Skip to comments.The last of the breed
Posted on 11/11/2002 3:26:25 AM PST by Tennessee_Bob
The last of the breed
Tennessean one of only about 300 World War I veterans still surviving
By Fred Brown, News-Sentinel senior writer
November 11, 2002
LAWRENCEBURG, Tenn. - The old soldier, now 105, sits in a wheelchair as a nurse straightens his pajamas and helps him slip into a dress coat. Harvel C. Edwards is getting ready to have his photograph taken wearing his most prestigious medal, the French Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, France's highest national order.
His eyesight is gone now, and he can barely hear even with someone shouting into his ear, but he has not forgotten his military service and adventures in World War I. His room in the NHC HealthCare facility in Lawrenceburg is adorned with the bric-a-brac of those days: old photographic albums of his buddies, WWI postcards of devastated French towns, artillery shells and destroyed tanks. Framed stories, shiny plaques and clippings hang haphazardly on the room's walls, highlighting his wartime accomplishments.
"Do you remember where you were in World War I?" the nurse yells into his ear.
Edwards, born in 1897, nods his head and a smile breaks across his thin, dry lips.
"In Flanders Fields," he says, just above a whisper. His voice is as raspy as an old record. "Chateau Thierry. They were shooting at me," he says. His clear blue eyes, darkened by age, glisten with tears. Then he adds, "They were shooting at us."
Edwards is one of only two living World War I veterans in Tennessee on record with the Veterans Administration. The oldest WWI veteran is Henry E. Hoodenpyle, now 108, who lives in Sequatchie Valley. A third Tennessee WWI veteran lives in Kentucky, but is still counted on the Veterans Affairs rolls.
As of Sept. 30, 2002, there were only 347 WWI veterans left worldwide. That generation of doughboys who went over there, the "Sammies" to the French, are fading into history, and soon will be gone forever, except for the stories preserved by relatives or their own memoirs.
Edwards served in the U.S. Army with the 56th Infantry, 3rd Division, from July 7, 1917, to Sept. 3, 1919. He was in France from March 1918 to December 1918 with the 3rd Division (Regulars), nicknamed the Marne Division, serving under Gen. Joseph Dickman, Gen. Preston Brown and Gen. R.L Howze.
He saw action at Chateau Thierry, while others of his division were in Jaulgonnne, Mount St. Perte, Argonne, the Meuse and the Rhine.
Although his memory is somewhat faulty now, a few years ago, Edwards wrote down his experiences with the help of his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, who affectionately calls his grandfather "Poppa." Jonathan acted as typist and recorder.
From Tennessee to France
Harvel C. Edwards was born in Sinking Creek in Perry County, Tenn., July 1, 1897. He was in Waynesboro High School when, three months after the United States declared war on Germany April 6, 1917, he enlisted in the Army along with his brother, Clyde. They were sent to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., to train for overseas combat.
Harvel was assigned to Company D, 3rd Division Ammunition Train.
By May 1918, the Germans had driven the French army back to a line just north of Paris, at Chateau Thierry on the Marne River, and life for Harvel changed considerably.
In June, the French resistance broke down, and the boys of the 56th Infantry, 3rd Division, were sent in to plug the gap. Edwards found himself hauling ammunition and large artillery shells to the front line every day as a driver in his Nash truck.
At one point in Chateau Thierry, he was put out at a crossroads and told by one of his captains to wait until a later convoy arrived. He was to catch a ride with them and guide the convoy to the front.
It was night, one of the most dangerous times in battle. German artillery lit up the darkness with shellfire that screamed through the sky, making a frightening whistling noise.
For about 45 minutes, Harvel stood behind a huge tree, listening to try to ascertain which direction the telltale whistling was coming from. Then he would estimate where the bomb might land, and quickly scurry around to the other side of the tree. At that time his hearing was sharp enough to save his life.
Next he was sent to the Aisne River for the defense of the Marne, a battle that became known as the Aisne-Marne Defensive. Here, 3rd Division engineers had the job of blowing up bridges, keeping Edwards busy hauling ammo and shells during the day and night.
The Aisne is a deep and wide river. The only way across is by bridge or boat. This region is also the place that trench warfare was begun by the German army.
Near the end of the war, Edwards was assigned to the Verdun sector, where the French and Germans had been annihilating each other for four years. He remembers it as a ghastly, broken place - a hell on Earth. Here, Edwards transported munitions to artillery units that began to shell the German trenches with relentless vigor.
"After our heavy artillery barrage, we drove the Germans out of the trenches, and that was the last of the trench warfare," he wrote in his memoirs. After that crushing blow, the Germans were in full retreat.
During the final days of the war, he was working as an assistant driver, delivering 3-inch shells to the 76th Artillery Regiment, which was firing French 75 mm howitzers. They were battling Germans who were now on the run. Three men in the 76th were lost in that battle.
Scared in Flanders Fields
Harvel C. Edwards had been there for the beginning of America's entry into World War I, when the fledgling force of 107,641 men arrived in France with Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing. That Army was 17th in the world in terms of size.
Before he came home, he would be one of 2 million Americans who fought in World War I. Some 116,000 American soldiers died on French soil, and more than 14,000 are buried at the Meuse-Argonnne American cemetery.
He was also there on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the shooting stopped, now known as "Armistice Day," which officially received its name in America in 1926 through a congressional resolution. It became a national holiday 12 years later by similar congressional action.
On the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, Edwards had just gotten in from a long ammunition run to the 76th. He wandered into the unit's company office tent and looked at the bulletin board. He could not believe what he read. It was a note from Pershing: "The Armistice was signed this morning at 2 a.m. with the Germans and will go into effect at 11 a.m. today. Until that time it is the duty of every American soldier to destroy all enemy property possible."
At 10:30 a.m. the boys of the American Expeditionary Forces all along the entire front joined the artillery. They fired every shell they had toward the German lines.
"Most of the guns were fired recklessly as everyone wanted to fire the big guns on the last day of the war," wrote Edwards. "At 11 a.m. all firing ceased, and for the first time since the first of June, I could not hear the sound of guns. We stayed in the little town 20 miles above Verdun until the 14th of November, when we started on the march to the Rhine."
On the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, when he was 101, Edwards was presented the French Legion of Honor by Jean-Paul Monchau, Consul General of France. He was the first Tennessee WWI veteran to receive the honor.
"I was scared," he says as his nurse and grandson began to gently move him from his wheelchair to the bed.
"Yes," he whispers. "In Flanders Fields."
Maybe it was the lighting, the shadows or a mirage, but the old soldier's lips began to move as if he were reciting the poem that John McCrae wrote to commemorate that battle:
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."
As he settles into his bed, he whispers the words once more: "In Flanders Fields."
World War I veteran Harvel Edwards of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., supplied front-line troops in France with ammunition while serving in the U.S. Army. He is shown wearing the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur awarded to him by the French government for his service.
Harvel Edwards, center, is pictured with two buddies during Army basic training in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.
Anyone have a list? I would like to visit one.