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Back from the Border
Early January 1917 found then-Sergeant Ward Schrantz and his comrades in Company A, 2nd Missouri Infantry, the old "Carthage Light Guard," in the cavalry barracks at Fort Riley, Kansas. The Missourians had just returned from several months in the Laredo, Texas, area, guarding the U.S.-Mexican border against potential attacks by Mexican bandits.
Mobilized in June 1916, the company arrived in Laredo on July 7 and established camp on the outskirts of the city. Practice marches, drills, parades, and guard duty kept the men occupied for several weeks, until Company A was ordered to leave the city to garrison a remote village in the Laredo District. On September 8, Schrantz and his fellow Guardsmen moved into the village of Ramireno, about fifty miles from Laredo on the Rio Grande, where they lived in a fortified camp until October 16. Following that pleasant, uneventful duty, the company returned to Laredo and participated in a four-day tactical exercise that pitted them against other National Guardsmen and U.S. Regulars. Their stint on the border finally at an end, the Missourians boarded a train to return north on December 28, 1916. Awaiting their official muster out at Fort Riley, "most of the guardsmen spent their spare time reading or wandering over the reservation," Schrantz recalled, "staring at the points of interest of that old post from whence cavalry in the old Indian days had sallied out as occasion warranted to restore peace to the plains." On January 13, 1917, the Carthage men received a month and thirteen days' pay and the cash due them for their clothing allowance, all in gold coins, and climbed aboard a train for home. At 9 a.m. the following day the train rumbled into the Carthage station. A large crowd of well-wishers, Spanish-American War veterans, and the local band waited to welcome the returning warriors. The company marched to their armory, where a few announcements were made before the men were dismissed and "broke ranks with a cheer," as their service on the Mexican border became "a closed episode."
Their respite from active duty would be short-lived, however. The United States moved inexorably toward involvement in the war in Europe, and as Schrantz recalled, "the fat was now in the fire and beginning to sizzle, and Carthage, like other communities, was buzzing with talk of impending conflict."
With the Mexican border service in the background but with a world war still in progress in Europe, it seemed to me that I had already served a somewhat overlong apprenticeship as an enlisted man and that if I ever was going to see service as an officer that it was high time that I do something about getting a commission.
The National Defense Act of 1916 had provided that for the purpose of securing a reserve of officers available for service as temporary officers in the Regular Army or volunteers that the president might commission officers up to the grade of major, inclusive, for an "Officers Reserve Corps of the Regular Army." I felt sure that I could pass any examination likely to be given and that the recommendation for a commission received upon my discharge from the Regular Army would be of assistance. I accordingly made application, sending in the required number of character recommendations, etc. required. However I made this direct and not through National Guard channels and it came back with a notation that since I was a member of the National Guard I would need recommendations from my company, battalion and regimental commander.
These were easily secured but my regimental commander suggested that I not be in any hurry about sending them in — that my company commander probably would soon be made a major and that it was quite likely that I would be made captain of my home town company. I took the suggestion of a captaincy with some mental reservations but a little delay could make no difference and if there was to be a vacancy in my company I might reasonably expect a lieutenancy. So I waited.
A rather amusing incident happened to me about this time which, with a different turn, might have rendered a commission of no use to me.
There had been a number of grocery store hold-ups recently and on going home one Saturday evening past a residence grocery I saw the little clump of loungers around the stove with their hands in the air, and one of them waved his hand at me. I passed on a few steps thinking it a joke, then wondered and turned to go back. Just then a young man ran from the store, thrust a dingy-appearing nickel-plated revolver close to my stomach and demanded in quavering voice that I put up my hands. My hands at the time were in my overcoat pockets and I felt reluctant to remove them, joke or not. I declined. The pistol was wavering in nervous circles but the muzzle was still on the target and I felt it wise to comply with the next order to come back into the store. The boy was scared and hence dangerous.
Inside an older man thrust another revolver at my anatomy and repeated the demand that I put up my hands. Hesitating still, I probably would have complied except for his next words: "Put up your hands, you so and so," he barked, "Or I'll knock the hell out of you." This was reassurance. All I was perturbed about at the moment was the possibility of getting shot and it seemed to me the pair would not start any shooting if they could avoid it. I again declined to take my hands out of my pockets. Continuing threats the pair backed into the street, requiring me at gun's point to accompany them. My courage was rising at having gone thus far unshot and I shouted at a passing car. "Don't yell at those cars," said the older man. I called to the next one. "Let's get out of this," said the younger man turning and running down the street. The older one cursed me and followed.
Stepping in the store I ascertained that the pair had robbed the till and were about to search those present when I appeared. The proprietor, in response to my question if he had a gun, took one from under the counter. Outside I could see nothing of the men. Knocking at a neighboring house in front of which a car stood I asked the owner, a young man calling on a girl there, if he would help me search for the pair. He agreed. As we were ready to start the girl came running out. "Can I go too?" she queried. We had no objection — it was an affair like a comic motion picture — so in the car we scoured that section of the town in the chance the men might have been on foot and still about, but of course never saw them, nor could the police notified by the storeowner do so.
As I went home much later I reflected that perhaps I had not come out of the affair too badly. I at least had not lost the thirty or forty dollars I had on my own person and I had blundered along in time to save the men in the store being searched. My mother, when I narrated my adventures, commended me with some obvious reservations. It was not difficult to see that she felt a son of hers should have come out of the affair with a complete victory, leaving the bandits dead or in jail. That was really my own view of the matter, but I had not been able to figure out how to do it. But she probably was appreciative of my personal safety. When I told her my story I had tossed on the table a five and a ten-dollar gold piece, saying that I had nearly lost them and that she might have them. After her death some eight or nine years later I found that she had placed them in her safety deposit box at the bank and kept them.
The newspapers gave my refusal to put up my hands some prominence, so it became a subject of some personal raillery. My friends gently suggested that my conduct showed a low order of intelligence or else that I had been too frightened to control my muscles. I secretly hoped that there might be those not so well acquainted with me who would misinterpret it as courage. What it really had been was a conviction gained from the men's demeanor that they did not want to shoot anyone. However when they were captured in nearby Webb City a few weeks later after a similar hold-up there was an exchange of shots in which a policeman was wounded in the leg. They went to the penitentiary for the Webb City incident and I was never called upon to testify against them.
In February, Germany started her unrestricted submarine warfare and the course of events steadily carried us toward war as American ships were armed and sent into the submarine zone and some sunk. The government lost no time in checking up on its troops. On February 5 Company A, home less than three weeks, was given what was termed its annual spring inspection — and did not show up so good. If the government had wanted the National Guard in good condition it should have kept it in federal service, for everywhere the return home had been marked by two principal disorganizing elements. First, there was the necessity of getting a new job to take the place of the old one lost when called to the border. Many men had wandered away in search of work. Secondly, there had been an epidemic of marriages, presence evidently making the heart grow fonder. This too had taken the thoughts of the newly returned guardsmen from matters military and when Capt. Raymond Sheldon, U.S. Army, scanned the ranks of soldiers lined up to greet him that night, he could count three officers and only twenty-odd men. Whereupon he smiled, for the summer before he had been the lieutenant colonel of the Second Illinois on the border and had seen that organization melt away after its return — and he understood. Perhaps he smiled too at what he sensed ahead of him, for Capt. Sheldon, as events later showed, was to be a lieutenant colonel again within six months and within a year after that was to be wearing the eagles of a colonel and a decoration awarded for valor on the battlefield.
The First and Third Missouri Infantry regiments, which had left the border early, were called into federal service [on] March 26 under the militia clause of the Constitution for a second time, this time to guard railways and bridges.
On the night of April 2 there was a great loyalty meeting — a war meeting — held in Carthage, presided over by Mayor C.B. Gammon and Judge Howard Gray and numerous speeches were made, urging a solid support of President Wilson. The city had been aflutter with flags since early morning and the meeting solemnly resolved that "We unreservedly endorse the steps taken by the president to uphold the honor of the country and to protect the admitted rights of American citizens upon the high seas." It was time, too, for such support for the chief executive.
On April 6 the United States entered the war.
As the regimental commander had predicted, Capt. E.B. Trowbridge, my company commander, had been elected major by the line officers of the regiment — promotion by election was required by Missouri law — and on April 9 a field officer of the regiment conducted an election in my own company to fill the vacancy. In our unit it was deemed unmilitary to "campaign for office" and no one did so. I expected the first and second lieutenants to be moved up and that I would become the new second lieutenant. Each of the lieutenants were nominated for captain, however, and finally an older man who had just joined the company and who had once known my elder brother, nominated me. My friends looked around at me in surprise to see if I would decline. Normally I would have done so since it was a little unusual for a sergeant to be considered for a captaincy while two lieutenants were in the field. But I knew that the first lieutenant, a fine and conscientious officer, was in no physical condition to stand a campaign, and that the second lieutenant, one of the best drill-masters I have ever known, was in high disfavor at state headquarters because he was alleged to have borrowed money from enlisted men of the 9 U.S. Infantry at Laredo while he was attached to that regiment, and was unlikely to be commissioned if elected. Besides, the colonel had mentioned the captaincy to me, and I probably wanted to be a captain anyhow. So I gave no sign. I was elected on the fourth ballot. Due to some mistake in the handling of the election it was declared invalid the next day and another election held the night of April 13. This time I was elected by an overwhelming majority on the first ballot.
The first lieutenant served under me loyally as such until given a medical discharge some eight or nine months later. He died soon after the end of the war. The second lieutenant was given a commission in the Regular Army a short time later as the result of an examination he had taken at Laredo and was a captain at the time of his death several years after the war.
Though I still had an examination to take before I could be commissioned, I actually took charge of the company immediately and pushed the recruiting campaign, the first lieutenant signing all papers in the interim. There was a large group taking the examinations at Jefferson City and they were thorough ones. Since I was jumping the two lieutenant positions I had three sets of examination questions to answer. My commission dated from April 13 — Friday the 13 — the day of the final election.
The elective system of choosing officers has been widely condemned though it was still to continue in Missouri for several decades. Since my first commission came through it, I naturally may be supposed to have some kindly feelings toward it. Since I could hardly have won any popularity contest I feel that I was chosen because I had somewhat more military experience than either of the two lieutenants or because of some other reason. I even hoped that it might be because they preferred to serve under me in war and in point of fact under the now defunct elective system I believe that those balloting on such occasions attempted to select officers on the basis of probable qualifications and efficiency insofar as they could judge such qualities. If mistakes were occasionally made, mistakes are also made occasionally under any system of selecting and appointing officers.CHAPTER 2
The Light Guard Prepares
The declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 propelled Missourians into the most eventful period in the state's military history since the Civil War. The United States could not immediately mobilize and transport the gigantic army the Allies needed for service on the Western Front, however. Anticipating that the number of volunteers would be insufficient, the Wilson administration was ready to use conscription, or "selective service," but the first draft registration did not take place until June 5 and the first draft numbers were not selected until July 20. National Guard units needed time to recruit to full strength. In addition, all the required military supplies — arms, equipment, uniforms, trucks, troopships, and aircraft — were in short supply. American soldiers were forced to wait for months until either American factories produced war material or the U.S. government secured supplies from the other Allied powers. Not only were the implements of war needed, but thirty-two training camps had to be built from scratch to accommodate hundreds of thousands of recruits. Consequently, Schrantz's Company A and the other Missouri National Guard units were not ordered into service until the late summer of 1917.
The Carthage men spent those months attempting to fill their ranks and drilling on the city square. Recruits "straggled" into Company A, a few at a time. A number of young men chose not to wait for the National Guard to be called and enlisted in the Regular Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Others knew that there was no real hurry to enlist, for they would likely be drafted and fulfill their obligation that way.
On August 5, Company A of the 2 Missouri Infantry officially entered United States service. It was the third time the Carthage Light Guard (though that name was no longer officially used) had gone to war. Although the Light Guard had not faced an enemy during the Spanish-American War in 1898 or on the Mexican border from 1916–17, now the Missourians were set to do battle with a formidable, perhaps unconquerable foe. Finally, on the morning of August 17, 1917, Schrantz and his company, led by color bearers carrying the flags of the United States, England, and France, passed through thousands of enthusiastic well-wishers to the Carthage train station in "one of the largest patriotic demonstrations ever held" in the town. After a flurry of cheers, tears, and farewell kisses, the men were packed into train cars, ready to head to Camp Clark, outside Nevada, Missouri, the mobilization site for the Missouri National Guard.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Machine-Gunner in France"
Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey L. Patrick.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Back from the Border,
Chapter 2 The Light Guard Prepares,
Chapter 3 Camp Doniphan,
Chapter 4 The Captain Sails to France,
Chapter 5 The Light Guard Goes to War,
Chapter 6 Promotion and Demotion,
Chapter 7 The Vosges Mountains,
Chapter 8 To the Front,
Chapter 9 St. Mihiel,
Chapter 10 To the Meuse-Argonne Offensive,
Chapter 11 The Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Day 1,
Chapter 12 The Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Day 2,
Chapter 13 The Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Day 3,
Chapter 14 The Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Collapse and Withdrawal,
Chapter 15 Sommedieue and War's End,
Chapter 16 Peace,
Chapter 17 Back to "The States",
Chapter 18 The Return of Company A,