A Minnesota homebody in the Great War
History books rarely tell the tale of ordinary soldiers ... especially ordinary American soldiers in the Great War, the so-called doughboys. But each doughboy's quiet account of the First World War is indeed history, a deeply private history often quickly forgotten by just the very next generation.
My grandfather, George Knott, grew up such a homebody he never left the small town of Raymond until he was 18 years old.
Raymond, located in western Minnesota, was a place where the curly-haired redhead named George was surrounded by kinfolk and felt the deep-seated comfort of knowing he belonged.
The town was where he was born, raised and schooled through the eighth grade. It was where he earned 25 cents a day herding cows as a farm hand, and where he worshipped at the Raymond Methodist Church on Cofield Street just a block from his home.
It was also where, at the impressionable age of 22, he said goodbye to his black and white fox terrier at the train station and journeyed on to his great adventure known as the Great War.
The Great War is where small-town Minnesotan George survived the ugliest reality of life.
It was where he shot and bayoneted young men, and experienced great suffering. It was where he endured exhaustion, filth, hunger, thirst and cold. Then, there was the gripping horror, the explosions, the machine gun bullets, the wounded, and the grotesque corpses that lay where they fell. The lice, the trenches, the mud, the funk holes, the barbed wire, the shelling, the thunderous rolling barrages, the shrapnel, the barren gray landscapes and the rats were all part of this Great War.
The presence of rats provided some comfort, however, because that meant no mustard gas was present.
George was a praying Methodist, long before he went over the top over there. He prayed for his two brothers and two cousins, also serving in France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces, an enormous wave of khaki-olive clad young men who came to fulfill their democratic duty to Uncle Sam. One of his cousins was a member of the once-legendary but now-largely-forgotten Lost Battalion, a group of men from the 77th Division who were neither lost nor a battalion.
Sadly, all five Knott boys from Raymond did not make it home alive.
George persistently prayed he would make it home. The problem was, he figured the Huns (his name for the Germans) would be praying the same thing. This was something he had trouble reconciling with during the war, and for many years after.
George survived an almost unnaturally-long stint as a runner in France. Infantry runners were often killed in a matter of weeks or days. Runners memorized messages and ran between units or to headquarters, often during key times in the middle of chaos. George was lucky ... he lived, even survived being dive-bombed and shot at with a machine gun by a determined German wearing a white scarf flying a bi-plane.
Once on a run through the woods, George encountered a sole German soldier sitting on a stump. In an act of mercy, George did not kill him, despite orders to do so. The German held up his hands and cried, "mercy" and "mother." George couldn't bring himself to kill the man as all he thought about was going home to his own mother.
Seeing his mother, Annie, again was what kept him going during the war. While George longed for the security of his familiar hometown, he was downright desperate to see his mother. Annie Knott saw three of her four sons leave for France. When the youngest brother became of draft age, George's father stormed into the draft board meeting demanding a deferment. Three sons were enough. George's youngest brother resented that interference for many years as no one wanted to be a slacker during the war, but eventually he came to understand his father's actions.
While in France, Pvt. George Knott realized the only way home was to go forward, over the top. He had to kill or be killed. It was that simple and it was that hard.
In the 360th Infantry, he saw more front-line action than most doughboys in the war, in both the battles of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, the largest U.S. Army battle ever waged. Then, he marched through Luxembourg into Germany after the armistice on November 11, 1918, to help keep the peace. Living with the Germans in their homes for months, sleeping in their beds and sharing their meals, must have seemed surreal.
The Great War affected nearly every family, especially those of the 117,000 soldiers who died. Just referring to the fallen within such a large statistic runs the risk of minimizing and impersonalizing each loss. Behind that number is the crushing grief each family suffered once the Casualty Cablegrams delivered the blow.
When George returned from the Great War in the summer of 1919, he never had the itch to wander. In fact, he rarely did.
Back in Raymond, my grandfather did his best to live an ordinary life but never ventured far from home. Many doughboys would never speak of what happened. George talked about it when asked.
The Great War was George's great adventure in life, and he evidently had enough adventure in France and Germany to suit him for the rest of his days.
If that made him a Minnesota homebody, that was how he wanted it.
Jennifer Rude Klett is a freelance journalist of history, food and Midwestern life. She is the author of “Alamo Doughboy: Marching Into The
Heart Of Kaiser’s Germany During World War I” (2014, Branden Books, $18.95); and a regular contributor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Alamo Doughboy” is a solid military history, but it’s also a true story of the Minnesota home front, a boy and his dog, faith, love, courage and duty.
For more information, please visit jrudeklett.com .