“I At Last Know What Modern War Is”: A Doughboy’s Perspective of Life on the Western Front By: David Bennett



On September 10, 1918, Private First Class Miles F. Sawyer penned a letter home to Plymouth, North Carolina, after experiencing his first combat rotation with the 119th Infantry Regiment in France. His letter provides insights into a man coming to grips with modern warfare.
Sawyer made his first march into the trenches under the cover of darkness. It was an eerie and terrifying experience as flares illuminated the landscape while machine guns raked the trench parapets and artillery shells burst all around them. “The night was black,” Sawyer wrote, “I had no idea where we were going.” “It seemed miles that we followed the zig-zag trench. The constant detonations of bursting shells filled me with alarm until I grew accustomed to them and made up my mind that they weren’t for me.” When Sawyer finally reached the frontline he could not resist peering over the parapet and into No Man’s Land. “A thrill passed thru me,” he wrote. “I at last know what modern war is…The horror of war cast a shroud over me.” Sawyer spent the rest of his letter highlighting the consequences of industrialized warfare.
Conditions in the trenches were difficult. Sawyer found that he could only sleep during the day when the air was warm and quiet. The nights were cold and disturbed by bombardments and enemy raids. There was little potable water at the front so he was reduced to boiling water gathered from shell holes. Lice became a constant companion.
Lack of comfort was inconsequential when compared to the omnipresence of death: “I have experienced the hell of this war; the deafening burst of shells that shake you from head to foot; that constant strain of a possible gas attack and the fatigue and long vigils…we have feelings of horror pass over us when our comrades fall; we wince when we see them suffer pain.”
Though he suffered, Sawyer believed that he was fighting for freedom and justice. If necessary, Sawyer wrote, he would give his life for the cause of freedom.
Fortunately, Sawyer survived the war, but not unscathed. On September 29, 1918, Sawyer was severely wounded in combat when the 119th Infantry Regiment broke the Hindenburg Line at its strongest point. He eventually recovered from his wounds and was honorably discharged from the Army with partial disability.
“I At Last Know What Modern War Is”: A Doughboy’s Perspective of Life on the Western Front By: David Bennett “I At Last Know What Modern War Is”:  A Doughboy’s Perspective of Life on the Western Front By: David Bennett Reviewed by kensunm on 7:00:00 PM Rating: 5

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