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In the Fields and the Trenches
The Famous and the Forgotten on the Battlefields of World War I
By Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Kerrie Logan Hollihan
All rights reserved.
* * *
Frederick "Fred" Libby (1891–1970) was an American-born cowboy whose adventures and misadventures landed him in Calgary, a city in western Canada, just as the Great War broke out in 1914.
In the 1960s, an old man with the nickname "Cap" sat down to write his memoirs. Bent over with pain and a severely crooked back, he reflected on his first 26 years, "written from my heart." His memoirs interested a New York publisher, but as he was putting the finishing touches on his manuscript, he died, and his book of memories was set aside. He had called it Horses Don't Fly, and it seemed the book would never be printed until his granddaughter brought it back to life. It was published in 2000.
"Cap" was Captain Frederick Libby, son of a Nebraska rancher who experienced more in those 26 years than most people who live three times as long. From schoolboy to cowboy to soldier to gunner to ace pilot, Fred Libby did it all.
Fred opened his tale with a description of his mother's death from tuberculosis when he was four. No one sat the little boy down to explain exactly what had happened, so he took in the news "sort of piecemeal," a little at a time. His much older sister and brother each took a turn helping to raise young Fred.
From the get-go, he was a handful. Fred's father delegated brother Bud to keep Fred alive until he turned 18, and if he did, their father would give Bud three of his best horses. On Fred's sixth birthday, his father gifted him with a saddle, bridle, and a pony named Slowpoke.
With Bud in charge, Fred learned the basics of horsemanship. Slowpoke, about the same age as his new master, allowed Fred to "ride him everywhere like we were real pals" — until the first time the pony threw him. Fred rode the devilish Slowpoke for two years until their "final battle" when he tried a circus trick with his pony and Slowpoke trampled him. Bud stopped Fred from going after Slowpoke with a small bat as payback.
Bud understood that small boys are best redirected out of their anger, so he offered Fred two unbroken ponies. "These new ponies are fast and tough and will stand no foolishness," Bud told him. "If you learn to ride them, you'll be plenty good. By the time you're ten, I may have a real cowboy for a brother." When Fred turned 10, he roped an antelope and was dragged under a picket fence, still wearing his brand-new Sunday suit. One look at his battered son, and Fred's father revised his bargain: Bud must keep Fred alive only until Fred turned 15.
Bud held up his end of the deal, and at 18 Fred was a high school graduate, expert horseman, and respected bronco buster. That winter of 1910, Fred left for desert life in Phoenix to recover from a heavy cough; his father feared the early onset of tuberculosis. But Fred arrived in Arizona cough-free and took a job breaking horses in the high desert above Phoenix, where a bronco ran him into a tree and broke Fred's leg.
With only an elderly Mexican cowboy on hand to splint the break with pieces of shingle, Fred endured an agonizing wagon ride back to Phoenix. To Fred's good fortune, they met friends on the way who passed him a bottle. "By the time we reach Phoenix in the daylight," he wrote, "I feel no pain and have no bourbon." Fred didn't know then how often such small gifts would help him through hair-raising, painful events to come.
Time and again, he'd lose all his money. Then some good person would loan him some cash or give him a job. When he lost everything in the first hand of a stud poker game in Colorado, Fred took a job watching over several thousand head of cattle, living alone with three cow ponies for company. A sudden October snowstorm trapped them all for the winter. Though hundreds of cattle died, Fred survived, dreaming that one day he'd move to Tahiti, a place he'd discovered in a magazine.
After that winter, Fred moved on. He and a buddy, Berry Carter, took a ship from San Diego up the coast to Seattle, then worked their way east and finally north across the Canadian border and east again to Calgary, Alberta.
The smell of money was in the air in Calgary, because nearby prospectors had struck oil. For Fred, the timing was perfect. He decided to invest. "This is the last of May," he thought, "and in July I will be a really old man of 22 ... If [I] don't get rich soon, it's over the hill."
Eager Calgarians lined up to buy shares in the Pilgrim Progress Oil Company. Flush with cash, Fred and Berry each plunked down $500, and when they were told the stock was sold out they spent another $500 for shares in a different company. Certain they'd make a fortune in a few months, Fred and Berry took farm jobs with a family 30 miles away. They were still working the harvest on August 4, 1914, when World War I erupted in Europe.
On August 20, their farm work finished, they rushed to Calgary to see how their oil stocks were doing. They soon learned they had been swindled; Fred had spent $1,000 to own shares in oil companies that never existed.
Fred and Berry decided to head north for Edmonton and mining country. On the morning of September 2, 1914, as they breakfasted on waffles in Calgary, the air buzzed with news. Canada, a dominion of the British Empire, had military ties to Great Britain and was going to war against Germany.
Calgary had gone nuts. Since five empires declared it the war has been on just a few days, but there are uniforms everywhere, as well as many recruiting offices. War has arrived with a vengeance. Canada is rushing to get a first contingent together. Still one hears from many sources that the war can't last, that Germany isn't strong enough. It's sure to be over by Christmas.
Eating waffles that morning changed Fred Libby's life. At the restaurant he and Berry met a recruiting sergeant who talked up life in the Canadian army — lots of travel, a ticket back home from the war, and a signing bonus to boot. Before he knew it, Frederick Libby, American cowboy, had signed up as a private in the Canadian army's 2nd Division with plans to drive a supply truck in the service of His Majesty King George V.
Armed with suitcases and outfitted in civilian clothes, Fred and 32 others marched to the station and boarded a private railroad car for Toronto, where they had to pass both a physical and a driving test. How Fred the bronco buster passed his driving test was questionable, because he was clueless about trucks.
Fred and his new buddies expected to ship out immediately for France, but the army took its time and spent six months training its raw recruits. "From all we can hear, the more training the better, as what started out to be a small battle is a real crisis and the first Canadians to go in action have taken an awful beating with horrible losses."
The Allies had learned the importance of training the hard way. In the first few months of war in France, the number of casualties staggered the imagination as Canadians joined the British to fight the First Battle of Ypres in Flanders (northern Belgium).
Fred's orders to France eventually came through, and in November 1915, under cover of night, the brand-new ocean liner-turned-troop transport Metagama docked in Liverpool, England. Fred's unit crossed England by rail, settled into a muddy camp for a time, and then it was on to France.
As he hauled supplies to the front in his truck, Fred never envisioned fighting, though he heard the battles rage.
The war was coming closer ... we could hear the roar of the big guns and meet ambulances on their way back to the hospital with their sick and wounded. Then the observation balloons began to show up and we met thousands of troops on the march, both going and coming. The ones coming had just left hell, those going were just entering hell, some for the first time, many never to return.
It was winter 1916, and as the rain poured down, Fred and the other men of his motor unit drove trucks with American names like Pierce-Arrow, Locomobile, Peerless, and Packard. Fred made one round-trip every night from base camp to supply depots near the front line, running his truck on narrow cobblestone roads, trying to stay in the middle. He was just as likely to slide into a ditch if he had to pass or make way for an oncoming vehicle. It was dark, with only a dim headlight shining on the road ahead. Any brighter, and the enemy could see him, too. He didn't drive all the way to the frontline trenches. That was a job for horses, which could traverse the muddy ground far better than any truck.
For wartime, it wasn't a bad job. "If we think we are in trouble," Fred recalled in his memoir, "we always try to remember the poor devils living in the trenches. With water everywhere, it is impossible to keep dry, and along with the weather there are the damn rats, cooties and, just a rock's throw away, our enemy, the Hun. The Germans seized the high (and dry) ground on a long chalk ridge, while our boys are dug in across from them in what had once been swamplands."
Matters changed one wet morning when Fred stopped to read a notice posted in the orderly room of his motor unit. As a buck private, he stood at the very bottom of the army's hierarchy, and he expected to spend the rest of the war driving a truck. But the notice offered a nearly unbelievable opportunity: to become an observer for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), an officer's job at an officer's pay.
Fred applied — he'd do anything to get out of the rain. "True, I know nothing about aeroplanes or what an observer is supposed to do — but one thing I do know, they don't fly in the rain, and we've been living in rain for months." Fred figured that the RFC was in no hurry to bring him on, and he also assumed that it would take at least 30 days to train and receive his commission as a second lieutenant.
But the Royal Flying Corps was desperately short of flyers, a well-informed sergeant told him. "The Hun has more ships, more men, more everything, that is why they are scraping the bottom of the barrel for flyers." The sergeant's brute honesty appalled Fred, and he worried he'd acted on impulse. The RFC moved just as quickly. Three days later, orders came down for his interview, and he met with a colonel.
Fred answered the usual questions: did he have any experience with planes, what made Fred think he could fly, and so on. Then the conversation turned to horses. "What a horse has to do with flying I didn't know, as horses don't fly, but here I was on safe ground, so I assured the colonel I was an expert with horses. This pleased him more than I expected, as he was the owner of several polo ponies, and we had a nice discussion about horses in general."
The Royal Flying Corps snatched Fred Libby from the motor unit, and things moved fast. In mid-July 1916, he said farewell to his truck-driving pals and boarded a train at 7:30 in the morning. Three hours later he was on duty at the RFC's 23rd Squadron, in a field learning to shoot a machine gun.
Such was the job of an "observer" for the Royal Flying Corps. Fred would be a gunner, a sitting — and standing — duck, flying with a pilot in an open airplane over enemy lines, tracking and shooting down German fighters.
"What do you know about a machine gun?" came the gunnery sergeant's first question. That Fred knew nothing was no problem for the sergeant, who in 30 minutes taught Fred how to shoot the Lewis machine gun, the standard weapon that an RFC observer fired using two hands. His instructor then showed Fred how to climb into an airplane and maneuver the Lewis gun while flying.
A single ammunition canister for the Lewis gun held 47 rounds, which an observer could empty in a few rapid bursts of fire. The gunnery instructor, however, forgot to explain how Fred should change drums of ammunition while airborne, a key piece of information that nearly got Fred killed the same day.
Fred's squadron flew the F.E.2b, a "pusher" type airplane with motor and propeller mounted between a set of double wings, propeller behind the motor. The pilot sat in front of the motor with the observer in front of him. During combat, Fred, as observer, either knelt or stood in the nacelle (cockpit) watching for enemy planes in front or to either side. The Lewis gun was mounted so that Fred could swing it up and down and from side to side in a broad arc.
But if the enemy came up on their rear, matters changed. To fire behind him, an observer was required to climb up and stand on the airplane, with nothing to hang on to but a second Lewis gun mounted behind him. It seemed ludicrous to expect a gunner to work like this, but there was no other way to shoot an enemy closing in on his tail.
Fred's first training flight took place right after his 30-minute gun lesson. His target, an empty gas can, lay on the ground in the open airfield.
I'm flat on my bottom for the take-off, then I'm supposed to either stand or get on my knees to be in position to shoot on our way back. This I am preparing to do, when he [his pilot, Captain Stephen Price] throws the ship in a steep bank to turn. I almost swallow my tongue and my eyes are full of tears, for I have no goggles, so we fly over and past the target....
As Price makes a second trip toward the target, I am in position with the gun pointed where I think the target will show up. This it does and I press the trigger and can see the petrol tin bounce and roll over — how could one miss with forty-seven rounds?
When Fred went to change the ammunition drum, it flew from his hand, caught the wind and just missed the propeller and the pilot's head. The gunnery sergeant had forgotten that part of the morning's instructions.
After lunch, Fred was outfitted with a new flying coat, goggles, and gloves. At 2:30 he reported for his first combat mission. Fred admitted to his pilot, Lieutenant Hicks, that he couldn't distinguish German planes from their own. Hicks assured him that a friendly pilot would "show his colors," and if he didn't, Fred was to "let him have it." There would be time the next day for Fred to study silhouettes of the German planes — the Fokker, the Roland, and the Albatross.
Six planes took off for a three-hour reconnaissance flight into "Hunland" (as Fred called German-controlled territory), flying a wide circle down toward the Somme River and crossing back in over the British front at Albert, France. Fred's plane was in position as the upper back escort, considered to be the toughest spot in the formation. He didn't know that at the time, but he realized later he'd been spared a lot of worry.
For the first hour of this first mission, Fred familiarized himself with landmarks on the ground — roads, towns, rail lines, and rivers. Sitting there in the nacelle of an F.E.2b, with machine guns front and back, Fred thought about the folks at home, his father and brother Bud in Colorado, and his darling Aunt Jo in Boston, where he had gone to high school for two years. None knew that Fred was now a gunner for the Royal Flying Corps. He asked himself why on earth he was here in France, when what he'd really planned on was moving to Tahiti.
Then the afternoon's work started, as the lead pilot, identified by strips of colored cloth tied to the struts of his airplane, took up his position at the front of their formation.
Captain Gray just sailed past with the streamers on his tail and the rendezvous is on. ... The big ships fall into formation ... and we are on our way toward Arras, where the trenches are well in view, and I can see in every direction for miles. ... One can see into Hunland, far as the eye can reach.
Fred tried to calm his nerves, thinking about a good piece of advice Bud had given him. "Say, Pard, take it easy, don't be tense and if trouble comes, your muscles will tighten up fast enough in action." With the rest of their formation slightly forward and below Fred and his pilot, Fred suddenly saw — coming "out of the blue" from the right, directly at them — an enemy aircraft
out of which is coming what I take to be puffs of smoke, but which I learned later was tracer ammunition. Instantly I grab the Lewis which is resting in a clip on the left of my nacelle, throwing it over so I can get into action. In doing so I fall back with the gun on top, having missed the clip where I was supposed to anchor the Lewis. When I have kicked the gun off and into position to shoot, the Hun is almost directly in front of us and has gone into a vertical bank. There are two big iron crosses, one on each wing, with the body of the ship in between. Again I press the trigger of my Lewis and let the forty-seven rounds go, no aim, no nothing. I just shoot. I am not thinking, everything I did was automatic, as the Hun disappears from my view, going along about his business.
It was time to head back to base. Lieutenant Hicks knocked Fred gently on the head to get his attention and stuck out his hand to shake Fred's. Fred realized his first flight was "over in nothing flat. Nobody hurt, but I should be dead, certainly. The Hun's beaten me to the first shot, but my pilot didn't seem to mind, and why he was so pleased I couldn't understand."
Excerpted from In the Fields and the Trenches by Kerrie Logan Hollihan. Copyright © 2016 Kerrie Logan Hollihan. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Preface: "Come and Die",
1 THE COWBOY: Fred Libby,
2 THE DAUGHTER: Irène Curie,
3 THE WORDSMITH: J. R. R. Tolkien,
4 THE STUDENT: Walter Koessler,
5 THE AVIATRIX: Katherine Stinson,
6 THE FAMILY: The Young Roosevelts,
7 THE RED CAP: Henry Lincoln Johnson,
8 THE PITCHER: Christy Mathewson,
9 THE SHOWGIRL: Elsie Janis,
10 THE KID: Ernest Hemingway,
11 THE CAPTAIN: Harry Truman,
12 THE COMEDIAN: Buster Keaton,
Afterword: "The War to End All Wars",