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September 1918: Published

For Cap and many men of the 365th Regiment, September 1918 offered a brutal introduction to combat: constant artillery bombardments, trench warfare, nighttime raids, even a few gas attacks. It really does seem to be the month that weathered Cap, turning him from a young Massachusetts bloke into a seasoned officer of the United States Army. It was also the month that launched the final assault of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The months-long battle stretched along the entire Western Front and involved some 1.2 million American troops. While it ultimately brought an end to the war, the battle remains the bloodiest in American history.

Despite the severity of combat in September 1918, Cap was not without his characteristic wit. Here is one of my favorite passages from the entire journal:

“I threatened to take a bath this afternoon but Heinie opened up with his big ones. As they were dropping all around the village I saw it was no time to be caught with your clothes off—so had to put my bath off another month. Great life—if you don’t weaken—but not having chance to bathe I know I am getting stronger each day.”

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August 1918: Now Live

August 1918 saw a dramatic uptick in activity for Cap and the men of the 365th. After traveling across France to the Western front, Cap experiences his first taste of war. In a narratively fitting progression, the exposure begins with a distant shelling and comes ever closer, until an overhead bombardment leaves Cap awake at night, and takes one of his regiment’s first casualties. Also, Cap has the rare opportunity to meet General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.

Read the entry here.

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July 1918: Now Published

The newest entry (July 1918) recounts Cap’s  journey across France, the beginning of training exercises, and a few ill-fated attempts to learn French. Cap’s famous sense of humor, which I’ve heard so much about since I was a kid, is well on display. I didn’t think sarcasm was a  thing in the early twentieth century, especially not in war-torn France, but Cap seems to have mastered the form. In one segment, after noting the curious prevalence of manure piles on the front lawns of homes in one town, Cap jokes, “apparently in this country a man’s wealth is determined by the size of his manure pile.”

It’s actually a trait found often in the Hill family, from my grandfather to my uncle to my cousins—that rare ability to lighten any mood or situation with genuinely funny banter. It’s not simply a knack for comedy—it’s more than that. It’s a wry sort of commentary that allows everyone around to recognize the essential absurdity in things, and a decree that nothing should ever be taken too seriously—at least not if you’re to be around the Hill family.

Read the entry for July 1918 here.

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June 1918: Published

The Whining Past inaugural entry details Capt. Hill’s embarkation from New York on June 9, 1918, and the 10-day journey to Brest, France. On board the captured German transport vessel, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II (Agamemnon), Capt. Hill and the men of the 365th Infantry Regiment are in the dark as to where in Europe they are headed, but are rightly frightened of the infamous U-Boats scouring the North Atlantic. Well into the journey, word reaches that the  Kaiser himself has put out a bounty for the sinking of the Agamemnon…

Excerpt: “We received orders to move to our port of debarkation, and as the news spread around our barracks like wild fire it created wild excitement. Every one, even to the private soldier in the ranks seemed glad that at last, the orders for overseas service had been received and we were to experience all of those wonderful things we had read about for so long. The day was spent with wild scenes of packing and preparing for the move…”

Read the rest here.

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Whining Past

Whining Past is an experiment in historical documentation. It is the transcription of a journal kept by Captain Raymond Earl Hill of the U.S. 365th Infantry Regiment during his service in World War I. The journal recounts Captain Hill’s entire experience in France—from his arrival in June 1918, through the armistice of November 1918, to his return to the States in January 1919.

For much of the past year, I’ve been transcribing this fragile, century-old document so that friends, family, and general history geeks can read, first-hand, the experience of Capt. Hill, my great-grandfather.

Cap, as he was known to my family, died in 1981—six years before I was born. Despite the ripe age of 90, Cap’s official cause of death was listed as a lung infection stemming from an injury suffered during the war. On November 11, 1918—the last day of fighting in Europe—Cap was exposed to a near-lethal volume of mustard gas. The poisonous chemical temporarily blinded him, left him hospitalized for  days, and permanently riddled his lungs with emphysema.

Despite this horror, Cap belied not a whit of the physical or emotional toll such an experience musthave taken—not to my grandfather, not to my mother, and most of all not to the journal that was his record.

Out of respect for such a life, and for the countless service members who never had the privilege, my family and I have decided to publish this journal. It is my intent to contextualize the journal with dates, locations, references, and photographs. The result, I hope, will be a thorough record of just one experience in a war that claimed more than 37 million lives, and a testament of admiration for a man I never knew, but with whom I can share the ghostly remains of the written word.