Marine's mysterious death in final days of WWI still haunts his family
By JOBY WARRICK | The Washington Post | Published: November 2, 2018
BAYONVILLE, France — For half a century, the young Marine stood watch over a lonely corner of my grandmother's house, next to a writing table no one used, in a formal living room reserved for company. In every memory of my childhood visits, he is there, familiar, yet deeply mysterious.
As a boy I spent so much time staring at his portrait that I memorized every detail: the high-collared tunic and shoulder straps, the folded hands, the felt campaign hat with the Marine Corps emblem and the numerals "8-3." He is smiling slightly, and in his face I see traces of my grandmother. Perhaps even of myself.
This, I knew, was my great-uncle, my grandmother's beloved brother. But nearly everything else I knew about him was contained in the small brass plaque on the picture frame. It read: Foster B. Stevens, 83 Co. U.S. Marines, Killed in Action, 1918.
From an early age, my cousins and I also knew the singular detail that had always made his death seem more tragic: Foster had died in France on Nov. 2, just nine days before the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended World War I. But exactly where and how he served - and where and how he died - was lost to us.
His letters and war records had been burned in a fire that destroyed the family's eastern North Carolina farm decades earlier. And my grandmother, Ina, who was 17 when her older brother was killed, could rarely bring herself to talk about him. Once, after one of the marathon Scrabble games she played every night after dinner, she spoke wistfully about the day Foster left home for the war, boarding a horse-drawn wagon that would carry him the 13 miles to the train station in Goldsboro, North Carolina. "I cried, he cried. We all cried," she said. About his death, she said, "It was a sad, sad day." And nothing more.
Her grief over her brother was so profound that, years later, as a college student studying in London, I decided to travel to France with a friend to find his grave. We trekked 300 miles by train, bus and hitchhiking until we came to the vast Meuse-Argonne cemetery, the largest U.S. military gravesite in Europe, with its 14,000 white crosses and Jewish stars honoring the dead of World War I.
We found my uncle's stone near a row of linden trees, and, as we had no flowers, we made a crude bouquet of colorful fall leaves and took photographs. When I gave my grandmother the small photo album from my trip, she sat with it for a long time, quietly leafing through the pages without speaking. She had never seen her brother's grave.
Ina Stevens Warrick was 81 then, a long-widowed grandmother of nine who carried herself with a kind of imperturbable cheerfulness, as though life had forged in her a steely capacity to accept adversity without tears or complaint. The loss of her brother had been a particularly heavy blow; among 10 siblings, she and Foster were middle children, close enough in age to tease and torment one another.
Her brother's death coincided with the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which took the life of her closest girlfriend. After a stint in college, she married Luby Warrick, a country doctor whose small clinic next to their house was ground zero for every trauma and crisis that can befall a small farming community, from gruesome accidents and deadly fevers to the deliveries of babies at all hours of the day and night.
She became a widow at 60 but continued to run blood drives for the American Red Cross and managed the household on her own for another 40 years, refusing to a succumb to self-pity or her own increasing frailty. Only after she turned 90 did she finally acknowledge that she was too old to use a push-mower to cut her own lawn.
Yet, as she pored over the photo album that day, her eyes welled up. She thanked me wordlessly, with a hug that was longer and deeper than any I had ever received from her. Years later, after she died at 100, I learned that she had taped a handwritten note to the back of her brother's portrait. It read, simply, "For Joby."
Thus began my stewardship of the photograph, which eventually found a new home in my office. Every time I gazed at it, I marveled at how little I knew about my great-uncle. A few minutes on the Internet one day turned up clues: The numerals "8-3" referred to the 83rd Company of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, a combat unit that seemed to have a knack for turning up wherever the fighting was hottest and bloodiest. His death 100 years ago probably would have occurred near the French city of Verdun, in the American sector of a massive allied battle line that moved against the Germans in the final weeks of the Great War.
But where, and how, exactly? The search for answers would stretch out over several months and lead from a bullet-scarred village in eastern France to archives filled with hand-drawn maps, diaries and scrawled messages written by men - everyone called them doughboys back then - who fought and died a century ago.
Along the way I would encounter a storied battalion of young Marines whose bravery inspired the nickname "Devil Dogs," still used by the Corps a century later. And I would retrace the steps of these warriors through a climactic final push against the German lines at the end of what historians describe as the biggest and bloodiest campaign ever fought by U.S. troops - a battle that Americans today have almost entirely forgotten.
But it wouldn't be enough. To understand the story of my own family's doughboy, from his moments of heroism to the tragic turn of events that would haunt my grandmother for decades, I'd have to dig deeper still.
In the version of American history familiar to most schoolchildren, the U.S. experience in World War I was a nearly unblemished triumph, a moment when an energetic and powerful young nation rescued Europe's democracies and inspired the world with its ideas, optimism and military might.
That vision bears little resemblance to the reality encountered by U.S. soldiers and Marines who landed in France's muddy killing fields in the spring and summer of 1918. By every measure, the arriving Americans were ill-prepared for the kind of grinding, heavily mechanized war of attrition that Europe's great armies had fought over the previous three years.
The U.S. military had no tanks or airplanes - the Americans ended up using borrowed French and British equipment throughout the war - and its generals were slow to master essential lessons of surviving as an army in the trenches.
The prevailing view in the upper ranks was that the American fighting man was innately superior - in character, in marksmanship, in maneuvers - and "there wasn't a lot that the Europeans could teach them," said Richard Faulkner, a history professor at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and author of "Pershing's Crusaders," an intricately detailed account of the American war fighter's experience in World War I.
Whatever native talents the newcomers may have possessed, this failure to fully grasp the rules of 20th-century warfare resulted in "one of the steepest learning curves in modern military history," Faulkner told me. "The Germans, the British and the French get to learn from each other painfully over the war's early years. We were thrown into the deep end."
This fact, perhaps more than any other, would define the war's early months for Foster and other American doughboys, many of whom witnessed carnage on a scale that evoked comparisons to the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, said historian David Bettez, author of two books on Marines in World War I. "Men were shoved in," he said, "and men continued to be killed."
There were moments of extraordinary bravery that did distinguish the Americans as exceptional fighters. As I learned about these, I began to catch glimpses of my great-uncle, who would turn up again and again in the middle of some of the most memorable - and often bloodiest - American battles in all of World War I.
One such battle occurred in a square-mile patch of German-held terrain near the Marne River known as the Bois de Belleau - or, in English, Belleau Wood. On June 6, 1918, two battalions of Marines were ordered to charge across hundreds of yards of open wheat fields to attack a heavily defended German line stretched along the edge of the forest. One of the units, the Sixth Marine Regiment's 3rd Battalion, commanded by Maj. Berton Sibley, consisted mostly of college recruits, many of whom were witnessing their first action of the war.
As the Marines began their charge at 5 p.m., the German line erupted with machine gun fire, cutting down the attackers by the hundreds as they advanced without cover through the waist-high wheat. Somehow, Sibley's battalion made it to the woods and secured a foothold after silencing a machine gun nest and driving back the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. A ferocious counterattack followed, but the Marines held their ground and began a slow, weeks-long advance to take Belleau Wood for the American side.
On June 12, on the sixth day of fighting, a replacement unit of 125 newly minted Marines arrived on the battlefield to shore up the two battered units. Among them, muster records show, was a young North Carolina private named Foster Stevens, who was assigned to the 83rd Company of Sibley's 3rd Battalion. He was ruddy-faced and slim with soft brown eyes, and he had turned 25 the day before his arrival at Belleau Wood.
The youngest son and the third of 10 children born to a modestly prosperous cotton farmer, he had volunteered for the Marines in January 1918, nine months after the United States officially entered the war.
His reasons for signing up are unknown, but he did not have to look far for inspiration. His grandfather had been a decorated war veteran, though one who had fought not for the U.S. Army, but for the Confederacy. Second Lt. Josiah Stevens had been wounded in 1862 and was captured three years later by Gen. William T. Sherman's Union troops after the Battle of Bentonville, a bloody clash that took place 10 miles from the home where Foster Stevens grew up in Wayne County, N.C.
Both his parents had been born in the Reconstruction-era South, yet their son would serve under the Stars and Stripes next to volunteers from New York and Pennsylvania. Some 1,600 neighbors from the small rural county would do the same, including 54 who would never return.
He may have believed he had little choice. Half of the nearly 5 million Americans who served in the war were drafted, and registration papers for Foster Stevens in June 1917 list him as an unmarried farmworker, placing him in the highest category for draft eligibility. His decision to volunteer with the Marines - then a tiny branch of the armed services with barely 13,000 enlisted troops at the start of the war - may have reflected a desire to exercise some control over where and how he served.
In any case, after just four months of training, he came ashore at Brest, France, in April 1918, equipped with a marksman's badge, multiple good-conduct ratings and a kit bag containing an overcoat, a helmet, extra socks and four woolen undershirts, part of a wave of young Americans who, for the first time in history, were heading off to fight in one of Europe's great wars.
His new unit had been so badly mauled in the earlier fighting at Belleau Wood that it spent two weeks recuperating in the rear. But on June 25, Foster and the rest of Sibley's battalion returned to the forest to help lead a fresh assault on the German strongholds. They spent an anxious night clinging to bomb craters and hastily dug foxholes as German artillery raked the woods.
"Sitting here at the mouth of my hole in the ground like a prairie dog," the 6th Regiment's adjutant, Lt. David Bellamy, wrote in his diary during a brief lull in the bombardment. The regular shelling was bad enough, he wrote, but what truly unnerved the Marines were the German artillery rounds known as "whiz-bangs," which came in at such a low trajectory that there was no time to dive for cover. "You hear the whistle of their coming, and then they go off, a hundredth of a second after you first hear them," he wrote.
Yet, the next day, the Marines advanced again, this time overwhelming the German defenders. That evening, the commanding officer sent a hasty message to headquarters that read, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps' entirely."
The battle became an instant legend, and it remains today among the Marine Corps' most celebrated victories of all time. Two Marine units, including Foster's 6th Regiment, were awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and the French government officially renamed Belleau Wood in honor of the Americans, calling it "Bois de la Brigade de Marine."
Gen. John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, was moved to declare that the "deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle."
But the gains came at a horrific cost. During the first day's charge into the woods, the two battalions suffered 1,087 killed and wounded, or about half the units' strength, in what was then the largest single-day toll for the Marine Corps. The entire campaign, which included six major U.S. assaults and drew in units from two Army divisions, left nearly 10,000 Americans dead or wounded.
The scale of the losses would grow larger in the weeks that followed. On July 19, the 6th Marine Regiment, including Foster's 3rd Battalion, was again sent across open fields to attack heavy German fortifications at the French city of Soissons. The battle ultimately succeeded in halting Germany's last great offensive of the war, but it was a bloodbath. As an official regimental history later put it, "The 6th Marines had the bitter experience of trying to overcome the enemy with little more than their bodies."
After their advance halted, the Marines tried to dig in, but German artillery pounded the men with deadly accuracy. Sibley, the battalion commander, dispatched a courier to headquarters with a grim assessment: Half of the assault force had been killed or wounded, and the rest had little ammunition or water and were at risk of being annihilated by German soldiers who appeared to be massing for a counterattack.
"Situation worse than I had wished to believe," he wrote.
The Marines were relieved by French troops after nightfall and withdrew to the rear. The regiment saw little action after that, until September, when allied commanders planned a massive assault that would unleash waves of American troops - 1.2 million in all - against the German lines in a bold attempt to drive out the occupiers and end the war.
The battle would be known to history as the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American military operation of all time. And Foster and his 6th Marine Regiment would again find themselves at the very heart of the action.
The village of Bayonville is a tiny crossroads in France's Grand Est, a lush, agrarian region of rolling hills and sleepy farm towns that shares a northeastern border with Belgium and Luxembourg. It consists of one ancient chapel and perhaps two dozen charmingly rustic stone dwellings, and differs little from a thousand other rural French villages, with one distinction: Bayonville, by fate of geography, was the epicenter for a mighty clash between armies exactly a century ago.
On the morning of Nov. 1, 1918, the village was held by the German army, which had erected an iron wall of breastworks and 77 mm artillery batteries on wooded ridges north and east of town. Yet, by the middle of that same day, as I had learned, Bayonville's fortifications would be overrun by troops of the 6th Marine Regiment. By nightfall - my great-uncle's last night - the town's narrow lanes would be patrolled by the men of Foster Stevens's 83rd Company.
As I drove into the village on a Saturday morning in midsummer, I wondered what visible reminders of that day might still exist. There were plenty of such signs on the roads leading to the town, as it turned out. Along the highway to the north I encountered a large German military cemetery with rows of iron crosses marking the graves of men who died in the fall of 1918. South of town lay forests still bisected by trenchworks and littered with fragments of century-old munitions and discarded military gear. All along the old battle lines, each year's spring plowing still yields an "iron harvest" of unexploded artillery shells.
In the village itself, the evidence tended to be just above eye-level. As I walked, I noticed the pockmarks of small-arms fire on the stone walls of the chapel and other older buildings, along with occasional larger gouges that appeared to be from artillery or shrapnel. As I stared up at the damage, a kerchiefed head poked through a doorway and looked quizzically at the stranger taking photos outside her home. I greeted the elderly woman in my smattering of French and nodded upward toward a deeply scarred stone facade.
"De la guerre?" I asked, pointing. From the war?
The woman shrugged, and then, with one arm, made a sweeping gesture that took in the entirety of the street.
"Partout," she said.
For the Marines forming battle lines on the morning of Nov. 1, the jumping-off point was a field outside Landres-et-Saint Georges, a neighboring farm town just south of their objective. From there, the Marines would make a 3½-mile uphill dash to Bayonville, then attempt to take out the German guns, secure the town and position themselves for the counterattack that was certain to follow.
This time, the preparations for battle were markedly different. For the final offensive, the Marines came under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Summerall, a onetime artillery instructor who insisted that "fire superiority rather than sheer manpower" be the driving force of the attack. Accordingly, the Americans rushed scores of tanks into the battle lines and launched the assault with what the historian Faulkner called a "hurricane barrage," with 1,500 artillery pieces firing nonstop for two hours along a narrow front ahead of the ground troops' advance.
"Summerall believed there should be a piece of shell or a bullet falling on every inch of ground for a depth of twelve hundred meters" all along the front, Faulkner said, "and it seems that's pretty much what they got."
Field reports show the Marines moving out at 5:30 a.m., after the salvos halted, and marching north up the narrow road in pre-dawn darkness. According to plan, the 6th Regiment's battalions maneuvered in leapfrog fashion, with each advancing to a position along the road and then halting, and allowing the next unit to pass through.
Foster Stevens's 83rd Company was in the lead, with the Marines closing in on Bayonville behind three of their own tanks, when the enemy's main artillery batteries came into view. A battalion after-action report describes in unusual detail what happened next.
"While under cover of the crest of a hill, it was found possible to maneuver the 83rd Company and tanks to flank a battery of four enemy 77 mm guns," the report begins. "This battery was firing direct fire into the left of our sector, and was taken completely by surprise from their left flank.
"One tank approached and covered the advance of a squad of riflemen, and skillful use of its one-pounder and riflemen's weapons compelled the surrender of one officer and 75 artillerymen, who were manning the battery," the report continues. "As a result of this operation, over 200 of the enemy from different points of the ravine were observed retreating on the run to the woods."
The artillery threat now neutralized, the 83rd Company's men raced into Bayonville, where, according to the battle report, the "capture of the town was affected in a systematic and business-like manner, with no losses in [the] company and 100 prisoners taken."
By the early morning of Nov. 2, the rest of the regiment had advanced beyond Bayonville for a total one-day gain of five miles, and the German line was crumbling. Similar progress was made by other units up and down the American lines, but the Marines' achievement was so sweeping that it drew the attention of war correspondents from the leading U.S. newspapers of the day.
"In the center, we smashed through to Bayonville," the New York Times' correspondent reported in a Nov. 2 dispatch. " . . . Facing woods from which a murderous machine gun fire had poured into them for weeks, the Americans advanced under cover not only of fog, but heavy smoke clouds."
Trapped between artillery fire and the charging Marines, the article said, Germans by the hundreds simply "turned and surrendered."
Sometime during that day, on the heels of his company's greatest triumph, Pvt. Foster Stevens fell. Exactly what happened to my great-uncle isn't recorded in regimental reports, which describe minor mopping-up operations on Nov. 2 but no significant clashes. Indeed, the town was sufficiently quiet that, at 10 that morning, rolling kitchens were permitted to enter the village with hot meals for the exhausted troops.
As I would later learn, the attack on Bayonville was in fact the 83rd Company's last fight of any consequence. When the war ended, the Marines were waiting for the completion of pontoon bridges across France's Meuse River so they could press their assault against German positions on the other side. The bridges were still being built on Nov. 11 when a messenger brought word that the Armistice had been signed.
As I studied the official reports, I pondered the likely scenarios. Perhaps Foster had suffered a mortal wound in the attack at Bayonville on Nov. 1, and died the following day, or had gone missing and was found dead. Or maybe he was struck by one of the random artillery shells that records say continued to fall around the village after it was secured.
New clues finally arrived in a stack of century-old personnel papers that turned up in my inbox one morning. I had long known that the service records of the vast majority of World War I veterans had been destroyed in a fire in St. Louis in the 1970s. But, months into my research, I learned that Foster's records had survived, along with those of most of his Marine Corps comrades. Soon I was holding a copy of Foster's 1918 induction papers and a yellowed booklet that tracked his progress throughout his six-month deployment in Europe.
A single document in the 148-page collection caught my eye. It was a field report, dated, Nov. 5, 1918, that contained what was almost certainly the first written account of Foster's death. It said, simply, that Stevens was killed by a gunshot wound while in the line of duty on Nov. 2. Other papers in his burial file suggested that it had been a clean shot; there were no indications that he had been treated for wounds or reported missing, and no evidence of missing limbs or significant physical deformity when his corpse was examined.
A reasonable guess is that he was killed by a sniper, one of the dozens who, according to witness accounts, continued to harass the Marines as the German lines fell back. What is known is that Foster's body, still in his Marine uniform, was wrapped in burlap, placed in a simple pine box and buried on Nov. 3 in a temporary grave near the spot where the Marines had begun their advance two days earlier.
Capt. Alfred Noble, the 83rd Company's senior officer at Bayonville, who later commanded Marines in the Pacific as a four-star general during World War II, closed Foster's service record with a brief note praising his "excellent" character and citing his service in six battles, from Belleau Wood to the Meuse-Argonne.
Yet, it was another document that held the biggest surprise, shedding new light on the depths of a family's anguish 100 years ago. One of the last pages in the service record was a copy of the original Navy Department cable that notified our family, in standard telegram phrasing, of Foster's death.
"Deeply regret to inform you," it began, "message from abroad states Private Foster B. Stevens, Marine Corps, was killed in action on November second."
One detail on the page stood out: The telegram was stamped as delivered on Nov. 30, 1918. I stopped to think about the significance of the date. Just over two weeks earlier - fully 19 days before the telegram was transmitted - Americans had learned of the Armistice.
The news of the war's end had triggered spontaneous celebrations, with pealing bells, fireworks and raucous crowds jamming the streets in cities and towns across the United States. For the families of the soldiers and Marines serving in France, the signing of the peace accord meant an end to worrying about whether their husbands, sons and brothers would return home.
My great-grandparents and the rest of the family surely thrilled to the news of Nov. 11, like everyone else, only to have their hearts torn out on Nov. 30. No wonder my grandmother could never bring herself to talk her memories of that day.
About two and a half years after the fateful telegram arrived, as Foster's coffin was being removed from its temporary grave for reburial in the new Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, another notice arrived from the War Department. If the family wished it, the letter said, Private Stevens's remains could be returned to United States for a private or military burial, at the government's expense. Families of nearly half of the 26,000 U.S. servicemen killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive eventually opted to have their loved ones sent home.
Perhaps the painful memories of November 1918 were still too fresh to contemplate the additional ordeal of another funeral and a reburial. In any case, a handwritten note dated May 5, 1921, conveyed the Stevens family's decision on the disposition of Foster's remains.
"To be left in France," it said.
On my final day in France, I stopped by the vast American cemetery to visit my great-uncle's grave. I had a car this time, unlike my last journey as a college student 36 years earlier, so I drove into the nearby town of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon to buy flowers.
The town lies at the edge of the cemetery, and it greets thousands of visitors every year with American and French flags and banners saluting the alliance between the two countries during both world wars. There were flowers everywhere - in window boxes, in public squares, in sidewalk planters - but none, surprisingly, for purchase.
I noticed a small cafe where servers were starting to prepare for the lunchtime crowd, and I popped in to ask if there was a flower shop in town. The cafe's owner, a slightly built man with a trim beard and cutoff shorts, greeted me in English, and asked if I was visiting the cemetery. When I explained the story of my great-uncle, he studied me for a minute and said, "I've got something to show you."
I followed him into a dimly lit basement and drew a breath. Beneath the cafe was the largest collection of World War I artifacts I had ever seen. The owner, Jean-Paul de Vries, a son of French and Dutch parents who had moved to town decades earlier, had spent his adult life roaming the battlefields where Foster Stevens and his fellow doughboys fought, and he had filled three large chambers with his findings. Sometimes in display cases, but more often in piles, were the castoffs and flotsam of great armies. There were tens of thousands of items of every description, from rusted rifles and bayonets to helmets, dog tags, canteens, hospital equipment and even a prosthetic leg.
De Vries had established a modest museum and a foundation to support his work, but he said he spent most of his time trying to educate visitors - Americans, but also French, German and British - about the men who fought and died near the town a century before. Pointing to a doughboy's steel "salad bowl" helmet, he said, "I only see what was beneath the helmet. These were all young boys, wherever they came from."
What about the flowers? There were no florists nearby, but DeVries had another idea. "My friend Frances has the prettiest flowers in town," he said. "I'll take you there."
Frances, it turned out, lived in a cottage two blocks away. She was in her 60s and was regarded as a bit of an eccentric, and she had a very personal connection to the events of 1918, as DeVries explained to me: Her grandmother had met one of the American soldiers who stayed in the area after the war - perhaps to assist with burials - and had fallen in love with him. Their brief affair had resulted in a child - Frances's mother. She was thus the granddaughter of one my uncle's brothers-in-arms.
We found Frances in her garden, which turned out to be a maze of overgrown shrubs and weeds interspersed with a few plots of ornamentals. DeVries introduced me in French, explained my quest and passed along my offer: Five euros, or about $6, for one of her famous flowers. I extended my hand with the crinkled note to show her.
"Which flowers?" she asked. I pointed to a patch of white daisies.
"Ah, marguerites," she said, using the French word. She took out a pair of a pruning shears and made a quick snip. As the flowers were small, I assumed she would give a modest bouquet. Instead, she accepted the cash and handed me a single white daisy. DeVries, noticing my surprised expression, offered a reassuring smile.
"Of all the flowers that will be placed on the graves," he said, "this one is from the heart."
Minutes later I was strolling through the cemetery, along the vast rows of white crosses and Stars of David. The linden trees were bigger than in the early 1980s, but everything else seemed exactly as I remembered. As I walked, I saw memorial stones with names of men from every U.S. state, most of them killed during a span of eight weeks between September and November 1918.
I also noticed, for the first time, the many crosses that bore no name, and simply honored an "unknown American soldier" whose remains were buried there. There are 486 of these unknown graves in the cemetery, and a separate memorial plaque records the names of an additional 954 doughboys whose bodies were never recovered.
I found Foster Stevens's white cross and sat beside it, thinking about my great-uncle's final day, and about the ordeal that would await his family weeks later back at home. Then I thought about the families of his missing comrades, the parents, spouses and siblings who would be denied even the small comfort of knowing.
My family's doughboy had been lucky, at least in this one sense: Pvt. Foster Stevens had a name, and a grave. And now, for the first time in my lifetime, he also had a story.
I placed the single daisy beside my great-uncle's memorial cross, snapped a photograph, and then left for home.