Thomas Shinn's Last Week of War

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

Thomas Pinkney Shinn of Kannapolis, N.C., had been serving in France during World War I since August 1918. He was serving as a Sergeant in Company B, 321st Infantry, 81st Division, U.S. Army, along the front lines in France. November 1918 came up on Shinn's unit, with the unknown future Armistice to come in the middle of the month. Thomas Shinn would chronicle in his wartime diary his views, thoughts, and experiences of the war leading up to the Armistice. During just over a week period from November 4 to November 12, Shinn's diary entries give us a personal perspective of how a mostly-North Carolinian unit approached the final days of combat in WWI. In this blog post, we are going to follow along with quotes from Shinn's diary in chronological order, so you can understand that just because an Armistice was eventually called to cease hostilities, that didn't mean that the fear and horror of war had not affected the men of the 321st Infantry. 

Route of Travel of the 1st Battalion, 321st Infantry Regiment

[Shinn's Battalion]

November 1-7: Chatel-Sur-Moselle to Verdun via Sampigny, St. Mihiel

November 7-9: Verdun (Pave barracks)

November 9-10: Woods west of Chatillon (divisional reserve)

November 11: Battle of Moranville, 6:00 A.M.-11:00 A.M.

November 12: Battlefield (bivouacked night of November 11th)

November 4, 1918

". . . we passed thru’ St. Mihiel [France] which was once a beautiful city, but now hardly a stone was left unmoved fine homes were scattered like a little boy knocks his block house when he is tired playing. Churches and school buildings were piled up as a whirlwind piles up loose sand in March. Great steel Mfg. [manufacturing] plants looked as tho[ugh] a flood had struck them. Great fields which had once supplied France with grain are now covered with barbed wire and shell craters great forests which would have supplied France with wood to burn and lumber to build were [?] down as a [?] cuts his hay. . ."

November 5, 1918

". . . I went six weeks without pulling off my clothes and 35 days without pulling off my shoes[,] and had cooties on me at the same time[;] but that’s not a disgrace[,] for every soldier has them on the front[.] [H]e doesn't have time to think of clothes[,] baths[,] beds[,] or how deep the mud is[;] but he only wonders how he can save his skin and kill the Huns [Germans]."

November 6, 1918

". . . hiked until about 10 P.M. when we came to what is called the underground city of Verdun. The big mountain was a solid dugout big enough to hold at least 5,000 soldiers 40 feet under the ground kitchens and everything the dugouts had electric lights and beds in fact it was an underground city as it was called the top of the ground was almost covered with big guns from 3 to 10 inch guns manned by the 2nd French Artillery and the 35th American Artillery. I shall never forget how surprised I was when I went into the underground city and found what a strong place it was and what it meant to the Allies it was built by the French at the beginning of the war and was all that had kept the Germans from capturing Verdun."

November 7, 1918

". . . The Germans didn't know very much about the underground city of Verdun for they had never succeeded in taking it from the French altho[ugh] the most famous fight of the whole was fought at this place the top of the ground was a solid mass of human and horse bones. The Germans lost 400,000 of the Crown P[r]ince's army[,] and the French lost 90,000 killed in one battle on this hill and the hill is called "Dead Mans Hill." It is said that more than 700,000 bodies are buried on this hill[,] counting Germans[,] French[,] & Americans. I looked upon the skeleton of many horses and men burried together[,] and had been blown up by the big shell[s] that are still coming over[.] in so many cases a ring or any metal thing that the man had in his pocket still lay there[;] and by the bones of the horses still lay parts of the saddle and the bridle bits between his teeth[.] before the war the whole hill was covered with great trees for 15 miles[,] but now not a one was left whole only a stump a few feet high."

November 9, 1918

“At 4 A.M. a messenger came running into our P.C. hurriedly saying that the Capt.[ain] was wanted at Bn. [Battalion] P.C. at once the Capt. hopped out of bed and went down there at double time in a few minutes he came back and told us to get up, he gave me orders to get the Co. [commanding officer] up have breakfast and packs rolled and ready to go up to the front at 7:30 [A.M.]. I knew my time had come to see a real fight[,] but I didn’t think much about it for I was so used to obeying orders without thinking about the danger. . . ."

 

“Our orders read like this[:] the 322[nd] Inf. will go over the top at 8 A.M. 321[st] Inf. will follow them and relieve them at the first opportunity. at 7:30 A.M. we started up toward the front with heavy packs thru the rain and mud, and it was as cold as a whig[?]. we passed thru the artillery sector and they were putting down a fast and heavy barrage on the enemy’s back areas. It was a very thrilling sight. We were inspired by the knowledge that our time had come at last to go into a scrap. . .”

November 10, 1918

"At 4 A.M., we got orders to move up to relieve the 322nd Infantry which had been driving the Boche [Germans] slowly but surely. The night was a miserable one and our canteens which had a few drops of water which we were not allowed to drink was frozen[.] We were ordered to move up at daybreak, the roar of battle still raged on more than ever[.] as we were about to move out I found that my best friend Sgt. Hudgens was unable to go with us[;] he had Rheumatism and almost Pneumonia. The fact that he couldn't go with us almost broke his hea[r]t[,] but I was glad for I knew they killed men up there. I shall never forget when I shook his hand to tell him goodbye[--]we had soldiered together for 14 months and I couldn't help but cry[.] I told him if I didn't come back I'd do my best and go west trying to get a Boche [German]. Great tears came in our eyes when we told each other goodbye he wished me luck and we were off. . ."

“. . . The Capt[ain] Lieut[enant] Hall and I fell ino shell holes. We had no [spelling?] [spelling?] tools but we dug in about two feet in a very few minutes with our helmets and trench knives[.] as we dug there I struck something hard and wondered what it was but I dug on[.] pretty soon I found I was digging into a man's body[.] I threw the bones out one by one[,] but didn't go deep enough to get them all out so I lay in the hole on them all night."

". . . I prayed that if I was hit that it would be a direct hit and I wouldn't know anything about it. . .I thought of thousands of things as I lay in the two foot hole with my knees between the knees of the Capt[ain] trying to keep from freezing. I thought of Mr. Owen, the folks at home, but the most of all of the little girl I left back there expecting me to come back[.] I hardly thought it possible to get out alive. . ."

This is the Regimental Field Order that sent the men of the 321st Infantry, 81st Division, “over the top,” at 6 A.M. on November 11, 1918 (from The History of the 321st Infantry, with a Brief Historical Sketch of the 81st Division, 1919, pages 66-67)

Field Orders, Headquarters 321st Infantry, No. 9., 11 November, 1918, 3:00 A. M.

 

1. The enemy still holds Hautecourt and the line Hautecourt-Bois de Manhuelles. This regiment will attack at 6:00 hours.

 

2. Ultimate objective of the attack is Warcq. Main strength of first attack will be directed against Hautecourt and will envelope Montricelle Bois and flank the enemy's line west of Montricelle.

 

3. This regiment will be reinforced by Cos. A and B, 317th M. G. Bn., by Cos. B, C and D of the 1st Bn., 322d Infantry, by the 2d Bn., 306th Engrs. (less 1 Co.) and by two Cos. 306th Am. Sup. Tr.

 

4. The 1st and 3d Bns. will attack enemy positions straight to their fronts. The 2d Bn., leaving Moranville, will proceed northeast between Le Grand Cognon and Le Petite Cognon woods, thence attacking enemy positions south of Hautecourt and flanking Bois de Montricelle. Co. B, 317th M. G. Bn., is assigned to the 2d 8n. and its C. O. will report to C. O. 2d Bn. for orders.

 

5. The C. O. 2d Bn., 306th Engrs., will hold one company as regimental infantry reserve near the regimental P. C. He will use the other companies to maintain the repair of roads leading to Moranville and immediately repair the bridge on Moulainville-Moranville road just west of Moranville. The companies of the 306th Am. Sup. Tr. will be used to bring forward ammunition supply and to assist the Engrs. in work on the road.

 

6. Battalions will move forward to the attack without further orders at 6:00 a. m. (6 hours) this morning. Very thin formations will be assumed, wide intervals and distances. Scouts will be utilized as cleaning up and sniping parties. Aggressiveness must characterize the attack at all stages. Liaison with aeroplane and artillery as per Operations Memo. No. 44. Keep these headquarters informed of every movement. In case of fog runners and telephones will of necessity be depended upon for co-operation with artillery. In absence of panels, display towels, socks, underwear, handkerchiefs, mirrors, to mark out front lines.

 

7. Regimental P. C. remains at present position. Forward message center will be established early in the morning in Moranville.

 

Frank Halstead, Colonel, 321st Infantry, Commanding.

November 11, 1918

"[early morning on November 11]. . . We were in an awful fix in a trap some from all sides and one men were being killed by M[achine]G[uns] from the front and a box barrage from the rear. The woods to our front was filled with M[achine]G[uns] and barbed wire and it was impossible to advance."

 

". . . At 11 A.M. we ceased firing and the Germans jumped up threw their rifles down and came running to meet us. They wanted to shake hands and talk with us but we made them go back."

 

"[on the evening of November 11]. . . The Germans celebrated all night long by sending up flairs and lights from the trenches and they were so glad they wouldn't sleep at all but we were perfectly willing to rest and sleep."

 

November 12, 1918

"…It seemed like a new world to see great piles of dead bodies and the many kinds of guns and machines of war and not hear a shot or a sound."

 

"…Many times while fighting I had ask[ed] God to spare my life, and now my heart went up to him in gratitude for answering my prayers."

 

To learn more about the life and military service of Thomas Shinn, you can read a DNCR WWI blog post on him as part of the "Profiles from the Archives" series here. You can read Thomas Shinn’s WWI diary and the full entries for these days in November 1918 online through the WWI collection of the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina.

 

Resources

Clarence Walton Johnston, The History of the 321st Infantry, with a Brief Historical Sketch of the 81st Division, 1919, viewed online at https://archive.org/details/historyof321stin00john/page/n5