Tracing the History of a Vintage WW1 Razor - Part 5: Battle

Discussion in 'Safety Razors' started by Rosengaard, Aug 9, 2017.

  1. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Read the first parts of the story here:
    Part 1: The Khaki sets.
    Part 2: Searching for Pvt. Robert Mercer.
    Part 3: Robert Mercer Joins the Army.
    Part 4: Over There.

    Sorry for the long wait. Here is finally the (rather long) fifth part of the story of Robert Mercer and his Khaki set.

    In August 1918, shortly after his 18th birthday (1 August), Robert Mercer found himself in the trenches of the Baccarat Sector, a “quiet” part of the Western Front of The Great War. He shaved regularly with his J 2164 Khaki ball-end razor, or that is what I presume. It is certain that he did shave - regulation demanded it - but theoretically he could have used an old straight razor, brought along from Ohio, while tucking away the "fancy" new army-issue razor, provided to him by his superiors.

    After some research, I can now pinpoint where Robert Mercer was stationed at most times during his tour of Europe, but before I can automatically presume that he used his Khaki razor during this tour, I need to establish the probability that he used the safety razor at all. Therefore, I need to examine the primary historical source for this story. I need to examine the Khaki set.


    Examining the J 2164 Khaki set

    Firstly, as described before, the razor itself is in very good condition, and I have grown very fond of using it these last months.


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    The razor is in good condition today.


    There are no cracks in the barrel, and that could lead you to think that the razor has not been used that much. Other signs points to the contrary though. On the bottom plate and on the teeth the nickel has been worn through, and the bronze is clearly showing. This leads me to believe that that razor has been used regularly, but that the user has taken good care of it.


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    Bronze shoving on the teeth.


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    Bronze shoving on the lower plate.



    In the next part (part 6) of this historical examination, I will examine the contents of the blade box more thoroughly, but I can already disclose, that the contents of the box reveal that the razor was probably used well into the forties. This information could be used to speculate that the razor was only used after the war, but a closer look at the case of the Khaki set seems to negate this.


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    The weatherbeaten top lid of the Khaki set.


    If Robert Mercer took good care of his razor, he would probably also have taken good care of the case, and if he did not use it, it would probably have been tucked away somewhere safe deep in his pack. A quick glance at the box seems to tell us otherwise. The case shows clear signs of having been used in all kinds of conditions. It is weather-beaten, the cloth is spotted and discolored all over, and in some places it is even worn through. I am guessing that the box would not look this "used" if it had only been used in non-war situations.


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    The mirror seems to confirm this. The surface of the mirror clearly shows signs of use in less than "clean" environments. Also, that the mirror has been used at all seems to point to war-use. There would not seem to be a very good reason to use the mirror at all, if not being in the trenches. In fact, I am planning to shave using the mirror one of these days. I am doing this purely out of historical interest, because why would I use it otherwise? Even a very small shaving mirror would be a much better choice, if you do not like nicks and cuts.


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    The mirror has seen better days.


    Lastly, there are two spots on the box (one on the bottom, and one inside the case) that looks like blood-stains. I write this in danger of sounding overly dramatic, but, given the circumstances, it is realistic to speculate that these stains could be just that. They could also have been caused by rust or some other substance, but realistically, since the razor clearly was present in the trenches, even during combat as we shall see shortly, there is a possibility, that the stains were in fact caused by a tiny fraction of the blood that was spilled in the trenches of France 99 years ago.


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    The stained bottom of the Khaki set.


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    The stains on the inside of the case.


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    Next to the blood-like stains, the edge of the case seems to be burnt a bit.



    The Meuse-Argonne offensive

    In the fall of 1918 the allies were ready to utilize the new influx of men and resources they had gained, when the US transports and troopships had started arriving at the ports of Europe. They were planning a major offensive all across the western front, “The Grand Offensive”, as it would be called. A big part of this offensive was the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in which the US forces, including the troops from Ohio, played a big part.

    This was the primary operation involving US troops in the war. It lasted from 26 September until the armistice on 11 November, and it is the largest offensive in US military history, involving up to 1.2 million US troops.


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    Overview of the Grand Offensive. The meuse-Argonne offensive is tinted blue.


    The Grand Offensive effectively ended the war, since the German losses (and the breakdown of German order behind the lines), forced the German generals to the negotiating table, where they had no other option than to surrender. The Meuse-Argonne offensive therefore ended as a decisive victory for the allies, but in hindsight it was won at far too great a cost. As so often in World War 1, the offensive was troubled by bad planning, bad leadership and the commanders disturbing indifference to the worth of the lives of the common foot-soldiers.

    The 37th Division, including Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train was relieved at the Baccarat Sector on 16 september 1918 (the location of Baccarat can be seen on the map further below). They travelled by train (in the 40/8 boxcars that they must have known well by this time - see part 4 for more info on the boxcars) to the Robert-Espagne area, and from there by bus to Recicourt, 6 km from the front. They arrived on 21 September, only five days before the offensive was about to commence. On 25 September, they marched to the trenches at the front, ready to take part in the battle to come.


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    The areas assigned to the divisions of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The area of the 37th Division is tinted blue.


    On the night between 25 and 26 September 1918 the allied cannons started an artillery barrage enormous even by WW1 standards. 3.928 guns rained death on the German lines. We know for a fact that the 112th Ammunition Train took part in the battle that would shortly commence. A letter from a private in the 112th confirms this (the letter is discussed in part 4), and the Battle-plan of the V Corps (under which the 37th Division was functioning) also confirms this:


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    Excerpt from the battle plan of V Corps. The 112th Ammunition Train is at the bottom.


    Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train must have had their hands full all night, supplying ammunition for the guns of the 62nd Field Artillery brigade, which participated in the barrage. But on that particular night, Robert Mercer and his fellow privates from the 112th were the lucky ones, because they had something to do. The 250.000 combat troops, lying in their trenches, with a thundering barrage going on all night cannot have gotten very much sleep. They were probably thinking about what the new day would bring, when they would be ordered to run into the fog towards the German fortifications.

    The battle started at 5.30 in the morning. The 37th and eight other divisions attacked simultaneously. The final goal of the offensive was to capture the supply train line of the Germans, running through Sedan. According to the battle plan the troops were expected to advance 10 miles through heavily defended valley and forestland, breaking no less than three German defensive lines. Of the nine divisions, four had previously seen battle, three (including the 37th) had only seen guard duty at "quiet" portions of the front, and two divisions had never been at the frontline before. Not surprisingly the plan fell through, and the entire offensive ended up costing 26.277 American lives, the second most deadly battle in US military history. Only the Battle of Normandy in 1944 was more deadly (29.204 fallen).


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    Excerpt from General Kuhns field order.


    The 37th Division was charged with helping the 79th Division capturing the town of Montfaucon on the first day of the offensive (as seen on the field order excerpt). The relatively inexperienced combat troops captured the town 1,5 days later than planned, giving the German defenders time to regroup and strengthen their defenses in the adjacent areas.


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    Panorama photo of the ruins of Montfaucon from 27 september 1918.


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    Marching troops in the ruins of Montfaucon 2 October 1918.


    One of the problems about fighting around Montfaucon was that the ground was wet and soggy, due to a heavy downpour. There were four roads in the area, connecting the advancing troops with the rear. These roads were all heavily bombarded, and the rain made them extra difficult to traverse. It was on these roads that Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train, under heavy bombardment from both artillery and planes, fought to get ammunition to the front lines using trucks and horses. We have evidence that none other than Herman Göring, who commanded an airwing for the Germans, was flying one of the defending German planes during the battle. Theoretically he could have taken a strafing shot at Robert Mercer. If he did, he missed!

    It is reported that the roads were nearly impassible, until the engineers (probably the 112th and 304th Engineer Trains) made hasty repairs, and eventually Robert Mercer and the 112th delivered ammo for the 37th Division, and the offensive continued.


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    Supply trucks and carts on muddy roads on the way to the Meuse-Argonne front.


    After the capture of Montfaucon the 37th fought tough German resistance, and proceeded north along with the other divisions. On 28 September they had advanced to Cierges, three miles north of Montfaucon. The next day, 29 september, they were relieved by the 32nd Division.


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    Map from 1919, showing in great detail the progress of the divisions and the movement of the front. The blue arrows (that I added) points to the location of the 37th Division from 26 to 29 september.


    After four days of fighting, The 37th Divison marched back to Recicourt. In the four days of battle they had advanced 9,8 km, more than 2500 had been wounded, 150 were missing and 578 had been killed.

    What the tired troops from the 37th Divison did not know, was that the messy offensive had already had an effect. On the same day as the 37th was relieved, General Ludendorf, the German Quartermaster General of the German Supreme Army Command, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that the military situation facing Germany was now hopeless, effectively starting the chain of events, that would lead to the German surrender on 11 November.


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    Temporary 37th Division Cemetery (allegedly - I have some doubts on the source of the information)


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    Today many of the fallen US troops from the Meuse-Argonne offensive have been buried (and reburied) at The American war cemetary 5 km nw of Montfaucon. All the little white dots are crosses.


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    Rows upon rows of graves at the the American war cemetary near Montfaucon.


    The Meusse-Argonne offensive would continue until armistice at 11 am on 11 November 1918, but the 37th Division would spend the last weeks of the war elsewhere. However, Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train seem to have fought on in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The 37th received guard duty in the trenches of the nearby St. Mihiel sector, where a major battle had been fought a few weeks prior. The divisional history however states, that the Field artillery Brigade and the Ammunition Train was “lost” to them, and that they heard that they were fighting nearby. The letter we have from the 112th suggests that the engagement at Meusse-Argonne was massive, and I am guessing that this means that the 112th was participating in the battle longer than the 4 days that the other troops from the 37th Division did. However the letter also tells us that the 112th did indeed go to the St. Mihiel Front for “a few weeks”.

    This means that Robert Mercer participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive for maybe as long as 10 days, before rejoining the 37th Division. It makes sense that the artillery and the ammunition suppliers were more needed in the offensive, than at the stable front at St. Mihiel.

    The Battle of Meusse-Argonne was terrible from all accounts. In spite of Ludendorf’s realization, the Germans fought back nail and teeth, and regularly poured fresh reserves into the fight. This must have been the toughest part of the war for Robert Mercer, hauling ammunition back and forth through no-man’s land in rain, mud and thick fog, with the constant threat of being bombed by artillery and planes. He must have spent the nights under horse-carts or trucks, or in hastily dug foxholes, trying to sleep while the artillery-fire went on and on. The battle was so huge, that a private like Robert Mercer, one amongst hundreds of thousands of US troops, would not have had a clue about the tactical picture. Were they winning? Were they loosing?


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    Soldiers and mud in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.


    But through all this, footage shows, that the troops remained clean shaven. Mustard gas was being used in the battle, and the fact that the soldiers spent time shaving in conditions like these is probably the strongest argument for the gas-mask theory (as discussed in part 1). Never knowing when and where the next gas grenade would fall, it was essential to stay clean-shaven, so the masks would protect you against the deadly gas, which even damaged exposed skin.

    So, we must assume, that through the hell of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Private 1st class Robert Mercer used his J 2164 Khaki ball-end razor, probably even in the middle of the battlefield. It seems probable, that it was here under these conditions that the Khaki-case received most of its stains and discoloring’s. Robert Mercer took good care of his razor, but in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, it must have been impossible to keep the Khaki-case clean. It is also probably here that the set received its “bloodstains”. We will probably never know how.


    St. Mihiel

    The St. Mihiel front was stable when the 37th Division (and later the 112th Ammunition Train and Robert Mercer) arrived, but it was being heavily bombed by enemy artillery and planes. On 18 October, when the 37th moved to their next sector, no less than 11 soldiers had died from the bombardment. 6 were missing and 180 had been wounded.

    This means that the “few weeks” Robert Mercer spent in the trenches at St. Mihiel must have been filled with sleepless nights, and fear of death from above. But the fear of more gas attacks kept the privates shaving.


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    The four sectors where the 37th Division along with the 112th Ammunition Train and Robert Mercer were stationed in the war.


    Ypres-Lys

    On 22 October 1918, the 37th Division was shipped off to their next appointed sector.

    In the northernmost part of the Western Front, the Grand Offensive had ground to a halt in the Ypres-Lys area. As in the Meuse-Argonne the allies had pushed the front forward with great effort and with many casualties. The Belgian army needed more troops to continue, and the American Expeditionary Force helped out by providing the 37th and 91st Divisions. The two divisions therefore left the V Corps, and were put under the direct command of Albert I, the Belgian King.

    At 5.30 am on 31 October the 37th Division took part in the new push. After a short infantry barrage, Belgian, French and US troops surged forward, and started a battle that would last until the very last day of the war.

    In spite of the mystery of whether the 112th Ammunition Train was lost or not, we know, that they certainly did follow the 37th Division to the Ypres-Lys front. We have a rather detailed account of the trip from the aforementioned letter.

    From St. Mihiel, Robert Mercer and the 112th rode trucks to Foug. From there they travelled by train to Belgium via Paris and Amiens, ending up in Ypres. This time they did not have the comfort of the 40/8 boxcars. Instead they travelled two days and two nights on flat-cars. From Ypres they marched for two days, ending up at the front again.

    It is a little hazy how much of the fighting the 112th took part in, since the anonymous letter-scribe does not seem to emphasize the fighting at Ypres to be very heavy, compared with his description of the fighting at Meuse-Argonne. What we do know, is that the final push at Ypres-Lys was indeed a big and difficult battle, even though the anonymous private from the 112th Ammunition Train seems not to acknowledge this.

    Once again, the weather was bad. The battlefield was muddy, and the roads were difficult to traverse for the supply-trucks. As in the Meuse-Argonne, the landscape and the villages in the area were heavily damaged after four years of war.

    The advance of the 37th division was supported by artillery. Canon fire moved in front of the advancing troops with moving barrages and counter-battery fire was being fired simultaneously. Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train was probably a part of this artillery assault, rearming the advancing cannons.


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    Company A of the 316th Engineers (91st Division) crosses river Schelde on one of the newly constructed pontoon bridges on 11 November 1918. This bridge was constructed south of the bridges that Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train used to cross the river.


    In the days after 31 october, the 37th Division helped capture the town of Kruishoutem, and crossed the river Schelde. At Schelde they fought back a German counterattack, and footbridges were constructed across the river. At this point, there was a pause in the advancement, and Robert Mercer and the 112th Ammunition Train must have used this pause to start using the bridges to supply the combat troops.

    On 5 November, after the fighting at the Schelde, the 37th Division was relived, and the Ohio troops could rest a few days, only to be put back on the line on 8 November. The goal now was to pursue the German army which was pulling back, but was still fighting. The 37th Division pushed on, capturing the towns of Dickele and Zwartenbroek. They fought on up until 11 am on 11 November, when the orders came to stop the fighting. The “Great War” was over.

    The 37th lost 222 men at Ypres-Lys. 6 were killed on the very last day of the war, before the guns went quiet.


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    Ooigem Castle. Here Robert Mercer had his first post-war shave (probably).


    After armistice Robert Mercer, now 18 years old, probably had his first post-war shave with his J 2164 Khaki ball-end razor, at a Chateau in Wielsbeke, where the 112th was stationed (probably Ooigem Castle). It is hard to guess what went through the young man’s mind, while he tried to give himself a smooth shave. He had survived the “War to End all Wars”, and he was going home. Maybe he thought of the friends who would be left behind, buried in the vast war-cemeteries of France and Belgium, or maybe he was just ecstatic to be returning home to Dayton, Ohio and get on with his life.

    Even though it is a cliché, it fits very well with Robert Mercer to say, that he left home as a boy, and returned as an adult. He was young in November 1918, but he was also a war veteran, with all the things this entails. He was probably looking forward to starting out his new grown-up life back home. But the post-war life of Robert Mercer would not be easy, as the next (and final) part of this historical examination will show.
     
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2017 at 1:06 AM
  2. Enrico

    Enrico Well-Known Member

    I really enjoy reading your research.
     
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  3. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    Congratulations for all the research. I've been enjoying each of the episodes.

    Post-war life was never easy, no matter the war, or the life. Neighbor from Vietnam, Grandfather from WW-II (demolitions - blew up machine gun nests), step-grandfather in WW-II (frogman, Canada), a few others I've met over the years.
     
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  4. Jim99

    Jim99 Gold Water Shaver

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  5. Ijustmissedthe50s

    Ijustmissedthe50s Active Member

    Thanks very much for this installment...read and reread! Fascinating stuff and REAL history lesson...all stemming from your razor. Amazing. Fascinating. Fun. Appreciated. Can't wait to see what happened next.
     
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  6. AGHisBBS

    AGHisBBS Well-Known Member

    Really enjoying this, thanks for the hard work.
     
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  7. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    Thanks a lot. I am actually quite surprised myself how the story has grown since I started looking into Robert Mercer. It has also become much more fascinating using the razor, now that I know a bit of its history.
     
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  8. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Active Member

    And thanks for the comments to the rest of you also.
    I have quite a bit of work these days, but i promise to post the final part of the story in the near future. I have already dug up a lot of interesting stuff about the post-war life of Robert Mercer, but I still need a bit more digging to wrap up the story.
     
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  9. RetLEO-07

    RetLEO-07 likes his penguin deep fried, with pink sparkles

    I eagerly await the final installment of this story. Thank you for bringing this piece of history to light. Unfortunately very soon now World War II veterans will be gone also.
    And think about this. Twice in the same century we had to go back to the Old World and straighten out their mess.
    Then we had to stay there to make sure that it wouldn't happen again.
     
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  10. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    The truth is, wars are a fact of life in Europe. War of the Roses, Crimean War, the various wars between the French and English, the French and the Spanish, the Spanish and the English, 100 years war, (Napoleon vs everyone else.. Would those be the Corsican Wars?) the various tribal raids into the Roman Empire (Goths, Ostrogoths, Jutes, Saxons, etc) and so on. Some religiously oriented, most trade/money oriented, some land oriented. The middle east? Those folks have been trying to kill themselves and each other since long before Islam or Christianity were even envisioned. (there has to be something in the sand fleas)

    So there's no reason to really get fussed over WW-I (triggered by the Serbian/Bosnian? Separatists), and WW-II (conditions caused by France demanding huge war reparations for long after the war ended). They were just another round of the same old thing, just with more players able to get involved due to advances in travel technology. Napoleon hit almost the same number of countries as WW-I, but he didn't have tanks.
     

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