A Small Circle of Chums~~ some Marines of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion at Belleau Wood: how each of them came to be there, and what followed after . . .

Frank Dunham's caption for this photo reads: "The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods". Individual Marines remain unidentified.

Frank Dunham’s caption for this photo reads: “The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods”. Individual Marines remain unidentified.


Cpl Frank Dunham

A modest cache of letters, photos and medals originally belonging to Cpl. Frank Dunham, USMC (1917-19) offers an evocative glimpse into the wartime experiences of several members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, during the summer of 1918 at Belleau Wood near the River Marne.

There is not enough here for a cohesive narrative, but only isolated clues, such as might emerge from an archaeological dig– or, as in this case, from a soldier’s trunk.

The full story of Frank Dunham and his friends in 15th Company is lost to time.  But his handful of photos & medals, and a couple of letters, open small windows on a place called Belleau Wood and, together with what is preserved in the official histories, at least a small part of that story can be pieced together.

For the Marines of 15th Company, as for much of the 4th Brigade, the decisive date was June 6, 1918, when the Marine Corps suffered more casualties in one day than during their entire history up to that time.

At 3:45 a.m. on the 6th, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines under Major Julius Turrill (of which only two companies were available, the 49th under Capt. George Hamilton, and the 67th under 1stLt Orlando Crowther) attacked from Hill 142 north to the Lucy-Torcy road.  Ten machine guns from 15th Company, including Dunham and his friends, supported the attack with direct overhead fire on German assembly points and reserve positions.  As a result of this firing, they drew fire upon themselves.  While their objectives were attained, both companies had suffered such heavy casualties among officers and men that by mid-morning Capt Hamilton had to step in and merge the remnants of both companies into a single company under his command.

Dunham, Croix de Guerre

Dunham’s Croix de Guerre

Meanwhile, the machine gunners of 15th Company suffered several casualties during the attack, though no fatalities.  Cpl Frank Dunham was awarded the Silver Star Certificate and Croix de Guerre for his actions on this date.  His citation reads: “He displayed coolness and leadership  in conducting his guns throughout the day, under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”

Also decorated for courage under fire in this attack was one of Dunham’s friends, Pvt. Russell D. Smith, who received the Silver Star Certificate.  His citation reads: “He maintained the fire of his machine gun throughout the day while subjected to enemy fire which was so intense that parts of his gun were destroyed.”  Pvt Smith would later be awarded another Silver Star and two Croix de Guerres for his actions at Soissons.

Among Dunham‘s possessions is a photograph of Smith and himself standing in the wheat field where the attack of the 6th had taken place.  The photograph is undated, but it was so soon after the battle that bodies of dead Marines are still lying unburied on the ground.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Also taken at this time is another photograph showing Dunham standng by himself, with unidentified dead Marines.

click to enlarge

Dunham standing near dead Marines at Belleau Wood

And this photo of another chum, Irving Bigelow . . .

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

But the story and Frank Dunham, Russell Smith and Irving Bigelow, as well as their other chums, Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer, Edward Duda, Emanuel Smolik and Victor Bleasdale— all members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, and all present at Belleau Wood– for all of them the story of their military service began earlier.  For most, it began with the declaration of war by the United States in April, 1917.  But for two of them, Frank Dunham and Victor Bleasdale, the story began two years earlier, in 1915, and involved an earlier conflict, an insurrection in Haiti— while for Irving Bigelow it began earlier yet, in 1914, in yet another conflict —  in Mexico, at Vera Cruz.

Irving Bigelow

Vera Cruz, Apr-Nov 1914

Irving Bigelow enlisted in Lansing, Michigan in January 1914 and was stationed at Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk, Virginia for the next three and a half months.

On April 22nd, Pvt Bigelow joined 20th Company in LtCol A.W. Caitlin’s 3rd Regiment and participated in the landing at Vera Cruz, taking part in the house-to-house fighting that took place in that city later the same day.

On the 29th, Bigelow joined 15th Company of  LtCol Wendell Neville’s 2nd Regiment and remained in Vera Cruz for the duration of the American occupation, until late November of that year.

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Haiti, Aug 1915 — Dec 1916

Next among the future friends to enlist was Frank Dunham, who joined up in Akron, Ohio on October 19, 1914.  He trained as a member of Company F, Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, in the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia until mid-January when he was transferred to 15th Company, 2nd Regiment, 1st Brigade which by this time had returned from Vera Cruz and was stationed at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia. 

The third friend to enlist was Victor Bleasdale  from Janesville, Wisconsin, who joined up in Milwaukee on May 10th, 1915.  He trained in Company D at the Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk until mid-July, when he travelled by train to Wintrop, Massachusetts, where he underwent marksmanship training on the Army rifle course.

At the end of July, Bleasdale was transferred to 15th Company in Philadelphia, just in time to join the company on board the USS Connecticut, which steamed out to sea on July 31st— carrying 344 Marines (five companies) of the 2nd Regiment, under Colonel E.K. Cole— and bound for Haiti, where a bloody revolution was underway.

At this point, on board ship, the three future friends, Bigelow, Dunham & Bleasdale, were all together for the first time in the same company, though at what point they became acquainted and struck up friendships is unknown.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

The Connecticut steamed into harbor at Port au Prince on August 4, after a record run from Philadelphia. The capitol was in chaos. Two Presidents had been murdered within thirty-six hours— one of them dismembered with body parts displayed on poles; hundreds executed, many by machete; two foreign legations violated, and the government non-existant. Mobs stormed through the streets.

On August 15, Colonel L.W.T. Waller arrived on board the armored cruiser Tennessee with eight companies from the 1st Regiment of Marines and estabished the 1st Brigade (just over 2000 men) on shore, with the long-term purpose of pacifying the country and permitting the reconstitution of the Haitian government.   The native insurgents, known as cacos, controlled much of the island, and driving them out of their strongholds became the main objective of the Marines.

The first job was to drive the cacos out of the capital of Port au Prince, and this was accomplished in the first few days by Col Waller’s 2nd Regiment, followed by the clearing of nearby town of Gonaives.

The next main trouble spot was in the north around Cap-Haitian.  Colonel Cole’s 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, including 15th Company. was stationed in Cap-Haitian.  The cacos, controlling the countryside, set up a blockade around the town, blocking all movement in or out, cutting off all supplies to the surrounded Marines.  On September 20th, a Marine patrol, attempting to cut through the blockade, was ambushed.   Cole called in a landing force from the USS Connecticut to hold the town, while he and most of his regiment went to the rescue of the surrounded patrol.  In the ensuing conflict, forty cacos were killed at the expense of 10 Marines wounded.  It is unknown if  Bigelow, Bleasdale or Dunham took part in this fight, as no mention of it is found in their roster records.

The following week Cole attacked a caco stronghold at Quartier Morin, taking it on the 27th.   At this point Waller turned his full attention to taking possession of the northern region of the island.  He set up a three-town triangle of garrisons at Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border, Grand Riviere du Nord, and Fort Liberte, leaving a company in each town.  15th Company was responsible for Fort Liberte. 

15th Company, 2nd Regiment --  3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

15th Company, 2nd Regiment — 3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

The next objective in Waller‘s plan was the caco stronghold at Fort CapoisWaller sent Major Smedley Butler and Captain “Deacon” Upshur and forty enlisted Marines, including the legendary Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (both Butler & Daly would end their military careers with two Medals of Honor apiece).  Also present on this six-day, 120-mile expedition was Pvt Irving Bigelow.  For an assault force, the Marines were lightly armed, their heaviest weapon being a single machine gun.

Unfortunately for the patrol, their guide was in cahoots with the cacos and led the Marines into an ambush.  That night (Oct 24-25), as the Marines were attempting to cross a mountain river of whitewater, the forty-odd Marines were surrounded and attacked by some 400 cacos from Fort Capois and Fort Dipitie.  The cacos kept them pinned down and under fire throughout the night.  The Marines did not even have the benefit of their one machine gun, as the horse carrying it had been killed by gunfire while crossing the river.  In the dark, while still under attack, GSgt Daly stole back to the river, hoisted the machine gun on his back and made his way back to camp (an action which earned him his second Medal of Honor).

At daylight, knowing the cacos would attack and overwhelm them by sheer numbers, Butler audaciously attacked the cacos, in three directions!  The cacos were so dumbfounded and caught off guard that they panicked and ran.  Captain Upshur and 1st Lt Ostermann (who was wounded), with just 13 Marines (one of whom was Bigelow) pursued the cacos back to Fort Dipitie, then stormed the fort and burned it to the ground (an action for which both officers received Medals of Honor).  Bigelow, as one of the thirteen, would later receive a Letter of Commendation, signed by the Secretary of the Navy, for his participation in this attack.

After their long and sleepless night, Butler led the patrol back to Grande Riviere du Nord.  Almost immediately Captain Chandler Campbell organized a column and set out to attack Fort Capois.  This time the Marine column was far larger, composed of two companies of sailors from the Connecticut and five companies of Marines, including 15th CompanyBigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were all present on this expedition.  Le Trou was captured on Nov 2, and Fort Capois on Nov 5.  Forts Selon and Berthol were captured on the  7th and 8th.

"Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916".  Photograph by Victor Bleasdale.

“Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916”. Photo by V. Bleasdale.

According to their muster roll records, Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham only participated in Butler‘s expedition through the 15th, but this is probably in error since the expedition lasted at least through the 18th, culminating in the major assault of Fort Riviere on that date.  As none of the three Marines was wounded, or was reported sick, or AWOL, it seems unlikely that any of them would have been removed from the expedition while it was in progress.

15th Company was one of several units assigned to the initial assault on the fort on the night of the 17th-18th.  The company, accompanied by Major Butler, attacked the south side of the fortification, and penetrated the fort through an opening so constricted that only one man could go through at a time.  The first two Marines to enter were Sgt Ross Iams and Private Sam Gross, both of whom were awared Medals of Honor.  A few more squads from the company squeezed through right after them, and were immediately attacked from within by the cacos.  The hand-to-hand fighting which ensued was extremely brutal— involving firearms, bayonets, machetes, clubs and rocks.  By the time it was over, all the cacos were killed (about fifty in all), while all the Marines were left standing.  Major Smedley Butler earned his second Medal of Honor on this day.

15th Company, as part of the 2nd Regiment of Marines, remained in Haiti through the rest of 1916.

Irving Bigelow served on detached duty with the Haitian Gendarmerie at La Valliere throughout June and July, then returned to Port au Prince in August where, till the end of the year, he drove an “auto truck” for the regiment.  Sometime in September, 1915, Pvt Bigelow was promoted to corporal.  On Dec 27, Cpl Bigelow was promoted to sergeant.

Through most of his time in Haiti, when he was not participating in expeditions against the cacos, Victor Bleasdale served as payroll and muster roll clerk for the company.  On June 25th, 1916, Pvt Bleasdale was promoted to corporal.

From September 1 to 26, 1916, Frank Dunham participated in a mounted expedition from Port au Prince, Haiti, over mountainous jungle, to Azua, in the Dominican Republic.  Through much of November and December he was hospitalized in Port au Prince with an unspecified ailment.

Stateside, Jan-Apr 1917

Sometime in January, 1917, the 2nd Regiment, including 15th Company, returned to the United States and took up their station in Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia.  Bigelow and Bleasdale returned with the company.  Dunham‘s movements are less clear, as his roster record for January is missing.  Probably he remained in hospital in Port au Prince for a time after the regiment had returned to the States.  By February, 1917, all three Marines were at Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard on League Island.

Sometime in late February, 1917, 15th Company was transferred to the Marine Aviation Section, US Navy Aeronautic Station in Pensacola, Florida, and all three friends were included in the move.  It was at this time that another future member of the Dunham “circle of chums” joined the Company:  Russell Smith, who had enlisted the previous November.

War is Declared, April 2

While Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were still at Pensacola with 15th Companythe United States declared war on Germany on April 2nd.   In mid-May, the Secretary of War made a formal request to President Wilson that a regiment of Marines be included in the first contingent of troops being sent to France.  Wilson issued an order to that effect on the 27th.  Accordingly, Marine units with expeditionary experience in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Cuba, including 15th Company, as well as a number of shipboard detachments, were formally organized into the 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by Col Charles Doyen, and composed of three battalions.  15th Company was called up from Pensacola to Quantico and assigned to 1st Battalion under Major Julius Turrill.

It was at about this time that the rest of the Marines in Dunham’s “circle of chums” joined the company.  Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Emanuel Smolik enlisted just days after the declaration of war, underwent basic training together at Paris* Island as members of the same “Company H”  and joined 15th Company at Quantico on June 1st.  Edward Duda also joined on this date from Paris Island, where he had trained in “Company I”.

Crossing the Pond

The Marines of 15th Company left Quantico on June 12, traveling by train to their old homebase at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia, and immediately boarded the USS DeKalb (formerly the German ship Prinz Eitel, seized at the outbreak of war), joining the rest of the Col Julius Turrill’s 1st Battalion.

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Together with the USS Hancock (which held Headquarters & Supply Companies), the Dekalb weighed anchor and steamed out to sea on the same day, to a sustained cacaphony of every bell and whistle on the waterfront.  Their journey up the Jersey coast was slowed by a heavy fog in Delaware Bay, but soon enough they made it into New York Harbor and anchored within sight of the Statue of Liberty.   The two ships were  joined by a third, the USS Henderson, which carried the 2nd and 3rd Battalions and the regimental band.  On the 14th, together with other ships carrying the remainder of the 1st Division, they set sail for France.

A pair of encounters with German U-boats notwithstanding, the Dekalb arrived in St Nazaire harbor, on the coast of France in good order on June 26.  The 1st Battalion disembarked with little fanfare on the same day and marched five miles to the western outskirts of the city, to a British campground known as Base Camp #1.  This was to be their home for the next couple of weeks.    They set up tents, and within a few hours were nicely settled in, making coffee and frying bacon over open fires.  For the next couple of weeks, the Marines primarily busied themselves with marches and close order drills, sometimes marching back to the docks to spend a day unloading ships.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

 To be continued . . .


* “Parris Island” was not spelled with two “r”s until after the war.

Original photographs in this article courtesy of Paul Higgins.  All other photos are in the Public Domain.

Last updated in the early hours of 11 Feb 2013.   Additions, questions & corrections by readers are welcome.

BJ Omanson

An artist’s memoir of Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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 . . . ”

BJ Omanson

For more about this book, go here.


BJ Omanson

Published in: on January 17, 2012 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Some unusual documents awarded to a Marine officer of the Second Division, AEF

click to enlarge

2ndLt Wilbur T. Love, USMC

Quartermaster Sergeant Wilbur T. Love joined Headquarters Detachment, 6th Machine Gun Battalion at its formation at Quantico in September, 1917, and served with the battalion throughout the war.  

For his actions at Belleau Wood on June 7-8, 1918, Quartermaster Sgt Love was awarded the Silver Star Citation.  His commendation read:  “He carried supplies and ammunition into the town of Bouresches, on horse-back while the enemy was counter attacking the town.  During this trip he not only ran the gauntlet of raking machine-gun fire from the southern edge of Bois de Belleau, but went through places where bursting shells and gas made passage almost impossible”.

GSgt Love was promoted to 2dLt on September 26, after St. Mihiel and on the eve of the Battle of Blanc Mont.

Several of his citations are shown below.  The US Army Citation is well-known to all students of the AEF, but the others are much less common.  I would be grateful to anyone who could enlighten us regarding the history of these documents.

BJ Omanson


BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 8, 2011 at 12:47 am  Comments (1)  

Pilgrimage on behalf of one long dead

Cpl Alpheus Appenheimer, USMCMy lifelong fascination with the history and culture of the First World War began as a small boy with stories heard from my grandfather, who had served with the Marine Brigade, 2nd Division AEF, in France.  He had been a muleskinner, driving rations and ammunition into the front lines, at times under heavy shellfire, and had twice been awarded a Silver Star Citation and Croix de Guerre, once at Belleau Wood and again at Blanc Mont.   

On more than one occasion I asked if had ever wished to return to France, to visit again the places he had been during the war.  He said he had often wished to return, to show those places to his wife, but that they had always been too poor and too busy with a growing family and running the farm.  And in any case he would have wanted to return within the first ten years after the war, before the places had greatly changed from what he remembered.

In later years, after his death, his only son made the attempt and got as far as Paris, but being an older man himself at the time, and a partial invalid, with little travel experience abroad and not speaking the language, he found himself unable to complete the final leg of the journey from Paris to Chateau-Thierry.  He could not find Belleau Wood on any map, was uncertain where it was, and could find no English-speaking French person patient enough to assist him.

Some years later I made the attempt myself, and even with my French-speaking wife was nearly defeated.  We got as far as Chateau-Thierry, but only to be told that there was no longer a bus to Belleau, and that we would have to rent a taxi, if one could be found who would not mind waiting for us as we walked around the cemetery.  Hailing a cab from a central intersection proved impossible, and making herself understood over a phone to a cab company dispatcher, whose country patois bore little resemblance to any French Marian had heard before, was an obstacle surmounted only after many minutes of mutual bewilderment and exasperation.  But somehow, against all odds, at the very end of the day, we managed it, and the experience of arriving at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery not long before sunset was so overwhelming that Marian mistook my speechlessness for morosity and felt slighted and hurt, and wandered off alone into the deep wood, until driven back into the sunlight by what she encountered there . . . 

Only after returning to Chateau Thierry where, in a local bistro she plied me with repeated glasses of beer in an effort to soften what she mistook as my incivility, did we sort things out.  And it was not until days later that she begin to speak of she had experienced in the shadows of the wood itself.

For weeks afterwards I was haunted by the graves and ghosts of Belleau Wood until, finally, I was able to lay the phantoms partially to rest by rendering the experience into artistic form: a series of fourteen rough-hewn sonnets whose basic rectangular form and controlled phrasing recall the form and function of memorial plaques.  The rhymes, however, are not regular and commemorative, but widely-spaced, and often more suggested than actual — like distant echoes.

BJ Omanson



The Tower at the Edge of the Wood

Demure, nestled fields so intensely green
they appear to float amid clouds of swallows…
shimmering fields of incipient wheat
awash with scarlet of poppies, like those
my grandfather mentioned. Here, where arises
on battlements of crag and ravine,
the huge and shadowy bulk of a wood,
a sole brigade of Americans met
the army that swept towards Paris and stood
against it, dying by hundreds. I stare
at its rocky defiles and crevices
till my scalp begins to tingle and crawl.
My grandfather spoke of the poppies here,
how petals by hundreds would break and fall ~~ 

how every sullen recess of the wood
would flicker a vicious flame ~~ how a mighty
moan arose from the ranks as poppies,
soldiers and grain were cut down together
till not one man or stalk of wheat stood ~~
how those still breathing cringed behind bodies
crumpled or sprawling ~~ how raking fire
shredded their haversacks and pinned them
close to the earth ~ how strangely, somewhere,
the note of a warbler, piercingly clear,
emerged for a moment above the din ~~
how the fire hit them again, again,
as curse accompanied prayer ~~ how cries
of the wounded tore at the heart with pity.

Grandfather never spoke of such dying
directly ~~ there were clipped allusions,
disquieting, never intentional
and, often, there was the lapse of silence
that fell like frost on the otherwise green
and pastoral heart of each reminiscence.
Mostly what he imparted were small
vignettes and stories of commonplace things
reassuring to any farmer’s son:
how he stole up into the loft of a barn
with a bottle, or how he hauled ammunition
on a night so dark that he walked his team
by the flaring of shells ~~ how he stole a swim
while washing his lathered mules in the Marne. 

One evening he held the porch like a stage
for a crowd of us boys and related the time
that he turned an all-but-terrified team
directly into a rolling barrage ~~
how he steadied the creatures, with reins taut
in his left hand, and a watch in his right
and, timing the march of the fiery wall
that bore upon them until the earth shook,
how he barked a brusque command to his mules
and bullied them straight through the coiling smoke.
But there was a darker side to the war
not found in his tales or among his letters,
or even between the lines of the battered
diary stashed in the back of a drawer. 

In all his words there was nothing of what
when, years afterward, exhuming the past
in the moldy crypt of an archival vault,
I uncovered by chance a written account
by a young corporal in Grandpa’s detachment
who described how the dead lay in summer heat
all swollen and black ~~ how Marines were sent
on burial parties, not from a sense
of rightness, but only to stop the stench ~~
how, unceremoniously, they tossed
the corpses in shell-holes ~~ how when they pulled
on limbs they could feel the joints separate ~~
how flies buzzed up from the flesh in a cloud ~~
how, mostly, the bodies were left to rot. 

Such images weltered up in a flood
as our taxi turned through the somber gate
some minutes ago and proceeded straight
through a corridor of identical trees
and bordering hedges of clustered roses.
Directly before us, positioned midway
up the side of a hill, in a brooding wood,
an immaculate, white, unworldly tower
commanded a field of white marble crosses.
As we left the car, the driver leaned out,
and said he would wait for one full hour,
and turned off the meter. At our surprise,
he told how his father had also fought
on the Marne, and with that he looked away. 

In the years just after the war they came
in multitudes here ~~ the mothers, widows,
and fatherless children ~~ to walk among rows
of crosses in search of some single name
out of all the rest ~~ and there came, as well,
the soldiers themselves: alone or in pairs
or, ever more frequently through the years,
together with wives. For months afterward,
Grandfather talked of a long journey back,
of showing my grandmother what had occured ~~
of trying to show what he couldn’t tell.
But he gave it up ~~ with too many rows
of his own to walk, too much acreage, stock,
and too little savings, too little time. 

When, long after that, I asked him whether
he might still return, he said, with a frown,
“That was decades ago. Your grandmother’s gone.
Nothing would be the same.” I remember
the way he looked out at the evening sky
as though he might peer through miles and years
to those far-off events, and how I arose
from the sofa and silently left the room.
And now, what a strange, ironic turn
that it should be I and not he who has come,
and my wife rather than his who should see
this place of all places. ~~  She takes my arm
and, almost touching her lips to my ear,
quietly whispers, the circle is closed

We proceed along the avenue, dazed
by the sheer translucency of the air,
by all the surrounding acres of wheat
and myriad poppies, by wheeling arcs
of swallows suffused in light . . .  everywhere
we turn it is almost as though we gaze
upon the first morning before there fell
the least intimation of closing night.
My wife, knowing little of what has passed
in this sorrowful wood, sees it most of all
as a beautiful and mysterious place
and, venturing off on her own to where
a stair rises dimly into the dark
of the trees, she slowly climbs out of sight. 

And now for the first time I am alone,
alone in that locus of legends to which
my grandfather always longed to return,
a place of apocalyptic fury,
of carnage and devastation…   a place
of villages and reclusive pastures
and rivers that haunted him all his days.
At the close of this wrathful century
which he, as a boy, observed at its dawn,
I have come in his place to stand and watch
at post, as a cloud moves over the sun,
as a shadow moves slowly across the face
of the tower that stands like an ancient cairn,
marking the derelict bones of warriors. 

I cross a rectangular swath of lawn
to the base of the hill where, step by step,
I mount an austere and gradual stair
to the terrace that foots the tower and stop
to face the imposing arch of a doorway.
Passing beneath an medieval warrior
surrounded by archivolts like the dawn,
I find myself standing within a small,
obscurely-lit chapel where sunlight glows
through a deeply-set and faceted window
of tinctured and leaded glass, muted rays
of spectral radiance slanting through air
to hallow, in auras of blue and rose,
names of the missing incised on the wall. 

Since before the last war these ghostly rays,
pivoting on axes of window-glass,
have cloven the cloistered air of this place,
their indiscernable movement across
the walls precisely in opposition
to the arc of the sun across the sky.
In shadow, a Gothic altar of brass
and marble stands recessed in an apse,
presenting a stark, solitary cross.
I turn from its presence and wander out
into warmly showering light, a vision
of uninterrupted tranquility
rising above me: a sky without cloud,
a single swallow that soars and dips. 

I watch, completely absorbed in its flight
till it skirls into aether, and then I turn
and follow the terrace around the wall
of the tower from where I can see, above,
the stairway vanishing into the wood.
The air is less cordial here, with the sun
eclipsed by a circuit of conifers
closing on every side. A residual
atmosphere, haunted and unresolved,
hovers about their boughs and they brood
like portals opening into the night,
into a purgatory of craters,
of trenches and dugouts clouded with fern,
of corroded cartridges, buckles, spoons. 

But there are are darker ravines in this wood
where more survives than detritus of war,
where memory stains the air and where cries
of huddled and immaterial forms
are like shuddering leaves… ~~ She catches my eye
from the stairway, suddenly stepping forth
from out of the shadows, a strange, uncertain
regard on her face that makes me afraid.
I rush up to meet her. She grasps my arm
and urges me rapidly down the stair
toward the waiting taxi. I pull her near
and ask her to whisper what she has seen ~
she turns with a look that is oddly removed ~
her eyes are unaccountably grieved.