ROWLEY — There are thousands of fading photos of World War I veterans, but it’s rare to find the personal story that tells the struggle, camaraderie and suffering that individual soldier faced.
But Frank Todd has done just that. A friend presented him with a remarkable collection of photos, clips and a detailed diary of the short life of Eastman M. Sanborn, a local man who was a humble but heroic veteran of the Great War.
Todd, whose family owns Rowley’s well-known Todd Farm Antiques Shops and Flea Market, was stunned by what he found in the files.
He shared it with The Daily News of Newburyport, sister paper to the Gloucester Daily Times, feeling that the story would resonate strongly over Veterans Day.
Sanborn, a Rockport native, was the sixth generation of his family to serve in the U.S. military. The accomplished young soldier was a first lieutenant, commanding about 150 men of Company A, in the 316th Regiment. He shipped off to France in 1918, and after a few months of training in the French countryside far from the front, he found himself in the trenches preparing for one of the most enormous battles Americans have ever fought.
The battle of the Meuse-Argonne, which raged from Sept. 26, 1918 to Nov. 11, 1918, is a little-known event in American history. Yet in terms of sheer statistics, it is the bloodiest and perhaps one of the most decisive. The casualties suffered were the largest ever inflicted on American forces — some 117,000 men. It surpasses more famous battles such as World War II’s Battle of the Bulge (90,000) and the Civil War’s Gettysburg (51,000, reflecting both Union and Confederate losses). The battle was a keystone in the Allied offensive strategy that broke the German defenses and led directly to the German surrender on Nov. 11, 1918.
On the eve of the battle, Sanborn indicates in his diary that like many junior officers, the information passed down to him about what was about to occur was scant. On the night before the battle, he noted, “Even up to this time we had no idea as to the size of the attack.”
Signs of confusion were already evident to Sanborn. His unit was issued 200 signal flares and told to fire them in a certain order, but the instructions on the flares were in French and indecipherable. His colonel, whom he called a “ship without a rudder,” ordered his men to carry electric lamps — which had no batteries. Sanborn told his men, who were already heavily laden with equipment, to abandon the lamps.
At 2 a.m., they filed into the trenches, not fully sure what to expect. Sanborn looked behind him and was awestruck by the sight of a mass artillery fire opening up on the German lines.
“It seemed as though it were alive with great fireflies,” he wrote. “It reminded me of Pittsburgh, for it was much like the night sky there, with the light thrown off the clouds by the great blast furnaces.”
In the next four days, Sanborn would face his greatest test of fortitude, suffering and horror.
Years after the war, the U.S. Army commissioned a study of what happened to Sanborn’s unit. The matter-of-fact report takes a hard look at the nearly insurmountable problems the unit faced, how individual soldiers and leaders tried to overcome them and what the U.S. Army should learn from the mistakes to make sure it never happened again.
Sanborn’s division faced what the study deemed to be the most formidable defenses along the entire German front. His unit was assigned to take three villages, the last of which sat atop a steep hill that had commanding views across the region. Indeed, the German crown prince had watched the progress of the enormously costly Battle of Verdun from this hill three years earlier, and it had been heavily fortified to protect him.
“Strong as the entire position was by nature, the Boche had rendered them still more formidable by four years of ceaseless labor, constructing trenches, gun positions, entanglements and pillboxes to cover every conceivable approach the Allies might use in an attack,” the Army study stated.
A great deal of planning went into the attack, but as often happens in war, the unexpected quickly undid the plan. The Allies heavily bombarded the German trenches, but they were largely empty — the Germans had fallen back through the morass of shell holes, muddy waterholes, barbed wire and impossibly difficult terrain. They retreated to those formidable positions around the hilltop and waited.
Sanborn’s unit advanced with ease for a couple kilometers, but suddenly came into contact with a far stronger enemy than had been expected. To make matters worse, the Army report notes that communication and coordination with the frontline troops quickly broke down. The war-ravaged terrain made it near impossible to get food and ammunition to the troops, coordination with their supporting artillery broke down and telegraph lines failed because the wires were not insulated against water. The generals behind the lines lost track of where the troops were, and couldn’t get supplies to them that they desperately needed.
Time to fight
For three days, the division fought on, pushing forward at enormous cost. Sanborn’s company had been kept in reserve, meaning it was held just behind the frontline and was intended for use once the frontline troops were depleted.
That time came on the fourth day.
By then, his men were weak. Many had simply disappeared. Food was long gone. His journal shows his rejoice at finding a single, rain-soaked piece of bread, and also describes the futility of keeping men going in the desolation.
“Wet to the skin — cold thru and thru — four nights without sleep — two full days with nothing at all to eat and much of that time in battle ... .”
On the morning of Sept. 29, he received orders to move across “a damnable clearing thoroughly covered by enemy machine guns, from a wood on the hill beyond, and swept by their artillery.” Sanborn’s small unit was to advance a short way to attract the enemy’s fire.
“We reached the crest of the rise about 100 yards from starting point and then heavens above — everything broke loose, at once.”
His men lay on the ground, with shells and bullets smacking all around them. A few minutes later, he felt “a solid wallop in the right groin” and felt his right side go numb.
“I meditated. There flashed through my mind many stories of men I had heard having a leg shot off and hardly realizing it,” he wrote. He averted his eyes from glancing down.
“Finally, I mustered the courage to put my hand down to feel just how much of the stump was left,” he wrote.
To his surprise, his leg was still there; he had received just a minor wound.
Within moments, he was hit again, this time by a shell fragment that tore through both sides of his thigh. Blood gushed. He felt numb, but adrenaline kept him alert.
The desperation of the situation was made evident by an unnamed commander’s urgent message to generals at the rear. The Army report states the commander pleaded, “Being fired at point-blank range by artillery pieces. For God’s sake, get artillery or we will be annihilated.”
Sanborn looked around, and decided he couldn’t stay where he was.
“The artillery fire we could not stop, so the only solution seemed to be to locate and put out of action the machine guns that were holding us up,” he wrote. He describes a crescendo of noise that made it impossible to give commands more than a few feet away. Despite this, he organized an attack to take out guns located to the side, and because he couldn’t actually see where the German guns were, he occasionally raised his head to draw their fire.
The attack was a success, and Sanborn’s battle lust was now fully aroused. Germans were retreating, and he picked off three with his increasingly unsteady rifle aim. He aimed for a fourth when a shell hit in front of him, blasting his rifle apart.
“How I escaped I am beyond fathoming,” he wrote. Even so, he was thrown to the other side of the ditch he was in.
The blast shocked him. Now he was unable to stand up. He realized his thigh wound was far worse than he had thought.
“At this point, my mind went through a strange train of thought,” he wrote. He struggled to control an urge to run, but then, “the most wonderful frame of mind and comfort came to me.”
Sanborn realized he couldn’t go any further, he had done all he could do. He decided to crawl back to an aid station.
“After I decided to go back, the bursting shells and the singing bullets seemed much less dangerous to me,” he wrote. “I had stopped shooting at them and I sort of thought they had stopped shooting at me.”
He made it about 50 yards. Another bullet ripped through his leg, hitting him like “a sledgehammer.” He was knocked down flat. He could no longer crawl. Instead, he rolled. With the help of another soldier, he twisted a tourniquet tightly around his leg to slow the flow of blood.
That bullet angered him.
“I had been satisfied to quit and call it a day — but he wasn’t and it struck me as being quite unfair,” he wrote.
Sanborn was eventually brought to a field hospital, near the front. As he eased in and out of consciousness, the hospital came under German artillery fire. He was hit again, this time in the hand.
But the worst was yet to come. He and many others were put into trucks and horse-drawn carts for transport across the shell-pocked terrain, heading to a hospital in the rear.
“A most terrible ride it turned out to be,” he wrote. “Torn by shell holes and almost absolutely impassable.”
The wounded shrieked in agony. One man in his truck went mad, then died in agony.
Sanborn finally arrived at the hospital. His recovery was long and painful.
But his bravery lingered in the minds of many. He was offered the Distinguished Service Cross for valor — the highest award that could be given. He refused it, saying he would only accept it if every man in his unit was given it too.
Three times he was offered promotions. He refused them all.
The lingering effects of life in the trenches would eventually cost him his life. Five years after the war, he died in a U.S. Naval hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., from “valvular disease of the heart brought about by rheumatism contracted in the service of his country,” according to his obituary. As his life ended, his wife was in a nearby maternity ward. She had given birth to their first and only child, a daughter.
His ashes were buried in Rockport’s Beach Grove Cemetery.
After his death, praise poured in from his fellow servicemen. And he was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.
Among the letters was one from a French farmer who lived in a village where he had been billeted.
“In this village, tears and prayers for Lt. Sanborn whom we who knew him loved as a fine soldier, a gentleman who won our love by his gentle kindness when he was here,” the farmer wrote. “Oh, why do such men die while others live?”