History Commentary: Mementos of the Trenches

By John R. Bell

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2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry in World War I. America declared war April 6, 1917, and the first troops began arriving in Britain in June.

The Defense Logistics Agency would not exist by any name for another 44 years, but a few supply items carried by one soldier in the ‘Great War” give us insight into the lives of the men who fought it.

Who were these warfighters of a century ago? What did they think about? And what were their lives really like?

For me, the daily life of the “doughboy” became more real when my father recently sent me a box of small personal items, letters and notes his father, Army Sgt. Leon H. Bell of Caldwell, Texas, had brought home after serving in France in the 90th Infantry “Division, 360th Infantry regiment, B Company made up of “Texas and Oklahoma” draftees . (When the unit later took in soldiers from other states, they decided the “TO” on the unit patch instead stood for “Tough Ombres.”)

My paternal grandfather died long before I was born, so these things he brought back have given me a chance to learn more about him and the war he and his compatriots fought to stop Imperial German aggression.

One thing many did not bring back was their lives. During the St. Mihiel and Meusse-Argonne Offensives of 1918, the 360th Regiment alone lost 254 men, not counting another 32 listed as missing. Just in Bell’s own Company B, 12 men were killed. Many others were wounded or exposed to mustard gas. The 90th received many letters of commendation for its service, including from General of the Armies John “Blackjack” Pershing.

Most of the items my grandfather brought home are things DLA Troop Support now provides in some form. Leon was only 23 years old, but he wore (or at least was provided) a pair of spectacles, framed in wire made of what is likely tin, given the lack of rust in the era before stainless steel or aluminum. They were stored all these decades in a small painted metal case.

Based on photographs of other soldiers wearing identical glasses, I suspect these were supplied by the U.S. Army Quartermaster — one of several ancestors to DLA. On that note, the modern U.S. Army’s 90th Sustainment Brigade claims lineage from the 90th Division, which was deactivated as a regular unit after the war but revived off and on over the decades.

Thankfully, there were no food items in the box. But there was one object that could be considered part of the Sustainment supply line at that time: a tiny tin of cigarette rolling papers. The French writing means they were not official U.S. Army issue. But it’s well-known that for years, American service members from all branches were provided cigarettes along with their C-rations or K-rations.

As far as the Clothing and Textiles supply line, the only uniform elements my grandfather brought back were coat buttons — but even they have a story to tell. Along with the usual U.S. Army buttons with the eagle emblem are two marked “USNA” for “U.S. National Army,” the corps of draft and volunteer soldiers who joined after the U.S. declared war, as well as a button with the crossed rifles denoting Infantry, below the unit number of 360.

I wondered: Were these buttons spares the Army provided every soldier? Or were they cut from the uniform coat, long discarded or lost? This in turn led me to wonder: What happened to the coat itself? In the era long before DLA Disposition Services, did the Army demand the coat back for repurposing?

Although the buttons are all that remain of Leon’s uniform, we can see it in full in the photograph here, complete with the broad-brimmed felt hat the Army used even into the early months of World War II. The heavy wool coat was surely uncomfortable in the South Texas heat of Camp Travis or even in summertime Europe, especially in battle.

Medals in modern times are the responsibility of the Medals and Insignias division of DLA Troop Support, through contracts with private manufacturers. Among Leon’s items, the only sign of a medal is a tarnished brass pin with tatters of ribbon. In fact, it might instead be the remains of some type of non-award pin, such as the American Legion pin, also pictured. The list of medals awarded to soldiers of the 360th as of 1918 does not include Leon Bell’s name, but like all the men he served with, he would have been eligible for the World War I Victory Medal once the war ended.

As interesting as it is to have these objects, it’s the random documents that make history come alive for me.

Leon took abundant handwritten notes (all in pencil, all in cursive) during his Army training and deployment, on everything from marksmanship to map and compass skills. These notes show what soldiers learned and what they thought important enough to write down. Perhaps most amusing is the list of the qualities required for a good scout — among them, good feet.

Clipped from a local water-department flyer, a satirical poem has Kaiser Wilhelm phoning Satan for advice and outlining the crimes of Kaiser Bill’s armies. That Leon saved this and carried it in the war gives us a window into the popular humor of the time, heavy on doggerel and cheeky slang.

In a postcard mailed to Beaumont, Texas, from Buffalo, New York, Leon writes — again in that neat pencil cursive— to his “Hon-o-Mine” Aline. His fiancé of not quite 18 years old, Aline would later become my grandmother.

A liberty pass, signed in fountain pen by his commanding officer (who himself would go on to be mayor of a major suburb of Dallas, Texas) allowed Leon to be away from duty at Camp Travis, to see the sights of San Antonio at a time when the Alamo was a decaying relic.

A Veterans of Foreign Wars membership card identifies Leon as member No. 6 in that VFW branch.

A folded handwritten essay on the topic of “character,” dated 1913, might have been an assignment from church or high school that Leon decided to take with him to war as a morale booster. Or perhaps he wrote it during his basic training — which would mean he joined the Army at 18 as a volunteer, well before the war.

That raises an interesting point about federal record keeping and perhaps a lesson on the value of Document Services: A 1973 fire in the National Archives burned most records of Army soldiers from 1912 to 1963. So it’s not clear if Leon joined as a private in 1913 or enlisted in 1918 and was promoted to corporal (his lowest rank shown in the surviving records) soon after.

Perhaps most significant is a piece of folded cotton sheeting, pocked with stains and holes, on which Leon recorded his three months at the base hospital in Tours, France, in 1918, recovering from Spanish Flu. For all the notes Leon took during training and deployment, this is his only mention of that time. And he was lucky to survive; more Allied soldiers were killed during the war by influenza than by the enemy.

Likewise, there is only the barest hint at the earlier weeks Leon spent recuperating among other ill soldiers at the homes of French families in the tiny village of Arbot, near the Western Front. Only the names and addresses of Messrs. Yacotin and Durand are evident of this family’s generosity to one young American soldier.

However, there are two letters from the Army responding to requests for his whereabouts from his sister and brother-in-law. I found these letters notable for how personal the responses were from the Army and how little the Army knew about the fate or location of its own soldier.

For me, these items are a reminder of the sacrifices all the soldiers, sailors and Marines of World War I made on the battlefield and at sea — along with the burdens that continued for those lucky enough to come home. Many brought with them bullet, blast and burn injuries from trench warfare and mustard gas. Others returned with what was then called “shell shock,” known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet they also brought to American society an appreciation for their hard-won peace, honored every Nov. 11 first as Armistice Day and later as Veterans’ Day, along with a toughness that would help Americans get through the Great Depression and the even bloodier war to follow.

This year, we remember with pride the doughboys of the Great War — along with the men and women fighting in America’s military today, who carry, wear, consume and rely on items and services from the Defense Logistics Agency.