On November 11th of 1918, the First World War effectively came to an end with the signing of the armistice—an agreement between Allied and German forces to end, with immediate effect, all hostilies and withdraw troops from the battlefield. Peace, at last, after four years of fighting and more than 16 million deaths. Shortly after the armistice was signed, 26-year-old Lewis Plush—a lieutenant with the American Expeditionary Forces—wrote home to his parents and spoke with great eloquence of his experience. He returned home in February of 1919.
Aboard the S.S. Regina
Dear Mother and Father,
Now that it is all over, what is there to look back upon? The fifteen months in France have been like a book with strange chapters, a book that one reads and casts aside as impossible, but a book that leaves a lasting grip upon the imagination.
I used to watch the small planes as they manoeuvered in the air and felt that I presumed too much when I hoped to fly one myself. Flying became a reality when I learned to fly a clumsy and safe Caudron. After that came the Nieuport school with its three types of training planes, the 23-meter double control, the 18-meter solo, and finally the 16-meter scout plane. And then the work in acrobatics, formation flying, combat practice, and a month’s course in aerial gunnery.
“Training completed and ready for active duty at the front” sounded like a voice in a dream. A few days later I was at the front.
I fly again my first flight over the lines when everything was new, mysterious, and awful. The imprint of that picture will never fade, and I will always see a picture, not of war and destruction but of beauty and peace. There below, far below, is picture after picture slowly passing by, set in thick frames of clouds, colors, and shadows, and white dazzling light. There on my right is Metz, and off to the left lays Nancy, like a jewel set in dark green. One is a German city, the other French. Can it be that the men who inhabit each are bitter enemies and fight to kill?
I was soon to discover that this peace was only the calm before the storm. And when the storm did break in sudden fury on the morning of Sept. 12, I saw my picture of peace shattered and torn.
I live again that eventful day. It is before dawn and the guns pound and hammer the enemy. The whole skyline of the north is luminated by continuous flashes. Now it is dawn and we leave the ground to play our small part in a mighty struggle. Low clouds and a light rain forces low flying, so from our altitude we see a great army in action.
I see again great tanks waddling and lumbering their way toward Montsec with khaki-clad troops hanging thick on their backs and following in the rear. The roads are jammed with troops, pursuer and pursued. Scattered troops run into woods and out as the whole region is spotted with bursting shells. A tank is on its side here, a shattered truck there, horses running madly in their blind flight. The enemy are in absolute confusion by the rapid advance of our own troops. The fury of the storm did not last long but the story of the St. Mihiel offensive will never be erased.
I see and live again the long weeks of struggle in the Argonne region, where dodging “archies” became a routine duty, bombing raids a daily occurrence, and strafing enemy troops a dangerous but ordinary work.
I can hear the machine guns rattling down from the ground as they desperately try to rake us from the air as we swoop down and pour deadly streams of lead into masses of troops. A single bullet in the motor, a pierced gas tank and a burst of flame, a broken wire or a broken feed line and the game is over—lost.
I can hear the archies as they burst uncomfortably close. I can feel the plane as a bursting shell upsets it and starts it spinning, but a quick movement of the controls rights it and on I fly. A burst of black smoke on my right, flying splinters, crumpled wings. The archies have scored another victory—another dear friend gone west.
Over and over I live a terrible moment. Glancing quickly behind I see the sinister silhouette of two Hun planes diving directly at me from above. I am alone and escape seems impossible. One is now almost on top of me and as I make a quick turn he fires at close range. I see again the streaks of fire. Phosphorus fumes of the incendiary bullets fill the cockpit full of that sickening odor and with a damaged motor I fight the fight over and again for my life.
I fly again with great formations of bombers in their daylight raids and take my place above with the other scout planes as we sweep the sky for the enemy. The enemy appears and puts up a stubborn fight. One, two, perhaps more, flaming planes crash to the ground, friend and foe, and the bombers return, their mission accomplished.
“One of our planes did not return,” says the official report of the day and we each wonder but dare not ask aloud, “Who will be next?”
Oh, fateful vision that now appears of three comrades, three friends that shared the same billet in the home of a French family near the flying field where we worked and played together. I am one of the three. The other two are dead.
How can I ever forget that evening as we sat before the open fireplace. I was writing a letter with a single candle as light. Roth, you were reading aloud from a book of poems, and your sudden burst of enthusiasm would make the flames leap. Kinney, you were making and remaking the fire, playing with the embers with the fire tongs and returning the jumping sparks to their bed.
How little we knew what the morrow would bring. The next evening, Kinney, you and I sat by the fire alone. And a few evenings later, I alone sat by the fire and wondered. The story is always the same: a combat with the enemy and one of our planes did not return.
I walk again over a battle field fresh with its dead and ruin; shattered villages standing as monuments of destruction. Tangled and torn wire litter the barren fields and slopes, barren of life but littered with the waste of war—broken guns, bits of clothing, shells, and the sad remains of life.
There was a war, a great war, and now it is over. Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home, others remain behind forever on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. The rewards of the dead are the lasting honors of martyrs for humanity; the reward of the living is the peaceful conscience of one who plays the game of life and plays it square.
Lt. Lewis C. Plush