Tuesday, January 4, 2022

A Battalion Agent: War Poems Tell Stories

I recently mentioned that since Christmas day I've been wading through several books on World War One. In addition to Poilu (Barthas) and The Great War (G.J. Meyer), I've been dabbling in Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves. 

Graves, who was an officer in that First World War, became a career writer and poet. It's interesting to me how many soldiers were inspired by their wartime experiences to write poetry. Somehow simply writing descriptive sentences feels inadequate to the emotions unearthed by life's biggest disruptions, whether it be love or standing on death's door. 

Hence the great number of poets that emerged from those inexpressible experiences on the Western Front. Graves is numbered among a long list of poets from that war, many whose lives ended there. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas, Rudyard Kipling, Ford Maddox Ford, Jessie Pope, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Service, Archibald MacLeish and countless others felt a compulsion to capture their inward angst in poetic verse.

Robert Graves served as an officer at the nightmare known at the Battle of the Somme. He was so badly wounded in this conflict that a notice was sent home to his family that he had died. Days later he wrote a letter home and the family announced in the paper that he was not dead, but alive. 

* * * 

Reading about Robert Graves has led me to read some of the poetry of others from that war. Ultimately this brought to mind the poetry my father-in-law wrote during his 3+ years of service in World War Two. 

Wilmer "Bud" Wagner was a cook, machine gunner and ultimately a battalion agent in the North Africa and Italy campaigns. Throughout the war he kept a diary in pocket-sized notebooks. He also took photos and wrote poetry. The following is titled The Battalion Agent. You will notice that he uses the word "peep" here and throughout his memoir And There Shall Be Wars. When the soldiers returned to the States after the war, they were surprised to find these all purpose vehicles were now called jeeps. 

Here is his poem about life as a battalion agent.

A Battalion Agent

He works at night, in rain and grime,

Moonlight or not, he tries to find

His Battalion's position, it's quite a game.

Good roads or bad, it's all the same.

He's tired as heck, when he lays down at night,

Then someone wakes him, he's in for a fight.

He's given a message, what he doesn't know.

He starts for his peep, he's off to the show.

The road is rough, and it might be wet,

But he's rough and tough, he's always set.

His peep will respond at the slightest touch,

For he's bound to get there, it matters much.

If the road's under shell-fire, or being strafed by a plane,

Through wheat or mine field, it's still the same.

His faithful peep must take him through,

It's his very best friend, he keeps it like new.

He can use the lights, but he'd rather not,

Perhaps they would get him on the spot.

He travels along at a pretty good clip,

In spite of the roads, with all those dips.

He's wide awake now for he has to be,

There's a truck stalled on the road, so hard to see.

He slams on his brakes, missed it by an inch,

Turns to his left, off again, this job is no cinch.

It's still the right road, seems he tells by the smell,

With all these turns and trails, it's hard to tell.

He gets through the bomb craters, lucky as yet. 

Lucky this African Campaign hasn't cost him his neck.

There's the road, that he takes to the right,

But what meets his eyes, is an awful sight.

A bridge blown out, where the water is deep,

But nothing can stick his faithful peep.

He throws it in low, the motor roars,

Shoves the front wheels in gear, as he nears the shore.

Puts the transfer in low range, tramps down the gas,

He's going through, and he's going fast.

Now where is the place where this officer  lives?

He has a sealed message to him he must give.

There's his pup tent, but he's sound asleep.

How can he do it, with the noise of that peep?

The message is taken, and he starts back,

It's cold and raining, the night is still black,

So again he goes through, it's the same either way,

Oh, why can't he do this during the day?

He finally gets back, his nerves are on edge,

Turns off his peep, heads for his bed,

Drops on the ground and prepares for a snooze.

Leaves on his clothes, he's too tired to move.

He awakes in a daze, someone yelling his name,

"You have a message to deliver, don't mind the rain."

He jumps in his peep; his mind is still hazy,

For he's a Battalion agent, and it's driving him crazy.

Wilmer Wagner
And There Shall Be Wars

* * * 

I think it noteworthy that at the war's end he received a commendation for always having gotten the message through. A portion of the citation reads:
"Cpl. Wagner continuously drove blackout over unfamiliar roads that were almost impassable due to rainfall. Cpl. Wagner furnished valuable information as to the conditions of the roads and the location and use of short cuts. Frequently roads traversed by Cpl. Wagner were subjected to heavy enemy harassing fires and information regarding minefields was lacking, but Cpl. Wagner never failed to reach his destination in time for operational changes and new plans to be effected. Cpl. Wagner's
 courage and devotion to duty reflect great credit upon himself and the military service."

Charles L. Bolte
Major General, U.S. Army,


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