Tracing the History of a Vintage WW1 Razor - Part 4: Over There

Discussion in 'Safety Razors' started by Rosengaard, Jul 15, 2017.

  1. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Click to read:
    Part 1: The Khaki sets.
    Part 2: Searching for Pvt. Robert Mercer.
    Part 3: Robert Mercer Joins the Army.


    The errors of George W. Ballantine, Robert Mercer and myself

    When We last left Robert Mercer, he was on board the troopship “SS Rhesus”, on his way to the war, with his J 2164 Khaki set in his pack. But before I can continue the story, there are three small errors I have to correct.

    As You can see in part 3, I was very happy when I found Mercers name in the shipping papers from the troop ship “SS Rhesus”. However, when using the papers, I made a mistake, but apparently so did George W. Ballantine who according to the papers were the Personnel Officer responsible for checking passenger list


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    The wrong Steamline name on the ships manifest.

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    The guy who did not catch the mistake.


    The passenger manifest lists the ”SS Rhesus” as being a ”White star Line” ship, but it was not. The official lists of the White Star line does not include the “SS Rhesus”, but the lists of another classic steamline “Blue Funnel line” does. Since the “SS Rhesus” clearly has a blue smokestack on this postcard, a staple of the “Blue Funnel Line”, there is no question that this was so. This is a minor mistake, but it sent me in a wrong direction, and it once again reminded me, that the sources, not just the historians, can be misleading from time to time.


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    SS Rhesus with the obligatory blue smokestack of the "Blue Funnel Line".


    But the historian can also be wrong, as I was when I stated that Robert Mercer and the “SS Rhesus” was steaming towards Brest in France. The 147th infantry, that Robert Mercers 112th ammunition train was attached to, left Philadelphia the day after the “SS Rhesus” on three other steamships. THEY headed straight to Brest, but The “SS Rhesus”, according to the manifest, sailed towards England. However, no specific English port is mentioned in the papers, and another source, a diary (more on that later), mentions that the 112th Ammunition Train landed at Cherboug. At this point I am guessing that this was Robert Mercers embarkation point, even though the “SS Rhesus” could have stopped at an English port first. The troops might even have stayed in a so called rest-camp there (which was not unusual), before heading for Cherboug.


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    Destination: England - but which port?


    Having cleared up those two minor mistakes, we get to the third, which has far more important ramifications. And the source of that mistake is Robert Mercer himself.

    I have now begun researching the Mercer family history (preparing for the post-war story of the razor), and what is clear when studying these documents, is that Robert Mercer was born on 1 august 1899 or 1900. When Mercer himself, in his later years, reported his birth year, it was 1900. This means, that Robert Mercer lied about his age when signing up in 1817. He was not 19 11/12 years old, as his military papers states, he was 16 11/12. Robert Mercer was apparently so eager to sign up, that he did so one month before his 17th birthday. In his training-year in Camp Sheridan he was 17, and he shipped out for Europe before his 18th birthday!

    Robert Mercer was a therefore teenager going to war. Although he had been forced to grow up fast (his mother had died in 1914 - more on that in a later part), some of the most formative years in the life of a youth he lived in training and on the battlefield. When he used the J 2164 Khaki set, it might have been his very first shaving experience.


    Arriving in Europe


    So Robert celebrated his 18th birthday in Europe, almost a month after arriving in Cherboug.

    He arrived on the 4th of July, and that was probably the best date to arrive for an american, if you wanted to feel welcome in allied Europe in 1918.

    The 4th of July is of course a distinct US holiday (Denmark has the biggest celebrations of the US Independence Day outside the US), but in 1918 the holiday was celebrated big time in Europe as well. The US troops were pouring in by the thousands (10.000 every day!) In all 2.084.000 US troops arrived in Europe before the war was over. In a ruthless war that was won by the side that ran out of fresh supply and fresh troops last, the arrival of the US troops effectively spelled the beginning of the end of the war. The allies knew this, and thusly when Robert Mercer arrived, 4th of July celebrations were held in France and other allied countries.


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    In a big ceremony in Paris the Avenue de l'Empereur was renamed Avenue du President Wilson, and the New York Times wrote of the 4th of July celebrations in Paris:

    ‘Paris turned out today as almost never in its history to celebrate the Fourth of July. The French capital not only extended a royal welcome to the Americans here, but made a thorough holiday of the day on its own account.’

    They continued to report that American troops marched through the city watched by jubilating Parisians:

    ‘crowds of people that jammed every available inch of space and every window in the buildings along the line of march, on roofs, and even in trees, cheered themselves hoarse’

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    The ecstatic Parisians could finally see and end to the war, so they celebrated. For the 4th year in a row, the French troops were dying by the thousands on the western front. Even on the 4th of July the battle of Hamel was being fought (a battle that included US troops). After almost a year of training, Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train was now a part of this war.

    The main part of the 37th Infantry Division headed to the Bourmont area for more training, but Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train along with the field artillery brigade travelled to Camp-de-Souge, for a training course in firing French 105-MM and 155-MM cannons. They had a stop on the way in St.Nazaire, but it is uncertain how many days they spent there.


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    The trip south took no less than 36 hours (according to a diary), and the troops were being transported by 40/8 boxcars. This designation meant, that the rail-cars could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses! The boxcars were the standard means of transportation for the troops behind the front. I assume that shaving did not take place during the trainride, since it would most certainly have resulted in some serious nicks and cuts.


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    French troops getting a drink in a 40/8 boxcar. The max ammount of passengers (men or horses) are printed on the car.

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    British troops in a 40/8 boxcar.


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    Diagram explaining how to store 8 horses in the 40/8 boxcars. No explanaition is given as to how 40 people were to be stored in the car. Robert Mercer spent 36 hours in one of these wagons on his way to the south of France.

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    The 40/8 boxcars were used in both world wars. After WW2 the french government sent each US state one of the boxcars full of presents. They were called the "Merci Wagons" and are on display in multiple locations today. This one is from Nevada.



    The arrival to France must have made a great impression on a 17-year-old soldier being abroad for the very first time. Especially after having spent almost a year in a military camp in the middle of the cotton fields of Alabama. However, arriving at Camp-de-Souge must have felt a bit like returning to that very camp.


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    Camp de Spouge. The pictures are probably from the early 1920's.


    But for Robert Mercer, camp-time was almost over. The next part of his training would be conducted at the front.


    Baccarat

    About a month after arriving in France, the 147th Infantry relieved other American troops in the Baccarat Sector. This marks the first time that the Ohio-troops came under fire.

    The story about the 37th Division and the 147th Infantry has been told a number of times, and we have a very good indication of where they went and what they did. But we cannot automatically presume, that the 112th Ammunition Train (And Robert Mercer) followed along at all times. As we can see, they trained in another area than the 37th, and at one point army historian Tom McCleod even states that Division HQ lost contact with the field artillery brigade and the 112th Ammunition Train for a long period of time. Fortunately, I have found a letter from an anonymous soldier who served in the 112th Ammunition Train, written on Thanksgiving 1918.


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    Images from the letter from a private in the 112th Ammunition Train.


    In the letter the soldier gives a short overview of the travels of the 112th. We can use this information to verify in which of the engagements of the 37th Division that the 112th Ammunition Train took part. The letter proves, that Robert Mercer and the 112th actually took part in all the major operations of the division, making the claim that the 112th was “lost” a bit strange.

    In WW1 the Ammunition-train units were responsible for transporting the ammunition (for both artillery and infantry) of each division from the ammunition refilling points to the areas of engagement. When possible, this was done by train, but mostly trucks and horse-carts were in use. In an "industrialized war" this was a big operation, and for the privates it mostly meant hard and repetitive work. The diary of William A. Livergood, a private in the 305th Ammunition Train, describes days of exhaustive marching (without knowing where they were going), and days upon days of grooming and tending horses. Pvt. Livergood was so sick of tending horses, that he was ecstatic when he was reassigned to infantry duty.

    The operation of an ammunition train unit also entailed the constant risk of being bombed, strafed and shot at, as Robert Mercer would soon learn in the Baccarat sector.


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    Map of the positions of the 37th Division.


    On 2 august 2018 the 147th infantry arrived at the sector, a 15 km long stretch at the front in the Vosges Mountains. According to the mentioned letter, the 112th Ammunition Train, And Robert Mercer, followed along.

    The Baccarat Sector was considered non-active. It was a part of the front that was to be held, while fighting went on elsewhere. This meant that the sector was being used to deploy untested troops, who would get their "feet wet", by being trained under enemy fire. While training here, the Ohio troops was regularly bombarded by enemy artillery and bombed and strafed by German planes. Night patrols were conducted to scout for enemy advances, and a squad of Ohio soldiers took the first German prisoners of the division at 5 am. on 4 August.

    For Robert Mercer this was his first taste of real warfare. His days must have been filled with hard labor and constant training. And he must have had his first taste of the fear of enemy artillery, the constant companion of WW1 troops at the front.

    Both sides in the war carried out regular gas-attacks (hence the razors), and the 147th carried out one in the Baccarat Sector, where ammunition dumps were attacked. This means, that Robert Mercer and his company probably handled the deadly poison gas grenades. Robert Mercer was handling what we now call weapons of mass destruction.

    Mercer and the 112th slept in barracks the trenches, and must have been woken regularly by artillery fire, their own, and that of the enemy. It is hard to imagine what the now 18 year old Mercer thought about in the trenches. Like so many WW1 soldiers, he was probably oblivious to the big strategic picture of the war, and focused on soldiering on during the long hard workdays. His J 2164 ball-end razor must have been a constant companion, since staying shaved was mandatory. This was probably the first time that he used the thumb-tacks to apply the mirror to the wooden posts of his barrack/dugout in the trenches.


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    Layout of a typical WW1 trench system. "No Mans Land" was often a bit wider.


    WW1 was the first war to be covered extensively by photographs. Moving pictures from the war however are scarce. Therefore it it is a bit of a miracle, that film exits of the 112th Ammunition Train, doing their job in the Baccarat sector.

    Browsing through the National Archives I found the following film strip, that was catalogued in 1936. By a coincidence, the national Archive uploaded the film to Youtube in May 2017, but without the proper explanation as to what exactly we are seeing, and no mention of the 112th Ammunition train. So here I can present the movie from august 1918 AND the archival information from 1936:


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    All of the (cleanshaven) soldiers of the first five scenes are from the 112th, and could theoretically be Robert Mercer. There was 1230 enlisted men in the 112th, so the chances of one of them being him are slim, but not non-existing!

    The ammunition train scenes are actually quite terrifying, since large piles of ammo are being handled rather carelessly. Scene 2 is almost grotesque seen by modern safety standards, as wet ammunition is being tossed around.

    As a further note, the German soldiers captured by the 147th is put on show in scene 6. They look kind of giddy, and actually more happy than the US troops that captured them that are posing in scene 7. Baseball fanatics might get a kick out of the very last scene in the film as well.


    Onwards

    In August 1918 Robert Mercer had ended up on the western front in the biggest war mankind had ever seen. He was a small cog in a giant war machine, where the life of the common soldier was frighteningly expendable. The relatively quiet life on the stable front at Baccarat was about to be exchanged for a more offensive one. The 37th Division, and Robert Mercer was about to take part in the battles that would eventually end the war.


    To be continued in part 5
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2017
  2. Keithmax

    Keithmax Breeds Pet Rocks

  3. RetLEO-07

    RetLEO-07 Well-Known Member

    Very well done!
     
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  4. richgem

    richgem suffering from chronic clicker hand cramps

    [​IMG] x 2 !
     
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  5. twhite

    twhite Peeping Tom

    Spellbinding! This is as excellent read as All quiet on the Western Front.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk Pro
     
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  6. Jim99

    Jim99 Gold Water Shaver

    This is fantastic! You've done a fine job. I can't wait for part 5

    :happy096:
     
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  7. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    I wouldn't be so concerned about the ammunition salvage dump scene. Those solders were going through ammunition that had already been rejected, to make sure there wasn't usable ammo that had gotten in there by mistake. Keep in mind, they were mostly using smokeless propellant, rather than gunpowder. It can decompose when wet a bit more than gunpowder (which is just a mix). Also, the primers were usually 1) volatile, and 2) dirty. If they got damp, they could be worthless. (WW-I. WW-II was different). The 'big hole' they would load it into was more to contain the heat for when they burned off the old stuff.

    That film sure did like showing the French General and his crew a lot.

    +1 for the effort. This is great fun. My great-great uncle/cousin fought with the Canadian troops.
     
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  8. Tiredricefarmer

    Tiredricefarmer Well-Known Member

    :signs011:
     
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  9. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Thanks for clearing that up Bookworm. Their casual handling of those duds makes more sense in that context. :)

    Interesting story about your great-great-uncle. If he fought for the Canadians I guess that he arrived in Europe before Robert Mercer?
    How much do you know about his exploits in the war?
     
  10. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Once again thanks for the positive replies guys.

    It looks like it will take two more parts to get the story done. Three if something new and interesting shows up while i am digging.

    However, I will not have time to work on the final two parts for the next two weeks, since i'm taking the family to Italy. I'll be studying som European history a bit older than the first world war... and perhaps bring home som Prorasso products ;)
     
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  11. richgem

    richgem suffering from chronic clicker hand cramps

    :scared011: I need more.... now!

    But, enjoy Italy! :)
     
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  12. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    There's actually an enormous amount of information about he, and more importantly, the group he was with.

    http://www.boldandmighty.com/blog/2015/10/7/the-dumbells-the-canadian-armys-vaudeville-troop
    https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/gramophone/028011-1007.1-e.html

    PM me, and I'll give you the family name.
     
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  13. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Thanks :happy005:
     
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  14. spot705

    spot705 Active Member

    Excellent research! Loving every minute!
     
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  15. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    I do understand the wincing at it. Kind of a reminder of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he's 'testing' explosive rounds with a mallet, then writing DUD on the side of each one..
     
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