LATTER WAR DAYS IN FRANCE
I believe that the army of to-day, when it goes back to citizen thinking and citizen acting, will be capable of so contributing to the commonwealth of the United States as to change the character of the whole country and lift it up to a higher plane.
BISHOP BRENT, Senior Chaplain, A.E.F.
Paris, March, 1919.
On a midsummer morning in 1918, ambulance after ambulance unloaded its cargo of wounded humanity at a base hospital in Paris. The wounded were being conveyed rapidly from the front and the entire hospital was astir with nurses, surgeons, and orderlies. A major, surgeon, almost staggered out of an operating room where he had been on duty for twenty-two hours and started for his quarters when a colonel arrived on an inspection trip.
"Pretty busy," remarked the colonel as he acknowledged the major's salute.
"[Pg 2]Busy? Busy!" replied the major. "Good Lord, the only people about here that aren't busy are the dead ones. Even the wounded are busy planning to hobble around at conventions when the Big Show is over. Already they are talking about how they intend to take a hand in things after the war when they get home."
Over across the street a sergeant, limping slightly, stopped under a shade tree and leaned against it to rest. He was almost well of his wound and eagerly awaited the word that would send him to join his regiment, the Twenty-sixth United States Infantry. As he paused under the tree another soldier with a mending wound in the knee and just able to be about stopped to speak to him. The sergeant's hand rose in quick salute for the newcomer was an officer.
"Expect to get back soon, sergeant?" said the officer.
"Yes sir," he replied. "Anxious to go back and get the whole job over, sir."
"So am I," responded the officer. "But what will we all do when the Germans really are licked?"
"Go home and start a veterans' association for the good of the country, sir," the sergeant answered.
Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, then major, was the officer, and Sergeant William[Pg 3] Patterson, later killed in action, was the enlisted man, and the institution was Base Hospital No. 2.
Colonel Roosevelt, who was in the hospital convalescing from a wound in his knee caused by a machine gun bullet, told me the story and said it was the first time that he had heard the subject of a veterans' association mentioned, although he had thought of it frequently himself as an organization with boundless possibilities for good. He found later that it was being very generally discussed by men in Base Hospital No. 2, particularly those who were so badly wounded that they could not be sent to the front again and who knew they must further serve their country along peaceful lines at home.
This was during war time, remember!
Then came the armistice!
When our victorious armies were wending their way towards the Rhine, when men of the navy and the marine corps realized that peace had come and that home was again within reach, this thought of a veterans' band, which had slumbered far back in the subconscious thoughts of all of them, burst into objectivity. An association of some sort was widely discussed not only by the men but by the officers as well. But how could even the start of it be begun? Those who considered the project most seriously were confronted with a difficulty [Pg 4]which seemed at first to be almost insurmountable: that was the difficulty of assembling at one time and in one place a gathering which might at least approximately represent the whole army, navy, marine corps, or even the A.E.F.
This difficulty tended to narrow what is believed to have been the wish of everyone when he first thought of the matter, that is the hope that it would be another Grand Army of the Republic, another United Confederate Veterans, but greater than either because representative of a United Country. Talk started then about all sorts of imagined and fancied veteran organizations. Some advocated an officers' association. This was believed to be possible because officers had more freedom and more financial ability to attend a convention. Others thought the enlisted men should perfect organizations by regiments first, then divisions, and finally form one great united body.
The present leaders in the movement have since said that they realized that all of these schemes must come to naught because no organization except one on the broadest possible lines could be effective. They believed that all officers and men of the three branches of the service and all enlisted women, whether they served at home or abroad, should be eligible and urged to join one thoroughly democratic and comprehensive organization. They [Pg 5]knew that any organization leaving out one or more elements composing the military service of the United States would be forced to compete constantly with the organization or association so discarded. In short, they knew that in union there is strength. And they believed, and still believe, that the problems of peace after a catastrophe such as was never before witnessed in history are so grave that they can be met with safety only by a national bulwark composed of the men who won the war, so closely knit, so tightly welded together in a common organization for the common good of all that no power of external or internal evil or aggression, no matter how allied or augmented, could hope even so much as to threaten our national existence, ambitions, aspirations, and pursuit of happiness, much less aim to destroy them.
Don't forget that the leaders of the movement realized all this, and also remember that they include among their number the enlisted man of the A.E.F. and home army and the sailor in a shore station and on board a destroyer. The realization may not have been in so many words, but each knew he wanted to "make the world safe for democracy"—he had fought to do that and had thought out carefully what it meant, that is, that it didn't mean anything selfish—and each knew enough of the principle of union and strength to [Pg 6]embrace the idea when "organize" first began to be mentioned.
But how to do it, that was the problem.
Then kind Fate in the shape of G.H.Q. came to the rescue with what proved to be the solution.
G.H.Q. didn't mean to find the solution. There had been a deal of dissatisfaction with the way certain things were going in the A.E.F. and on February 15, 1919, twenty National Guard and Reserve officers serving in the A.E.F., representing the S.O.S., ten infantry divisions, and several other organizations, were ordered to report in Paris. The purpose of this gathering was to have these officers confer with certain others of the Regular Army, including the heads of train supply and Intelligence Sections of the General Staff of G.H.Q., in regard to the betterment of conditions and development of contentment in the army in France.
Included in this number were Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., of the First Division, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin D'Olier of the S.O.S., and Lieutenant Colonel Eric Fisher Wood of the 88th Division. All of these officers have since told me that when they left their divisions they were distinctively permeated with the desire to form a veterans' organization of some comprehensive kind. When they got to Paris they immediately [Pg 7]went into conference with the other officers on the questions involved in their official trip, details of which do not concern this story.
What is important is the fact that Colonel Roosevelt, Colonel D'Olier, and Colonel Wood each discovered that all of the officers in this representative gathering shared with the thousands of other soldiers of the American forces the hope and desire that the officers and men who were about to return to civilian life, after serving in the great war, whether at home or with the combat units or in the S.O.S., might sooner or later be united into one permanent national organization, similar in certain respects to the Grand Army of the Republic or the United Confederate Veterans and composed of all parties, all creeds, and all ranks, who wished to perpetuate American ideals and the relationship formed while in the military and national service.
When these officers realized what each was thinking they promptly set about with the "let's go" spirit of the A.E.F. to avail themselves of a God-given opportunity. A dinner was spread in the Allied Officers' Club, Rue Faubourg St. Honoré, on the night of February 16th and covers were laid for the following:
|Lt. Col. Francis R. Appleton, Jr.,||2d Army.|
|Lt. Col. G. Edward Buxton,||82d Div.|
|Lt. Col. Bennett C. Clark, ex 35th Div.,||now with 88th Div.|
|[Pg 8]Lt. Col. Ralph D. Cole,||37th Div.|
|Lt. Col. D.J. Davis, ex 28th Div.,||now att. G.H.Q.|
|Lt. Col. Franklin D'Olier,||Q.M., S.O.S.|
|Col. W.J. Donovan,||Rainbow Div.|
|Lt. Col. David M. Goodrich,||G.H.Q.|
|Maj. T.E. Gowenlock, ex 1st Div.,||now with 1st A.C.|
|Col. Thorndike Howe,||A.P.O. Dept.|
|Lt. Col. John Price Jackson,||Peace Commission|
|Maj. DeLancey Kountze,||G.H.Q.|
|Lt. Col. R.W. Llewellen,||28th Div.|
|Capt. Ogden Mills, ex 6th Div.,||now att. G.-2, S.O.S.|
|Lt. Col. Benjamin Moore,||82d Div.|
|Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.,||1st Div.|
|Lt. Col. R.C. Stebbins,||3d A.C.|
|Maj. R.C. Stewart,||1st Div.|
|Lt. Col. George A. White, ex 41st Div.,||now att. G.H.Q.|
|Lt. Col. Eric Fisher Wood, ex 83d Div.,||now with 88th Div.|
At that dinner the American Legion was born.
Why not let this gathering—the most representative in the history of the A.E.F.—consider itself as a temporary committee to launch the movement? Why not? everyone asked himself and his neighbor over the coffee. All felt that their presence in Paris presented an unusual opportunity to initiate the first steps of such a movement, an opportunity unlikely to be repeated and one they ought not to let slip. Another meeting was suggested to consider the matter. It was held. The result was that there were several more conferences and every such gathering was more enthusiastic than its predecessor. At each of these informal conferences, some one was careful to emphasize that these self-appointed committeemen [Pg 9]were by no means representative enough of the army or navy, nor sufficiently numerous to warrant their actually effecting an organization of any character whatsoever. Yet it was believed that, nevertheless, the gathering was representative enough to act as a temporary committee so functioning as to get together from the whole army and navy two caucuses—one to represent the troops in France, and the other those who had remained in America and who, through no fault of their own, had been denied the privilege of making history on a European battlefield. The temporary committee realized that due care must be exercised in getting these caucuses started. Every unit in the A.E.F. should be represented, if possible, at the Paris caucus, while to the one in the States, preferably to be held at St. Louis because of its central location, delegates must come from every Congressional District in the Union.
Thereby would be avoided, it was urged, the mistake of giving the impression that it was a small gathering of men, unrepresentative or serving some special and selfish end.
This was unanimously agreed upon and the temporary committee elected Lt. Col. Roosevelt, temporary chairman, Lt. Col. Bennett C. Clark, temporary vice-chairman, Lt. Col. Wood, temporary secretary.[Pg 10]
A sub-committee was appointed to receive from all the members of the temporary committee the names of such individuals of combat divisions and each section of the S.O.S. of the A.E.F., who were eligible and suitable to be delegates to a caucus scheduled for March 15th-16th-17th in Paris. A similar sub-committee was appointed to ascertain the names of men of the home forces in order that they might be urged to attend a caucus in America on or about May 8th-9th-10th.
The work of the sub-committee of the A.E.F. was much more difficult than would appear at first glance. It was easy enough to get the names of leaders in the various outfits, both of officers and men, but to get them to Paris! That was the job. Of course it was the ardent desire of everyone that the new organization should eventually become a society principally devoted to the interests of those who served as enlisted men, for they bore the brunt of the fighting and the work and were fundamentally responsible for the splendid victory.
But once the names of such men were in the committee's hands the real work had not begun. There were mechanical difficulties in securing for enlisted men in active duty leave to attend a caucus in Paris. In the first place the enlisted men themselves, as indicated by several who were consulted, were very diffident about accepting an [Pg 11]invitation to attend a caucus where they would be required to sit beside and debate with and against generals and field officers to whom they owed military obedience. Then again, there was the expense of travel in France, as well as the high cost of living in Paris. At the outset this raised the expense of a trip to the French capital to a sum amounting to many months of an enlisted man's pay. Furthermore, the sub-committee was face to face with the A.E.F. regulations providing that except in the most unusual circumstances an enlisted man would not be granted leave except in company with a trainload of his fellows, and to a certain specified leave area.
But as has been said before the conclusion had been reached that if the organization was really to become preëminently an enlisted man's outfit, it would be absolutely necessary to overcome these difficulties and by hook or crook to obtain the attendance of as many privates and noncommissioned officers as possible who were leaders. So, scarcely had seventeen of the twenty officers returned to their commands before they received an urgent appeal to help out the sub-committee of three. They were told to get enlisted delegates to Paris, never mind how, the method being of small importance provided the men were there.