May 2018

“Echoes from Armageddon”

The World War I Recollections of George C. Connor
Volume 101, Issue 5
Author: 
George C. Connor, seated, shown in his YMCA field uniform poses with Cpl George Deane of Squadron C.
Courtesy of Marine Corps History Division

Author’s note: In his manuscript, George C. Connor freely jumps from topic to topic and from one period of his life to another. I have used selected excerpts of Connor’s writing for purposes of this article. To preserve the integrity of the original work, most of the spelling and terminology was left as written.

Prologue

In July 1918, marketing and sales agent George Carpenter Connor left his home in Philadelphia for service in France. At age 45, Connor was too old to serve as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), so he joined the more than 26,000 paid staff and 35,000 volunteers who supported the AEF’s war effort as part of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) during World War I. The YMCA operated 1,500 post exchanges and canteens and 26 “leave areas” across France. The organization also provided humanitarian services for more than 5 million prisoners of war and performed a myriad of other support functions.

Once in France, Connor served as a hospital stretcher bearer in Paris and Calais before being reassigned as the camp director for a YMCA canteen and recreation hut attached to the four squadrons that made up the First Marine Aviation Force, which had recently arrived and was setting up operations outside of Dunkirk. Assigned to the United States Navy’s Northern Bombing Group (and re-designated as the Marine Day Wing), these four squadrons operated a mixture of British- and American-built two-seat light bombers and primarily flew what is known today as interdiction missions, striking rail yards and logistical centers, in northern France and Belgium. Connor stayed with the Marine Day Wing from August through December 1918, when the unit returned home and Connor was reassigned to Paris. He returned to America in February 1919.

In 1962, George Connor donated artifacts from his time in France to what was then called the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, including a collection of hundreds of his own poems and dozens of postcards and photographs depicting scenes of France in 1918-1919. He also donated a book-length manuscript entitled “Echoes from Armageddon,” which he wrote in the months immediately prior to America’s entry into World War II in response to the emotions he felt reading and listening to news reports of spreading war in Europe across some of the same towns and cities he had been in just 20 years prior.

The Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, now holds Connor’s photographs and writings, which he dedicated to Major Alfred E. Cunningham and the men of the First Marine Aviation Force. They reflect the undiminished affection that Connor had for “his Marines” who he supported in 1918 and provide a unique perspective on the activities of this remarkable group of U.S. Marines and the impact of the war on the surrounding land and lives of the local civilian population.

With the Marine Fliers in Flanders

It became the destiny—or duty—of many men in World War First to be pushed and shoved around, landing in strange places sometimes on their feet and sometimes on their heads, owing to the exigencies of these boisterous times. My duty led me to run a one-man hospital and post exchange in the muddy, bloody fields of Flanders, where I served with the First United States Marine Aviation Forces, Day Bombers, Northern Bombing Group in the British lines during the Channel Ports campaign of 1918.

It was chance again that threw me in with the aviation forces and I kept quiet with these joyful and boisterous crew of some 1,800 young fellow in four squadrons … And camp seemed like home after all. Plenty to eat, the same old things to do, the inexorable routine; one bugle blast followed another. Re-call followed chow and chow followed reveille. Sick call, police call, first call, assembly, then re-call, chow, guard mount with one bugle for the band, parading before the squadrons to the great amusement of all and to the open mirth of the pilots who didn’t go in for this kind of stuff, but the ground forces had to drill as infantry, toting their rifles around with them both in camp and in the machine shops under gigantic circus tents, set up amongst the Lombardy poplars lining the road and in the apple orchard, where the tents of the soldiers were judiciously set up, largely hidden from the eyes of the enemy above.

… I used to watch them starting up a ship after the pilot was all set to give her the gun. Two Marines would take hold of hands tandem fashion; one would reach out gingerly and get hold of the propeller blade and at a given signal of “Now!” they would give her a jerk and fall backward. The engine would take hold and the big paddles would spin with a roar that deafened one. Men had arms, fingers, and in several cases, heads chopped off by these flying propellers. It reminded one of the way cowboys would approach a nasty pony in the West at rodeos. Very gingerly and leaning well forward with an eye cocked for the terrible front kick which these horses could deliver in the winking of an eye. These bi-planes create the same kind of sudden kick—and it only took one to do the trick …

The rear cockpit had a Browning gun mounted on a tripod set in the rear decking and the observer could use this in 50 percent of an arc. Some of the lads used to sit on an inch-thick plate of steel to keep from being shot from underneath; no one seemed to wish to get shot in the pants as it were. There was a strong bond of fellowship, which ran down to the lowliest ground man in dirty dungarees; the fact that discipline was more or less lax—at least among the fliers—was due to the fact that they represented the advance of a new arm—the sky battalions—and they took leave to do much as they pleased; very little saluting when in camp; addressing each other by their first names or nick-names, which were pinned on through any unusual or out-standing qualifications such as “Kewpie” Todd [Second Lieutenant Charles B. Todd, a pilot with Squadron C], because his face looked like a Kewpie [a popular cherub-faced child’s doll] …

There were plenty of ships downed though, through one cause or another, and there were many accidents—crack-ups—in which the victim couldn’t bail out. The captain stayed with his ship if she went down or stayed up. The skill of these young men and the resourcefulness of their handling a damaged ship was something to behold; crashing in half a ship sometimes occurred and the pilot survived. I have heard the late Major [Douglas E.] Roban, who commanded the Third and Fourth Squadrons and who died of the flu in the field, I have heard him, I say, give several of the lads a lacing for getting out of alignment when on a bombing mission. “Such a thing is liable to disrupt the whole squadron and cause a disaster,” he said and when the only mode of communication between ships was wig-wagging tails and tillers or simply following the leader, or even waving of arms to “come on” or something, it will be seen how quickly a squadron could become disorganized, especially if the Fritzies were riding one and shooting at you.

… We accumulated our photos through devious ways. The French soldiers had more leeway than we foreigners and I dealt with one most every week, who mysteriously produced a few pictures, absolutely authentic, from under his blouse for which I would have to pay him a franc each, small or fairly large and all in the battle area. I got a couple from our own sergeant photographer, who was rather careless about the whole thing, but who seemingly didn’t care, as he was the only one who openly worked a camera. Cameras were as scarce as flags and brass bands in Flanders. We had one grand big silken flag which we broke out when we buried our men, who were either killed or died of flu. [The global influenza pandemic of 1918 claimed 24 Marines from the Marine Day Wing—far more than were lost in combat.] At these times we would dress in our best blues and go down to the sandhills abreast Calais where, in the little cemetery, with an English minister performing the Church of England ceremony, we would place our dead in rows in a long trench dug in the sand and cover them over while Jerries sometimes roared overhead with the barrage shooting at them. T’was thus that we laid Ralph Talbot away, among others. Talbot’s ship crashed and he was burned to death under his engine. He had shot down three Heinies and had two more to go in order to become an ace—when he went west himself right on the home grounds. [2ndLt Ralph W. Talbot and his observer/gunner GySgt Robert G. Robinson were the first Marine aviators to receive the Medal of Honor.]

Dixmude and the Valley of the Yser River

Author’s note: In October 1918, German forces pulled back from their defensive lines in northeastern France and western Belgium. George Connor tagged along on a multi-day reconnaissance mission of the newly abandoned areas looking to find a new flying field for the Marine Day Wing to operate from closer to the front lines.

The sense of loneliness and desolation in the Yser Valley follows where land and water is churned up into an indescribable welter filled with wrecks of airplanes, jumbles of wagons, guns, implements, tangled wire, smashed pillboxes and roads destroyed by great cavities. The Yser section was only a replica of hundreds of other sections where the devastation was as great, but having spent some time in any one place like this, the scene grows on one as you come to realize it and what has happened there.

… I had the luck to rate myself in a reconnaissance wagon with a score of other Marines on a special mission and it was right over this makeshift road we went and rolled into what was left Dixmude [Diksmuide—in northwestern Belgium]—merely fresh red earth regurgitated from the very bowels of mother earth; where the countless Allied shells had been plowing for months. Across these 6 miles of terrain, nothing lived; not even a sparrow… . The grass was scorched and dead; trees twisted and shot away with saw edges, new and bright, sticking up like lightning-shattered telegraph poles. Everywhere were bits of equipment; broken rifles, canteens, parts of uniforms, packs discarded; every conceivable sort of stuff strewn along the road and at the roadside, piles of rubble, which one denoted the presence of a house. Everything had a burned out and seared appearance as though a hot blast from heaven had withered and killed all in its inferno intensity. We looked for some sign of life but life in any form was not there; that which could, had long since fled. Only the dead remained as evidenced by the many new graves by the roadside as we drew up into higher country away from the road that ran through the Yser.

Thus, we drove into Dixmude. We drew up before a model little house with a toy front yard, hidden beneath tall trees, which somehow seemed to have weathered the storms of men and nature. On the front porch stood in a row several sets of sabots [wooden shoes], caked with mud. We entered the office. There was a desk with several kitchen chairs. On the wall hung a German calendar with each day in October blacked out with lead pencil, showing that each day lived down was another one off the list. The last day blacked out was October 18, 1918. This was October 19. They had just left. Pens and inks, blotting paper and pads were on the table. The orderlies detailed there kept everything neat and clean, but the sabots, which the officers wore when out in the mud, were caked with yellow clay. They stepped out of the office in their shiny boots and slipped into the sabots for any wandering around. The Heinies were hell for efficiency and neatness—the officers at least … This was a staff headquarters of some kind. We found out by examining some papers left behind ... One could trace the days and almost the day’s activity there-on by the notes, words, drawings and idle markings and finally the day-to-day black-outs of the dates. It was apparent by this calendar that they knew they were going away from there before the first of October. The evacuation had now become a rush to withdraw the lines from the North Sea, out of Belgium and Northern France, with the Allies in relentless pursuit. The end was in sight and all seemed to know it …

Up in the tops of a bunch of trees, which hung over the little office, was an observation post, skillfully hidden from enemy view. We went up the little ladder to the top and entered the nest from where we could look down the road we had followed from Nieuport and command the whole situation. We could see where the Yser turned and came up to the sea-locks. It was a wonderful range-finding place and we wondered at the cautious eyes that had peered down our way during the past several years; always the same scene; dangerous but monotonous looking. Each day just a few more men killed. A stalemate or deadlock for three years is something to marvel at. Yet here it had been just that …

The air round about was psychic with unknown fear. A fear of skulking spirits, which made one suddenly look sharply over one’s shoulder. Probably the air was still filled with the disembodied. Dim shades having no place to go and still hanging around the battlefields for want of a better place … The prevalence of death daily and at night and on so short notice left many things uncompleted and not done. The departed were uneasy and full of unrest and turned to watch their comrades whom they have loved in a man’s way with men—and not with women …

… After we rolled out of what was left of Dixmude, we soon came to where there was some semblance of human life, away from the immediate vicinity of the battle line … We pulled in the first day out at a roadside estaminet [restaurant] and went into the place to get water and make coffee, and we, of course, carrying our own rations—just like a picnic. There were several scared looking peasant-type people in there who, when our leader spoke, didn’t answer—just looked. It was funny … . We took charge of the place and pushed half a dozen tables together, drew up chairs, then spread our food, opening cans and starting our coffee on the portable gasoline stove. You should have seen their eyes pop out when we rolled out several chunks of canned butter that would choke several horses … Boy did [they] look when we dumped 10 pounds of granulated sugar in a can on the table, then opened several cans of milk with a bayonet, reamed out 5-pound cans of bully beef, tender and delicious, with beans out of a can. Say what you please, bully beef, known today as canned corned beef, is good. Only a fool says it isn’t.

Well, we fell too and these half-starved folks couldn’t believe their eyes. They watched us with hungry longing—now just wait a minute and I’ll tell you what we did! I think that the odor of good strong coffee nigh killed them; butter was bad enough to face, but coffee! Not chicory with a dash of saccharine therein when they could get it—but here was the real, rich, odoriferous stuff bubbling away and filling the estaminet with an odor that it hadn’t contained in the last five years. Ye Gods! No wonder they all liked to dropped dead! So, we whacked up with them. They hadn’t seen a piece of butter ... or milk in five years, nor wheat bread and here they had suddenly come into a fabulous fortune. The crumbs and bits left on the table were already being gobbled up by children …

…We stopped at a little rise in the ground where there was a shallow trench some hundred feet long. He who could read the picture as he ran saw that there had been a short and sharp fight here. The gravel was all torn up with the marks of booted and hob-nailed feet, both leading up to the trench and in it and out the other side. Broken rifles were scattered about; odd bayonets; bits of soggy clothing and some distance away a dozen hastily dug graves, with guns stuck into the ground by their bayonets and helmets thereon. The place had been a prison camp held by the Germans. We went into the stockade and examined the wooden stalls, arranged very much like chicken pens, 4 feet from the ground on pilings so that a man by stooping could go under the houses. There were 2-inch cracks between the rough, heavily nailed boards, something like a cattle car, so that all times the guards could see what going on in each enclosure. Everything was empty and cleaned out and the expert sign-readers could see by this that the pursuing French had tackled the trench, vanquished the defenders and taken the corralled prisoners along with them, because there wasn’t a thing left in the prison camp of value, while the number of Heinie helmets hanging on the reverse rifles were 10 or more to the several French, who had been hastily buried away from them for the time being.

And So, Back to Camp

… Getting the boys out of the trenches by Christmas looked as though it was going to be a reality and when the order came down the line from the Day Wing headquarters … to “cease bombing” there was something like a feeble cheer raised, after which life went on just the same in camp, except that there was more shore leave to Calais and the Marines let themselves go a bit. Inasmuch as the French charged us for everything we used, land for camp and field, a jag of firewood or a turnip out of the field—we virtually set our camp on fire before leaving. Miles of stone road built through the mud of Flanders in order to make life easier for the five-ton trucks to and from the camp were torn up with the same back-breaking labor on the part of these young Marines that they expended in putting the roads down. All our benches, chairs, boxes and crates and every conceivable thing that was not shipped home was burned to the utter horror and despair of the surrounding sugar beet country peasants who, while they tolerated us in the neighborhood, loved the Tommies more, having live[d] with them for four years longer than with the Americans …

… I was the last man to leave [La Fresne] camp near Adres. I saw my Marines roll away in trucks to take ships back at Calais in December with a lump in my throat. I wanted to go back with them but was ordered to report to headquarters in Paris—where I arrived along with President Wilson and where for some strange reason he got a bigger reception than I did, although I don’t know as to whether he had any better time out of it!

… Some of us had come aboard [the TSS Rotterdam, a Holland-America Line cruise ship on which Connor sailed for New York along with several thousand returning soldiers, half of whom were African American] with curious emotions; feeling of mingled joy at going home and a rather surprising regret at leaving the land of turmoil, bloodshed and mud over which we had tramped, fought, and lived a precarious life for many months past and now all these things passed away leaving us only our memories, still very much alive and we still under the spell of the booming guns and crash of bombs to be followed by a vast silence. Something held us to these things with an invisible, indefinable bond, something akin to, what shall I call it? Love or a devotion to a Cause?

… Thus the days rolled along and soon we raised the Sandy Hook lightship and then into port, where we received a tremendous welcome from flag-bedecked ships tooting their whistles and even that grand lady standing on Bedloe’s Island winked at us as we barged along ... One thing I have learned that I ofttimes had thought about; it was the feeling of Americans who having been long away from these shores, almost fell to their knees and wept when they again beheld Liberty and her flambeau in the harbor … I saw tears alright; but soldiers through discipline are taught not to be demonstrative. Some never cracked a smile nor lighted an eye with a gleam—a glow—of gladness. Others gazed a while then looked down into the water and spat tobacco juice which smacked down on the turgid harbor water with a flat smack. Home, eh? Well, what of it? I could have kissed the ground under her feet, but I patted the old Rotterdam as I left and went up the gangplank at Hoboken where we docked and where we were assailed by a bunch of gals handing out candy, cigarettes, slaps on backs and nice welcome home words; reception committees with flags and bands tooting both on accompanying ship up the harbor and on land. After all, it made one feel like something … .