1. September 20, 1918
On the evening of September 25, 1918, Captain Raymond Earl Hill sat at his chair in his regimental headquarters and wrote the words, “The last week has certainly been a nightmare.” In the days before, the rain “came down in buckets” as his unit waited at a rail yard, ready to be transported to the front.
The front was just northwest of Verdun, the site of a battle that two years earlier claimed the lives of 300,000 men. Quite rightly, Captain “Cap” Hill and everyone else “realized that we were bound for the big show, an offensive.” This was what he came to France for.
2. September 25, 1918
Prior to Tyler Lynch transcribing his great-grandfather’s war diary, Cap Hill had no idea why he had his nickname. But folks called him “Cap” for his rank in the army, and it was a nickname that stuck around his whole life (and beyond).
Cap Hill didn’t know it on September 26, 1918, but he was about to participate in the deadliest battle in American history, which was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On the eve of battle, the officer was able to procure himself a comfortable place to sleep: a loft in a barn. On the day the offensive began, he witnessed the gigantic buildup of force heading into battle.
3. August 2013
When Cap Hill’s story reached his great-grandson’s hands almost 100 years after it was written, Tyler Lynch didn’t know much about the man. But even though he died six years before Lynch was born, Lynch jumped at the opportunity to read his diary.
“You’re kidding me,” Lynch said to his mother when she gave the diary to him. “What did he do in the war?” Lynch was a history buff, and he had no idea then, but he was about to embark on a journey to bring his great-grandfather’s war experience back to life. “You should take it home with you,” Lynch’s mother answer. “Read it and find out for yourself.”
4. September 26, 1918
Cap Hill awoke from the barn and joined his unit, “then we learned of the big offensive.” He learned that his was one of five divisions in the area, since at the time the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the biggest military operation in United States history and involved 1.2 million men.
“One can never realize nor can it be described that wild scene of preparation for the drive,” Hill wrote. As Hill traveled by car, he noticed thousands of jeeps, all fully loaded with ammunition and equipment, and columns of men were all going one way. In the evening his unit huddled in a barn as shells dropped around them. “The heavens were ablaze with zigzag flashes,” he wrote. They were on reserve, ready to go tomorrow.
5. September 27, 1918
Cap Hill wrote his entire war diary on a single 8.5″ x 11″ legal pad, and it goes on for over a hundred pages. The sections before the war’s final days are the most heart-wrenching and incredible, as Cap Hill and his unit managed to advance almost four miles on the first day.
“The roads were crammed with rushing ambulances coming from the lines with the seriously wounded,” Hill wrote. Cap Hill wasn’t a part of his unit’s forward assault, but he followed them up, and as his unit rushed forward, he saw No Man’s Land for the first time.
6. September 28, 1918
The poet Wilfred Owen once wrote that No Man’s Land was “like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.” Cap Hill had a similar sentiment when he wrote, “The sight can’t well be described on paper.”
He spent the entire day there, breathing it in, bit by bit, one terrifying sight after another. Just picture muddy earth thrown around like a giant toddler took hold of it, barbed wire mangling the landscape, big craters full of water deep enough to drown in, and that’s just what you can see. After looking at it, Cap Hill wrote, “I’m all in, ‘Je suis fatigue.’”
Lynch didn’t do anything with his great-grandfather’s diary for a few months after receiving it, while he decided whether or not to give it to a museum. Eventually, Lynch made up his mind, saying, “This was a family emblem first, historical document second.”
The best thing to do, Lynch decided, was to transcribe it, but that only increased Lynch’s appetite as, “I became obsessed,” he said. Suddenly, he was requesting records from the National Archives and calling up relatives to talk about Cap. In learning about Cap, Lynch was uncovering the dark final days of WWI, through the lens of his great-grandfather.
8. October 1, 1918
“Great news today,” Cap Hill wrote. “Bulgaria has accepted all of the Allies’ proposals and an armistice has been declared. That is just the beginning, Turkey will be next, then Austria.” News was filtering in and Cap Hill was reading everything he could get his hands on.
The notion was spreading all over: the war would be over soon. But WWI was not a war that wound down to a halt, as the end happened abruptly; and until that day commanders on both sides sought to make their enemies’ lives miserable. The way the Germans, British, French, and Americans saw it, there were only a few weeks left to make the enemy pay.
9. October 2, 1918
Neither side really let up on the artillery barrages, and screaming death reigned down from the skies on a daily basis for most soldiers. Cap Hill’s diary can attest to that, as on September 26th, he wrote, “The old 155’s were falling all around our shell of a barn.”
Then, on September 27th, “The [German] artillery is still on the job, we can vouch for that.” And on October 2nd, “Between [the rats] and the [German] shells I got a good nights [sic] rest.” Lynch recognized his family’s humor in that last line, but must’ve cringed when he read, “Every time I hear a door slam I jump about ten feet. It’s great on your nerves.”
10. October 3, 1918
There was so much action for Cap Hill during this next week that he didn’t have time to write until October 9th. But on the 3rd he moved his unit up in the Argonne Forest, and just before midnight, the Germans opened up a ferocious artillery barrage that “was a rain of lead,” and lasted six hours
This was followed by an attack, but the German onslaught was driven back quickly by an American counterattack and a massive artillery barrage. Cap Hill commented, “Imagine if you can fifty guns firing at the rate of 30 shots a minute or until they became so hot that an egg placed upon one will become cooked in less than 2 minutes.”
11. October 5, 1918
Lynch noticed something striking about Cap’s writing: how understated some events were. “Talked with one officer just back from hospital who went temporarily crazy from terrific effects of shell fire—pitiful sight.” From all those heavy guns that never stopped firing, and all the shells that poured in on top of them, WWI saw many men afflicted with shell shock.
It took many forms, but the best way to describe it is a person whose nerves are absolutely shattered. It made Cap Hill think of William Tecumseh Sherman’s quote, “War is hell.” But Cap took it further when he said, “Sherman was sure right—but if he was in this war he couldn’t have put it so mildly.”
12. October 13, 1918
“The most wonderful news (or rumors) that I ever heard—The [Germans] have accepted Pres. Wilson’s 14 peace proposals and agreed to withdraw all forces from Allied territory,” Cap wrote. He was off by a month, but earlier in the year President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech outlining his plan for the postwar world in 14 points.
The war was not over yet, but information was pouring in. As Cap wrote, “rumors have been persistent, coming from all sources and what a sensation it has caused, the troops are wild. The war was going to be over in less than a month.” He would wish the war was over, because as time was running out, the Germans began stepping up their attacks.
13. August 25, 2015
When Lynch received Cap Hill’s diary from his mother, he was the same age as Cap was when he shipped off to France. “The more I learned about the man,” said Lynch after transcribing the diary, “the more the distance between the generations seemed to shrink.”
Like many veterans of past and present, Cap didn’t talk about his experiences in the war with his family. He kept them hidden in a dark corner of his mind and went about his life. But the diary offered a glimpse of what he kept hidden, and in the next couple days, things were about to get a lot worse before they got better.
14. October 16, 1918
It was only a matter of time before the war was over, but the Germans saved the worst for last. “Night before last [the Germans] launched a gas attack and filled the woods full of the deadly ‘Mustard Gas.’” Mustard gas was a chemical agent that could blind, blister, or kill a person if exposed to it.
WWI was unique in that chemical weapons were used en masse, and brought with them horrific consequences. “It was a terrific bombardment, [the Germans] are now using a new kind of high explosive gas shell, it is impossible to distinguish it from the ordinary shell and therefore has its telling effects.”
15. October 19, 1918
Despite the fact that the war would be over in 22 days, October 19th was probably the low point for Cap Hill. The shelling was getting to him, and he was fed up with what he read about it in newspapers. “Over this line: Intermittent—I wonder if the newspaper correspondent that coined that word knows what it means.”
Cap Hill was clearly angry, and went on to write, “Strong men go crazy under it, thousands are wiped out and miles of country laid desolate—intermittent shelling so often used by the newspapers—has no meaning to anyone except those who have been under it.”
16. October 24, 1918
The Germans could sense that the end was near, and in order to gain favorable terms for surrender, they wanted to negotiate from a position of strength. On October 24, 1918, while peace talks were progressing, the Germans launched a massive attack on Cap Hill and his sector.
“We were jumping up at all hours of the night with gas alarms and air raids,” Cap wrote. “One air raid about 10 p.m. and another at 1 a.m., the old bombs were dropping all around the village.” Cap deplored the practice of bombing civilian targets, and this led him to think, “and then they want peace by compromise. Wilson’s final reply should be in two words—Unconditional surrender.”
17. October 26, 1918
On October 26th, 1918, Cap Hill turned 28 years old. It was good timing for Lynch as he was the same age. That fact made him think about his life in relation to his great-grandfather, and how different their 28th birthdays must have been.
“I shall never forget my 28th birthday,” Cap wrote. “Loisy—France front line trenches—25 [kilometers] from the fortress of Metz, and under its very big guns.” It didn’t quite come on his birthday, but two days later, Cap would receive a gift, as Germany’s chief ally Austria-Hungary capitulated, bringing the end of the war that much closer.
18. November 5, 1918
More promises of peace were coming through as another one of Germany’s chief allies, the Ottoman Empire, surrendered on October 30th. For their part, the American army had already successfully driven the Germans back around the fortress of Metz, and the Germans were making them pay dearly for it.
“We pulled off a big raid night before last,” Cap wrote. “Numerous casualties, especially gas. The [Germans] are throwing over all kinds of gas shells and they certainly get our men… Big attack on I should judge, terrific bombardment and even at this distance the old billet is fairly quivering.” Even though the war wouldn’t end for another week, this was the last entry he would make until after the war was over.
19. November 9, 1918
Armistice Day was a couple days away, but on that day—even though the peace treaty to end the war was signed at 5:45am in France—commanders agreed to keep fighting until the 11th hour of the day. Germany kept up the shelling, and the Allies kept attacking.
In all there were 3,500 American casualties on the last day of the war, and one of those men was Cap Hill. On November 9th and 10th Cap and his unit managed to advance several kilometers into German territory. Word came in that the war might be over, but the Americans pressed their attack. To counter, the Germans hit them with everything they had.
20. November 10, 1918
Cap wrote, “They threw over plenty of mustard gas shells and we heard their fatal ping as each struck the dugout.” The mustard gas was thick, and then Cap made a mistake. “It was necessary to write orders, use the telephones and various other things which could not be accomplished with the mask on—so from there on it was worn only intermittently.”
“But [the Germans] kept up his dirty work and rained [high-explosive shells] and gas on us mighty heavily…the effects of the slight concentration of mustard gas that we had necessarily been in began to toll on us. Our eyes smarted, we began to get weak and rather choked up.”
21. November 11, 1918
On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., WWI came to an end. Cap wrote, “we received from the Division commander the most wonderful news that could possibly come: To cease all firing and hostility at 10.45 a.m.” The war was finally over.
“Imagine if you can the wild joy of our soldiers,” Cap wrote as he spread the news throughout his battalion. “The effects of the gas were forgotten in our excitement.” But mustard gas was a different sort of weapon, designed to maim more than to kill. Its effects hadn’t taken hold yet, but Cap and his unit were rushed to the nearest field hospital for treatment.
22. November 12, 1918
This was the longest gap between entries in Cap’s diary, as he was, “there in the gas ward.” He wrote,“the sights that we necessarily saw were anything but encouraging: big fine American soldiers, blind, burnt completely over their bodies and physical wrecks—all the result of mustard & other gases. Sure was enough to take the heart out of you.”
Several treatments were devised to deal with the various effects of coming into contact with mustard gas. Some treated the skin, while other treated the eyes and lungs. Because of what Cap experienced, he would receive treatment for eyes and his lungs.
23. November 13, 1918
Cap Hill was blind and in a field hospital receiving constant treatment from nurses. The men in his ward were treated with alkaline eye cleansing that happened so frequently, by the time the nurses finished going down the line of affected soldiers, it would be time to start all over again.
Nurses were tireless in their efforts and came up with a treatment for Cap’s lungs that used “guiacol, camphor, menthol, oil of thyme and eucalyptus” to make him cough, thus ejecting anything inflammatory. “I lay in bed and many, many times wondered if I would ever see again,” Cap wrote.
24. November 14, 1918
On November 14th Cap’s condition started to improve, so he was moved to a different hospital. But Cap was still having a difficult time, and to make matters worse, there was another enemy floating in the air, and it killed more indiscriminately than the Germans: Spanish flu (which actually originated in America).
Cap had spoken several times about people in his unit that got the flu, and in November of 1918, the epidemic was at its height. It seemed to have a taste for wounded soldiers, as droves of soldiers were afflicted from France to the United States. To put it in perspective, 20 million people died in WWI, while it’s estimated that the Spanish flu killed 100 million people.
25. November 20, 1918
WWI was a chemical-weapon and biological nightmare for people. Cap was in a dark place when he started to come around, and he would never be the same. His sight slowly but surely began to return, but his lungs continued to bother him. He was very appreciative of his treatment, and on November 20th he got some good news.
“Under the supervision of American nurses and doctors,” Cap wrote, “we improved rapidly…I walked out and around the Hospital and the next day went to Toul.” Cap’s vision had returned! It was time for him to return to his unit and celebrate the end of the war.
26. November 28, 1918
On November 28th Cap and his unit were discharged from the hospital and were tasked with rejoining their regiment. “Still rather a sickly bunch but glad to get back to work,” Cap said about his regiment, many of whom had been gassed or gotten the flu.
His comrades in his regiment told them an amazing story of what happened the moment the war was over: at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the “[German] soldiers came running over to our trenches, stripping off buttons and other things for souvenirs. In several instances they asked our soldiers over to have wine and something to eat.”
27. November 28, 2013
Nearly a full century after Cap made his entry on November 28th, his great-great-granddaughter Victoria was born. It was Thanksgiving Day 2013, and on that day, Tyler Lynch became an Uncle. With his great-grandfather’s story transcribed and a new generation of his family added, Lynch was eternally grateful that Cap was able to get home in one piece.
Cap was moved around a little bit in the ensuing weeks and got a chance to see some of the French countryside. Many towns were leveled, but others maintained their charm. He spoke of pretty French girls and of Paris, and enjoying a new penchant for life.
28. December 15, 1918
Just because Cap had recovered from his wounds and the war was over didn’t mean that he was invisible to danger. The Spanish flu was still in full effect: “Finally located one extra bed in room with French officer, pulled in and went to bed.”
Cap wrote, “In middle of night woke up and Frenchman having [heck] of a time, sick as a gassed patient. Found he had been sick for week with grippe and ‘flu.’ He couldn’t stand the door or window open—place as hot as everything so I decided to vacate ‘tout suite.’” Fortunately for Cap, he would narrowly avoid the flu during his stay in France.
29. February 27, 1918
On February 18th Cap woke up for the second day in a row on a dock in Brest, France. He was excited about boarding the ship because, “I noted there were about 150 Red Cross nurses booked for the voyage—so our trips should be somewhat interesting.”
After boarding the Olympic, Cap Hill made the journey back to the States and arrived in New York Harbor. He then went home to his town in Massachusetts, and humorously commented that, “I’m the only man in the history of the United States Army who went directly from Brest to Athol.” We’ll let you guess how “Athol” is pronounced.
Cap Hill died in 1981 at the age of 91. He had a family and lived a long life, and as stated before, he never really revisited his experiences in The Great War, instead leaving his memories to future generations of his family.
Upon completing his research associated with the diary, Lynch wrote that, “He was also a man who suffered a horrendous injury during one of the most horrendous wars ever fought—an injury that stayed with him his entire life. Cap’s death certificate lists his official cause of death as ‘myocardial infarction stemming from severe pulmonary emphysema.’” Cap passed, but because he survived the war, his family lives on, as does his memory. And thanks to his great-grandson, Cap is now a part of our lives too.