Today, with the country engaged in a new and difficult war at home and abroad, America honors all its veterans on the 83rd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I -- the conflict whose unforeseen bloodshed forever corrupted the heroic, romantic image of men in battle. 1st Lt. Ralph Monroe Eaton served in France during that war with the 26th "Yankee" Division, 103rd Infantry Regiment. He described his service in an unpublished memoir he wrote shortly after the armistice, "Backward Glances of a Demobilized Soldier." What follows are excerpts from that memoir, courtesy of Eaton's grandson, Scott Blair of Bethesda.
Sight never to be forgotten, my first view of death in the war. [The sergeant] lay like a beautiful slaughtered animal, this boy whom I had loved and had beside me, his gashed and bloody head supported in the trembling arms of a comrade. He opened pained eyes and spoke my name, as I felt his shivering body for the more fatal wound which I knew he must have in the chest. And then, when he had been lifted to a stretcher, after they had carried him away to the dressing station, I went into my abri [bunker] and wept as I have not wept before or since. A day later we buried him at Vaucresson. From that day, I felt in my men a consecration which I had not before. To me and to them, after one of us, almost the finest of us, had gone, death was not difficult. We had entered now into a community of the living and the dead, in which the voice of the dead called upon us to have courage.
Again, at Chateau-Thierry, I felt this community of death when I walked through the wheat fields beyond the Bois de Belleau, and saw the rigid figures and sightless faces of the men whom I had known and spoken with the day before. Pitiful and eloquent spots of brown [the color of their uniforms], inert like the earth, lying calmly in the lanes through the wheat, along which they failed to mount with their comrades to the hill and the woods above, they died with their faces to the front; and they called to us then, and still call to us.
Death under orders and in the comradeship of other men, who are facing it simply and without much talk, may not be difficult; it may be infinitely harder to carry on through the trivialities of everyday life than over the top of a trench. But those who have faced death together know each other, somehow, more fully than those who have faced only life together. I remarked yesterday in the subway station, the sullen indifference of the crowd, each going about his business resentful of the gaze of his neighbor -- and I found myself wishing that I might put them all together in a sodden trench at night, when the sky is wavering with the crimson of the tir de barrage and the earth shaking under the impact of shells. It would at least make them friends.
But if the war was comradeship, it was comradeship in adventure . . . and adventure is like strong drink, it mounts to the head. The soldier is habitually contented neither in nor out of the army. He grows quickly weary of placidity, and becomes thoroughly happy only when he is energizing, experimenting and hazarding. Usually, no man who has been at the front wants to remain in the rear. He feels for some days the delicious languor of relaxation when he comes down from the line, en repos, and, if he is an officer, the joy of slipping between white sheets into the enveloping softness of a French bed. Then, the order to entrain, a new front the rumored destination, wakes again the eagerness to be off.
As he bumps along toward the unknown, one of a tangled mass of brown jammed to overflowing into a small and chilly freight car, a can of bully beef and a bit of hard bread in his pocket, the soldier is cheery and full of song, because he is on his way. Interminable and uncomfortable voyages across half of France, men packed in perspiring intimacy against other men, with champagne at Epernay, and coffee from the delicate hands of French women of the Croix Rouge [Red Cross] at Troyes -- how happy they were!
[These trips] end always at three o'clock in the morning; the train at a sudden stop, only blackness outside, and a sleepy voice calling, "Pile out -- we're there." By dawn we are winding between the poplars of the high road toward the village that is to shelter us for the day. . . We are at the front again.
To be at the front for the first time is distinctly an exhilaration. The war seems an enthralling game of pursuit; a hunting expedition on a large scale. Those who fail to find any romance in modern warfare, except in the feats of the aviator, are weak of imagination. It is a saga of vaster proportions than ever before; a tremendous drama of men and mechanisms, with a power to stir and crush, to evoke pity and fear, such as renders wholly inconsequential the skirmishes of Greeks against Trojans. To gaze upon the line at night when a bombardment is beginning, the blackness of sky and earth suffused with fire, the rockets mounting to fall in delicate showers of stars, is like gazing at the limitless canvas of the heavens with its multitude of suns and worlds. It gives a sense of participation in a cosmic adventure.
One night we were digging a trench near Anizy-le-Chateau, very much in a hurry to dig just enough of a hole to lie in, because over the hill was a Boche battery -- which had fired on us the night before, and [we] knew would fire again. One private to another between star shells: "What're you doing over there, Buddie?" The other: "Me, I'm making the world safe for democracy." When the shells did begin to come, sizzling down in volleys of four and plastering the mud about, they lay laughing in the watery graves they had dug, cursing in whispers and afraid.
There is a kind of theatricality and bombast about military life which often forms the whole of it in imagination but which disappears in action. One never sees a flag or hears a bugle; imagery and symbolism are replaced by weary limbs and sleepless eyes. On Nov. 11, 1918, for the first time at the front, I saw a flag. The guns had ceased to speak after a long morning of mutual recrimination; we could not believe that they were at last still. Then the ambulances and camions began to rattle up from Verdun, on each the [French] Tricolor and the Stars and Stripes, and we knew by that sign that the end had come.
After the war, Eaton taught philosophy at Harvard, wrote two published books on symbolism and logic, married and had a daughter. He died in 1932.