I received a parcel from McFarland Publishers today, containing a memoir of an enlisted US Marine, Louis C. Linn, who served at Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel. At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad. I wrote the chapter introductions and footnotes for the book.
I also wrote the following summary and assessment of Linn’s memoir, only part of which appears in the book.
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Louis Linn wrote his memoir of service with the Marine Brigade in France in 1918 about ten years after the end of the war. This is just when the great majority of memoirs, novels and books of poems about the First World War began to appear, in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. For nearly all the participants of the war, from whatever country, it took at least a decade before combat veterans could “come to terms” with the trauma of the war, and gain the perspective necessary to write about it with some clarity and dispassion.
Linn’s memoir is rough-hewn. It reads like a rough draft written straight through and never revised, with passages of lyric force and clarity interspersed with passages which are much less certain, where Linn is clearly struggling to capture experiences that are not easily rendered into language.
Memoirs are difficult to write at best, for a host of reasons, and memoirs dealing with trauma are the most difficult of all. Yet unlike many memoirists from the war, Linn never resorts to easy shortcuts with the language. There are no euphemisms or clichés, or any of the easy formulaic phrases heard so often during the war itself. There is no talk of “dash” or “valor” or “elan”. There is not the slightest whiff of patriotism, esprit de corps, or demonization of the enemy. He never even refers to himself as a Marine, but just as a plain infantry soldier.
Linn’s perspective is personal and ground-level. There is no sense of larger issues, strategic objectives, or being part of a Great Crusade. What he writes about is getting through each day. If there is a moral compass in Linn’s account, it too is personal and ground-level. What Linn describes again and again are relations between individuals, and their rank and nationality scarcely figure into it. He observes numerous instances of callousness, cruelty and injustice, and these become a part of his record. Some of those he meets elicit his sympathy, or pity, even occasionally his admiration, but many more provoke his ridicule and contempt, especially if they are officers.
What strikes the reader most of all is Linn’s uncompromising frankness, whether about human flaws, including his own, or the sordid particulars of life in the trenches. He never fudges, or makes excuses, or offers explanations. He just puts it down as he remembers it, in detail, and with no apparent concern for the impression he makes, either of himself, or on the reader. This is what gives Linn’s memoir its great value as a document of core human experience. If his phrasing is not always polished, his forthrightness never falters.
Louis Linn was a member of 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, 4th Brigade of Marines, Second Division (Regular), A.E.F. Of all the American divisions participating in the Great War, the Second Division suffered the most casualties, captured the second most territory, captured the most enemy prisoners and equipment, and won the most decorations for valor.
The Second Division was the only Army division in the history of the United States to contain a brigade of Marines, and the only Army division ever to be commanded by a Marine. It was due to the participation of this single Marine brigade that the Marine Corps, in six months time, went from being a minor expeditionary fighting force attached to the Navy, to being considered a first-rate force of shock troops by the German Army. It was this single Marine brigade which made the Marine Corps a participant on the world stage, and prepared it for playing a major role in the next world war, and which provided the crucial core of experienced field officers for that war.
Of three major battles, all of which were devastating for the Marine Brigade, Linn participated in two, Belleau Wood and Soissons, and in those two he participated in the very worst of the fighting. He came through Belleau Wood unscathed, was badly wounded at Soissons, and then, at St. Mihiel, during an attack when only seven Marines were wounded by a concealed grenade, Linn was one of the seven, and he was wounded badly enough that he remained hospitalized until after the Armistice.
Regarding his experiences in the war, Linn’s daughter, Laura Jane Linn Wright writes that ” . . . [he] always carried a sketchbook and a stub of a pencil in his pocket. He carried them all through the war. He drew, whenever he could, to try to maintain his sanity in a terrible situation. Drawing gave him a measure of mental peace. He was tormented by nightmares. He wrote his memoir several years after the war, partly as a catharsis, using his sketches as illustrations. Or perhaps the sketches brought back his experiences. He made woodcuts from some of the sketches to more vividly convey the bleakness and horror of the war . . . ”
For more about this book, go here.