”Honor the Past; Deserve the Present“

Wallace McCornack

Sergeant, 33rd Division, 108th Engineers
March 3, 1884 - May 4, 1960

Contributors:  Grace Hendricks, Helena Pennington

  • Note--Wallace McCornack was a prolific letter-writer during his WWI service. After the war his sister Margaret collected the 63 letters and 36 post cards which Wallace had sent to his father, siblings, wife, children, and acquaintances, and copied them (typed transcripts) in the order in which he had written them. The collection of his letters provides an exceptional chronological eyewitness account, in real time, of this doughboy's experience in the Great War.

Background

  • Wallace McCornack's great grandfather, Andrew McCornack, was a farmer who immigrated from Scotland
    • He acquired a government land grant in Plato Township, near the city of Elgin, Illinois

Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church

  • Andrew McCornack eventually gave some acres of his Plato Township farmland to a Presbyterian congregation which, in 1845, built a stone and wood church, the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church, and dedicated adjacent land for a cemetery.
    • The congregation were immigrants of Scotch-Irish descent
    • The oldest tombstone in the cemetery dates from 1849. ["Time Stands Still One Hundred Years for Country Church Near Elgin," Chicago Sunday Tribune, June 17, 1951, Part 3, page 1]
    • The church, Greek Revival in its architectural style, and the cemetery are located just west of Elgin on Highland Avenue
    • The church has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980
    • McCornack family members, including Andrew McCornack's grandson Wallace McCornack (who served in WWI), are buried in the church cemetery

Andrew McCornack's Son and Grandson

  • Andrew McCornack's son was Edwin Alexander McCornack, M.D.
  • Edwin Alexander McCornack had three children—Wallace McCornack, Alexander Edwin McCornack (a medical doctor as was his father), and Margaret McCornack

Wallace McCornack before WWI

  • Wallace McCornack was born on March 3, 1884, in Glenview, Illinois
    • He grew up in Elgin, Illinois
    • He became a plumber
  • Wallace was married with three children
    • Wife: Edna
    • Children: Robert (Bobby—the youngest child), Helen, and Edwin (eldest child)
    • Note—During the Great War, when Wallace enlisted in the Army, his brother Dr. Alexander McCornack was a physician and medical examiner for draftees in Elgin, IL
    • Note—When Edwin A. McCornack, M.D., died, his son Alexander E. McCornack, M.D., inherited the family property. He and four other doctors and Conrad Ackemann (of Ackemann Brothers Department Stores) planned to build a nine-story professional building on the site. The McCornack family home was razed for the project, but when the Depression began the company of doctors dissolved, and Alexander built a smaller building on his own. That building, no longer owned by the McCornack family, still stands at 164 Division Street, between Douglas Avenue and Spring Street. [Clark McCornack, notes to Helena Pennington, 14 April 2010]

Enlistment

  • Enlisted in the Army at age 34 on February 5, 1918, in Aurora, Illinois
  • He was assigned to the 108th Engineers, 33rd Division
    • Note—The 33rd Division was primarily an Illinois National Guard division, but approximately one-quarter of the Division's 28,000 members were draftees or regular Army members [Mike Hanlon, e-mail to Frank Mazzi, 17 March 2010]
    • Note—About the draftees, McCornack observed when he was at Camp Logan, Texas, "They don't have a great deal of use for the drafted man down here. They are all classed as slackers, and the poor devils have a hard time of it sometimes." He noted that the regulars were given better equipment and had better quarters. [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 14 February 1918]
  • The 108th Engineers were "men with trades," for example, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers.
    • Note—McCornack originally wanted to be a truck driver, but he changed his enlistment papers from truck driver to plumber in part because he believed "the chances for getting 'Over There' are sure to be a great deal better." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 9 February 1918]

Basic Training

  • Camp Logan in Houston, Texas
    • Note—McCornack observed, "The men here are nearly all Irish, from Chicago. They are all good fellows and a pretty husky bunch." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 14 February 1918]
    • Days were hot and dry, with rainy nights
    • Sand got into everything, even meals
  • "We have to wash our own clothes, take a bath every day, shave every day, and stand inspection once a week." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 14 February 1918]
  • My mid March McCornack had been administered a total of nine "shots"; one of them was for typhoid, another for small pox. He was also given an exam for tuberculosis [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 14 February, 1918; Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 19 March 1918]
  • In "gas school" he learned how to use a gas mask—"From the haversack to the proper place on a man's 'map' takes about ten minutes at first, and when they get through cussing at you and you have tried it enough it takes about ten seconds. Ten seconds is not any too soon when you stop to think that it only takes three whiffs to send a man into the next world." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 8 March 1918]
  • Private's pay—"I took out ten thousand dollar's [sic] insurance, feeling that the chance was too good to let slip. It costs me $7.80 per month. When everything is taken out of my pay I have just $7.20 left per month, and out of that I have to have hair-cut every week, and then after I buy my stamps and tobacco I am just about as flat as a pancake." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 March 1918]
    • Note—McCornack was promoted to Private First Class in April 1918; with promotion came a $3 per month pay raise. McCornack felt the patriotic spirit. "I am just as glad as I can be that I am here and that I am a son of Uncle Sam. . . . It sure makes a man feel proud to be in the ranks behind that good old flag and walk down the street and see everyone uncover. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 March 1918]

Troop Train

  • Traveled three men to a cabin
  • Doughboys experienced an outpouring of patriotism
    • "We don't know where we are going, but think it will be New York or New Jersey. The people all along the line are treating us fine. We get good eats, flowers, magazines, etc., and this morning when I was standing guard on the platform at Springfield, Missouri, a lady drove up in a big car, jumped out and ran through the mud, and handed me a great big five dollar bill to spend when I get to France." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 25 April 1918]
    • "We have found that no matter where we go there is nothing too good for a soldier. This good old U.S.A. is sure treating her soldiers royally and it makes a man proud to think that he can serve and wear a khaki uniform. Every town we went through turned out even at night and I tell you no one ever traveled across this country who was treated any better than we were. At one town where we got out to exercise they had us form two lines down the center of the main street and then they drove between us in autos and passed each man cake, fruit, cigarettes, flowers and something to read. At Rogers, Ark., while I was asleep in the lower berth I heard someone rapping on the window and when I raised the window and stuck my head out an old gray-haired lady handed me the nicest bunch of roses you ever saw. And just think, it was 12:30 A.M. and raining. Well, I guess that is what you call patriotism, isn't it? That is what we found all along the way." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna McCornack, 5 May 1918]

24-Hour Pass in New York City

  • McCornack had a 24-hour pass in NYC on May 4, 1918
    • "Yesterday, I went to New York on a 24-hour pass and sure did do the town up fine. After paying our carfare, the fellow whom I went with and I had $1.50 - apiece to see the city on and buy a bed and grub. We saw a lot more of the town than you would think we could in the time we had and with the amount of our cash. We rode on the 'Rubber-neck' wagons, street cars, and the elevated, and lost no time in going from one end of the town to the other in daylight. At night we took in the Bowery and Chinatown. . . .We took in Coney Island, Fifth Avenue, Riverside Drive, Grant's Tomb, statue of Liberty, Sheepshead Bay Race Track, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn Bridge. . . .We finally wound up at the Hotel Gerard, a fine high-class hotel and high-priced to all except soldiers. Any man wearing Uncle Sam's uniform gets a greatly reduced rate." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna McCornack, 5 May 1918]

Troop Ship

  • Departed from Jersey City, New Jersey, on May 6, 1918
  • "We are packed like sardines in a box. . . . We are on one of the largest boats in the world, one that was formerly owned by Germany." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, "On the high seas," May 1918]
    • Note—When the U. S. declared war, numerous German passengers ships in American waters on the east coast were seized by the U. S. Government and used as troop ships
  • Constant vigilance for u-boats—and men had to wear all their clothes and life vests at all times

Arrival in Brest, France

  • McCornack wrote that he disembarked in "one of the prettiest harbors I have ever seen" but, probably due to military censorship, he does not name the place or identify the date of his arrival [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 24 May 1918]
    • Note—after the Armistice he wrote that he had arrived in France at "the beautiful harbor of Brest in Brittany." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 24 May 1918]
    • Note—aStars and Stripes article on 108th Engineers indicates the date as May 18, 1918 ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 1]
  • Though not mentioned in his letters, the 108th Engineers built waterworks and an electric light plant in Brest and barracks and a YMCA building at the U. S. Army's Camp Pontanezen before departing by train for the front ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]

Troop Train and The March to the Front

  • The 108th Engineers spent about one week in Brest before leaving by troop train for the front ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
  • En route, McCornack was struck both by the sight of women wearing black and the absence of men—
    • "In nearly every town we have been in so far, the first thing we notice is the number of women wearing black, and the absence of men. By the looks of things I guess France has suffered more than most of us thought she had. The women and the old men are doing all the work." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 24 May 1918]

At the Front—Amiens-Albert Area

  • McCornack makes no mention of his location, but it seems to have been, according to a Stars and Stripes account, the Amiens-Albert Area, at which the 108th Engineers arrived on June 18, 1918, serving with British and Australian troops ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
    • Note—The Stars and Stripes account indicates that the 108th Engineers arrived at the front on June 18, 1918, but a day earlier McCornack had written, "Well, we are right at the heart of this big war now. . . . Right now as I sit here in a hole in the ground writing, the big shells from Fritz are sailing over my head and landing all around." [Wallace McCornack, letter (no salutation), 17 June 1918]
  • "Aeroplanes"
    • "We see lots of aeroplanes. One night we saw two planes have a fight in the air, until one of them made a dive for the ground and then the scrap was all over. Another night the Huns paid us a visit and dropped a few bombs around us until they were driven away by some other planes. . . . They sounded like a big swarm of angry bees flying in the dark overhead." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his daughter Helen, 1 June 1918]
    • "It is nothing to see fifty or sixty aeroplanes in the air at once, and sometimes we see some pretty lively fights." [Wallace McCornack, letter (no salutation), 17 June 1918]
  • Cigarettes seemed to bring a measure of calm to the nerves of weary soldiers
    • "… please send some American cigarettes and something sweet to eat. We get very little sweet stuff and a U.S. 'fag' as they call them here, is the best thing on earth when you are tired, hungry, sleepy, homesick or nervous. We get tobacco here that is just a mighty poor excuse for a smoke and it seems that a smoke will cure any thing [sic]. Men who never smoked before smoke now and feel as though they really need it." [Wallace McCornack, letter (no salutation), 18 June 1918]
  • 108th Engineers went to work building roads, digging trenches, building machinegun emplacements and gun turrets, and setting barbed wire entanglements ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
  • A pontoon bridge made across the Somme River near Corbie so ammunition and ration wagons could supply the front lines
    • Note—The bridge had to be constantly repaired, at night, as enemy shelling constantly damaged it
  • Engineers bivouaked in dugouts and were constantly under shell fire ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
    • Note—Soldiers dug holes (7'x 10'x 2' deep) so that, four to a hole, they might avoid shrapnel from shell blasts [Wallace McCornack, letter to his son (Edwin? Bob?), 3 July 1918]
  • Engineers were constantly subjected to shell fire
    • ". . .most of the stunts are pulled off at night. From early in the evening until daylight it is one continual roar, and the only way I can express it is to say it is real hell, with a capital H. . . . Wish you could hear the racket now. There are big guns, machine guns, bombs, rockets and aeroplanes all letting loose at once. You can feel your ears going in and out like an accordion." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander McCornack, 26 June 1918]
    • "I suppose you are all ready to celebrate the Fourth of July now and are all through school for the summer. We have a regular Fourth of July here all the time and will be glad when it is over and we can all go home and help you celebrate once a year." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his son (Edwin? Bob?), 3 July 1918]
  • Aerial bombing aerial combat
    • "At night the big bombing aeroplanes come over and drop big bombs that shake the ground when they explode, all around. Sometimes our planes get after them and then there is a great fuss up in the sky. They all carry machine guns and it is like someone shooting at a swarm of angry bees. Sometimes they fight until one of more of them has to come down. They do stunts in the air here that we used to think that man could never do and they do them every day." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his son (Edwin? Bob?), 3 July 1918]
  • Poison Gas
    • "While I am writing this the shells from Fritz are whistling overhead, and once in a while one drops pretty close. At night the roar is something awful and the air is full of shells, aeroplanes and gas bombs. Our gas mask is the best friend we have and a fellow never thinks of going any place [sic] without it." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 21 June 1918]
    • "We spend a good deal of time with our gas mask, and that is one of the best things we have. When you need a mask you need it in a hurry, and the man who hasn't his handy is sure out of luck, and the next thing that is issued to him is a nice little wooden cross. Gas is worse than shell-fire anytime." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander McCornack, 26 June 1918]
  • Soldiers got used to vermin
    • "The first night we had a lot of ground mice for pals, in fact they call on us and crawl over us every night but that doesn't bother any."[Wallace McCornack, letter (no salutation), 17 June 1918]

Attack on Le Hamel, France

  • According to the history of the 33rd Division, units of the 33rd Division joined Australians in an attack on Le Hamel, France, on July 4, 1918.
    • Note—McCornack is apparently referring to that experience when he wrote at 6:00 p.m. on July 4, 1918, "From midnight until daylight it was one grand roar, the sky was as red as fire continuously, and there were men, horses, and wagons, motorcycles and trucks rushing here and there like mad, and last but by no means least the Red Cross ambulances. The only way that I can express it is to say that it was Hell, just plain hell and then some. Just imagine big guns firing so fast for three hours that it sounds just like one long roar, and then think of thousands of small guns, rifles and hand grenades added to it and you will know a little about our Fourth of July celebration. I know now what is to have your ear drums go in and out like a lace curtain at the window on a windy day." [Wallace McCornack, letter to wife Edna, 4 July 1918]
  • Mud
    • "The trenches are just one mass of mud. I won't try to describe the trenches, but will say this much, that if there is a hell on earth it is in the trenches." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his uncle Will, 14 July 1918]

Vermin in the Trenches

(references made by McCornack between September 1918 and January 1919)

  • Rats
    • In the 3rd Battle of the Somme—"There are thousands of big rats and you can hear them fight and squeal all night as we work, in fact, one came close enough to me the other night so that I ran my bayonet through him and had a good look at him. He was as big as a half grown cat and had the odor of dead meat on him so strong that we couldn't stand the smell, and a soldier can stand most anything." [Wallace McCornack, letter to George Hanley, 14 September 1918]
  • Lice
    • "My pants are all torn, my shirt is in rags, and every man in the outfit is as full of lice as a pet coon. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 1 September 1918]
    • "I finally got rid of my pet cooties and am nice and clean once more. It nearly broke my heart to part with some of them for they were sure faithful and always on the job, but I have this to console me, I will have some more before long." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 5 September 1918]
    • "If I ever get to where I can bid a last farewell to my pet 'cooties' I sure will be happy. They are true friends. Wherever I go they go, and are everlastingly busy. If I take fourteen off of my shirt tonight, tomorrow night there will be fourteen more there. No matter where you go over here the cooties are there too. I guess they must come out of the air. Sometimes they will eat a man so that he has to go to the hospital, but I guess I don't taste that good to them, for all they do in play tag, run races, and hold dances on me." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 7 January 1919]
  • Fleas
    • "We have plenty of cooties and fleas bunking with us. . . . A fellow has to 'read' his shirt every day or they will eat him up. I think we will all make good tailors when we get home, for we all know every seam and stitch on our clothes. The fleas come from the rats, but are not so bat—for when the clothes are turned inside out they will give you the laugh and hop off. All the clothes we own are on our backs and there is no chance to bathe, so it is a case of read your shirt close and often." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 23 September 1918]
    • "When I get rid of the cooties and can go to bed without having the fleas tag up and down my spine, then I will know for sure the war is over." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 24 November 1918]

Hygiene

(references made by McCornack in June and October 1918)

  • Unable to bathe
    • "I met a fellow from Australia the other day and had a fine chat with him. He likes to fish, so you see that that started something right away. We crawled into a nice hole and talked until after ten at night, swapped yarns and cigarettes, and finally left each other with a date to go swimming in a river a few kilometers from here. Tomorrow is the day I am to meet him for the swim, and it will be a great treat for me as I have not had my clothes off for two weeks,—and I guess he is in the same fix." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret McCornack, 21 June 1918]
    • "We have been at the front four months now, less ten days. . . . We havn't [sic] had a chance to bathe for five weeks and have only had off our clothes to snap the cooties off. I havn't [sic] even washed my face or shaved for over a week." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 3 October 1918]

German Retreat

  • Germans retreated across the Ancre River near Albert ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
    • According to a Stars and Stripes account, on July 23, 1918, Company B, 108th Engineers supervised the British infantry in the construction of new trenches and cleared or "sprung" mines and traps from trenches the Germans had ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 2]
    • McCornack may have been referring to the city of Albert when he wrote, "We are now at a big pile of wrecked buildings which used to be a large city. Fritz sure did a fine job of wrecking, and still is sending one over now and then just to keep us awake. Unless a person could see it with his own eyes, he would never believe that a city could be so completely destroyed by shell fire." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his uncle Will, 24 July 1918]
  • Stray Pets
    • "We are now in what used to be a big city, but now it is just a pile of stone, brick and wreckage. . . . There are lots of little dogs, cats, and rabbits running around here without any homes. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his son Bobbie, 24 July 1918]
  • Corpses
    • "It is a common sight to see Allies and Huns lying dead for days, getting bigger and blacker all the time, until the stench is something fierce. Sometimes we find a Hun who looks as though he would go 'bang' like a balloon if he were kicked." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]
  • Bravery of the Medical Corps
    • The medical corps are sure doing fine work here and are working night and day. If ever man deserved medals for bravery, it is the Red Cross stretcher bearers. They work for hours at a time carrying the wounded back about one mile where the ambulances are waiting, and it is the hardest work in the world to carry men that are all chopped to pieces back through the trenches in mud and slime up to the knees, and German shells throwing iron all around." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]
  • POWs
    • "I have seen a lot of Hun prisoners and had a talk with one who could talk English. Most of them are only kids and are the happiest human beings you ever saw when they are safely over the top as prisoners of war. Nearly all of them will smile and say 'How war finish for me!' I gave this Fritz a cigarette and at first he was afraid to smoke it. I guess he thought it might be poisoned. His name was Johann von Sheck and he was twenty he said, although he didn't look over sixteen. He has lost four brothers and his father. Said he had been in two years." [Wallace McCornack, letter to wife Edna, 6 July 1918]
    • "Very few of the fellows stop to take a prisoner unless they get a bunch too big to kill. The general thing is that when he comes with hands up he will stick you in the back or heave a bomb at you if you turn your back to him, so to save time and trouble, when he shouts 'Marsch Kamerad' someone will gently shove a bayonet into him or drop a seven second bomb under his shirt." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]

Somme Offensive, August 8-August 13, 1918

  • The Somme Offensive began with the Battle of Amiens, on August 8, 1918. That date is the beginning of the Allied offensive later known as the 100 Days, which ended with the Armistice on November 11.
    • About his experiences on August 8, McCornack wrote, "The sights were horrible and the stench was nearly too much for even a plumber…. We are now in a land which is stripped of nearly everything by shot and shell, and one has only to step outside of his dug-out to see dead men, dead horses and broken things of every kind" [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 9 August, 1918]
  • According to a Stars and Stripes account, the night before the attack Company D and Company F of 108th Engineers filled trenches and shell craters as they each constructed a road, Company D's being 60'-wide and three miles-long across the shell-cratered landscape for the passage of troops and equipment
    • McCornack seems to be describing this location when he writes, "We are now in a land which is stripped of nearly everything by shot and shell, and one has only to step outside of his dug-out to see dead men, dead horses and broken things of every kind." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 9 August 1918]
  • McCornack's responsibility was, apparently in "detached service," maintaining a water supply
    • McCornack seems to be alluding to his plumbing responsibilities when he writes that on about July 10 "a pal" and he have been on "detached service," away from his company and regiment, working as "free-lances" [Wallace McCornack, letter to his son Bobbie, 24 July 1918; Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]
    • In a letter dated August 9, 1918, McCornack wrote, "I have been working at my trade for nearly a month now and like it fine. I am away from the company all of the time and jump from place to place in a hurry to keep the water going for the troops. It is great sport working night and day to get a water line in only to have one or two lucky shots blow it all out again. I am one of the very few plumbers actually working at the trade in the forward area." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 9 August 1918]
  • An account of the operation, appearing in Stars and Stripes, noted that from 4:30 to 9:00 a.m. the road was used by "nearly every branch of the service, including three divisions of Cavalry, Tanks, Artillery, Field Hospital, Signal troops and mounted Engineers." ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 3]
    • Note—McCornack seems to be describing this scene when he wrote to his wife, "I can't begin to tell you what a big thing an army drive is, but this much I will say, I never in all my life saw so many men, so many horses, wagons, tanks, guns, aeroplanes and motor trucks and never expect to see as many together again." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 9 August 1918]
  • Soldiers prepared for death
    • "Another thing which makes a fellow feel nice and cheerful is to see some of the men from some of the other countries making their own crosses. They make them out of nice white wood and some of them do a lot of fancy carving, but I am going to wait a while before I start on mine." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander McCornack, 26 June 1918]

In Vicinity of Verdun, Mid-August – Late September 1918

  • Apparently stationed near Verdun and the town of Forges, McCornack spent every night for about six weeks "working on Dead Man's Hill 304. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]. Those six weeks would seem to have been from mid-August to late September.
    • Note—McCornack refers to "Dead Man's Hill 304," not distinguishing between Dead Man's Hill and Hill 304
  • Promoted to corporal on September 3, 1918
  • McCornack refers to the war-torn landscape, apparently around Verdun
    • "We are on the site of the world's largest and bloodiest battle, where hundreds of thousands lost their lives. You have read of the place many times as it is a place which has been well written up. There is one place here where there are 500,000 men buried. Some are under ground, but many were never buried at all and are now just a pile of bones,--I saw a shoe with the bones of the foot still in it. The place is over-run by great big rats that hardly get out of the way when anyone approaches. The land is just one mass of shell holes, large and small. It is safe to say that every square yard has a hole. The place is also one mass of barbed wire, which runs in every direction." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 23 September 1918]
  • Poppies
    • "Enclosed are some poppies which were picked in a shell-hole in the center of the biggest and bloodiest battlefield in France. The only thing as far as the eye can see which is not in ruin is the pretty red poppy." [Wallace McCornack, letter to George Hanley, 14 September 1918]

Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11, 1918)

  • The offensive began near Verdun and Forges at Dead Man's Hill 304 [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
    • Note—Forges is on the Meuse River
    • McCornack knew that before the September 26, 1918, assault, Dead Man's Hill and "the low swampy No Man's Land" was the site where "nearly a million men" had already died, "and now some of our own lie there buried among the shell-holes and bomb craters. . . . All that I can say is that of all the torn, battered places which I have seen, Dead Man's Hill is the limit in awfulness." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
  • Engineers clear the way for infantry
    • Three hours before the Infantry went "over the top, the Engineers, "armed with nothing but some hammers and axes," went "over the top" to build bridges or clear obstructions and mines from existing bridges so that the infantry could cross "a small river."
    • Note—a Stars and Stripes account of the Engineers activity on September 26 identifies the "small river" as the Forges Creek, near the confluence with the Meuse River. The surrounding area was a "marshy valley." The Engineers laid planks, cleared barbed wire, and made nine passageways for the infantry to cross the marsh ["Engineers Made Good in Hot Work up at the Front," The Stars and Stripes, 13 June 1919, p. 3]
    • Engineers waited until 5:00 a.m., when American artillery fire commenced, so that the Germans would not hear the engineers at work
  • Engineers were nearly made victims of their own artillery barrage
    • Artillery fire fell short, and then was closing in on the engineers as Americans were adjusting range to reach German lines. "I never was so mad before in my life. . . . One fellow with me made what he called his cross and was ready to go 'West'. . . .I just asked God to spare us and I really believe he did answer that prayer, for just in a few minutes the barrage raised and instead of coming on us was going over our heads and among the Fritzies where it should have gone at first. Someone had sent word back to the batteries that they were falling short just in time to save our hides." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 3 October 1918]
    • "We left some of our comrades there and some were sent back to hospitals, but I am not allowed to say how many." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 3 October 1918]
    • During the offensive the Engineers worked around the clock and in the rain and mud to build roads "through the swamp and shell-holes which had been No Man's Land for years." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
  • Aerial combat and aerial bombing
    • About "aeroplanes" McCornack noted, "we see them every day and watch the battles where they fight to the end, and the end is usually a long drop to the earth and a final bang of flame and smoke. . . . Another thing we see quite often, and a stunt we don't like, is to have Fritz make a high dive for us, firing his machine-gun as fast as he can all the way down. When we see that we duck for cover mighty fast. Sometimes he will fly along a trench for a long way, firing into the trench, and sometimes he gets 'dropped' by our guns. A man's life here is worth just about one-half of a bad penny." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 8 October 1918]
  • Germans in retreat
    • "I cannot tell you now what battle it was, but it is a place which Fritz has held for four years, and has been much written about. Fritz is now back about five miles and is on the run." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 3 October 1918]
    • Americans captured hundreds of Germans [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 22 October 1918

Verdun

  • After Forges, McCornack went to Charny and then to Verdun
    • In Verdun his unit rested for about thirty-six hours "in the old fort of Verdun." "While there I looked around the town a bit and went through the ruins of one of the large cathedrals. . . . Fritz has shelled [Verdun] for a great many years and was still at it when we were there. The city is nearly all ruins, but the old fort stood the test O.K." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]

Breach of the Hindenburg Line, Late October 1918

  • McCornack appears to have taken part in the successful Allied breach of the Hindenburg Line, a fortified German defensive position originally established in 1914.
    • Following the 36-hour rest at Verdun, McCornack proceeded at night to "some old German barracks just north of Troyon" in an area American soldiers called "Peaceful Valley," though "our first few weeks there were not exactly what you would call peaceful." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
    • "Fritz sure did have things fixed up pretty fine here and by the looks of things I think that he didn't intend to move out when he did. The dug-outs are well made, some of them being of cement construction, and all of them were equipped with electric lights, which, of course, he had put out of commission when he left." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 26 October 1918]
    • "We are now living in some dug-outs built by Fritz and I tell you he did a fine job while he was at it. There are some German graves here dated 1914, so we know he hadn't figured on ever giving it up. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 30 October 1918]
  • Germans mines left behind as they retreated
    • "When he pulled out, he mined a good many places, so a fellow has to be extremely careful what he goes into and where he steps. One Yank in some other outfit went on a little sight-seeing tour and as he was going down into a nice, fine dug-out and stepped on the bottom step, he set off a big mine and now he has a nice little cross all his own." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 30 October 1918]

Day before the Armistice

  • In the evening of November 10, 1918, his unit moved over a "range of hills, through mud knee deep" to "what used to be the town of Saulx," south of Fresnes. [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]

Armistice Day

  • McCornack waited in "the mud and the cold of the ruins of Saulx," for orders, expected at 5:00 a.m., to go over the top with the Infantry. [Wallace McCornack, letter to Mr. Cowlin, 28 November 1918].
    • Note—In a post-war interview, another member of the 108th Engineers remembered what happened to those doughboys: "A mistake in orders on the night of November 10, 1918 sent two regiments 'over the top' near Metz without a protective barrage fire. They were caught by uncut barbed wire. The enemy fired with machine guns, determined not to let their supplies of ammunition stores be captured since the Armistice was on the point of being signed. This mistaken attack resulted in the loss of about five hundred American soldiers." [Albert John Lambert, interviewed by Indiana Historic Commission; quoted with permission of Indiana Veterans of WWI , WWVets.com]
  • 10:00-11:00 a.m.
    • Beginning at 10:00 a.m. the Germans "let us in on the Grand Finale." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 12 November 1918]
    • "Fritz put over a great many shells and a lot of gas that last hour, but you can bet that the Yanks were hard to find." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
    • "We were behind old stone walls and in every place which looked like shelter. Some of the shells were gas shells, so we spent the last half hour of the World War with our old friend, the gas mask on. . . ." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 12 November 1918]
    • ". . .some of the lads did hop over the top, but before our turn came we received the glad tidings." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
    • The last shot from McCornack's sector "was a big one from back of us which was shooting over our heads." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 12 November 1918]
    • "We spent the last hour with our gas masks on and could hardly realize when we took them off that it would be the last time we would have to wear that implement of torture,—and life-saver." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 24 November 1918]
  • Celebration
    • At 11:00 a.m. "all the Fritzies hopped out of their trenches and waved their hats and shouted. They were just as happy as we were and wanted to talk. So some of our men who could talk German went over and talked it over with them. They said they were going to give up the next day if we came over very strong, but you can guess that we were all glad we didn't have to try it to find out whether or not they were telling the truth." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 12 November 1918]

Thanksgiving Day 1918

  • First Thanksgiving after the Armistice
    • "We had just a common army dinner Thanksgiving Day, but you may be sure that everyone of us was thankful to be eating it. It was rainy and we had to stand in the mud to eat, but everyone was happy and talking of home and how soon we would get there." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]

God

  • The experience of war affected the spirituality of all troops
    • "I have a belt around my waist now that I took off a 'Fritz' that has the German crown on the buckle and says 'Gott mit Uns'. By the looks of things here I think Fritz will sure enough need God and all the men and ammunition he can get, for he is surely 'getting' his now and is beginning to fall back a little every day." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]
    • "I received 'The Woman's Prayer for a Man Over There,' and think it is the right stuff, and will tell you that is the way I am living 'Over Here,' so that when I come home again I will be a clean Christian man. A fellow gets very close to things here that make him think as he never thought before and change his whole view of life. A life here isn't worth a bad penny, and if he gets through a man has to give the credit to something far greater than 'luck'." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his father Dr. E. A. McCornack, 28 July 1918]
    • "We knew that as long as the war went on we would be doing the same old thing, living the same hard life, unless God saw fit to take us and lift us out of all the misery, and I have seen men who wished for one good clean, quick shot that would end it for them. We know how to be thankful to our Maker for seeing us through that year of Hell and I know that it has made a big difference in all of us,—made us see life in a different light. A soldier says that he was lucky and knows down in his heart that God was his luck." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 7 January 1919]

Army of Occupation in Luxembourg

  • Following the Armistice the Engineers began removing mines and debris from roads in order to clear a way for the Army of Occupation
  • Germans move out and McCornack's unit moved forward to the town of Marshville, which the Germans had occupied, and began clearing roads there and in Fresnes, Paried, Bethenville, and Harville for the Army of Occupation . [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
    • Eager to return to the U. S., McCornack and his unit were grateful they did not have to be part of the Army of Occupation
    • "We have seen the Army of Occupation come marching across No Man's Land, pass us, and go on their way to the Rhine; have seen the returning Allied prisoners, the French people returning to claim a pile of ruins as theirs, and now we are just marking time hoping that orders will come sending us back home." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
  • McCornack's unit is assigned to the Army of Occupation in Luxembourg
    • "You know, a soldier is a funny article. When the Army of Occupation was picked and the 33rd wasn't in it we felt as though we had been slighted, but when we were finally picked and sent to Germany we were sorry that we were not sent home. Can you beat that?" [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 7 January 1919]
  • McCornack learns how Luxembourg citizens were treated by German troops
    • "The people here have suffered a great deal and surely are glad the war is over. While the war was on if any one said one word against Germany he was taken to prison and put to work. We hear of many cases of babies losing their hands or a foot or the women having an eye poked out if they didn't do just as Fritz wanted. Fritz went through here doing as he pleased and taking what he wanted and paying nothing for it. If anyone had nerve enough to object off came his head." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 20 December 1918]
  • Berdorf, Luxembourg
    • During the occupation period return addresses on McCornack's letters are all Berdorf, Luxembourg, suggesting his Army of Occupation duty was on the Luxembourg-German border.
    • McCornack was accommodated in family of five's house in Berdorf, Luxembourg, and found himself bored.
    • "This life is a great deal worse than real war,—give me a little old dug-out where a fellow can do as he chooses, in preference to living in a stranger's home, and a stranger you can't even talk to, day and night with no place to go." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 December 1918] "It is harder to stay here now doing practically nothing, than it was when the war was really going on." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 7 January 1918]
    • But he was fed well—his Luxembourg "mudder" is about 65 years of age, but energetic. McCornack points out that he and the other Americans enjoy roast pork, sauerkraut, and potatoes, black bread with home-made jam
    • Note—During the Occupation McCornack may have been a member of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 108th Engineers. The commanding officer of Company D, stationed in Berdorf, Luxembourg, was Col. Henry A. Allen, assigned to that command on January 7, 1919
    • Note—McCornack had been a member of Company E, but there were only about twenty still alive, and most of them were hospitalized. [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 30 November 1918]
  • McCornack was promoted to sergeant [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 5 December 1918]
  • Inspections by Colonel Allen, General Bell, and General Pershing

Resentment towards Germans

  • The magnitude of the war's destruction became increasingly rankling
    • "When one thinks of the fellows who will pay for this war for years to come, and all the good men who gave up their lives it makes a man feel bitter and wish that the man who was responsible for it all would soon be brought to time and a fitting end. But as yet he seems to be living pretty well and laughing up his sleeve at the rest of the world. I lived, or rather existed, for several weeks on Dead Man's Hill at Verdun, with several millions of dead men, and when we came away we left some of our pals there, and I say that not only the one man, but every single person who gave one cent, or rather one pfennig, to help the Hun kill those men should be made to suffer. The homes, the farms, and the factories in France, Belgium and Lorraine are ruined and the 'Squarehead' still has his home, his factory, etc., as good as ever. Sometimes I wonder if the Hun really did lose the fight." [Wallace McCornack, letter to sister Margaret, 9 March 1919]

Russian Civil War

  • Army of Occupation appears to have been advised of the civil war then in progress in Russia. McCornack suggests there was discussion of a possible American intervention
    • While serving in Army of Occupation—"It looks now as though it might be some time before we start for home and if Russia doesn't get settled before long there might be a job for some Yanks there and we would very likely be a part of the chosen bunch." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his sister Margaret, 7 January 1919]

Return to the United States

  • In letters home Wallace McCornack looked forward to his wife quitting her job at "the Watch Factory"
    • Note—"the Watch Factory" was the Elgin National Watch Company in Elgin, Illinois
    • Expecting to be shipped back to the U. S. soon, he wrote his wife, "The day on which you receive my telegram I want you to turn your notice in at the factory if you don't before, for there will be no more working in the shop for you after I get home, so you might as well quit then." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 18 April 1919]
    • Note—At the same time he did not know what employment he might find once he was mustered out of the Army.
  • Sailed from Brest, France, on May 1, 1919
    • A half-year earlier, Looking forward to the day when he would return home from the United States, McCornack had written, "We entered this country through the beautiful harbor of Brest in Brittany and it will do me to march down the rocks of that old city and climb aboard a homeward bound boat and never stop until I reach you folks and my little family. I should like to be with my little bunch at Christmas, but it will be as good as any Christmas I ever had when I do get there." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his brother Alexander, 30 November 1918]
  • Back in the United States, the doughboys were greeted with the same patriotic enthusiasm as they had experienced before shipping off for Europe
    • "The day we landed was just like Christmas. Every way we turned someone shoved things at us, stuff like candy, cake, gum, cigarettes, and best of all some real American apple pie, the first real pie we've tasted in over a year." [Wallace McCornack, letter to his wife Edna, 27 May 1919]
  • 108th Engineers was demobilized at Camp Grant, Illinois, on June 8, 1919
  • He earned a citation for bravery in action in the Battle of the Argonne

After The War

  • Elgin National Watch Company
    • When McCornack returned home after the war Edna quit her job at the Elgin National Watch Company; Wallace was employed there beginning in 1919 and remained an employee of the Elgin National Watch Company until his retirement in 1949. He never returned to working as a plumber [Clark McCornack, notes to Helena Pennington, 14 April 2010]

Death

  • Wallace McCornack died at the age of 76 on May 4, 1960, in Elgin, Illinois [Clark McCornack, notes to Helena Pennington, 14 April 2010]
  • He is buried with other McCornack family members at the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church cemetery near Elgin, Illinois
(rev.5.7.10)