Diary of a Soldier on the Front Lines in France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Paul B. Hendrickson was a soldier from Illinois who was sent to fight on the front lines in France in the Thirty-third Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). This passage from his diary recalls his experience just before and during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Hendrickson was a corporal in the signal platoon of the 129th Infantry Regiment and was sent to the front lines along the Meuse River, where some of the bloodiest battles of the war had taken place. Though Hendrickson managed to escape the war unharmed, his diary is a valuable record of the dangers and discomforts of war. Like many soldiers, his experiences ranged from constant, terrifying artillery fire to the simple pleasures of finding blackberries in the woods, and he meticulously notes letters from home sent and received. Through Hendrickson’s diary, daily life during one of most important battles of the war can be seen from the perspective of a soldier on the ground.

Summary Overview

Paul B. Hendrickson was a soldier from Illinois who was sent to fight on the front lines in France in the Thirty-third Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). This passage from his diary recalls his experience just before and during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Hendrickson was a corporal in the signal platoon of the 129th Infantry Regiment and was sent to the front lines along the Meuse River, where some of the bloodiest battles of the war had taken place. Though Hendrickson managed to escape the war unharmed, his diary is a valuable record of the dangers and discomforts of war. Like many soldiers, his experiences ranged from constant, terrifying artillery fire to the simple pleasures of finding blackberries in the woods, and he meticulously notes letters from home sent and received. Through Hendrickson’s diary, daily life during one of most important battles of the war can be seen from the perspective of a soldier on the ground.

Defining Moment

In spring 1918, the German high command initiated an offensive they hoped would finally break through the stalemate in France and win the war. The so-called Spring Offensive began on March 21, with a significant German advance. The German army was unable to hold this position, however, as their supply and communication lines were stretched too thin. Beginning in August, the Allies launched a series of attacks on the Western Front known as the Hundred Days Offensive. The Battle of Amiens on August 8 punched a hole through German lines and pushed them back toward the Hindenburg Line, a defensive position that meant the loss of all of the territory gained in the spring. In September, with the main German army fallen back to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line, a series of bloody attacks by the Allies over rough terrain sought to break through the line. As Hendrickson notes in his dairy, September 26 was the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest battle of the war for the AEF, and the event that finally brought an end to the war.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began with a massive artillery barrage–nearly four thousand guns shook the ground for miles around. At dawn, the AEF, along with French support, attacked through a dense fog. The strategic objective was the city of Sedan, and the German railway and communication lines there. The offensive was hampered by its geography–the dense Argonne Forest on one side and the Meuse River on the other. The German Army was in an excellent defensive position, and though the Allies outnumbered the Germans, the American soldiers were inexperienced overall, with Hendrickson’s Thirty-third Division one of only four divisions with any frontline experience. After promising progress, the offensive ground to a halt by October 1. American troops, having suffered heavy losses, were replaced with fresh units, and on October 4, US General John J. Pershing ordered a renewed attack all along the line. Though the Germans continued to retreat throughout October, they fought every step of the way, and the deep ravines, forests, and hills of the Argonne proved excellent defensive positions. In his diary, Hendrickson describes the Argonne as “almost impossible to be taken by any means of siege.” The tanks and aircraft that supported Allied troops were of little use in this terrain, and much of the fighting was at close range. Even as armistice negotiations were in process, the German and Allied armies continued to fight. In the end, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive cost the German Army around 100,000 casualties, and the AEF about 146,000 casualties. The French finally marched into Sedan on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

Author Biography

Paul B. Hendrickson was born in Palestine, Illinois, in 1896. When war with Germany was declared on April 6, 1917, Hendrickson was working as a store clerk in Lyons, Illinois, but resigned from that position on April 12 to join the Illinois National Guard. Hendrickson wanted to join the army band, and studied bugling and mapmaking. He was officially drafted into the US Army on August 5, 1917. On September 14, Hendrickson was sent to Camp Logan, Texas, where he was made a bugle instructor and continued to study signaling and telegraphy, along with mapmaking. He was also readied for trench warfare, and commissioned as a corporal in the Signal Corps in November. He arrived in France on May 24, 1918, and took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from September 26 of that year until the armistice on November 11. Hendrickson was back in the United States on May 22, in time to participate in the Chicago victory parade on June 2. He was honorably discharged from the Army on June 6, 1919. Hendrickson became an electrician after the war and worked for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad until he retired in 1961. Hendrickson died in 1990 at the age of ninety-three.

Document Analysis

This portion of Hendrickson’s diary begins on September 8, with a description of the area in Verdun, France, where he has been stationed. Since he is in the Signal Corps, he is sent to relieve the “colored” troops who were relaying visual messages. Hendrickson is stationed at the notorious Hill 304, the scene of vicious fighting during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, and now a memorial to the fallen. Hendrickson describes the desolation he sees in vivid detail. The town of Esnes is “leveled to the ground,” as are most others in the area. The cemetery of the town at the base of Hill 304 is blown up, with its “crucifix broken in pieces.” Hendrickson muses that even the dead cannot rest in peace in Verdun.

Hendrickson experienced trench life in a way that defined the experience at the Western Front for the British and French armies earlier in the war. He describes the tunnel that leads from the observation post to a dugout. Not only is the trench wet and cold, it is populated by “rats, big ones… in abundance.” Hill 304 itself is surrounded by shell holes and collapsed trenches with blown up wire. The new trenches dug for the signal men like Hendrickson unearthed body parts from previous battles. In his entry for September 9, Hendrickson writes, “I got a jaw bone & some teeth; Strong got a piece of skull.” The Germans shelled them “quite a bit at supper time,” but no further damage was done. On September 10, Hendrickson finds pleasure in the addition of a stove to their dugout, but got word the same day that he is to be transferred, causing understandable frustration: “[they’re] damned kind to me… get settled & then have to move.” It is difficult to imagine feeling settled in a forward trench surrounded by bones, but Hendrickson, like many others, worked to make his dugout comfortable and regretted having to leave it and his friends.

Hendrickson is back in Esnes by September 25, and is astonished by the extraordinary amount of artillery there, massed in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that was to begin the next day. Indeed, he “hardly recognized the place all filled up with heavy art(illery).” Hendrickson notes the deaths of horses several times in his diary. Often their corpses were left in view longer than those of human casualties and it made a marked impression. Hendrickson describes the beginning of the great offensive with the massive shelling of German positions at 11:00 p.m., and the men who went over the top at 8:00 a.m. the next day. He follows the promising advance over the next few days, as the Americans, “driving to beat hell,” advanced for miles and sent prisoners back to the line. On October 1, Hendrickson writes that the drive had stopped and the Americans were taking heavy fire, but by October 2, the artillery is “roaring” again. On October 8, his birthday, he observed that the bombardment was continuing despite the rain. The diary selection ends on October 12 with his tally of survivors and casualties: about 250 men are left in his battalion, 400 have been gassed, and the others “shot up.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this diary is the wartime experience of a young soldier who witnessed a battle of historic proportions. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive is the largest battle that the AEF fought during World War I and is still considered to be the largest battle in US military history in terms of manpower, with 1.2 million troops involved, about 26,000 US troops killed, and over 120,000 wounded. Hendrickson’s diary provides a unique perspective on this major historical event. Throughout his diary, he provides not only relevant military details, but also notes the weather, the death of animals, and the letters he sends and receives from home. Though he is surrounded by death and destruction, his entries still manage to capture moments of joy and delight. Hendrickson, a trumpet player, is excited to try out for the band; he enjoys berries in the woods, doughnuts, cabbage, and other “good eats.” His experience, as he presents it, is complex and nuanced–he is in the forefront of a brutal battle and near-constant bombardment, but takes pleasure in comforts, however small and rare, where he can find them nonetheless.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gill, James V. World War I Story of Cpl. Paul B. Henderson. 1997. James V. Gill, 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
  • Horne, Charles Francis. The Great Events of the Great War: A.D. 1918. Indianapolis: U of Indiana Alumni P, 1920. Digital file.
  • Kitchen, Martin. “The Ending of World War One, and the Legacy of Peace.” BBC History. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/war_end_01.shtml.24 Feb. 2014.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
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