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Opinion, Holiday, Columnist

Reflecting On The Meaning Of Memorial Day: Tony Morris

Tony Morris, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Tony Morris, Columnist

Reflecting On The Meaning Of Memorial Day: Tony Morris

Posted May. 24, 2012, 12:56 am

Tony Morris / Mirror Columnist

As Memorial Day approaches I am reminded of a letter dated October 7, 1918 my father, Effingham Buckley Morris Jr. , U.S. Army major, wrote to his wife and family members from the trenches of France in WW I.

The last letter I wrote you was written on the night before we started on our “Big Push” and I didn’t know whether I would ever have a chance to write you another. Since that time I have had more experiences than I could tell you in my letters—in fact I am tempted to forget everything I have seen and done. We went "over the top” at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of your birthday! I wondered whether you could feel that I was thinking of you all that day, when I was dodging shells and machine gun bullets. I felt that nothing was going to happen tome on that day as the Fates would not be so unkind as to give you such a birthday present.

“H” and “K” companies were again selected to lead the regiment and it was impressed us that the keynote of the position we were to attack lay ahead of us! It was nothing more or less than Montfaucon, the famous hill from which the German Crown Prince watched the battle of Verdun. General Pershing was with us the day before the drive started and told us that he had “every confidence that we would do our part even though we were a green division!” All of this was very stimulating but it looked like a pretty big job to me. However “K” Company took up its position in the front line shortly before midnight of the 25th to wait for the heavy barrage to start which was to annihilate all the Germans in front of us.

It was a clear moonlight night and the silence of the trenches, which is deeper than any you have ever heard, was practically unbroken save for the snapping of wires as the “pioneers” endeavored to clear lanes through the wire ahead and behind us. At 2:30 all hell broke loose. Every gun opened up wide behind us and it was not long before the Boches were answering. Here we were with nothing but some old broken down trenches to shelter us in one of the heaviest bombardments ever put over. The Germans were very much outnumbered in weight and volume of fire, but our fire did not seem to be reaching any of their guns as theirs did not decrease noticeably. They put most of their shells over our heads with just enough on our line of trenches to keep you in constant fear that the next one would certainly get you. “K” Company was very lucky as all of the shells but one or two missed our trench. As the time for the ‘jump off” came closer and closer I couldn’t help wondering whether the men would start or not. We got off on the dot just before sunrise, and it was about the weirdest sight I have ever seen.

All order was lost immediately as huge shell holes and lines of current wire blocked out progress at every point. I must have fallen fifty times during the first half mile. Our own barrage was bursting just ahead of us and we were doing our best to keep up with it in order to get to the Boches before they could man their machine guns after the barrage passed them. We crossed the first and second lines of German trenches, and then struck a belt of woods which held us up a little and machine guns began to operate. I had gotten a little ahead of the Company by this time with part of the first Platoon, and could see no one on either side of me to support us. We pushed ahead and crossed the third line of German trenches, and came out on a plain swept by machine nests dotted over it and a heavily held machine gun position on the other side. This brought us up all standing and was destined to cost us a lot of lives as there was no cover on the plain at all. We worked forward as far as possible and then sent back for artillery support –which we never received.

I ran into Harry Ingersoll and Major Pepper here, and talked to him just a few minutes before he was shot. Major Langley was shot here also. Harry and Butterworth and I – after support did not come – organized what men we could in an endeavor to rush the machine gun position, and got about half way across the plain when we discovered that there were two belts of wire in front of it and we were forced to drop and take what cover there was. Poor old Harry got it just as he dropped. I never felt worse over anything in my life. The uselessness of the whole war hit me right between the eyes. Support came up shortly after and I had to leave him and go on. He was absolutely game and although he looked badly I thought he had a very good chance. I have done my best to find out what became of him, but up to the present time I have not been able to find out. A truer friend never lived and I can’t believe that he is gone....

In looking back on the drive the worst features were the almost incredible weariness of body and soul, and the lack of warmth at night. I shivered until every muscle in my body ached just from shivering. The march back to billets in the rear was awfully tiresome as the men could hardly drag their feet along, and the road was absolutely jammed with traffic going to the front.

It is needless to try and describe that stream of men, guns, trucks, and wagons, which was crawling over that road. Engineers were working under the trucks and between the very wheels to build and repair the road over which the trucks were passing. Before the drive there was no road – nothing but shell holes. After the drive there had to be a road, and there was one, - that’s all there is to the story.

P.S. Dear Dad:

Tell Mr. and Mrs. Ingersoll please, that I will not stop searching for further news of Harry. I have not given up hope of finding him in some hospital. … Oh Dad! If you could have seen the way in which he was hanging on to life and the nerve with which he was bearing pain! I couldn’t believe that he would lose out and I can’t believe now that he has . He told me to go ahead and that he would be all right, and I felt he would….I shall never go into a fight now without thinking of Harry, and I hope that I may be spared to see the end of that life which cost Harry his, and countless others.

He could not have fallen in a way that better became him - leading a forlorn hope right to the end.

2nd. P.S. Later

Harry and Major Pepper died at Field Hospital 145 at Brabant-en-Argonne on September 27 and 28 and are buried at the same place.

My father said the painful loss of his lifelong friend and law partner on the battlefield in France would always be with him. He warned me that “war is hell” and mankind should do everything to avoid it. He never mentioned the decorations he received for bravery.

We often talked about my mother’s brother and only uncle, U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Sidney Brock, who died on August 4th ten days before VJ day. Uncle Sid was fighting in a large palm plantation near Bacalod on Negros island, Philippines. Two of the men in his unit were badly wounded. As he was dragging both men out of harm’s way a sniper shot him. Fellow soldiers shot the sniper out of a palm tree. Documents on his body indicated he was a 17 year old recruit.

Memorial Day is always a day of remembrance. Our family flies the American flag in front of the house to remember the sacrifice made by millions of Americans who gave their lives in service to this country.

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May. 24, 2012, 2:04:25 am

Hanna Hartnell said...

Thank you so much for sharing this moving story and the outstanding character of your family. When I see clips of today's young military personnel, I can see a similar conviction to defend freedom. God bless our troops and keep them safe from harm as we honor those honorable and brave soldiers that have given their lives to keep America and our allies free.

May. 24, 2012, 8:11:22 am

Virginia Morris said...

Thanks, Tony, for honoring all Veterans, in all wars, by putting Dad's sensitive, thoughtful and emotional letter home from World War I in your column. War is indeed hell and he wrote about it in a way that brings that consciousness home, years later, to anyone who reads it.

May. 24, 2012, 8:11:40 am

Walt Darran said...

Thanks. Tony. Along with honoring the sacrifices of those men, we need to remember their admonisment to stay out of future wars if at all possible. The glorification of war is most often done by those who did not participate.

May. 25, 2012, 12:00:12 am

nina patterson said...

Thanks for this Tony!!!!! Have you seen Masterpiece Theatre: "Birdsong" that was broadcast recently on PBS channels. It tells this story, and is very poignantly told based on the book of the same name..

May. 25, 2012, 6:44:17 pm

Riccardo Filippi said...

Tony, what a vivid description your Dad made of that hellish scenario. My heart was heavily beating while reading his account. You should really consider to publish all his letters from WWI.

May. 26, 2012, 3:04:00 am

David Thompson said...

Hear me, helper of mankind, dispenser of youth's sweet courage, beam down from up there your gentle light on our lives, and your martial power, so that I can shake off cruel cowardice from my head, and diminish that deceptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle. You, happy god, give me courage, let me linger in the safe laws of peace, and thus escape from battles with enemies and the fate of a violent death. From, The Homeric Hymn To Ares

May. 28, 2012, 8:15:18 am

David Thompson said...

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifle's rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries for them from prayers or bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–– The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. Anthem for Doomed Youth Wilfred Owen Wilfred Owen served two tours of duty in France during WW I. The first in 1916-17, at the end of which he was seriously wounded. After recovery at a war hospital in Scotland, he did his second tour during most of 1918. He was killed while leading his men across the Sambre Canal, in France, on November 4, 1918…7 days before the armistice and the end of WW I on November 11.

Jun. 7, 2012, 4:04:30 am

Rich Barrett said...

Afternoon, Tony, After speaking with you about the horror of fire, I took your suggestion and read your Memorial Day offering. Your father's message can never be repeated enough. And your father's experiences, well, yes, he speaks the truth and that is enough for me. Sacrifice in war is never painless. Rich

Jun. 28, 2012, 4:34:31 am

Jeremy Gibbs said...

Tony, Your father's letter personalized the hardships of war in a gripping way. I enjoyed reading it, and gained an appreciation for the importance of communication with loved ones. The language of the time was certainly different, but the letter reminded me of how we take for granted the ability to simply pick up the phone or e-mail people today. Whereas in 1918 letters may have taken weeks to reach the recipient, and every correspondence could be the last, so every written word had to count. Thanks for sharing, Tony.

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