Prose & Poetry - France Somewhere

James Bethel Gresham Introduction

On November 3, 1917, James Bethel Gresham of Evansville, Indiana, Thomas F. Enright of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Merle D. Hay of Glidden, Iowa were killed in trenches atop a bald hill three kilometers northeast of the village Bathelemont.

In this pre-dawn German raid, Gresham became the first enlisted American soldier to die in World War I.

The following appeared in the Evansville Courier, November 6, 1917:

WITH THE AMERICAN ARMY IN FRANCE, NOV. 5 - (By the Associated Press) -   A small detachment of American infantrymen was attacked in the front line trenches early Saturday morning by a much superior force of German shock troops.  The Americans were cut off from relief by the heavy barrage fire in their rear.  They fought gallantly until overwhelmed solely by numbers.

The fighting in the trenches was hand to hand.  It was brief and fierce in the extreme.

Below is a fictional account (by Mark Williams) of a letter written by one of the men, James Bethel Gresham (photograph above), to his stateside sweetheart Louvicia and his thoughts on service in both pre-war Mexico and now in France.

France Somewhere
July 4, 1917

Dearest Louvicia, Today has been some day!
We must have marched twenty miles!
You understand, I cannot tell you where.
I think they'll let me say that there were bands.
A French brass band broke into "Dixie"
as we neared a famous Frenchman's grave.
Thousands cheered along the way, cheering
for the past, the present and the future.

Lying on his cot, writing tablet
propped against his knees, he reached the lamp
above his head.  Kerosene flamed higher.
A full moon lit his writing, too,
moonlight shining through a roof of glass, the smell
of dirt lingering in what had been a greenhouse,
moonlight wavering behind chestnut leaves,
walnut leaves, elms in Jardin des Plantes -
botanical gardens along the Seine, now
the site of American encampment.  As a boy,
in Garvin Woods, in southern Indiana,
he'd climbed high into an elm.  From there
he imagined the five hundred canvas tents
his father had described.  The Blue and Gray
had gathered there in 1887.  "Union men
sang Dixie," his father, who'd served with Lee, had said.
"And we sang Mine eyes have seen the glory!"
He'd thought of this today (in Paris, France!),
a wreath of flowers around his neck, a white rose
planted in his Enfield rifle, Black Jack Pershing
on his black stallion, leading the Second Battalion
of the 16th Infantry Regiment along Rue de Rivoli
toward the tomb of Lafayette.  Marching,
Gresham wondered if, one day, old doughboys
might gather here and sing hun songs.

Twenty miles on breakfast!  And that a meal
of rolls and jam and bitter coffee!  To think
I am in France - and food like this!  In Mexico,
as we rode through dusty two-bit towns, women
carried trays of tortillas, tamales and cinnamon-
flavored chocolates on their heads.  Smiling men
played "La Cucaracha," Pancho Villa's anthem.
We pretended not to know and ate like kings!

From March, a year ago, to this February,
he'd chased what seemed the ghost of Pancho Villa.
With a bandana across his mouth in dust-filled heat,
Gresham worked his horse through Mexico.  At night
rattlesnakes sought warmth in sleeping bags -
snake warmers, Company F had called them.
One night, beside a fire, high up in the mountains,
Louvicia had appeared.  Her white dress
gave shape to darkness between white aspen.
No one else around him - Enright, Decker,
Hastings - seemed to see.  Louvicia stood
between two trees, her slender hand
resting on a trunk, and smiled at him.  He stood,
and as he walked toward her her dress became
a white guitar, her arm its neck beside
four men who serenaded them on fiddle,
coronet, bass viola and guitar, while
he stared at flames that paired toward distant stars.

We're camped beside a river.  When we returned
today,  I swam across and back.  I feel
at home on rivers.  I did in Texas, this April,
patrolling the Rio Grande, a stream compared
to our Ohio.  Even now, as I write this,
I hear the whistling blasts of barges in the distance.
If I close my eyes I'm home on Lemcke Street,
knowing, my dear Vissel, that you are near.

Crossing the Atlantic, aboard the Saratoga,
men wrote Bible quotes on undershirts.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,"
Walter Brown, a wrestler from Iowa, wore, a tattoo
of Mary Pickford on his chest, outlined behind.
"Take therefore no thought for the morrow," wrote Merle Hay,
who some said got his hunch atop the crows nest
on watch for U-boats in the gray, a hunch
he would not return to Iowa with Walter Brown.
"He leadeth me beside the still waters,"
Gresham wrote, somewhere in the ocean,
thinking of the river he had swum in summer -
leaving Indiana, across the current of Kentucky -
thinking how the water ended here.

I can say this now.  The evening we arrived in St. Nazaire
French fishing boats escorted us to shore. 
A single plane dipped its wings in brilliant
scarlet sky.  When our motor trucks
rolled out, I noticed dirt and dust
from Mexico still clinging to their fenders,
jarring loose, at last, on cobblestones in France!
I can't believe how much I've seen this year!

Merle Hay entered.  Gresham nodded.
The rest of Company F was seeing all
that Paris offered.  And tonight Parisian girls
were offering buffets of pleasure.  A dark-haired girl
had noticed Gresham, today, as he had marched
through the gate of Les Invalides.  "Sammy!"
she had shouted.  She kissed his lips and placed
a single white rose into his rifle barrel.
"V-Viva La France!" he'd stammered,
tasting wine and - red, it was - lipstick.

Here it is, early July.  Already
I have marched with Mexican federales,
British tommies, French poilus.  In St. Nazaire
I saw some Brits, French and captured huns
play what they call football.  Two doughboys
from Vermont joined in.  This, football,
made no sense to me.  But in the background
the ocean sounded like cheers we heard today.

Lifting pencil to his tongue, he noticed Hay
sitting on his cot, reading the pocket Bible
he'd received in St. Nazaire.  With little thought
Gresham touched the waters on his shirt.
"We'll get through this thing together, Hay."
"Sure, we'll waltz through no man's land," Hay said.

When I get back to you, first thing,
we'll go dancing.  Then we'll step outside
beneath the moon that pins me here in France.
Lying here tonight (Don't think I'm crazy!),
I sense the planet's spin.  If I could float
above my cot, you'd join me within the day!
For now, please find a pressed white rose
and know that it has come, With Love, from me.

It's not the doughboys staggering in tonight
that trouble Gresham's sleep.  It is
the way Louvicia becomes the dark-haired girl
and how the dark-haired, red-lipped girl
becomes a girl that he has yet to meet.

Author's note: I credit Chris Myers for his informative web pages on the life of James Bethel Gresham, A. A. Hoehling for his book The Fierce Lambs, Gene Smith for his book Until the Last Trumpet Sounds and Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana for its microfilm collection of the Evansville Courier.

Article contributed by Mark Williams (e-mail).  Mark lives in Evansville, Indiana.  He is a past recipient of a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.  His writing has appeared in The Hudson Review, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Carologue (published by The South Carolina Historical Society) and the online magazine Able Muse.  He welcomes your comments on France Somewhere.

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Prose & Poetry