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Elmer Beville’s War (Part 2)

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By: David Baker

Editor’s Note: This article, along with Part 1 published earlier in November 2018, showcase two different approaches to incorporating primary sources into family history writing. Part 1 provided examples of how one can fact check a letter or diary to better understand what the original writer was describing. Part 2 explores ways to build a narrative around a source which may not contain enough information in and of itself to be informative. Readers should note that the original notebook entries transcribed in Part 2 are an almost continuous line of handwriting, making it impossible to line up the image with the text.  The transcription here is complete but does not always match the image nearby.

James Elmer Beville, my grandfather, was a soldier of the Great War. At the time of his death at age fifty-seven in 1956, he had never shared with our family his experiences of military service from April 9, 1917, to June 23, 1919. Among the few possessions that he saved was a small pocket notebook about the size of a three-by-five file card, bound in dilapidated cardboard that had once seen a thin veneer of leather.  About half the pages remain unused and the balance is covered with notes in the cramped handwriting of Elmer Beville and the bold schoolteacher’s hand of my grandmother, Ray Williams Acron Beville. Most interesting, though, are the fifteen pages in which my grandfather described his military service—the story he never told us.

The first seven pages, which cover the period from joining the National Guard until his arrival in France a little more than a year later, are memoir.  The final eight pages, which at first glance appear to be diary entries, provide only the sketchiest record Elmer’s of overseas experiences: his assignment to Company C of the 303rd Engineers, service in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives, and return home.  Elmer’s memoir is written in ink, but the chronology that follows is in pencil, and is an uninterrupted account his movements—sometimes on a day-by-day basis—giving  dates and places, but very little detail of his experience. Elmer often recorded the chronology with specificity, sometimes including the day of the week. He often accurately cited the names of French villages, but sometimes misspelled them and had small discrepancies, suggesting that he may have noted them as he passed through.

While it will never be possible for us to know Elmer’s exact experiences, it is possible for us to reconstruct, to some extent, his story based on what was happening at the times and places he recorded.  My effort to add flesh to the skeleton story in Elmer’s notebook led me to supplement my schoolboy’s understanding of the Great War by reading several general histories of the conflict.[1] As a result, I have been able to provide some context for the many names, places, and activities that constituted Elmer’s war.

Elmer’s Notebook

In the first part of the notebook, Elmer wrote about the period from his enlistment in April 1917 through his arrival in France in July 1918. At that point, his notebook changes its tone, and he changed writing instruments. Sometimes-blurred graphite replaced his carefully inked narrative of the previous pages. He begins this section by compressing the events of eight preceding pages into just over a half-page of chronology.

Enlisted April 8th 1917. Left Lfield May 22 arrived at Camp Stanly May 24th. Left for Camp Shelby Sept 5th 1917.  Arrived Sept 9th.  Left Camp Shelby June 3 for Camp Merritt N. J.  arrived 6th June Camp Merritt. June 11 left New York harbor June 12.  Arrived Liverpool England June 24.  Arrived Southampton 25. Left 27 June.  Left Southampton Thurs 27. Arrived Le Havre June 28.  Left Le Havre Sat June 29.   Rode in Box Cars.  Arrived St Aignan Noyes June 1. Left July 5th.  Arrived at Angers July 5th. Left Angers July 26.  Arrived Rouen July 27.  Left Rouen July 28.  Arrived Hesdigneul Jul 29.  Left Hesdigneul Aug 6.  Arrived at Atables Aug 6, 4 p.m.  Left Atables Aug 7 6:00 a.m. Arrived at St Pol Aug 7 (Dark 8  p.m.). Left St Pol Aug 8 Thurs 1 p.m. Arrived Reg 303 Heq 6 p.m. Aug 8.  Attached to Co “A” 303 Engineers.  Went to Range 14.  Left Buneville Aug 15.  Assigned Co C Aug 19.

His chronology continues beyond the last portion of his narrative, which saw him arrive in Angers, France on July 5. At some point after July 5, Elmer’s unit, the 138th Machine Gun Battalion, originally intended for amalgamation into Allied units, was reassigned at St. Aignan, a Loire Valley classification center. He and other newcomers were assigned as engineers to prepare the limited road system of the eastern sector of the Western Front to handle the increased traffic from the AEF. He received only three weeks instruction at a training center at Angers before being shipped to Flanders. There the Seventy-eighth Division was completing its fifth week of training by British instructors in an area just a short hike from the St. Pol train station. Headquarters for the division’s engineers was at the nearby village of Oudezeele.

The Seventy-eighth Division was a regular Army division, initially made up of draftees from New Jersey but soon expanded to include men from the surrounding states. The division trained at Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was one of several intact divisions transported to France along with the infantry replacements and had been training in Flanders since early June. At Oudezeele, Elmer was assigned to Company B, 303rd Engineers and trained with them for ten days before reporting to Company C, as he records in his notebook. On August 20, 1918, the company departed for duty. He was a late-coming replacement whose new comrades had bonded together since basic training days.  Elmer’s notebook does not mention any of his associates by name, just as its sketchy entries give few specifics of their activities. But the information he records—sometimes a phrase, sometimes just a word—usually denotes something of significance.

Left Aug 20 5p.m. St. Pol.  Left train 1 p.m. Aug 22.  Hiked to Blondefontaine arriving  9 p.m.

Elmer does not comment on the two-day rail journey that took him from Flanders to the St. Mihiel Offensive, but we know he traveled through Paris—as well as the bleak landscape of Chateau Thierry, scarred by battle a month earlier. “Shell holes were mighty close to one another, many buildings were leveled to the ground,” according to company historians, “and the familiar little wooden crosses were a common spectacle.”   Company C arrived at the LaFette station and hiked to Blondfontaine with full packs in searing heat. Townspeople warmly welcomd the doughboys, as the Americans were called, and received them as “great benefactors of France.” The troops slept in billets “decidedly superior” to any others yet provided. Blondfontaine served as a rest area for nearly a week.[2]

Left Blondefontaine Aug 28th 2 p.m. hiked. Passed through Bordes, Voisey, Bourtbanane.  Camped through the night 10 p.m. Left Aug 29 10 a.m. passing Beaurchmay, Parnot, Herveye-orafontiell, Gearville, Chanfoville Graffigny. Stopped in billets Chremin.  Arrived 29 8:00 pm.[3]

The men hiked forty-five miles in just two days. Once billeted, their activity was limited to light drilling. More important, however, their “English ordnance and equipment was exchanged for American models and the boys were completely fitted out for action.”[4]

Rifle Range Sept 4.  Left Chemin Sept 4 p.m. Passed through several small villages.  Stopped near Harreville 4 p.m. Sept 5. Left Harreville Sept 5 passed through more villages.  Stopped near Neufchateau Sept 6 4 a.m. Left Neufchateau September 6 – 9 p.m.  Arrived at Valincourt Sept 7th 10 a.m.

“Rifle Range”

The 303rd Engineers’ first assignment in France was to construct the rifle range at Graffigny-Chemin.  The project was both a point of pride for the company and the target field where they tested the U.S.-issue Springfield rifles that replaced the Lee-Enfield models with which they had been trained.

The march that began on September 4, like most treks by AEF units, ended outside the village of destination because Pershing had a near-phobic fear that his troops would contract venereal diseases from civilians. The hike was a series of secret night marches, intended to avoid air surveillance as the AEF prepared to attack the German lines of the St. Mihiel salient.

Left Valincourt Sept 10 – 10 p.m. Walked to Chatenois.  Arrived at 8 a.m. Sept 11.  We rode the Lorries.  Left Woods Sept 11 Wed. 10 p.m. Left woods arriving at another wood to miles 3 a.m. Sept 12 First Barrage.  Left Sept 13 Fri 3 a.m. arriving at Manorville[5] Sept 13 8 a.m. Billets.  Big guns.

Three cryptic phrases: “rode the Lorries,” “First Barrage,” and “Big guns,” refer to significant events.

“We rode the Lorries”

The Company C history records that in the driving rain on September 10 “the boys had their first ride in French lorries (motor trucks).”  The French called them camions. Lorries was the British term. Eighteen men packed into each vehicle and, although the trip was uncomfortable, the only serious incident occurred when exhaust from the camion they rode in gassed eleven men.[6]

“The First Barrage”

At 10:00 p.m. on September 11, the lorry drivers deposited Company C several miles short of their designated campsite. Midway through a five-hour, rain-soaked march, the engineers witnessed what Elmer called the “first barrage.” At about 1:00 a.m. “out of the cloudy, rainy sky hundreds of flashes almost simultaneously showed, and the roar of cannon quickly resounded in the distance.” [7]

Private Eugene Kennedy of Company E, 303rd Engineers, wrote a description in his diary:

I saw a sight which I shall never forget.  It was the zero hour.  In one instant the entire front as far as the eye could reach in either direction was a sheet of flame while the heavy artillery made the earth quake.  The barrage was so intense that for a time we could not make out whether the Americans or Germans were putting it over.  After timing the interval between flash and report we knew that the heaviest artillery was less than a mile away and consequently it was ours. [8]

This barrage was the prelude to the attack on the St. Mihiel salient, a bulge in the French defensive line that had hindered rail traffic since 1914. On September 12, AEF troops surprised the German 77th Reserve Division, broke through, and reached their final objective before night.”[9]

The Seventy-eighth Division, held in reserve, played no part in this attack, but on September 14 and for three weeks thereafter, the division was assigned to “hold and organize” more than four miles of territory the AEF overran near the village of Limey. The 303rd Engineers went on detached assignment under the Corps Engineer to build roads to ensure that the AEF did not lose ground in the event of a counter attack.[10] Four years of fighting had left the roads near and across “No-Man’s-Land” in poor condition.

Left Sat.  Sept 14 8 p.m. past Limey. Stopped woods again. St.  Mihiel.  Left Sept 16 3 a.m.  Moved the mules to the front. Short hike. Stopped in woods again Sept 16 shell exploded kill 5 mules, 2 horses 5 men wounded. 

“Shell Exploded”

As the men of Company C worked on the road, a separate work crew collected “duds” and other ammunition.  The careless toss of a live shell into a ditch near the engineers’ worksite caused in the explosion Elmer recorded. The Company C history notes that the blast killed three men, wounded several more and blew six mules “to pieces.” It also records a near miss: “Within ten minutes after the explosion General Pershing and Major-General (James A.) McRae (commander) of the 78th Division, drove up in a big limousine. Had they been sooner, serious damage might have been done to their car.”[11]

Left again Sept 18 2 p.m. in woods again at 4 p.m.

This move took the camp even closer to the front lines. The “woods” were near the town of Thiaucourt, and the company history notes that the 303rd Engineers returned to the division as combatant engineer troops. They carried out most of their work, such as stringing barbed wire and trench construction, under cover of darkness.  Still, there were some casualties and one death. Company historians observe simply, “German shelling was quite heavy and made work unpleasant as well as hazardous.”[12]

Sunday Sept 22 Over the Top 5 of our 2 killed 3 died from wounds. Left lines two miles back 24.

“Over the Top”

After the AEF took control of the St. Mihiel front, a decision was made to raid Mon Plaisir Ferme, a farm that served as an active observation post, to capture prisoners, documents, and easily portable material. This September 22 raid was the Seventy-eighth Division’s first real offensive operation.  The 3rd Battalion of the 310th Infantry Regiment received orders to make the assault.[13] Elmer’s Company C had engineering duties for the operation.  The plan was for a slow-moving artillery attack to precede the attack. The engineers would use wire cutters to cut the barbed wire that protected the German position. Then the 310th would go through and hold a point 100 yards beyond Mon Plaisir Farm for 20 minutes while engineers demolished farm buildings and supporting dugouts.[14]

Everyone was to have taken part in the operation—including muleskinners, kitchen help and even clerks. The men formed ten details of five men each. Each detail received thirty sticks of dynamite, a pick, a shovel, a pail of mud, fuses, and caps. The one hundred or so men remaining received four large, German-made wire-cutters. It was “quite late” when the company departed in the light of the full moon. As the men passed Thiaucourt, an hour’s march from the front, they set a fast pace but soon “passed under light shell fire.” Then they encountered a shallow ditch where “considerable mustard gas lingered. The demolition detail and a few of the men with wire-cutters disregarded the presence of gas and continued on leaving behind the remainder of the Company busily engaged in adjusting their respirators in response to the signal given.”

As the balance of the company entered the woods leading to the trenches, U.S. artillery opened its protective barrage, followed immediately by a German counter-barrage concentrated on the path that Company C was taking through the woods. The men received orders to seek shelter. The firing lasted about one hour and a half, then there was a brief lull and intermittent bombardment. Flying shrapnel and pieces of high explosive shell hit many of the engineers. “Meantime the operations to be carried out by the engineers were thought impracticable at the time and the order withdrawn.” In all, Company C suffered sixty-one casualties—killed, wounded, and gassed.[15]

Elmer’s cryptic comment, “Over the Top,” causes me to wonder if this was when his lungs were damaged. Family lore always held that Elmer was “gassed” in the war. A dozen years later, he was hospitalized—first at the veterans’ hospital at Fort Lyon, Colorado, then treated for almost a year at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Denver.[16]  I can only speculate that he may have been one of the men who ignored the presence of gas that night and took his place in the trench awaiting orders as H-hour came and went. Moreover, I wonder if he carried a rifle or German wire cutters—or if perhaps he was one of the handful of men in that trench who exercised an anxious stewardship of thirty sticks of dynamite through the shelling.

Left lines Oct 3 to rest 10p.m.  Arrived at Place about Oct 4 – 4 p.m. Left a place 5 p.m. Oct 5.  Arrived Hill 3 p.m. Sunday Oct 6.  Passed through several small villages the place was the Meuse River town Hascourt [Rarecort]. Company Left at 8 p.m.  Arrived at another 4 p.m. Oct 7.  Left 7 p.m. by Lorries part way.  Hiked to Woods sitting near Verdun 1 a.m. Oct 8. 

The Seventy-eighth Division left the Limey Sector on October 4 to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The march to the Argonne Forest continued for three days and nights with only occasional breaks.

On October 6 at Vadonville, “the Company was reorganized,” and “platoons were decreased in number and new NCOs appointed as a consequence of the casualties suffered” in the raid on Mon Plaisir Ferm.[17]

The following day, in a swampy field twenty miles from Vadonville, Elmer’s company, with heavy rain-soaked packs, read newspapers dropped from U.S. airplanes, which performed stunts as an “endless line” of French camions filled with doughboys passed by. When several empty trucks stopped, Company C began what would become the last leg of the journey to the Argonne Forest. A seven-hour passage took them to a camp in the woods near Verdun, and on October 8, they moved to billets in the village of Rarecourt, which Elmer misidentified as Hascourt.

Elmer and Company C were now engaged as active participants in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The offensive lasted from September 26 to November 11and involved 1.2 million American soldiers. Of that number 26,277 were killed and 95,786 were wounded.  No single battle in American military history, before or since, even approaches the Meuse-Argonne in size and cost. It was, without question, the country’s most critical military contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War.[18]As this enormous, bloody battle unfolded around them, members of Company C focused on the engineering tasks assigned to them.

Left Thurs Oct 10 – 4 p.m.  Stopped in field at 7 p.m. Air Raid Left at 11 a.m. walked to woods. Stopped 7 p.m. Oct 11.  Left again 1 p.m. stopped at Hill near front about 3 p.m. Oct 12.  Left 8 a.m. Oct 15.  Stopped Cornay hill.  A short walk.  Left 4 p.m. stopped in valley 5 p.m.  Buried two Jerrys on road side. Moved again to another hill Oct 18 – 7 a.m.

“Air Raid”

Company C began its advance on the Argonne lines through the town of Les Isletts and camped in an open field near Varennes on October 10. Company historians noted, “News and rumors to the effect that the war was nearing an end made the boys a bit careless.” Abandoning precautions previously enforced to avoid observation by the enemy, the men lit candles as they pitched their tents. They disregarded the sounds of airplane engines until “the distinctive engine of the German plane was very clearly heard; all the lights were blown out immediately, but it was too late.” The Germans dropped seven bombs, but no one was injured.[19]   Elmer’s company spent the next month working under aerial observation and enemy artillery fire, but escaped any further bombardment by German planes.

As Elmer marched through the Argonne Forest, he saw former German defenses—dugouts, machine-gun nests and underground fortifications— now abandoned as the AEF ground out its steady, but bloody, victory. Company historians noted:

What prior to the war had been dense woods was now a stretch of barren stumps. Trees stood like so many poles of dead wood. Sides of hills were full of shell holes and craters of every description.[20]

Engineers of Company C were to clean out the abandoned German bunkers for American doughboys to use as billets and to construct a dugout for Major General Mark Leslie Hersey, commander of the155th Infantry Brigade of the Seventy-eighth Division. But their principal tasks were to repair and rebuild the roads and construct bridges over the Aire River near Grandpre, Chevieres, and St. Juvin.

The engineers’ work followed a regular pattern: they established a temporary base camp near a small town or village, such as Varennes, and organized the company into four work squads to work in shifts around the clock. They moved their base to other locations, such as Appremont or Marq, to be nearer to worksites.

“Buried two Jerrys”

On their march to Marq, the company passed through the town of Cornay while it was being shelled. Elmer and several squads of men were left behind to scrape mud from the town’s roads. In one of his rare references to his own activities, Elmer recorded that he buried two German soldiers as he took the short walk to rejoin the company.[21]

On Saturday, October 19, Company C moved to a stand of woods near Chevieres, the base from which they would support the AEF drive on November 1. With the American artillery located on all sides, crews worked on roads and bridges from this site, and sent out reconnaissance parties to record the lay of the land and find new damage to the roads. The company history notes:

On some days work was interrupted by shell fire and gas attacks, but in general shelling was not heavy enough to compel the men to discontinue. … At nights especially the gas was uncomfortable, yet only a few of the boys were affected sufficiently to necessitate their evacuation to the hospital.[22]

This makes it clear that—even if Elmer Beville escaped injury in the St. Mihiel Offensive—there were many occasions in his Meuse-Argonne service when he could have been exposed to the gas that ultimately shortened his life. [DB note: what did he die of?  If you say this, you may want to elaborate]

Worked on road. Moved again in short while.  Left side hill on Nov 2 after the Drive started.  Nov 3 Hiked all day trying find the Jerrys.  At Evening arrived at Bruella.  Jerry shelled town.  Slept in truck.  Billeted in town next morning.

Company I, 3rd KY at Camp Shelby in Mississippi

“Worked on road.”

On October 31, Company C was given the task of putting the roads in shape to handle artillery movement in support of the decisive AEF infantry drive. The American drive began at daybreak on November 1—following a barrage that began at 3:30 a.m.—as infantry of the Seventy-eighth Division encountered stiff opposition from German machine-gunners. Meanwhile, the Company C reconnaissance detail at work that day was at risk. “Unadvised of the exact position of the new front line, the reconnaissance party advanced to a position ahead of the Infantry and for a while was in great danger of being entirely wiped out.”[23] But the engineers were able to return to their lines and the infantry was successful on the second day of the attack.

“Hiked all day trying to find the Jerrys”

In the wake of the successful attack of November 2, the Seventy-eighth Division overran the towns of Bois des Loges and Birquenay. The Germans attempted to destroy the roads as they retreated, blowing culverts and bridges and planting mines. Company C followed the infantry to repair the damaged roads for use by the supporting artillery. Elmer’s company performed well, making repairs that prevented tie-ups and congestion in the traffic flowing to and from the front.  Although the artillery was able to use the roads, their guns could not be placed in any definite position since “no knowledge of the new line could be received.”[24] The infantry had outpaced its artillery support, but not Company C, and the regimental history described the mad dash that took place on that day:

Doughboys were not fighting the Hun on foot. They were chasing them in wagons, lorries and on horseback. Every known means was used in trying to catch up with them.[25]

The trucks of the engineering regiment were pressed into service, but Company C, fitted out with full equipment, continued to make road repairs while keeping pace with the drive. Elmer describes the exercise as “Hiked all day trying to find the Jerrys.” The infantry advanced rapidly through the towns of Authe, Bellevue, and Briuelles. The engineers followed closely.

Jerrys Shelled Town

Briuelles, under heavy enemy fire by a battery of long- range guns, was too dangerous for the company to be billeted at until the following day. The company history notes that the men of Company C slept in trenches just outside the village of Germont, and Elmer records that he slept in a truck the night of November 3. Company C spent November 4 building a corduroy road around an extensive series of mine blowouts. [26] This was one important assignment that Elmer did not mention. The divisional history offers a broad appreciation of that day’s work:

The German rear guard had mined the wide, filled road covering the stretch of nearly one-half kilometer from the road fork just north of Briuelles to the fork near the southwest tongue of the Bois de Sy. It was an exceptionally fine piece of rear guard strategy, as it effectively blocked the advance of our artillery and transport.  The heavy charges had blown the immense rock boulders forming the road bed far to either side and left huge, gaping holes at intervals of about 20 yards.  The always alert 303rd Engineers lost no time in getting their forces to work and hastily began the construction of a corduroy road crossing the low, swampy marsh ground alongside the ruined portions, which enabled our pirate guns to proceed. This work the engineers did while under German observation and deadly shell fire; their rapid, skillful work, however, kept their casualties down to the minimum.[27]

Left Brieulles Nov 5 Relieved from the lines. Passed Grandpre stopped near Field Hospital  5 p.m. Left Wed Nov 6 – 8 a.m. passing  Chevieres.  Stopped on Hill Nov 6 4 p.m. German Dugout. Left Sat Nov 8th – 9 a.m. arrived same day at Les Islettes 4 p.m. Saturday.  Left Nov 11 – 6 a.m. passed Lagrange and several other places St. Mennihould.  Stopped in French Barrack at 11 a.m.  Drawed first pay.  Left 3 a.m. Nov 17 to St Mennihuld entrained at 8 a.m.  Stopped at Venarey Nov 18 – 10 a.m. Billets.

“Relieved from the lines”

Elmer’s entry, “Left Briuelles Nov 5. Relieved from the lines” does not reflect the ebullience the division historian reported:

On the fifth, the Forty-second Division…relieved the front line. . . Warm billets and hot food from field kitchens, and, in the days that followed, hot baths and clean clothes brought back strength and comfort it was ‘a grand and glorious feeling’ to go back through the scenes of our bitter fighting.”[28]

The “warm billets” did not materialize immediately. As Elmer noted, Company C did not sleep in the newly occupied town of Granpre, which was receiving regular air raids, but pitched shelter tents near a field hospital outside the town. Week-old newspapers predicted that Germany was on the verge of signing the Armistice.

Elmer slept in a warm bed on November 7, as the company, “in high spirits,” occupied former German dugouts near Varrennes. That night, men of the Seventy-eighth Division fell victim to a rumor that Germany had signed the Armistice.  It sparked a premature victory party. “Everyone went wild that evening” when word of the surrender circulated. Men pilfered supplies to make special meals; others stayed up all night singing and reminiscing. They blasted train whistles, flashed lights and fired cannons and machine guns into the air. But early the next morning, the false Armistice celebration ended and, “things returned to normal.” [29]

The next day, Company “C” moved to billets at Les Islettes, near the field where, a month earlier, the engineers received their only taste of aerial bombardment. They remained there for the next forty-eight hours as two thousand replacements joined the ranks of the depleted Seventy-eighth Division. Newspapers predicted the signing of the Armistice on Monday, November 11. That day the company moved to a French camp past the town of St. Minnehould where the long-promised food, baths, and general rehabilitation took place.  The men were paid on Armistice Day. The men celebrated the event with even more vigor than they demonstrated on November 7. This time the report was true[30]

Elmer did not mention the Armistice—either the false Armistice or the real one—in his notebook. His entry for November 11 states, “Stopped at French Barrack at 11 a.m.” The exact hour of the Armistice—the  eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

On November 17, Company C marched into St. Minnehould for a full day’s travel in the notorious forty-and-eight boxcars, riding the “Chevaux Limited” the 160 miles to Les Laumes in the Cote de Or district of eastern France. Seventy-eighth Division headquarters was in the town of Semur-en-Auxois, a hub from which brigade, regimental, and battalion headquarters radiated from five to ten miles in a dozen villages. The 303rd Engineers was assigned to permanent quarters in the village of Venarey, less than two miles from the Les Laumes station, to await news of their return home.

Elmer did not record any events during the first four of the six months Company C stayed at Venarey. In true best-foot fashion, the division history reports the first month devoted to intensive training.

(T)he month’s close witnessed the remnants of the Old 78th and its new accretion of replacements—which had been absorbed since the Division left the front lines—closely knit together, presenting a wonderfully fine appearance—splendid morale, and excellent discipline with a smart, snappy execution of drill.[31]

In fact, the AEF suffered a morale problem that endless infantry drill in the muddy French roads only exacerbated. Reluctantly, Pershing agreed to allow sports contests and educational programs. The Young Men’s Christian Association and the Knights of Columbus already provided movies and touring entertainers.[32]  The men of Company C, however, could not overcome their homesickness and did not meet these efforts with enthusiasm.

About twice a month, command granted several hundred men ten-day leaves to “one of the delightful ‘Leave Areas’ along the Rivera”—Nice, Cannes, Monaco (Monte Carlo), and Menton—with all transportation, hotel, and living expenses paid. Division historians noted the furloughs were “undoubtedly the most longed-for event in the soldier’s life in France, always excepting, of course, the “orders for home.”[33] But even this perquisite did not cheer Elmer’s companions. “Furloughs were granted from time to time, but upon their return to the Company the men only felt more downcast than ever.[34]

Elmer does not record receiving one of these leaves, nor do I recall any family stories concerning my grandfather in France other than as a soldier in the war. Evidence of his off-duty activities during this period is limited to one note: “Monsieur Hector, Venarey par Les Laumes, Cote d’Or.”  It appears on the last page of the notebook—the only local citizen listed along with the names of fifty men who wrote their names and addresses. The names of nine of these men (but not that of Elmer) appear with their fielding positions on a baseball line-up, which Elmer recorded but later wrote over with an inscrutable long-division proof.

A sudden thaw on February 6 and 7 interrupted the routine of camp life by revealing roads heavily damaged from heavy military equipment. Civil authorities closed all roads in the district. Headquarters acknowledged their community relations problem: “Due to heavy traffic of ponderous motor trucks, the usually well-kept roads did suffer as a result of wear and tear prior to the thaw.” When the weather improved, the 303rd Engineers trained all infantry, artillery, and machine-gun units to rebuild and repair roads.  Granting high praise to the engineers, headquarters later proudly declared that “all roads in the Cote d’Or area were in excellent condition when the division departed.”[35]

Maneuvers. March 20, 1919 Runner
Big Review March 26 Les Laumess.

On February 21, General Headquarters published an order with a sailing schedule for the return of U.S. troops. The Seventy-eighth Division was listed as the fifteenth division in order of departure, scheduled for the latter part of May. Company C was occupied with the roadwork until the end of March, but upon their return to Venarey and the “military practice,” which they found so tedious:

Sham battles and mock warfare between different companies in the regiment were run every few days. The hills and valleys around Venarey made excellent battlefields and the mud reminded the boys of their sojourn in Flanders.[36]


Elmer notes this “mock warfare” perhaps with some pride since he was designated as a runner in the maneuvers of March 20. Except for recording his temporary elevation to noncommissioned officer on the voyage to France, this is the only time Elmer mentioned any special recognition during his service. Elmer also makes a rare, special note of the “Big Review” of March 26, 1919, when the men of the Seventy-eighth Division participated in a moving ceremony at Les Laumes that included inspection and review by General John J. Pershing.

It was here on the historic plains of Les Laumes—where 2,000 years before, the legion of Caesar embattled the Gauls—that the 78th Division massed for its final inspection and review by the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces.  In battle array, every officer and man wearing trench helmets, the division made a splendid appearance. . .  Battle streamers were then attached to regimental and battalion colors by General Pershing, and following this the entire Division passed in review.  The torrential downpour of rain that afternoon only added zest to the ceremony.[37]

At the review, nearly one hundred officers and men of the 78th Division received Distinguished Service Crosses. The division had paid a heavy price. In the Argonne battle, the loss was 4,989 men, killed, wounded, or missing.  Of the dead, sixteen were officers and 785 enlisted men.  Of the wounded, 135 were officers and 4,068 were enlisted men.  One officer and 146 enlisted men were missing.  In the Limey sector, casualties totaled 2,107 in seventeen days, 392 of whom were killed or died of wounds.  Company C 303rd Engineers suffered six deaths—five of which occurred in the ill-fated assault on Mon Plaisir Ferm the night of September 21-22, 1918.[38]

One week after the grand review, on April 2, the Seventy-eighth Division was authorized to proceed to the Bordeaux Embarkation Area for its return home. Because of the unexpected arrival of some Italian ships at Marseilles, more than half of the members of the division left within the next three days and returned to the United States by means of an unexpected Mediterranean cruise. But the remainder—including the headquarters unit and the 303rd Engineers—proceeded to Bordeaux for departure as originally scheduled.

Left Venarey May 13 for Bordeaux.  Box cars.  Arrive Bordeaux 15th 4 a.m.  Deloused same day May 30 on the Homeward  Bound Santa Olivia.[39]  Left Dock 5 p.m. Friday. Arrived South Brooklyn 4 p.m. June 11.  On ferry boat Jersey City 9 p.m.  Arrived Camp Dix. Turned all equipment June 11 and deloused again.  Co C Discharged June 13. Bone and Peltierer (?) leaves today. Steckman several more leaves Sunday. Left Camp Dix Monday June 16 – 2-3 p.m.  Arrived Camp Taylor Monday [Tuesday]  June 17 9:50 o’clock. Discharged June 23 – 1919.

Thus did James Elmer Beville, serve in the Great War before he was old enough to vote.

About the author: 

David L. Baker retired to Owensboro, Ky. in 2001, after serving as chief legal officer at the University of Louisville and the University of Wyoming, where he was also director of its American Heritage Center. Besides the story of his family, his research and writing focuses on the history of Southwest Jefferson County and the cement company town of Kosmosdale, which was his childhood home.

[1] Please see the For Further Reading section at the end of the article for books the author found helpful in his research.

[2] Gordon, Company C, 23.

[3] This rendering of Elmer’s itinerary, copied uncorrected here, demonstrates his struggle with limited education and phonetic spelling in an unfamiliar language.  Correct spelling of the villages mentioned are: Blondefontaine, Barges, Voisey, Bourbonne-les-Bains, Beachmoy, Parnot, Ravennfontaines, Germainvilers, Chaumont-la-ville, and Grafigny-Chemin. A satellite view of this area of France reveals that the hike he describes was over open country or possibly footpaths, not over roads that still exist today.  All other place names in this transcript have been corrected when possible. Satellite view is available at: http://www.maplandia.com/france/champagne-ardenne/haute-marne/langres/voisey

[4] Gordon, Company C ,23-24.

[5] The village of Manorville is not named in the Company C history; however, there is an account of several hours spent investigating abandoned German fortifications while awaiting orders on September 13, then finally being assigned to billets in a bombed-out building in nearby Noviant.

[6] Gordon, Company C p.23

[7] Gordon, Company C. 25.

[8]Kennedy’s diary excerpt is collected in the account of the St. Mihiel Offensive compiled at the Doughboy Center website, http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/stmihiel.htm

[9] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History,.52.

[10] Ibid,.52-60.

[11] Gordon, Company C, 28.

[12] Ibid, 29.

[13] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History, 73.

[14] 310th Infantry Association, A History of the Three Hundred Tenth Infantry, Seventy-eighth Division, U.S. 1917-1919 (1919), 74-75.

[15] Gordon, Company C, 29-31.

[16] I have been unable to confirm the sanatorium in which Elmer was treated.  Mother said he was sent to “a TB Sanatorium associated with National Jewish Hospital at Lowry AFB.”  Agnes Memorial Sanatorium was located on what would, in 1937, become the site of Lowry AFB; however, National Jewish Hospital, which was in the same Denver neighborhood, had a longstanding reputation for providing care for indigents with lung diseases.

[17] Gordon, Company C, 32-33.

[18] Lengel, To Conquer Hell, 4.

[19] Gordon, Company C, 35.

[20] Gordon, Company C, 35.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Gordon, Company C, 40.

[23] Gordon, Company C, 38.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, 39.

[26] Ibid, 39.

[27] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History, 154.

[28] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History, 157.

[29] Gordon, Company C, 40.

[30] Ibid, 40-41.

[31] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History, 174.

[32] Coffman  End All Wars, 358.

[33]Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History 179.

[34] Gordon Company C, 43.

[35] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History, 177-78.

[36] Gordon, Company C, 44.

[37] Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History 182.

[38] Major Philip G. Hott, “Hard Fighting of the Seventy-eighth Division”New York Times, June 16, 1919,  Meehan, Seventy-eighth Division History 230.

[39] The History of the Seventy-eighth Division states, “On May 24th, the S .S. Santa Anna sailed with Major General McRae, Division Headquarters, and the 303rd Engineer Regiment – the last of the 78th had left France.”  Elmer Beville’s notebook and the Company C history record the departure of the company on May 30 aboard the S. S. Santa Olivia, docking at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn four days after Gen. McRae’s arrival.  Acknowledgment of this slight discrepancy could have unnecessarily complicated the division historian’s grand summation. He writes that, on June 6th, Gen. McRae, “had the keen pleasure of personally seeing his division safely returned home amid triumphant greetings for the splendid part they so heroically played in downing the Prussian attempt to dominate the world.”

Elmer Beville’s notebook and the Company C history record the departure of the company aboard the S. S. Santa Olivia six days after the general sailed, docking at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn four days after Gen. McRae’s arrival.  Acknowledgment of this slight discrepancy could have unnecessarily complicated the division historian’s grand summation.

For Further Reading:

Especially useful were books by Gary Mead, Edward M. Coffman, and Howard G. Lengel, and a digitized copy of the history of the Seventy-eighth Division in which Elmer served. Much to my surprise, I learned that three veterans of Elmer’s company of 303rd Engineers published a history of their unit. A search of an academic database turned up only one copy of the book, archived in the Brown University Library Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, whose curator, Peter Harrington, generously provided a photocopy of its text for my use.

  • Gary Mead, The Doughboys: America and the First World War (2000)
  • Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I (1986
  • Edward G. Lengel, To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (2008
  • Thomas F. Meehan, ed., History of the Seventy-eighth Division in the World War 1917-18-19 (1921) digitized at http://books.google.com/books.
  • Benjamin E. Gordon, Edwin Sinnock and Harry J. Thourot, History of Company “C” 303rd Engineers (undated).


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