Charles Cornish Pearson and the Great War, Part II
A few weeks ago, I introduced you to the MHS collection of Charles Cornish Pearson papers. Charles served with the 101st Machine Gun Battalion in France during World War I. We pick up his story in the village of Mont-lès-Neufchâteau in the early days of 1918.
Charles and the other men of the 101st spent three months immersed in intensive training at Mont-lès-Neufchâteau. They drilled with their machine guns and gas masks, marched long distances, and prepared for trench warfare. Charles didn’t have much time to write home, but he was learning a lot. He wrote to his brother Bill on 20 January 1918:
Hardly seems possible that it is six months now since I started working for the U.S.A. Don’t feel a bit richer and as far as being a soldier, well I guess I have got a h–l of a lot more to learn before I will be one. Still at the rate they are drilling us over here, why I may be one before I realize it.
Charles’ company was motorized and served as a mobile reserve unit that could be sent quickly into battle as needed. According to Philip S. Wainwright’s History of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, the battalion’s vehicles “consisted of about fifty second-hand Ford ambulances. Great was the excitement on the day that these Fords were driven over from Neufchâteau.” (p. 25) This excitement is evident in some of the photographs that came to the MHS with Charles’ papers.
Mont-lès-Neufchâteau was about 64 kilometers south of the front line. On 8-9 February, the 101st piled into their vehicles, or “flivvers,” and headed northwest to Vregny, a reserve position much closer to the front. Vregny, a town in the Chemin des Dames sector, had seen some heavy fighting by that time. Wainwright’s published history includes a description of the area, but I like Charles’ version:
Went for a long hike this morning after the service, very interesting still depressing when one stops to realize what all this destruction & waste must mean. A whistle & a terrific roar, far away but impressive never the less. Would like the chance to describe my little walk in detail, but I suppose it would be censored so will wait until some later time.
Charles didn’t reveal his location to his family at home, or even let on that he had moved. He only told them not to worry if they didn’t hear from him for a while.
Charles saw action for the first time in late February and early March 1918, when his company was sent to support French infantry fighting in the trenches about 12 kilometers away. I’ll quote at length from Charles’ March letters, since they paint such a vivid picture. Here’s how he described his experiences to his mother:
Imagine you realized from my last few letters that we were getting ready for our first round of duty and you can rest assured that it is no picnic.
Came up here one dark night in our flivvers and it was some ride. No lights and every little ways we would stike [sic] a shell hole or something and you would get a nice little jounce. Of course, we weren’t in any danger but still under the conditions it kept you pretty well keyed up.
When we arrived at the point where we got out why our worthy comrades were shelling away and believe me it sounded like bedlam let loose. After getting out we had a nice ½ mile hike with our packs & the rest of our stuff thru a long trench, pitch dark. Still we got here after a fashion all safe and sound.
Had a big barrage here the other night, our guns in action for awhile. Then night before last my gun did some harassing fire. Lay your gun on a target (center of a town, cross road or the like) and fire on it every few minutes on the chance of hitting someone. Great sport until they discover you then beat it, if you have time which you usually do.
In another letter to his mother a few days later, he opened up a little about the toll his recent experiences had had on him, at the same time reassuring her that he was safe.
Am still in our little palace here below and am feeling fine, have gotten over much of the hollow feeling I had the first few hours here, and can listen to the whistle of a shell without having palipitation [sic] of the heart.
Well I am in a very quiet sector and barring accidents am just as safe as in our former quarters. Of course there is some activity shells flying bombs exploding etc, but as a rule they are a long way from us and the nearest we come is being an audience to a grand set of fire works. It sure is a stupendous sight to be on guard at night and watch the action in different directions. All kinds of sky rockets & star shells, flashes of the big guns, noise of the machine guns rifles etc. It is interesting from a spectators stand point but hardly from a participants.
Our quarters here are in a dugout several feet below ground (built by the Boche in fact) and are in a way comfortable although crampt. […] We sometimes do a little harassing fire at night trusting to luck on hitting some unsuspecting Boche 2-3 thousand metres away. It is all good training gives the boys a little insight into what action really is and prepares them for their work on the more active fronts.
To his sister, Charles wrote:
Glad to hear you are doing work for the Red Cross. It is a case of us all doing our bit in any way we can, and Red Cross & YMCA work is just as important as sitting down at a machine gun & pumping lead into the unsuspecting Boche.
Sure was a funny experience tramping thru this trench not knowing where it led to and our first shell travelling overhead, with what seemed to us a damn mournful whistle accompanied by an explosion which seemed very close. […] We had a glimpse of about every thing connected with our work, got gassed a couple of times, bombed & shelled and the like, but if one was careful why practically no danger. There was a certain fascination to it all, and although you couldn’t help but be pretty frightened at times still you cannt [sic] help but want to be back again taking a chance in a good cause.
And to his uncle Fred:
We are just back from our first trick at the Front. A novel & exciting experience to a rooky I can tell you. Your first few hours you feel sure are your last but you soon get your feet down on the ground & your hair down on your head and realize that with a little care your chances of living for a while longer are pretty good. Of course we were on a comparatively quiet sector but even on more active ones I believe that with due care the danger is not as great as we are all apt to picture it before going up. […] We quickly found out that dugouts & deep trenches are great places to be in when any shelling is going on. We did more or less firing while on duty but like artillery fire machine gun fire is mostly indirect & done at night, so we couldn’t tell whether we did much damage or not, still it gave us a lot of satisfaction to hear the gun send them across.
The 101st Machine Gun Battalion left the Chemin des Dames sector on 18 March 1918. Check back here at the Beehive for the next installment of Charles’ story.
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