Soldier’s diary details the horrors of warfare

by Leland Debusk, Assistant Editor

Hood County News – Saturday, November 9, 1991

Contributed by Virginia Lisa Wells

(Editor’s Note: Some of the passages in Charles Jefferson Rhea’s World War I diary are very graphic and may be offensive to some readers. HCN chose to print Rhea’s comments in their entirety because they reflect the true nature of war. War is often portrayed as a glorious experience, but it is actually a drama of great tragedy and suffering.)

In May 1918, Charles Jefferson Rhea left Granbury and traveled to Fort Worth to enlist in the Marines. Shipped out to France, he fought in the bloody slaughters during World War I that became known as the Champagne Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Poison-gassed by the Germans and losing part of his hearing from a shell explosion in November 1918, Rhea survived “The Great War” to write a journal of his experiences.

Entitled “A Narrative Yarn, Or Whatever You Want to Call It,” Rhea’s diary is a folksy, but well-written and poignant account of the eventful year Rhea spent in France.

Though Rhea’s story has never been published, it is a splendid view of the common soldier’s fears and suffering in World War I.

Monday is Veterans Day and Rhea’s experiences reflect the sacrifices veterans have made for our country.

Rhea’s daughter, Mary Rhea Duncan, has given permission to print excerpts from his diary.

Rhea died at his home near Jackson Bend in July 1985.

“I left Granbury, May 31, 1918, proceeded to Fort Worth and enlisted in the Marine Corps there the same day,” said Rhea’s journal. After enlistment, Rhea went through boot camp at Paris Island, S.C. From there, he went to Quantico, Va. for additional training. “Quantico was the place where they were putting the finishing touches to us before sending us over to mingle with the Heinies and they sure did work us,” recalled Rhea.

On Aug. 18, 1918, Rhea’s regiment, the 5th Marines, left Hoboken, N.J. on the USS Von Steuben, a former German ship converted to a transport vessel. They arrived in Brest, France on Aug. 27.

From Brest, Rhea’s regiment marched to the front. One of his first encounters with modern warfare was an Allied artillery barrage against German positions.

“I had never been real close to a big gun when it was being fired and this turning loose of hundreds of them all at once had me guessing for a while,” Rhea wrote. “A French “75”, or three-inch gun, down on the side of our hill, slammed loose among the first, being only a short distance away, and when that thing cracked the first time with a big wham, shooting a stream of fire about 10 or 12 feet long and sending the three-inch shell in record-breaking time.”

Rhea described his first sight of the fearsome “no man’s land” between the Allied and German positions. “It certainly didn’t look as if it belonged to anyone or he would have anything of value in his possession if he did own it. It consisted mostly of torn-up trenches, tangled and twisted barbed wire, trees shot all to pieces and the ground pockmarked everywhere with shell holes of all sizes.”

Rhea describes a German flier’s attack on his unit. “After he failed to do any damage to the other bunch of men on ahead, he made for our little bunch and as it took him but a few seconds to cover the distance, he was over our trench before we had time to move. When directly over us (he wasn’t flying over 75 feet high), he kicked out another supply of bombs and was gone before any of us could take a pop at him with a rifle. They hit right in the middle of the bunch with a deafening explosion, scattering dirt and mud all over us.”

“One man over on my right a few steps shivered a little and lay still. Another out in front of me was barely alive with part of his body torn away. Three or four more were walking around with blood streaming from wounds in arms and hands, and the rest of us who were not touched merely stood there for a few seconds wondering how in thunder we managed to get out all together.”

Rhea witnesses his first aerial dogfight in the sky above his trench. “Saw my first airplane fights that day, as dozens of German and Allied planes were zipping around up there all day and far into the night. Several Hun planes would come over spitting fire at retreating French and English planes, and then in a few moments the scrap would be going the other way around. Every hour or so, a plane would be shot down, always coming down in flames and being entirely burned up before it hit the ground. And of course there wouldn’t be enough left of its driver to grease a skillet. The boys buried one Frenchman who had taken the tumble from several thousand feet up and he was so battered, they had to pick him up in a blanket.”

Rhea tells of the horrifying death of one of his comrades by an artillery shell. “Just as we were leaving a dense patch of timber, one shell got a direct hit on one of the boys in my platoon just back of me, tearing him all to pieces and scattering him everywhere, nearly knocking a man just behind me down with one of his legs.”

In a later incident, Rhea also describes how the concussion of a nearby shell burst affected his corporal. “Found him sitting in the middle of his dugout knocked as loony as a bedbug. Was shivering and shaking like he had about 49 chills all rolled into one. And when I asked him if he was hit, he couldn’t answer me for some little bit on account of the shaking. That big shell had landed just in the edge of his dugout. And while none of the slugs or shrapnel had hit him, the force from the explosion had knocked him batty for a while.”

Rhea recalls hearing the cries of wounded comrades lying in no man’s land beyond the American trenches. Rhea and his fellow soldiers didn’t dare try to rescue them for fear of being shot themselves. “Several of the boys who had been wounded and had gotten cut off from their outfits were out between us and the Heinies. And hearing him call for help bothered me a great deal more than the bullets and the whizz-bangs (artillery bursts). One poor cuss over behind me called for help nearly all night, but toward morning, his calls grew weaker and before I got relieved, he had ceased altogether, being where he needed no help that any of us could give him I suppose. Of course we couldn’t go to him through all that hail of machine gun and artillery fire that was continually seeping everything between us.”

Rhea details a scene of carnage he and his fellow soldiers came upon. “We passed a first-aid station on our way through the timber to the highway that some of the medical men had established in a former German dugout, and I never saw as many dead men in one bunch in my life. Wounded men who had been carried there and had died on the way or shortly after having their wounds dressed. And from there on the sides of the road were littered by blood splattered equipment, dead men lying where they had fallen, dead horses that had been killed by shell fire, torn-up wagons and harness, dismantled Boche guns and dead Germans lying around them and on the ground. And especially the highway, knocked full of holes by the thousands of shells that Heinie had planted there.”

Trench warfare was thirsty work and a soldier’s canteen water was precious. Rhea describes running into a thirsty soldier after he himself had the good fortune to find water. “On my way back, a poor cuss in a shell hole begged me out of a drink of my much-treasured water. But he looked so all-in and begged hard for “just one swallow” that I didn’t have the heart to refuse him. Said that he hadn’t had any water at all for about two days and was nearly starved. And he certainly looked it. He wasn’t wounded, only shell-shocked a little, for one had landed right in the edge of his dugout and had exploded so close to him that his face was black with powder.”

In this passage, Rhea ponders why artillery shells kill some men and spare others. “Those whizz-bangs do funny things though, and a fellow never knows when they’re going to get him and how. Sometimes when they land real close, a man doesn’t see how in the world he’s going to get by without having his hide punched so full of holes it won’t hold shucks—and he won’t be scratched. Then later on maybe one will tear loose 30 or 40 yards away and just blow him into kindling. Have known of one or two cases where two boys were occupying the same hole and a shell made a direct hit in the thing, making mincemeat out of one and never even shellshocking the other.

Suffering from the effects of an earlier poison gas attack and soaking wet and cold from heavy rain, Rhea goes to sleep in his dugout and becomes extremely ill. “My lungs too, had given me a great deal of trouble ever since (the gas attack at) Blanc Mont Ridge, as I was bothered especially when I’d lie down, with a racking cough that felt just like it was going to tear all my internal machinery out by the roots. So take me all the way round that night, I was getting to be a pretty good subject for a hospital.”

“I spent the remainder of the night snoozing a few minutes and then waking up and coughing my head off, and spitting and vomiting up everything that I had eaten for the past two weeks, so it seemed to me. And when morning came, I was sick as a mule with the colic and so weak I could hardly walk.”

Rhea was later sent to a hospital in the rear and while recovering, performed light duties in camps at the rear.

The Armistice is signed and World War I ends. “On the day the Armistice was signed, a buddy and myself went downtown and watched the French celebrate, as they all went nearly wild when they heard for sure that Germany had given up the squawk. The American soldiers were not much better either, for we knew that it meant the States and home sometime sooner or later and not a little hole up in the lines with a wooden cross stuck up at our head and the words printed in pencil “Killed In Action” on such and such a date. Quite a batch of wounded men over in the other wards threw away their crutches and joined in the celebration, but of course couldn’t go downtown, so had to do their stunts around the wards. And about 75 percent of the boys who were able to get out proceeded to get on one more big drunk.”

Waiting to be shipped home, Rhea and a buddy spend their time touring the beautiful French countryside. Rhea writes glowing accounts of the French architecture and landscape.

Rhea sails home from Brest, France with his unit on the Prinz Frederick Wilhelm and arrives New York at 4 p.m. on July 14, 1919. He was discharged that same month, but joined the Marines again in August 1925.

Rhea was plagued the rest of his life with complications from the poison gas attack and a partial loss of hearing from an artillery shell burst. He later received disability benefits. A post office employee, Rhea retired in the 1960s. He died at his home near Jackson Bend in July 1985. Rhea left behind two daughters—Mary Rhea Duncan and Sue Blocker.

Web Page by Virginia Lisa Wells