Excerpt from "The Experiences of Robert J. Godbey, Army Field Clerk, as a Member of the American Expeditionary Forces, from February 18, 1918, to August 12, 1919" by Robert J. Godbey
On December 11th, 1917, I enlisted in the Regular Army of the United States. I enlisted in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. How can I ever forget those wonderful days: I say wonderful, for they were wonderful days indeed to me, as I learned later. Most of the Field Clerks over here have had no military experience at all, and I thank myself again and again that I was once a soldier of Uncle Sam, and that I received military training.
The days that I spent at Park Field, Tennessee (20 miles north of Memphis) in company with Eugene Moon et al will never be forgotten by me if I live to be a million years old. Of course the boys had their differences, but it is to be expected when 150 boys get together and have to live in one room.
The day after I enlisted I was assigned to duty as Stenographer in the Quartermaster’s Warehouse, and after about 2 weeks I was relieved of my duty there and sent out to the Warehouse to act in the capacity of Freight Hustler.
I received my discharge from the Army on February 11th, 1918, exactly 2 months to the day from the date of enlistment.
I can never forget the sad occasion when I said “Good bye” to the boys of the 193rd Aero Squadron–the “Millionaire Squadron,” for such the Squadron was called, and truly so for the reason that the boys owned about 25 cars. It was a sad day in a way, and joyful in another way, when I waved a brave “Good bye” to the boys and hopped in the old Haynes and pulled out of Park Field for Memphis to catch a train that night for Washington, D.C. to take the examination for Army Field Clerk.
Arriving at Washington on the 13th of February 1918, we, Rachel and I went to the New Ebbitt Hotel and secured rooms and went at once to the office of the Hon. Hubert F. Fisher, Congressman from Memphis. After staying a few minutes at his office we went down to the War Department and to Mr. Fox’s office, the gentleman who has charge of “making” the Field Clerks. After taking and passing the simple examination I was told that I could go any day that I wanted to. I expressed a desire to stay around Washington for a few days to see some friends of ours (who, by the way, we never could catch in) and I was told to come back on the 16th to be sworn in and was told to report to the Commanding General, Headquarters Eastern Department, at Governors Island, New York. And to think that I was at last going to New York City, one of my many ambitions.
Arriving at New York I got off the train at Manhattan Transfer, which is some distance from the Pennsylvania Station. I took a subway to South Perry where you have to take a boat to get to Governor Island. The conductor on the Subway told what train to take when I got off at a certain place, but I was bewildered at the thought of being in New York City that I couldn’t remember his directions. A young fellow about 16 or 17 years of age came up and asked me if he could direct me anywhere. I told him where I was going, and he offered to take me there. After a few minutes ride in the wonderful Subways we got off at South Ferry and the boy said, “Now you can pay me.” I was so thunderstruck at the idea of having to pay anything and at the sight of the high buildings around, that at first I couldn’t speak, but after a minute I said “Pay you?” He said, “Yes, we usually get $5.00 for showing people around.” I said, “I guess you’re out of luck this time!” But rather than have any trouble I was “rube” enough to give him $1.75. My first time to get “gipped” and I hope the last time.
…..I’ve never seen so much in a month, as I saw in those 13 days. We went to the Hippodrome, the Winter Garden, the top of the Woolworth Building, and every other place worth going to, I do believe.
We walked down the building to our ship and everywhere I could see signs saying “THIS WAY TO U.S.S. LEVIATHAN”. We wondered if we were going to get lucky enough to go over on that ship. Finally, after a long walk we came to the outside of the pier and there was the ship. After so long a time and much more walking we came to a sign that said “OFFICERS ENTRANCE TO U.S.S. LEVIATHAN” and as there was no other gangplank here we came to the conclusion that we were in the Leviathan. And were we glad? I’ll say we were!
We walked quite some distance thru the station, going first this way and then that way, and finally landing up at a long train of about 25 cars.
Positively, I have never seen such wonderful sights before as I saw from that train. The country is beyond description, and as I write this I think about France as a comparison, and truly there is no comparison. England is a thousand times prettier than France in my estimation, and I’ve heard others say the same thing. Presently we came to a great camp and then we got our first look at German prisoners. They are a dirty, vile looking people, and all of them look as mean as could be, …….
After so long a time the train pulled in at South Hampton at 11:30 a.m. We marched down to the Hotel in formation, and had to wait about half an hour before the meal was served.
I can never forget one dish that was a part of the meal. It was called “Village Pot Pie”. It was composed of some kind of greens, carrots, turnips and the toughest steak in whole wide world. It was fixed up like the individual pies you buy at the restaurants back home, and certainly looked inviting enough, yes, but to try to eat it – impossible. The rest of the meal was the same way. Very nice looking indeed, but we couldn’t eat it at all.
After dinner we walked around the ship until we got tired, and I hardly think we walked over more than two decks at the most. The ship is positively too big for words and when one attempts to describe it, it is almost impossible. It is simply wonderful!
…..went in to see the Captain’s room. He has 2 rooms. One of them is on A deck and consists of 2 small rooms connecting each other, and the other (I don’t know what deck it is on) contains 5 rooms, and I am told that in peace times that suite of rooms were sold for $8,000.00. Imagine paying that much money for 5 days riding! I am also told that the room I occupied sold for $1,000.00 and it certainly is a dandy.
We had on board the ship, 2,000 men in the crew, 500 officers (and F.C.’s) and 12,500 enlisted men. Can you imagine one ship holding 15,000 people? Well this ship had them and there was room for more……
…..if you would go to the extreme back end of the ship you could see the southern end of New York City, and I’ll tell you it was certainly a beautiful sight to see the high buildings, and we all wondered if we would live to tell about seeing them this morning. We were all optimistic about getting across in safety, but at that there was a certain feeling of uneasiness that was within each and every one of us, but we were all too manly to admit it. Each one was careful of the feelings of the others and for that reason very little was said about the Submarines…..
I got a good look at the Woolworth building, and it was a sad sight indeed to see it finally fade away into nothing, and then we were on our way. Bound for France, England or a watery grave, no one knew. We stayed on the decks for a short time and were told to go inside ……. I began to wonder if we would make the trip in safety and if I would ever get to see all the folks at home again, or if we would suffer the fate of the Tuscania. But I reasoned that I could swim fairly well, and surely there would be a piece of wood floating around if we got submarined, but I had no fear of being drowned, for I trusted to the American battleships on the other side, and I know if we were subbed we would at least have time to wireless to them and they would come at once to the rescue, so I calmed down and was never worried any more during the entire trip.
…..we went inside at 5:00 o’clock and the entire ship was darkened. You see on all the ships there is not one light that shines, and the pilot has to pilot the ship in total darkness. He isn’t allowed to have a light at all to see his instruments by, so you can see how well trained he must have to be.
The next day I took a walk along the docks, and saw some very interesting sights. Among them, being a good look at some of the camouflaged ships. I’d only seen these at a distance, but now I saw them very close, and some of them are certainly ‘works of art’, if indeed such painting can be called “Art” and I think it can, for it undoubtedly has saved the life of more than one soldier or sailor. The following pictures will give some idea as to the weird designs resorted to, in order to make the outline and character of a ship somewhat hazy, and also quite invisible at a distance of a few miles.
The next morning about 10:00 o’clock we had what was called “Abandon Ship Drill”. …..They were shy of officers and the Field Clerks were used in their stead. I had about 75 men to take charge of. ……. The second day’s drill lasted from 1:00 o’clock until exactly 3:00 o’clock and I was never so tired in my life before when the drill this day was over. We were packed on the decks like sardines, and it was impossible for me to fall either one way or the other.
…… I went up to see the “Admiral” again and borrowed a book from him. It was the complete works of Sherlock Holmes…… I would read a few minutes after breakfast, go out on the deck and get some air (for Davis told me the safest way to keep from getting seasick was to “Eat your fool head off and get plenty of fresh air”) ………….
……the unearthly hour of 4:45. Everybody on the ship was supposed to get up at that hour, so in case the ship was subbed (they are most always torpedoed in the early morning or late in the afternoon). You see, the way they do is to wait until the sun is just coming up over the horizon and get between the ship and the sun, and then it is quite impossible for the gunners to take sight at the periscope (and the same way in the afternoon when the sun is setting) … so in case the ship is torpedoed we would all be dressed and ready to go to our Station before she had time to sink. ………. We were then sleeping with all our clothes on. All we allowed to take off was our coats and leggings, and NO more. It was a court-martial offense for one to be caught with any more than that off during the last three nights out.
Then at the same time this Submarine was sighted another of the Destroyers sighted another one and finished it with a well-timed shot from one of its guns, and (so I am told by one of the sailors) another Destroyer sighted a third Submarine and fixed that. I only know for sure that two were destroyed, but all the sailors are under the impression three were sunk. ( I hope they are right!)
…..and went to the ship. The name of it was the “Londonderry” and it was about 200 feet long at the most, and about 40 feet wide. After we got aboard some Australian troops came on and I should imagine there were about 1,000 of them. Imagine all those soldiers on board and about 150 officers and field clerks, and the crew, on such a small ship.
At exactly 7:10 on the morning of Thursday, March 14th, 1918 we sighted land, and this time it was “journey’s end” for it was France: le Havre, France.
As soon as the ship was made fast to the docks there was a great scramble to get our hand baggage. …..after much confusion and great disorder all the baggage was piled up neatly in long rows on the decks. While we were on top of the ship watching the troops get off, the lieutenant called our attention to a man shaving on the lower deck. He said: “Do you know what the man is shaving with?” We told him we had no idea and he told he was shaving with dregs left in the bottom of a cup of tea. He said the little tea that is left in the bottom makes a fine stuff with which to shave.
I can never forget the first minute I put my feet on the ground. At last I was in France! A place I have always wanted to be ever since war was declared, and here I was!
Today at noon I took a walk along the Boulevard and went out to the end of the long Pier that sets as a breakwater. On the edge of the wall here is to be seen some sights that I’ll never forget as long as I live. It is the way that some of the French fish, or rather it is the way that most of them fish. A large net is used, like is shown in the picture below, but no bait is used. The net is lowered in the water, and when the man thinks he has a fish in it he draws it slowly to the top of the water. If something is in the net, which is not often the case, he ties it up, as shown in the picture above, and uses a small net on a long pole, and scoops the fish up in that and then puts it in a small box that they all carry with them. If they have no luck during the day, the box serves to carry back the remnants of their dinner, which usually consists of some cheese and bread and wine. Nothing in the world but wine will the French drink.
I asked the Adjutant if it were possible to send 5 men to any one place to please send us, but….. Isn’t it a shame the way we were all split up? I leave for Tours. As the French would say, “est la guerre”! We left Blois at 4:16 p.m. and at 6:15 p.m. arrived in Tours. The train was very crowded on account of the air raids in Paris and they were coming down to the coast to spend the summer and to get away from the air raids. Nearly all of the people on the train were rich people, judging from their clothes and seemed to be very nice indeed.
MEMORAMDUM for ALL Army Field Clerks……. 1. The Provost Marshal and plain clothes men of the Intelligence Police section have been instructed to report every Army Field Clerk, Quartermaster Corps, and Clerk of whatsoever designation, who is seen associating in cafes or other public places with prostitutes and women of questionable character. 2. All Clerks so reported will be brought to trial. By command of Major General Kernan.
…..we decided to leave our cigars on the outside get them as we came out. As we went inside the Church I noticed a blind man standing on the outside of the door on the left side. We laid our cigars near the door on the right side, and when we came out the blind man was smoking one of them and the other one was gone – in his pocket I suppose.
We were told that the orders of the M.P.’s were to pick up every American who was seen on the streets after 10:00 o’clock, and as it was considerable after 11:00 o’clock then we decided that it would be better for us to pick some side street instead of going down the main ones, so we got off the Rue Nationale, and found our way without difficulty.
Then he told me that I was to go to St. Nazaire that same morning so I had better get my bag and hurry around to the R.T.O. and secure transportation and rush for the train. I put in my voucher for “per diem” and after a few minutes wait got it. It amounted to $44.00 or $250.80 F., and I tell you I had considerable money.
The conductor blew his whistle and the train started. Just as it got under way an aged Frenchman tried to get aboard the train. He got one foot on the running board and one hand on the hand-rail, but by that time the train was going too fast for him to put his other foot up, so he tried to hop along, but the train was going too fast for him, so he gave it up and just hung there. An American soldier saw his plight and rushed up to him. He caught the old man in his arms and tried to pull him off the train, but the old man wouldn’t turn loose, so the soldier ran along beside the train holding the old man up from the ground. After running for about 200 feet, and all the employees of the Railroad blowing their whistles in a frantic effort to stop the train, the soldier and the old man (and the train also) came to a large pile of rocks that was close to the track, and so close that the soldier could get through between the pile of rock and train, so the only thing for him to do was to drop the old man and let luck come in take charge. He did! By this time the Engineer had received the danger signal and had slowed down the train, and it stopped in about 15 feet. There the old man was hanging right over the tracks in the front part of the coach, and as he fell he rolled right under the train. The train stopped, however, before the trucks from the rear part of the coach got to him, and it was only the train stopping right when it did that saved his life, for if the train had gone another 2 feet, it would have run right over him!
I looked to my left and I could see some ships all camouflaged up, and I knew that we were really on the seacoast. I was certainly glad, for it has always been one of the ambitions to live on the seacoast.
In front of the Casino is a very beautiful beach, but it isn’t good for swimming for the reason so much mud is there. When the tide is high there is no mud to see, but when the tide goes out mud is visible out to the edge of the water. The mud isn’t deep, only about a foot deep, and I’ve seen a great number of Frenchmen walking around in the mud pushing some small contrivance they have for catching shrimp.
You see a French policeman can’t enter my house unless he is accompanied by an American M.P. and an American M.P. can’t enter a French house unless he is accompanied by a French policeman.
Each night one of the Field Clerks is on duty in the Office of the Chief Clerk from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. There isn’t much to do, but sometimes the General wants something done is a hurry, and then we have to work but usually it is just a nice thing for this reason. Our office hours are as follows: Week days 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 – 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. and Sundays 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 – 2:00 to 6:00 p.m.
While eating supper the next night I was told about the “stickers”. They are German agents who stick people with pins upon the points of which is poison of such powerful strength that they die in a few minutes. Pretty bad isn’t it? They especially operate in street cars, so there is no danger of them operating around these parts, as a thing like a street car is something unheard of.
This field clerk that we are boarding with mentioned to us that a picture show was to be given that night so we went to it. It was my first time to go to a picture show, and I was rather keen on it. The show started at 8:45 p.m. and it was Count de Monte Cristo and some other pictures that were written entirely in French. I couldn’t read a word of what was coming next, but I managed to enjoy the show ‘after a fashion’ and was rather glad when it was over, for when I got outside and looked at my watch it was 11:30 p.m. …….and we started out, and hadn’t gone more than 5 minutes when we decided that we were lost! ……..it seems like it would be impossible to lose me in such a small town, for it really isn’t very large, but nevertheless we were lost for fair this time. The only way we got straightened out on the matter was, we saw a large light ahead, about 3 blocks and we went to it. …..and when we got to where we thought we were going, we were within half a block of our house!
…….the Place Marceau…… It is 2 blocks either way, as this picture shows, and these little stands are put up here 3 times a week by the French people. They use this place as sort of public showroom or salesroom, and it is always crowded. Sometimes there are so many people that they will crowd out into the streets……..It is a sight to see them, and to see the kind of goods they sell. Some of the most outlandish contraptions come rolling up the square to unload their “messes”. Some of them are little homemade wagons pulled by large dogs, others pull these wagons by themselves, while the richest of the crowd has a donkey to pull his wagon. It is run much the same way as the markets in the States. Each person has their own stall with their sign and everything. The old lady with whom I roomed with at first had a stall in the market and she sold butter, eggs and chickens.
One of the Field Clerks suggested that we take in the “Fair” that was being held at the Place Marceau so I agreed and we went down. The first thing that attracted our attention was large crowd around in a circle while which was roped off. The crowd was throwing small rings at the bottles, and the idea was to ring a bottle with one of the rings, and in doing so, one won whatever he threw the ring around. The rings sold for 25 for f $1:00, which wasn’t so bad at that, do you think? And another peculiar thing we saw, was a man standing in a large crowd of people …… telling them how good he was……..then he would pass his hat and take up a collection, and then he would take an ordinary deck of cards and tear it right half in two, and there wasn’t any fake to it, for he was standing right in front of you all the time. Further down the line of attractions, we came to a glass blower stand. ……. I then saw him make several little articles, and one of these impressed me so much that I bought it just after he finished making it, and before it had time to get cold. It was a little bird. …………..Further down the line was a “Wild Animal Show”.....but one part was very good. And that was the way the lion was trained. The man would shoot at the lion with a pistol and then poke him with a little stick, and suddenly the would throw them both down and the lion would walk over to him and they would run up against each other………. Another great drawing card for the Americans was the skating rink. ……… There were circle swings, on small scale, merry-go-rounds, and about all the shooting galleries that one could ever want to see, and the usual number of games of chance, and all sorts of exhibits that go with a collection of this kind.
…… we were passed by a large automobile. Some officer stuck his head out of the car and asked us if we wanted to ride. …….. It was no less than a Cadillac 8 with Silverstone Cord Tires! I say it rode! And when the time came to get out I sure did hate to do it!
We were not homesick, not one of us, and were eager for the next stage of the journey to begin.
……we trudged along, and after about a half hour’s walk we came to the “British Rest Camp No. 2”. It is a very nice place, and everything is as clean as could possibly be, and it is where all the troops come for a few days rest before going to the Front.
…..we were told to turn in our blankets that had been issued to us the day before and get out baggage and be ready to leave at 4:30 p.m. We had no idea in the world where we were going, but “we were on our way”! We had to march a little further on this trip than we did when we were reporting to the Camp. After so long a time we finally came to the Depot. We lined up outside at one end and waited for our “special “train. After a while the train was ready and we were ordered aboard. We asked him where we were going and he told us we were going to Chaumont. He said it was only 30 miles from the firing line and we would be able to hear the shells with ease.
He said we were entitled to something to eat, and the another one came up with lots of Corned Beef in cans, hard bread in paper cartons, some kind of jam, and canned tomatoes. Can you imagine that for something to eat to carry on a trip on a train? But we were soldiering and we had to make the best of it.
We came back across the tracks and the Captain lined us all up and gave us a short talk, and told us about how he wanted us to conduct ourselves as Gentlemen while on the trip and not get into any arguments with the French people, and said he wanted to make a good showing, and etc. Just about the time he got finished we heard the biggest sort of screeching noise down the track and looked down and we saw a locomotive coming like the wind, but we could see no smoke, neither could we hear any bell. We watched it as it came along closer, and found that it was ELECTRIC! Imagine the French people being up to date enough to have an Electric Locomotive!
While we were waiting for the train to start at Orleans we noticed the women at the station working. They were doing absolutely all the that was being done except driving the engines, and then there was one woman who driving the engine that I made mention of on the preceding page. All the men were in the Army…………
……but I’ll always remember how nice and kind these Red Cross workers were to us, and they’ll all have a warm place in my heart. They were all ladies of about 30 on up and were just as nice and refined as anyone could ask of a person. Later on I understood that all the Red Cross workers over here and only taken from the very nicest families in France, and they don’t receive one cent for their work – it is just donated to the Cause, and it is certainly donated in a good one too!
The next day one of the Field Clerks died at the hospital and we had to attend the funeral. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. We were lined up and were marched to the hospital and then after the body was brought out we marched out to the cemetery which was quite a ways from the hospital. A peculiar thing the French people do is when a hearse passes …..that the civilians and soldiers salute. Isn’t that a strange way to do things? The ceremony was very short but impressive, and I don’t think I want to go to very many funerals “comme cola”.