The swell of patriotism in Reading and Berks County in 1917 made the war theatre attractive to many young, impressionable men, who were called by their country to fight for freedom. At the time, activities on the home front were entirely focused on bringing a swift and decisive victory in France for our soldiers in the trenches. Countless loan drives helped to pay for the war and the citizens of Reading and Berks County pitched in to support our troops overseas. Meanwhile, new recruits departed as heros from the Outer Station with community celebrations, parades and music.
Surrounded by a community spirit of patriotic duty, young men from Reading and Berks entered the army by volunteering or draft, eager to be a part of the action. The young men who became the American Expeditionary Forces couldn’t wait to make folks at home proud. Unfortunately, what they discovered in Europe were conditions that were unimaginable. They quickly exchanged the romanticism and excitement of the war for a life wrought with hunger, fear and uncertainty.
The soldiers who left Reading on August 25, 1917 became a machine gun company for the First composite National Guard attached to Company I. The company, which was comprised of soldiers from 26 states, departed from Mineola, NY and eventually saw action in France. The following excerpt is from the diary of Samuel Cole of the 125 Infantry, written on the Champagne Front. Cole was a Michigan native, but his account of what life was like during battle is powerful and moving. Many of Cole’s diary entries were matter of fact, detailing when he wrote letters, played a ballgame (Company I vs headquarters), and bunk fatigue. Other entries were duty-driven, describing his service: “hiked to reserve positions – weather hot, worked on barbed wire, saw aero plane battle, piece of shrapnel comes close. Rifle range – Faber, Cavanaugh, Willis, McCarney and I have beer party under tree.” Yet other entries spoke of hunger and survival, boiling potatoes the size of marbles with small red beets and scavenging for food for days.
When action occurred, such as the conflict at Ferme de Ferret, Cole’s diary entries were lengthy and detailed. Cole vividly recounted days of fighting and the horrors of his experience. He even pasted additional space in the diary to include all the details of the day. The following is a portion of the entry by Cole on the activities he experienced on July 29, 1918:
We go over the top at 2:30 pm, see men get up from hillside ahead and go uphill. We cheer them on. Machine gunners tell us they are Germans, and we are front line. We crossed wheat field from St. Martins Road under heavy barrage, jump across the Oureq River and are ordered up Hill 212. The boys complained about the heavy packs and we were all carrying them. Told them to take them off. We started up the hill in the open. Found Van Wert and some others wounded. Corp. Wojciechowski called to me “lets give them hell Cole”. I shouted back “I’m with you we will show them”. The next time I looked, when he threw up his hands and whirled around shot through the forehead. He was a good friend of mine and a fine chap. It made me so mad I could have taken on the whole German Army. It was a sight I have dreamed about many times since. By the time we reached the top, there was only Smally, Dombrowski and myself out of the eight that started. Dombrowski got a bullet through the groin and crawled back down. Smily had a 20 shot Schechout French automatic Rifle, no extra clips. He went back down to find a rifle, never saw him again. The tallest cover I could find were weeds 3” high, kept down flat. Corp. Bancroft, company runner, crawled up, inquired of Captain Crabb. Reversed my position, laid on my back. Told him on the left somewhere, while we were talking, a shell exploded up front and my left foot went numb. Told Bancroft I was hit, probably by dead shrapnel. He left to look for Crabb. I waited a while, and I decided as I was alone on the extreme right of our unit, I better go back and come up farther on the left where our boys were. Started back bullets flying overhead, got partway down hill and shell exploded to right. Another and another, each one coming closer, the last one dropped 100’ to my right. Shells started falling to my left coming closer each time. The last one dropped about 50’ away. I could see the jagged fragments of the shell as it exploded, the butt end sailing over my head. Was I ever scared. Up to now I was mad, now I was mad and scared. I went on down the hill, always stopped, took off my shoe and poured the blood out.
The machine gun division mentioned in Cole’s diary entry most likely included the soldiers from Reading. From J. Bennett Nolan’s “The Reading Militia in the Great War” A Divisional Citation of Major-General Charles T. Menoher states:
“Fresh from the battlefront before Chalons, you were thrown against the picked troops of Germany. For eight consecutive days you attacked skillfully prepared positions. You captured great stores of arms and ammunitions. You forced the crossing of the Oureq. You took Hill 212, Sergy, Meurcy, Ferme and Serenges by assault. You drove the enemy, including an Imperial Guard Division, before you for a depth of fifteen kilometers. When your infantry was relieved it was in full pursuit of the retreating Germans and your artillery continued to progress and support another American division in the advance of the Vesle.”
The price of victory was steep for the young men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces. The combination of shell explosions, gas and gun fire made the wide-eyed soldiers hardened by death of friends, wounds suffered in battle, hunger, and the basic will to survive.
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.