As I Saw It in the Trenches – Book Review
Dae Hinson had a story to tell about his experiences as a doughboy in World War I. That it was important to him is evident from the note he appended to his memoir upon its completion in 1933. The typescript, he wrote, “is held most sacred by myself. Anyone can easily incur my wrath by misplacing or losing one, just one, page of it, as this would completely disconnect the wording of the original.” Monte Hill Alexander, the author’s nephew, arranged for publication of the typescript. The author doesn’t tell us if he based his memoir on letters, diaries, notes, memory, or some combination of all, but because of the detailed recollections, we must assume he had access to at least some contemporaneous notes of one kind or another.
This book is a compelling description of one man’s war; it is replete with vivid descriptions of combat on a personal level, and conveys the sense of confusion and isolation experienced by the infantryman in combat. Indeed, the narrative bears out what we already know: the combat infantryman’s world centers on his squad. He is familiar with what his platoon is doing, and he might have an inkling of what his company’s goals are. Information beyond that is a mystery too great to be concerned with. Bearing this out, we find the author’s regiment mentioned only once, and his division mentioned twice.
Hinson, from Leesville, Louisiana, was an early draftee, reporting to Camp Pike, Arkansas, in September 1917. In mid-June 1918 he was sent to France as a replacement. By the end of June, he was assigned to Company M, 38th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division. With his unit he went through combat on the Marne and Vesle rivers and in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
The author’s introduction to combat occurred almost as soon as he was assigned to his company as a replacement. In fact, after his first three days of confusing, violent combat, he listens to the men talk about who was killed and who was wounded: “I, for one, am not extremely grieved over the loss of anyone as I never before saw anyone in the Company.” Such was the lot of men assigned as replacements; they often entered combat without knowing their own platoon mates. The rest of the book constitutes a chronological recitation of mind-numbing battle experiences.
Readers acquainted with memoirs of doughboys will encounter familiar events. The author barely survives an artillery bombardment while engaged in nocturnal trench construction, he watches several dogfights and balloon attacks, and he scrounges for food. Indeed, so hungry is he that, while engaged in removing the dead and wounded, he takes the opportunity to acquire extra rations, a dreadful feat he performs several times: “I relieve the dead body of what little corned beef and hard tack it has. Before I get through helping with the wounded, I have on my person four tins of beef and several hard tack.”
There are also some more unusual events described. After firing two rounds during his first firefight, the author’s rifle barrel bursts. He acquires a Chauchat auto-rifle and kills two Germans who had sought refuge behind a demolished ammunition cart. Later, he witnesses a doughboy shooting two German machine gunners from their treetop perch, and he, himself, tries a similar feat later with mixed results. There is also a vivid description of a terrifying daylight crossing of the Marne River on a perforated pontoon bridge under heavy fire. The narrative is filled with similar stories, apparently dredged from memory. By the time we arrive at his recollection of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive we are staggered at the horrible things he has witnessed. He, by this time, is wasted by diarrhea and crippled by fatigue. He had been gassed and slightly wounded, and he suffered from trench foot. His recollections of the horrors of combat is staggering; they seem to come one on top of another.
Lest anyone should question how a man might remember such details clearly enough to commit them to paper fifteen years later, the author gives us a hint. At the end of a day spent attacking machine gun nests, he tries to sleep, but he cannot. His mind runs through the horrible things he has seen and done. He concludes: “All these sad and cruel events are visible upon my mind. I try to drive them out of my presence but cannot. My eyes feel weak and burning. To close them might mean fatality. My mental state won’t allow me to close them. My mind is mad with possession of the many visions of the day.” No doubt he was plagued by these memories even fifteen years later. Perhaps writing this memoir was his way of dealing with the terrible ghosts haunting his memory.
Hinson’s writing style is at times awkward and florid. Although this sometimes makes reading it a bit difficult, it’s still worthwhile for its honest portrayal of combat as experienced by a typical doughboy. It will appeal to anyone who wants to read about what World War I combat was like for a typical infantryman in the American Expeditionary Forces.
Hinson truly experienced hell as a doughboy, and many other men could echo his sentiment: “It is for democracy they say we are fighting. It’s a pity but there could be a more humane way of settling the cause for right whatever it may be.”
Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and freelance historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he has written extensively on immigration and military history, and his current studies focus on the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. His most recent book, Days of Perfect Hell: The 26th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918, will be released by Schiffer Books in October.