Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Lost Battalion

This morning my husband and I and a friend went to an estate sale. The house was quite old, and well-furnished with antique furniture, most of it in very good condition. We came away with several old books, of which one was History and Rhymes of the Lost Battalion, by "Buck Private" McCollum.

Lost Battalion was first printed in 1919; the edition we bought was printed in 1939. The "Lost Battalion" was a group of American soldiers who had gotten cut off and surrounded by German troops in the Argonne Forest in north-eastern France. After several days, and after refusing an offer of surrender from the German commander, they were finally relieved. Out of over 500 men, nearly a hundred were killed, and fewer than two hundred were left able to walk.

Private L. C. McCollum was one of the survivors. The book is made up partly of his poems, written during and after the war, and partly of official and personal accounts by other members of the battalion; still other members of the battalion did the illustrations. The 1939 edition has a foreword that reads in part:

"Today the world is again aflame with war propaganda-- new hatreds born of old scars-- while millions of mothers are again saying to their sons, 'Son, will you have to go?' "

Lost Battalion is not a piece of propaganda. It was published after World War One was over. It's remarkably free of hatred: there are a few stray references to "Huns" and "Jerries", but that's it. Some of the poems later in the book express McCollum's bitterness at the poor treatment of himself and other veterans after the war. It is neither pro-war nor anti-war, but claims the reader's heart on behalf of the enlisted men and their patiently waiting families.

They say I'm mad, crazed by the war;
Have you been there, and if so what for?
I for one am damn sick of it all;
"Glory Democracy" just words, that's all.
--from "Fighting Mad"

From my right comes pop of a "Browning",
Which makes my blood run chill;
My vision is gone, I stand alone
My business here is to kill.
--from "Visions"

There's more to this story.

In the front of the book was a bookmark. It had been issued by a post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It reads in part: "We believe you will find in its pages a true reflection of the thoughts and emotions of the American Soldier. The book has been adopted and presented to you as part of our Americanization Program."

The Americanism, or Americanization, Programs of the first half of the twentieth century were education and indoctrination programs aimed at new immigrants. The purposes were to linguistically and ideologically unify the diverse cultural landscapes that were developing all over the country. Americanization Programs were above and beyond the citizenship requirements. (More about the history of VFW and Americanism)

I'm not going to disclose the name of the person from whose estate we bought the book. But from various other things we observed about the contents of the house, this is what we've been able to infer about him. He was born in Germany and raised Catholic, a faith he seems to have adhered to throughout his life. That he was Catholic suggests that he was from Bavaria or some other area of southern Germany. He immigrated to the U.S. apparently at a fairly young age; most of the books in German that we observed around the house are children's books and are quite old (beautiful black-letter printing).

He became a citizen and then participated in the Americanization Program, and was given the book sometime after 1939 (since that is when it was printed). He served in World War Two, apparently in both Germany and Japan. Later he became a doctor, probably on the G. I. Bill, like my father-in-law.

Time folds backwards and forwards. Fold, and I am L. C. McCollum seated at his desk in 1939, searching for words to convey to uncomprehending ears just what it had meant to be a soldier of the Lost Battalion, or to be a soldier in any war, such as the one that hovered in the near future. Fold, and I am another young man reading McCollum's words as a description of the war between the land of his birth and his adopted country-- a war that he must have known or guessed was coming again, and would sweep him up in it. Fold, and I am sitting at my computer typing these words while the ghosts of these two men hover at my shoulders.

"What do you want?" I ask.

"Just listen," they say. "Just listen."

Collection available! Knocking from Inside


Bonnie Jacobs said...

Oh, wow! This is wonderful imagery! Thanks for sharing it. Yes, a book is a time capsule, and you have given us a glimpse of a young man in one war, another young man in a later war, and you bringing the two together in your mind and in your words. This is a beautiful meditation on a period of time covering most of a hundred years, and I the reader have become a fourth person swept up in the ghostly and ghastly wars.

Dale said...

That's what most ghosts say to me, too. They're not asking much.

Crafty Green Poet said...

books are definitely time capsules, you've written this beautifully

Joy said...

Beutifully written.

TheElementary said...

Your last paragraph was particularly moving. I too feel that books, and the hands they pass through, speak to us like that. Reading and learning are so important and what I have on my shelf are little milestones in my life, souvenirs and memories of good days.
I appreciate great posts like this one.