Moving toward the battle lines
The Newfoundlander, George Whitefield Ridout (1870-1954), may be remembered by few today. However, the Methodist minister and Y.M.C.A. secretary overseas distinguished himself as chaplain with the 38th Regiment when they, in his words, “wrote one of the most brilliant pages of military history” in the battle of July 15, 1918.
Born in St. John’s, he went to Boston, Massachusetts, as a young man, and was educated at Temple University. He served as professor of theology at Upland, Indiana.
Following the war, he accepted the chair of theology at Asbury College, where he remained until 1927. Entering religious work, he traveled extensively in Japan, China, India, Africa and South America. He was a member of the British Philosophic Society and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
He wrote several books, including “The Cross and Flag: Experiences in the Great World War.” Published in 1919, so soon after the war ended, it reads today with a keen sense of immediacy. He says nothing about the so-called poetry of war, but everything about what he calls its “dreadful prose.”
“One day,” he writes, “we got orders to move on closer to the lines. I remember the captain saying to me: ‘We are going to a quiet place. It is in a fine woods which has not been shelled. I think we are going to have a nice time there and you will like it.’ Little did any of us think that we were going up to the hottest place we struck during the war, and where we shall receive our first bloody baptism in this war.
“We moved always at night. In actual live warfare, there is not much poetry. It is dreadful prose. I saw a picture in the ‘Literary Digest’ last fall showing troops being led up front headed by a brass band! Such a thing would be absurd, and the man who put that thing together must have dreamed things, not witnessed them on battle fronts. Oh no, we are not led into front lines and into battles by bands of music. We march at night, and in the dead of night.
“This was a dark night when we moved into and up that hill between Saint-Eugene and Crezancy on the Marne. When we reached the woods, it was so densely black that we could hardly see where we were going. Occasionally, we caught sight of a French soldier — we were relieving the French that night.
“When we got in the woods, orders were given to lie down just where we were and make the best of it until morning. This was July, and fortunately the nights were not very long and the morning broke early. Numerous dugouts were in these woods and some of the stopping places of the French officers and men who held this place prior to our coming into it were artistically fixed up.
“The French are artistic, even when it comes to war. They had all manners of rustic seats, tables, etc., located in pretty bowers. I had my canteen located in one of those bowers and slept on the ground.
“The days were delightfully summer like, the night were short but noisy. Our hill was lined with artillery, and it was always particularly active at night. Some nights, the guns did overtime and, time and again, the vibration from the guns would shake the ground upon which I was sleeping and I would be roused from sleep. One gun, a naval gun, was particularly noisy. One night, the noise became so suddenly terrific that I jumped up and ran over to inquire of the lieutenant what was happening.
“Days wore on till things began to assume a serious aspect. Others went all over the camp to ‘dig in.’ The men were set to work at dugouts. Every man had to be provided for sleeping in a dugout. This was a very fortunate order, as events proved. If we had not ‘dug in,’ our casualties the night of July 14 would have been immense. If I had slept that night on the ground instead of in a dugout, I would not have been alive next day to tell the story. The place where my canteen was and where had been my former sleeping place had been hit by several shells and my goods were scattered pellmell.
“An attack was expected Sunday, July 7th. There were many signs of activity among the Germans, and both French and Americans looked for the offensive on Sunday night, July 7th, but that night passed by, but in another week, the battle raged in all its fury.”
Ridout writes much more, but space is limited. Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at