A Pretty Tame One
By Benjamin Sonnenberg
The inside of the Liberty Truck stank of sweat. Thomas Croft Neibaur was pushed into the far back, just behind the radiator. He could hear the drivers’ conversation over the stuttering engine:
“How many guys can we fit?”
“I dunno, about twenty-five.”
Private Neibaur had counted around twice that number. As the truck filled with bodies and clamor about the Argonne, Neibaur withdrew his notebook and began to write:
Oct. 7th, 1918
Mrs. J. C. Neibaur
I received your most welcome letter a few days ago. Was very pleased to hear from you and to learn that you were all well as these few lines leave me at present. I am having a very good time over here chasing guns and cooties and I believe the cooties are the worst for you can hide from the guns but not from the cooties. I’ll tell you folks this war sure is hard on a man and nobody but a real man could stand it. One night a man is sleeping in a good warm place and the next night he’s sleeping in a shell hole with nothing to cover with but a cigarette paper.
He stopped for a moment. Probably best to provide a little comfort. Lessen their worry.
Our outfit was in the St. Mihiel drive also the second battle of the Marne and the big drive at Champagne. Of course, I came out all right but we lost a lot of men and we all had some mighty close calls. But with the help of God a few of us were saved. I sure am delighted at the success we are having. We’re heading into a forest now, called the Argonne. The boys are a little nervous, mostly excited.
The pencil was becoming too dull. Private Neibaur looked over the draft, decided it would do for now, and tore it from the notebook. He folded it and placed it inside his front pocket, not without some struggle. It was an itchy uniform, woolen and hardy for the cold and rain of which there was no short supply. It was hardly flexible either, although it did make a suitable blanket when cigarette paper was scarce.
“Writin’ home?” one of the men of his regiment asked. An Alabaman, like all the others.
“I suppose so.”
“Don’t tell too much!” another chimed. “Or they’ll scrap it.”
Private Neibaur laughed. “I’ll be fine. You have a pencil? Mine’s…”
He showed his nub and was given a fresh one.
“Perfect,” he said and crossed out the last two sentences. “Can’t be too careful.”
“Loose lips,” one man said.
Private Neibaur was an Idahoan. He was born two years before the end of the century, and in thick farm country. He had been in France for a few months now, and except for the war and all it entailed, he liked the rolling hills and little villages and pastures. It reminded Neibaur of home, although France was severely lacking in sugar beets and russet potatoes. But most of all, it lacked his family. The Neibaur family was one of the oldest in Idaho. As he had been told since he first touched soil, he was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of pioneers. Bravery ran through the entire Neibaur line. It began with his great-grandfather, Alexander Neibaur, the first Jewish convert to a new religion begun in the American heartland. It was not easy for Alexander Neibaur: after the death of Joseph Smith, Alexander and his wife spent much of their lives defending themselves and their faith.
A half-century later, Private Neibaur encountered similar trials. He had joined the Idaho National Guard shortly before Wilson decided to make the world safe for democracy. Much to Private Neibaur’s chagrin, he was placed with the 167th Alabaman Infantry Regiment upon disembarking in France. As he nervously wrote to his mother soon after, “The boys I am with now are from the south. Of course, they are good fellows and all that but still they have different ways that seem a bit funny to me. And of course, I get a little lonesome at times.” It wasn’t that they were bad; they simply had a greater affinity for drink.
But Private Neibaur did as he had been raised to do: he shouldered his burden and steadied himself on his three rocks: family, nation, and God. As he trained at Sandpoint, Idaho, and began to feel the first twinges of homesickness, he assured his family of one thing: “I sure would like to be back home with you again but still I realize that I am serving my country in time of need, and I remember the words of Sir William Wallace: “God armeth the patriot.”
Private Neibaur slipped on the duckboard and fell into the mud. He tried to lift himself up, but his hands only sank deeper into the quagmire. As he struggled, two hands came from behind and pried him from the muck. He scrubbed the mud from his eyes and teeth and greeted the two Alabamans. They smiled and slapped him on the shoulder.
“We'd've left you, too, Tommy!” one said. “But we don't want to attract rats.”
Neibaur grinned. No, not bad at all. He supposed they all had to joke from time to time to ward off the dumps. Self-medication and all that. He supposed it was also healthier than alcohol. He picked up the pace and made his way to the company's interior dugout. Their sergeant was to announce something and had been secretive about it, even though everyone knew they were to go over the top. An enormous push was building up behind the lines. For over a week, Neibaur heard the incessant whine of engines, the sloshy churning of mud, the creaking wheels, the aeroplanes, and, of course, the pat-pat-pat of the reserves, marching in formation. The 167th had been on the front trenches for about ten days now, and Neibaur prayed to God for an offensive, anything that could end the monotony. And the lice.
Passing through the communication trenches, Neibaur met with the others and entered the dugout. It was dim inside, as most of the lanterns had gone out. The sergeant was standing in the center of the room, beside his bed, holding a single piece of yellowed paper. He read over it, then again, then a third time, and yelled, "Company!"
The room fell silent as the words came from the sergeant, with great hesitation: "Prepare to stand-to." The sergeant continued with the directives, but the point of it was something called the Kriemhilde. A fortress of some sort. A month of assaults spent hammering away at the walls. Soon, Private Neibaur stopped listening. Euphoria swept over him. He had fought before, certainly: at the Ourcq and at Soissons and the other unpronounceable names, but he'd never been part of a grand push before. He felt exhilarated. For the first time, Private Neibaur went up to the Alabamans and clapped them on the shoulder. "This is it!" he said and shook them hard. “We’re moving!”
"Tommy, you getting a rush of patriotism to the head?" one of them laughed.
They moved toward their positions and waited. Neibaur prepared his bayonet, cleaned the mud from his Lee Enfield, and for the first time in years, smoked a cigarette. When he was finished, he withdrew his notebook and a pencil, sharp this time. An hour passed as he mulled over what to write to his family. His rush of patriotism began to dull and was replaced with worry for the future. He supposed a few of the others had become desensitized, but he’d never been able to get over the chills that took him shortly before battle. But again, Neibaur steadied himself in the minutes before the sergeant blew his whistle that sent men over to machine gun nests. He repeated softly, “I am not going to die.”
Then the whistle blew and, almost involuntarily, Neibaur and the others hoisted themselves over the parapet. After ten days in a trench, the feeling of open ground was exhilarating and for a few seconds, Neibaur was back in euphoria. Then he saw a shell burst a few meters away and was doused in a rain of blood and bits of flesh.
He stopped for a moment and then, watching the steam rise from what was left of the body, jumped into a nearby crater. The hole was filled with water and Private Neibaur fell up to his waist. Only a few years later did he realize how lucky he had been to jump into a relatively shallow crater. Men continued to rush past him, past the skeletal trees and into the fog that was collecting. Toward the Kriemhilde.
Neibaur pulled himself out of the crater and rushed forward into the fog. He began to pray again, but his words made little sense. He spewed forth promises to God if he would only let him live let him live let him live please please!
The fog began to sting his eyes. He closed them and tripped over a skeleton. He landed badly on a rock and felt an explosion of pain in his knee. Quickly, not sure if he had a minor bruise or a smashed kneecap, he lifted himself up and ignored the pain, though he could not keep from limping. His prayers became more fervent and less coherent. He talked to God about anything he could think of: his grandmother, crocheting by the fire. His mother, who would never receive the letter he wanted so desperately to write her. The sugar beets and farmlands.
He passed through the fog and only now began to realize that his battalion was almost gone. The rest of the men continued forward, out of the fog and skeleton forest and into open country. Neibaur squinted and, not too far in the distance, could make out a fortress seated on a modest hilltop. The other men had noticed it, too. An Alabaman whose voice he recognized shouted frantically: “There! There!”
Private Neibaur now saw why it had taken them a month to get this far. The Kriemhilde was a maze of deep, fortified trenches. Rows and rows of barbed wire covered the entire slope of the hill that overlooked the area. At the top was a concrete bunker complete with gun-ports and shadowy slits. As he and the other approached, the black slits turned bright yellow as machine gun muzzles flashed and unleashed their loads.
He had never been this close to enemy machine guns before. He felt completely and totally vulnerable and immediately fell to the ground, hands over his head. He inched forward, afraid that if his rifle discharged or if he made a single noise that was just a little too loud, the machine guns would be on him. Neibaur made his way to the slope of the hill and found a tree to hide under. He saw the Alabaman inching toward him, and called on him to hurry up. The soldier got onto his feet to make a run for it and his head exploded.
Private Neibaur vomited. As he did so, he could hear orders being given in English and German. Complete insanity. He wondered how they were going to make this work, if they were really expected to use pistols, rifles, and grenades against entrenched machine guns. So, he did nothing and watched as waves of men did what they themselves had just done. Again and again, battalions were reduced in half. He saw dozens of heads turn to powder, and found himself laughing as night fell. Slowly, more and more men congregated around the slopes of the hill. They looked for leaders and, at an even slower pace, the leaders came for them. A sergeant would take control, and would be replaced by a surviving sergeant major, who would be replaced by a first lieutenant, who would be replaced by a single captain, and so on until no more captains emerged from the fog. Neibaur found himself laughing even harder.
“All right, boys!” the captain said. “We’re taking that bunker!”
A collective moan ensued.
“What?” the captain blustered. “Did you think we came all the way out here to enjoy the view?”
Quickly, prodded by incessant fire, they divided into groups of thirty. Neibaur huddled with his group and saw that one of the soldiers looked to be no more than seventeen. He patted the boy on the back and gave him a cigarette. He was immediately greeted by the other members of his group, each of whom asked if Neibaur had a spare. Their accents branded them as Idahoans, probably from Caldwell or Meridian. Sure, he had spares. No rum, though.
After a moment’s lull in the battle, the guns began firing again and Neibaur could see planes flying overhead. The sergeant leading his group determined this to be a good sign. After another interminable wait, the captain blew his whistle and the hodge-podge battalion charged up the hill. The darkness turned the charge into a stuttering advance as Neibaur and the others struggled to find the enemy. The only way to progress, it seemed, was to move in the direction of the muzzle flashes. This presented some problems.
Men were dying nearly every minute in the final push to the German frontline. Private Neibaur heard them groan and squeal in the darkness, and he prayed harder than at any other time in his life to be safe and home. Slowly, they wormed through the field, which now resembled the timber yard of his father’s saw-mill. Even the barbed wire the Germans placed on the perimeter resembled the kind his family would keep. He and the others, however, hated this wire, as it was the most dangerous point during any attack. It took about two minutes for a trained doughboy to withdraw his wire cutters and cleave through it. The Germans often attached cans to the wire, a sort of alarm that unfortunately worked too well. The doughboy often only made it thirty seconds into his cutting before the shells or bullets found him.
Today, they were lucky. That, or they had sheer numbers on their side. They encountered no shells or bullets and Neibaur and the others made it through. A few feet in front of them was a trench, the very first of the Kriemhilde. He could hear the familiar sound of boots hitting duckboard, and that guttural language. The young boy in Neibaur’s group removed a grenade and threw it in. Neibaur followed suit and after an initial round of explosions, yelled at the others to hurry the hell up and get in.
Once inside, he reloaded his rifle. He’d never been inside a German trench before. Stahlhelm were littered on the floor, along with the bodies of several men killed by the grenades. The machine guns had been moved, along with their ammunition. No question, it was going to be a very long night.
The men continued down the trench until they came across a group of men near the end of the line. Neibaur’s quavering finger was on his trigger and he was about to pull it when he heard one of the targets say, “Don’t move, Kraut!”
“If you insist,” Neibaur said.
“Well, shit,” his would-be captor said. “Christ, let’s go.”
It was a long night, indeed. The Germans continued to pull back from their trenches, removing machine guns and shells whenever they could. When they pulled back to the bunker atop the hill, they could withdraw no further and began to fight to the last man. It took grenades, mortars, five hours, and acts of extraordinary bravery to dislodge the Germans and finally conquer the Kriemhilde.
As the dazed prisoners were marched down the hill and behind lines, Private Neibaur fell down onto his knees. He had been spared again and was thankful. But instead of praying, he removed his notebook and began to write to his family. He now knew exactly what he wanted to say, and how to say it. He was three paragraphs in when the captain he had seen earlier approached him and some of the others and asked if any of them would be willing to get a Medal of Honor.
“What’re we doin’?” one asked.
The captain pointed westward to a small, grassy knoll, down the slopes of the hill and nestled between two copses of trees.
“That’s one of the last Kraut hold-outs,” he said. “We’ve got some sharpshooters giving us heck. We need three volunteers to help take them out.”
Again, involuntarily, Neibaur stood up.
“Good!” the captain said. “Who else is a man?”
Eventually, the captain got his men together and gave them their orders. As before, when the gilt of excitement melted away, and as Neibaur began to recognize what he had agreed to, nervousness took over. The knoll, thinly coated with wire, held two German machine gun teams. It simply had to be removed for the next wave of men to pass through, and the captain had decided—no doubt influenced by the events of the afternoon—that a small team was best suited for this operation.
“It’s strictly up to you boys,” he said. “You get this done, and we’ll crack their Hindenburg Line. We’ll be watching from here. When you’ve taken them out, signal to us and we’ll do our bit. Good luck, boys.”
Neibaur was designated the gunner, and was summarily given the dreaded Chauchat. It was a French machine gun that Neibaur had heard referred to as the “Chau-shit.” The magazine was of poor construction and its various openings meant that dust and grime and mud consistently caked the insides of the weapon.
“Good luck, buddy,” one of the volunteers said. “At least you’ve got your pistol.”
They went out at in the early hours of morning. Private Neibaur struggled to keep moving under the weight of the Chauchat. Slowly, and only when they were certain it was safe, the team moved from rock to rock, boulder to boulder, bush to bush, and hole to hole. It took an obscene amount of time, but they finally made it to the ridge of the knoll. They were all drowning in sweat and low-level panic.
The panic grew when they found that their wire cutters were not working. One of the volunteers crawled to the entanglement and with all his might, pushed the cutters down onto the wire. In the darkness, Neibaur watched and saw no movement.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered.
“Damn things won’t cut through!”
“Shitting thing’s dull!”
Neibaur and the other volunteer crawled to the wire. Each tried their cutters, but in vain. It wasn’t that their tools were spent; this wire was simply too strong. Additionally, Neibaur noticed that the entanglement consisted of many strings of wire bunched together. Too strong, no use, catastrophe. His mind boiled with anger as he realized that they had no choice but to jump over it.
“Jump over it?” a volunteer whispered.
“We can’t cut through and if we go back, we’ll have delayed the division for hours. It’s gotta be jumped.”
Ten minutes of mental preparation ensued as each had a bite of chocolate from their rations. They tried to calm down and, upon realizing that this, too, was in vain, counted down from three instead. They looked at each other one more time and began.
As Neibaur was about to finish, one of the volunteers rose and leapt. There was a crack of machine gun fire and the entire knoll became bright.
“Go!” the remaining volunteer shouted and both men rushed. Private Neibaur threw his machine gun over the wire and leapt. His pants leg caught on the very tip of the wire and he tumbled down. He then felt a pain in his leg that made the earlier abrasion in his knee feel like sweet dreams. Landing on the grass, his hand shot to his mouth to muffle his screams. Liquid was pouring down into his boots. Further up the knoll, the machine guns continued to fire. Private Neibaur looked at his leg and saw a single hole ripped into the cloth.
His mind screamed at him to leave, but he knew crawling back through the wire would be impossible. Neibaur looked for the other volunteers and ten feet away, he saw a rough outline of a body. He crawled closer to it, his leg shrieking with pain. The body was turned half on its side. Neibaur looked into the face and closed the dead man’s eyes. He continued to inch forward.
The firing stopped. Darkness swept the knoll again and for the first time since the war began, Private Neibaur began to cry. It went on like this for ten more minutes until he steadied himself, thought of William Wallace and of sugar beets, and pulled a line of gauze from his pack. He covered his leg as best he could and, feeling only slightly better, continued onward. He had only a little bit of ammunition himself; the rest was with the third volunteer’s body.
It took Neibaur nearly thirty minutes to find the last body and ammunition crate. The man had been shot in the chest and had tumbled down the knoll. Neibaur went to him and closed his eyes, too. Then with his fleeting strength, he pushed himself up using the Chauchat and removed the ammunition.
Another burst of light issued from the top of the knoll and the ground around Private Neibaur erupted. Dirt flew all around him and only vaguely did he feel two bullets crash through his left leg. Now he could not help but let out a scream as he fell again. The firing stopped but he still grunted as he tried to ready the Chauchat.
Come on, come on, please don’t jam
He pulled the stands out and, fingering the magazine, loading every bullet he could. With all his might, Neibaur pulled the operating handle back and reading the machine gun. To his horror, he saw what looked like dozens of bodies rushing down the knoll toward him. Bayonets glistened.
Neibaur pulled the trigger and felt as though he had been blown back. The recoil was intense and he no longer aimed his gun. He closed his eyes and moved the thing back and forth, side to side, hoping that when it ran out of bullets the Germans would all be gone.
The gun stopped with a Ping! Jammed again. His prayer had failed him and he still heard the Germans coming. Now they were close enough to begin shooting. The ground churned around Neibaur again. Heaving, he desperately hit the side of the magazine and to his immense surprise, the Chaushit began firing again. Now he kept his eyes open and focused on the Stahlhelm arrayed against him. Fewer and fewer remained by the second. Then a shot rang, this time a little closer, and the fourth bullet struck him in the hip. The world began to blur and Neibaur let go of the Chauchat. He rolled down the slope and, in his delirium, thought of his mother.
Private Neibaur collided with a rock and his pistol fell from its holster. He reached for it and quickly stopped. The thud-thud of boots on soft soil was becoming louder. It stopped beside him.
“Können sie da drauf achten.”
Neibaur felt a boot lightly tap his rib. He made every effort not to cry out in pain.
They slowly walked away. Patiently, Neibaur waited. He opened his eyes and saw them now about twenty feet away, walking back up the hill. His pistol was leaning against the rock. Neibaur grabbed it and steadied himself. The world focused again for him. He drew a breath and fired again, and again, and again, and again. As the survivors retreated, he took the moment to steady himself on the rock and stand. Every inch of his body worked against him as he waved his left hand. With his right, he fired his pistol into the air.
Men were running down the knoll again. Dawn was beginning to break as Neibaur added the last of his spare ammunition, cocked the pistol, and fired. With each man he felled, the charge became slower and slower. He counted as they tumbled down toward him.
Neibaur prepared to fire his last remaining bullet when the counter-attack finally stopped. It took him a moment to realize that the Germans had stalled. He called on them to throw down their arms: his command crossed the language barrier and they did so. As they held up their hands, he counted 11 eleven prisoners in total. Private Neibaur staggered to his feet and saw, in the distance, a platoon of doughboys coming to his aid. He did not wait for them to arrive. With a broad smile, despite the pain, he brought his prisoners back to the American lines.
Twelve days into his hospital stay, he began a new letter to his family. Every inch of his body ached and burned except for his two hands, so he wrote to pass the time. He thought about telling them of his many surgeries and how the doctors had thought he would lose arms and legs, only to give him a miraculous bit of good news: four bullets would stay in his body forever, but he would lose no limbs. Instead, Private Neibaur decided to focus on something else.
- 167 U. S. Inf.
American E. F.
Oct 28, 1918
Dear Folks, I have not had a line from home in a long time but then I know it is not because you have not written. I have been on the front for a long time then got wounded and am now in a hospital nursing a leg with three machine gun wounds in it. I am getting along fine the doctor says but it will be some time before I will be out again. Say folks I sure had quite an experience.
He would indeed be getting some sort of medal out of all this, not that he had any need for such things. Still, they made quite a bit of fuss over him. An aged general with four stars on his shoulders came to him and shook his hand. He said he’d done about the most incredible thing a doughboy had done in the war yet. Then he assured him of the country’s gratification and saluted Neibaur. Neibaur thanked him kindly, but asked if the general could speed up his hospital stay so he could get back to his family. The general said Neibaur needed his rest and left.
After the general, a man with a thick mustache came in to meet with Private Neibaur. He said he was writing a book on Medal of Honor recipients and wanted to ask a few questions.
“I’ll tell you what I can, not that it’s much.”
“That’s all I ask.” He extended his hand. “James Hopper, pleasure to meet you.”
Neibaur took it. “Likewise.”
They discussed various things: Tom’s family, his home-life, his training, his religion. Mr. Hopper seemed particularly interested in Neibaur’s Mormonism.
“So, are you conflicted, Tom? Having to fight?”
Neibaur shrugged and smiled weakly. “Never gave it much thought, frankly. When you’re getting shot at you don’t think about much more than surviving.”
The conversation turned to his regiment.
“What’s the 167th like? You fight hard, eh?”
Neibaur thought hard and said, “I’ll tell you how it was. They were so full of life and pep they had to be doing something all the time. But there were no boys who would stand by closer.”
Mr. Hopper seemed impressed by this; he wrote in his notepad furiously. The conversation came to Neibaur’s action on the 16th.
“What were you thinking? Why’d you volunteer, Tom?”
Neibaur smiled. “I don’t know. Sudden rush of patriotism, I guess.”
Finally, Mr. Hopper asked the last question of the interview.
“How would you describe yourself as a soldier, Tom?”
Quickly, Tom replied.
“A pretty tame one,” he said.
Benjamin Sonnenberg is a senior and History major at the University of Maryland College Park. He has been professionally published with numerous magazines and presses, including Pseudopod, Janus, and Zaum Press. He is currently an Administration/State Outreach intern with the Centennial Commission, and is excited to use his fiction to further stimulate interest in American involvement in WWI. More specifically, he is inspired by personal stories of sacrifice and bravery, and seeks to use his fiction to bring attention to forgotten individuals and the roles they played to help shape the modern world.