War Wounds: Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid - PART 1
By Panthea Reid
*The first version of this essay was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1998. WWrite requested permission from Panthea Reid and VQR to reprint it on the blog for the Centennial. Both graciously agreed, and Panthea Reid edited it for WWrite to include additional information about her family and her research since its original publication. This is the first part. The second part of this incredible story will be published here next week. Stay tuned!
In 1998, Staige Blackford, then editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, adjusted his publication schedule so that the autumn issue, eighty years after the Armistice that ended World War I, could include my essay, “William Faulkner’s ‘War Wound’: Reflections on Writing and Doing, Knowing and Remembering.” Though the essay was about Faulkner’s confiscating the record of my father’s World War I wound and claiming the story for himself, my title did not mention my father. Thus, even as I made a case for Faulkner’s unacknowledged debt to my father, I failed to acknowledge my own debt. On the Centennial of the 1918 Armistice, I have revised that 1998 essay to confront my debts to John Reid and to my late husband John Fischer, as well as to William Faulkner.
For that 1998 essay, I exhumed an 80-year-old newspaper from a trunk I’d inherited, stored in my attic. Advertisements in the Owensboro Daily Messenger of Friday morning, Nov. 15, 1918, depict a stereotypical world of intractable ailments and unproblematized patriotism. Remedies are promised on most pages for catarrh, persistent coughs, white tongue, sour stomach, lumbago, neuralgia, grippe, sciatica, biliousness, colds, and the flu. Articles and ads fretted about the stamina of young girls, “tired, nervous mothers,” and draftees (the draft had not yet been canceled). A butcher offered beef to guard against Spanish flu. (His top price was for rib roast at 25c a pound.) A bank’s ad featured soldiers and Uncle Sam declaring it “one of the most patriotic.”
The Daily Messenger’s front page did include a note headed “Germany Appeals to Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Jane Adams” But this note (only a paragraph, in which Addams is correctly identified as “Miss”) merely announced that German women had appealed to these notable American women to help modify the terms of the peace lest “unspeakable disaster” would result. The paper did not indicate what disaster the German women feared. The front page carried a picture of the ruined French town where the peace treaty was signed, an article on the release of American prisoners, a story on the unruliness of “Hun Soldiers” in the retreat, and an announcement that Davies County, Kentucky, was “near top” in raising funds for the war effort.
Among so much propaganda about war and peace, there is also a terribly chilling, at least for me, photo and article. The second photograph on the paper’s first page is of my father. The caption reads: “Sergt. John Reid Wounded in France.” Beneath the picture of him, taken in fatigues when he enlisted, is a letter from American Red Cross Base Hospital No 18, France. It begins: “Dear Mother: I got wounded in the head . . . .” The letter is not so cryptic as standard-issue postcards (the sort of fill-in-the-blank communication Paul Fussell discusses in The Great War and Modern Memory and Joseph Heller ridicules in Catch-22). The letter offered the assurance that John Reid still lived, but he could not write. Later a regular newspaper column called “Bugle Calls” continued Reid’s story, softening it by suggesting that Reid’s letters were “evidently written with his left hand.” Indeed, someone, probably a nurse, glibly wrote in Reid’s name “I will be able to use my arm in two or three weeks,” Actually, his right arm was permanently paralyzed, limp and useless.
From 1903, when the Wright brothers made their first short flight and from 1906, when they were issued an American patent for a flying machine, the press had fueled speculations and fantasies about successful human flight. By 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, airplanes existed, but neither the Central Powers nor the Allies expected them to play a military role. By April 1917, however, when the United States officially entered the war, engineering and competition had altered that picture. In the summer of 1917, the Allies introduced new fighter planes, the British Sopwith Camel and an upscale version of the French Spad, planes that could contest the air supremacy of the German Fokker and D-3 Albatross. Air combat became legendary, as Allied and Central pilots eluded and attacked each other with twists, spins, half rolls, vertical reverses, and unexpected zooms from behind cloud banks. Balancing the brilliancy of twentieth-century aerodynamics with the chivalry of the middle ages, pilots saluted their enemies before shooting them out of the sky.
Tales of the death-defying bravery of such flying aces as the American Rickenbacker, the Canadian Bishop, the Frenchman Fonck, and the German von Richthofen, fired the imaginations of young John Reid and William Falkner, as he then spelled his name. In Kentucky four Reid Brothers and in Mississippi four Faulkner brothers made childish attempts at flying. Historians claim that the average life-expectancy for pilots flying tiny biplanes with wooden frames and rotary engines spinning at only two settings—ON or OFF—was only 14 days. Reid and Falkner at least knew that flying was risky. Apparently, neither cared. Both volunteered for pilot training. Parallels between the two men (Reid born in 1895, Faulkner in 1897) are striking beyond history, chronology, and memory.
The Army’s Air Corps quickly rejected Falkner. He was under-educated (at least in formal terms) and a drinker. (Though only twenty, Falkner had already discovered the attractions of Memphis, Tennessee, a notorious center for the blues, prostitution, gambling, and easy liquor.) Most embarrassing for Falkner was the official reason: at just over five feet tall, he was too small. Others’ successes only heightened his humiliation. The Marines accepted his younger, six-foot-tall brother Jack. Also, Falkner’s friend Frank Smythe, a recent graduate of “Ole Miss” medical school, joined the medical military’s aviation section and departed for the Mediterranean theater, “Egypt or Italy, his exact destination being unknown,” as a Memphis paper tauntingly phrased it.
When Frank Smythe was in school in Oxford, Mississippi, his sister Carolyn often visited, staying with her cousin Estelle Oldham, Billy Falkner’s sweetheart. Carolyn and Estelle liked taking Billy on joy rides around Oxford in Carolyn’s electric car because, being slightly older than he, they could treat him as their “toy.” He later attributed his knack for female dialogue to such experiences: “I’m so little and insignificant that they forget about me and just go ahead and talk naturally.”
Along with three brothers and two sisters, John Reid had been raised outside Owensboro, Kentucky, in an idyllic setting—a graceful Victorian home, down an avenue of maple trees, among the orchards his Scottish father Allan had begun planting in 1873. In 1915, John Reid earned a B. S. in the emerging field of electrical engineering and was immediately employed by Western Electric. In 1917, Reid resigned to return to Kentucky and volunteer at Fort Thomas that November for flight training. With a thesis on heat conductivity, a respectable height of five feet, nine inches, and, according to military documents, an “excellent” character, he was ideally suited for officer training. Reid breezed through all paper tests. Then he was strapped into a hammock and twirled about, side over side. Unable to refocus his eyes, Reid could not raise his head, for he was seized by spasm after spasm of outraged vomiting. He flunked, disgracefully, the mandatory air-sickness test.
Like Falkner, Reid was humiliated. If he could not be a pilot, he refused to be an officer. Unlike Falkner, he enlisted as a foot soldier, half expecting (perhaps intending) to die in battle. He nearly did.
Unlike Reid, Falkner covered his humiliation by drink. He would escape from Oxford to Memphis, often ending up at the Smythes, where he stayed in Frank Smythe’s room and, no doubt, heard whatever Carolyn Smythe knew about her brother’s exploits in the medical military. Whenever Falkner failed to return from Memphis, his mother, “Miss Maud,” would call and ask Carolyn to loan Billy train fare home or, after he once was found at the Smythes on their porch swing in the middle of the night, to buy a ticket and put him on the morning train herself.
In 1917-18, Dr. Frank David Smythe, father of Frank and Carolyn, was recruiting volunteers for the war effort among, as a Memphis paper put it, “the leading members of the medical profession,” soon including his son Frank.
In the spring of 1918, while John Reid and the quickly assembled American forces trained state-side, the German Chief of Staff, General Ludendorff, received a huge influx of men and munitions and launched a major advance. Only the landscape, decimated into a muddy quagmire by years of trench warfare, seemed capable of slowing the German advance.
That spring, the parents of Estelle Oldham announced her engagement to Cornell Franklin, a Mississippian now enjoying a lucrative law practice in Hawaii. However much a “toy” Estelle had thought him, Billy Falkner had thought he was her fiancé. Having failed at both war and love, he fled north. In Connecticut, he clerked in a munitions factory, wrote poetry about a figure paralyzed by failure and loss, and tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force.
In his enlistment photograph, John Reid seems confident and imposing. Rushed out of training to stop the Germans, Reid and the Third Battalion arrived in Brest aboard the Agamemnon on April 18. (The ship must have been christened by officials heedless of what poet William Butler Yeats would call, “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead.”)
That same day, when her mother was “fussing” over Estelle Oldham as she put on her wedding gown, Estelle, according to Carolyn Smythe, threatened to marry the unemployed, unpromising William Falkner if her mother would not leave her alone. That threat got her mother out of the way and Estelle married to Mr. Franklin, not Mr. Falkner.
By late May, American forces were almost ready to engage the Germans. In an early June letter, written atop the lid of his mess kit, John Reid assured his mother: “the Huns got loose about a week ago & made some gains but I hear they have driven them back now & I dont think it will be long till we will all be coming home.” He imagined the Reids (who never ate a meal without some sort of fruit) “living on strawberries & cherries now.” He promised to get home to the Reid orchards “in time to eat my share of the preserves.” In a postscript, John asked her to save a clipping labeled “Happy American Marines riding in ‘side-door’ Pullmans to the front in France.” The waving Marines would not smile for long. Reid’s platoon rode “three nights & two days (40 of us) in one of these Pullmans & they are not nearly as big as a first-class boxcar at home. It sure was a great ride.” That irony is Reid’s only surviving hint that the Great War was not as glorious as promised.
By then, Dr. Frank David Smythe’s medical volunteers were also in France. Smythe, now a major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was in charge of a hospital at Juilly, about 35 miles from Paris. Lt. Frank Smythe had left the aviation section to join his father’s medical corps.
A member of Company H, Seventh Regiment, Third Division, of the American Expeditionary Forces, Reid soon found the “Huns” needed much more driving back. He fought from the beginning of June in the crucial battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, where Jack Falkner, with the Fifth Marine Regiment, also fought.
Given heavy casualties, the British lowered standards of education and physique for pilot training. Masquerading as a British citizen, Falkner got himself accepted in the Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force. From mid-summer, 1918, he trained in Toronto. In his cadet uniform, the twenty-year-old seems small and frightened. His letters home, however, including one that recounts the air-sickness test he barely passed, strike a self-assured pose. He signaled a newly confident self with a new name—“Faulkner,” as he said his Scottish fore-bearers had spelled it.
With the Third Division, John Reid fought the entire month of July: in the Marne Sector, July 1-14, the Champagne Marne Defensive 15-18 July, and the Aisne-Marne Offensive July 18-29, the turning point of the war. In that offensive, Reid rescued his wounded sergeant under heavy machine-gun fire. Leading a seemingly charmed life, Reid was promoted to sergeant and later received the Silver Star for “gallantry in action at la Theodorie Farm, France, July 22, 1918.”
On September 1, John Reid sent home a letter marked “For Papa Only” asking that, if he were killed, his life insurance policy be divided equally among his five nieces and nephews to “go toward their education.” Then he, like Jack Falkner, helped cut off the retreating Germans in the St. Mihiel offensive in mid-September.
Inadequately trained American troops faltered in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of September 26. Then the next day, Jack Falkner with the 5th Marine Regiment helped a French army corps virtually rebuild roads decimated by four years of fighting so that more experienced Allied forces could advance. Reid’s division trekked by night over those make-shift roads northwest toward the area between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, the most vital point in the German defenses, a zone of trenches, barbed wire, field fortifications, and railway supply lines that was about ten miles deep and thought to be impregnable.
The Memphis papers carried stories about the probability of a Prohibition amendment and about the gallantry of local heroes, including Smythe’s medical volunteers, a pilot named Mack Grider, and Jack Falkner. William Faulkner remained in Toronto, where the entire city, including the School of Aeronautics, was under quarantine, thanks to an epidemic of Spanish influenza. Faulkner made numerous realistic sketches of “aeroplanes,” often juxtaposing against them stylized images of a nymph, another object of longing, along with a goat-footed Pan.
Reeling from the St. Mihiel defeat, weary of capture and death, fearing a renewed offensive, on October 4, the Germans petitioned President Wilson for an immediate cessation of fighting. Dr. Smythe must have had high-placed connections, for that day he wrote a letter soon printed in the Memphis News Scimitar under the headline: “SMYTHE THINKS BOCHE WILL QUIT.” The “Boche” were indeed ready to quit, but President Wilson was not ready to let them. Had he done so, John Reid’s life (and mine) would have been vastly different. Instead, Wilson delayed, and General Pershing ordered his troops to continue the American advance in rain and sleet against the now reinforced German defenses.
In the advance of October 4 and 5, Sergeant George Gunter was in charge of the first platoon and Sergeant Reid commanded the second. Charging machine-gun nests in the dense hilly woods, both platoons met heavy artillery, poisonous gases, and machine gun fire. Sergeant Reid reformed his lines and reattacked, apparently again and again. Then, probably in the Bois des Ogons, John Reid’s luck ran out.
A machine gun bullet, cracking through his helmet, tore into the left side of Reid’s skull.
Against orders and under heavy fire, Corporal Leon A. Dombrowski spent around twelve hours dragging Reid back behind the lines. Thinking Reid “could live only a few hours,” Sergeant Gunter then had him transported by stretcher for more than a mile to Cierges. From there, motorized ambulance corps evacuated the wounded two miles southeast to Montfaucon.
Gunter kept Reid’s watch, expecting to return it to the Reid family, as he later explained to John Reid himself, “with details of your daring death.”
Not having heard for three weeks, on October 18, Allan Reid stopped pruning his youngest trees, to write to John “I hope the Huns have not got you.” The letter was returned unanswered. Its reappearance must have provoked serious anxiety on the Reid Farm. On the battlefield too, Reid was assumed dead. Sergeant Gunter searched to find Reid’s dog tag on a fresh grave so he could send it to Reid’s parents.
On October 22, Dr. Frank David Smythe took charge of the 1000-bed base Hospital #57 in Paris. As one of three Chiefs of Surgical Service at the hospital, Smythe was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. That month, Hospital #57 treated as many as 2,000 patients.
On November 1, Jack Falkner suffered from gassing and shrapnel wounds to the knee and scalp. After much extra suffering on both sides, President Wilson accepted the German’s surrender. Still in training, William Faulkner wrote his mother ruefully, “It looks like the whole thing is over.”
After six weeks of silence, a letter arrived at the Reid farm. The Owensboro Daily Messenger printed it, along with a picture of John Reid and news of the armistice, on the front page. Here is the complete letter:
Dear Mother: I got wounded in the head, and I can’t sit up enough to write myself, but will as soon as I can. I am getting on fine, and just wanted to give you my love, and tell you not to worry. Love to rest of family. John.
That letter, written in an unknown hand, could hardly have reassured the Reids. John was alive but wounded in the head. Actually, he suffered, as his more specific honorable discharge papers would read, from a wound in the “parietal bone left, with injury to brain,” “hemiplegia, spastic right,” and moderate aphasia.
When the Armistice arrived on November 11, William Faulkner was one week short of completing ground school. He had probably not flown in, certainly, he had not piloted, a plane; nor, thanks to the quarantine, had he left Toronto.
In early December, nevertheless, William Faulkner arrived in Oxford wearing a second lieutenant’s uniform, “wings” meaning completed pilot training, and a cap signifying overseas service. He leaned on a cane and walked with a limp. He claimed to have ended a celebratory joy ride by crashing his plane into the hangar, where, in one version of the tale, he and the plane hung upside down.
Reid endured a delicate operation to remove the bullet and debris in his head. With his survival possible, Reid was shipped along with the most seriously wounded soldiers back to the states aboard the U.S.S. Antigone (another unpromising allusion) which left France on December 22, 1918. John Reid’s elder brother Robert traveled from Kentucky to meet him at Newport News, Virginia, in early January 1919. When Robert boarded ship, however, he found so many soldiers encased in bandages that he couldn’t tell one from the other. (In fact, the seriously wounded men were so well wrapped, like Joseph Keller’s “soldier in white,” that neither Reid nor Dombrowski was aware that the other was on the Antigone.) Finally, Robert Reid heard a faint voice calling “Robert” that guided him through rows of maimed soldiers to his paralyzed, bandage-encased brother. Under Robert’s care, John was shipped to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D. C. The Owensboro Messenger reported that, given further surgery at Walter Reed, “it is believed the paralysis in the right arm and leg can be relieved.”
Late in 1918, when she, at last, felt that her son would live, Marion Reid, herself a formidable Scotswoman, wrote Corporal Dombrowski at the military hospital in Fort Dix, New Jersey, requesting information about her son’s wounding and rescue. John’s fellow soldiers continued to write to the Reids, asking if he had survived. One explained that “John was a brave gallant soldier, always out in the worst shell fire, doing everything he could for his comrades”—including loaning the men money. At last, hearing that Reid was alive, Sergeant Gunter returned his watch and regretted that he could only collect seven francs, probably because “most of the fellows who owed you are in the hospital”—or dead.
Reid’s gallantry seems to have been a matter of leading and caring for his men. No surviving letter mentions his prowess with gun or bayonet.
Back in Tennessee, Colonel Smythe delivered inspiring talks on the heroism of Memphis nurses during the war. Meanwhile, William Faulkner’s official papers arrived home. Under the heading “Casualties, Wounds, Campaigns, Medals, Clasps, Decorations, Mentions, Etc.,” only the word “NIL” appears. Yet Faulkner continued to parade about Oxford in a uniform, his limp and overseas insignia inspiring salutes from returning soldiers. He was photographed in at least six different combinations of military garb, looking jaunty, dapper, and self-assured.
Don't miss Part 2, the rest of the incredible story, next week on WWrite!
*Special thanks to the Virginia Quarterly Review for permission to reprint.
Panthea Reid is Professor Emerita of English at LSU. After long teaching careers there, she and her husband, John Irwin Fischer, left Louisiana for Princeton, NJ, in 2001. There they pursued their several scholarly projects until Fischer died in May 2015. A year later, Reid moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to be close to her son and grandson and not too far away from her daughter in DC. In 2017, Wild River Books published her memoir and the University of Delaware Press published the book she finished for her late husband. Reid is the author of four books and the editor of three. Her authored books are William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual; Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf; Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles; and Body and Soul: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing, written after Fischer’s death. She has edited collections of essays on Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas. In 2017, she completed for Fischer and his co-editor A. C. Elias, Jr., Jonathan Swift’s Word-Book: A Vocabulary Compiled for Esther Johnson and Copied in Her Own Hand. It is Swift’s, Elias’s, and Fischer’s last book. Reid’s memoir, Body and Soul, is a touching, often amusing, love story, a poignant tale of loss, a searing warning about medical incompetence, and an inspiring account of recovery. Reid accompanies it with useful citations and practical advice on surviving loss. Reid has written for DoubleTake Magazine and The Princeton Magazine. Reid’s article on surviving a concussion “How I (Almost) Lost My Mind” is available at Newsweek online. Her first published poem appeared in Artemis Journal in the spring of 2018. She was a featured panelist in a session on memoirs at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, 23 March 2018.