World War I veteran's memoirs recall hardships, gas attacks
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. On Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. -- the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month -- the fighting that had begun in 1914 and continued on four long years had finally come to an end.
Unlike recent conflicts where veterans are still alive to tell us about their experiences, for World War I, we must rely on the recollections they left behind.
One such account is the book "Hardtack and Bullets" written by Corp. Henry J. Hines of Elgin. Originally published in a local newspaper, the book recounts the struggles of Company E of the Illinois National Guard. This Elgin-based unit went on to face some very difficult struggles, including the horrors of gas warfare.
"None of us expected anything more strenuous than policing a strike area," said Hines when he first joined the National Guard in 1915.
While working full-time during the day at the Elgin National Watch Co, he said the men would "drill dutifully and peacefully each Thursday evening."
But Germany's unrestricted use of submarine warfare finally drew the United States into the conflict in April 1917. Within a few months after the United States entered the war, the men in Company E left for Camp Logan in Houston, Texas.
Here they faced 11 months of training and were "drilled to perfection."
"We wanted a touch of the real thing," Hines said at the end of the experience. "We were tired of hikes, sniffing innocent gas and spearing indolent gunny sacks."
In the spring of 1918, the men were sent to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they joined thousands of other soldiers on their way to France. To avoid a submarine attack, the ships traveled in absolute darkness. There were no deck lights, the portholes were sealed tightly shut and no matches were to be lit on deck, Hines noted.
After their arrival in France as part of the 129th Infantry, 33rd (Prairie) Division, they traveled in boxcars closer to the front. "Here we heard the low rumbling of guns 80 miles to the west," Hines said.
Unlike previous wars, World War I was primarily fought by soldiers living and fighting from trenches. In the weeks ahead, the men moved closer to the action and spent five days in reserve trenches.
These trenches not only housed new arrivals and supplies, but served as a backup should the enemy gain control of the front-line trenches.
"A constant presence in the trenches were the rats. They got really chummy at night and they used to hold conventions on sleeping doughboys. The creatures were infested with fleas, and the fleas soon transferred themselves to the soldiers," Hines remembered.
Doughboy was the nickname given to World War I solders.
In September 1918, the 129th was assigned to the Verdun area for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, where the most intense fighting of the war would occur.
"I recall standing in one spot and counting approximately 75 bodies within a radius of 50 yards," said Hines of the area.
"This is the first time the boys encountered gas in any quantity. As soon as the boys heard the wobbling sound made by the gas shell, they donned their gas masks," he said. "The mustard burns right into the unprotected parts of the body, particularly above the eyes and armpits, or wherever perspiration is more frequent."
During one attack, Hines took off his mask to yell a command at his men. "The lining in my throat burned in an alarming manner," said Hines. "Every breath seemed to add fuel to the fire in my neck.
"A terrific rainstorm swept in on us that night, but the deluge couldn't put out the fire in my throat or soothe the fiery burns on my body caused by the mustard gas."
His injuries forced Hines to be transferred to an Army hospital. "I had been in the trenches for 42 consecutive days. Forty-two days -- and nights -- of almost ceaseless vengeance, caution, water, mud, rats, cooties and sudden death.
"I hadn't taken a bath or had a change of clothing. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to fill a tin hat with relatively clean water. It was considered an event when one of the boys shaved," explained Hines.
In the hospital, Hines said there were others much worse off than him. "A dozen of the boys were blind. All of them considered themselves lucky to be alive."
One day -- which turned out to be Nov. 11, 1918 -- there was a great clamor outside -- cans, sticks, and the most hideous noise. "There were shouts of 'Finis la guerre,' and I knew the war had ended," Hines said.
Hines spent Christmas Day and New Year's Day on a two-week ship ride back to the United States. One time there was shouting, and Hines said he raced to the deck as the ship was nearing the Statue of Liberty.
"The men cheered, and every hat was off, and I don't think there was a dry eye in the bunch," Hines said. "I know all the boys in Company E would, at the drop of a hat, fight again for the good old U.S.A. if the call would come tomorrow. And, by the same token, I feel sure that the boys will listen very intently for the most popular command which can issue from the lips of their commander, 'As you were!'"
Hines never fully recovered from his injuries and spent the rest of his life in poor health. He died in 1925 at the age of 29. He was survived by his wife and a son and is buried in Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin.