A masterwork of World War I short stories portraying the experiences of Marines in battle. Points of Honor: Short Stories of the Great War by a US Combat Marine is based on author Thomas Alexander Boyd’s personal experiences as an enlisted Marine. First published in 1925 and long out of print, this edition rescues from obscurity a vivid, kaleidoscopic vision of American soldiers, US Marines mostly, serving in a global conflict a century ago. It is a true forgotten masterpiece of World War I literature. The stories in Points of Honor deal almost entirely with Marines in the midst of battleor faced with the consequences of military violence. The eleven stories in this collection offer a panoramic view of war experience and its aftermath, what Boyd described as “a mass of more human happenings.” The themes are often antiheroic: dehumanization, pettiness, betrayal by loved ones at home, and the cruelty of military justice. But Boyd’s vision also accommodates courage and loyalty. Like all great works of war literature, this collection underscores the central paradox of armed conflictits ability to bring out both the best and worst in human beings. This reissue of Points of Honor is edited, annotated, and introduced by Steven Trout. Trout provides an overview of Thomas Boyd’s war experience and writing career and situates the stories within the broader context of World War I American literature. Points of Honor received strong reviews at the time of its initial publication and remains an overwhelming reading experience today. While each of the stories is a freestanding work of art, when read together they carry the force of a novel.
About the Author
Thomas Alexander Boyd (1898-1935) was a Marine veteran of World War I and the author of the novel Through the Wheat (1923), widely regarded as one of the finest depictions of combat in American literature. Boyd also wrote historical fiction and biographies of figures such as General “Mad” Anthony Wayne and “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. Steven Trout is the chair of the Department of English and codirector of the Center for the Study of War and Memory at the University of South Alabama. He is the author of On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941 and coeditor of World War I in American Fiction: An Anthology of Short Stories.
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After they had returned from one of those practice manuvres which had kept them standing in mud, viscous as court-plaster, for hours through the cold, black, soundless night; chilled and with that flat, dusty taste in their mouths which comes with early morning, it was not unusual for them to seek some one on whom to vent the ill feeling which their long, seemingly senseless vigil had awakened in them. In the course of which they would work in both directions from the middle. Beginning with the major, they would ascend the scale until they reached the commanding officer of the entire expeditionary force, or else they would tacitly absolve those only-heard-of deities and seek others closer to themselves.
The major, in some miraculous way, had captured their admiration, and it was only in the last extremity that anything was ever said against him. But the captain was protected by no such laudable sentiment, and, except for the men in the leading squads of the first platoon near whom the captain marched, the entire company grumblingly and mumblingly accused him of being everything from a shrewd, sharp German spy to a gibbering idiot. The words of criticism from the men would blend into a tuneless drone as they marched along the hard, gray side-road; and after a while the captain would grow tired of the noise and have the word passed back that there was to be no more talking on the march. This command, restraining only the more timorous, would leave the dissension to be carried on by the chronic grumblers. Oddly enough, the captain's command for silence would cause the men to seek a new object for their unkind remarks, finding it usually in the person of their platoon commander. If he had any regard for their health, if he wanted them to live long enough to get caught up to the front, which, after all, was what they came over to this damned country for, he would have got them out of this fool manuvre. But he didn't care; he was just like the rest of these mail-order lieutenants; all he cared for was that Sam Browne belt, which he was so proud of that he wore it even when he went to bed at night, and that brass bar on his shoulder. Every blessed one of his men could die for all it mattered to him!
But the men of the fourth platoon would continue to grumble against the captain. For one reason, the fourth platoon was farthest away from the captain, and for another, they had nobody else to grumble about except the sergeants — and the sergeants were near enough to recognize the separate voices of the men.
The lieutenant in charge of the fourth platoon was Wilfred Bird, a well-formed, graceful young man with a soft brown mustache, contemplative, hazel eyes, and features more fine than manly, as that word is currently used. And the possession of such a likeness among a group of soldiers almost demanded that their owner have also a manner either of martinet or roué, so that by that sign the men would recognize him as practically one of themselves. But Wilfred Bird had no manner other than that with which he was born. And that was even more abundantly given him than one might think from his features. He was low-voiced and courteous; he treated each person as his equal, for that was the only way he knew how to treat him. He seriously and patiently listened to the complaints of the corporals and the privates; he was the solitary member of the younger officers who was fully at ease with his superiors — the colonel, say, or even the brigade commander.
From all of which it might be expected that he was held in contempt by the soldiers under him; he did not bluster, or force them to mean and unnecessary tasks to show his authority, and if he ever got drunk — as our sour-faced company commander got drunk — or visited brothels with the usual Saturday-night expedition, nobody ever knew about it. The strange part of it was, the bulk of his command respected him, and even the men in the other platoons, when they were discussing the comparative merits of the officers of the company, would say that So and So was this, and another lieutenant was that, but Wilfred Bird was a gentleman.
The word sounded unfamiliarly from their lips. It seemed, to a listener, as if the men ought not to have used that word. But one realized it to be the outcome of their regard for a man who was so unusual, so really fine.
And so, during those long wintry weeks in northern France when the men were training, hardening themselves for the front line, to which they were soon to go, Wilfred Bird marched doggedly along at the head of his platoon beside his right guide. The mud clung as disagreeably to his shoes as to the shoes of the enlisted men, the endless infuriating nights when the men stood motionless in some fake firing bay seemed as foolish and as unendurable to him as they did to the others, yet he remained silent, his closest approach to rebellion being a slightly worried expression in his hazel eyes. He had, however, no objection to make when his men began to curse, to say scandalous things against their officers for which the speakers could easily have been given courts-martial. This talk, this grumbling was, as Wilfred Bird had the sense to tell himself, a healthy reaction from the rigors of their training; it showed, unless it became excessive and hateful, that the men were lusty and in good spirits, that there would be gusto in their attack when they went to the front. Further, he enjoyed it for a more personal reason: keen, satiric phrases sprang out of uncouth mouths, delighting him with their unexpectedness, their original value. And then, talking occupied the men's minds, making them momentarily forgetful of the arduousness of the march.
It was only when the men began to wrangle among themselves that Wilfred Bird grew irritated. When one man would repeatedly step on the heels of the man in front of him, an uproar ensuing, the lieutenant would leave his place at the head of the division of the column and search for the trouble. When he found it he would say in a sort of a scolding fashion:
"Now you men be still; it's very dark — if the man behind you treads on your heels, O'Brien, ask your corporal to permit you to march in front of some one else."
"But, Je's, lieutenant," the usually belligerent O'Brien would begin. The lieutenant would hear him out, and offer a thoughtful suggestion.
When the battalion was back in its thin papier-mâché billets, supposedly resting, the men were required to be more careful in their appearance. They must shave daily, their heavy hobnailed shoes had to be kept free of mud, the buttons of their olive tunics must show through the proper buttonholes, their hair had to bear evidence of a recent combing, and their ordinary equipment, their bayonets, knives, forks, spoons, and aluminum mess-kits, must be kept clean and bright.
To insure themselves against the wrath of one of the inspecting officers (they had a way of visiting camps unexpectedly), some of the platoon commanders began to deliver long lectures to their men upon the observance of cleanliness. They threatened, and not ambiguously; and, to lessen the danger of having frowsy soldiers, they ordered the company barber to shave the heads of the enlisted men.
Wilfred Bird gave slight notice to all of this. He never stood before his tired platoon and addressed them upon the importance of cleanliness, nor said that cleanliness was next to godliness so for God's sake keep clean; he did not continue to impress upon the men the necessity of appearing spick-and-span before an inspector. Nor did he neglect them; simply, he made no mountain of the need for neatness. It was, he felt, something which people were, without any outside influence. Nevertheless, the fourth platoon was neat; whether it was because their commander was an eloquent example of carefulness in dress, or whether the men would rather shine their shoes and oil their rifles than hurt his feelings, does not matter.
One day, a little past noon, a few moments after the men had returned from a morning on the target range and had been dismissed in the company street, a frightened sentry on post No. 1 in front of the guard-house was heard to call out:
"Turn out the gyard. General officer."
And the corporal in charge of the watch kicked his heel against the side of the guard-house, and in a second, the door burst open and the whole watch rushed out, making formation in front of the building, before which a large, puffy man with silver stars on his shoulder-straps accepted the salute.
Then the streets, on each side of which the flimsy, sprawling bunk-houses were set, became suddenly energized. Orderlies could be seen running from their billets to the officers' quarters, and rushing back. Sergeants stood at the entrances and bellowed for the men to "shake it up," for the visiting major-general was on a sightseeing tour and he meant to inspect the battalion.
Rifle-butts pounded on the gravel and men hastened to the command of "Fall in," buttoning their clothing on the way and making hasty estimates of their appearance. They counted off, right-dressed, and as soon as the drawling, cautioning "steady" and the short, sharp "front" were given they stood with their chests out and their abdomens drawn inconspicuously under their diaphragms, nervously fingering the stocks of their rifles, their eyes looking straight to the front.
After a while the major-general reached the company to which Bird's fourth platoon belonged. He passed along the first platoon, the tall men; the second platoon and the third platoon, of medium-sized men; then the fourth platoon, the short men, opened ranks.
The divisional commander, with his formal retinue and the company commander, passed by. He looked stern, military, disapproving.
For once, Wilfred Bird, standing by his right guide at the end of his platoon, felt nervous, quaky, the sensation growing as the divisional commander stopped before him and looked down the side of his fierce nose.
"Lieutenant," said the major-general, "you have the most soldierly-looking platoon in the regiment."
Wilfred Bird, standing motionless, continued to look straight ahead, feeling his face color salmon to his ears.
For once his poise deserted him, even his military training threatening to go with it, for his lips moved as if to blurt out some acknowledgment of the general's commendation.
That evening at dinner, in the officers' mess, Captain Madison rose ponderously from the head of the table — he was the ranking captain and the major was not there — and with the palms of his heavy hands flat on the cloth, speaker-wise, he made a short speech in which he proposed a toast to Lieutenant Bird for saving the reputation of the company. Even the officers from the other companies joined, and Bird found himself on his feet, half stammering his gratitude.
"They're really awfully nice boys. I'm very fond of them; and of course it is they that deserve whatever credit there is to be given," he ended.
But whether the men deserved the credit or not, there remained for days about Wilfred Bird the sensation of those words, as if they were still in the air that he breathed, as a kind of elixir. And it led him to talk about his platoon; to consider the men as a very important unit composed of his special charges and not merely as so many heads, as he had considered them theretofore. It also caused him to adopt a new attitude toward the men. He would remind them that it was an unusual occurrence for a divisional commander to pick out their platoon from an entire regiment. But that which the men had done by chance must now be continued through effort. They had a reputation to maintain. So he began the inculcation of pride in them, and his attitude toward them was that of a jealous father toward his children. They were such nice boys; he had not noticed it before, really.
In the main the men accepted the change of disposition well enough. They too felt it to be a point of pride that they continued to be the neatest unit in the regiment, perhaps in the division. The eyes of the corporals grew sharper as they inspected the members of their respective squads before formation; and the privates took more care with their equipment, often spending moments of their leisure hours in cleaning the bores of their rifles, or scrubbing their underclothes and socks on the long wooden plank which rested on two small kegs at the side of the bunk-house.
But to loud-mouthed John Wainwright, who had always felt himself to be inferior to his lieutenant and who for that reason always thought Wilfred Bird was being patronizing, this sudden competitive desire on the part of the platoon commander was used as material for disparagement. He came from the lower Middle West, and the last thing he would put up with, he often said, was for one guy to think he was better than another. "Just because Bird is a shave-tail is no reason why he should go around like some damned English duke," Wainwright grumbled. "Who did he think he was, anyway? Telling people a damned sight better than him what to do! And so far as what the major-general had said went, it was the platoon that deserved the glory and not the commander. What had Bird ever done for the platoon, anyhow, besides act as if he wasn't made out of mud the same as all the rest of them was?"
John Wainwright had read the Bible; he knew that all men were made out of clay, and he also knew the proof positive that man and monkey had nothing in common.
But Wilfred Bird continued through the days of training oblivious of this disturbing element. He was very fond of his platoon, and it never occurred to him that they might not be as fond of him — which, as a matter of fact, they were with the exception of John Wainwright.
Wainwright talked very much and very loudly, and it seemed that from reveille until taps he was forever telling whomever he could find to listen to him about his exploits "out where he came from." His boisterous, callous manner and his boastful tales were engaging to some of the men, and others listened because they could not help it.
During the long winter, when the men were intensively training, they would spend their evenings in the bunk-house at cards or talking, and when Wainwright, now and again, would begin to speak against Wilfred Bird, his listeners would say: "Oh, shut up John. You'd kick if somebody give you a new rope to hang yourself with," or "Let him rest, he's a whole lot better than you are." But those mild checks never discouraged him. Wainwright's skin was too thick ever to be penetrated by jeers, unless they held an undertone of violence to himself. And then, of course, in his blustering way he would challenge his adversary to a fight, a fight which, for some reason, never came off.
With the fall of the last snow of the season the regiment finished its training, and the word began to be rumored about that the men were next to go to the front, their natural and hoped-for destination.
Wilfred Bird took it calmly, and simply. It was the thing which he had come to France to do, and a great feeling of relief came to him, now that he knew his regiment was headed in that direction. Not that he was without fear, for he was not. The front was as much the great unknown to him as it was to any other man who had never been there. He knew that he would very likely either be wounded or killed, that if he were neither he would spend the rest of his days until the war was over going from one front to another, cold, dirty, and hungry. He was healthy enough to want an occasional bath, and so he did not look toward the front as a larking-place.
With this awakened interest in his men, he felt it to be in the line of his duty that he discover the height or depth of their morale. If the men, as they sometimes phrased it, were "rarin' to go," he would be pleased; if they were in the doldrums over the thought of going to the front he wanted to bolster up their courage. To the casual eye they were anxious for the opportunity to meet the Germans, to plunge themselves into the midst of the great experience; but he knew that one could not always tell by outward appearance. One was likely to be deceived. It was the proper act for a soldier to tell his officer that he was glad he was going to the front. But to get the truth one had to find out whether he inwardly trembled as he made the assertion.
Most of the officers felt the pulse of their men through their orderlies; but Wilfred Bird's orderly, unluckily enough, was very shy and quiet, too embarrassed before his officer ever to speak unless it were necessary. Bird himself was not the sort of person ever to ask his orderly for information, and as he felt that he must find out, he chose, or rather was forced to accept, the means which was most direct.
After dinner, when it had grown heavily dark, Wilfred Bird would leave the officers' quarters and commence to walk slowly and quietly around the outside of the bunk-house in which the men of his command were telling stories or, seated around the rough board table by the candle-light with their blouses off, were playing cards or listening to Old King Cole sadly and a trifle reminiscently pick the strings of his big mellow guitar. From the bits of talk which he overheard in his secretive journey he hoped to discover what they were thinking of, how they really accepted the fact that they were soon to go to the front. And then, perhaps, he would enter the back door of the bunk-house and talk to one of the sergeants for a while; more often he would return to his own billet, a trifle ashamed that even so praiseworthy a purpose should force him to snoop, without letting the men know he had been near to them.
Excerpted from "Points of Honor"
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Table of Contents
A Note on the Text and Acknowledgments vii
Points of Honor 1
I Unadorned 7
II The Kentucky Boy 22
III Responsibility 38
IV "Sound Adjutant's Call" 53
V Rintintin 70
VI A Little Gall 87
VII The Ribbon Counter 100
VIII The Nine Days' Kitten 113
IX The Long Shot 128
X Uninvited 152
XI Semper Fidelis 160
Explanatory Notes 167