Reader voices: Tracing grandpa's footsteps from World War I on 100th

My grandfather, Robert Parel Parker, of Hooper, Weber County, was one of the soldiers who fought for the United States in World War I.

In 1988, the family found a small pocket diary of our grandfather’s experiences, and a packet of letters he had written our grandmother during the war. This year, which is the 100th anniversary of the armistice signed ending World War I on Nov. 11, my sister Shanna and I decided to research where he went and visit those places in Europe. Shanna and her husband, Steve Grow, and I began our journey in August.

Parel Parker was raised on a dairy farm. He was drafted Oct. 30, 1917 — little more than six months after the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917. His letters home tell of his reporting to Fort Lewis, Washington, then Camp Mills, Long Island, New York. From there, the soldiers were put on the USS Leviathan departing from Hoboken, New Jersey, on Dec. 15, 1917. They arrived in England on Christmas Day.

In May 1918, he tells of his unit being shipped by train through Paris to the front, known as the Alsace-Lorraine area of France near the Swiss border. This area was a hotly contested area between the French and Germans. It was part of France, but the locals spoke German. Grandpa’s division was assigned to give support to the French in maintaining control of the sector.

Paul Schmidt, in “Co. C, 127th Infantry, in the World War; A Story of the 32nd Division”says, “We were the first American troops to set foot on German soil in this sector, and the flag of the 127th Infantry was the first American flag to be unfurled on German territory.”

Grandpa writes of the villages being almost destroyed. The names of Hagenbach, Dannemarie, Eglingen and Retzwler ran through his diary.

“May 22, Wed, 1918 — After dark, we hiked to Hagenback. Slept in a barn. I left the Co. and went with the Observers out along the Canal to Eglingen the town had been shot to pieces. A (German) aeroplane tried us as a target but the lead went over the barn and we ducked. … Our post was in an orchard on the hill above town. We had a good view. Could see small towns, roads, river, canal, trenches, barbwire. On a clear day we could see church steeple at Mulhouse.

“June 4 — We were relieved. Hike back to Retzwiller. Bought stuff to eat in Dannemarie. A raid that morning of aeroplanes. I was on post.”

We began our journey in Paris and drove to the northeastern corner of France. The locals were very surprised to find Americans “so far off the beaten path.” The next morning we started our tour of the villages my Grandpa mentioned. It was sobering to think of these peaceful villages overrun with soldiers.

On July 11, 1918, the 32nd Division was put on trains back to Paris, and then sent into “real” battle at the front in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.

We started our tour of this area at “The Museum of the Marne,14-’18.” We learned our grandfather’s 32nd Division had acquired the French nickname “Les Terribles.” They were the first Allied division to cross the German line of defense known as the Hindenburg Line several months later. They adopted the insignia of a line shot with a red arrow through it, and thus became known as the “Red Arrow” Division.

We next drove to the area of the Aisne-Marne Offensive. The Aisne-Marne Offensive was a collection of battles in the summer of 1918. It marked the final German offensive. It included the battles of Soissons, Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

My grandpa participated in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry. On July 27, 1918, his diary says “We had a hard hike, and then a long tiresome wait for the trucks. Unloaded, hiked through town, and over River Marne on pontoon bridge. Slept along road with but little to eat.”

Paul Schmidt, in his book “Co. C, 127th Infantry, in the World War; A Story of the 32nd Division” wrote: “The 127th Infantry boarded French trucks and at 7:30 that night arrived at the historical battle of Chateau-Thierry. … Fields jagged with shell-holes, towns destroyed and graves marked with crosses gave mute and tragic testimony of the fearful carnage of the life left in the wake of sanguinary struggles.”

One hundred years later, we came to the magnificent monument the Americans raised to commemorate this battle. The monument looks over a lovely view of the Marne River, and a peaceful valley which expands for miles in all directions. It was difficult to imagine this view ravaged by war.

His diary continues: “Aug 1st, 1918 (2:00 a.m.) the awful night. Just one road in. It was blockaded. The shell hit G Company. 33 wounded (3 later died) 14 killed. We were gassed. Took wounded back in dark and rain. No ambulances. Awful suffering. Wet through. Got back to scouts at daylight.”

By Aug. 6, 1918, the Aisne-Marne Offensive was over. The German threat made by their supreme commander, Erich Ludendorff, to capture Paris was thwarted. The success of the offensive revealed the strength of the American forces under Gen. John J. Pershing.

The next major campaign my grandpa was in was called the Oise-Aisne campaign. From Aug. 22 to Sept. 9, the American 32nd Division was a part of the French Tenth Army, which led the attack on the German lines. It was instrumental in securing important high ground for the Allies. On Sept. 9, the 32nd Division was ordered east to join the American First Army.

Grandpa’s diary: “Aug 29, 1918 — Near Biece-Aisnexy in the field. The most terrible noise woke us up. Everybody was yelling and a double barrage was on and the (Germans) were firing back … The front in circle spreading a complete circle of fire around us. Bursting flames of all colors. Piled our blankets. Prepared to move, and as it became lighter, men appeared through the mist and smoke in every direction. It was terrible but wonderful … Dug hole and prepared to stay. They shelled us all day. Aeroplanes shot at us with MG 20. At 11:00 p.m., moved up to bank on road… Went to sleep in a hole with a dead (German) on one side and frog on the other.”

Later we visited the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery where those who died in this battle are buried, including more than 6,000 Americans.

The plaque states: “This cemetery is the 2nd largest American military of World War I. 6012 American war dead rest here. Most of those who lie here gave their lives in this vicinity and northward to the Aisne River and beyond. Additionally, the names of 241 Americans whose remains were never recovered or identified are inscribed on the walls of the chapel. 597 headstones mark the graves of unknown soldiers.”

The rows of white crosses with an occasional one with a Star of David made the cemetery feel like we were walking on sacred ground.

We met the cemetery caretaker who had served in the Marine Corps who became extremely excited when we explained we were following our grandfather’s World War I battles. He asked about our grandfather’s infantry and division, and knew all about the service of his division in this area.

The final battle of World War I was fought Sept. 26 until Armistice Day, Nov. 11, and is known in history as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Historical accounts on archive.gov notes “it was the largest operations of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, with over a million American soldiers participating. It was also the deadliest campaign in American history.”

My grandpa’s version: Oct 4, 1918: “Air burst killed one man and wounded thirteen. Hunted stragglers near French tanks. Left under heavy shell fire… We were prompted to move to another place, and about two minutes later a shell hit there … we surely would have been hit if we had not moved.”

Oct. 6, 1918: “Conference Day. We thought of the good time we would be enjoying in SLC.”

Oct. 10, 1918: Drew sketch of sector (Grandpa was a map maker).

Oct 11, 1918: “A shell hit where a bunch were sleeping and in our line killed three.”

Oct. 14, 1918: “Went out, was a runner under shell fire. The company went over (referring to the enemy line) but scattered and came back.”

Oct. 17, 1918: “The whizbangs were hitting close and fast. … Advanced into woods, and dug in.”

By Oct. 31, the Americans had advanced 9.3 miles and had finally cleared the Argonne Forest. On their left the French had advanced 19 miles, reaching the River Aisne. The American forces reorganized into two armies. The two U.S. armies faced portions of 31 German divisions during this phase. The American troops captured German defenses at Buzancy, allowing French troops to cross the Aisne River. On Nov. 11, news of the armistice put a sudden end to the fighting.

The war was over. Grandpa’s diary reads on Nov. 11, 1918: “The Armistice began and it was a very strange feeling, a great change in an hour. It was perfect rest. The boys were very quiet. The town turned dark to light in a single day.”

It wasn’t until April 25, 1919, that he was received an honorable discharge from the Army.

We arrived just before sunset at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery which now makes the destroyed town of Romagne famous. The setting sun cast a glow over this sacred place, casting long shadows from the trees and headstones. The cemetery covers 130.5 acres. Here rests the largest number of American military fallen in Europe, a total of 14,246.


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comment on this story

What my grandfather and his fellow soldiers experienced is almost unfathomable. To know that he witnessed the death of so many of his fellow soldiers — all young men with their lives ahead of them is hard to comprehend.

I am grateful for my grandfather and the men of his generation, and their service. It was my desire to honor his service by researching it, and experiencing the places personally so I could share it with others.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice this Nov. 11, we can hope that by gaining an appreciation for those who fought in wars of the past, the younger generation will want to prevent wars in the future.