The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I

The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I

The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I

The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I


Historian Virginia Bernhard has deftly woven together the memoirs and letters of three American soldiers—Henry Sheahan, Mike Hogg, and George Wythe—to capture a vivid, poignant portrayal of what it was like to be “over there.” These firsthand recollections focus the lens of history onto one small corner of the war, into one small battlefield, and in doing so they reveal new perspectives on the horrors of trench warfare, life in training camps, transportation and the impact of technology, and the post-armistice American army of occupation.

Henry Sheahan’s memoir, A Volunteer Poilu, was first published in 1916. He was a Boston-born, Harvard-educated ambulance driver for the French army who later became a well-known New England nature writer, taking a family name “Beston” as his surname. George Wythe, from Weatherford, Texas, was a descendant of the George Wythe who signed the Declaration of Independence. Mike Hogg, born in Tyler, Texas, was the son of former Texas governor James Stephen Hogg.

The Smell of War, by collecting and annotating the words of these three individuals, paints a new and revealing literary portrait of the Great War and those who served in it.


Until recently, I knew next to nothing about World War I except what I taught to college freshmen in my us history survey. I was a colonial American historian, working mainly in seventeenth-century sources. Then I detoured into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the Hoggs of Texas. When I discovered Mike Hogg’s World War I letters, I knew they had to see print—and then one thing led to another. in the course of editing Mike Hogg’s letters, I came across the “smell of war” quotation by Henry Sheahan and the history of the 90th Division by George Wythe. When I realized that all three of these young men had connections with one small battlefield in the Great War, I knew their stories could be a book.

Framed by the larger history of World War I, this work is a micro-history of that conflict. What happened from 1914 to 1918 on a threesquare-mile patch of land in northeastern France captures the whole history of the war. This place was called the Bois-le-Prêtre by the French and der Priesterwald by the Germans. in English it means “Priest’s Wood.” It was heavily forested, and during the war it came to be known as the “Wood of Death.” Hundreds of thousands of soldiers—French, German, and some American—fought and died there. the exact numbers will never be known.

Possession of the Bois-le-Prêtre was a key to controlling a major rail line and thus one key to winning the war. It was a bloody battleground off and on for four years, until American and French troops seized it in September 1918.

What took place in the Bois-le-Prêtre is what took place on the whole Western Front. From the ambulance drivers who often drove for days and nights without sleep, under fine and over unfamiliar terrain during pitch-dark nights, to the soldiers who went “over the top”

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