Bring out the Liver! the instructor shouts. Bring out the kidneys!
Parry, thrust, turn—it doesn’t matter that their enemy is made of cloth, the bayonets of wood.
Stick it in, turn it.
Forty-six hundred young men work at the bayonet in the May sun, sweat darkening the unfamiliar khaki on their backs. Parry. Thrust. Turn. A cool breeze stirs occasionally from nearby Lake Champlain and then wafts away. A runty army regular screams commands and at times comes in close, so close they can smell the tobacco on his breath and feel his warm bark on the napes of their necks. Give it to him, he yells. Kill.
All morning they work at the bayonet, then turn to calisthenics, and after lunch there will be hours spent on signaling and the sighting of rifles, learning to balance the weapon in their arms and then slowly squeeze the trigger. After dinner they will work on skirmish drills and then hit the books to learn the army’s many arcane rules and regulations.
Some will wash out today, some tomorrow, some in the coming weeks, and return to their civilian pursuits or stubbornly insist on enlisting as privates. The rest will carry on as best they can, intent on gaining a commission as a reserve officer, though many know not why exactly they have answered their country’s call in this spring of 1917 by applying for officers’ training camp at Plattsburg, New York.
It’s a contingent made up largely of college boys, with the Ivy League well represented. Among these Ivy Leaguers are 350 Harvard men, a smattering of undergraduates and graduates, mostly young, well educated, and the progeny of some of the leading families in American society; many have been here before, turning out in droves to attend the 1916 Plattsburg camp and learn the rudiments of war-making.
They have read the papers. They have watched from afar since 1914 as the world went mad after the assassination of an Austrian archduke of whom few had ever heard; watched as alliances and treaties clicked into place like a jigsaw puzzle picturing hell itself.
They have watched as an insecure and armed Germany invaded neutral Belgium and marched for Paris, to assert its long-wished-for hegemony on the Continent; watched as the British landed an expeditionary force to counter the move through northern France; watched as the Germans were checked at the Marne; watched as an ensuing race to the North Sea turned into stalemate, leaving the north of France split by a big ditch.
They have read of the reprisals in Belgium in which hundreds of civilians have been lined up and shot; read of the execution of the British nurse, Edith Cavell, her offense being to help prisoners of war escape to Holland.
They know of the burning of the library at Louvain, 230,000 books gone to ashes; know of the call of the German intellectuals, the heralds of German patriotism, who in the “Call to the World of Culture” defended the reprisals and praised the German soldier as the righteous keeper of the German flame, of its Kultur.
They have read of the further atrocities—some real, some invented by the clever British after the underwater cable from Germany to the United States was cut. They have also read of their own predecessors, more than five hundred Harvard graduates and students who, in August 1914 and thereafter, heard the call and left their civilian lives to enlist with the Canadians, the British, and the French.
By April 1917, thirty of these Harvard men will be dead, many of them scions of the British Empire who rushed to Canada and Britain in the empire’s hour of need. A handful, however, are American, from the classes of ’08, and ’10, and ’12.
“From scraps of information that are gradually being collected, it is now evident that a great number of Harvard men are playing a part in the European war,” the Harvard Crimson would report on November 19, 1914.
“Some of these are actually on the firing line of the allies, but the majority are engaged in Red Cross work. Many graduates of the Medical School have volunteered as surgeons in the European hospitals, while other alumni are acting as ambulance drivers and attendants.”
One of the American dead is Edward Mandell Stone, Class of ’08, from Chicago, who had lived in France prior to the outbreak of the war and had become “deeply interested in this country and fond of its people,” his biography would say. When Germany attacked France in August 1914, he enlisted as a private in the 2nd Regiment, of Battalion C of the Foreign Legion.
They wasted little time rushing Stone to the front. He was sent up with a machine-gun company in October and lasted a few months before being wounded by shrapnel on February 15, 1915.
“One day I got a call from his company to treat a wounded man,” the regiment’s surgeon would remember. “It was Stone, I found, with a hole in his side made by a shrapnel ball, which had probably penetrated his left lung.
“He was carried back by my squad of stretcher-bearers from the front line trench—the ‘Blanc Sablon,’ our headquarters—where I applied the first dressing, and from there removed to a hospital about eight miles back. I did not see him again, and heard that he had died of his wound in the hospital.”
The American Eddie Stone of Chicago lingered for twelve days, and died on February 27, 1915.
There are others, but perhaps the most famous of these Harvard volunteers is the New Yorker Alan Seeger, who, after graduating in 1910, left for Paris, where he refused to be “implicated in any kind of a job.” As the Germans approached the city in late August 1914, he, too, volunteered for the French Foreign Legion—“out of love for France.”
Seeger, Harvard ’10, would write his mother: “Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals but everyone should bear some of the burden.”
Of his own prospects, he put the chances of surviving at “about ten to one.” In the face of these odds, he wrote: “Death is nothing terrible at all. It may mean something more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.”
Seeger took his place in the trenches in the fall of 1914 and was wounded in Champagne in February 1915. Perhaps with a better understanding of his chances of surviving, he penned one of the most famous poems of the Great War:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It wasn’t in spring but in summer that Seeger had his rendezvous. On July 4, 1916—the fourth day of the massive offensive on the Somme—Seeger and his fellow Legionnaires attacked across a wide field already littered with corpses, their destination the village of Belloy-en-Santerre.
“I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand,” a friend would remember. “He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.”
The village was taken, “though Seeger … fallen, among the first in the attack, could but cheer his comrades on as they dashed past the spot where he lay dying.”
Seeger left behind another poem, “Memorial Day Ode,” anticipating the United States’ eventual entry into the war—“from which no people nobly stands aloof,” he would write. “If in all moments we have given proof/ Of virtues that were thought American/ I know not if in all things done and said/ All has been well and good.”
From the outbreak of the war, through the German invasion of Belgium, to the desperate stand on the Marne in September 1914, and through the bleeding of the French at Verdun and the catastrophic losses at the Somme, sympathy for the Allied cause at Harvard remained strong. The war itself held an enduring fascination for its undergraduates, raised as they were to appreciate the many glories of their forebears in the Civil War and the current and inspiring writings of Robert Bridges, Rudyard Kipling, Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy, and others. Of course, there was Alan Seeger’s poetry, too, and his noble self-sacrifice on the Somme—a dose of glory that quickened the heartbeat of many a Harvard man.
Harvard men were also at the forefront of the “preparedness” campaign that proved a vibrant force in the mid-1910s. One of the school’s most famous graduates, the former president Theodore Roosevelt, Harvard 1880, became one of preparedness’s loudest and most forceful proponents, and in doing so proved himself a giant thorn in the side of the pacifist President Woodrow Wilson, who had campaigned in 1916 on a promise to keep the United States out of what was seen by some as an irrelevant struggle between lumbering and decrepit empires.
At Roosevelt’s side stood his good friend and former commander in the Rough Riders, the former army chief of staff Leonard Wood, himself a graduate of the Harvard Medical School in 1884, now called the “prophet of preparedness.” Roosevelt’s sons Teddy Jr., Harvard ’08, and Archie, Harvard ’16, would also become acolytes and the faces of preparedness among their peers.
The movement urged the training of thousands in at least the rudiments of the military, and in fact had a specific origin in the meeting of several Harvard graduates at the Harvard Club on West Forty-fourth Street in Manhattan just days after the liner Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, bringing to the bottom of the Atlantic with it 124 American citizens.
Among the attendees at that meeting was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., as well as the sons of other notable American statesmen—Elihu Root Jr., Hamilton Fish Jr., and Robert Bacon Jr., the son of the former U.S. ambassador to France. Afterward, they would publicly demand that Woodrow Wilson reply to the sinking of the Lusitania in some military manner, “however serious.”
Wilson declined their request, demanding instead that Germany drop its program of unrestricted submarine predation. In turn, the young Roosevelt and his Harvard pals approached Wood and asked if he might help organize a summer camp for professionals and businessmen yearning to display their patriotism and untapped military prowess.
Despite objections, and worries that the proposed preparedness camps mirrored the military buildup in Germany that had led to war, the “Plattsburg movement” gained steam, and several training camps opened in the late summer of 1915. On the shores of Lake Champlain in New York, at Fort Sheridan above Chicago, and at other locales, more than 2,000 TBMs—or “tired businessmen,” a cadre of out-of-shape mostly thirty- and forty-somethings—slept in tent cities, learned to drill, gathered around campfires at night, and took part in large-scale mock battles during the day.
Some 1,300 tired businessmen, each paying the thirty dollars necessary for a thin cotton uniform, attended the first and largest camp at Plattsburg beginning August 10, 1915. All happily put aside their civilian pursuits for several weeks with the understanding that they would be first in line for officers’ commissions should America enter the war—as many of them were certain it eventually would.
Upon their arrival at Plattsburg, the novice soldiers were wound up by speakers. Among them was Col. Edward F. Glenn, who warned, the New York Times would report, that “in the present unprepared condition of the United States it would be possible for a first-class foreign power, once it gained control of the sea, to land an army of 450,000 men on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, gain control of the important territory that lies between Portland, Me., and the capes of Virginia, and then gradually, perhaps quickly, move westward.”
The elder Roosevelt addressed the gathering toward the end of the camp. On August 25, 1915, he praised the camp’s attendees for “fulfilling the prime duty of free men.” He went on, as perhaps only he could, to denigrate the “professional pacifists, poltroons, and college sissies who organize peace-at-any-price societies.”
In a pointed reference to Wilson’s lack of military action following the Lusitania sinking, Roosevelt would add: “The man who believes in peace at any price or in substituting all inclusive arbitration treaties for an army and navy should instantly move to China. If he stays here, then more manly people will have to defend him, and he is not worth defending. Let him get out of the country as quickly as possible. To treat elocution as a substitute for action, to rely upon high-sounding words unbacked by deeds, is proof of a mind that dwells only in the realm of shadow and of sham.”
His strong words would by association bring Leonard Wood an official reprimand from Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison, but Roosevelt would remain a hero to the Plattsburg TBMs. On Labor Day—the last day of the course—“with yells and cheers the TBMs swarmed out of their tents to snake-dance” while the camp band played “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here!”
From the Plattsburg idea sprang the Harvard Regiment, one thousand members strong, who through the late winter and spring of 1916 could be seen marching around campus, clad in khaki uniforms from the Spanish-American War. For three hours a week, the regiment drilled and marched and dug trenches at Fresh Ponds, each of its members smug and secure with the conceit that Ivy Leaguers—and particularly the educated gentlemen from Harvard—were naturally better suited for instruction and leadership.
It was a given echoed by the regiment’s commander, the regular army commander Capt. Constant Cordier. “In all this land there is no better material for officers than is found in the student body of Harvard,” Cordier would say. “They are a splendid, manly set of fellows, and it is a pleasure to work with them.
“I am naturally more than pleased with what has already been accomplished, and I am sure that in another year, on top of the experience they will gain at the training camps this Summer, we will be in a position to supply a goodly number of prospective officers for our volunteer forces.”
Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, also had no doubts about the leadership capabilities of Harvard’s men. “I trust that none of you will ever have to take part in a war, and yet I know perfectly well that if you do you will do your part nobly and courageously,” he would tell the regiment’s men that spring.
“Every man here must prepare himself to be an officer, for officers are needed most by the Government now. The problems which confront officers today are far more perplexing, the duties that they have to perform are far more exacting, and the knowledge required much greater than the problems and duties officers had to face in the early wars in which the nation engaged.”
When the summer of 1916 came, many of these same were among the 16,134 civilians that turned out for further instruction in the twelve Plattsburg-style camps organized across the country—just in case President Lowell’s “trust” that they would never have to engage in war proved unfounded.
The Harvard contingent numbered 1,572—“representing all classes, from the late eighties down to the sub-freshmen,” the Harvard Alumni Bulletin reported. “It was not only the athletes and sportsmen who turned out in force, there were teachers and parsons and bankers and doctors and lawyers and diplomats and scholars and literary men, and a little of everything else.”
None of the attendees—not those from Cornell or Princeton or, perish the thought, Yale or Dartmouth—“worked harder than the Harvard men,” the Bulletin added. Their showing, it went on, turned the head of at least one non–Ivy Leaguer, “a Westerner,” who had held a “life-long prejudice against Harvard men.
“There were so many in his company who were so utterly unlike what he had been brought up to regard as the ‘Harvard type’ that he was forced to cut loose from his traditional opinion, and he boldly asserted that, whatever people might think out home, the Harvard men at Plattsburg were the best men in the camp.”
After playing at war for some weeks the campers were allowed to return to their civilian pursuits, or to Harvard and its “contacts with truly great men, of a surprising diversity of interests, characters, and personalities,” as one alumnus would recall. “We had liberty in the choosing of these influences, time to adjust and assimilate them, leisure to grow from our centres as well as absorb our points of contact. We were not regimented, standardized, herded, and labeled. We were not intimidated into imitativeness, browbeaten into conformity, or nagged into efficiency.”
The declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, put an end to such carefree intellectual pursuits. The army had a crying need for leaders, and these same Harvard men were considered to be the best available pool of men to be taught the army way, in the hope that some in turn would help convey that knowledge to the army of millions to be raised in that summer’s draft—while others, their three months of training completed, would be sent straight to France, and eventually into the Allies’ myriad and deadly trench system.
More than 11,000 Harvard men would see some kind of action in the Great War, the largest number from any American college or university; of those, 375 would be killed in action or die from wounds and accidents and disease, far more than from any other college or university. Harvard’s Ivy League archrival, Yale, put 7,000 men into the service, of which 200 died; Princeton University sent 6,050 graduates and students into the fray, losing 147 of them, according to Charles Franklin Thwing’s 1920 study of the war’s effect on American higher education.
Even in the death count, Harvard stood alone.
This is the story of just five of those 11,319 men Harvard sent to war, five who traded their tweed for khaki and suborned their class, their privilege, their education, and their free will to be ordered about and harangued by their supposed social inferiors; five who traded the works of Rousseau and Aristotle and Keats for the army’s Infantry Drill Regulations; five who surrendered the might-have-beens of their short-term futures for a chance to lead illiterate immigrants and the far less privileged youth of America’s cities and towns in fearsome battle; five men loosely united by the stamp of a Harvard education whose lives were forever altered by world war.
It’s the story of five men who were among the best the nation had to offer to the cause of defeating an enemy well experienced at and inured to the horrors of modern war, an enemy who had accepted that significant gains would be measured in feet and yards and the wastage of thousands of lives.
It’s the story of five young men who exemplified the clash of cultures within an American army sent overseas to wallow in rat-infested trenches and wait for its chance to advance into the maelstrom upon the first shrill whistles of its overeducated platoon commanders.
It’s the story of five lieutenants.
Excerpted from Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I by James Carl Nelson.
Copyright © 2012 by James Carl Nelson.
Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.