Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

He was my grandma's only brother, only sibling. He was, therefore, my great uncle, Uncle Edgar, a man who died just a few months before my mother was born. He was, just then, in his twenties, he'd just signed up to fight the Great War, and he was hit by some kind of explosive, blown to pieces, according to a hand-written, eye-witness account, a letter I actually have in my possession. He was recognizable only by his dog tags.

The government notified his sister, my grandma, that her brother had been killed, but it took them almost two years--I have the note.  Why it took that long, I don't know; but the government claims he died on August 8, 1918, just three months before the end of the war.

All of that I've known for a long, long time because I came heir to the family documents when my grandma designated me to be the one who would keep them. What that means really is that I've got every last thing there is to know--pictures, war documents, childhood memories--about this man Edgar Hartman, my great uncle. Here it is, right beside me.

Yesterday I did a little research on Edgar Hartman's death. After all, that eyewitness account detailed exactly where it had happened in France, along the Vesle River. I just wanted to know what Uncle Edgar was a part of when he got hit. 

I'd always assumed he was in a trench, largely because most of the imagery of the Great War is drawn from trench warfare; but it turns out that in the Second Battle of the Marne there were no trenches. Tanks were there, and shifting lines in topography that is more hilly and tree-lined than the open-plains where trenches dominated. Historians claim that the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918, looked more like something from the early months of the Second World War than the quintessential trench horrors of the First.

It was the first major battle in which American blood was shed, including my uncle's. The American Expeditionary Forces had joined with the French and the British in an effort not only to hold off a major German offensive, but to repeal it and thereby end the war. The Second Battle of the Marne was a major, decisive victory; the war ended three months after my uncle was killed.

America likes to believe that its participation in the war shut it down but good. Historians are less sure. Most agree that the Americans were highly motivated and exceptionally brave, but most also make clear that they were also a little silly, and somewhat vainglorious.

Although General John J. Pershing swore that his troops would never to answer to anyone but an American, credit him with this:  once he got to the battlefield, he quickly determined that the French--yes, the French--were the superior military force and relinquished the command, meaning my uncle Edgar died under a French commander. What Pershing understood was that they knew the war, the place, the enemy, and the tempo of conflict they'd been in for years. They knew what they were doing. 

Without the Americans, the outcome of the Second Battle of Marne might well have been different; but to say that the young and inexperienced Yankee force ended the war is, according to those who know better than I do, stretching it.

My uncle Edgar was young and as inexperienced as any of the other Yankee troops. I don't know whether his bravery was as untempered by wisdom as some of his doughboy buddies', but somehow just knowing what the American boys were like helps me understand, fills out what was otherwise little more than a picture, colors more fully what so very little I know about him and them and the time.

Casualties were high. The U.S. lost 30,000 men, my uncle among them. 

He was killed in what some consider the most decisive battle of the war since it was clear to the German high command, as of August, 1918, that the war was lost. The Allied forces had broken through German-held territory and chased the retreating armies back to positions they held before the spring offensive. When the Germans reached their fortified lines, their collapse ended temporarily, and the fighting--the fighting in which my uncle died--intensified.

For a month, from the first week in August to early September, the Germans stalled the French and Americans on the Vesle River, a place nicknamed "Death Valley" because of the Germans' lavish use of mustard gas. "I have rarely, if ever, seen troops under more trying conditions," one General wrote. "They were on the spot and they stayed there..." Any movement by day brought down fire, as the Germans used cannons to snipe at careless soldiers.

All of that is what I learned just yesterday for the first time.  

And more--that Uncle Edgar was part of a unit led by General William G. Haan, who was almost certainly Dutch Reformed, from Crown Point, IN, the man who led the 32nd Red Arrow Division. For all of my childhood, the highway just west of town was Hwy. 32--Memorial Highway 32, named after Uncle Edgar's unit. I had no idea there was a link.

I had a wonderful day yesterday, even though I may be the only person in the world who really cares, not that others wouldn't if they, like me, weren't the recipient of every last thing there is to document the life of a doughboy, one of thousands, who didn't return from the Great War, my uncle Edgar.

He died thirty years before I was born. His parents were gone. His older sister was his only sibling. Had he returned, I likely would have known him; WWI vets were still around when I was a boy. I remember an old man who shook constantly on his daily walks to town, a victim, my father said, of "shell shock." But maybe Uncle Edgar would have come for coffee after church at my grandma's, he and the woman he was engaged to before he left. Maybe their kids, too. They would have been my mother's cousins, the first cousins she never had.

Yesterday was a great day, somehow, and this morning I just don't know why. I do know a great deal more about him, about his life; he's more human, I think, and somehow that seems a very good thing to me.

Maybe that's why yesterday was a great day, and why, this morning, I'm thankful for spending it almost a century ago along the Vesle River in France, getting to know a man I never did, a hero, someone who gave his life for a grand nephew he never even imagined.

This post originally appeared here two years ago.


Anonymous said...

and I do believe that the Am. Legion Post in our hometown was named after him.

Anonymous said...

Semper Fi to your Great Uncle Edgar.

Anonymous said...

"Honor Flight" - Dan Hayes - Fantastic documentary!