Pierce paintingsHarold Pierce’s untitled painting of Doughboys advancing through the town of Fismes in August 1918 (left). The building at center is the town hall, which was rebuilt after the war. (Courtesy of Erie County historical Society.) Thieuntitled painting at right shows the aftermath of the attack on a German machine gun position. The machine gun and its dead operator are near the center of the painting. Doughboys, some of them wounded, and German prisoners now mix on the battlefield. (Courtesy of David Simpson)

Duty, Terror and Survival: The World War One Diary and Art of Doughboy Cpl. Harold W. Pierce 

By William J. Welch
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

Duty Terror Survival front coverAs a former journalist and an avid history reader, I believe wholeheartedly that some stories MUST be told. One of those is Harold W. Pierce’s story – his diary, really – of his experiences with the 112th Infantry Regiment (28th Division) in World War One.

I first became aware of his diary while reading Edward Lengel’s book about the Meuse-Argonne campaign, To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. I had been researching the part of the 112th Regiment as part of a local effort to produce a centennial book on Erie County, Pennsylvania’s role in the war. Lengel included a quote from a soldier in Company A of the 112th, Harold W. Pierce. Half of that company mustered from Erie County or nearby. The passage was a moving one about the death of Lt. Col. James Shannon, the regiment’s commander, on October 7, 1918, a brutal day in that battle. It was descriptive, insightful and even touching. I wanted to know more.

I learned from following up on Lengel’s citation that Pierce’s diary had been published in serial form in the Titusville (Pennsylvania) Herald from October to December 1979 and was in the collections at a handful of museums. I made a mental note to visit one of them.

That’s where it stood until I visited the Corry Area Historical Society, headquarters of Company A in 1917, and discovered the entire diary clipped from the Herald and pasted onto letter-sized paper. I photographed them all with my cell phone. Reading through a few of those passages, I knew that this diary was even better than expected. And I marveled that a 19-year-old who said he wasn’t all that good a student could write with such clarity and introspection.

And that’s where it continued to stand as our committee continued to work to finish our book on Erie County in the war, Answering the Call: Erie County, Pennsylvania in World War One. We needed a strong illustration to put onto the cover and I recalled mention of some large paintings at the Erie County Historical Society that had been donated by the Corry, Pennsylvania, VFW post. I photographed one of them and then looked in the untitled painting’s corner. There was the signature of H.W. Pierce. This had to be the same Pierce who wrote the diary. I knew this book and the paintings had to be published as a book. And the scene lined up well with his description of fighting in the town of Fismes in August 1918.

Take this account from the third day of the Meuse-Argonne, for example:

September 28. ...The enemy gunners sweep the field from left to right, then back from right to left. I can hear the crackling coming closer and I push myself as low in the ground as possible, the crackling misses my head by a few inches and passes on. I dig furiously, a few shovels full in front of me, the crackling returns toward me, dust flies in a line coming at me, the bullets are over my head again, snapping viciously, they are over and I am digging again. Every shovel full goes in front, the gun shifts again and is coming back, it will get me this time, the dust spurts are close. Will my little pile of dirt be enough?”

Pierce was a scout with the 1st Battalion of the 112th from 1917 at Camp Hancock in Georgia until the regiment came home in May 1919. He took part in the Chateau-Thierry, Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. The toughest actions were at Fismes/Fismette in late August and at Meuse-Argonne from September 26 until the mauled division was taken off the line on October 9.

Brothers Harold (sitting) and Hugh PierceBrothers Harold (sitting) and Hugh PierceAll through 2020 I worked to transfer Pierce’s diary into a Word document, putting each page through optical character recognition apps and then repeatedly proofreading them to clean up the inevitable errors from that process. But all I knew about Pierce was that he had become Pennsylvania State Police trooper after the war and ultimately settled near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After some Internet trolling, I found his daughter, Brenda Pierce Simpson, and grandsons, David and John Simpson. They filled in the gaps on his life – that he was a Renaissance man of sorts, and they provided photos of two more Harold Pierce paintings.

Notation in BibleNotation in BibleAlong with the diary, the paintings, photos of Pierce and his brother, Hugh, I also had the multi-volume history of the 28th Division in the war, The Twenty-Eighth Division, Pennsylvania’s Guard in the World War, Vol. III, and that included photos of almost the entire division. I added photos of men Pierce mentioned in his diary to give a notion of whom he was writing about. I did the layout and design of the book and the cover myself. I offered it to a few publishers and had no takers so I self-published through an online book printer, 48hrbooks.com. That company was a pleasure to deal with, printed a quality book and was quite reasonable.

Over my time as a journalist in Erie, Pennsylvania, I interviewed four veterans of World War One, three of them from Company G of the 112th. Between those interviews and multiple books about that war, I thought I had a decent idea of what their experience was like, but reading Pierce’s diary taught me so much more.

Each war produces different settings, challenges and horrors to those involved. Pierce’s diary describes those of World War One in a way that the reader can feel them. When the Armistice at last arrives, the reader can exhale in relief. Somehow Pierce has survived.

One wartime setting that this diary largely dispenses with is the idea that the American doughboy was confined to trenches much of the time overseas. For Pierce, and the rest of the 28th Division, this was a war of marching, of digging holes, attacking, and marching again. For these men there was virtually no static warfare or living week after week in trenches.

William WelchWilliam Welch recently retired as a professor of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University which followed 29 years as a journalist in Erie, Pennsylvania. He was part of a group that produced a book titled Answering the Call: Erie County, Pennsylvania in World War One.

Duty, Terror and Survival: The World War One Diary and Art of Doughboy Cpl. Harold W. Pierce retails for $19.95. To order a copy, contact Welch at billw917@hotmail.com.