A dictionary definition of a straggler is ‘a person in a group who is moving more slowly or making less progress than the others’. In a military setting there can be a fine line between a straggler and a deserter, who is a person who has demonstrated by his actions or the passage of time that he has no intention of rejoining his group. There are also associated with straggling or deserting the additional concepts of ‘shirking’ or ‘skulking’, which mean avoiding difficult or dangerous situations.
Straggling had been commonplace in the American Civil War and was usually tolerated, whereas in some of the European armies stragglers were punished, sometimes even shot on sight.
According to Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive there were roughly 100,000 American stragglers, i.e. men who had been not been with their units at some point. While this number was less than 10 % of the total force engaged it was equivalent in cumulative strength to over three divisions. The Military Police were overwhelmed by these numbers and troopers from the 6th and 2nd Cavalry regiments were needed to help round up everyone and get them back to their units.
Sometimes straggling was unavoidable. The following extract from the diaries of Pvt. Clarence L. Richmond, USMC, describes such an occurrence in the march from Belleau Wood to the Battle of Soissons:
‘We did not get to rest very long, for soon we were ordered to pack up again. We marched in two columns, single file one on each side of the road. It soon grew dark and, as it had been growing cloudier all afternoon, now began to rain. There were three columns of traffic on the road — two going towards the front and one coming from the front. On account of the thickness of the woods, the night was utter darkness, so dark that it was impossible to see the man in front of you. The only way to keep the column connected, was to hold to the man in front. Part of the time we were down in the ditch and part of the time up in the road. If you did not have hold of the man in front, when he stopped without telling you, you ran your face into his pick or shovel on the back of his pack or into the muzzle of his rifle. Regardless of which it was the sensation was anything but pleasant. It seemed that we had to halt and stand longer than the time we consumed in moving…We could not fall out for a rest when we stopped, but had to remain standing all the time. The traffic seemed to grow thicker as we proceeded, the road muddier and sticker, making it very difficult to stand up. Some didn’t. One fellow fell into the ditch and we lost him.
Packs were getting heavier on account of the rain. Mine was heavy enough to begin with, as I had a wet shirt and change of underwear, which I had washed the day before, but wasn’t dry when we packed up the afternoon before. Along towards midnight the fellows began to drop out exhausted. The strain was nerve racking. One by one they continued to fall by the wayside unable to keep up the pace. No word had been passed around us as just when we were to attack, but it was assumed by us that it would probably be the second day following. Those that dropped out would therefore have a chance to catch up the next day. With this in view, and after about half of the platoon had fallen by the roadside, two other fellows and myself notified our sergeant that we could go no farther. Not since I had been with the company, had we had anything to compare with what we endured that night. The conversation that flowed from the lips of that struggling column of humanity, would have made Satan himself ashamed…
The rain was still falling slightly. I do not know what prompted me to do it, but I stripped, threw away the underwear I had on and put on the wet suit in my pack. Fritz and I were asleep in a minute, while the remnant of our outfit struggled on through the mud and darkness. We were so dead to the world that none of us heard the terrific barrage that our artillery laid down after five o’clock in the morning. They said that the barrage made the earth shake and tremble.
The morning of the 18th was fair, the rain having ceased. When we found out that the others had gone over the top at daybreak, I felt very much ashamed of having fallen by the wayside, when possibly I could have gone on to the end. But it was too late now. We three continued on shortly after daylight in an effort to regain our company.
The road was still filled with traffic all going towards the front with ammunition and supplies. One large gun was off in the ditch unable to get out. As we made inquiries along the way, we found others of our company who had fallen out during the forced march. We came to the salvage pile where the battalion had discarded everything except a light combat pack. From those left in charge, we learned that our platoon had lost all but fourteen when they stopped to form combat packs. We proceeded on hoping to find our company. Several others of our platoon joined us, and we almost had a platoon of our own. Finding a ration dump at a crossroads we managed to get some dry bread to eat. No one seemed to know anything of the whereabouts of-our outfit. We kept on towards the front, and met a large bunch of prisoners being brought back. We came across two fellows from our company, who had reached the front lines, but had gotten separated when the attack started. From them we learned that they had had to double time in order to get to their positions before the attack was launched. Prisoners continued to be brought back, showing that the attack was proving successful.’
Recollections of a Buck Private Somewhere in France – The War Memoirs of Clarence L. Richmond http://www.robinrichmond.com/wardiary/
Although a straggler in July, Clarence Richmond was in the forefront of the attack on Blanc Mont Ridge, which began one hundred years ago today, and for his courageous actions on October 6th, 1918 he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Croix de Guerre.