Posts with the tag: Combat Engineer

The Archivist’s Nook: From the Rhineland to Washington-Soldier’s Homecoming, 1919

A useful publication for soldiers on occupation duty in Germany: Burger Sprachfuhrer: Burgers Help for The Englishman The American to Learn How to Speak German Without a Teacher, n.d., O’Connell Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University of America.

Robert Lincoln O’Connell (1888-1972), a World War I Connecticut army engineer of Irish-Catholic heritage, was the subject of two of my previous blog posts. They explored his letters home to family while training for the military in Washington in 1917, and his active service on the western Front in France in 1918. The third and concluding post of this trilogy looks at his experiences in the U.S Army’s brief postwar occupation of the Rhineland, as well as victory parades in New York and Washington in 1919. As with previous letters, they are written by “Rob” primarily to his mother and his sisters, Ellen and Sarah, who lived in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. O’Connell’s archival papers, which have also been digitized, are housed in the Special Collections of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

O’Connell served in the U. S. Army of Occupation in postwar Germany. His First Engineer Regiment was part of the First Infantry Division (later immortalized in the Second World War as ‘The Big Red One’). They crossed the Moselle River into Germany on December 1, 1918, and arrived at Coblenz, along the Rhine River, on December 12. During the occupation, which lasted until August 15, 1919, the engineers constructed shelters, improved sanitation, built pontoon bridges, and repaired roads. With ample recreation time, O’Connell engaged in hiking and sightseeing tours where he collected many colorful postcards. In one letter home he wrote(1):

“It took about an hour to reach the river near Coblenz” and “the place was crowded with 2nd Division men, mostly Marines, it seemed, and one of them threw a snowball into our truck.  As we were jammed in and had no top, that ball couldn’t miss and we could only yell back, which started a barrage of snowballs…. I got one on the ear and we all had snow down our necks. I didn’t care much for the game because the mud made the ball slippery– and the 1st Division team needed a lot of practice.  The score was 6 to 0 in favor of the second team.”

First Engineers, Army of Occupation, Wirges, Germany, 7/19/1919, O’Connell Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University of America.

Unlike the aftermath of World War II, the U.S occupation of German territory in 1919 was short lived. O’Connell returned stateside with main elements of the First Infantry Division at Brest on August 18, and arrived at Camp Mills, New York, on August 30. He took part in victory parades in both New York City on September 10 and in Washington on September 17. The final (undated) letter in the collection, addressed to his sister Ellen from Camp Leach, part of the campus of American University in Washington, was probably written a few days after the parade in New York (2):

“This is a camp of 8-man tents on frames and they had been dumped on the floor…We got there at 10:30 and never was there such a disgusted bunch. About four o’clock some ice cream was brought around and the cook managed to get supper at 8:15…Now we are getting plenty of good eats and passes into town 7 c carfare and the K of Cs especially are doing all they can, lots of cigarettes, matches, hand kerchiefs, sightseeing trips around the city in busses and free beds. The papers and the posters rave about the famous or glorious First Division and the recruiting officers are making the most of it.”

Letter to Ellen O’Connell from Camp Leach, September 1919, O’Connell Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University of America.

The campus of American University was also the base of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Unit, which also had a sub-unit at nearby Catholic University. These facilities developed deadly chemical munitions, especially Lewisite Gas. This weapon of mass destruction was invented by C.U. student-priest Julius Nieuwland, though it was not ready in time for use during World War I. However, O’Connell’s visit to Washington had nothing to do with poison gas. It was his final military march. The soldiers paraded to great ovation from the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue. Marching past the White House, they were reviewed by the Vice President and members of the Cabinet, who were representing President Woodrow Wilson, while he was away canvassing the country on a doomed mission to sell ratification of the Versailles Peace Treaty. From Washington, the men were shipped to Camp Meade, Maryland, where many were demobilized. O’Connell went on to Camp Devens, Massachusetts, where he was mustered out on September 27, 1919.

Washington, D.C., 1919. First Division, American Expeditionary Forces. Miscellaneous views of parade. Harris & Ewing glass negative, Shorpy.com

After the war, O’Connell briefly returned to Southington, where he worked as a machinist in a bottling mill. He eventually settled in New York City where he married and worked in an auto garage. His story is quintessentially American, yet represents a slice of Catholic Americana depicting the struggles of soldiers and their families during war-time. In comparing O’Connell’s letters with those of soldiers from other wars, certain universal themes emerge, such as longing for home and excitement for new places. There are also references to music, movies, and opinions on race and gender that are very specific to place and time. War is essentially a young man’s game, but O’Connell, who turned thirty during the conflict, was relatively older.  His account shows a maturity that is often absent in the surviving letters that were written by younger soldiers.

(1) Letter to Sarah O’Connell, February 8, 1919.

(2) Letter to Ellen O’Connell, ca. September 1919

(3) Thanks to TK and MM.

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Yank on the Western Front, 1918

Weary but hopeful soldiers gaze skyward from “I Was There!” With the Yanks in France: Sketches made on the Western Front 1917 — 1919 by Pvt. C. Leroy Baldridge A.E.F., 1919, p. 4. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

As part of our ongoing efforts to mark the centenary of the First World War a previous blog post explored the 1917 experiences of Connecticut Catholic Robert Lincoln O’Connell training as a combat engineer in Washington, D.C. This is documented by the collection of digitized letters to his mother and sisters housed in the Archives of The Catholic University of America. Now we turn to his 1918 accounts of the war as O’Connell and his unit, the First Engineer Regiment, part of the famed First Infantry Division and vanguard of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe, saw harrowing service on the Western Front in France during the war’s culmination. To complete their military instruction, which began in Washington, O’Connell and the First Engineers were trained by the French in the construction of trenches, dugouts, command posts, heavy weapons sites, observation posts, wire entanglements, and other obstacles. They also learned to destroy enemy fences by cutting wire or using explosives. In addition, they drilled as regular infantry in the use of rifles, hand grenades, and gas masks.

The First Engineers served near Toul, January-April 1918, where they quarried rock, repaired roads, built dugouts, command posts, and wire entanglements while often being shelled and gassed as they worked. American efforts to strengthen the positions in Cantigny, where the engineers served, April-July 1918, helped the French thwart a German offensive. To contain yet another German attack, the First Infantry Division shifted to the Aisne-Marne sector, with the engineers deployed to the Compiegne forest where O’Connell was wounded on July 18. The engineers not only overcame natural obstacles, but fought in the front line and suffered many casualties, O’Connell among them. During his rest and recuperation, he missed the fighting in the St. Mihiel Salient, but after recovering returned to service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in October and was there when the war ended on November 11, 1918.

A pontoon bridge built by the First Engineers. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

The O’Connell collection includes fourteen of his often breezy letters and eleven postcards sent home from France. In his March 18, 1918 missive to his mother he noted:

I am writing each week now because I have my own paper, in case I haven’t a chance to reach a Y.M.C.A. tent or an S.A. but there are few places that those people haven’t opened buildings. In this village, the two huts face each other, across the street, but the Y.M. draws the crowd and the money because they have a better equipped place. A real band has been around town for the last week and the way they grind out ragtime is a treat…Yesterday was Patrick’s day but only one man had any green and that was a scrap of weed in his buttonhole, that he had brought back from the trenches. He seemed to be the only good Irisher in sight.

In the same letter he muses about his enlistment and service:

This letter will probably reach you about the end of my first year in the Army. If you remember, it was Apr. 10, when I went up to Hartford to see if they would pass me. It has been a short but lively year and I hope I get home before another passes but I’m glad I got in early because the drafted crowd certainly didn’t have places like Washington Barracks to train in or warm weather, either, but they will have the laugh on us when they get over here and find things cleaned up.

Colorful French postcard sent by O’Connell to his mother in July 1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

O’Connell was wounded in action on July 18, 1918, as he explained in his July 24 letter to his mother:

There was a little round hole in my leggin, at the sore spot, so I took my rifle and started back for the dressing station, about half a mile away. It was just an emergency station, though, and they told us to keep going, to a larger place in a big cave. There was five in the party, by now, either limping or nursing a bad arm and that cave was almost two miles farther along. I’d have walked twenty, I think, to get some relief from those shells….When you get this, I’ll be back with the company again, but I’ll have had this rest, anyway, just for a little hole less than half an inch deep.

Robert Lincoln O’Connell in his Army uniform, ca. 1917-1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

He apparently downplayed his injury for his mother’s sake because he did not return to active duty until October, demonstrated in several later letters and postcards, such as his postcard of September 27 to his mother where he said:

Ought to be back with the boys in a week or so, Leaving the barracks at this place. A few of the boys are here after the St. Michael drive. No mail since early in July. Guess never will get it all. Have had a fine rest. Seems as if all the original company had been resting. Wish this darned war was over. I want to see what is going on at home.

And, finally, his postcard of October 15 announcing his return to his unit, plus additional commentary:

Got back to the company about a week ago. Received four letters, one from you, and from Mame and Helen. Better than money. Paid last in June. Did you receive the $20 from the YMCA and the piece of German airplane cover? I don’t need any money. I can send it, instead. Hope all are well. Good news in the papers, lately.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, and the First Engineers arrived in Germany’s Rhineland shortly thereafter as part of the army of occupation, but that is another story for a future blog post. O’Connell’s wartime experiences are a well preserved and freely available testament at Catholic University that give voice to the millions of soldiers of all nations whose accounts have not survived.

The Archivist’s Nook: Connecticut Catholic in Washington, 1917

O’Connell Family, ca. 1911.Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

One hundred years ago, American entry into the First World War transformed the nation’s capital from a sleepy Southern crossroads into a modern hub of administration commensurate to an emerging first class world power. It was here a young Catholic soldier wrote his family, primarily his mother and sisters, back in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. That man, Robert Lincoln O’Connell, whose archival papers, including a digital collection, reside in the archives at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and briefly alluded to in two previous blog posts, ‘For God and Country’ and ‘World War I on Display,’ contain seven letters he wrote from April to August 1917 addressed from Washington Barracks, now Fort McNair. ‘Rob,’ as he was known to his family, described his initial training in and around Washington, D.C. as a combat engineer, or sapper, for service in the First Engineer Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France.

O’Connell (1888-1972), a native of Wareham, Massachusetts, was the eldest of five children of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, immigrants from Ireland and Wales, respectively. By 1900, the O’Connell family had moved to the town of Southington, Connecticut, near Hartford and less than 100 miles from New York City. The family attended St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church and the 1910 federal census lists father Daniel as a “laborer” in an “iron mill” and son Robert as “laborer” in a “hardware shop.” Rob O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, New York, on April 14, 1917, and shortly thereafter transferred to Washington Barracks where he spent the next three months training as a machinist in Company C, First Battalion, of the First Engineers. His unit also spent time along the Potomac River on the grounds of the Belvoir Estate that had served since 1912 as a rifle range and summer camp for the training of Army engineers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recruiting poster, 1917.

In O’Connell’s April 28, 1917 letter, he told his mother details of settling in after his recent enlistment and commented on the visit of Marshal Joseph Joffre, famous hero of the Battle of the Marne, who spoke at the Army War College, adjacent to Washington Barracks, the day before. “All clothes had to be sent to the disinfecting plant to prevent spreading disease among so many men…. Gen. Joffre and his party visited the post yesterday. I seem to be hungry all the time, in spite of three sq. meals.”  Writing in mid-May, he complained to his mother about the Washington newspapers, presumably the Washington Post and Washington Star, although he appeared impressed by D.C.‘s sites and scenes. “This city has trees along the main streets. I never saw a place like it. I have not seen Mr. Lud, the President, yet. But I have seen the principle buildings and the Wash. Monument, which you can’t help seeing, it is so tall.” 

Apparently, ‘Mr. Lud’ was a nickname for President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps an obscure reference to the legendary British king and founder of London. Writing his mother again on May 31, he explained the training of engineers at Washington Barracks. “They had racing and other sports between the companies…We lost the tent-pitching by a few points…The sergeant was sore at losing and yelled at us as we marched off the field.”

Washington Barracks, 1917. U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In June, he told his mother “There was a black and white scrap up the street, last night.” An African-American woman had an argument with a soldier and “she hit him with a beer bottle.” This was probably not an isolated incident as the August 10 Washington Post said the Secretary of War directed “a number of saloons in Four-and-a half street southwest may be closed because of their proximity to the Washington barracks.” Another letter home, also written in June, addressed to his sister Ellen, described field training on the grounds of the future Fort Belvoir. “I have just put in the hardest two weeks of my life, I guess, down at the rifle range. It is about twenty miles below Washington, on the Potomac… passengers on the passing steamers probably wish they were camping out there. But when we (A, B and C companies), got there two weeks ago last Monday, there were no tents and lots of brush and weeds and hard work…For two days we worked around camp and lugged and tugged and sweated and wondered why we had ever wanted to leave our happy home at the Barracks.” Combat engineers learned to construct field works and pontoon bridges. They also had to fight as regular infantry when the need arose, hence training in the use of firearms. “Half the company shot in the forenoon while the other half worked in the pits, pushing the targets up into view and pointing out each hit with a long stick… I fired in the morning and managed to get in with the higher ones on the score.”

Robert Lincoln O’Connell to his mother, Mary O’Connell, July 3, 1917. Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

O’Connell wrote his mother on July 3 expressing confidence in himself as well as contempt for those who had not met the standard. “The captain told us last week that eight or ten men would be left behind because they were too stupid or weren’t considered fit to go with the regiment to France. I won’t be in that bunch if I can help it, as there is some honor in going over but only a disgrace in being a castoff. When the news first got out a month ago, that we were going to France, some of the fire-eaters were delighted, until the officers explained what they would have to do…It was no news to me and if I go, I will do the best I can. This life is a wonderful bracer and I am glad I joined.” The last letter, addressed to his mother in early August, was written a few days departure for France. “Would you care to make the trip down and risk finding us gone?” There is no record his family made the trip to see him. The First Engineers left Washington on August 6 and embarked for France from Hoboken, New Jersey, the following day. O’Connell and his fellow engineers were now at war and a future blog post will explore their time at the front in 1918.