Thomas Vander Veen was a Dutch-American soldier in World War 1 who fought on the Western Front in France. His main job was as a messenger and he carried messages between his company commander at the front and the Post Commander at the rear. He wrote a journal of his experiences in the war which starts on September 22, 1918 and ends with the armistice at the end of the war on November 12, 1918. After the war ended, he earned a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in delivering messages, specifically in battle from October 10-13, 1918. His journal is an extraordinary first-person account of the end of World War I and provides a personal narrative of one man fighting on the Western Front. According to his nephew, Gus Vander Veen, Thomas Vander Veen immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands sometime before the beginning of World War I and was living in California. When the war broke out in Europe in 1914, the Netherlands called back its citizens who were residing abroad to join the Dutch army in preparation for potential conflict. However, Vander Veen decided not to go, and was drafted instead by the United States Army when he was 30 years old. Through the process of being in the army, Vander Veen gained his American citizenship.
This blog will share Vander Veen’s experiences with readers exactly 100 years after they happened and give a day-by-day depiction of what Vander Veen and his fellow soldiers went through at the end of World War I. The blog posts will contain Vander Veen’s journal entry about a specific day. He did not write every day, but often compiled many days into one entry, but these entries have been split into separate days to give the reader a sense of the passage of time and the events of each individual day. The blog posts will also include comments from the compilator, Natalie Fulk, on the historical context of his experiences. Fulk is a 2018 Hope College alum.
Sunday, Sept. 22:
● “After camping in woods South W. of Verdun for couple of days we left there on Sunday evening Sept. 23 at about 8:30 PM. Hiked to about 2 AM next morning. Bad weather, lots of rain, got soaking wet. Wrenched my back by getting up with my pack on when we were laying alongside of road waiting. Could not get up unaided, gradually getting better, could ride but walked all the way on own accord, but had my pack put on limbers. Landed in village Fury la Perche and assigned to billets there. Almost 5 mile from front line. Stayed there 2 nights…”
● Comments: While Vander Veen started writing his diary on October 2nd, 1918, he began describing events on September 22nd, which he thought was the 23rd. He says at the start of his diary before beginning to describe the events of Sept. 22, “Wednesday Oct. 2 or Thursday Oct. 3: I don’t know which, opinion is divided, it’s hard to keep track of the days and dates, events have passed and crowded each other so much. By figuring it all out, I have come to the conclusion it must be Wed. Oct. 2.” It must have been very difficult to keep track of the date while hiking in the woods in France with little contact with the outside world. He was stationed in France with Company C of the Fourth Division of the American Expeditionary Force. Vander Veen and his company would stay in La Perche for two nights before leaving for the front lines.
Wednesday, Sept. 25:
● “…left for the front on Wednesday night, leaving our blankets all there underground. Had my back bandaged and about OK again.”
● Comments: The company spent two nights about 5 miles away from the front line of the conflict in France before moving out. Vander Veen and his company were on their way to the front line to join the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a battle on the Western Front between the Allies and German troops.The Allied force was made up of American, British, and French troops. The main objective of the Meuse-Argonne offensive was to drive German troops out of the Meuse-Argonne region, where they were heavily entrenched. The Germans used the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest to their advantage to create strong defensive positions.
Thursday, Sept. 26:
● “Arrived at front line at about 2:30 AM Thursday to the North of Esnes on north slope of hill 304 and left of Dead Man’s hill for which positions the Germans battled so hard for 3 years ago in their drive in Verdun and lost thousands of men there. Ground all shell holes and everything showing the marks of awful destruction. Our artillery forage started at 2:30 AM. Our divisional front 2 K.M. wide and according to our Commander Lt. Humphrey only 1 Reg. of Germ. there. I think he was badly mistaken. 300,000 Am. and 300,000 French in this big offensive on a wide front telling up. Also that objective was about 14 KM but that it would take us only about 2 days and lots of fresh troops behind us to relieve us. Guess the officers like to tell us all such stories to keep up the courage. Morale of troops OK. Big barrage artillery and machine gun fire started at 5:20AM. Weak supply of Germ. Morning misty and hazy, excellent for attack. A and D Co going over the top shortly after barrage with some inf. of 39th and 47th C and B in support following later. Batches of prisoners coming in soon. Most of them glad to get out of it, I think. Some declaring German “partehl and kapush.” Rapid advance during day till in afternoon. More resistance encountered in evening about 9 KM from start. Dug in for night, so far no heavy casualties. Quiet night. Lack of first aid and stretcher bearers getting evident. Some wounded laying out in open all night without cover… Cold all night.”
● Comments: Vander Veen’s company arrived just as the Meuse-Argonne offensive was beginning. The Allies meant to drive the German troops out of their holdings in the area. Vander Veen’s guess that the offensive was larger and would take longer than his commander said was accurate, as his division was one of nine AEF divisions that were involved in the attack.
Friday, Sept. 27:
● “Rain next morning, started out again about half mile under machine gun fire. C and B Co. also on front line now. Germans opening heavy barrage of artillery fire and machine gun fire, front flank, on us. Lost many men there. Had to retreat short ways taking cover in short railroad cut, but many men kept running back to the rear notably inf. Men. Officers trying to stop them and dig in. Colonel Boles of 39th cussing and raising hell with his majors and captains for not having the men better under control. But it was an ordeal of fire, hard to stand up under it. Was as summer attached to Col. Boles for a while. Col. walking all over hills in plain view and eventually wounded too. Lt. Col. Holiday killed there also our Lts. Humphrey and Fitzgerald. Lt. Flaym in command of Lt. Captain Chase confined sick in hospital before offensive. We remained there in about same position all day. Own artillery opening fire on us couple of times, causing more disaster, but aeroplane got our position and more of it was avoided. Some Germ observer plane came down about 100 yds from us. All in flames. Shot down by 2 of our scouting planes. Great sight and causing great stir. Lots of cheers and hurrahs. Saw one shot down by M G five day previous. But also some of our planes were shot down by Germans and 2 balloons also. In evening we retreated about half mile to woods and had to reorganize. Some sections gone astray. About half the Co. there. Went up again at dark and dug in. I went to Big HQ that night, came back next morning.”
● Comments: Vander Veen was acting as a messenger for his colonel during the battle and stayed by his side. Seeing the German observer plane downed was very encouraging to the men even though the company had a hard day of battling and retreating. Any sort of victory was a morale boost to the soldiers.
Saturday, Sept. 28:
● “Found major in Septsarges woods. Our troops advancing again about 1 mile or more. Our Batt. with them also. I was attached to major and we followed the Co. up in afternoon. Germans making fierce resistance and counter attacks at points and our advance slows. Stayed in German dugout in woods for the night, also part of our Co.’s snipers fell in woods taking potshots with mg on our troops. They are a real nuisance.”
● Comments: Vander Veen was now attached to an unidentified major as his company moved forward again. It was difficult for the American forces to attack the German defenses for many reasons. The Germans used trenches, barbed wire, artillery, mortars, and machine guns, such as the ones used on this day on the snipers, to keep the Americans at bay.
Sunday, Sept. 29:
● Next morning, Sat., the 8th Brigade relieved us and we went back about a mile or so in put as immediate reserve. At first many men were missing when roll was called, but gradually they came in.”
● Comments: While Vander Veen thought it was Saturday, according to a calendar from 1918 and his description of events until this point, it was actually Sunday. Vander Veen’s company had been fighting at the front for several days before being relieved to reserve. After this entry, Vander Veen did not write until four days later on Thursday, October 3.