Henry Beston and The Great War
When the National Park Service proposed the preservation of the Outer Beach of Cape Cod during the 1950s, it cited Henry Beston’s book, The Outermost House, to make its case. “Because of Henry Beston’s work, many have visited Cape Cod to experience an extraordinary spiritually charged natural environment,” James C. O’Connell wrote in his 2003 book, Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort.
Yet, Beston’s first stop on the road to this peaceful solitary setting was witnessing some of the worst carnage that the battles of World War I, or the “Great War,” where he served as an ambulance driver, had to offer.
The author of The Outermost House was born Henry Sheahan on June 1, 1888, in Quincy, Mass., and graduated from Harvard in 1911. After teaching at the University of Lyon in France, he returned to the states — but only briefly.
in 1915, Henry recalled “a pleasant August afternoon, and the Sunday papers brought along on a family picnic at the beach, and great headlines, a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm and the War. My own recollections here turn into something of an old film.”
Feeling a sense of loyalty to his mother’s native country, Beston’s medical training from his family proved to be useful as a member of the American Field Service, serving with the French army “in Lorraine at the wood of the Bois le Pretre.” His brother, George, a noted Quincy surgeon, also served in France in a hospital of the British Expeditionary forces.
Beston’s recollections of the war were “a long, long winter, the great melancholy sound of distant cannon in the night, a bombarded town and the arriving whizz and rending crash of the big shells, an air shell at Verdun which all but got me.” The April 22, 1916, edition of The Patriot Ledger of Quincy referred to the Battle of Verdun as “the greatest battle ever fought in the history of the world.”
“His service in the ambulance section, known as the Section Sanitaire Americaine, No. II took him right into the seat of the battle, where the trenches were strewn with dead and dying and where huge shells from German cannons made life continually one of the greatest hazard,” The Patriot Ledger reported.
Already a well-known correspondent for newspapers and magazines, Henry penned his first book – A Volunteer Poilu – based on his World War I experiences. He returned home with many items from the battles, including a gas mask, his own trench helmet, German shells and grenades, and photographs he took during combat.
On May 3, 1916, Henry recalled his experiences for the Special Aid for American Preparedness Society of Boston. “Words fail to depict conditions they fight under,” he said of the French soldiers. His address to the Society resulted in numerous pledges of support raising money for the ambulance corps.
Beston later served as a correspondent for the U.S. Navy, which resulted in a second book about the war, titled Full Speed Ahead. He survived the war, but the memories would haunt him for many years to come. Only on Cape Cod could he begin to find the spiritual cleansing that he so desperately needed.
“When he came to Cape Cod, he was really in search of peace,” said Nan Turner Waldron, author the book, Journey to Outermost House,” in 1992. “Like anyone who’s been to war, you’re scarred. He never spoke of it as being scarred, but he was affected deeply by it. He came to Cape Cod in search of something for himself.”
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After witnessing his first death up close, there were more horrors to witness, even before he was called into service during the Battle of Verdun in February 1916, which The Patriot Ledger of Beston’s hometown of Quincy, Mass., recognized as “the greatest battle in the history of the world,” in April of that year.
At Verdun, Beston later said that “the German atrocities were probably the greatest. They launched a whole laboratory of gases into the French; and gas masks saw great service.” As Francis Russell would write many years later, Henry would “live through the somber slaughters of the Marne and the Somme with extraordinary luck.”
In A Volunteer Poilu, Beston wrote that “the first village on the road to Metz had tumbled, in piles and mounds of rubbish, out on a street grown high with grass. Moonlight poured into the roofless cottages, escaping by shattered walls and jagged rents, and the mounds of débris took on fantastic outlines and cast strange shadows. In the middle of the village street stood two wooden crosses marking the graves of soldiers. It was the Biblical ‘Abomination of Desolation.’”
He later recalled the events at Montauville, which “was full of wounded. I had three on stretchers inside, one beside me on the seat, and two others on the front mudguards. And The Wood continued to sing. From Montauville I could hear the savage yells and cries which accompanied the fighting.”
Beston came across “the oddest sight (he had) ever seen,” at Bois le Pretre, he told The Patriot Ledger after his return from France: “In walking through the wood, cut and but with a little more than the trunks standing we saw an object in the tree. We investigated and found, pinned in a branch, a human heart. Someone had been blown to bits and by a strange chance the heart had found lodgment in the tree.”
By February of 1916, he was transferred to the Western Front on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeastern France. For a long time, Verdun had been considered to be one of the quieter places on the Western Front, but a week after Beston’s arrival, the Germans began attacking the fortified city.
Beston biographer Daniel Payne, author of the critical literary biography of Beston, Orion on the Dunes, tells a story of a wounded French lieutenant that Beston ferried back from the front lines.
“The lieutenant said they had lost one of the men in their unit and went to look for him, but they hear a voice coming from a shell crater, in French but with a German accent, ‘Frenchman, Frenchman, come over here,’” Payne said during an interview for the Beston Society. “It turned out to be a German officer with a group of his men who were mortally wounded, and were down in this crater, and he was begging the lieutenant to kill them. At first, the French lieutenant says, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ but then realized it was the only humane thing to do. So he and his men lobbed grenades into the crater until the cries and the moaning ceased, and then they returned back to their lines. So this is the kind of thing that Henry is seeing and hearing about on a constant basis during the battle at Verdun.”
Beston would leave the front in April of 1916, but the fighting at Verdun continued into the summer. In 2000, it was estimated that the 10-month battle claimed over 714,000 casualties; another estimate had the number at 976,000. Beston vividly recalled his view of this in A Volunteer Poilu.
“The descriptions are incredibly detailed, but they’re horrible,” Gary Lawless, caretaker of Beston’s “Chimney Farm” in Nobleboro, Maine, said of A Volunteer Poilu during an interview with the Beston Society’s Jon March. “It must have driven him to some extreme mental state.”
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Don Wilding is the author of the book, Henry Beston's Cape Cod: How "The Outermost House" Inspired a National Seashore.