Thursday, April 27, 2017

Southern History Book of the Month: How Me and Amos Won World War I

by Mary Anne Ellis, Librarian, Southern History Department, Central Library

How Me and Amos Won World War I
Dr. Lelias E. Kirby

One hundred years ago this month, America entered World War I. Among the Alabama recruits were Lelias Kirby and his brother Amos, and How Me and Amos Won World War I is the chronicle of their adventures. When I saw the title, I expected a lighthearted treatment along the lines of Edward Streeter’s Dere Mableand Dr. Kirby’s account has its share of humorous happenings, like his take on one of the ever-present scourges of warfare:
Have you ever noticed a photograph of General Napoleon, General De Gaulle or any French soldier? They have one hand inside the lapel of the jacket and the other hand behind the back. They were fighting cooties . . . we scratched our way from Brest, France to Trelaze, a suburb of Orleans where the fifty-second ammunition train was being formed to take ammunition to the Argentan’s front.
Kirby maintains this good-natured outlook throughout most of the book, with tall tales ranging from how he was the inventor of the close-cropped military haircut to how he and his brother worked around the difficulties of being in France and not speaking a word of French:
But that is when I learned there was a universal language. When a pretty girl pokes her lips out, closes her eyes and turns her head sorter sideways, then begins to breathe like she is developing asthma, that means “Kiss Me.” I don’t care what country you are in or what language she speaks.

But the more hideous face of war does find its way into Kirby’s memoir. In Chapter 10, “Going Into Battle,” he tells the story of when he and his companions were finally summoned to the front for what he describes as “34 days of Hell”:
For the first time I began to know what war was like. I shall never forget October 8, 1918 . . . soon the boys began coming from the trenches. They had not been relieved for many days. Winter was coming on and the trenches were filled with mud and water, in places they told us, knee deep. I have never seen such a pitiful sight. They were muddy, wet, unshaved and staggering. They were hungry, thirsty; some crying, every face wore a blank stare . . . Amos said, “Who was it that said war was Hell?” I said “I don’t know who it was but he must have been in the Battle of the Argonne Forest or Bunker Hill.”

After such times as these, Kirby and many of his fellow soldiers hailed news of the Armistice with great relief and joy (and a chocolate pie eating contest). After he returned home, he was frequently asked to give talks on his wartime experiences and these talks—dating from the first one on February 11, 1919—were the basis for what eventually became this book. To someone like me, World War I seems very far away, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have encountered a veteran of this war, but this story told by a fellow Alabamian helped put a face on that conflict for me and made me wish I could have spent some time talking with this particular veteran.

For further information:
U.S. Entered World War I April 6 1917
World War I Selective Service System draft registration cards, 1917-1918 [microform]: [Alabama]
Alabama Department of Archives and History—World War I
Trench Warfare
World War I Timeline

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