There is a story in North Danville that has held a warm spot in my heart for many years. Ben Clifford, an old country poet, walked the back roads of North Danville and left his handwritten poems in neighbors’ mailboxes.
Shirley Langmaid was a recipient of a number of them, and she passed a folder of them on to the Danville Historical Society. They have been tucked away in a file cabinet until recently, when it was decided that Ben’s poems should see the light of day at the upcoming July 4th celebration in North Danville.
I pulled the file; I actually read the writing. It is handwritten in a beautifully slanted script. One particular piece surprised me. Instead of poetry, it is written in prose. In content it details one day at the end of WWI. It is the only first-hand account of the war that I’ve encountered here in my nine years on the job. It especially intrigued me when I was able to verify his story by following his words to actual events recorded by history.
Ben gives us an inkling of the reality of that war, a stark memory that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He titled the piece “Our Nation’s Progress,” and wrote it under the pen name Daniel Boone.
They say old age lives in the past. If so, there must be another old boy that remembers that cold bleak day of Dec 24, 1918 when the 102nd Machine Battalion, a unit of the old 26th Yankee Division traveled all day with the old Hotchkiss mule-drawn gun carts and caissons to reach a little village near Paris where they were to stay overnight. The men had the privilege of sleeping on the dirt floors of the barns, giving the little cooties a chance to warm up and travel at a tremendous pace over your body. There were two kinds looking for the best location. The mules stayed out in the lot, lying down in the clayey mud for which that country seemed famous.
As luck would have it, Christmas was bright and sunny. The President of the United States was up in the reviewing stand under the magnificent stove pipe hat. It seems he had called for the Fifth Liberty Loan drive back home, the proceeds which we understood were donated to the French government, possibly as a tribute to Lafayette, who helped this country gain its independence.
On Dec. 25, President Wilson reviewed the troops at Hume, France, a location near Paris. He had signed the Armistice in November. He climbs out of a vehicle, jovial, wearing a fur coat and top hat and walks a boardwalk to a reviewing stand where he is to speak. A 35mm film clip of him in action can be accessed on YouTube. A local typewritten Souvenir book in our collection identifies two Liberty Loan amounts given from the Town of Danville. “The subscriptions of the people of Danville to the First Liberty Loan amounted to $53,500. and to the Second Liberty Loan, $90,950. a total of $144,450.” (It doesn’t mention the Liberty Loans beyond that.)
It seemed the tanks had arrived, as there were two in attendance. They were given the preference and they circled around in front of the reviewing stand several times, and, of course, it made it difficult for the troops and the long-eared stubborn helpers on the gun carts. There were no pock marks or Minnie wafer marks, as the boys had nicknamed the German one-pounders. The churches were hit everywhere, as the steeples were used as aiming stakes for the German artillery.
Mules were used to pull the gun carts, and Ben seemed very familiar with them.
“Great has been the success of the American gun horse, still greater, though perhaps less appreciated, have been the war qualities of the American mule,” said Brigadier-General T.R.F. Bate of the British Remount Commission. “...probably the most serviceable and satisfactory animal used in the war.”
The Minnie wafers Ben refers to were the 25 cm schwerer Minenwerfer (German for "heavy mine launcher"), a heavy trench mortar developed for the Imperial German Army in the first decade of the 20th century.
In this vicinity were fields of ambulances, large and small, that the people back home had bought bonds to manufacture and delivered to stop a war to “End all Wars,” which was the slogan that time. It needed replacements as you traveled around Dead Man’s Curve after the two lights flickered at the right. It was unsafe anywhere in that territory shown by the tremendous amount of wreckage on each side of the road.
A panoramic photo of Camp Baxter in Vermont hangs in the Historical House showing the large number of soldiers who served from Vermont. One field ambulance and a number of mule teams are included in the photograph. The reference to Dead Man’s Curve was explained in the book “America and WWI,” by Mark D. Van Ells. “One artillery position at the bend of the road just south of the village of Beaumont received so much attention it assumed the nickname “Dead Man’s Curve.” The Yankee Division did fight in the area and experienced gas and shells.
As the boys arrived back that night, they were delighted to fall down anywhere convenient but they saw the man that sent them over there, Capt. Scott, had made a hit shooting crap and gave them a roast pork supper, cooked by Harold Blake, our old army cook, recently deceased.
I find this information endearing and truthful. What seems to have impressed Ben the most about the day was the largesse and luck of his Captain and the wonderful food cooked by their beloved old army cook.
Well, after so many boys gave all they could, since then where are we? Is there appreciation for it? I am only asking for a 25 percent rebate for the taxpayers of this town. I have the 130th tax on the hill.
I can only conjecture here that Ben is asking for a 25 percent break on his tax bill for his service to the United States government in the name of Danville. The farm had been in their family for 130 years.
Ben’s writing and artifacts related to World War I will be on display in the Historical Room at the July 4 celebration in North Danville. The room is open to the public after the parade.