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An Unlikely War Poet: A Doughboy from Maine

By First Lieutenant Jonathan Bratten, MEARNG

Troops of the 103rd Infantry assembled in line at the Neufchateau Training Area, France, 1917Troops of the 103rd Infantry assembled in line at the Neufchateau Training Area, France, 1917

World War I has been noted for the amount of incredibly evocative war poetry it produced, notably from such soldier-poets as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, very few of those well-known poets were American. Joyce Kilmer, who went to war with the New York National Guard’s famed 165th Infantry Regiment, the “Fighting 69th,” was a renowned American poet before he was killed at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Alan Seeger, uncle of American folk singer Pete Seeger, penned the poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” which was published posthumously after he was killed in action in 1916 while serving with the French Foreign Legion. The poem was apparently a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. Overall, the number of war poets produced by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was small, perhaps because the United States did not enter World War I until 1917. That, however, did not stop Corporal Ralph T. Moan from picking up the pen when he returned home to Maine in 1919.

In 1917, Ralph Moan of East Machias, Maine, was working as a civil engineer for the town of Waterville. On April 6 of that year, the United States declared war on Germany. Exactly three weeks later, Moan gave up his job to enlist as a private in Company K, 2d Regiment of Infantry, Maine National Guard. Moan may have had many reasons for choosing to enlist in the National Guard in a time of war: adventure, travel, and a chance to be part of something greater than himself. Following several months of guard duty in Maine, Moan and the rest of his unit left for Westfield, Massachusetts. There, the regiment was redesignated the 103d Infantry Regiment and became a part of the 26th “Yankee” Division, so named as all of its units were from New England. To bring the 103d to full strength of 3,500 men, soldiers from New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island National Guard units were brought into the regiment. With barely enough time to incorporate the new men into the regiment, the 103d was on its way “over there.”

On 9 October 1917, Private Moan and the rest of the 103rd Infantry arrived in Liverpool, England. From there they entrained for Southampton, where they went into rest barracks. At this time, thousands of doughboys were flooding into England to become part of the massive Allied war machine. This was a new and fascinating experience for the boys from rural Maine, most of whom had never left their own state, let alone country. Moan and his buddy Foster Tuell went exploring, expressing great fascination with British money and British women. Their efforts to “see what the English girls were like” ended in disappointment after the objects of their affections stood them up. Undaunted, the young men—Moan was but twenty years old—continued to explore their environs until 16 October, when they boarded a ship to Le Havre, France.

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