Decoration Day: Private Louis Bromfield and WWI

This is a decoration to the memory of a Richland County veteran—a simple wreath trimmed in carnations and roses.  Memorial Day was known for a century as Decoration Day, a time to decorate the graves of America’s soldiers, and this will serve to remember one who came back alive from World War I: Private Louis Bromfield.

When he is recalled around here today it is either fondly, as a congenial famous farmer, or in awe, as a prize-winning author and nationally recognized celebrity, or perhaps uncomfortably, as a champion of the multiflora rose plague.  In whatever manner he is recalled, however, it is as an adult, as a mature and time-worn man.

But he was first known in Mansfield as a modest kid who grew up on Third Street.  The neighbor kids were puzzled by him and their parents were wary, because he was perhaps a little too smart and talked like he was far older than his years about royalty and high society.  He was likable enough, but his classmates recognized him as somewhat immature.  And no one in Mansfield really expected anything of him—they were all surprised 10 years later when he was suddenly famous.

So what happened in those ten years to turn an awkward and naive teenager into an internationally recognized writer of novels that showed sophisticated insights into the lives of very worldly characters?  The answer to that is World War I.

Out In the World

In 1916 young Lewis Brumfield was at Columbia University when students were being recruited as “gentlemen volunteers” by the American Field Service to drive ambulances in France as a humanitarian effort before the United States committed to the war.

He was 20 years old, bored with classes, and restlessly eyeing the adventures presented by the ongoing European War. 

Driving ambulances didn’t really appeal to him, but when he saw them developing a corps of balloonists he signed up eagerly.  Almost immediately the US declared war on Germany and the American Field Service was appropriated into the US Army, so he crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship to drive an ambulance for the French Army.

Exposed to the front line horrors of war, transporting wounded men around the battlefield, young Lewis Brumfield grew up overnight. 

A card home from the front:
“This is my uniform after Fritz captured all my clothes. The coat and hat are British. The belt French. The trousers American and the shoes Belgian.
The scenery is not of military importance so the American censor has kindly allowed me to send it.
One of the unreported atrocities credited to the French photographic corps.”
Louis Brumfield
July 1918

Bromfield’s innocent youth ended quickly in the fields and villages of France, where he was forced to confront the brutal realities of the Great War. This scene is from the village of Senlis, thirty miles north of Paris, that suffered from the German offensive of 1916.

After the war, with a couple of best-selling novels to his name, Bromfield went back to France in 1925, to live in the village of Senlis. His home there was a 17th Century monastery that had survived the war’s ravages.

The Education of a Small Town Boy

In his notes on the war, Bromfield explained how his fellow soldiers expanded his understanding of the range of humanity.  His company was,

“a mixed, almost incredible assortment of men all under twenty-five and many under twenty, which resembled somewhat the more ignominious side of the Foreign Legion.  Among them was an assortment of conventional college boys—by far the dullest element—four or five actors, an equal number of musicians or music students, a couple of budding newspaper men, and a professional dancer.

“As time passed it developed that one among them was a plain crook who couldn’t help thieving even in the army.  Another had been in a small way, a dope peddler.  Two at least could only be described as pimps.  And a half dozen others were grifters and racing touts.  Add to these, two theological students, two Georgia-Florida crackers who mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, and a pair of real shillelagh Irishmen from Jersey City.

“This was a startling group to a young kid who had been well brought up in an Ohio small town, for as association developed throughout the war, I became slowly aware that for the first time I was being tutored in the seamy side of life.  It was a course of training I could probably not have obtained under any other circumstances in the same abstract and harmless fashion.”

Words on the War

There were many successful authors in the 1920s, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who launched their literary careers by writing about the war. Bromfield never wrote about the First World War, however, and only refers to it obliquely in his stories as a sort of societal phenomenon—somewhat removed and not in any way that was personal.  He wrote to his family “I hope to be one of the distinguished few who has not written a book on the war.”

Yet there exists an unpublished manuscript in the Louis Bromfield Collection that does serve as a memoir of his experiences in France, and offers a clear insight into the awakening he went through as a result of his time in the Army.

In his unpublished memoir, Before It Is Too Late, he wrote,

“Looking back now as a veteran, not only of war but of life, I know that I was then the most fortunate of young men, for now I know—and know profoundly—types and characters whom I could not possibly have encountered under any other circumstances in life.  Under the stress of fear and death, I learned much that I could not have learned otherwise though I lived more than a century.  For under the stress of war in the terrible intimacy in which we lived, I knew the men with whom I aged, lived, and slept in a way I could never have known them otherwise. 

“The experience with that particular [Army group] was a little like a hothouse in which strange and sinister noxious and insect-devouring plants grew side by side with innocuous and well-behaved, conventional carnations and roses.”

This is a decoration to the memory of one of Richland County’s veterans, a simple wreath trimmed in carnations and roses.

The only documentation of Bromfield’s adventures in France are found in clippings from the columns of the Richland Shield and Banner. The Mansfield newspaper printed letters that soldiers sent home to their families.

In his ‘war correspondence’ Bromfield often demonstrates the storyteller’s gift for narrative that would one day make him a best-selling author.

Post Script

After the Armistice in November 1918, Bromfield’s Section of the US Army Ambulance Service had several restless months before shipping back to the US.  A number of the men around him had come to the war from New York, where they had been performing on Broadway in a musical Good-ByeBill, written by two of his ambulance corps cohorts.

With time on their hands, the writers reprised their musical success with Let’s Go!, incorporating a few of their earlier songs, with new Paris-inspired lyrics.

Following rehearsals outside of Paris, the show went on the road, playing to packed houses opening in Tours, a week’s run at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, then visiting the concentrated troop areas such as Saint-Nazaire. Bordeaux, Nevers, Dijon. Aix le Bains, Nice, and sketches at Brest— and on the U.S.S. St. Louis on their way home, the troupe helped to produce. “From Brest to Broadway.”

Smucker, John R.  A History of the US Army Ambulance Service.   1967.

As seen on page 6 of the program, Bromfield was a member of the chorus.

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