This book was given to me a while back by a friend who was always very generous, especially with information. Thanks Cliff. There is a lot to read here. I hope you make it through to the end.
A Rifleman Went To War is a somewhat rambling account of H.W. McBride’s experiences in WWI. That would be one way of putting it, and correct, as far as it goes. The insights in this book far outweigh its significance as a simple biography or memoir. It is a treatise on what makes a front line fighting rifleman tick. I found this book so full of brilliant insights that I came up with about 50 bookmarks in preparation for a 2-3 page review.
Last month I reviewed a book by Townsend Whelen, which I also enjoyed very much. McBride spoke to me on a deeper level. Here’s the primary difference between Whelen and McBride: Whelen is primarily a marksman; his expertise is of rifles, techniques, technical information, etc… McBride is primarily a fighting man. His expertise is of the attitude that enables one to win against an enemy who is pitted against him with death on the line.
What a lot of gun owners don’t get is that just owning a gun doesn’t make you a gunfighter. Even being a skilled competitive shooter doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily equipped to win a gunfight. The operative word is not “gun”, it’s “fight”. All the skill in the world is useless without the proper fighting spirit. Marksmanship and attitude are both components of a rifleman.
“It is a common and erroneous belief that the only necessary qualification for a
sniper is to be able to shoot accurately. As a matter of fact that is only half of it—
perhaps less than half. I have known, and know now, many expert riflemen who
would be of little or no use in war—at least not without a lot of additional training
and experience.” (299)
You might be wondering exactly who Herbert Wesley McBride is. He was born on October 15th, 1873. As a child he was exposed to firearms and outdoors activities as a matter of normal life.
“It was nothing unusual for half the merchants of the little town to shut up shop in
the middle of the afternoon and, together with the lawyers, doctors and, yes the
preachers, to repair to some vacant lot and shoot impromptu matches with
everything from old “pepper-boxes” to the latest rifles at that time available. At
that time and in that place, practically all of the “men” were veterans of the Civil
War and this shooting business was part of their gospel. Naturally, as a young
boy, I became infected, and my father, believing in the idea of preparedness,
gave me ample opportunities to learn the game; even to letting me shoot his
heavy guns when he knew very well they would kick the stuffing out of me. He
was a good and kindly man but he had no use for mollycoddles.” (2)
Imagine that today. A dad who takes his kid shooting, and lets him shoot a rifle that has a powerful recoil. The next day at school the kid brags to his friends. The teacher finds out and sees a bruise on the kid’s shoulder. Child “Protective” Services and the police show up at the house that night, with the power to remove the kid. But then, we seem to be all about “mollycoddles” these days.
McBride always seemed to be looking for adventure and a place to shoot. In 1893 he went to the Southwest and got acquainted with some old gunfighters, among them Bat Masterson: “From these men I learned many things, the most important of which was the point which they all insisted was absolutely vital: the ability to control one’s own nerves and passions—in other words, never to get excited.”
In 1914 McBride was a Captain in command of a company of the Indiana National Guard. When the United States didn’t enter the war, McBride resigned and enlisted with Canada. Initially he was a Captain there, but when his battalion apparently wasn’t going to end up in France, he resigned and joined another battalion as a private in the Machine Gun Section. He wasn’t a young man (do the math), but he really wanted to get to the fighting.
“There was a war on and I did not intend to miss it. I am sorry I cannot say that
those early stories of German atrocities, or the news of Belgium’s invasion
impelled me to start for Canada to enlist and offer my life in the cause of
humanity. Not at all, it was just that I wanted to find out what a “real war” was
like. It looked as if there was going to be a real scrap at last, and I didn’t intend
to miss it this time. I had “lost out’ on two wars already; the Spanish-American
and the Boer War and now the opportunity was at hand I wanted to have a front
seat. I got what I was looking for all right.” (11)
By the time he got to Canada, McBride was already an expert shooter. He had some thoughts on training riflemen:
“I have said that the musketry instruction was, in the main, similar to that of the
United States Army and this is true. The object of both is to instruct the man in
the fundamentals of sighting, aiming, holding and firing the rifle. The weakness of both, in my opinion, lies in the lack of sufficient practice after the above instruction has been assimilated. All of us who are or have been in the military service are all too familiar with the “set schedules” for training in this or that branch of the soldier’s educational work. The time for instruction firing is usually limited—as is the ammunition allowance—and the record firing is crammed into a few hectic days. Everything must be done just so and so.
Well, perhaps that is all right, although I cannot see it that way. My idea of
training a rifleman would be to put him through the full instructional course and
then give him a lot of ammunition and let him go out on the range, at odd times,
and work out his own salvation. Have targets available at any time, with men to
work them, but keep no records excepting those which the man would be encouraged to keep for his own private information.” (15)
That just sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?
McBride had a lot to tell of his war experience. I had to really distill it down in order to keep from just reprinting the book. Here are some of his thoughts after some of his fellows were killed in a retaliation after McBride crossed “no man’s land” and stole the German’s flag:
“At the time I felt pretty badly about the matter. I knew that all this strafing was
due to the flag stealing, but then what would you? War is War. Many times I
have been unmercifully cursed by the infantry for using a machine gun on a likely
looking target. “No; no,” they would shout; “don’t do that. They will retaliate.”
That was the word: “they will retaliate.” Well; hells-bells; let ’em. What the devil
are we here for? A summer picnic? While I do not think that I had a personal
enemy in the battalion—in fact I was glad and proud to call them all my friends—
still, there is no getting around the fact they all, individually and collectivcely, did
hate me at those times when I thought it worth while to hand Fritz a dose of
poison. If I had been allowed my way, Heinie would have been kept “retaliating”
along every foot of the Front.
To me it was a game; the greatest game in the world. Whenever they came back
with their retaliation I was just as much pleased as a school-boy who has
received the highest possible grade. It was proof positive that I had stung them”
On weapons of stealth for trench raiding:
“The bayonet, well sharpened and carried in the hand—not on the rifle—was the
most effective weapon. I have seen, somewhere, the statement that it was
contrary to the recognized rules of war to sharpen the bayonet. Well, now, that is
just too bad. The last thing we did before leaving England was to take all our
bayonets to the armourer and have them ground to a keen edge and, afterward,
there were always files available to keep them in that condition.” (135)
In those days there were still Scots on the battlefield with kilts and bagpipes:
“I happened to be at the mouth of the communication trench when they arrived,
and stood by to watch them. Six generations have passed since my ancestors
came from Scotland but I take no shame in telling you that, as I watched those
boys walk into that fight, scared though they were, with their chins up and their
rifles ready—and the pipers playing “The Cock o’ the North,” which was our own Regimental air, I cried like a baby; aye, cried; while, all the time I was calling out to them, “Go to it, lads, it’s a good fight; go in and do your best.”… I was ready and eager, right then, to march to hell and beyond, behind that music. (?) Is it music, or just a noise? You will never prove it by me, but I do know that whenever I hear it I want to go out and kill somebody” (194)
There seems to be an ever increasing push in the modern military to make it all more politically correct. The politician-generals don’t want to upset the leg crossing news “men” on the TV. I don’t know why anyone feels a need to worry about the opinions of people with manicured nails wearing makeup when it comes to anything, much less how our military conducts itself. Why should we be influenced by people who resent us (best case) or want to actively bring our society down (more probable case)? Why not take it from an old salt:
“…it is just such a mixture of adventurous spirits, disdaining personal danger and
ever on the lookout for a chance to stir up a scrap, that makes a good and
efficient machine-gun organization. Hard swearing, hard fighting and, yes, on
occasion, hard drinking men; it is no place whatever for the sissy or the
I’ve probably worn you out, so I’ll wrap it up. You might remember from my review on Whelen’s book the following quote:
“Throughout all my life a large and increasing number of red blooded Americans have been striving to make us a “Nation of Riflemen.” We have succeeded. May we ever remain thus, for the privilege to bear, and the ability to use weapons is the greatest guarantee of Liberty.”
You may also remember that I questioned whether or not he was correct. Here is a contrasting quote by McBride:
“The riflemen of Morgan, of Marion and “Nolichucky Jack,” the men who followed
John Rogers Clark to Kaskaskia and thence through the indescribable hazardous
journey which won Vincennes—and with it, the whole Northwest; the men who
won the battle of King’s Mountain from the best rifleman officer who ever wore
the King’s uniform, Captain Patrick Ferguson, all had their initial training in
performing the ordinary routine work of their daily lives. Deer, turkeys and, in the
very early days, buffalo and elk, furnished a large part of their larder. To
successfully stalk and kill this game they must, inevitably, learn the steal of the
Indian or of the game itself. From those men and their achievements, came the
slogan, “The Americans are a Nation of Riflemen.”
Yes, that’s right. They were. But how about now?
Those men, with their woefully inadequate weapons, as measure by modern
standards, successfully vanquished their human adversaries, largely because
everybody was a rifleman; and their ability was not only in their marksmanship,
but in their knowledge of woodcraft, their alertness, initiative and self-reliance
under all circumstances. How many Americans, today, can even approach the
state of perfection reached by those—our forefathers—in the rifle shooting game.
(We call it a game. With them it was a business—a vocation.) (368)
To keep this in perspective, remember that he wasn’t talking about Americans today, but those in the time the book was written, around 1935. He felt as though they were slipping even then, inadequate in their marksmanship, initiative, and self-reliance. I’m just ashamed at what he would say about the American people heading into 2012 (myself not excepted). I’d be willing to bet that we’ve slipped more than a little from 1935 to 2011.
This is just another reminder that what we’re doing right now is shaping future generations. Every compromise, every bit of ground we concede, every minute spent in front of the telescreen instead of spent somewhere more worthwhile (this could be almost anywhere doing anything), every small crime, whether by act or omission, in the interest of comfort or personal gain, is another nail in the coffin of our culture.
We owe a debt. We owe are forefathers for what they have given us. We are also indebted to our posterity, our children and all their children and children’s children. The commercials, the ads, all the propaganda telling you that you deserve this and that, is placing the focus on sacrificing all that we’ve gained from the past, in addition to all that we might give to the future, on living it up for today. Deserves is just a clever marketing tool, one that has nothing at all to do with the reality of life going on everywhere. Gratitude is a much more realistic and workable condition of mind, one that will facilitate the decisions we make every day that will literally make us or break us.
This has been about as much of a book review as A Rifleman Went to War was a biography. Hope you didn’t mind. I’ll work on my book review skills in the future.