Bob David's War
A Wyoming soldier serves in France
By TOM REA
Bob David was a troubled kid who grew up in small towns in Wyoming, in a well-to-do family. He never liked the life, though. It made him angry. And when the chance came, war was almost a relief to him. In France, he got hurt in the war and had to spend months in hospitals. When he was well enough to travel again, the Army ordered him home. But all Bob David (right, in 1918) could think of were his friends, still in combat. All he could think of was how to sneak back to the war.
Bob was born in 1894, probably in Wisconsin, to parents he never knew. When he was three years old he was adopted out of an orphanage near Milwaukee by Edward David and Mary Beebe David, who took him back to their ranch home on Boxelder Creek, between Glenrock and Douglas, Wyoming. From there, Edward David ran the ranches that belonged to the Carey family. A person could ride the forty miles from the SO Ranch where the Davids lived, to the CY Ranch just west of Casper and never, it was said, be off Carey land.
Edward David had come to Wyoming from New York State in the 1880s, to try ranching. He was a cousin of Louise David Carey. Her husband, Joseph Carey, would soon be elected one of the state’s two first U.S. senators. This connection had almost certainly led to the job and the big, sandstone house on Boxelder Creek that went with it. It also linked the Davids to the highest levels of Wyoming society. Bob’s mother, at least, seems to have enjoyed those connections. But Bob never felt confident his parents really wanted those connections to extend to him. When Bob was five or six, for reasons that are not entirely clear his father bought a general store in Wheatland. The family left the ranch and moved there.
Bob was about seven when he first learned he was adopted, a fact he had a terrible time believing. He stole money from his mother’s purse, began wetting his bed, and wetting the trousers of the fancy Lord Fauntleroy suits that his mother made him wear. When he was eight, his parents sent him away to Ridley College, a boys’ boarding school in Canada near Niagara Falls. Bob hated it. The older boys brutally hazed and beat the younger ones. The first year he was there, one of the school’s two main buildings burned to the ground. Every summer he returned home full of secrets he could not tell, and headed back to the school in the fall. (Below, Bob David about 1908.)
He spent most of 10 years at Ridley, from 1902 to 1912, visiting relatives in New York State at Christmas and returning to Wyoming in the summers. One summer the store in Wheatland burned to the ground. His father bought a hardware store in Douglas, and the family moved there. In the spring of 1910, Bob’s parents took him with them on a long trip to Italy, France, England, and Scotland. In the spring of 1912, Bob graduated from Ridley. But instead of going on to university like most of his classmates, he returned to Douglas to work in the hardware store. He hated it. His father paid him little and he quarreled often with his mother.
He took a job at a brickyard next. Each evening he returned covered in brick dust, bathed in a bath drawn by servants, put on a tuxedo, and went downstairs to eat dinner with his parents. Finally he struck out for Oregon, to work in the woods. A year later he bounced back to Wyoming and took a freshman year in Laramie, at the university. Next he moved to Denver, more jobs, and finally a better job running a lumberyard in the mining boomtown of Nederland, Colorado.
Back in Denver one day in June 1916, Bob found himself idly watching a man called the Human Fly climb the walls of the State Capitol. Floating down the breeze from Broadway, a few blocks off, came the sounds of the drums and brass of a marching band. Before he knew it he’d followed the band, flags waving, to a building on Champa. Fifteen minutes later, having hardly given it a thought, he emerged as a soldier in the Colorado National Guard. He’d enlisted to fight Pancho Villa on the Mexican border.
General Villa’s forces had been raiding American towns and ranches in Arizona and New Mexico. President Wilson had ordered U.S. troops to the border to chase them. Bob was assigned to the artillery, Battery B of the Colorado National Guard. They trained in the deserts of New Mexico and west Texas. He got very good at handling the wheeled field guns assigned to his unit, and the mules that pulled them, (right). While regular troops chased Villa into Mexico, the Guard stayed on the American side, and saw no combat. But Bob got used to Army life, and liked it.
In March of 1917, troops were sent home. But most did not expect to stay home long. Bob stayed in Denver. World War I had broken out across Europe in the summer of 1914, and then settled into a fierce stalemate. In April 1917, the United States entered the war, too—and Bob went right back in the Army.
By now, artillery batteries from the Colorado National Guard had merged with infantry units from the Wyoming National Guard to make the 148th Regiment of Field Artillery of the U.S. Army. They trained in Colorado, North Carolina, and finally Camp Mills (left), on Long Island outside New York City a huge, muddy place, full of soldiers in row after row of canvas tents. Biplanes buzzed overhead. Brawls were common. Bob’s Brooklyn grandmother and aunts, his mother’s relatives, visited from time to time. Once he returned to camp to find his aunts Nellie and Jennie sitting on a bunk in a tent among a crowd of soldiers, sweetly “darning socks, patching pants, and knitting up holes in sweaters for the whole Battery …” [Autobiography, pp. 799-805.]
In December, the regiment moved across New York Harbor to into real barracks at Camp Merritt, in New Jersey. Bob was promoted to sergeant. It could have happened a lot sooner, his captain noted, if he’d let it be known he was related to the Careys. Bob replied he’d assumed it wasn’t right for family connections to play any part in army careers. “Then I saluted and left,” he remembered years later. “Somehow, I never was very popular with the captain.” [Autobiography, 810]
Late in January 1918, the 148th shipped out. They boarded the steamship Baltic, a former passenger liner. They took on coal in Nova Scotia, and then well out at sea joined a convoy of eleven other troopships, escorted by a British cruiser. Across the Atlantic the ships zigged, zagged and changed speeds often, to confuse any German submarines that might be hunting hem. The food was bad. The men were seasick.
Off the west coast of Scotland, eight British destroyers joined them as they entered the most dangerous waters of all. As the convoy steamed south between Scotland and Ireland, the Tuscania (left), directly behind the Baltic in the convoy line, was torpedoed. The ship took four hours to sink. Most of the 2,000 American troops and 300 sailors made it to shore in safety, but about 230 drowned. Bob and his friends, jittery, arrived safely at the port of Liverpool. A few days later, they boarded another ship at Southampton, and crossed the English Channel to France. They landed at Le Havre, on the coast of Normandy.
Almost immediately Bob came down with scarlet fever. In those days there was nothing to do with the sick but separate them from well people—and so Bob was left behind when his regiment took the train south to camps near Bordeaux for more training. It wasn’t the last time he’d be separated from his friends. As they marched away, he lay in his blankets on a hard floor and listened to cold rain hit the tent. “I have never been quite so lonesome since,” he remembered, decades later. [Autobiography. p. 828]
After a month or more in hospital, Bob was ordered across France to Bordeaux, in charge of a trainload of 110 men. Bob found Battery B at last, at a camp called La Courtine. The Wyoming and Colorado artillerymen were learning to use French-made guns that could shoot a 98-pound explosive shell 10 miles with pinpoint accuracy. The barrels were 155 millimeters—about six inches—in diameter. Much too heavy to be pulled by mules, they were pulled by tractors—one for each gun—or sometimes trucks.
On weekends, Bob would bicycle among the villages, eager to make friends and use his schoolboy French. David is such a common last name in France that nearly every village seemed to have a family of “cousins.” Bob, the adopted boy, was happy to be taken in.
On July 3, orders came to load the guns, gear, trucks and tractors onto a train. The colonel and the major had already gone ahead. Next morning, July 4, the artillerymen boarded rough train cars for the long trip to the front. They arrived near the village of Montmirail, northeast of Paris, shortly before daylight. “Everything was still in darkness,” Bob remembered thirty-five years later, “and we could hear the dull booming of the front away over northward of us, sounding like a thousand cattle cars filled with frenzied steers kicking at the sides.” [Autobiography, 860]
The war in Europe had started in the summer of 1914. In September, the Germans drove toward Paris but in a six-day battle that killed or wounded half a million men, the French and British armies stopped the Germans at the Marne River, northeast of the capital. Each side dug deep, defensive trenches. Soon the front stretched 475 miles from the Swiss border through northeastern France, across Belgium to the English Channel.
From time to time, one side or the other would order long artillery bombardments of the trenches on the other side. When the big guns ceased, the foot soldiers were ordered “over the top”—to charge the other side. There, in no man’s land between the lines of trenches, they were caught in barbed wire and thick machine-gun fire from their enemies. The advantage was always with the defenders. The soldiers died and died. The front never moved more than 50 miles one direction or the other.
This stalemate was nearly four years old in the summer of 1918, when American troops began arriving in large numbers.
The men of Battery B set up their four French 155s (like the one above; note the Wyoming bucking horse logo on the gun carriage) on the edge of a thicket on the road from the village of Chateau-Thierry north to Montmirail. The next morning, a cart came up the road, pulled by a mule. Two Frenchmen were driving it, and it was full of hand grenades. The Americans were about to begin firing, and feared the shock waves put out by the guns could set off the grenades in the cart. In his schoolboy French, Bob warned them not to pass. But they kept going, passing the number one gun just as it fired. All the grenades exploded.
There was nothing left of the cart but a deep hole in the ground, in the middle of the road. At the bottom of the hole were the two Frenchmen’s heads. Shortly afterward, one of the Americans took a grenade into the woods, and hit it with a pickaxe to see how it worked. It worked fine, and blew him to pieces. The mule’s carcass, meanwhile, had been blown into a tree nearby, and was up there several weeks. When he wrote out the story of his life, Bob related these things without a word on how they made him feel.
Many of the moments he remembered clearly mixed murderous chance with the deep thrill of finding himself alive afterward. One night a shell came out of the big gun wrong, and went wobbling and howling off through the sky. The artillerymen could only hunch down and hope it wouldn’t fall on them—or on American or French infantry soldiers ahead of them. Then, blam! Out of the blackness miles away came a big explosion, then more bangs, blams, and rockets going off haphazardly for more than an hour. Next morning an ecstatic French general galloped up to tell them they’d hit a German ammunition dump the French had been searching for, for weeks. They won a medal. When, at the ceremony, the French general pinned the medal on the regimental flag, not a single man in the regiment cracked a smile.
The trenches were not always continuous. German soldiers could sneak through at night, kill Americans, take their uniforms, and cause more trouble behind the lines—“spies and skulkers,” Bob called them. One night, camped in the thicket behind the big guns, Bob heard a noise. Quietly, he rounded up some men, and then led them loudly through the woods, driving the spy ahead of them. “[A]s he reached the moonlight I fired, as did sixteen others,” Bob remembered. Next morning they found the spy was wearing an American uniform, but a German helmet. Inside it, he’d stenciled his name, Peter Misner III. They buried him. Though Bob never knew if one of the 17 bullet holes was from his own gun, he hated and feared guns after that, he says, and never fired another. [Autobiography, 869]
Small guns, he must have meant—rifles or pistols—because war went on and Battery B’s big guns kept firing. Big German guns kept firing too. Sometimes the shells contained poison gas. The men pulled on gas masks as the barrage came on. The masks were hard to see out of, sweaty and snotty inside, and cut the sound off, too. Gas or not, the long barrages were terrifying. All you could do was take cover. “I have sunk my fingers to their lengths in the soil, to the roots of the clinging grass,” he wrote 35 years later. The world heaved, roared, and turned over, “and peace and love were far away, and I was a grain of sand on a great desert of earthquake …” [Autobiography, 872] Such times took him decades to get over, perhaps the rest of his life.
In the spring and summer of 1918, the Germans made a last attempt to win the war before all American power was brought to bear. Late in July, they crossed the Marne, where the French and British had stopped them nearly four years before. The men in Battery B were out of shells that evening when a mob of gray-clad Germans came over the nearest ridge. The officers issued rifles to the artillerymen. But more shells—and American infantry—arrived just in time, and drove the Germans back.
That night Battery B turned its guns on the Dormans Bridge over the Marne, 12 miles away, and hit the bridge just as German reinforcements were crossing. All the next day the men continued to fire over the heads of both the U.S. and German infantry, laying a continuous barrage along the Marne on Germans trying to cross. Newspapers reported the river ran red with blood. Bob believed it.
The Germans were trapped. A spotter from a balloon told the men their shells were killing 100 Germans at a time now. Bob gave the soldiers on his crew a chance to jerk the lanyard that fired the gun, so each could tell his grandchildren he’d killed 100 Germans with a single shot. (Right, a 155 fires a shell.)
These days in July 1918 came to be called the Second Battle of the Marne. Fighting was thickest for the Americans at Chateau-Thierry and in a forest north of there, Belleau Wood. Something like 30,000 Americans were killed or wounded. Even this late, no one had found a better way to fight the war than to spend the lives of thousands to gain a little ground.
Where before the sight Peter Misner III’s body full of American bullets sickened him, later, after the worst of the battle, Bob tells us he was thrilled that each of the big shells was supposedly killing 100 Germans at a time. He was the same man, and yet something had changed. It’s hard to tell, from the account he wrote in the 1950s, if he was aware of the change. He may not have been.
A few days after the Germans had been stopped, during the confusion of a night gas attack, while the men fumbled in the dark for their masks and tried to get away from the poison fumes, Bob was kicked, hard, in the leg by one of his fellow soldiers. Ever since the bout of scarlet fever in Le Havre, the veins in Bob David’s legs had slowly swelled and thickened, to the point where they stood out like ropy blue cords under his skin. This condition is called varicose veins. After he was kicked he started bleeding, badly.
He was put on a hospital train and taken back south to a hospital at Montpon, near Bordeaux. The surgeon told him after the operation he probably wouldn’t walk again without a cane or perhaps crutches. But Bob forced himself to walk as far and as often as he could. Eventually he still needed a cane for longer distances, but could walk around the ward on his own. At last he was ordered to take a train to Bordeaux, and a steamship back to the States. It looked like Bob’s war was finally over.
But not yet. The rest of Bob’s war seems desperate, angry, inconclusive, a little crazy, and not nearly as dangerous as his time at the front. He was ordered home, but he was too eagerto see his friends again. He went AWOL—absent without leave—and made his way back north toward the war. In Paris he told the truth to a gruff American captain, who gave him a three-day pass.
Bob’s memories of Paris turn almost dreamy. (Right, part of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, protected against bombardments, 1918) The staff at the swanky Hotel Splendide remembered him from when he’d stayed there with his parents in 1910, and let him stay for free. A beautiful young woman named Yvonne, dressed from head to toe in a chic outfit of robin’s-egg blue, led him on an adventure among the Apaches of Paris, the fabled criminals who ruled the city’s underworld. In a huge room, deep underground, they sat at long tables, drank, and glared. But then Yvonne announced him, and for his uniform, or his injuries, they suddenly loved him. They drank toast after toast, and showed him their war wounds, too. Bob never forgot their “glorious villainous faces,” or the sight of their “terrible wounds, livid with misery and torturous ache, but speaking of the incalculable heroism of those thieves, and robbers and murderers of the slums of Paris.” [Autobiography, 896]
Then, Bob’s long hunt for his friends began in earnest. It took him weeks. Traveling by train, ducking the military police, finding sympathy and treatment for his legs when he needed it in Army hospitals, the hunt took him to the front and then back across France to Bordeaux again.
At Le Courneau, a camp of flimsy, thatched-roofed barracks, Bob walked into the great flu epidemic of 1918-1919, which circled the world and killed millions more people even than the war. Men were dying daily. Discipline was lax. Each day a bulldozer lengthened a wide, deep ditch, and more coffins were lain inside. Each coffin held a dead American soldier. As their friends died, the men told stories. Flu germs, they said, were somehow breeding in the thatch. A man, cut open by the medics after his death, had blood as black as tar.
But Bob’s legs still needed daily treatment. Back north near the front, at a little town called St. Dizier, Bob, with his bandages dirty and starting to smell, again found a sympathetic doctor. Then, outside, he heard a sergeant looking for men good at office work. A new American push had begun in the Argonne, not far away, and smart men were needed to help run the war. Here was a job he could do and be useful, and at the same time get regular care for his legs.
Bob was riding in a motorcycle sidecar late one afternoon on a road thick with war traffic. The line of cars, trucks, mules, motorcycles and wagons slowed, and then stopped completely. When it got dark, the passenger car behind them turned on its lights. Bob heard someone calling his name. It was some officers from the 148th! Here at last were some men from his unit. He found his friends, caught up with his back pay and his mail, but kept the job at St. Dizier.
Finally the Germans could continue the war no longer, the Kaiser quit, and an armistice ending the fighting went into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11th—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. St. Dizier filled with dancing citizens, and later, as the drinking went on, the brawling began. Six Englishmen were killed that night in St. Dizier in fights with Americans, and 65 more were hurt. Bob remembered beating various heads in with a heavy-wire cafe chair, and after that his memory was hazy. British and American Military police showed up, gathered up the bodies, and dumped them by the edge of a road. Everyone was in a hurry to forget killing of every kind.
The next day Bob let himself be talked into helping to run the office through the end of the year. But when New Years approached, the lieutenant ordered him to stay. Bob, who had been under no obligation to stay the first time, refused. The lieutenant exploded in anger. Again, with the help of a medical officer, Bob managed to elude the MPs and get out of town.
As he made his way south and then west across France toward a ship that would take him home, he continued befriending pretty women and offending officers. At Langres it was Rosie Hagan, the Irish-American nurse. At Savenay, near Nantes, it was Nurse Wood, daughter of a general. At Brest, on the northwestern tip of France, no more nurses, just a lot of troops. Bob boarded the troopship Leviathan. He was bound home at last.
The ship was so crowded the men had to eat standing up, and soon they, too, were dying of flu. Coffins were piled at the bow. On the second morning out, Bob woke with the symptoms.
He went to the little clinic on bard, where a young doctor made a show of pouring small amounts of liquids and powders into a big glass with measuring marks on the side, stirred everything together, and gave it to Bob to drink. Go back to your bunk, the doctor told him, pile on the blankets, and sweat through to morning. Next morning he should shower, dress in clean underwear and clothes and then go on deck and sleep in a deck chair in the sun. Bob followed directions. It was a heavy sweat: “I could feel myself skidding inside my underwear every time I moved.” Next morning, cleaning up and putting on clean clothes, he found the old suit of underwear had turned black: “My sweat,” Bob was convinced, “had been black exactly like that soldier’s blood had been down in Le Courneau.” [Autobiography, 929.]
A week or so later, the Leviathan entered New York harbor. At the bow, hardened soldiers found their faces wet with tears. There was a big show from tugboats, fireworks and hooting horns. Happy people thronged the docks at Hoboken. Bob flung francs into the crowd.
After stops in New Jersey and Illinois, Bob was sent in charge of a trainload of returning soldiers to Camp Funston, in eastern Kansas—the base where, ironically, historians now understand the international flu epidemic began in 1917. Bob got in a fight with a corporal who thought he could tell Bob what to do, and came near to blows with three officers over the same question. None of them had been to the war. It was an army with little work to do and too many men to do it. Finally, a lieutenant gave him papers directing the medical corps to re-classify Bob for duty on the base—where the officers could make his life hell.
Again, knowing where he’d get sympathy, Bob took the document to the medical officer, a captain, who looked them over.
"I’ll be damned if the Medical Corps will be a means of revenge for any of these ‘ninety-day wonders,” the captain said, referring to the undertrained lieutenants. “It’s not the first time this has happened.” Later, the lieutenant lost more face when he ordered a few men to police camp—that is, pick up any trash lying around. The men ignored him, but when Bob asked them to do the same they went promptly to work.
Next morning, Bob got his discharge papers and orders for tickets home. At the train station, the lieutenant showed up again, and threatened to keep him on the base. Bob was on solid ground now.
"Listen, you,’ I sneered my most villainous sneer, ‘I have my discharge in my pocket, and I am now off army reservations. I’m out of the Army, and I’m telling you this. Don’t you ever stick your nose into the state of Wyoming and let me know it, understand?’”
And that, finally, was the end of Bob David’s war. “[T]he train to Denver was swift,” he adds, “and the future was bright before me.” [Autobiography, 933-43]
Bob David (above, at the front of a parade on his first Amistice Day back in the states, November 1920) died in 1968. He left his big collection of scrapbooks, notebooks, photographs and a treasure trove of other historical materials to Casper College. These items became the core of what is now the college’s Western History Center, located at the Casper College Library. Included in the collection is a typed, untitled, unpublished autobiography, more than 1,200 pages long and keyed to David’s huge photo collection. He seems to have written it in the early and mid 1950s. The document, especially detailed on his youth, early manhood, and years in the Army, is the main source of this account.
Davis, Paul M. and Hubert K. Clay. History of Battery “C,” 148th Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Forces. Colorado Springs: Out West (publishers) 1919. This book was written right after the war by two soldiers who, unlike Bob David, stayed with the 148th in 1919 when it was assigned to occupation duties in Germany. It includes good foldout maps and a useful timeline of all the training, battles, and other movements of the regiment throughout the war. Copies are in some Wyoming libraries, and the entire book is also available online.
See a rich assortment of World War I diaries and memoirs from the Brigham Young University archives.
Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 386-407. A look at what was going on in Wyoming while thousands of the state’s young men were in France in the war.
Mead, Gary. The Doughboys: America and the First World War. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Hardcover, 2000. An excellent one-volume account. Includes a fascinating chapter on the American Expeditionary Forces’ inconclusive involvement near the Finnish border and in Siberia while Russia was in the grip of a vicious civil war.
There’s a great deal of material.
As good a place as any to start is PBS’ site on the war. Start with the maps page, and link outward from there.
Next try this detailed account of the U.S. Army’s strategies, tactics, and politics of dealing with its allies in World War I; this site devoted to Bob's regiment, the 148th Field Artillery; and this on Wyoming soldiers’ experiences overseas and a visit of Wyoming’s U.S. Senator John B. Kendrick to the front .
Also check these sites: on the sinking of the Tuscania, with an overview and a firsthand account by Irvin S. Cobb of the Saturday Evening Post, who like Bob David watched the sinking from the deck of the Baltic; on the Scottish angle; for photos, maps, and newspaper stories; for the account of the captain of the German submarine.
Bob David’s great collection of Wyoming-connected historical stuff (including this photo, above, of Bob in the Lord Fauntleroy suit he hated so much) may be seen at the Western History Center at Casper College. Contact Kevin Anderson for an appointment at 307-268-2680, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The photos of Bob David—in uniform, in 1908 at Ridley, at the front of the parade in 1920, and in his Lord Fauntleroy suit—are from the Casper College Western History Center, with thanks to Kevin Anderson.
See the photo of Camp Mills, Long Island along with a doughboy’s letters home.
The photo of the Tuscania is from a Tuscania website.
See more on the bucking horse logo in the photo of Wyoming national guardsmen in France with the 148th Field Artillery and one of their French 155s.
The photo of one of the 155s firing is from a website on the 148th Field Artillery.
See the photo of the sandbagged Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 1918.
The "Welcome Home" sheet music is from the Library of Congress.