Mutiny in the Trenches

Sandy drove the hired wagon from Glen Ellen down to Valhalla with his mare and Billy Crowder’s roan, Apache, trailing.  There he buried his friend under a live oak in the $25 casket he’d bought in San Francisco.  The only personal effects that Billy had were his saddle, bedroll, three books, and some papers including some letters from a sister in Nevada.  He reckoned the saddle and Apache rightly belonged to this sister and at any rate she needed to be notified that Billy was gone.  So after he’d filled in the grave he decided to put a low cairn over Billy and while he did this in his mind composed the letter to this sister.  He wrote the letter as soon as he washed up as he knew his thinking would become thick with the drink which that hard day demanded.

A reply arrived two weeks later with the news that the sister would arrive the following Saturday.  Sandy met Miss Agnes Clemens at the SP Depot.  Although she was the only passenger on the platform he would have recognized her in a crowd as she bore a remarkable resemblance to Billy.

“Missus Clemens, Sandy Vestegaard.”

“Yes, Mister Vestegaard.  It’s nice of you to meet me. Thank you, sir and it’s Miss Clemens, and please, just call me Agnes.

“Sandy, please.  No.  No trouble, ma’am.  I know it’s a sad business and I wanted for things to be as easy for you as possible.  Billy was dear to me too.  I’d me most pleased if you’d stay with us out at Valhalla.  There is a small hotel in town but ….”

“That’s good.  Yes, thank you, Mister…uh Sandy.”

The 45 minute ride to Valhalla was quiet save the sounds of the buggy.  While she looked so much like a younger version of Billy unlike him she was quiet and laconic.   At Valhalla after she was settled in to the little guest cottage, he walked her up a slope to the grave site.

“I’ll leave you here, Agnes – I reckon you can find your way back to the ranch house?”

That night she ate with Sandy and his grandfather Lars who carried the dinner with stories about Valhalla.  The next day, Sunday, a cold front blew in from the coast bringing rain.  Juanita, the cook, built a fire in the great room where Sandy found Agnes reading after he came in from the morning ride around.  He fetched an oilskin and escorted her to the stable for a look see at Apache.

Apache, upon seeing Agnes, flared its nostrils and pawed with his right forefoot.  The horse eyed the woman bobbing its head. Caressing his mane she rubbed her cheek against the horse’s mouth as Apache inhaled the scent which was to him rich with familiarity.

“Aw, he loved this horse.  After he came back from France this was his only friend for the longest time.”

That evening Agnes Clemens’ soft words before the fire unfolded the story of Billy’s life before Sandy had known him.

“Billy’s name is not Crowder, no; it’s Billy Clemens – Clemens –just like me.  He had a good reason to change his name and I’ll get around to that.  He was 13 years older than me.  We were both born on a scrubby, bone dry homestead near Fire, Montana.  Daddy had to hire out cowboyin’ so much he never had time to build up our place. And Mama, well, Mama was given to terrible fits and daddy had her put in the asylum.    From the time he was nine Billy did all the fencin’ and tending of whatever stock we had.  He learned to ride from Charlie Sanchez, an old Cheyenne who knew every horse trick in the book. Truth be told old Charlie was more a father to us than Daddy.   Daddy had a mean streak, specially with Billy and ‘specially when he was drinkin’ which was all the time.   So when war in France heated up Billy went up to Canada to join the cavalry up there.  The Army sent him over to New Brunswick for training then sent him to France on a ship called the Western Star.  He had him a time over there.  Some of it was downright horrible but not all of it.  But he got himself into some serious trouble.  Serious enough to hide under a changed name.

Shortly before Billy Clemens’unit embarked the troop ship WESTERN STAR a hastily converted cargo hull, a cable from the French Foreign Ministry had assured the War Department in Ottawa that horses would be furnished once the Canadian troops were on French soil. With no shipboard facilities for the horses, his cavalry unit embarked without their mounts  Major Dunbar, the commanding officer, anticipated accepting 80 to 100 French remounts if not dockside, then perhaps at nearby St. Nazaire or Nantes.  However once in France no one high or low knew of any promised horses.   Every available horse had long since been conscripted and most of those had been lost at the front.  The French Army was suffering staggering losses, losses not in the thousands or even the tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands.    All was confusion and trouble.

Billy Clemens was in trouble himself when the WESTERN STAR docked at the mouth of the Loire.  Two days earlier the cargo ship’s captain had ordered all 2000 troopers topside after a periscope had been sighted.  The destroyer escorting the three cargo/troop ships led the zig zag course changes and rolled off half a dozen of the experimental depth charges the Royal Navy had furnished the Western Star’s escort just before leaving Halifax.  Huddled topside in a cold rain for two hours, Billy’s squad happily shared six berry pies which he had stolen from the galley.  Soon after the ship had tied up and Major Dunbar met with his French counterparts.  Horses? Remounts? They knew nothing of this promise of horses. How many men could the good Canadian Major provide for immediate replacements .Replacement infantrymen were urgently needed at the front.  Could the Major contribute 100 men?  No matter that they were cavalrymen, dear Major – surely you have men who will fight, non?  Please Major, help us in the urgent matter – if not 100 men then 50, if not 50 then 10… surely there would volunteers, non?…Soon after the Major returned on board. Billy was summoned before his lieutenant and offered a choice:  he could face a war-time courts-martial and probably receive a harsh sentence, or he could “volunteer” as to serve in a mixed company of Canadian, Australian and black Senegalese infantrymen being sent as replacements to the front, a place called Chemin des Dames near the Aisne River where they would serve under French officers and non-coms.   With the Canadian, Australian, and a French African troop ships having just docked at Saint-Nazaire, the haste in the assemblage of these raw foreign troops for transport to the front belied the confidence of France’s situation.

This mélange assembled at the Gare de Saint-Nazaire and boarded three rail cars in a confused order which mixed the English speakers and the French Speaking Senegalese packed together like steers at the railhead back home.

Dearest Agnes,

            Firstly, I hope that his letter finds you safe and well in Reno.  I was overjoyed to get your letter the same day we boarded ship for the crossing.  That you have left father’s very mean surrounds is a grand relief.  Whatever your circumstance is there in Nevada it must  be better than suffering Pa’s demons.  The bank foreclosed on Pa over $22 he couldn’t come up with, so no matter what, there won’t be no goin’ back.  Anyways Reno sounds like a swell place and I hope your friend Miss Grace has found you a good job like she said.  As your older brother I will worry bout you although less now that you are away from that very,very mean situation.

            Just now I am in a warehouse for barrels near a town called Laon.  Crossing the ocean was something.  A couple of thousand soldiers and about 1990 of ‘em sick to their stomachs for the first few days.  Alls I can really say is the Atlantic Ocean is mighty big.  Just before we got to France  I lifted a whole tray of pies from the ship’s galley so as to cheer up my mates, got caught, and for that little prank I am no longer cavalry but in some kind of international infantry unit serving with Australian, African and French soldiers.  We were six long days riding in cattle cars, half the time being shunted off the line and sent out to forage. 

            France is both beautiful and hideous.  It’s mile after mile after mile of the most beautiful little farms and little villages cleaner than any place I ever seen in America.  Flowers everywhere.  Girls are lovely but more shy than our gals.  One of my mates is a negro. A NEGRO! Agnes, a negro African from Senegal.  It amazed me to hear a negro could speak French and truthfully I am pleased we are on the same team.  He’s Mohamud Ba , a good man who always has a smile and who is coal black and 6’6” tall and he is teaching me to parlez-vous the lingo.  French people do not look down on niggers as Americans do, which is right and good. When we ask farmers for food they generally load us up with the best bread, eggs, cabbages and sometimes even a sausage. They may stare at Mohamud’s inky skin but they have no qualms about shaking hands and even givin’ kisses on his cheeks and are always sure to express their gratitude and offer prayers for our safety. I never seen niggers except as objects of pity, them bein’ so wretched and hardly any that can read or write.  But when I look at these Sengalese soldiers I see men who speak some of em four languages and can read and write too. And serving here for a solder, put me beside my pal Mohamud and he’s clearly ten times the man I am. If I ever get him to horse them odds will even up. But for now he is my friend and a great teacher. I will never see niggers the same way again.  These French are swell people, Agnes.   I reckon everyone in France has lost someone in this war and everywhere you see men who have lost a limb or who have been blinded or gassed begging in front of churches in tattered uniforms.  It’s pitiful.  There is, of course, much rancor against the Germans, but that’s probably superficial, an even greater hatred is directed toward the war itself.  I’ve seen farmers pass jugs of water and bread to German prisoners being marched back from the front.  These long lines of prisoners are another pitiful thing to witness.  They’re as weary, filthy, tattered and beaten down as the French.  Excepting the officers, just about everyone, soldiers and civilians, are flummoxed as to why there is no end. The politicians and generals bear the brunt of guilt, damn their hides.   The war’s like a thousand pound bull on a rampage.  Too big and mean be stopped and it would not be stopped til it just drops from exhaustion. Everyone is so weary as is this little candle which is fading, so I’ll close as the French do, au revoir – votre frère Billy.  Take care of yourself and please write as often as you can and let me know your situation.  Know that your brother loves you, dear sister. – Billy

Billy folded the letter’s thin paper and softly placed it his tunic’s pocket.  In the morning he would give it to the wine seller across the way whom he’d talked with earlier. He’d give the man a couple of francs and rely on the international post, avoiding the army censors who would be certain to eviscerate its contents. They would be moving to the front the next evening.  His company was bivouacked in a cooperage which was also a warehouse for barrels.  The place had a rich, pleasant aroma of fresh cut oak , candle wax ,and tobacco.  Now late into the evening most of the men lay awake in the dark, sleep impossible for most.  Here and there the light of a candle or cigarette glowed.  The men had subdivided into messes of four, five, or six mates who had foraged together on the way from Nantes to Laon. Billy’s back was propped on his bedroll which lay against a stack of candle cases. He rolled a smoke, lighting it then blew out the flame of the candle stub.  Mohamud who lay next to him, invisible in the dark, coughed softly and Billy passed the cigarette to share with him.

“You try fo’ some sleep, eh?  Now ees good to rest.  Tomorrow ees no gonna be fight.  We only weel jus’ arrive.  Zee fight maybe next day.  So now zee time for sleep, Billy.”

“Yep, you’re right, Mo.”

After he stubbed out the cigarette, he took off his boots, lay his head on his bedroll and slept.

In the morning he and his mess mates struck out to forage.  They had been told that there was always food in the trenches, but foraging had already inserted itself into their routine and they wanted a food reserve.  He sought out the wine seller to pass the letter for his sister.  The old man took the letter and the two francs but insisted on giving Billy two bottles of red wine with his blessing.  Mohamud returned with a pot of marmalade, and the others with tobacco.  In the afternoon they formed up to receive great coats, pouches of rifle ammunition, bayonets, and gas masks.  There was confusion with the ammunition and bayonets because of the differences of calibers among the mélange, now officially named  La Compagnie d’infanterie Internationale.  A French quartermaster cleverly set up three stations for exchanges while French sergeants demonstrated donning gas masks.  Billy was able to get suitable ammunition but could not find the right bayonet for his rifle. One of the old coopers fashioned for him a set of two rings tightened by thumb screws.  The man refused the offer of a few francs, saying only that he was proud to assist and that it warmed his heart to think that German blood might purify and temper his craftsmanship.  The convoy of trucks that would carry them to the front arrived at sunset discharging over one hundred wounded.  La Compagnie which had formed ranks to board the trucks now assisted in carrying the wounded into the stables beside the warehouse where an operating theatre and field hospital was being assembled.  There were cries of pain, groans, and screams as stretcher bearers lay bloodied bodies on the straw within the horse stalls. The din reminded Billy of the crazy house in Boise where they’d taken his mama to live.  Once the wounded were arranged for triage the noise subsided to whimpers and groans as the French medics passed among the men affixing paper tags to each.  Then the sergeants’ whistles shrieked and La Compagnie boarded the trucks for the front.  Billy’s last memory of the cooperage        was smelling wafts of ether from the warehouse as he kicked a wet wad of bloody bandages from the floor of  truck heading to the front.

Nearing the front, through the rain, the sounds and flashes of artillery could be heard and seen from the dark interior of the canvas covered trucks and within of men their brains’ amygdalas thrummed signaling a release of adrenlin, livers released glucose into systems, hearts beat faster, some hands and legs shook uncontrollably, perspiration assumed the sour smell of fear, and here and there was the smell of shit.  As the trucks entered the staging area the sounds of angry men yelling  and the shrieks of the military police whistles could be heard above the rain and distant artillery.  As the trucks rolled to their stops and even before all the men had alighted, the trucks were besieged by a press of bleeding bandaged walking wounded, shoving, one another clamoring to board the trucks. These were blind lines of the gassed.  There were maybe a hundred groups of ten or 15 bandaged men each led by an ambulatory wounded still sighted.  These trucks that had uncomfortably borne 100 of the Compagnie were the hoped for salvation of more than a thousand wounded awaiting evacuation in the mud and rain of the rear trench.  As his unit was marched into the trench system he turned to see a score of blind men flailing fists and kicking, fighting, some falling in the mud, crawling for a place on a truck as medics scurried among them blowing whistles and shouting curses.  From the distance the struggling blind men in the mud put Billy’s mind to an image of maggots writhing on a carcass.

As they passed through the trenches hands reached from bleary eyed and filthy soldiers.  ‘’Tabac ? Rien à manger?″ Although the trenches were covered by planking and tin, all was mud; flashes from the nearby artillery rattled the tin and incoming German shells shook the ground. Eventually they reached a series of buttressed dug out chambers leading off the main trench in which oil lanterns and candles lit faces and sometimes a table for a wireless or maps or wine bottles.  Into such a dugout Billy and his group of 12 were billeted with a weary dozen French soldiers, survivors of a company of 88 riflemen. A young French Lieutenant and his sergeant briefly addressed the men, advising them to try to get some rest, that there was to be a push at daybreak just after rations issue.  A couple of the men tried to make jokes, but the bravado, if noble, was thin, more an annoyance than a comfort. The French riflemen immediately accosted La Companie for not only tobacco, but for news.  “Had we heard of mutinies?”   Yes we had heard of mutinies among the Russians and that they were quitting war.  “Non, non -Mutineries. y a-t-il journaux histoires de mutinerie, ici en France?”  They told of the rumors rampant throughout the trenches of whole divisions quitting the fight by simply refusing to march into the slaughter.  Two days earlier a gas attack against the Germans had gone bad when the wind shifted and over a thousand French had been killed and blinded.  Now the mutiny was the chief topic of talk in every unit.  .The officers there in Aise had become nervous and threatened arrests of anyone speaking the word mutiny.  Scores had been arrested and faced courts-martial.

In a corner with his mess mates Billy uncorked one of the bottles of wine and they sat quietly around a candle, each to his own thoughts.  The Australian Thomas Flint, a communist, related how the Russians were probably the vanguard of what would eventually happen here.  This war is for the damned toffs, the capitalists, and mates, they don’t care how many boys die out there so long as the profits keep rollin’ in.  How much you reckon one of them shells for the big guns cost?  More ‘n you or I will make in a year and they don’t mind sendin a thousand a day over there to Belgium or Germany.  And it’s the same with those blokes in Germany – them lads we’re facin’ is just like us, doin’ and dyin’ for the factory owners and politicians and the bloody Kaiser.  I say bully for the Russians and the sooner they’re rid of their king the better.  ‘King and Country’ yeah it sounds sweet to the ear, but I say ‘ave a look at what we’ve seen the past two days and then tell me ‘King and Country.’  I say to hell with all kings and to hell with all countries, workers of the world unite and to hell with toffs.  That’s the way I sees it.” Billy found himself in accord. “Maybe it’s just that I’m tired,” he thought, “but out here Flint makes sense. “

These young men had not though themselves disillusioned by what war was; they had known was rough but none had anticipated the filth, the confusion, and the extent of the suffering.  Billy’s mind’s eye, like the others, had pictured units of smartly uniformed troops pouring out of the trenches with war whoops and fixed bayonets.  Victory celebrations with mademoiselles laden with bouquets and wine.  But now the vision of the bleeding, blinded men fighting one another like a frenzy of sharks loomed indelibly.  The trench they were in had been the foremost two weeks earlier.  The French had managed the advance by means of heavy artillery barrages and had pushed the Germans northward.  Two months earlier this trench had been the German front trench.  Thousands of Germans and Frenchmen had been killed or wounded in this contest for less than the length of three football fields.  The wine finished, he tried to sleep.  Later in the night he heard a rustling sound and looked at the dirt wall above Mo’s sleeping head.  He lit a match and there in a niche it had dug out sat an immense rat gnawing on the knuckles of a protruding hand that had been buried in the mud.  The rat showed no fear of the light nor the man.  This sight so disgusted Billy he waited quietly for a minute or so then impaled the offending rat with his bayonet, wondering like a Cheyenne or Comanche, if this were a good sign before battle.

Before dawn hard biscuits were passed out.  Men were dispatched to fill canteens.  A corporal led them to the latrine pits with the age old military dictum to void the bowels before battle.  Then just as the sun began to break it began.  The big French howitzers hurled an incredible barrage of hundreds of rounds of high explosive and exploding canister shells toward the German line.  The shells screamed over the trenches exploding close enough for dirt and debris to pepper the entrenched men who formed a line of men nearly a mile long.  Assault ladders had been placed at intervals with palliasses thrown over the barbed wire coils at crossing points.  La Compagnie would be in the third and final wave over the top.  Billy stood in the file between Mohamud and the ruddy faced Australian Thomas Flint.  Flint rolled a smoke which he shared while Billy fixed his bayonet onto the Enfield’s muzzle. The men wore their great coats to ward off the damp cold of the morning but as much with the slight hope that the thickness of the coat could stop or slow a German bullet or bayonet. With the signal for the first wave, French corporals and sergeants pushed and shoved their men toward the ladders.

The barrage continued as the men of the first wave in nervous readiness stamped their feet.  Some touched crucifixes or rosaries as their lips moved in prayer.  Now the lieutenants and sergeants moved up an down the line ostensibly checking bayonets and ammunition pouches but with bleak cautions: “When the man besides you falls, do not stop, keep moving forward; keep those muzzles up until your sure of your target; use the bayonet;  don’t stop at the first trench, keep going, our artillery will have cleared the trenches; do not attempt to return – you’ll be shot if you do – better to die by Fritz’s bullet with honor than France’s with shame.  Remember use the bayonet. Wait for the whistle!  Wait!”  Just before the whistles sounded the majors, captains, and lieutenants standing at intervals drew and cocked their pistols threatening to shoot stragglers.  When the barrage ceased sergeants up and down the lines sounded the attack and the men began to rise from the trenches into the no-man’s land for the 100 yard crossing to the German positions.  The first to leave were perhaps 40 yards forward when the staccato chatter of  two Maxim guns began.  The German gunners had cross fire positions covering the entire area between the trenches.  French soldiers fell like rows of dominoes or so many stalks of wheat meeting the sweep of the scythe’s blade.  The remaining half of the first wave faltered.  Some falling down, digging with their hands for cover, some throwing down their weapons, running back toward our trench only to be cut down by the cross-fire.  Now the whistles sounded for the second wave, and they, having witnessed the complete extermination of the first wave in a space of 20 seconds became reluctant to enter the slaughter and refusing first with strong gestures then shouts that set up a clamor with the throwing down the assault ladders.  The officers screamed at the men who pushed and shoved their ways against the officers some of whom attempted to use sidearms but who were disarmed.  There was scuffling up and down the trenches between officers and men of the second and third waves.

The chaos Billy was like cattle a stampede Billy had once seen at a Montana railhead.  Mohamud’s face opened to a grand smile, “I zink we are save, Billy.” as he and the rest of La Compaigne joined the surge to the rear.  Now the cries were, Mutinerie!  Révolte de  masse, mes frères!” 

            There was really nowhere to go other than the dugouts from where they’d spent the night but the confusion in the forward trench had spread through the vast complex and it took the rest of the morning the men of La Compaigne  to move past the latrine pits to the dugouts.  That afternoon the entire army was roused with each unit being read the riot act. The 125 who had been arrested would face courts-martial within a week.  The penalty was well known.  The attack would be resumed.  Resistors would be shot on site.  The Army at Laise would not shame France!

A sound akin to the buzzing of hornets spread through the ranks that afternoon as tens of thousands of soldiers collectively decided to end the war.  A few officers and non-coms  in accord rose to lead this resistance and face the General Staff with the senselessness and disregard for humanity and were arrested.  Four of these officers, a major, a captain, and two lieutenants were arrested and summarily court-martialed and before representatives of each unit were executed the next morning in the rain before a firing squad.  Someone set afire the farmhouse used by the General Staff and thousands of men began marching away from the trenches south towards Paris. Speeches were given proclaiming that  “We shall stay together as brothers,  others will join, wisdom will prevail and this war can die! Our enemy is as weary of the war as we and will follow suit.  Come brothers, come with us. End this war!”

Billy and Thomas Flint joined the march south.  As the mass of men progressed they noticed that whenever they met a cross road, groups of resistors left.  “Lookee here, Flint, “ Billy said, “this ain’t gonna work.  These Frenchmen, look at ‘em.  There like fleas hoppin’ off a dog’s back.  Nah, this ain’t gonna work, what these fellahs really want is to go home.  Aw shit, this is beat before it’s even started.” So he and Flint decided to return to the trenches rather than risk charges of desertion.  Halfway back to the rear trenches they were surrounded by mounted military police and arrested.

They were confined with other prisoners in outdoor pens of fence wire topped with barbed wire overseen by guard towers.  These were standard pens used to temporarily house German prisoners of war prior to transport south.  In each pen a canvas sheet stretched to provide the only shelter.  44  Flint and Billy were the interrogated by a French officer on the day following the arrests.         Two days later they were court-martialed neither young man understanding one tenth of the procedings.  However pronouncement the death sentence for desertion in the face of the enemy was clearly understood.  The executions were to occur the following morning.  After the trial the two were returned to the pens.  That night an English speaking French priest visited them to hear confessions.  Flint was furious.  “I’m not of your papist persuasion, no I am not – and I sure as hell don’t have nuthin’ to confess – aside from wishin’ for a thick steak, a cold beer, and a piece of sweet quiff– so you can save your Roman mumbo jumbo for these other blokes.”  Billy likewise declined without rancor, simply waving away the well-meaning cleric after the priest promised to mail the boy’s final letter. How anyone could excuse the barbarity he’d witnessed by a prayer or a sprinkling of water or oil. .  The smell of cordite and the splash of blood; that he understood.

My Dear Sister Agnes,

                        I hope that this finds you in better stead than me.  That Reno has opened for you a new and better life and that you are happy. I think you should write the bank in Montana and see if there is any legal for you.  Could you send them the $22?  But my bet is they have legal title by now and maybe have even sold Pa’s ranch.  It’s sweet to think it would go to you on accounta all that you and me endured out there.  Without Pa it’s a good piece of this green earth.

            Coming over here has been something, Agnes.  I never knew the world was so big or beautiful or so downright ugly for that matter.  For that knowledge I am grateful.  It pains me to relate the events leading up to tomorrow so I’ll make this simple.  We were sent to the front at for an attack called Aise Offensive.  At the start of the attack about two thousand French soldiers were killed in less than a minute.  The rest of the army then refused to fight.  Some of us was arrested, me included.  Now I’m to be shot by a firing squad in the morning.  How I came to deserve death is beyond me.  Please remember that I left this world thinking of you, thinking how most folks is good people – that includes the French and the Germans, and the Negroes.  Whenever you see a nigger, Agnes, please remember that your brother held a black African negro dear to his heart and the best friend he ever had. And know that the very worst thing in this world is war which draws cruelty and craziness from the depths of hell in great abundance.  When you have a son, please name him Billy and don’t never let him go soldiering.  Your loving brother, Billy.

An hour after the midnight change of watch, Billy heard his named whispered. It was in the dark of the moon and he could see nothing.

“Billy, you and Flint- over here shhhhhh.  I come for to save, non? Ha ha.”

At the corner furthest from the guard tower was Mohamud quietly working wire cutters down the fence.   Billy and Flint squeezed through and followed Mohamud back to the dugout.  There the other members of La Compagnie Internationale hugged and shook hands with the two.  The were give a bundles of hard tack, civilian clothes , and over $200 in francs their mates had collected.

“Some deese French help us too.  The ‘ave a truck waitin’ for you now.  You go to Paris, dey will ‘elp you find a ship to America and to Australia.  Non?

Flint piped up, “Non, find me a train to Russia, said Flint.  I don’t mind a fight, but I wanna fight for the worker.”

Billy clasped the big  Senegalese and kissed both of his cheeks.  “God bless you Mohamud, mon frère.  God bless you, you most excellent man.”

Epilogue:

PTE (Private Proficient) Thomas Flint, Royal Australian Army Medical Corps and PVT Billy L. Clemens, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, convicted of desertion in the face of the enemy and escape from lawful confinement joined the list of approximately 700,000 soldiers of the French Army.  There due to the staggering numbers of desertions, the public attitude towards the deserters and the government, no active pursuit was engaged by the government of France after the Armistice.  Both men, however, remained on their own countries’ rolls as deserters and fugitives from justice.

Both men arrived in Paris two days after leaving the front.  The Communist League of Paris undertook Thomas Flint’s protection and ultimate transportation to St. Petersburg where he joined the Red Army as a medic.  In 1918  in the Vladavostok campaign he was arrested and charged with espionage.  He froze to death in a Red Army prison compound.

Billy Clemens in Paris quickly found refuge among a small group of American deserters.  Monsieur Eric Fleureau was owner a company the furnished cord wood and charcoal to Parisianne brasseries employed several of these men as wood cutters and charcoal burners at a camp outside Paris where they lived communally in a small house.  On weekends he attended the free classes given by the SFIO, the French Socialist party.   Billy was charmed by not only Paris but his boss’s 18 year old daughter Marie Fleureau, whom he married in March of 1919.  Sadly, Marie died of typhoid fever in the summer of 1919.  With her death went the enchantment of Paris.  In October he landed in Montreal, a stowaway aboard the EMPRESS OF FRANCE.  Hopping freights on the Canadian National, the Canadian Pacific railroads he made his way to San Francisco.  With help from contacts in the Socialist Labor Party in San Francisco he assumed a new identity as Billy Crowder to evade deportation to Canada as a deserter.  In the Central Valley he resumed his life as a cowboy until his death in the bombing of the IWW meeting near Glen Ellen.

Two months after their meeting, Sandy Vestergaard and Agnes Clemens were married at Valhalla.  Their first child born the next year was christened Billy Clemens Vestergaard.

© Gary Ives

First published in “Tales of Old”, Issue №67 (podcast)

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