, Newburyport, MA

Local News

November 12, 2012

Of bravery and tragedy

WWI soldier's diary offers vivid details from front lines


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.

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