journalists arriving daily from the United States, accredited correspondents could travel freely in authorized areas and at the front, unaccompanied by a press officer. An order issued the previous year by the headquarters staff under Major General Pershing stipulated that each accredited correspondent “shall provide himself with an American officer’s uniform, without insignia, and with a green brassard bearing the letter C in red.” (Photographers and artists—there were twenty-nine of them—were identified by the letter P.) In addition, reporters were not allowed to carry arms.
“Helmut worn by Floyd Gibbons when wounded, showing
damage caused by shrapnel.” Photograph and caption
 from “And They Thought We Wouldn’t Fight” (1918).

To an enemy across a field, then, an unarmed accredited correspondent looked no different than a soldier, yet Floyd Gibbons planted himself in the midst of the first wave of attacks at Belleau Wood on June 6. He entered the wheat with Major Benjamin S. Berry, the commanding officer of one of the two battalions. When Berry was hit in the forearm by gunfire, Gibbons attempt to crawl to his aid—and was wounded himself.

Gibbons was released from the hospital on July 5 and, in spite of the severity of his injuries, returned immediately to the front. On July 18 he was the only correspondent with American forces at the Battle of Château-Thierry, a pivotal victory for the Allies, and he accompanied the first American troops to enter the town after the German forces fled. In early August, after the tide seemed to have turned, Gibbons opted to return home to warn Americans about relaxing their guard against the continuing German menace and the so-called “peace offensive.” Upon learning of Gibbons’s departure Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces, sent him a note. “I understand that you are going to the United States to give lectures on what you have seen on the French front. No one is more qualified than you to do this, after your brilliant conduct in the Bois de Belleau.”

Later that year, Gibbons wrote an account of his day at the Battle of Belleau Wood, and we present it below as our Story of the Week selection. A brief headnote by the prominent biographer A. Scott Berg provides some additional information.

Notes: Mairie (page 471) is French for town hall. Lieutenant Arthur E. Hartzell, misidentified by Gibbons on page 472 as Oscar Hartzell, was a press officer at the American Expeditionary Forces headquarters. “Corned Willy” (page 473) is slang for corned beef. On page 474 Gibbons identifies Major Benjamin Berry as John Berry.

While lying wounded on the battlefield, Gibbons worried about being afflicted by gas gangrene, a persistent and often lethal ailment during the war. Doctors had only recently discovered that the ailment, originally believed to be the result of German poisons, was caused by anaerobic bacteria found in soil that had been cultivated for generations with decaying animal and vegetable matter. Ellen N. La Motte provides a nurse’s account of dealing with gas gangrene patients in “Alone,” a previous Story of the Week selection.

*   *   *
Just how does it feel to be shot on the field of battle? . . . 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.