by Thomas Boyd
University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Pp. 280 pages.
. $14,95 paper. ISBN:978-0-8032-6168-6
Recently, President George W Bush met with Corporal Frank Woodruff Buckles, who at the age of 107, is America’s last living veteran of the First World War. That war, and the men who fought it, are now nearly forgotten. When Taps is finally sounded for Corporal Buckles, there will no longer be any living memory of America’s military experience of World War I.
Among the millions of American fighting men who marched off to save Europe, end all war, and make the world safe for democracy (And who accomplished only one of those three goals, through no fault of their own) was Thomas Boyd. Born in Ohio in 1898, Mr Boyd joined the Marines when the war came, and saw action in France. When he returned home, he took up writing. His literary career was fairly brief, for Boyd died in 1935. But among his books was a remarkable novel, Through the Wheat, which deserves to be ranked among the best American war fiction.
Boyd combined an eye for detail, a talent for clear, highly readable prose, and actual combat experience to produce a book that was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Boyd has been compared to Hemingway. It would be going too far to say that Boyd was doing Hemingway before anyone knew what Hemingway was. But like Hemingway, he wrote a kind of direct, straightforward, action-oriented prose before such a style became common. Through the Wheat vividly captures frontline combat in World War I.
Through the Wheat follows the experience of William Hicks, an automatic rifleman in the Marine Corps, through his first experience of combat, at Belleau Wood. We meet him first in France, where he has for months been serving as a military policeman, stevedore, and construction laborer, but has yet to see combat. Neither Hicks nor most of his fellow Marines have had a great deal of training, and even the officers and NCOs are mostly green. (Only one officer in the battalion, a highly respected major, has been in combat, in the Philippines) But that will soon change as the unit is rushed to the front to help halt the great German offensive of 1918, which is slowly grinding its way toward Paris.
Throughout the book, the reader sees combat from a rifleman’s perspective. Boyd remains tightly focused on Hicks and a few other characters. Thus the reader never gets to see the larger tactical picture. Like Hicks, he is in the fog of war. When Hicks is sent out to locate a French unit that was to be posted on the Marines’ flank, there are no Frenchmen to be found, and neither Hicks nor the reader ever learns why. The first time Hicks is taken under fire is during a night patrol, and it’s friendly fire. One effect of this grunt’s eye view is to bring home to the reader how isolated the men were. Through the Wheat depicts infantry combat after long range rifles and machine guns forced the infantry to disperse, but before the advent of effective battlefield radio communications. Neither Hicks nor the reader know how the Marine attack is going. The first indications of success come when German troops begin to surrender. The first inkling of the cost of a successful attack does not come until after the attack is over, and reader is shocked to learn that the ground gained has cost the battalion 80-percent casualties, and that one whole company has been nearly annihilated.
Through the Wheat was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Boyd as matter of fact about the chaos of war, and what it does to men. He especially understood how the prolonged stress and fear of combat effects those exposed to it. He also has a talent for sheer terror, especially in a scene where Hicks and another Marine, while taking a wounded man to the rear, get caught in a barrage and are gassed. (Boyd was himself gassed.) But in other ways, the book is clearly a product of its time. The characters do not use the sort of obscene soldier language common in today’s war movies and fiction. They are also, at times,