A Writing Family Pt.3 – My Uncle, Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr.

Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr.


My uncle never wrote a book. If you’d asked him whether he was a writer, he would have said no. And yet he was.

Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. was born in 1895, 16 years before my father. Dad always said that “Lang,” as they called him, was more father than brother to him, especially since their elderly father was often away on business. Lang grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where in 1908 he fled the famous Chelsea fire along with the rest of the family.

Marjorie Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. circa 1898

The Burwells lost their house and belongings and started over again in nearby Winchester, where Lang attended high school and played on the baseball team. Around 1913, the family moved again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin. Father Burwell had become traveling agent of the Midwest territory for the La France Textile Company and he chose Madison for its physical beauty and for its university, since the oldest children were ready for college. They settled in a large frame house at 30 Lathrop Street not far from Camp Randall and the football stadium. Lang entered UW-Madison, interested in studying horticulture. He loved gardening, taking long walks and bicycle rides and snapping photographs with his camera. At the university, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, quickly ascended its ranks to captain and spent a lot of his time at the armory, training. He was a member of the Beta Sigma Alpha fraternity and of the Scabbard and Blade military honor society. Dad remembered Lang wearing a beanie hat and having to combat the usual freshman hazing. “He would come home a long way around, not the short way,” Dad told me once. “He would go way down to the railroad tracks and circle around because if he was caught by a sophomore, they might make him push a peanut up the street with his nose.” Lang took Dad to his first circus and liked to entertain the family with his ragtime piano playing, especially his favorite, “Kitten on the Keys.”

My father, who always called Lang, “Brother,” remembered him as a very kind and gentle man, with a soft-spoken voice, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked. And yet he must have had something of a commanding demeanor, as his military career later showed. He liked his work with the cadets of the ROTC and so it wasn’t surprising that his thoughts turned toward what he would do if the United States entered World War One. On February 4, 1917, he wrote to his father, “What are your wishes in regard to my conduct when war is declared?” We do not have the reply, but in his next letter Langworthy wrote, “The protection of the country is the first duty, and as you said, I am fitted to aid in training others.” He decided to seek out a commission in the Marine Corps. He passed the examinations only to find out that he was underweight, so he ate his way into the job. My father watched, enviously, as Lang wolfed down bananas and eggnog and other treats. Madison’s Daily Cardinal issue of June 1, 1917, ran the banner headline “Student Gains 14 Pounds and Gets Marine Corps Job.”

Later that month, the Burwells watched the newly minted second lieutenant march down to the railroad station behind a local band. He trained at Quantico, Virginia, and by August he was in France, an officer of a machine gun battalion in the American Expeditionary Forces. He spent a year in Chaumont where he served as military censor and prepared for action that didn’t arrive for him until the final stages of the war in 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Basil Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. at 30 Lathrop Street, Madison, 1919

Dad remembered the family eagerly crowding round when one of Lang’s letters arrived, usually addressed to “My Darling Mother,” but meant for everyone. He was a prolific letter writer and hundreds remain in tattered envelopes, awaiting exploration. His vivid, graphic descriptions of the Meuse-Argonne battle in which he took part are a testament to his skill as a writer. Below, I include three extended excerpts. The first describes Lang’s impressions as he reaches the war zone while in a supporting role. In the second, Lang experiences battle at firsthand, while in the third, weary soldiers up and down the Meuse River celebrate the armistice that October. Following the armistice, Lang joined forces in occupied Germany, where he lived until the middle of 1919. He continued his career as a Marine officer with many further adventures and also married and had a family. He passed away in 1935.

Basil Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. at 30 Lathrop Street, Madison, 1919. Basil wears captured German helmet.

My uncle never wrote a book, but then again, perhaps he wrote one after all. With the centennial of World War One only a few years away, I hope to edit a collection of Edward Langworthy Burwell’s letters as both a tribute to my father’s beloved brother and an opportunity to share with others this talented writer’s words which still seem fresh and alive today.

Autumn 1918

Excerpt One Lang Reaches the War Zone

That day I saw for the first time what devastation war can bring about. We passed through territory, in the Champagne sector, where a mighty battle had been fought. First we came to the old trench area, where the line had remained stationary for a year or over. The system of trenches was easily discernable, zig zagging across the whole country, dug-outs bomb-proof and otherwise, machine gun emplacements or positions, observation posts and advance listening posts, firing steps, loop-holes, – all these things and many more were there, but in such a terrible state of repair. The shells and high explosives had torn everything to pieces. Some trenches were nearly filled in with the caved in dirt, the posts and barbed wire in front of them were thrown up and cut to pieces, and the ground everywhere within sight was a mass of holes, big and little, where shells had landed. Down in a ravine were a couple of tanks which had been destroyed by shell fire probably, and on the slope was the remains of an aeroplane. Scattered everywhere over the territory was equipment of all kinds, rifles, belts, bayonets, canteens, haversacks, empty cartridge boxes, machine gun strips and belts, some loaded and some empty, shells which had failed to explode, grenades, clothing, and all manner of rubbish of every description. For it was newly conquered ground, just a week or so before, and the salvage and clean up outfits were still at work. And in all this vast area where the trees were like those of Chelsea after the fire, and the ground was heaved and torn up beyond seeming repair, no life was visible but a few parties of French-Indo China natives and German prisoners who were working on the roads so that we could get through. Such an expanse of waste you can never imagine unless you see it yourself. Pictures and stories about it can never do it.

In two places we had to make detours on newly constructed road-beds around mine craters, where the Boche in their departure had blown up the road. These craters were round and symmetrical like shell holes, but for size compare as an ostrich egg with a pin head. Just imagine a hole as wide as an ordinary road and then 10-15 feet more on each side of the road and as deep as from the second story window of a house to the ground, and then imagine what happened when the mine went off. And if anyone or anything happened to be on top when it happened, no one afterwards would know it, for there wouldn’t be a piece large enough to give evidence.

We passed on through this country and then came to the German back areas, what had been before the offensive, comparatively safe regions where the German troops could rest. This was now our territory. There was still much evidence of the recent struggle, but the ground was not so torn up as it had been further back. It was quite plain that the struggle had been to dislodge the Boche from his trenches, and that it had taken considerable artillery to do this, but that as soon as the shelter of the dugouts and trench systems had been left behind, the Boche had made a speedy retreat. As we went further into his old back area, this became even more evident, for the damage became less and less as we proceeded.
Enormous piles of empty shell cases showed what a part the artillery had played, and the many newly built grave yards neatly arranged with a wooden cross at the head of each mound, and perhaps a French flag or two, showed what it had cost to regain this ground.
That night I kept off the damp ground by crawling inside of a couple of ammunition cans. I turned them end to end, stuck my feet in one and head in the other, then manouvered around until the openings were quite close together. I used my gas mask for a pillow, in fact, did so right along. My shoes I set outside and covered the tops with my helmet to keep the rain out, if it happened to rain in the night.

The Boche began to shell the artillery near us and that with the noise of our own guns, made quite a commotion. I wondered what would happen if a shell hit nearby and some pieces went through my tin cans, and wondered if I hadn’t better sleep out in the open. But I figured if I was to be hit, it would hit me anyway, so decided to stay where it was most comfortable.

About 11:00 P.M. I was startled and awakened by shouts of, “Gas!” I extricated myself from the cans in a second and began reaching around madly for my gas mask. I was still so much asleep that I couldn’t think straight and it was some time before I finally remembered that I had been using the mask for a pillow. I thought it must be gas all right, too, for I heard some shells that sounded like gas, but I guess they were duds. I couldn’t smell any gas, so went back to sleep. The following night the same thing happened. In both cases the alarm came from the artillery, but no gas came near the Marines.

Excerpt Two Lang Experiences “Zero Hour”

In my last letter I left off with the company arriving about 1:30 A.M. at its appointed position along the road near Sommerance. We were supposed to find machine gun positions all prepared, but they were full of water. So we dug some new ones and then the men dug holes for themselves. Captain Hale and I, and the company runners found shelter in a ditch along the road in rear of the company a short distance. We had to be careful in walking about, because every few minutes the Boche would send up star shells which would illuminate everything in great shape. When one goes up you have to stand still until the light dies out. Behind us, our artillery was quite active, sending shell after shell into Bocheland and keeping them from sending too many back at us. On our right and left were other machine gun companies, and the infantry was rapidly taking up its positions.

It was cold sitting by the road in our “dug-out” waiting for zero hour to come. I unrolled my blankets and spread them over my legs, but still I was frozen. I was awake at 3 A.M. but must have dozed off for a while for I next found it to be 3:25 by my watch. The artillery behind us was still banging away. A column of fifteen tanks rumbled by us.

At 3:30 everything suddenly quieted down for a second, but only
for a second. And then there burst forth a roaring and a banging the intensity of which was never before equalled. To the right, left and rear, everywhere there seemed to be a big gun planted, and in advance of them in all directions were hundreds of smaller guns. Then in front of all were machine guns, all sending a constant stream of lead towards the Dutchmen. The whole sky and the hills were ablaze with the flashes of the guns which roared their terrific bombardment, sending shells shrieking and whistling over our heads. And then the Boche began his little counter barrage, which added to the uproar, and also made life uncertain. Star shells and colored lights of all kinds were continually sent up by both sides to enable each to see what the other was doing. It seemed like the end of the world, with lightning, thunder, earthquakes, volcanoes and everything thrown in. I stood up in the road and gazed at it all as if in a trance.

For two hours without a let-up this barrage continued. Five thirty came, and it was zero hour. The machine guns ceased firing, and the infantry went over the top. The barrage kept up, but it was not stationary now as it had been. It was now a rolling barrage, timed to move forward just ahead of the infantry, serving not only to hasten the flight of the enemy, but to prevent him from counter attacking or making a very considerable resistance.

Our battalion was in reserve, which means that there were two battalions directly in advance of us as we went forward. One battalion is attacking, one is in support and one in reserve in each regiment. But during the action the positions are switched around for equal distances so that each battalion has its turn at all three positions. To the ordinary person it would appear to be safer in reserve than forward, but there is not much difference. You draw all the artillery fire, most of which misses those in the first waves.

Daylight came at just about the time we jumped-off, so I was able, as we waited for our time to go forward, to see the whole thing unfold,, as the companies spread out over the fields and advanced in waves with the men well apart, or (as in the reserve) in small columns of twos. And it was so big, so unreal, and so different from what I had pictured.

But just then a big shell landed about twenty yards away at the edge of the wood, and then another, and another. It suddenly became quite real. Up to this time there hadn’t been any shelling near me, but the Dutch had evidently got their guns in place and had our range. They were bouncing them all around us, and big ones, too. One landed in the midst of a group just ahead, and up they went.

Usually when a shell is coming it whistles and you can judge about which direction it is going, and you will frequently be able to avoid being hit by the humming shell fragments by ducking to right or left or falling down. Sometimes you will duck when you hear one whistling towards you to prevent it making a direct hit, only to find that it was some distance away after all. It is said that the one that gets you you do not hear, but instinct tells you to duck when they come close, and you do so. Nor is it a sign of fear. Everybody is supposed to protect himself in every possible way, and this is one of them. They all do it.

Excerpt Three Armistice at the Front

We had seen the newspaper which stated that Germany had until 11 A.M. on Monday to sign or not sign the armistice. And it was supposed to be straight dope that they were to sign it this night of our attack. But we had been ordered forward, and were suffering with cold at 4 A.M. on the 11th ready to cross the Meuse. It didn’t look much like an armistice to us. Bets were even made that it had fallen through.

About 4:00 o’clock word was passed to fall in. We didn’t know which way we were going, forward or to the rear. We knew, though, that something would have to be done soon, for it would be daybreak in an hour or so, and we were absolutely out in the open, with the nearest cover 3 to 4 kilometers away. It would have been fini Marine Brigade if we had been caught out there.

We went to the rear, for the Engineers had been unable to get out other bridge across. And we certainly hustled back. Instead of zigzagging, we followed the railroad track and then the main road. Tired though we were from a night without sleep and a forced march followed by the terrible cold, we came back a-stepping, for we had to reach the sheltering woods.

When we finally came to the woods we had left the night before, our exhaustion was so complete that the fact that they started shelling us meant nothing. We trudged right along and paid no attention to them at all.

We found a likely spot in the woods, spread our blankets on the ground, and went to sleep. A big battle was fought that morning, when some of our Marines and others of the 2nd Division crossed the Meuse and occupied those heights, down stream from where we were to have crossed. But we didn’t hear a shot fired. It took more than that to wake us up.

A runner came at 10 A.M. and gave us an order stating that an armistice effective at 11 A.M. had been signed. And we all woke up: you should have heard the cheering. It echoed and re-echoed all over the woods.

Our chow wagon came up at noon and we all felt better by that time. It seemed strange not to hear the guns roar. Everything was very quiet. The last shot was fired about 10:55.

About 2 P.M. I received orders to proceed with some other officers and men across the Meuse and to reconnoiter positions then being held by the 1st battalion of the 9th Infantry, in support of the Marines on the heights.

We went across the field where we had been shelled the night before, wearing our overseas caps instead of helmets. It was strangely quiet, and it seemed as if something was wrong. And then we saw the shell holes, the wreckage of equipment and other stuff, and above all the dead men, all of which had come about that morning while we slept, a few hours before and right up until the last minute of the armistice. And I thought, what a terrible fate it is, to be killed on the last day of the war. It seems worse than if it happened in the regular course of the war.

We came to the Meuse, which is not wider than a stone’s throw, and crossed on one of the pontoon bridges that had been used in the morning’s attack. We climbed a slope and came to a road which skirts the woods at the base of a high hill. Along this road the infantry was dug in, and we were to relieve them.

After we had selected positions for the company, I found a good place for my tent in the woods, and put it up. I then searched around and salvaged about six blankets and four or five shelter halves. These I placed on the ground in my tent, and the next few nights I enjoyed a soft bed and also a dry bed.

In a German officer’s dug-out in this woods (Bois des Flaviers, on the east bank of the Meuse opposite Villemontry) I found among other things a bag of Dutch hard tack. It comes in small cubes and has a sweet taste. It is not very hard either, and I found it very good. I carried the bag in my overcoat pocket and gradually used it up. I also found a pair of new knit socks and seized them at once, for I carried only one extra pair and the many days of wet and mud had put both pairs out of business.

The company didn’t get across until about 10 P.M. So I had quite a wait. But we had some big bon fires to stand around. All up and down the Meuse, every hillside was lit up with bon fires, and the Dutchmen were sending up flares and rockets of all kinds, even sending up first a red, then white, then blue. This was done repeatedly. I guess they were pretty happy. It was strange to see all these fires, because before you couldn’t even light a match for fear someone would see it.

The next day we remained in our positions, and had a good chance to rest, the first for many days. Our galley and other wagons came right down to the west bank, and the chow was carried across the pontoon bridge each meal. And we had some good ones. Then that night we had more fires and beaucoup songs. All the popular and old time songs were sung over and the valley resounded with it. The hills were lit up and the Germans sent up more rockets and colored flares. It was a scene to be remembered a long time, and could only have happened like that at the front. This day also was a red letter day for we could wash our hands and face in the Meuse, a rare treat. I also managed to wash some socks and handkerchiefs.

Basil Burwell in miniature World War One uniform and Belgian cap sent by his brother, 1918

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eliseteitelbaum
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 05:35:26

    How I would like to read a whole volume of your uncle’s letters, and your grandmother’s novel, and others. The work is cut out for you.

    Reply

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