My father’s war: A note to my father on the 100th anniversary of the US entrance into WWI
The German army goose-stepping into Brussels on Aug. 21, 1914, wrote Richard Harding Davis, the romantic hero of war correspondents, was “not men marching, but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks. At this minute it is rolling through Brussels as the swollen waters of the Conemaugh Valley swept through Johnstown.”
They sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland.” Then the silence was broken by the stamp of iron-shod boots, the rumble of siege guns and horses’ hoofs that beat sparks from the stones. Ten days later, when they completed the burning of Louvain, Mr. Davis warned that this was unlike other wars in which army fought army. It was “war upon the defenseless,” upon churches, colleges, shops, against women harvesting in the fields, “against children in wooden shoes at play in the streets.”
The Great War began with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Hapsburg heir, on a visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, by the 19-year-old Serbian Gavrilo Princip. Over its four years, the resulting conflicts, now known collectively as World War I, eventually involved more than 100 countries. But most public memory of the war remains focused on the Western Front, in the remote northeast corner of France, a line from the North Sea reaching south, parallel to the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, to Switzerland. Here the French, English and, later, American armies dug in and peered through the smoke and fog across the battlefields to the German trenches as they did their best to slaughter one another.
Today, 100 years later, historians wonder whether this “war to end all wars” was worth it.
When I was growing up in Trenton, N.J., original home of the 311th Infantry, the 78th Division and the 112th Field Artillery National Guard, watching its veterans—who included my father and many of his friends—marching in every veteran’s parade, the answer to that question was never in doubt.
Today, 100 years later, historians wonder whether this “war to end all wars” was worth it.
By the end of 1915 the war was going well for the Germans and their allies, and their brutal intent, typified in the horrific battle for Verdun, was to wear down the French will to fight, to push French morale to the “breaking point,” so that even if the fortress at Verdun did not fall, “the forces of France would bleed to death.” On Feb. 21, 1916, the Germans attacked with phosgene poison gas, 10 times more lethal than chlorine, 168 planes and the newly invented flamethrowers. But by December, after 143,000 German and 162,440 French had died (some estimates are much higher), the fighting just stopped. Neither side had won the battle that each predicted would decide the war.
The Lightning Division
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, declaring that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” called upon the U.S. Congress to declare war against Germany. On May 18 the Selective Service Act authorized the draft, which would transform the small U.S. army of 125,000 or so men to a force of about 4,000,000 by the end of the war.
It would be June 26, 1917, before the first troops, 14,000 of them, arrived in France; but they still had to be trained and had to wait for colleagues to reinforce them. Some Americans arrived without guns or any idea how to use them. Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American forces, was shocked at the lack of preparation. He had no intention of letting the U.S. “doughboys” serve under foreign officers, so it would be months before they would go into battle. Nevertheless, on July 4 the American troops marched through Paris to the grave of the Marquis de La Fayette, our Revolutionary War ally, who had been buried in soil imported from America, and their colonel proclaimed in the presence of a Parisian crowd, “Lafayette, we are here.”
One group of these Americans was collected into the 311th regiment of the U.S. 78th Infantry, the “Lightning Division,” a white lightning bolt against a red background emblazoned on their helmets. The conscripts arrived at Camp Dix, N.J., before the camp had been built, but as the barracks and training ground sprang to life around them, the men mastered close-order drill, physical and bayonet combat, marksmanship, machine guns, tanks and horses. And they sang spirit-lifting songs, some of which America has never forgotten: “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “Over There,” as well as “Nearer My God to Thee.” There was no room, however, for “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” an antiwar song popular before the United States entered the war.
They sang spirit-lifting songs, some of which America has never forgotten.
Meanwhile, the soldiers split up into football, basketball and track teams, with the 78th winning a football game that, as the authors of the division history wrote, showed the fighting spirit that would serve them well in the famous Battle of the Argonne Forest.
A Man From Trenton
My father, Master Sgt. Raymond A. Schroth, was born in Trenton, N.J., in 1891, the son of John Schroth, a sarsaparilla bottler and a member of the New Jersey State Assembly. His father died in 1905, and Raymond, age 12, went to work in a brickyard to support the family. When he graduated from St. John’s Academy—where he had read most of the works of Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper—with no money for college, he went right to work for The Trenton State Gazette as a political reporter. And with his beautiful bass voice, he sang in the choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
When the United States entered the Great War, my father promptly enlisted and on Sept. 8, 1917, departed for Camp Dix. The Trenton Times reported on the trainees’ social life, mentioning the Camp Dix Eleven, the army football team with my father as halfback, and Corporal Schroth’s Camp Dix Quartet, which often sang at public events, including a concert at the Palace Theater in New York on the eve of their departure for France.
When the men on the troop ship decided to entertain themselves with a boxing match between a soldier and a sailor, the army selected Corporal Schroth as their champion. As they sparred with one another, the navy man whispered to my father that they should not take this too seriously but just go through the motions of a fight. My father replied, “Let each man do his best,” and knocked him out of the ring.
Arriving in France on June 8, 1918, the division trained with the British Expeditionary Forces for two months and in August moved to support the men preparing for battle at Saint-Miheil. That September skirmish was the warm-up for the Argonne. As the men of the Lightning Division moved the 60 miles by truck or on foot from their battle at Saint-Miheil to the Argonne Forest, they sang: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,/ And smile, smile, smile,/ While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag [cigarette],/ Smile, boys, that’s the style.” The good news was that by Oct. 10 the Allied armies had driven the Germans out of the forest, though the major battle had not yet been won. The bad news: in the previous two months 20,000 American troops had died in France, not in battle, but of influenza and pneumonia. A flu epidemic was sweeping the world, and warriors were not exempt.
From mid-October the battle raged along the small part of the Hindenburg Line that stretched through the Bois de Bourgogne to the north, through the village of Grandpré on a fortified hilltop citadel to the Bois de Loges to the east and the little village of Champigneulle. German shells of phosgene and mustard gas landed as the men slept. From their roost in the citadel atop 30-foot cliffs German machine gunners could kill anyone visible in or around the town.
On Nov. 1 the First Army assembled four divisions in the Grandpré area for the attack that many hoped would end the war. Naval guns mounted on railroad cars rolled in to fire on German lines from 25 miles away. American artillery fired 41 tons of mustard gas shells at the enemy. Low-flying American planes machine-gunned the German fortifications and troops behind the lines. The 78th Division’s specific order was to remove the network of German machine guns menacing the Americans. On the heights of Grandpré one well-dug-in nest was blocking their advance. They called forward my father’s Company E.
The Last Day
On the heights of Grandpré, Sergeant Schroth was ordered to lead a detachment of men through an area swept by enemy fire and destroy the German machine guns. He managed to get his little group to within 50 feet of the main gun and ordered a charge. The Germans, thinking they were outnumbered, first made a move to surrender, but when they were suddenly reinforced and realized that the attacking force had been severely reduced by casualties, they started a counterattack. Sergeant Schroth quickly reassessed the situation. The troops that were supposed to reinforce him had been ordered to retreat, so he ordered the two or three men left with him to get back to safety.
He went ahead to finish the job alone. Somehow, firing away with his .45 caliber automatic pistol, he charged with a force that overcame the pill-box defenders. He took one man prisoner. As he led his prisoner back to the U.S. lines, the shell fire was so ferocious the two were forced to huddle in a shell hole for hours until the firing subsided.
World War I stories include several about enemies who discovered one another’s humanity. This is one. They talked about their families. “Das ist meine Schwester,” said the German, pulling a photo from his pocket. “And this is my sister Margaret,” said Dad. “She is a nun.” When the guns quieted and they rose from their hole, my father pointed his pistol at his new friend and led him to the camp. The German never guessed that throughout the ordeal my father’s gun had been empty.
World War I stories include several about enemies who discovered one another’s humanity. This is one.
The German army was in full retreat, but the 78th Division suffered 1,169 deaths and 5,975 wounded; it averaged 40 casualties a day during the campaign. The war ended 10 days later.
After receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from Gen. John J. Pershing at Semur and the Crois de Guerre from Marshall Foch at Bordeaux, my father came home famous, declared the “luckiest man in the war.” His coat somehow absorbed five bullet holes without a single bullet piercing him. A flying hunk of shrapnel had landed right over his heart, but it was stopped by a sardine can in his shirt pocket.
Promoted to captain in the National Guard, he returned to his reporting job at The Trenton State Gazette and was pulled into a whirlwind of Trenton public and social life: president of the American Legion chapter, committees for charity balls, annual reunions of the 78th Division, marching in parades, appointment as jury commissioner and another heroic event in August 1920 as he plunged into the angry surf at Atlantic City to rescue two young women, fellow members of the cathedral choir, from drowning.
In August 1925 he re-crossed the Atlantic on the Leviathan with five fellow Trenton veterans to revisit and describe for The Gazette the once bombed-out towns and cathedrals, battlefields and cemeteries now sacred in their memories. At Grandpré, he wrote, the “jagged scars made by the trenches continue unhealed after seven years of peace, festooned by barbed wire, and an occasional giant tank jutting its blunt nose skyward, having been halted on the lumbering journey by the coming of peace.” At Romagne cemetery, they found the work of burying casualties was by no means completed. The day before, five more dead soldiers had been found in a wheat field.
My father came home famous, declared the “luckiest man in the war.” His coat somehow absorbed five bullet holes without a single bullet piercing him.
By then a captain in the reserve, Dad played polo at the 112th Field Artillery grounds until in 1930 he married Mildred Murphy of Bordertown, N.J., a graduate of Georgian Court College, run by the Sisters of Mercy, of which his sister Margaret was a member. Mildred was a much loved teacher in the Trenton school system, 14 years his junior. With the death of his father, the hospitalization of his brother John and the illness of his sister Mary, Dad had been overwhelmed with the care of his ailing mother, whom he brought to live in their new house on Rutherford Avenue, right behind Blessed Sacrament Church and school, until her death in 1935.
As a father he was loving but firm, not remote, but reserved. Perhaps because of what he had seen during the war, he was slow to express his emotions. Like so many veterans, he did not talk much about the Great War. Yet when it was time for a bedtime story, he described the troops emerging from the trenches, climbing through barbed wire as the German machine guns mowed them down. When Company E of the 78th Division gathered for reunions, old war buddies would stay at our house and talk into the night.
He raised my younger brother Dave and me to defend ourselves. When we reached the age of 3, he put us on horseback every Saturday at the 112th Field Artillery and sent us to a summer camp with 35 horses. We had tennis lessons and piano lessons. He taught us to swim in the ocean, to paddle his cedar canoe on family outings and to box. We put the big gloves on and he got down on his knees to fight us head-on. We learned how to beat him with a fierce, fist-swinging frontal attack. He laughed so hard we easily knocked him down.
One day during a summer vacation at the beach, above the ocean roar I heard a piercing call. Less than a minute later, there was my father staggering out of the surf. He had heard two swimmers calling for help and had plunged into the waves to save them. He had helped them, but then was himself swept out by the undertow. The voice I heard was his, calling for a lifeguard. My mother remarked, “That’s the kind of father you have.”
During summer vacations on a Pennsylvania farm, we would hike up and down hills, shirtless to get a tan, singing “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” For us, it was as if World War I were yesterday. The photo of him receiving the Crois de Guerre in Bordeaux is on my wall as I type.
We displayed an enormous American flag on holidays. When the film “Sergeant York” and the biopic “Wilson” opened, the whole family went to see them as if we were going to church. Dad told me years later, however, that the “truest” movie about the war was the 1925 silent epic “The Big Parade,” a brutally realistic critique. The song “My Dream of the Big Parade” marches to “mountains of mud” and “rivers of blood.” In his room on the third floor were the sacred relics: the medals themselves, which are now in my desk drawer, his steel helmet, his binoculars, the sardine can that stopped a bullet and the .45 automatic, which has remained unloaded for 96 years.
A few days after Pearl Harbor, Dad was taking us somewhere in the car, and he parked for just a few minutes to go into a building for some business. I found out later that he had tried to enlist. Even as a 51-year-old father of two young boys, he was ready to return to face those horrors again. Why? I never asked. But I can safely guess that he was compelled by the same desire that motivated him all of his life: He just wanted to do what was right.