Sunday, September 3, 2017

Angels at the Front

Soldiers' memories of war consist of forced marches at night, restless sleep in pup tents too small to keep out the cold drizzle of rain and the noise of falling shells. Mostly, memories are of long stretches of boredom, broken by the sheer terror of battle and haunting fear of death. In the midst of all this, soldiers will take time to think of sweethearts back home.

During the American and French assault on Saint-Mihiel, the 137th Regiment of the 35th Division remained camped outside Nancy in the Forest de Haye.

American Doughboys


The assault began September 12th and was a success.

It was then decided that the 35th Division would move by truck and night march to prepare for the last battle of the First World War, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In this battle the names of Cheppy, Varennes, Montrebeau Wood, Baulny and Exermont would become forever memorable to those who fought there.

My grandfather Captain James Madison Pearson fought in the upcoming battle as a member of a different unit. His cousin Sergeant Varlourd Pearson was a member of the 137th Infantry Regiment.

His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross reads:

...for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division, A.E.F., near Baulny, France, (north of Charpentry on the road to Apremont) 28 September 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, Sergeant Pearson refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of ; his platoon, remaining in command for several hours till he received a fourth wound which proved fatal.
Map of the Argonne Forest and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918


What thoughts he had prior to and during the battle, I don't know. But a good account from the 137th Regiment can be found.

An excerpt from Reminiscences of the 137th U. S. Infantry Regiment, compiled by Carl E. Haterius. The words are substantially those of Mr. Haterius, although I have taken some minor liberties.

About September 18th, learning that 35th Division would, not be needed in the drive at Saint-Mihiel, we prepared to move to another front. A few hours later, the regiment left the woods and hiked seven kilometers through the quagmire of the forest over to the Nancy and Toul highway, where a long train of 1100 French motor trucks waited to convey us to another sector.

While loading into these waiting trucks, an amusing incident occurred.

We had not as yet seen evidence of a real honest to goodness American woman. April 25th afforded us our last glimpse of one such. It may sound strange to say we never knew before that moment what one of the fairer sex means to this old world. Often perhaps we had been awkward enough to pass such a remark as,

''Well, I guess we could get along in this old world without women. Vain creatures as a rule, and men must always cater to them." Now, thanking the powers that be, we learned a bitter-sweet lesson – in truth this world would be a dismal place without the presence of those "bright angels."

For weeks, we had come across none but old French peasant folk, and we craved the sight of a real woman. It is strange, we now admit, but it is God’s honest truth. Standing there on that highway awaiting orders to load trucks, we saw an ambulance barreling down the road, and all along the line great cheers rose into the air.
Ambulance World War I


As the vehicle came close, we beheld two American Reel Cross nurses seated in front alongside their driver. Everybody made for the road, and as the ''angels" passed, a thunderous greeting arose from the throats of hundreds of doughboys. God’s honest truth, this was the best thing we had seen since coming to France. Again, truth be told, as fast as that ambulance went by, we had hardly even caught a glimpse of the two nurses. But, burning brightly in each man’s eye, was the vision of a raven-haired beauty or the golden locks of some sweetheart back home.

After the ambulance passed, a new and hitherto unknown cry came could be heard, and voicings such as, ''I want to go home," passed down the line. To this day I am inclined to believe those murmurings were as sincere as the tears we shed. We did want to go home, but not right then and there.
Note. Major and Chaplain, Carl E. Haterius served with the 137th Regiment. He was born in 1892 in Pottawatomie County, Kansas and died in 1962 in Eugene, Oregon.He also served in World War II.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Whimsey

My grandfather loved poetry, as do I, and so here goes:

Nobodiness is a malady
That affects almost everybody.
Won’t somebody tell everybody,
Sir or madam, as the case may be,
Your impoliteness is downright rudeness
I have a name, and it’s not dude

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Je suis Française

Je suis Française, my grandmother said to me. 

Overlooking Graffigny, France


Do you know the village of Graffigny?

No.

That is no surprise unless you knew of a friend of Voltaire, a certain lady with the name Françoise de Graffigny.

She kept a copy of her correspondence with her friend and others such as Rousseau and Montesquieu and so, for those who care, a window into the daily life of 18th century France. Oh, yes, she was a celebrity in her own right, having written a novel Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747) and a play Cénie (1750), which accorded her a fleeting fame now forgotten. A name and nothing more is her connection with Graffigny. And that name was by way of a marriage that was disastrous. So, she divorced herself from the miserable fellow, keeping only the name.

Would I have known of Graffigny?

No.

No more than you, had not my grandmother chanced it seemed to have come from this unknown town.

And stranger still, I have to thank a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, a Gavrilo Princip, who shot the Arch Duke Ferdinand, and so set in motion the dominoes that led to World War I. Or do I thank Kapitanleutnant Walther von Schwieger who sank the Lusitania, and by his act got us into war? And thus, my grandfather into uniform and into France and in a battle of St. Mihiel to be wounded and taken to the village of Graffigny, to be nursed back to health by a French miss s’appelle Marguerite Chevallier.

So, the two families of Chevallier and Pierresonne were united, and as my grandmother said, Je suis Français.

The world is unpredictable. We are ruled by chance and coincidence. Thank God, we have the choice to decide the little things.


More to come...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memorial Day 2017

I had two family members on my mother's side who were involved in World War I. One is my grandfather, the other my great uncle. One is on a memorial in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

My grandfather, James Madison Pearson took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began on the 26th of September 1918 and ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. My grandfather's cousin, Varlaurd Pearson also took part in the battle as a member of Company I of the 137th Regiment.

This is his story.

September 1918

A short week before the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 137th Regiment left its staging area in the Foret-de-Haye, between Nancy and Toul, for the front near the woods of Auzeville, a small village west of Verdun.

The evening of September 25th, 1918

Five days later, at 7pm on the evening of the 25th of September, 1918, the men of the 137th Regiment marched to their front-line position near Aubreville and Vauquois Hill. As they walked, the evening sky lit up with American artillery barrage laid down upon the German lines. The barrage continued well into the dark of the night. There would be little sleep for soldiers on both sides.

The morning of September 26th

At 5:30 in the morning, the soldiers went “over the top”. The now familiar phrase meant that the troops left the relative security of the trenches where they lived with mud and rats, to cross into no-man’s land through barb wire and a cratered landscape all the while suffering the withering fire of machine guns and artillery fire, and occasionally having to deal with deadly gas attacks.



vauquois_hill
Vauquois Hill

Vauquois Hill

The regiment's initial objective is the formidable Vauquois Hill, won and lost many times since the beginning of the war and the scene of battles between French and German troops.The hill now resembles a moonscape with its pock marked landscape. Despite the constant warfare for control and the barrage of the evening before, the Germans are well-entrenched. The hill is honeycombed with tunnels. Perhaps the Germans are tired of defending it, for Vauquois Hill is captured early in the day. Perhaps the Germans wish to draw the Americans in and then counter-attack. Perhaps it is simply a matter of giving up ground by attrition and hoping that the Americans will be bled dry.


In fact, more than 26,000 Americans will lose their lives in the six weeks of fighting and almost 100,000 will become wounded casualties. The 137th Regiment is glad to be rid of Vauquois Hill. It then fights its way through the woods towards Varennes and the smaller village of Cheppy, short of Charpentry.







bois_de_cheppy.fw View of Bois de Cheppy from Vauquois Hill, image taken several years later

September 27th

The 28th Division, fighting to the left of the 137th in the woods of the Argonne, is having a tougher go of it. So, the 137th Regiment shifts its actions to the west and northwest where together with the 28th, they take Varennes and Montblainville.

google_map.fw Google map today of Baulny and Charpentry

 Then they proceed on to Charpentry and Baulny. near-baulny.fw

The 137th Regiment has now become a salient into the German lines. Other American units press on trying to keep pace but the battle lines are confused. By the evening of September 27th, the 137th rests on a ridge east of Charpentry overlooking the ravine of Mollevaux. The Germans take this opportunity to regroup and place machine-gun units on the ridge overlooking the ravine.

September 28th

On the 28th the Germans counter attack with an artillery barrage and the 137th suffers its heaviest losses while pressing on towards Exermont. The conditions are describes as this: The soldiers advanced through the fields under heavy fire. Their boots were soggy from the wet grass and the streams they crossed. There was a cold autumn rain.

The citation reads: Varlaurd Pearson (Army serial number 1449077) sergeant, Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division. For extraordinary heroism in action near Baulny, France, September 28th, 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours, until he received a fourth wound, which proved fatal.  

Distinguished Service Cross

dist_svc_cross_army
 Meuse-Argonne_US_Cemetery_varlaurd_pearson Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial
Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France
Plot: Plot B Row 10 Grave 40[/caption]

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Pearson Anglo-Saxon Past

There must be an Anglo-Saxon past to the Pearson family name. There are no records but the weight of history demands it.

Bayeux Tapestry


The Harrying of the North

The family patriarch, Edward Peersonne, hails from Wilmslow Parish in Cheshire County, far in the north of England. It was there, far from London, that Anglo-Saxons bridled against Norman rule, and there that the last stages of the Mercian uprising was brutally put down by the bastard William in his winter campaign of 1069-1070. They called it "harrying". Fields and livestock were destroyed and William's men laid waste to villages and slaughtered man, woman and child.

New Norman populations were invited in and the survivors labored on.

Kingdom of Mercia


A Viking past?


There is the following totally unsubstantiated claim on Ancestry that I paraphrase:
The Pearson name is of Danish or Norman origin. Tradition has it that the Pearsons were Vikings, who left Scandinavia and went both to England and France, especially to Normandy. English Vikings bearing our name settled in Northumberland, a county of northern England between the Humber and the Fifth of Forth, before 1200 A.D.
Our own clan chose Wilmslow, Mobberley and the surrounding hamlets in Cheshire County. The city of Chester was the terminus of the Norman conquest, and some historians think that the Pearson name came to England via the Norman Conquest of 1066 A.D.
Blond hair, blue eyes, and long noses exist in the Pearson family line, I have them, but where it came from is anyone's guess.Vikings were blond haired and blue eyed and long nosed, as were many Anglo-Saxons. One should also keep in mind that the Normans themselves were originally Vikings who settled on the French coast.

And please don't forget the Swedes and Danes and King Canute who famously tried to hold back the tides.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Morrow of Big Things


Sergeant Varlourd Pearson, Distinguished Service Cross.

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Sergeant Varlourd Pearson (ASN: 1449077), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division, A.E.F., near Baulny, France, 28 September 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, Sergeant Pearson refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours till he received a fourth wound which proved fatal. General Orders: War Department, General Orders 95 (1919). Reported in Military Times


The Meuse-Argonne Offensive


Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which was fought from 26 September 1918 until the Armistice of 11 November 1918. My grandfather, James Madison Pearson took part in that battle as did his cousin,  

Varlourd Pearson. Varlourd was a member of Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment under the command Colonel Clad Hamilton. The picture I have of Varlourd is as a young boy, perhaps ten or twelve years of age. My grandfather never spoke Varlourd's name. He did tell us of his childhood and the times he his cousins and friends played along the banks of the Tallapoosa River as the Braves of Tallapoosa County.

Varlourd Pearson


Heroes of the Argonne

The Argonne Forest is a strip of rocky hills and wild woodland along France's north-eastern border with Belgium. It is bordered on the east by the Meuse River. Today, it is two hours by car north of the village of Graffigny-Chemin where my grandmother was born.

The Argonne Forest itself was of no strategic value. It was hilly and wooded and the scattered farming villages were small. But it was the scene of intense fighting between French and German forces in 1915 and 1916 and would be again in 1918, this time with the crucial addition of the American First Army. One can also say with some confidence that the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that took place here lead to the Armistice and the end of World War I.

The morrow of Big Things, chapter 7 in the book Heroes of the Argonne: An Authentic History of the Thirty-fifth Division by Charles B. Hoyt, 1919, retells the story of the first day of battle.

Map of Meuse-Argonne Offensive battle order of 1st Army and 35th Division



The First Day


Nine divisions of American troops under the command of General Black Jack Pershing, faced four German divisions under the command of General von Marwitz.This is not to say the odds favoring the Americans were overwhelming. On the contrary, the Germans were well-entrenched with a system of caves and trenches. There were bunkers and pill boxes and the throughout the Germans had deadly machine guns which could kill by the dozens and hundreds in a matter of minutes.

The place was Vauquois Hill. It was by 1918, a grey cratered landscape shelled beyond recognition. The village of Vauquois, which had been at the base of the hill was gone.


Vauquois Hill, 1916


Vauquois Hill


The hill of Vauquois was strategic for both sides, because who held the hill overlooked the land east of the Argonne Forest and the supply routes leading to it. It was the Germans first line of defense in what had become a defensive war. Behind this, the Germans established the Hindenburg Line, behind this the Kriemhilde Stellung, and behind that the unfinished Freya Stellung.


Operations of 35th Division Meuse-Argonne, credit Charles Hoyt, Lyons

The Night of Stars



Sergeant Varourd Pearson was a member of Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment (Kansas National Guard formed in Manhattan), under the command of Colonel Clad Hamilton. This unit was part of the 35th Division (Kansas and Missouri National Guard, which included Captain Harry Truman, Battery D, 129th Field Artillery), under the command of General Peter Traub, part of the First Corps under the command of General Hunter Liggett.

The evening of the 25th of September was a night of stars, unusually dark and unusually quiet except for the occasional whizz of a German sniper bullet. The peace was interrupted at 2:30 am on the morning of the 26th by an artillery barrage, but the soldiers still had a few hours before the attack.

Along with his helmet, canteen, rifle and bayonet, an infantry soldier carried 250 rounds of ammunition, and, on his back, a raincoat and mess kit, plus three days rations, consisting of two cans of “bully beef” and three tins of “biskwee” or hard tack. On his belt hung incendiary grenades, explosive grenades, and rifle grenades to attack machine gun emplacements and hardened dugouts.


Dawn Approaches on the 26th of September


As dawn approached, the night of stars gave way to a dismal scene of fog and smoke.  The deafening artillery barrage came from both sides now. The earth which once trembled, now heaved and rocked as heavier artillery commenced firing - 75mm guns, 77’s, 110’s, and 155's; and tens of thousands of screaming shells, naked to the eye but heard by every frightened soul, cross-crossed the sky.


At 5:30 am the advance began. The honor of leading the attack went to the 69th Brigade, with the 137th and 138th Regiments abreast. Brigades and regiments would advance by battalion in staggered columns with 500 meters separating the battalions. The 137th regiment was followed by the 139th, tasked with cleaning out the trenches of remaining Germans.

Operations of 35th Division Meuse-Argonne, credit Charles Hoyt, Lyons


Sergeant Varlourd and the 137th's advanced with rifle and bayonet against machine gun nests dug into the side of Vauquois Hill. A German photo taken in 1915 of the Argonne Forest gives us an idea of the terrain, a snaking mass of barbed wire and the gnarled, splintered trunks of trees. The terrain would have been difficult in the best of conditions, but in the smoke and fog, against machine gun fire and artillery, it was hell on earth.


Argonne Forest, 1915, German archives




By 7:40 am, the American artillery barrage ceased.  The 137th was on its own. Eventually, Sergeant Pearson and his fellows made their way through the woods to a point south of Cheppy on the way to Charpentry.

Cheppy, France, World War I


The 27th of September

At the first light the soldiers of the 137th pressed on. To their left, the 28th Division struggled in the woods of the Argonne Forest. This left the men of the 137th open to flanking fire, forcing Sergeant Pearson and the 137th west towards Varennes. A mile south of Varennes, on the Neuvilly-Fleville road, Sergeant Pearson and the 137th could now see the tall steeple of the church at Varennes. Their advance was stopped by German artillery fire, and Sergeant Pearson took shelter with his company in abandoned German gun emplacements. As the bombardment ended and now joined by French tanks, they advanced taking the village of Varennes.

When the day ended, the Americans had also taken Montblainville, Charpentry, and Baulny. Sergeant Pearson could now relax and break out a tin of Bisk-wee and a can of Bully Beef and take a drink of water.

The 137th awaited the still advancing Americans units on the right, and the regiment was now a jumbled mixture of men from different units.The number of casualties at this point is unknown, but when the offensive woul end, the 137th would record casualties of nearly 1,300 men of the 2,800 soldiers who fought.

The day of the 28th of September

An advance was ordered for 5:30 the next morning - the objective, Exermont.

Sergeant Pearson awoke on the morning of the 28th. It was cold and cloudy. The air filled with a fine rain. Perhaps he put on his raincoat, perhaps not for that would have made movement hard. It is more likely that he continued on cold and wet. At 6:30 am, the Germans counter attacked and were driven back. The 137th advanced a mile and a half that day, and their front lines would form its own salient into the German lines, and the heaviest loss of lives would be recorded.

The Kansas Guard Museum continues the story.

[The 137th Regiment] encountered severe machine-gun and shell fire, particularly from the Montrebeau Woods, ... a short distance north of Baulny. By this time the advance had turned slightly to the west, more or less following the bank of the Aire River. By night the men had secured a hold on the edge of the woods, but they were not in possession of it. A mile and a half had been attained by the end of that day’s operations.

Sergeant Pearson would not live to see the night. The citation reads::

Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, Sergeant Pearson refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours till he received a fourth wound which proved fatal.

Exermont, WWI

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Zenia Blasingame



Zenia Blasingame

If you really want to learn about Zenia, you will be curious about her father and mother, and what their lives were like; and where Zenia was born, what her childhood was like, and how she came to be married to Charles; all those things that neighbors are curious about, but does it matter? Is it not enough that Zenia was strong willed and beautiful, that she and her husband raised and educated their children, and that for the most part, though there was tragedy and difficulty, that their lives were well spent and happy?
 
Her name was Zenia. From a photograph, she looks to be a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, and though it is hard to be certain, and it is hard to be certain of many things, she wears rings on one or two fingers on her right hand but none on the left hand. She wears a narrow dark dress popular for the late 1880's with a lace collar about he neck and a thin rope at the waist. Her dark and wavy shoulder-length hair is parted in the middle, and pulled back. The photograph does not tell us if the color is black or brown. She wears a pair of simple earrings.  The hint of a smile show on her lips, a Mona Lisa smile with an air of mystery.

But the most remarkable feature on her face are her piercing dark eyes which gaze directly into the camera, as if to say, "Stop staring."


Zenia Blasingame Pearson




Blassingame, Blasingame, Blasengame

There are multiple spellings of the Blasingame name. I have found nothing of her before this photograph. She married General Charles Lafayette Pearson. That I know about her. I do know that several of her children were educated at Emory College in Atlanta, Georgia. I do know that several sons went to Manhattan, Kansas to attend the Kansas State Agricultural College. One son Nevels, after graduating from Kansas State, taught at Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State) in Lansing. And that her youngest son Varlourd joined the Army in Manhattan when the First World War broke out. Another son Bert played eight years for the Chicago Bears.

In the year 2014, while looking for Pearson headstones in a cemetery near Dadeville, Alabama, I was told by a white gentleman that Charles and Zenia sent their children north to be educated.

What does one make of this?

Unspoken words

My grandfather James Madison Pearson was born in Alabama in 1894 or 1896. (Discrepancies often appear in research. The story I heard was that he fibbed on his age in order to enlist in the army. To his grandchildren, he was known as Daddy Matt. I can still hear in my mind my grandmother addressing him as Matt, and I suppose that is where we picked up the habit.).

If Daddy Matt spoke about his aunt Zenia, it was to others not me. Nor did he speak of Varlourd and that seems curious to me*, but then Daddy Matt spoke little of his family. He spoke fondly of his days on the family farm, eating watermelon, and playing Indians with his cousins in the forests and along the river bank, but that is it.




*Sergeant Varlourd (Varlaurd) Pearson was killed in action on September 28th, 1918 and is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. He posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross. My grandfather fought in the same battle, but in different units. One does not even know if the two of them were aware of this.

Varlourd (Varlaurd) Pearson was two or four years younger than my grandfather. The discrepancy arises because my grandfather lied to enlist in the service and serve in the Philippines.