And he runs now, left foot right foot, through the dangling yellow golden stalks, chasing his own shadow, longer now in the late afternoon’s glow, and he can make out the long dark tip of his bayonet hovering over his left shoulder as he chases it east … and running now double-timing and from the corner of his right eye he can just make out the dark form of one of the boys and then suddenly he’s just gone … and in the dazzling light something shiny and glimmering and glinting over there on the left and oh, Jesus Christ, the machine guns… — Excerpt, The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War
From the prelude, it’s apparent. From the beginning, there is no doubt. The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War by James Carl Nelson contains something special that goes beyond the narrative. Quite unintentionally, Nelson’s exceptional ability to transfer his readers Over There, to the front lines of France, also has the power to put into perspective those things the Doughboys left behind, the kind of items that turn up in antique malls and estate auctions, the objects we too often look at with the same passing glance we give a Royal Ruby plate or a Happy Meal toy.
Nelson, a gifted writer, inadvertently, maybe even subconsciously, plants a seed in the fertile soil of those of us who care about things of the past, so that we might never again look blankly through artifacts from World War I. Not by his intent does that kernel germinate and grow, for The Remains of Company D is about lives, not things. Yet the sprouting of that seed brings a natural harvest of a story worth telling, and a telling worth commending.
At its most intense level, the book surrounds Nelson’s grandfather, felled in a wheat field just beyond the Paris-Soissons Road on July 19, 1918, machine gun bullets like a scythe dropping him to the earth, his very life at question until Algerian stretcher bearers find him the next morning, rushing him to an aid station, his war over, his life forever changed.
In the same manner of Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, Nelson’s is an account of more than just one man. The Remains of Company D places the reader alongside members of Company D, 28th Infantry Regiment, United States First Division, from enlistment to combat and beyond, following immigrants and farm boys, the nothing-special stock of America that, voluntarily and by conscription, took up arms, crossed an ocean, and put their lives at peril in the mud at Cantigny, through the wheat at Soissons and in the underbrush of the Argonne. And, in the end, it footnotes the bones left in foreign soil, the monuments raised in local cemeteries, and the survivors who carried on, some forever broken, most perpetually silent of, as Nelson says of his grandfather, “the things about which he would not speak in any case.”
Taken as a whole, Nelson’s writing is a distinctive cloth that shrouds more than just a story of a man, but that of a generation willing to do what is right in a time of great wrong.
In that manner, it is a book of perspective from which one’s viewpoint can change — even a collector. Maybe not the collectors of military items, for they, more keenly than anyone, inherently understand the hardship and sacrifice represented by many military objects. Rather, it is the rest of us, who take pleasure in antiques as a whole, who delight in the times they represent and the stories they can tell, we are the ones most likely to be touched by Nelson and other great military writers.
After reading The Remains of Company D, it is hard not to pause for an instant when finding a World War I field uniform in a firearms auction. And, suddenly, it comes as no surprise when that uniform outsells field uniforms from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Not that those other conflicts were of less historical importance. And, not that the soldiers from those other wars faced any less peril. Here, numbers play a role — the fewer number of soldiers in uniform in The Great War compared to other military engagements, and the added number of years over which World War I uniforms, ribbons and photographs have succumb to moths, mice and the hands of those who saw such items as worthless, burning them in a barrel behind the barn or leaving them with the trash at the curb.
Nelson didn’t intend the story of his grandfather to impact those of us in the antiques trade, at least, not in the way that this book can. Even so, The Remains of Company D is a reminder that, in pursuing our pastime, some military objects we are likely to run across have a connection beyond our casual understanding. They forever hold the untold story of men willing to go over the top and walk directly toward enfilade fire from enemy machine guns.