In the darkness and driving rain on August 29, 1918, German artillery shells smashed down on American artillerymen fighting on a fir-clad slope in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. The rumor spread that this was a gas attack. The Americans, who should have been preparing to fire back, were confused and scared, donning gas masks and affixing equine gas respirators on the snouts of their horses. Some men panicked, turned, and ran amid the piercing roar of the barrage. Several horses, including those towing two artillery guns, ran off in the wrong direction.
The captain in command was up on his horse, trying to direct his soldiers in the chaos, darkness, and rain. A German shell ripped into the wet earth 15 feet from him. His horse collapsed and fell into a gaping shell hole, landing on top of the captain and pinning him down. After a soldier rushed over to help, the officer scrambled to his feet, gasping and shaking, just in time to see more of his men turning and running. In the black night, confusion everywhere, the officer stood tall, held his ground, and let loose with a stream of profanity. It was rough language his men had never before heard from the slim, bespectacled figure who was usually stiff and reserved.
Thus began World War I for Captain Harry S. Truman, a Missouri National Guardsman newly in charge of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division. Truman inherited an unruly, insubordinate band of men who had scared away a previous commander. They seemed incapable of working together.
Their first fight on that hilltop in the Vosges was not so much a failure as a fiasco, but it also was the last time Truman’s battery performed poorly. At 34, Truman was more mature than the officers who had preceded him. He wielded a brand of leadership that combined stern guidance with a genuinely friendly nature. Creating a word play on the Civil War’s First Battle of Bull Run, his men soon called the action in the Vosges the “Battle of Who Ran.” Instead of sapping their morale, the event galvanized them. It filled them with a resolve never to turn and run again; it gave them an experience they would share for the rest of their lives. But their greatest test in combat was yet to come.
Truman Joins the National Guard
Just after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, his successor, Truman, delivered a radio address to the U.S. Armed Forces. He referred to the commander in chief’s having fallen —many Americans had never known any president but Roosevelt—and then drew upon his experience to add:
“As a veteran of the First World War, I have seen death on the battlefield. When I fought in France with the 35th Division, I saw good officers and men fall and be replaced…. I know the strain, the mud, the misery [and] the utter weariness of the soldier in the field. And I know too his courage, his stamina, his faith in his comrades, his country and himself.”
Truman was born in Missouri in 1884, had an unremarkable upbringing at a farm near Independence, and was prevented from attending a military service academy by his poor vision. Accounts differ on whether Truman applied and was rejected or simply never applied.
In the Army’s Field Artillery Journal, Lt. Col. James B. Agnew described how George R. Collins of Kansas City, on his own volition early in the 20th century, organized a field artillery battalion as part of the local National Guard:
Collins “recruited, in addition to about 60 other ‘fine fellows who worked in banks and stores around town [Agnew wrote],’ the bespectacled Truman, then 21 years of age.” The year was 1905. “Truman found himself in the lofty station of private soldier serving on a 3-inch gun, then the Army’s standard field piece.”
According to his memoir, Truman enjoyed Guard meetings and serving with men “who would pay a quarter for the privilege of drilling once a week.” He learned the basics of artillery work as a member of Battery B, 2nd Missouri Field Artillery, a component of the Kansas City unit, during summer encampments at Camp Girardeau, Missouri. Among other skills, Truman learned to handle the spirited six-horse teams used to draw field guns and caissons. This was the kind of experience that would serve Truman well years later when the world’s great powers went to war on July 28, 1914, and the United States joined in on April 6, 1917.
Truman left the National Guard in 1911. He worked at a succession of jobs. He donned the uniform again when the United States entered the Great War.
Truman’s Introduction to the 75mm Gun
In keeping with custom in National Guard units, the men of Truman’s mixed Kansas-Missouri outfit elected their leaders. Truman was always patting his pockets to confirm that he had extra pairs of eyeglasses with him, for he lived in fear of being unable to see. This prompted one of his fellow soldiers to dub him a worry wart. Still, Truman was both liked and respected. Not everyone believed his claim of surprise when the men elected him a lieutenant.
Already mature compared to his fellow artillerymen, Truman was toughened and made more mature when his unit—the 129th Field Artillery Regiment of the 60th Field Artillery Brigade, a component of the 35th Infantry Division—trained in 1917 at Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fellow artilleryman Nathan Serenko called Truman “a quiet dynamo.” Fellow soldier and future political henchman Harry Vaughan called him “one tough son-of-a-bitch of a man…. And that,” was part of the secret of understanding him.”
After Fort Sill came France. According to a letter written to his future wife, Bess, First Lieutenant Harry Truman landed in Europe as a member of the Allied Expeditionary Force on April 14, 1918. Having debarked from the 36,000-ton Army transport ship George Washington after the journey from New York, Truman spent his first day overseas at the Hotel des Voyageurs in the French port city of Brest. He had gotten to France ahead of the bulk of the 35th Division and had time for artillery training in France, where he was introduced to the famous French 75mm artillery guns.
It was quite a contrast to the plain 3-inch gun Truman had used stateside—a relic of the era just after the American Civil War. Truman’s regiment had six artillery batteries, each with four of the weapons officially dubbed the French 75mm Field Gun, Model 1897. The gun used an innovative recoil system consisting of two hydraulic cylinders, a floating piston, a connected piston, a head of gas, and a reservoir of oil. Troops said it never jammed and could be relied on for accuracy and smooth operation.
Once his men joined him and completed further training, Truman was designated commander of Battery D in his battalion of the 129th and promoted to captain without yet having received the paperwork or the pay. That meant the slight Missouri officer was in charge of 200 men, four French 75mm guns, 24 horses, and associated caissons and battery equipment.
A Long March
Following their baptism of fire in the Vosges, which had been a sleepy backwater before the Americans arrived, Truman and his entire division were given a difficult order by the Allied Supreme Command. They were to move from one end of the battle line to the other in dreadful weather in what artillery historian Agnew called “one of the most prodigious and exhausting road marches ever devised in modern warfare.”
Uprooted from the low level of hostilities in Alsace, the division and much of the Army’s I Corps were pointed north in driving rain on primitive roads east of Verdun. The men, horses, and field pieces slogged north, often within three to five miles of the front and thus within range of far-reaching 105mm German artillery. They encamped by day and moved by night, hoping to foil German aerial observers.
The long march by Truman and so many others—long disparaged by regular Army soldiers as mere Guardsmen who could not hack it—provided a brutal taste of war under conditions where each soldier must have felt helpless to influence his fate. A typical artilleryman in Truman’s battery lugged 60 to 70 pounds of gear while each horse was burdened with extra harness, forage, a grooming kit, and an equine gas mask.
Truman had plenty of time to think during this ordeal and was undoubtedly focused on what lay ahead. He had to know that his battery’s tactical mobility and fighting prowess was being eroded as the march claimed the one thing the artillerymen needed most: the horses. Throughout the 35th Division artillery, including Truman’s unit, artillery commander Brig. Gen. Lucien Berry later said that roughly 20 percent of the horses succumbed to the terrible conditions of their abrupt and lengthy movement.
Truman must have wondered if his soldiers realized, by that point, that he possessed the technical skills to lead them and the horsemanship needed in an army utterly dependent on animal power for transportation. Did they feel themselves under good leadership each time they pulled the lanyard to send a round flying toward the foe?