FROM A SOLDIER’S HEART (1919)
163 pgs; Color Frontispiece of Oil Painting; and 4 Original Drawings
Harold Speakman served as 1st Lieutenant, 83rd “Ohio” Division, 332nd Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Platoon, Company F (only American regiment on Italian Front in WWI). The book follows his company from American Midwest, across the Atlantic, by train over English countryside, to billeting in a french village in the Marne.
Thereafter, detached from the 83rd Division, the 332nd transfers to Italy, where it is stationed near Verona, before participating in the final offensive against the Austrians across the Piave River Valley, between Venice and Vittorio-Veneto. After the Armistice, his battalion was ordered to Montenegro in the Balkans for peace keeping duty, and to insure delivery of two shiploads of flour from the Bay of Cattaro to Niegosh and Cettinje. At the time, Montenegro was torn by civil war between “Revolutionists” seeking an independent republic and Serbian backed “Federalists” backing absorption into the first Yugoslavian state.
Marching up a steep, winding trail from Cattaro to Niegosh, the Americans meet a large force of Revolutionists seeking protection from advancing Federalist forces. They are given protection, food, and lodging in return for giving up their arms and assisting with unloading flour from the supply ships.
This book is a tribute to the positive and indomitable American spirit of the age. Its uniqueness comes, somewhat, in that, though written by a soldier at the front in wartime, there are no detailed combat scenes, only a reflection of a soldier upon how grand it is to be alive, and the potential for transcendence of the tyranny and small mindedness which had spawned the War To End All Wars.
“TO THE HAPPY-GO-LUCK, FOOT WEARY
SECOND BATTALION OF THE AMERICAN
REGIMENT THAT WENT TO ITALY”
“I remember walking up and down my room nearly all of that night. Even to the last, one kept thinking that perhaps it might be arranged without war. Everything seemed hushed and asleep, and yet I knew that throughout the length and breadth of the land thousands were keeping vigil, were fighting the thing out for themselves, and in some strange way I felt quite cheered and comforted by their companionship.
When morning came I looked about the familiar room, at the place where I had worked – at my books – and I remember feeling a distinct sense of bewilderment that these things which had meant so much no longer seemed to be an intimate part of me. Indeed, during the hours of the night, almost without knowing it I had crossed my own small Rubicon
This, I am sure, was a very common experience. Everyone felt in a more or less similar way, a gradual awakening to what may be called the spirit of serving. Of course, even at that never-to-be forgotten time, one’s inner life was one’s own to share only as much as one wished; but during those splendid days we wanted to share everything with each other! We all wanted so truly and sincerely to give!
It is a grateful thing to know that you who read these pages (written mostly in France and Italy and the Balkans) will so well understand their moods. And it is pleasant to feel that because we have all served together, each in his own way, this book may gently make for me an occasional unknown friend.”
Excerpt, page 76:
“Armistice! The last drive is finished. It is just as though one had waked up like Epimetheus for the first time on a spring morning and we are looking around in wonder at a new, young world! It is the first time in days that there has been anything in our universe but grimness and exhaustion. An armistice! It is the first time in I do not know how long, that anyone has looked at a tree or a crag or a sunset except to appraise it quickly and coldly for its exact military value.
Today one sees flowers for the first time, and wonders for a moment where they have been! But the flowers have been there, and the woods and the meadows. It is not they who have been away; they have been waiting, as always, ready to give generously of beauty to anyone who would accept. Yesterday we could see no beauty anywhere. Today, it is trembling on every leaf, glowing in every flower. The flowers and leaves have not changed. It is oneself that changes. For a moment a window is opened, a door unlatched – and when we look again at the same place it may be that we shall only see a blank wall. That is the pathos of beauty and the pathos of us. Now we catch a glimpse, a vision of something – and now we see nothing at all.
If our perceptions are continually changing, what standard have we by which to judge beauty? That, I think, is like the questions one reads in some people’s books. It is really one of those questions not to be answered at all.”
Excerpt, page 84:
“We have passed through a day of great pity; and what makes it sadder is that we can do nothing. Everything that would be of help has been given away. Today our trucks passed thousand after thousand of freed Italian prisoners trudging on and on in a terrible endless procession toward the south. Broken, yellow, and consumptive, many of them with the mask of death upon their faces, they drag themselves forward through the long hours of the day and night, bent and blasted, with eyes of the dead. I have seen a dying man with tortured feet who has walked fourteen days from a prison camp in Bohemia. I have seen a man newly come from twenty-six months in an Austrian prison who cringed when some one made a quick movement to give him a cigarette. I have seen a gray skeleton of a man munching on a piece of bread, closely followed by another even more terrible, whose eyes sought eagerly for the crumbs dropped by the first.
Then, too, I have seen regiments of Italian troops, pathetic old fellows who ought long ago to have been discharged even from the reserve, making their way northward in a hopeless procession to guard the frontiers. The war is over, but their work is not yet done. They must go on as they have been going on, perhaps for years, moving here and there, obeying orders they do not understand the reason for, taking what very little they may of life as they go. After eight or ten years of this hopeless, soulless sort of thing any man’s spirit might break. If we Americans only understood our birthright!
At last, just as it grew dark, we crossed the Tagliamento River and whirled on, swaying and jumping over the torn roads, toward the south. And still at either side of the road marched that silent, deathly legion of returning prisoners.
Stretching for several kilometers along the Piave had been the towns of Novente and Santa Dona. I say – at the risk of criticism, I know – that there are no more pathetic war ruins in all of Europe than in Italy. Just as the Italian buildings are softer in contour and line and coloring, so are their ruins more tender, more terrible – it is as though a woman had been killed. Time has garmented the outlines of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but Novente and Santa Dona and a hundred other Italian towns lie naked and silent under the sky. Even the tinkling rush of the river seems to sink into a deep, whispering sigh as it flows over the white sands close to their resting place.”
Excerpt, page 161:
“I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals old and young.”
“Today, in the ship’s library, I came across that familiar sonnet by Mrs. Browning.
‘To bear a gift for mortals old and young’! What strange, irreconcilable gifts the last two years have brought! One could hardly call the years that brought them ‘dear and wished for’, and yet there have been gifts – such gifts as years of peace could never bring. What have the war years given? Hate and bitterness and regret? Yes, but why put these things down on paper, which, fragile as it is, will long outlast their potency?
Rather let us remember those other things. Let those who have had the part of action remember how they who waited have kept alight the fires of courage and loyalty and sacrifice at home. We shall never know the countless places where they have glowed, we cannot grasp the rugged or tender or childish hands which have tended their flames, flashing together as one, have shined to our farthest horizons, and lit the way for us.
The adventure is nearly ended. We are too close to see clearly – one must stand off a few years, and look back. But we know that the melody of life has been heard for a while with a new and unforgettable harmony, full of strength and beauty.”
Dust Jacket Promotion (from back of Hilltops In Galilee):
“The story of the lone American regiment which fought on the Italian front, a battalion from which, months after the armistice was signed, helped put down a rebellion in Montenegro.
In a breezy chatty way the author, who was one of them, tells how his regiment, formed somewhere in the Middle West, crosses the sea, goes through England, stops a while in France, and then over to Italy, follows the retreating Austrians out of that country and then passes down the Dalmatian coast on up into Montenegro to help subdue the rebels, and finally embarks again and by way of Genoa and Gibraltar back to the homeland.
Most entertainingly the author tells the story, enlivening his narrative with numerous incidents and with occasional snatches of poetry of no mean order, and making us see with the skill of a true artist many a fleeting picture of snow-swept mountains, rugged cliffs, desolated landscapes, dismantled villages and soldiers tramping on and on through fields and along streams where soldiers before them marched from the days of Romulus until now.” – Northwestern Christian Advocate
See Also, Trench Warfare Illustrations, from Arthur Empey’s “Over The Top” (1917)