853‘s special correspondent, MERCURY MAN, is back with a family history story from the trenches of wartime France.
Contacts is the name of the game. You find ‘em, you write ‘em up and you put ‘em – you’ve guessed it – in your contacts book. Which, more often than not, is little and black. Take the inimitable Richard Merry. There he was, nestling in my little black book, before bursting back into real life a week or two ago. A gong for services to retail? No, he’s written a riveting book to do with his great uncle Bob and the First World War.
It’s also a belated assertion that Black Lives Matter.
Some very quick background: Richard used to be manager of the Riverdale Centre – now the Lewisham Centre – and he contacted me in the early days of this century for a slogan around his plan for zero tolerance of smokers. Easy: No ifs or butts! Tax-free pony pocketed.
He was soon into his stride: “The Argonne Forest campaign will be little known to most British readers, MM, as it was in the French sector of the front until handed over to the First American Army in the autumn of 1918. My interest came while researching family history on my great uncle Bob. He had allegedly disappeared overboard in odd circumstances before WW1.”
Bob was born in Chelsea in 1871 but soon after moved to Stanstead Road, Forest Hill, where he was brought up with two brothers and four sisters.
Richard continued: “He attended Streatham Grammar School and was soon an avid participant in the new craze, cycling. He became a member of the famous Catford Cycling Club which also then had branches in Europe.
“By the early 1890s he was regularly cycling in European competitions with the club. In 1892 he took part in the opening exhibition match in the Stade Buffalo in Paris, the new velodrome named after the former Buffalo Bill site nearby.
“He crossed the line in a dead heat with the French champion but, like the sportsman he was and for the sake of Anglo-French relations, he made no complaint when relegated to second place by the judge.”
By 1895/6 Bob had left Forest Hill for the brighter lights of Amsterdam, working for the Birmingham-based Dunlop Rubber Tyre Company. He returned to London in 1900, marrying his Dutch sweetheart in Balham on Boxing Day.
Richard said: “She sadly died and Bob moved onto Paris in 1906/7. Paris was the place to live – the impressionists, writers, musicians, rich Americans all flocking to the bright lights.
“France was also the world’s largest exporter of cars, Bob having now upgraded from bikes to cars. He went to work for Andre Citroën at Mors, the premier sports car brand in France.”
Bob criss-crossed the world selling Mors cars. Then, in July 1913, he returned once again to London – and Balham – to marry a much younger French wife.
Richard sipped his skinny latte, then continued: “He arrived back from South Africa just as the drumbeats of war were sounded. Being too old for military service and with the war ‘being over by Christmas’, Bob had no chance of taking part.
“But fate gave him a chance. People were arriving from all over the world to rally to the French cause. In early August 1914 the French government reduced the terms of enlistment for the French Foreign Legion from five years to ‘the duration’. It would be over by Christmas so they didn’t want thousands of men on the payroll.”
Despite being over 40, Bob signed up and became Legionnaire 8318 G.R. Merry of the second marching regiment.
“He was assigned as driver-translator to the newly-arrived General Henri Gouraud, well known for his North African military exploits. Now he led the Paris 10th Division in the bloody Argonne Forest.
“Car drivers were few and far between. Bob, as well as speaking French fluently, also spoke German. It appears he also spent many hours every day interrogating German prisoners.”
Bob wrote tales of derring-do to his family in London. In January 1915, Gouraud was promoted to corps commander in Champagne. Censorship became more widespread as the war became bloodier, so Bob’s correspondence drops off.
Richard now tells the story of the Argonne. “In 1915 the German army was on the defensive all along the front. The allied armies, now reinforced, went on the offensive. Not, though, the Argonne.
“Here the Germans took the offensive. They unleashed new tactics which would change the face of the war, gas artillery bombardments followed by assault tactics that would later be known as Storm Troops.
“One certain young infantry officer, twice decorated in the forest, exemplified the dash required by the Storm Troops, Lieutenant Erwin Rommel – the Desert Fox. The campaign ran all summer and saw previously unheard-of advances. They were normally measured in metres, now nearly 2km were taken from the French. But they didn’t achieve the breakthough they sought.
“In 1916/17 the war moved to other fronts and the Argonne settled into a local war of mines. In 1918 the newly-arrived American army was keen to avoid being subsumed into either the British or French army.
“So a poisoned chalice was handed them, The Argonne. But ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, the American Expeditionary Forces commander, cared not. He’d had enough of other country’s generals killing his men, he’d decreed in future only American commanders could decide the fate of their men.
“This held good to a point – he didn’t want African-American soldiers in his fighting army. They were loaned to the French and fought under French command.
“Then, in the autumn of 1918, the largest American campaign in history unfolded along the Meuse-Argonne front. On 26 September over a million men went over the top. Some of the most famous actions of the war took place.”
Unlike most military books, this one does not stop on November 11, 1918. It goes into great detail of how the bodies were dug up and moved in cemeteries and the bitter political struggles that took place to have the dead men brought home; how the land was cleared and replanted and the villagers returned. The arrival of battlefield tourists was officially sanctioned by the French government, to the chagrin of the villagers and veterans alike.
“By 1939,” said Richard, ‘life had assumed some degree of normality. Houses were rebuilt, land was capable of growing crops and the forest was now replanted. In 1940, though, they were once again occupied by the Germans, except this time there was no place behind the lines.
“The book uncovers some unlikely and little-known heroes and a few heroines. It looks at the shocking treatment African-American soldiers received. They were the mules, the heavy lifters in the American Expeditionary Forces. They were in the AEF, but not as fighters.
“So the only two black fighting divisions raised in America were loaned to France to fight with them, the analogy being, they were fit to do the thankless work, but not the fighting. President Wilson’s mantra was “making the world safe for democracy”, but their democracy turned out to be the same as in America – thankless manual labouring with no rights.
“My personal tribute, of course, is to my great uncle Bob, whose mysterious death was finally unravelled.”
Mercury Man talks to SE Londoners with interesting tales to tell. Read his past stories.
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