On a spring day in April 1919, memories flood the mind of Bolivar resident and decorated U.S. Army World War I veteran Cpl. Earl C. Wilson as he puts pen to paper, writing a letter to his brother, Fred, and sister-in-law.
Trading chirping birds for the sound of exploding shells and clear skies for floating clouds of poisonous gas, what started out as happy talk about friends and home turns into a powerful recollection of Wilson’s near-death experience in the Battle of Amiens in northern France in July 1918.
Wilson’s letter, dated April 28, 1919, was provided to Missouri Over There — a statewide, collaborative digitization project investigating Missouri’s involvement in WWI — by Doris Wilson, according to the project’s website, missourioverthere.org.
His words jump off the page just as vividly today as they did 100 years ago. And his memories are permanently etched in ink like his name is etched in copper on the WWI Doughboy statue on Bolivar’s square.
“Fred, you wanted me to tell you all about things over there, but Jesus that’s an awful job,” Wilson writes. “In fact, it’s impossible, it can’t be done.”
Despite his hesitancy, Wilson begins describing the events that led up to the famous Battle of Amiens, credited as the start of the Hundred Days Offensive, which ultimately led to the end of the war.
He says “the Germans started their drive from Chateau — Thierry from Paris” in mid-July.
“Well, we had just been relieved from a 72-day hitch in the lines up near Amiens (the hottest part of the whole front), and we figured we were due for a rest, so everybody figured we at least wouldn’t do anything more than be used as a ‘reserve division,’” he writes. “So my gas mask canister was poor, worn out almost, and they didn’t have any more, but as I said, we didn’t expect to use them.”
Wilson says as the Germans headed toward Paris, they “swung” his division — the first division — “around on their flank … and drove through their line.”
He says the maneuver put the American soldiers behind the enemy line, making them “exposed to fire from almost all sides.”
“So, you can believe me boy, they gave us all they had, and they had a plenty,” he writes.
As daylight broke on the morning of July 18, the Germans pushed through the line formed by Wilson’s company, as well as another company, and started shelling the soldiers “pretty bad all day.”
However, he says there were low casualties because the enemy was “not right on their ‘ranges.’”
“Soon as night came, we moved up to take a section of the first wave, but ‘Fritz’ was throwing gas shells so fast that the low ground we were supposed to occupy was absolutely uninhabitable,” Wilson writes.
While climbing out of the valley back to high ground “to wait for them,” Wilson says his gas mask popped off three times when he sneezed.
Pounded by shells all night, Wilson says the soldiers started pushing forward the morning of July 19.
“Can you imagine two companies of men getting up and walking in broad daylight under observation right down a big road towards the front?” Wilson writes. “They couldn’t get to us with machine guns, but every piece of artillery they had could and did. Some of us got there all right. Lucky any of us did. But Fritz had his eye on us then, and two battalions of his 6-inch guns started working on us every 30 minutes.”
With the Germans throwing 9-inch high explosives to boot, Wilson says soldiers were hurt with “every little hit.”
The onslaught lasted “all day and night.”
“Well, the next day, I was getting so tired I was willing to do a ‘bear dance’ with anything they wanted to send over and wouldn’t hardly condescend to duck for a lousy little old 6-inch shell,” he writes.
He adds that a “whiz bang” — contemporary slang for small-caliber high velocity shells — “wouldn’t make us bat an eye.”
On the afternoon of July 20, the Germans began throwing shell gas, he says.
“We thought there was too much wind for it to be effective,” Wilson says. “Well, they would burst in a little white cloud, and the wind would sway right down across us.”
Putting on his gas mask for “the first dozen or two” times, Wilson says he “went finally to putting just the mouth piece in my mouth.”
After three or four hours, Wilson says, “that was getting old, so I would just hold my breath until the little white cloud floated past.”
Soon, a shell “hit so close it drove my nose half way through my rifle stock,” Wilson says, also seriously injuring one of his “best pals,” leaving him “in strings.”
Wilson’s friend, who was still conscious, asked for him at the medic station.
“So, I beat it down there,” he writes. “I don’t remember any gas, but I know now I went right through were they had all been bursting.”
Returning to the front line, Wilson says he began throwing up. He thought he was sick from a few bites of rations he’d eaten.
“Then, the orders came to move, and when I started to hiking, I found there just wasn’t air enough in the whole world to fill my lungs, so they made me go to the dressing station,” he writes.
Still thinking he was sick from the food, Wilson says the doctor told him he was “gassed.”
“So later, when I got so I could notice things, I could see he was right,” Wilson writes. “My heart would (do) 85 flip flops every time I would turn over or anything, and I still have what they call bronchitis pretty bad.”
While Wilson’s letter continues, the remaining pages were not available on the website.
Serving since June 2, 1917, Wilson was honorably discharged on March 11, 1919. His discharge papers said his character was “excellent,” and he was paid $249.78, including a $60 bonus.
According to the Missouri Over There website, Wilson was awarded the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Five Clasp Victory Medal and Accolade of the New Chivalry of Humanity for his heroic service.