Bob David’s War: A Wyoming Soldier Serves in France
Wyoming would eventually send about 12,000 young men into the armed services during World War I. About three-fifths of these were drafted and the rest, like Bob, enlisted. Out of 4.8 million Americans in the armed services in the war, 125,500 were killed. Of the Wyoming servicemen, 468 were killed and 881 wounded.
Camp Mills was a huge, muddy place, full of soldiers living in row after row of canvas tents. Military biplanes from a nearby airfield buzzed constantly overhead. Enterprising soldiers smuggled liquor in suitcases into the camp for resale. Brawls were common.
Bob’s Brooklyn grandmother and aunts, his mother’s relatives, visited from time to time. Once he returned to camp to find his aunts, Nellie and Jennie, sitting on a bunk in a tent among a crowd of soldiers “darning socks, patching pants, and knitting up holes in sweaters for the whole Battery …” Bob remembered years later. In December, bad weather forced the closing of Camp Mills. The regiment moved across New York Harbor to live in heated wooden barracks at Camp Merritt in New Jersey.
Bob was promoted from corporal to sergeant. Though he was still an enlisted man, and thus subject to the whims of officers, he now had more responsibility.
The promotion could have come a lot sooner, his captain told Bob, if Bob had let it be known he was related to the Careys. He replied bluntly he’d assumed it wasn’t right for family connections to play any part in army promotions. “Then I saluted and left,” he recalled years later in his long memoir. “Somehow, I never was very popular with the captain.”
Late in January 1918, the 148th shipped out for Europe. They boarded the British steamship Baltic, a former passenger liner. They took on coal in Nova Scotia, and then far out at sea joined a convoy of 11 other troopships escorted by a British cruiser. The food was bad. The men were seasick. Across the Atlantic, the ships zigged, zagged and changed speeds often to confuse any German submarines that might be hunting them.
Off the west coast of Scotland, eight British destroyers joined the American convoy as the ships entered the most dangerous waters of all—the narrow strip of sea between Scotland and Ireland, where German submarines would have the easiest time finding them.
As the convoy steamed south, the Tuscania, right behind the Baltic in the convoy line, was torpedoed. The ship sank four hours later. Most of the 2,000 American troops and 300 British sailors made it to shore safely, but an estimated 230 died. Bob and his comrades, shaken by what they had witnessed, arrived at the port of Liverpool. A few days later, at Southampton, they boarded another ship, which crossed the English Channel to France. The ship landed at Le Havre, on the coast of Normandy.
Almost immediately Bob down with scarlet fever. In those days, there was nothing to do with the sick but separate them from well people—and so Bob was left behind when his regiment boarded the train south to camps near Bordeaux for more training. This wasn’t the last time Bob would he’d be separated from his friends. As they marched away, he lay in his blankets on a hard floor and listened to cold rain hit the tent. “I have never been quite so lonesome since,” he remembered, decades later.
After a month or more in hospital, Bob was well enough to be given responsibility for 110 men as they traveled by train across France to Bordeaux. There he found the 148th regiment and his buddies from Battery B at last, at a camp called La Courtine.
The Wyoming and Colorado artillerymen were learning to use French-made guns that could shoot a 98-pound explosive shell 10 miles and hit a target with pinpoint accuracy. The barrels were 155 millimeters—about six inches—in diameter. Much too heavy to be pulled by mules, the guns were pulled by tractors or sometimes trucks, one for each gun.
On weekends, Bob bicycled among the villages, eager to make friends and use his schoolboy French. Because his last name, David, is such a common last name in France, it seemed that nearly every village had a family of “cousins.” Bob, the adopted boy, was happy to be welcomed into their homes.
On July 3, 1918, orders came to load the guns, gear, trucks and tractors onto a train. The colonel of the regiment and the major had already gone ahead. The next morning, the artillerymen boarded a train for the long trip to the front. They arrived near the village of Montmirail, northeast of Paris, shortly before daylight on July 5.
“Everything was still in darkness,” Bob recalled 35 years later, “and we could hear the dull booming of the front away over northward of us, sounding like a thousand cattle cars filled with frenzied steers kicking at the sides.”
The war in Europe had started in the summer of 1914. In September, the Germans drove toward Paris, but following a six-day battle in which half a million men were killed or wounded, the French and British armies stopped the Germans at the Marne River, northeast of the capital. Each side dug deep, defensive trenches. Soon the front stretched 475 miles from the Swiss border through northeastern France and across Belgium to the English Channel.
From time to time, one side or the other would order long artillery bombardments of the trenches on the other side. When the big guns ceased firing, foot soldiers were ordered out of the trenches and “over the top” to charge the other side, with bayonets fixed to their slow-firing, bolt-action rifles.
There, in a no-man’s-land between the lines of trenches, they were caught in barbed wire and cut down by thick machine-gun fire from their enemies. The defenders, therefore, always enjoyed the advantage. The front never moved more than 50 miles one direction or the other.
This stalemate was nearly four years old in the summer of 1918, when American troops began arriving in large numbers.
About the Author
Tom Rea lives in Casper, Wyo., where he is editor and co-founder, with the Wyoming State Historical Society, of WyoHistory.org. He worked for many years in the newspaper business, and his books include Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001, 2004); Devil’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 2012); The Hole in the Wall Ranch: A History (Pronghorn Press, 2010).