Tuesday, June 5, 1917. Walter Price and 30 thousand other St. Louis men head for their local polling place, not to vote, but to register for the draft. The Great War has been in the headlines for three years. It’s a day of excitement and dread. Who will be called when the lottery is held?
Walter is 25, a carpenter. His immigrant parents began the family carpentry business decades earlier to ride the wave of Gilded Age prosperity on the St. Louis frontier. On August 22, his number is called. He waits to hear when he needs to report for duty but the training camps are maxed out with the first half million men mobilized. Walter has eyes for his sister-in-law Bridget Dunne, but he will wait. And wait.
Eight months pass. April 29, 1918. Finally, he boards the train for Camp Funston, Kansas, to join the midwestern 89th Division—the Rolling W. He is assigned to Company E of the 314th Combat Engineers.
The 89th is drilled in trench-digging, use of gas masks, loading cannons, fighting with bayonets, throwing hand grenades, and shooting Enfield rifles. But training is cut short. They are needed on the front. They board trains bound for New York. Official accounts tell us that crowds gather and cheer along the way, till they reach their staging area at Camp Mills, Long Island.
June 12, 1918. As the Engineers board the refitted ocean liner that will transport them to war, they learn the English have sunk two German submarines—U-boats—near their location. This is real.
The ship takes 10 days to cross the Atlantic. The 89th stops at Liverpool, England, and camps at Winchester for a week of rest and refitting. Then they are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into packet ships across the English Channel to LeHavre, France. After more regrouping, they pile into trains, 40 men to a boxcar. It takes two days to move 310 miles east to the Reynal Training Area. French citizens in tiny farm villages open their hearts to this fresh wave of help.
Walter learns a few words of French, tries the local wine, and enjoys the cool summer, as their training becomes more intense, working with live ammunition now, only miles away from the fighting. The Engineers train in their specialties: building bridges, surveying, digging trenches, making barbed wire entanglements, laying roads. They practice wearing their heavy steel helmets till their necks stop aching and practice donning their dreadful gas masks till they can get it in place in an instant.
August 4, 1918. Walter Price boards a crowded truck in the convoy that will take 27,000 men the 60 miles to the front. The legendary Western Front is no more that a bloody gash a few miles wide along the long northern border of France. Before the U.S. troops arrive, in the stalemate between Germans and Allies, there have been more than two million casualties along this man-eating line.
August 10, 1918. They are “in sector,” preparing for the massive First Army assault on the St. Mihiel salient, a region jutting into France that the Germans have dominated since the first weeks of the war. The 89th dig in. The territory ahead is German trenches and barbed wire. The sweet air of French summer turns into the stink of mustard gas and death. And it starts raining.
September 12, 1918, 1 a.m. 600,000 men receive the order to press forward, through mud-filled trenches, pitting their fire power against that of the Germans. The 314th Engineers immediately go to work building and widening the road to allow food, supplies, and support to get through. In two days, the battle is won. The 89th has advanced 7 miles and lost a thousand men. Holding the line into October costs them another 1300 men as the Engineers complete their lovely road.
Now they mobilize for the big one: Meuse-Argonne. It’s more of the same, really. Muddy trenches, thickets of barbed wire, constant shelling with high explosives, and air-borne gas attacks. As fast as the retreating Germans destroyed bridges and roads, the engineers are sent out ahead to rebuild. In fact it was the engineers who were often sent out ahead to reconnoiter and it was doing this that Walter Price witnessed the death of fellow scout and best buddy.
From October 20 to November 11, the 89th claw their way all of 15 miles. And when the dust clears, they have suffered nearly 4000 casualties.
The most celebrated act of the 314th Engineers occurs on the eve of Armistice, when the 89th need to be on the other side of the Muese River when the Germans surrender. The bridges are destroyed. So the 314th build a giant pontoon raft that would float 75 men, put it on pulleys and ferry the Division across all night long.
Meanwhile Walter’s Company E was going house to house in the villages finding and disarming the mines and booby traps left by the retreating enemy.
Nov. 11, 1918, 11:00 a.m. Armistice, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For Walter Price and the Americans, the war has lasted two months. They are now part of the Army of Occupation. Can they go home? Not so fast. There aren’t enough ships to transport over two million men across the Atlantic. Thanksgiving passes. Christmas. Winter sets in.
While the Army sets up schools, sports teams, and other entertainments for waiting troops, the Engineers still have a job to do—rebuilding German roads, including reposting signage, printing new maps, and finding enough operable snow plows.
As lumber becomes available, the Engineers build kitchens, mess-halls, and stables for their horses. Then, barracks, latrines, furniture, and de-lousing stations. As troops leave, these new facilities are handed over to village mayors.
They take charge of public utilities—water, light, and sewer systems—get them operational for the needs of both the citizenry and the army.
Finally, in May, 1919, Walter and the 1446 men of the 314th Engineer are transported to Brittany, France, and loaded onto the Battleship Montana. In the Boston, they board a train for Camp Devens for quarantine and delousing. Then, a train to Camp Funston, Kansas for demobilization. They pass through St. Louis but vote against having a parade, because let’s get this thing over with!
No hell would be complete without the statisticians. The 89th Division spent 82 days at the front: Training - 0 days; In Sector - 54 days; In Battle - 28 days. Between the operations at St. Mihiel and Argonne, they clawed their way forward a whopping 30 miles. That's about a mile a day -- think about it. And they were among the fast ones.
They were the 5th most efficient division in the American Army: of all the ground gained, they took over 6% of it. They also excelled (3rd place) at capturing German prisoners -- 5061 of them. The cost: 1496 died in battle or from their wounds and 5625 were wounded. About 7600 replacements were sent in over the course of their stay.
I’m telling you this because I am the fifth of Walter’s 27 grandchildren. I remember him as retired, the white-haired gent with gout-swollen elbows who coached my mother to build a soffit over the kitchen sink. The slow-moving man who never minded grandkids tagging along with him, as long as we could stop at Kenny’s for a beer and a soda at the end of the day.
His military service was a mystery—till I found an old book, full of maps and charts about every battle and each Division in the War. Suddenly, my old grandpa’s youth had come to visit me. He let me walk in his footsteps through months of dread, months of horror, months of labor, before he could resume his life. We are connected now. I know that young man a little better—Private Price, not a hero, but a man who did heroic work. And I know why Armistice Day, November 11, was his sacred holiday, deserving of the best bottle of whiskey he could afford.
American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: History, Guide, and Reference Book. Prepared by the American Battle Monuments Commission. 1938.
The Official Record of the United States' Part in the Great War prepared by the Secretary of War (no date).
History of the 89th Division, USA. Online
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