This Sunday will be the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, a war that remains etched in the collective memory for the physical and psychological toll wrought on those who lived through it. With that in mind, it seems fitting to mark this occasion through the words of a soldier who witnessed it firsthand.
The soldier is Lewis E. Shaw, a lieutenant in the 369th Regiment and a native of Massachusetts, who served in the Mexican Border Campaign prior to America’s entrance into World War I. Once in France, Shaw became an officer in the 369th Regiment, perhaps better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Though Shaw was white, as its officers almost exclusively were, the regiment was African American. Despite encountering many incidents of racism during their service, the regiment distinguished itself under French command during the war.
Of particular interest is Shaw’s brief participation in the pivotal Meuse-Argonne Offensive that stretched from late September until the November armistice which proved integral to ending the war. Having survived exposure to gas during the first days of that action, Shaw was recuperating at a hospital when he wrote the extended missive transcribed here. Previous to this he had sent a telegram and two letters to let his mother know that he was ok. On October 4th he had recognized the bravery of his regiment, writing: “Our colored boys have made a lasting name for themselves. They fought and won magnificently.”
Soldiers’ letter can be surprisingly mundane, often to avoid a censor’s interference, or to spare family members, or perhaps even the soldier himself, a recounting of horrific experiences. Yet Shaw’s October 9th letter, although not especially graphic, provides a detailed account of the first days of the offensive that give some insight onto war’s reality, especially the slender margin dividing life and death.
Mrs. C. W. Shaw
Brewster & Co.
42 Cedar St. New York City
Base Hospital 49
October 9, 1918
Dear Mumsie –
Everything is Jake by me. I am enjoying a much needed rest in hospital and and [sic] regaining my health and vigor fast. I am up and about and have walked several miles for the last two days. I hope you received my cable promptly also my two letters since the attack so that you have not worried unnecessarily. I wrote you just before the attack as I knew you would wish me to do and then as soon as I was out of action I wrote + cabled both.
I will tell you frankly that it is terrible. I feel like a veteran now for it is my second attack, the first of course being the Boche [a pejorative for Germans] offensive of July 14, and I sincerely hope that I will not take part in another. The present battle in the Champagne is still raging I see by the papers and the Franco Americans are driving ahead fast.
It looks wonderful in the paper but when you know from experience how long a regiment lasts and just how far it can go before being reduced to the point of ineffectiveness it is different. Our regiment attacked a few hundred metres behind a French regiment, just at dawn after the French artillery had put down a terrific bombardment for six hours. We went over the top in a [sic] organized sector where the trenches and barb wire were five miles in depth. We had occupied or rather held the sector so long before the attack that we were well aware of the task ahead of us and few of us expected to come out whole. Our expectations were realized but our boys won their objective and immortal glory. The Germans ahead of us conducted their defense with machine guns and artillery. Everything went swimmingly up to noon the first day as the French bombardment had cleaned everything before it and all we had to do was collect prisoners from dug outs. I figure I received a part of my gas in the low places the first day as the smoke + fumes lay in each valley we crossed. I didn’t get much so kept going. In the afternoon of the first day we ran into the German machine gun nests and had our first dose. Major Spencer + Lieut Walton were hit then and I commanded the battalion for the rest of that afternoon as we were held up + could not communicate with Dave L’Esperance who was of course my senior. Cub McLoughlin and I led our men thru an almost impassable swamp [likely near the village of Ripont, France] to shelter. The gas was beginning to tell on me and I figured I couldn’t negotiate the swamp with full equipment under such heavy fire so picked a long foot bridge and you ought to see me dart across it. I made it in nothing and the Good Lord protected me for the bullets almost cut the bridge in pieces around me, hitting my helmet, gas mask and going thru the clothes of the men whom I induced to follow me. Cub made the swamp himself and so did some of his men after he was safely across I saw him go back to the middle of the swamp to bandage and drag out alone his faithful ______ who received a mortal wound. One of the most courageous and unselfish deeds I have ever seen done and entirely uncalled for in a company commander for a wounded man is so much clay in this game. Besides Walton I lost Richards hit in the face and Old McKenzie my other second lieut. killed in this swamp so for the next three days I was without officers and gassed, I forgot to mention that I had a fever of 100 for two days preceding the attack. All of this will show you and Miss P. that faith, understanding and the prayers of you all did not go without result. From that minute on we were under constant fire and attacking almost continually. I won’t try to tell you how many machine guns + prisoners I took or my company as it became second nature. I will say that after the Boche tried a few of their treacherous tricks on us we didn’t bother to take many more prisoners.
The morning of the third day Dave and Cub and I were caught again with our men in a hot place. Leland the battalion adjutant was killed at this time. We were surrounded with Boche + machine guns but were saved by the fact that one of my machine guns with a picked crew were with us and we made it hot for the swine. I sent Ellis, who had stuck close to me thru it all, back for assistance here and altho he was wounded in the knee en route he made it O.K.
I haven’t of course seen him since but hope that he isn’t crippled. I picked up a little more gas that night and as I travelled about a [sic] 1000 yards on my belly to reach a forward position that afternoon I was pretty low. I lasted thru the next day however before I was evacuated and my battalion was about finished with the attack before I went. When I left Dave + Cub were still going strong and Ham Fish had just arrived from school.
For personal bravery and bull dog gut L’Esperance who was acting major + Cub commanding K Co. were the most wonderful example I have ever seen. Don’t worry one moment about me now, I have no ill after effects except weakness and I will probably go on a three weeks leave to Nice on the Mediterranean Sea before I even am discharged from here. Say a long prayer of thankfulness as I have done that I am not like some of the frights in the beds on both sides of me who are being dressed now. How they live is more than I can see. This is no cheerful place during dressing hours but the rest of the time they raise Cain, joke, shoot craps and jolly the nurses who are the sweetest, prettiest and hardest working individuals I have ever seen. There are about seventy officers in this ward alone and everyone has a bed, mattress, sheets, clean pajamas and care and medical attention beyond your remotest comprehension.
Let me say here and now that the organization and size of our army is incredible to me for I have been with the French during its growth. Poor Bert Moloney is in the next ward with a broken hip which of course means crippled for life in greater or lesser degree, you may remember him as a second lieutenant to Bob Ferguson, he caught a machine gun bullet.
Everyone here expects the war to be over within a couple months. After returning here from my leave it will be another month before I return to my regiment or any other regiment as we go back in turn. I am totally ignorant of the whereabouts or future disposition of the regiment but expect all colored troops to go south this winter. Won’t be able to get any mail from you for a month I fear. Will cable you from Nice if I go there. Lots of love + kisses.
OK L.E Shaw Capt 369th Inf. A.E.F.
When his service ended, Shaw settled in New York City, marrying in 1921 and establishing a brokerage firm there. His life was tragically cut short at 30, however, when he was killed in an automobile accident returning from officers’ training in upstate New York in 1926.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts