Monday, November 10, 2014

TOP STORY >> Letter from the front

Cabot Museum of American History

William Jayson Waggoner was born near the Lonoke County community of Needmore on Nov. 12, 1889. He grew up in the county and after graduating with a law degree from the University of Arkansas, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives for the 1915 session.

Waggoner also served in the Arkansas National Guard for about three years before the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917. He resigned from the Arkansas General Assembly to accept a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army.

Soon he was sent to the European front, where he was seriously wounded while participating in the last major offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France.

He remained in Germany for a time after the war. Upon returning to Arkansas, he was elected prosecuting attorney for the 17th Judicial Circuit. In 1927, he was sworn in as the circuit judge for the same district. He held that office until his death in 1968.

There is a monument on the Lonoke County Court-house grounds honoring his long career.
What follows is one of a handful of letters that Waggoner wrote to the folks back home that were published in The Lonoke Democrat.

Publishing letters from soldiers was common practice during the war. These letters, and others written by Lonoke County soldiers, have been transcribed from the newspaper and have been added to the collection being gathered by the Cabot School District’s Museum of American History and the Lonoke County Museum for their Great War Project, which commemorates the centennial of World War I.

The identity of the person to whom the letter is addressed is unknown.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday and by appointment.

From the Nov. 7, 1918, edition of The Lonoke Democrat:

Somewhere in France,
October 1918.
Hon. R. E. Bradford:

Dear Friend:

This is a very pleasant evening, and as I am at leisure, perhaps I could interest you and other friends by writing you some news from this part of the world.

I took part in the greatest battle that the western front has experienced since the war began, and from its effects I am resting very comfortably in an all-American hospital, nursing a couple of wounds, which I am glad to state are not serious.

Just a few months ago, if you remember, Kaiser Bill, better known as the “Beast of Berlin” drunk with egotism, in reply to our government concerning peace, said that he would talk to France about Alsace Lorraine that he would talk to the baby nation—Belgium—about her future, and to England about hers and that he wouldn’t stand and foolishness from the United States.

At that time his mighty army had conquered Russia, laid waste Belgium, Serbia and Poland, and were well on their way to Paris and the coast of England. Finally his invading hoards were halted at Chateau Terry and in Flanders and the tide of battle changed.

That was in March, since that time thousands of Americans have crossed the peerless seas, dodging his many submarines, which he assured his people would bring peace to the world dictated by himself and cohorts.

These Americans have filled up the vacant spots in the allied armies, which were caused by the German onslaught in the spring and besides formed several army corps. These boys remembered that Kaiser Bill said “peace by force,” and they remembered too that President Wilson said, “I accept the challenge.”

The allied nations decided the only way you could open a German’s head so he could see the light was by a steel jacket bullet, and the quicker the better for civilization. They had prepared for the occasion, all sizes from the 30-caliber rifle to the big naval guns.

So on Sept. 26, at dawn, the first American army fresh from their success at Saint-Mihiel, assisted by the British and the French on their right and left, started the big show, one that may bring peace to the world in the near future, or one to let the Germans know that the Americans had come to town.

At 2:30 in the morning on the date previously mentioned, French, British and American guns began to speak from every hilltop and crevice, the earth trembled beneath our feet, the heavens were as light as day, the major shells were shaking dugouts, and playing havoc with barbed wire entanglements, prepared by the Germans in the spring of 1914.

In all, the battle line where these guns were telling Kaiser Bill that the finish fight was on, in the sector from Verdun to the Argonne Forest, every dough boy knew that he was fighting on ground far beyond my power to add or detract, that he was starting our form Hill 304 of tragic memories, that he was advancing from blighted fields immortalized by those dead heroes in horizon blue (the French) who stood fast throughout the bitter months of 1916, and said of the Prussian guards, “you shall not pass, ahead of the dough boys, and beckoning to them, loomed Mount Faucon, that village on the hill top which is the highest point between the Aisne and the Mense, and from a church steeple pointing upward, the Crown Prince watched in 1916 the slaughter of his countrymen.

That church steeple now is a mass of ruins. Part of it forms a roadbed on which hot coffee is carried to American soldiers.

I never knew what war was like until I took part in this great battle. (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman) shouldn’t have used such mild terms in describing it when he said “war is hell.” For in his day they never used gas, machine guns, trench mortars, high explosives, hand grenades, rifle grenades, tanks, airplanes filled with bombs and every imaginable thing to destroy human life, if they had he would have used different language in describing war.

To take part in this battle our regiment had to march for three days. We started from our little camping place in the woods at the time the big guns began to talk to Kaiser Bill, marched at night and kept concealed in daytime.

Within seven miles behind the lines I saw my first air battle. I saw the American birds send one German balloon down in flames and drive the planes back to their lines.

Here is where the Germans shot over a few high explosive shells at us but they did no damage. We marched a little further and in the woods again, the Germans shot a few more over, but still no damage.

Good news came to us next morning that our boys had driven the enemy back seven miles and were still going.

That put us further from the front than we were the day before. The boys let out a yell, “let us go, we never will catch up.” So that night we started out for the final dash as we had to relieve the boys who were exhausted from chasing the boche (a slur for a German).

We marched all night through the rain and by eight o’clock the next morning we were within two miles of the frontline. We were halted in a patch of woods by the roadside, although west and cold, we were soon asleep. At this point is when I saw my first dead American soldier. The boys marched by in silence, and as they passed you could hear a murmur on their on their lips “we will avenge your untimely death.” 

At 1 p. m., we got orders to go to the front. The boys got rid of their heavy packs and were ready to go. To get to the front we had to go across an open field, and the Germans had the range, as they had occupied the territory since the beginning of the war. Across this field we started, and I never saw such coolness and bravery exhibited by young men as I saw in these boys. Just as soon as we showed our heads, it seemed that the Germans turned all the big guns they had on us, but still we went on.

Of course we had a few casualties, but not as many as would be expected.

You could hear the big shells coming, some of the boys would holler out, “Boys, here she comes, I’ll take this one.” Another would say, “No, let me have it.” Another would say, “I have it, watch me get him at home,” just as if these instruments of death were a baseball.

Mothers of America should feel doubly proud that they sent boys of this type to France to fight for humanity.

I visited German dug outs that were 20 and 30 feet under the ground, some of them made of concrete, and fitted up with all modern conveniences, including electric lights electric bells, rocking chairs and beds.

One of them had a barrel of cabbage, bread and a basket of fresh peeled Irish potatoes. They had prepared for the winter, but the Americans broke up their little playhouse, and now they are on a general retreat for their fatherland and begging for peace.

I saw a very clever trick played by our flying boys. It was cloudy and not an allied airplane could be seen.

A German thought it was a good time to locate our artillery behind the lines, so he started and when he got about two miles over our lines and started back with good news he thought, two shots were fired by our guns as a signal, and in a minute four of our planes came from behind the clouds and within two minutes the boche plane started downward in flames, and the Sauerkraut kingdom furnished more fuel to kindle the flames below.

We are anxious to come home, but not until the Kaiser says his boys are licked, and one they will always remember.

I am getting along nicely, and hope to be out within the next 30 or 40 days.

Wishing you and my friends a merry Christmas, I am, your friend,

Bill Waggoner.