My next book for The WWI Challenge is Holding the Line by Harold Baldwin. It’s a memoir that was published in February 1918, when most memoirs I have looked at seem to have been written and published in the years after the war was over, in the 1920s and even the 1930s. That’s Baldwin over to the left.
I soon discovered this memoir had been intended as a recruiting tool; Baldwin was an Englishman living in Canada, working to enlist more Canadians and to enlist Americans to fight alongside the British on the Western Front. It was interesting to read what anecdotes he chose to include in his memoir, given his purpose. More than once he defended the British regular army against various claims against them, for instance that they used colonial troops as cannon fodder to spare themselves.
Baldwin enlisted in August 1914, despite being two inches too short for regulations (he did, however, meet the requirement in body weight). This means that he was among the first 20,000 Canadians to enlist and be sent to France. He was wounded, so far as I can tell from the text, at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, which means that he most likely began writing his memoir well before the Americans entered the war. I am guessing he meant to recruit Americans to go overseas with the Canadians if their own army was not yet involved. (At that point, the United States was neutral in the conflict, and public opinion did not favor entering the war at all.)
Perhaps part of it was, “if a shorty like me can be a soldier, you’re really a wimp if you think you can’t do it.” More than once, Baldwin emphasizes the physical strength needed to be a soldier and specifically states what great shape he was in after hauling equipment on long marches and, later, training to be a message runner. His rhetoric reminded me a bit of modern men’s fitness magazines. He also shares anecdotes that are humorous at his own expense, which could alleviate any idea that he is boasting; that might be a narrow line to walk, when he expected skeptics to be reading his work.
Baldwin throughout talks about the camaraderie and mentoring among the men (his mentors were usually British Regular Army), and is quite honest about fear.
During our stay in this billet I was always very conscious of a curious frightened feeling, and as I looked at the carefree faces of my comrades, I often wondered if they felt as I did. Sometimes a dull, menacing boom, making the air vibrate, would cause a silence to fall and a far-away look in the eyes told me more emphatically than any words could that the rest of the boys were “thinking it over,” probably just as hard as I was doing.
Or this: It is a peculiar sensation to find yourself under fire for the first time. A man feels utterly helpless and at first he will duck his head at every whiz he hears. Of course ducking is useless, because if you hear the whiz of the pill, or the report of the rifle, you are still untouched, but every man who has ever experienced this will tell you that he could not help ducking even knowing how useless it was.
I found this bit particularly interesting, just from my geeky standpoint of understanding the weapons they used.
It was while trying to keep warm that first night over the little charcoal fire that I first learned how to handle my bayonet, if I was ever to be lucky enough to ram it so far into a German belly that I couldn’t pull it out handily. The lesson came from a corporal of the East Lanks (Lancashires) who was explaining the advantages of the Lee-Enfield rifle and bayonet over the Ross [which the Canadians had], and his description was so realistically vivid that my teeth forgot to chatter with the chill I had. “You see,” he said, “if you push it in too far, you canna get it oot again, because this groove on the side o’ it makes the ‘ole air-tight; as soon as it is jabbed into a man the suction pulls the flesh all over it and you canna chuck it oot.”
“Well, what would you do if you couldn’t get it out and another mug was making for you?” I asked.
“Why if a twist won’t do it, stick your foot on the beggar and wrench it out; if that won’t do it, just pull the trigger a couple of times and there you are–she will blow out.”
“And why couldn’t I do the same with this one?” I asked, referring to my Ross bayonet.
“It’s too broad at the point. The man that gave ye that dam’d thing might just as well ‘ave passed sentence o’ death on yer in a ‘and to ‘and go.”
Late in the memoir, the Lank is proven correct.
The Ross rifle at this stage of the game verified the prophecy of the corporal of the East Lanks. The reader will remember the conversation in the dugout at Armentieres. To my dismay, when I began to fire with rapidity, the cursed bayonet shook itself clear of the rifle. I had fired about six rounds when the bolt refused to work. The rifle was hopelessly jammed, and I tried to hammer the bolt open by placing the butt on the floor of the trench and stamping on the knob of the bolt with my heel. It was hopeless, however, and I hurled “the thing” in the direction of the advancing Germans, with a scream of fury that pierced even that infernal din. The flimsy magazine-spring of these rifles often fails to work, and, generally, at the most critical moment. As a sniper’s rifle, the Ross is everything to be desired; but when fifteen rounds per minute have to be ripped off to make up for a lack of machine guns, the Ross is a miserable failure.
And there are funny bits:
We could not part with Billy; the boys argued that we could easily get another colonel but it was too far to the Rocky Mountains to get another goat…Billy, the goat, is still going strong and it is the boast of the Fifth that Kaiser Wilhelm has not yet “got their goat.”
I enjoyed reading this memoir, and though it was very anecdotal in places, I think I got some useful information about it. I’ll be thinking of this memoir in the context of others I read that were published much later.
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