Site Map



Chapter 12:  With the A.E.F.

Over there, over there, Send the word, send the word to beware The Yanks are coming.
-- George M. Cohan

During his many years on the border, Holmdahl managed to be known and liked by many influential people in the American Southwest. In February 1917, he began an intensive letter-writing campaign to secure a pardon, and one of his first letters was to the attorney general of the United States explaining his actions. It was an ingenuous document, but not quite in conformity with the trial evidence. Also, in the letter Holmdahl gave another indication that he had acted as an intelligence agent for the Department of Justice. Perhaps that is why in the coming months they treated him so leniently.

Washington, D.C., February 1, 1917. The Honorable The Attorney General Washington. Sir:

In reference to my application for pardon, following my conviction in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, on the charge of having engaged in a conspiracy to violate the neutrality laws of the United States, I beg to respectfully state that at the time of the alleged offense was committed, I entertained no thought whatsoever of violating said laws or any statute of the United States.  The facts in my case are as follows:

I was employed by General Benjamin Hill, commanding the Carranza forces in Chihuahua and Sonora, to gather confidential information for him along the border, the latter part of 1914.  At that time General Hill indicated to me his desire that I should come over to Chihuahua and take charge of certain of his troops, with a view of attacking Juarez.  Nothing was said by him to me that these troops were to be recruited in the United States, and I naturally assumed that they would be a part of his own command.  Meanwhile, the Carranza consul in El Paso informed me that he had purchased a carload of ammunition and equipment, and there being no embargo he was to dispatch the car to Douglas, Arizona, for the delivery of its contents across the border.  After the car had left, the consul received information that the Villistas had planned to steal the car at Mimbrios twelve miles from Columbus, and the consul sent me there in an automobile to ascertain whether the theft had been accomplished.  I did not find the car and learned that the American Troops had escorted the car through to Douglas, where it was delivered to the Carranzista authorities at Agua Prieta.  Prior to this incident, I met a Colonel Valle, of General Hill's staff, at El Paso, who desired to send some code telegrams relating to this matter to the Carranza representative in Douglas, viz:  Francisco S. Elias, but the telegraph office had refused to accept them because Valle desired to dispatch them collect.  He inquired of me if I could send them for him, which I did.  I did not know the contents of these messages, nor do I know them yet.  It appeared from the testimony given in my case that the Mexican consul, Jorge Orozco, and Victor L. Ochoa and Jose Orozco, all of El Paso, had engaged the services of some Mexicans to cross the border and join General Hill's forces.  The testimony showed that I had no connection with these men, and never saw any of them. This was corroborated by the testimony of the two Orozcos and Ochoa, and there really was nothing connecting me directly with the enterprise.  There was no testimony adduced showing any real guilt on my part of showing that I had really conspired with any one to violate the law.

Indeed, there was no proof that I intended to accept General Hill's invitation to join him in Chihuahua, and I am sure that a mere cursory review of the evidence will substantiate my assertion.

I have never concealed anything from the United States authorities on the border; have always been frank in dealing with them, and have, as a matter of fact, from time to time given them information of the most valuable character, as will be borne out by General George Bell, U.S.A.; Major General Pershing, U.S.A.; District Attorney Crawford, and Special Agent Stone of the Department of Justice.  I beg that the foregoing may be taken into full consideration in determining my application for Executive clemency.

Respectfully, (Sgd) E. L Holmdahl. [1]

To better press his case, Holmdahl temporarily moved to Washington D.C. while an obliging Justice Department continued to extend his bail and allow him to travel. [2] On February 17, Colonel J.A. Ryan wrote, "I ... am always ready to testify to your good service with me and the Expedition in Mexico ... Keep in touch with me as I may need you if this matter breaks out either in Mexico or Cuba." [3] On February 22, Holmdahl replied, "When war, or intervention short of war, comes, either in Mexico or Cuba, or elsewhere, I certainly hope to be among those to follow you." [4]

Earlier, Holmdahl had asked Jeff McLemore, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas, to intercede for him and on March 19 the Congressman sent him copies of two letters written by his old boss. [5]

Headquarters. Southern Department Fort Sam Houston, Texas March 11, 1917. Honorable Jeff McLemore U.S. Representative Washington D. C. My Dear Mr. McLemore:

With reference to your letter of February 14th, setting forth the case of E.L. Holmdahl, I have fully investigated the case and am now prepared to change my opinion.

It appears from the reports of the investigation which I instituted that Holmdahl, was "more sinned against than sinning," and insofar as his conduct on that occasion is concerned, I am now willing to make recommendation for clemency.

This has no reference, of course, to his services as a scout during the Punitive Expedition.  While he did some good work there, he did other things which were disapproved by me.

Sincerely Yours, (Sgd) Major General John J. Pershing US. Army Commanding. [6]

And then Pershing wrote to the Attorney General of the Army:

I desire to recommend executive clemency in the case of E.L. Holmdahl, charged with violation of the neutrality laws on the Mexican border and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.  An inquiry into the facts of this case leads me to believe that Holmdahl should not be held to more than a technical violation of the neutrality laws.

Moreover, as a scout with the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, he performed service which should entitle him to the Government's consideration.  I trust that you will give this request such consideration as you may deem advisable. [7]

Pershing did not elaborate on his comment that "he did other things which were disapproved by me." There are a number of possibilities, including Holmdahl's failure to accept an assignment to assassinate Villa. Pershing was possibly annoyed at the spectacle of the three dead Villistas draped over the hoods of Lt. Patton's automobiles. Or he might have objected to a newspaper story that claimed Holmdahl had hunted down and gunned down three Villista officers responsible for murdering seventeen American mining engineers who were taken off a Mexican train on January 9, 1916, and summarily shot. [8]

General Hugh Scott, who back in the Philippine days signed one of Holmdahl's fitness reports and was undoubtedly aware of his intelligence reporting to the U.S. government, probably also interceded for him. On March 16, Holmdahl wrote the U.S. Attorney in El Paso asking for a sixty-day "respite" before reporting to Leavenworth Federal Prison. The respite was granted. [9] In the meantime the U.S. declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

On April 21, Mayor Tom Lea of El Paso wrote to the U.S. Attorney General requesting executive clemency and a pardon for his old friend. "Although he is a soldier of fortune," Lea wrote, "his reputation is most excellent." The mayor added,

Holmdahl has been of very great help and benefit to the Police Department in many ways.  He asked me to speak especially with reference to his arrest in El Paso some year and a half ago, in which he was accused of a misdemeanor ... I know that Mr. Holmdahl acted properly on that occasion, and resented an insult from an anti-American.  He was released without bond and acquitted on proper bail. [10]

There was a note of desperation in a letter Holmdahl sent to Frank Polk of the U.S. Department of State on April 30. He wrote:

... my application for executive clemency ... only awaits your recommendation.

I have now exhausted both my savings and my credit, and am two thousand miles from home, without any means whatsoever ... begging your kind and early consideration. [11]

Funds exhausted, Holmdahl returned to El Paso, where he began to blossom out as a raconteur of border adventures. Joe Goodell, the owner of El Paso's Sheldon Hotel, described Holmdahl as, "Sporting a black diamond ring on his finger, [he] wore flamboyant clothes and attracted attention wherever he went." Goodell said he provided the famous mercenary, gunrunner, and scout with a free room, "Simply in repayment for his drawing power and influence over prospective patrons." [12]

Holmdahl spoke articulately in a clear voice, and when he recounted some of his wilder adventures, he laughed. Sometimes, however, the laugh was only on his lips; his eyes stayed cool. He gave the impression he could be a good friend but a terrible enemy. Above all, he was a soldier.

Adding to Holmdahl's restlessness was the news that his old comrades were also back in harness. Tracy Richardson was fighting in France as a captain in Princess Patricia's Own Light Infantry, one of the elite regiments of the Canadian Army. [13] Sam Dreben, who was to win renown as one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I, was a first sergeant with the 36th "Texas" Division. [14]

As the American Expeditionary Force began to mobilize for overseas duty in France, another old soldier from border days swung into action. Major Sam Robertson, commanding officer of the Sixth Reserve Regiment of U.S. Engineers, telegraphed Congressman McLemore:

Won't you see the Attorney General and endeavor to get Holmdahl pardoned at once. Regiment needs his services badly and he will be more valuable to his country in France than in prison. [15]

Robertson sent an identical telegram to Frank Polk at the State Department. [16]

It took another month, but on July 13, 1917, Holmdahl, now back in Washington D.C., was granted a full and unconditional pardon by President Woodrow Wilson. [17] He immediately went to Washington Barracks and enlisted as a private soldier in the 6th Engineer Regiment. When he took the physical, however, he was disappointed.

The army medical corps physician, Lt. H.L. Taylor, found Holmdahl unfit for service by reason of pain and limited flexibility in the scout's right knee. This was due to shrapnel wounds received in 1910. [18]

In a later army physical, Holmdahl was reported to have suffered wounds in 1911-12-13-15-18. They included, "'so far as known', shrapnel in right knee two, right shoulder, bullet two in breast, and stomach." [19]

Adjutant General G. W Read fired back a message to the medical officer, stating, "Enlist that man if he has only one leg." [20] General Read followed up with a memo to the War Department Adjutant General Files: "The Secretary of War authorizes the enlistment of Emil L. Holmdahl, for the 6th Regiment, Engineers, National Army, waiving the defects reported." [21] After nineteen years, Holmdahl was again a private in the United States Army.

On July 21, Holmdahl wrote Senator Morris Sheppard, who had helped secure his pardon, stating, "I will do my very best in the Army to vindicate [your] confidence ... And at the very least I can do is to sacrifice my life for a worthy cause." [22] On that same date, in a more personal vein, he wrote Representative Jeff McLemore, who, he said, had been "a soldier of fortune yourself," thanking him for his help. A bond of friendship had sprung up between Holmdahl and McLemore.

Holmdahl wrote,

I shall never forget, and at any time that I can be of service to you or any of your friends, I will fight to the last ditch ... Now that I am into it I shall try to live down the reputation given me on the border, or live up to it and fight harder than ever. [23]

Always friendly with Department of Justice officials, Holmdahl wrote James A. Finch, an attorney involved with his pardon applications, and received back a semi-humorous reply, stating, "By the way, you are the only one so far who has ever gotten away with the stunt you did. Please remember you have the good wishes of all of us ..." [24]

Holmdahl reported to the 6th Engineers, later designated as 16th Engineers. Several day's after his enlistment he was promoted to first sergeant. Two weeks later he, with his regiment, were on a troop ship headed from France. Within weeks, Holmdahl was promoted to second lieutenant and then quickly to first lieutenant. [25] Even before combat units of the U.S. army went into action, Holmdahl and his engineers were fighting as infantry alongside the British.

For the raw Americans and even for a veteran like Holmdahl, the Western Front was a horror almost inconceivable to civilized men. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George summed it up when he wrote:

When I read of the conditions under which they fight, I marvel that the delicate and sensitive instrument of the human nerves and the human mind can endure them without derangement.

... troops are called upon to live for days and nights in morasses under ceaseless thunderbolts from a powerful artillery, and then march into battle through an engulfing quagmire under a hailstorm of machine gun fire. [26]

The prime minister put it mildly. In the trenches of France there was also the stench from rotting flesh and gases escaping from bloated bodies left in "no man's land." There was cold food on freezing days; toes turned black from soaking in putrid water; and always the haunting fear of miserable and sudden death from snipers, shellfire, mines, or poison gas. If there ever was glamor or glory in war, it ended in rat-infested trenches on the Western Front.

U.S. engineering units began arriving in France in early August. They were the first U.S. troops to be sent to the front in response to the urgent request from the British. The British forces desperately needed trained railway personnel to construct tracks and aid in loading British tanks in preparation for a fall offensive. Holmdahl and his engineer unit were immediately assigned to aid the tank corps.

In October 1917, communists overthrew the moderate Russian reform government that had succeeded the Tsarist regime. The announced policy of the Bolsheviks was to seek an immediate peace with Germany. This, the Allies believed, would result in a massive shifting of German troops to the Western Front.

General Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, planned to smash Germany's western armies before they could be reinforced. At dawn on November 20, he launched a massive surprise attack on the German trenches without the usual artillery bombardment. Then, for the first time, Winston Churchill's secret weapon, called the "tank," was used in large numbers.

The early British tanks weighed approximately thirty tons, were more than twenty-six feet long and were armed with two six-pounder cannon, four machine guns, and manned by a crew of six. They had less than one-half-inch of armor plating, sufficient to ward off rifle and machine-gun bullets, but they were vulnerable to artillery. The "landships" could plough through barbed wire and cross narrow trenches, while plugging along at a top speed of 4.7 miles per hour. Breakdowns were frequent and they had a range of approximately twenty miles before they ran out of fuel.

To give them any fighting range at ail, they had to be transported by rail close to the front lines. Thus, the need for engineers to construct roadways and lay train tracks. By mid-August elements of three railway engineer regiments, including lieutenant Holmdahl, were busy building standard-gauge and light-railway lines for the British military.

Great secrecy was maintained in the operation, with the tanks parked in a hidden valley until just before the attack. Then they were loaded on flatcars and hauled to the front lines, where they were unloaded by the engineers. On November 20, more than 400 of the lumbering behemoths surged across "no-man's land." They smashed through the German barbed-wire entanglements, in some areas fifty yards deep, and machine-gunned and shelled the enemy trenches. They made a breech in the Hindenburg Line four miles wide, captured 10,000 prisoners, 200 pieces of artillery and penetrated five miles deep into German defenses.

When the news of the breakthrough was first reported, all the church bells in London rang. But not for long. It was all for naught, because sufficient infantry reserves were not available to pour into the breech and exploit the breakthrough. The German army quickly recovered from the initial shock of the attack and reinforced the broken sector. On November 30, they launched a counterattack against the exhausted British and recaptured all the ground lost, driving three miles deep into the British front.

The American engineers dropped their shovels, picked up their rifles, and fought alongside the British infantry. Under heavy shellfire, they suffered many casualties, until their British allies finally stabilized a defense line. [27] The British and German armies each suffered more than a quarter of a million casualties for no discernable change in the stagnant Western Front. The American engineers continued repair and maintenance work on the British railway system, until in the early spring of 1918, when all hell broke loose on the British sector of the Western Front.

By March, the German army,  after concluding a peace with Russia, moved fifty-two divisions from the now-peaceful eastern front to the west. The chief of the general staff, General Erich Ludendorff, and the commander of the German army, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, decided they must strike the British and French quickly before millions of American soldiers began arriving. On March 21, under cover of a dense fog, they launched a massive attack, hurling their entire reinforced armies against the Allied lines. The British army, with most of its reserves used up after four years of fighting, fell back in exhaustion.

On that date, Holmdahl and the 6th Engineers were quartered at the town of Doingt, where they came under "very severe artillery fire." The regiment was ordered to retreat to Chaulnes, the site of a major supply dump. When they reached the dump on the morning of March 23, they were ordered to destroy all supplies stored there, as the German advance was about to overrun them. Blowing up everything but their backpacks and the trucks to transport them, the engineers began a long retreat, until on March 27, they reached a wooded area named Bois de Taillaux. [28]

There, they dug trenches alongside British infantry units under the command of British Brigadier Sandeman Carey. Nicknamed "Carey's chickens," as they were under his wing, the engineers prepared for a "last stand" as the German army came close to breaking the entire Allied line and winning the war.

By telephone, messenger, flag signals, and military police patrols, Carey rounded up a motley group of non-combat units required to fight like Guardsmen. There were labor battalions of middle aged men, electricians, truck drivers, cooks and bakers, stragglers, plus fifty stray cavalrymen. And, there was Lieutenant Holmdahl and his railroad engineers. [29]

Some of the men were armed with rifles; others only had pistols which were virtually useless. Fortunately, there was a British machine-gun school several miles behind the lines. These guns were brought up to the "chickens," although few of the men knew how to operate them. Enter Holmdahl. With a decade and more of using rapid-fire weapons in combat, he blossomed as an instructor for both British and American troops.

It was in that moment of desperation that General Sir Douglas Haig made his famous declaration:

Many among us now are tired.  To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest ... There is no other course open to us but to fight it out!  Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end ... [30]

For six days the "chickens" poured a scythe-like stream of bullets at wave after wave of German troops attacking their makeshift trenches. They held against "continuous assault" until April 3, when they were relieved by fresh British combat units. Their tough defense had prevented the German artillery from pushing on to a point where they could have shelled Amiens, a vital railroad center which kept the entire British army supplied with food and munitions. A U.S. army report stated "their sudden desperate stand ... robbed the Germans of complete victory." [31]

General Haig, a man of few compliments, later wrote:

I am glad to acknowledge the ready manner in which American engineer units have been placed at my disposal ... and the great value of the assistance they have rendered ... British and American troops have fought shoulder to shoulder in the same trenches, and have shared together in the satisfaction of beating off German attacks. [32]

As the German attacks began to lessen, Holmdahl's unit was assigned to work with an Australian corps rebuilding bridges until June 10, 1918, when they were assigned as divisional engineers for the Third American Infantry Division. On July 14, while Holmdahl's Company F was constructing defense works on the Third Division front near Chateau Thierry, the Americans suffered a heavy artillery bombardment, followed by a strong German attack on the morning of the 15th.

The attack was beaten off, and a week later the Americans were ready to advance. Holmdahl's company, in preparation for the Third Division assault on July 21, constructed two footbridges across the Marne River. The following day, after the Americans had attacked and advanced, Holmdahl and his men spanned the river with a pontoon bridge built from captured German equipment. [33] On July 30, 1918, Holmdahl was promoted to Captain. [34]

After the bridges were built and the American advance continued, the engineers were "engaged as infantry support." They continued fighting until on August 10, when they were relieved and moved to a rear area where they rested and refitted. Holmdahl was assigned to the Engineer School at Longre, France to train newly arriving American troops. On November 23, after the Armistice ended World War I, he crossed the Atlantic and was assigned to Camp Leach, Washington D.C. [35]

Holmdahl's World War I records were lost during a fire at the Federal Documents Depository in St. Louis, along with much of the documentary evidence of his World War I service. In an interview given to the Los Angeles Times in 1967, Owen W. Miller of Hermosa Beach, California, who served with him in the 6th Engineer Regiment in France, recalled:

He was quite a mystery man.  The rest of us were construction men but he was obviously a soldier of great experience.  Later he transferred from the engineers to a combat regiment. [36]

According to his nephew, Gordon Holmdahl of Dublin, California, "Uncle Emil returned from France with a stomach full of shrapnel." [37] After more than one year on the firing line, Holmdahl had more than fulfilled the vows he made to those who had arranged his pardon. He promised to serve his country well during the war, and he did.

Go to Next Page


Exit Survey

I am interested in:
Law and Government
Visual Arts

I came to the Library:
To write a class paper
To do other research
To read for pleasure

How I got here:
Been here before
Teacher referred me
Search Engine
Someone else referred me

How I feel about the Library:
Will return
Will refer others
Probably won't return
Skip Survey