Portage County Historical Society publishes second book about World War I
The Portage County Historical Society has published a second book in a planned series about World War I. The Society plans to observe the 100th anniversary of American involvement in that war during 2017.
The book, “Songs from the Trenches” by Captain C.W. Blackall, was first published in 1915 and features poems written by Blackall, who served with the British Army in the trenches of France during World War I.
Tim Siebert, president of the Historical Society, said he decided to publish the book after finding an advertisement for the sale of liberty bonds while looking through the original Portage County Gazette issues printed during World War I. The ad used a poem from the book called “The Song of the Trench.”
“It gave a flavor for the guys in the trenches, better than anything I had read,” Siebert said.
“Little is known about this English infantry captain,” Siebert wrote in a preface to the book. “However, his poems give insights into what the men in the trenches were thinking about and/or feeling. Some of the poems can be very dark, and none are light, but that was the reality of trench warfare.”
The poems were written by Blackall during the winter of 1914-15 and reflect the conditions troops went through during that season, beating back attacks and losing men in their own failed attacks against the enemy.
World War I began with trench warfare, when troops occupied trenches across a front of fighting lines, with the section between known as “no man’s land” because troops would have to leave the security of the trenches, which protected them from the enemy’s small arms fire, as well as some artillery fire.
“No man’s land” areas were protected against troop assaults by barbed wire and land mines, and trench warfare became a pseudonym for a siege or stalemate. Artillery initially lacked the range to extend beyond “no man’s land,” but occasionally shells managed to hit the trenches.
Troops constructed elaborate trench and dugout systems, trying to maintain a homey atmosphere in the mud and grime they were forced to live in. Trenches extended the entire length of the border area between Germany and Belgium and France in World War I, designed to thwart efforts to expand into new territory by invaders who were met by rapid-fire weapons.
Blackall joined the British Army in 1900 to fight in the Boer War in South Africa, and a poem about his experience in that war, “Then and Now,” is included in the book. He received the Queen’s South Africa Medal and the King’s South Africa Medal before he left South Africa in 1902.
About 1909 he became a professional actor and married an actress, then they traveled to the United States to perform in New York in 1913, returning to Great Britain in 1914. After World War I started, he rejoined his old unit, “The Buffs,” and went to France in November.
In 1915 he spent three months in a hospital because of illness, then returned to the front. When the Germans began a spring offensive in 1918, Blackall led his battalion to Fremicourt and dug in behind the main line.
The book, “The Great War: The Standard History of the World-Wide Conflict” by H. W. Wilson and J. A. Hammerton, said “those out-posts and hastily constructed strong points were subjected to the most destructive artillery barrage ever known, when 3.2 million (3,200,000) gas and high explosive shells fell on the unfortunate defenders in the opening barrage.”
The barrage continued to March 24, when Blackall was included among the list of killed in action. As with many victims of heavy artillery fire, his body was never recovered. At war’s end, more than 8 million, and possibly 11 million, combat soldiers were dead. World War I was the first war to record more deaths from combat than from disease.
“Songs from the Trenches” is available from the Historical Society for $10 by calling 715-600-4930 and leaving a message.