Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Uncle Tom's Nightmare Trip to France

Americans fighting in France 1918
The only other person in my family beside me who spent any time in France was my great uncle Tom Hogan. His visit was shorter and not as pleasant. He spent much of it trying to avoid getting killed.
His story, in brief, was this. In the spring of 1918 he was drafted and shipped overseas to fight in World War I. He had been in combat about four or five months when he disappeared.
This was all I knew about him. The story popped up in a casual conversation with my mother who talked about Tom's difficulties the way someone might mention that a relative had trouble finding a parking space at the mall. "He went off to France and just disappeared," Mom said with quiet bafflement. "No one knew what happened to him."
Intrigued, I started doing a little research.
The Internet can be amazing. With a little hunting I found a copy of Uncle Tom’s draft registration card. (You can't tell from this image, but in the lower left corner of the card the small print reads, "If person is of African descent, cut off this corner.")

He filled it out on June 5, 1917. He was 27, old for the draft, and not married. He worked at a factory, the Excelsior Needle Company in Torrington, Connecticut, making knitting needles. I noticed in answer to the question: "Married or Single [which]" he wrote, "No." I also noticed he lived down the street from his father, Patrick, my Great Grandfather.
I already had done a little family history research and knew that Patrick D. Hogan, was born in Ireland, in the town of Thurles, County Mayo. Family lore has it that Patrick’s parents decided he deserved better than to waste his life in the depressed and oppressed country that was Ireland back then. The family pooled their money bought him a ticket from Liverpool to the United States. He arrived in the spring of 1880. Here's a photo of the distinguished Patrick in his glory days:

Using his skills as a carpenter Patrick got a job building packing crates for a local factory. Even though he was illiterate -- my mother remembers sitting on his lap as a seven-year-old girl reading him the headlines in the local paper – he prospered. He bought land and built two houses in a quiet neighborhood, Cherry Street, in my hometown. He and other Irish immigrants dug out by hand the foundation for my parish church St. Francis, where everyone in my family, including I assume my Uncle Tom, were baptized and many were married and buried.
The early 1900s were hard years emotionally for Patrick. His daughter, Josephine, died in a flu epidemic in 1905 at the age of 11. His wife Mary died in 1916. And now, in 1917, the government was drafting his son to fight in a war many in the U.S. thought was none of their business.
National Archive records of most World War I vets were destroyed in a huge warehouse fire in 1973, but my sister Carol, digging through in the files of our town historical society, found a little more info on Tom. I learned that in May 1917 for the first time since the Civil War, the government reinstituted the draft. At time the U.S. entered World War I it had a pitifully small Army, just a few hundred thousand men. They needed a couple of million - fast. So they started dragooning men into the service. Record of local vets' service showed that in the spring of 1918 Tom's number came up. He had to report for active duty. Tom was assigned to the infantry. Cannonfodder.
It was not a good time to be a soldier. Training was absurd. Some recruits didn’t even have any weapons to practice with. During basic training soldiers were issued two-by-fours cut out in the shapes of rifles. I guess the Army figured the men could always yell "Bang! Bang!" and conk the enemy over the head. Even though the war had been fought in trenches for over three years, there was little grounding in trench warfare, according to one historian. Tactics taught were based on the Spanish American War and the Franco Prussian War. Men spent hours on pointless bayonet practice, a weapon which, when they finally got to war, they used to dig foxholes and hang stuff off of. (This fine moronic tradition has continued. Some 50 years later I too had hours of pointless bayonet training. When I got to Vietnam I used mine to open beer cans.)
The Army was rushed into the war so fast it had all kinds of equipment shortages. American soldiers used helmets provided by the British. Their artillery was provided mostly by the French. The Army shipped cavalry horses to France. Horses. It was like sending George Custer to fight tanks and machine guns. Communication was by carrier pigeon.( I'm not kidding.) Practically no one -- officers or enlisted men -- had any combat experience.What's that cliché? Oh, right: Recipe for a disaster.
Historical society records also noted that in late spring of 1918 at the age of 28 Tom was loaded onto a troop ship and sailed to Europe across the same ocean his father had crossed 38 years earlier, getting the hell out of Europe.
The Historical Society notes pithily add that Tom was in three major battles at: Chateau-Thierry, a place called the Saint-Mihiel Salient, and the Argonne Forest. Tom survived the first two in one piece. But in the Argonne Forest [See U.S. Army photo taken of the fighting, above] his luck ran out.
I learned that at Chateau-Thierry our inexperienced troops fought under the command of the French. But at the Saint-Mihiel Salient and the Argonne Forest the Americans were on their own for the first time. Since both places were in striking distances of the city of Verdun in northeastern France, I decided to check them out. So, nearly 92 years to the day that Thomas Francis Hogan filled out his doomed draft card, I boarded a train in Paris and headed for Verdun.

Private Thomas Francis Hogan before shipping out to France.

{To be continued}
Depressing French fact: An estimated 1,385,000 French soldiers died in World War I. Over four million were wounded.