The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
Danger on All Fronts
A World War I Story of Events Beyond Control For Private William C. Schneider
305th Artillery Regiment, 77th Division
Contributed by Bob Denison
William C. Schneider
As historians we tend to look at an event with an impersonal and far distant eye, quoting statistics to provide a dimension to our story. With the use of empirical evidence we often override the individual emotional effects generated by the event. Such is the case of the influenza epidemic of 1918 which killed more than 600,000 Americans, far overshadowing the combat deaths. Each one left a story of personal sadness.
Of the 116,000 deaths in the Armed Services in World War I, 63,000 or 54% were attributed to the flu and other illnesses. Armed with these details, we can well imagine the intensity of the trauma faced by those of this era. The thoughts of loved ones split between home and trenches were interlaced with a bewilderment as what to do about this disease near at hand.
William Helped Operate a Field Kitchen Like this in FranceMemoirs available today can help us better understand the events of the time, however, few seem to bring forth the flu's effect on both home and abroad at the same time. Here are edited excerpts of a memoir of Private William C. Schneider which he wrote in January, 1975, fifty-seven years after the facts. In a poignant way this story tells us of the innocent times as they were then and the tragic twist of events beyond the control of those who experienced them.
Excerpts from Pvt. William C. Schneider's Memoir: dated January, 1975, First Cook, Company D, 305th Field Artillery, 77th Division (National Army, "Metropolitan [New York]" Division)
"On March 4th,1917, (Wilson) was inaugurated and on April 6, 1917, declared war on Germany and her allies who were 23 miles outside of the city of Paris. All of the young men had to register for the draft and were subject to be called up for military service. ....At about this time silent moving picture shows were becoming popular and were being shown seven nights a week....I was an usher, collected tickets, sold tickets....and assisted the movie picture machine operator....This was the time I met my first girlfriend.
"Mrs. McConnell and two daughters would come to the movies and several times (one of the daughters) Edith McConnell would come alone or with her sister. When that happened I would ask her to wait until I put out the lights and locked up and I would walk her home.....She was a swell girl, tall, blonde, friendly and came from a good family. I dated her during the summer and on Sunday afternoon would take her on canoe trips ...
"I was called up in the draft twice and was twice rejected because I was underweight. I only weighed 110 lbs., however the third time, I was accepted and on March 28, 1918 I was inducted into the Army....Edith gave me a Waltham Wrist Watch with a luminous dial and I gave her my man's diamond ring to wear while I was in the service.
"I was put into the kitchen....and on April 25, we burned our straw bed sacks, were entrained and left for Hoboken to the pier and by 10 AM we were on board the transport 'Von Steuben' ...we left the pier and sailed under the Brooklyn Bridge and out to sea. .... We went to Baccarat in Lorraine, then Bainville, then Charmes, then Donie where a German plane spotted us and I was severely burned when a coffee urn exploded and was in the hospital for 2 months. Upon my return to the unit we moved around through the winter.
"Referring back to the last week in June while we were at Camp De Souge in the southern part of Bordeaux, an epidemic of Spanish Influenza spread over Europe, and many of the men were sick and some died. The officers went into Bordeaux and brought back truckloads of whiskey which was the only thing that helped. At night we slept in the barracks with cloth masks over our mouth and nose.
Well, in the afternoon of November 11, 1918, we did receive some mail. I had two letters from my sister, so I read the oldest one first. She said that the Asian Flu had come to the States and many people were sick and a lot of them were dying. She said Edith caught the bug, was home in bed but feeling better. The next letter that she wrote a week later, I opened next and she told me of the beautiful funeral and how everybody felt so sorry. That was when I realized that my girlfriend had passed away. I didn't sleep much that night for I was very much down in the dumps.
"On April 17 we packed up and...were on our way and sailed for home on April 21.... We arrived at Hoboken at 9 AM, Tuesday April 29, 1919. On May 1 I received a 48 hour pass to go home...and I arrived home on Central Street in Turners Falls (Massachusetts) ....Mother, Dad, Rose, and Herbert were glad to see me...and everybody swarmed around me.... I went downtown and called on Mr. and Mrs. McConnell. They were still stunned from the loss of their daughter.....it was a sad meeting and all three of us wept. Mrs. McConnell gave me back my diamond ring that I let Edith wear while I was gone.
The Influenza Hit the Homefront Hard
"...One night after Dad got home from work a friend on the street who owned a car offered to take us to the Springfield Cemetery to visit the grave of Edith. The tombstone read 'Edith A. McConnell, Born June 27, 1895 - Died October 11, 1918 - age 23'. Well, that was a short romance that ended rather abruptly and unexpectedly. In the Argonne Forest on October 10 and 13, I was burying two of my comrades while the folks at home laid my girlfriend away."
In a sequel to his memoir, Bill Schneider wrote:
"During the winter of the year 1917, while I was courting my first girl friend, Edith, on Sunday afternoon and evening we used to play cards with her folks; she also played the piano and we used to have a songfest, and played several games. One that was quite popular at the time was an Ouija Board. ....We used to sit on the two chairs facing each other with the board resting on our two knees, we each placed our two hands on the edge of the board and by some mysterious movement it would spell out words by your hands touching certain letters, etc. Sort of a legerdemain or fortune telling procedure, which girls loved more than the boys did.
"Well, in the early part of March 1918 ...while (I was) waiting to be called for induction into the military services, Edith brought out the Ouija Board Game, to find out if the War would soon end and if I would be sent overseas to France.. I wasn't too keen about it but she insisted we play - Well, one of the first words her finger spelled out was 'Death.' Well, she started to cry, as she knew I was leaving most anytime soon, thinking I would be the one that wouldn't be lucky enough to return from the Service.
"That was the end of the game that night or ever after. She and I didn't realize it at the time that 'Death' could come to either one of us. This may have been a premonition, ESP. I left home on March 28, 1918, spent 13 months overseas, had some very close shaves I shall never forget, however, I came back and 'Death' had claimed her while I was away.
"The last time I saw Edith was when she came to Camp Upton on the tip of Long Island with my folks just a few days before we sailed to France."
William C. Schneider, born in 1893, lived to be 95 years old having lived a full life with many rewards, both material and personal, coming to him. He was married on June 6, 1922, to Dorothy M. Rau, exactly twenty-two years before other American combat soldiers landed in France. He lost his wife in 1969 yet continued to be active in his community to include writing many articles on his life as a Doughboy during the Great War. He had a successful career in the cutlery business being noted for his skills and diligence to his profession and his warm relations with his fellow employees. A man of integrity who was never afraid of good, hard, honest work. And, "Bill" Schneider was proud to be an American, something he learned from his German born parents. His qualities of character were passed on to his son, William, and daughter, Helen Ann, and their 8 children.
Where William Last Saw Edith
Sources and Thanks: William Schneider of Danville, Califorinia and son of the subject contributed the materials on his father including the photo. Additional photos were contributed by Ray Mentzer.
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