The infantry. Or as the poet said, the poor bloody infantry. It might not be the world’s oldest profession, but it’s certainly in the top ten. The ratio of infantry soldiers (grunts) to those of other combat arms and support personnel may have declined over the centuries, but not their importance. There’s a reason why we still (and likely always will) say boots on the ground. Read on for a look at grunt life.
[You can skip the intro if you’d prefer: ⇓⇓⇓.]
“I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.” Ernie Pyle
This collection of remembrances is drawn from a large number of soldiers’ memoirs, diaries, and autobiographies. In it are recollections from numerous conflicts written by men of varying nationalities. Most were written by infantrymen. Those not authored by an infantryman are written about infantrymen by a contemporary directly observing or interacting with them.
Original (mis)spellings have been retained wherever possible, as have “Commonwealth” spellings (e.g. armour) except in places where an autocorrect feature change slipped through.
This article will be updated periodically. Please leave suggestions for additional sources in the comments.
Excerpts from infantry memoirs of many wars
• Minié Bullets and Musket Balls: U.S. Civil War
• Over the Top: World War I
• Up Front | Kilroy was here: World War II
• Slotting Terrs: Rhodesian Bush War
• Meanwhile, in Ichkeria: First and Second Chechen Wars
Infantry in the American Civil War
⊕ …Friday, May 30th, 1862. “We marched at 8:30 A. M. The weather was hot and sultry. One hundred and fifty men fell out of the ranks exhausted, on the march to-day. It rained in the afternoon. We camped six miles from Catletts Station. It was one of the hardest marches the regiment ever had. Twenty miles was the distance marched.”
A few weeks later upon an equally sultry day, our regiment marched thirty-five miles without knapsacks[for the Fredericks Hall raid]. The men were here absurdly overburdened. They had been required to carry each an overcoat, an extra pair of shoes, and an extra pair of pants. These superfluous articles, added to the necessary hundred rounds of ball cartridges, shelter tent, gum and woolen blankets, haversack full of rations, canteen full of water, musket and accoutrements, were a load beyond the strength of ordinary men. Our young boys were broken down by the needless overtaxing of their strength.
I can not say who was responsible for such management. I know, however, that General McDowell, whether justly or unjustly, was thoroughly cursed for it. Vast numbers of new overcoats, and many knapsacks were flung away by the exhausted men on this march. The men said they were “issuing overcoats to the rebel cavalry,” and it is very likely that they were. I know well the weight of those monstrous knapsacks from personal experience.
The most caustic comment I can make on this campaign, is to quote the remarks of a deserter from Stonewall Jackson’s army, who came to us at some time during the marching. He said, “You uns is pack mules, we uns is race horses.”
“I’m convinced that the infantry is the group in the army which gives more and gets less than anybody else.” Bill Mauldin
Infantry in World War I
⊕ …The Fusiliers and the Yorks had taken their dose and were whittled down to a point where lieutenants were commanding battalions and sergeants commanding companies. To relieve them these Scots were sent in. They were Gordons and Royal Scots, mostly new, replacement men who had never before been under fire and here they sent them into one of the nastiest and bitterest fights ever waged on the Western Front.
They were “braw laddies,” lank and lean but tall and strong; fresh from the heather of their native land, uncertain but willing, they were going to meet death half-way — and they knew it. We had been in the fight so long that it was no longer a novelty, but to those youngsters, it must have seemed like something worse than Dante ever dreamed about. But, they came in; and, wonder of wonders, their pipers came with them.
That was the first time I ever heard the bagpipes in battle. We had a pipe-band in our battalion and a good one, too, but, during the time we were simply holding the line, the pipers and all the other bandsmen served as stretcher-bearers and first-aid men — getting the wounded out and back to the dressing stations which were anywhere from a mile to three miles in the rear. But now we learned (we saw the same thing several times thereafter), that when the Scots go into battle, or over the top, in an offensive, their pipers go along, or, at least the Pipe Major and perhaps, another one or two, to “play them in.”
Man! Man! if you have never seen it, you can never get the thrill. Marching along as though on parade, never missing a note or a step, skirling those wild, heartrending airs that date back to the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie, they march into battle as though no such things as bullets or shells existed. Well, here they came, Gordons ahead — a few old timers with ribbons that dated back to Kandahar — and the youngsters following. They had come through a tough barrage and lost quite a lot of men and the recruits were looking pretty white.
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.”
The old timers gave me a wave of the hand and the younkers seemed to perk up a bit. I followed along, as we had some half-dozen machine guns up where they were going and I was due there, anyway. The pipers changed to “The March of Gordons Own” but it was all the same to me. 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.
⊕ …On April 18, at 8 in the morning, we left Villers-le-Sec. As if to mock us, the rain fell in a heavy downpour. Each of us protected himself as best he could; most had English raincoats which the “Tommies” had sold or traded us. Others improvised hoods with tent cloths. All of a sudden I thought I heard wrong: they passed down the order to remove our raincoats, right at the moment when the rain was heaviest. This stupid order came right from our famous capitaine-adjutant-major, the Kronprinz. He was no doubt recalling, with perfect timing, that a circular had gone around a few days ago, prohibiting the wearing of raincoats which weren’t the color blue, the only one allowed (no doubt at the instigation of a supplier).
Captain Cros-Mayrevieille wouldn’t have given it a second thought, without the idea of avenging himself for the affront that Lieutenant Cordier, commanding the 22nd Company, had given him in the forest of Crécy. I’ve already said that Lieutenant Cordier had equipped all the men in the company in khaki-colored raincoats. Preventing us from using these raincoats made this act of generosity completely useless, and enraged Lieutenant Cordier, whose principal and perhaps only fault was being too quick-witted.
That was reason enough for the Kronprinz. Letting a thousand men get soaking wet was secondary for him. Himself wrapped in a sky-blue foul-weather cape, he rode alongside the flank of the column, pitilessly ordering the removal of the offending raincoats. Those who had put their packs, canteens, haversacks, and other gear on top of the raincoats were obliged to halt and fall behind a kilometer or so while they arranged their attire.
“No one should be under any illusions about soldiering. Soldiering is about fighting, and, if need be, killing. That fact can be cloaked in a wide range of fancy garments, or hidden by pomp and flummery, but when it gets right down to it, soldiering is about hitting the enemy hard, before they can kill you. Soldiering is a means of getting your way by force and cunning, often in very dangerous places, and even in peacetime can involve living in difficult conditions, under considerable hardship and often at some risk to life or limb.” Tim Spicer
Infantrymen during World War II
⊕ …the let-down was now severe. We had been in violent action for days, anxious and strained, always in danger of being killed, and now a curtain seemed to have dropped upon that temporarily. Anxiety, strain, action and sudden death were removed. We were like race horses, halted halfway around a track, led suddenly to quiet, green pastures where we could rest lazily and graze.
I have been asked to bring out battle scenes in more detail, to describe the action and point up the drama, and I have found that battles are lived only in reflection, when scenes come before the mind in perspective and in an orderly sequence.
What does a man think of, when he pulls the ring in a hand grenade and throws it at a machine-gun nest? He thinks merely of getting it out of his hand, throwing it as accurately as he can toward the machine-gun nest, and dropping for cover. He doesn’t think profound thoughts about the cause he is fighting for, or the civilization that makes him wipe out several lives around the machine gun. He is too busy to philosophize; too deadened by fatigue to think deep thoughts; and he is more likely to be irritated by a chafing boot, or stinging brambles in the brush piercing his palms as he falls, than to be thinking heroic thoughts.
When he hears his grenade blow up, feels the ground tremble, and waits for the ear-splitting crash to stop ringing in his head, he pokes his head up cautiously, looks at the emplacement, and does not figuratively rub his hands and say: “Ah, I got four that time.” Instead, he looks from left to right and in the rear, another grenade in his hand, ready to throw it. He rises higher, still crouched, surveying the scene, and if he sees upturned toes on one side of the machine gun, dangling listless arms on the other, a prostrate body, with head tilted back, in the rear, he advances, still crouched, until he can put his hand on the machine gun, ready to swing it.
Infantry in the Rhodesian Bush War
⊕ …our high command has effectively allowed the enemy to outflank us and provided us with the serious problem of several thousand kilometres of hostile border to police, which, aside from anything else, means that the territorial army has been forced into committing to longer call-ups with knock-on effects on the country’s morale and economy. A farm has been attacked just before dawn in a remote area about fifteen clicks on our side of the border. The farmer and his wife have returned fire and driven the attackers off, and by chance there was a tracker team at a police post in the vicinity who are already on tracks heading through the forest towards the border.
We have a G-Car but no troops available, the rest of the Fireforce having gone up to Umtali to support some operation and ending staying overnight, so I get airborne with the territorial army major and Brian Booth as the gunner. Brian is one of the new gunners on the squadron, about eighteen years old and known as Basil Brush due to his uncanny resemblance to the popular ventriloquist’s dummy. We arrive overhead of the trackers, who can’t be seen due to the dense pine forest they are working through. We establish their position by getting them to read us overhead and take their sitrep – they reckon they are close up on tracks of two and about half an hour behind.
We brief them that we will fly ahead along the line of flight of the gooks which will hopefully slow them down, and that if they make contact to throw a white phos. We’ll then shoot through the trees in the area ahead of them on the far side of the white smoke, which will keep the gooks from running too far ahead. Every ten minutes or so, the tracker stick reads us back overhead so we are up to date with their progress and their sitreps indicate that they are closing on the two fleeing insurgents.
Finally, there is a whispered, “We have two CTs visual.” “Well done.”
This team has performed really well and caught up with the gooks about two hours after starting. There is a pause of about a minute before they come back on the air.
“What shall we do?” “How far away are they?” “About twenty-five yards.”
The major and I look at each other a little perplexed.
“What are these guys doing? Do they know you are there?” “They’re resting. No, they have no idea we are here.”
That explains the whispering. The army officer and I exchange puzzled looks again. What is going on here? With the Fireforce, we normally get informed after the initial contact has taken place.
“Is there some problem? Can you not get a clear shot at them?” “Negative. I’ve got one in my sights now, and the other one is covered with the MAG.”
Jesus, what are they waiting for?
“Is there some reason you can’t open fire?” “Negative. Can I open fire?” Good God! “For Christ’s sake, shoot!”
We wait for a couple of minutes – the last thing you need in the middle of a punch-up is somebody calling you on the radio – and then ask how things are going. A bit breathless now, “OK. OK. Contact is over, we’ve got two dead CTs, no casualties to us.”
We congratulate the callsign; they really have done very well to catch up and make contact so quickly. We give them directions towards a logging track and tell them that we’ll make arrangements for the police to pick them and the bodies up on that road and that we’ll see them later.
We don’t in fact meet this stick until the following day, and then the reason for the delay in initiating the contact becomes apparent. The stick leader is an eighteen-year-old, and the other three are seventeen, all doing their national service. They have recently been schoolboys and, of course, have spent their lives learning that you don’t gratuitously kill things, let alone people. Slightly deeper analysis starts you wondering as to the ready acceptance of an authorisation from a disembodied voice over the radio, but anyway, the aggression and tracking skill shown by these school kids has really impressed me.
Infantry during the Russian-Chechen Wars
⊕ …in a few blocks we came under ferocious gunfire. The spooks were spraying from above, madly (about 20 guns) but unaimed. With a couple of grunts now, we had to leave our APCs behind and sneak our way over to the headquarters. At least the dogfaces are more confident now. They’re more or less used to this – all were tested by fire. In the beginning I howled like a wolf, just like that mad grunt. The men were all green, some rushing forward, others still fear-struck in their armor. I had to boot and kick them out of their APCs and foxholes. As for myself, I’m OK. Baku, Kutaisi – 90, Tshinvali -91, Moldova – 92 and now Chechnya. Alright, just let us get the hell out of here – but only in one piece.
If crippled, I’ve got a little toy in my pocket – RGD-15. It’s surely enough for me. I’ve seen enough of our crippled post-war heroes living in peace-time life. They, too, were following the orders of their Motherland, their Party, their Government and hell knows whom else. “Reinstating Constitutional Order” on the territory of the former Soviet Union. And now again, we are beating our own Russian land on somebody’s hugger-mugger order…
…I turned around – all my grunts are fine, prone on the ground, watching. Their faces are all black from gunpowder – eyeballs and teeth shining. I’m probably no better. I nod to one, point direction to another and we are all off sprinting forward, zigzag, “screw” and roll. Although, these coats were surely not made for rolling. The sweat is blanketing my eyes, fatigues are steamy; the taste of blood in my mouth is unbearable and my temples are pounding heavily. Blood is pumped full with adrenaline. Short bounds forward, bits of bricks, chips of concrete and broken glass everywhere. Carefully avoiding open spaces. Still alive, thank God.
Zapp… zapp… again! Damn it, could it really be a sniper? Ducking into the nearest basement, grenades at the ready. Who or what is waiting for us in there? Pair of corpses. Fatigues seem like ours – Slavic. Nod to one of the grunts to secure the window, and then I move to the doorframe. The second grunt kneels near one of the bodies, unbuttons his coat and flak jacket and fetches his papers and dog tags. He does the same with the second corpse. The boys wouldn’t mind anymore but their families must be notified. Otherwise, the smart asses in the Government won’t pay them their pensions, reasoning that soldiers are missing in action and who knows, maybe even crossed over to the other side.
“Got the papers?” I asked.
“Got’em,” answered private Semeonov, nicknamed “Semeon”. “What now?”
“Now, via this basement we run across to the neighboring street, then to the first batt (battalion). Do we have radio contact with them?” I’m asking my RTO (Radiotelephone operator), private Harlamov. His nickname is “Glue”. His arms are long, sticking out of his BDUs like sticks, no one size fits. His wrists are disproportionately huge. First time you see the guy the impression is like gorilla arms were sewn to a man’s body. Now probably no one could recall where his nickname “Glue” originated.
Our soldiers are Siberians and all together we are “mahra” (Russian word for cheap tobacco). In the WWII books and movies, infantry is called “The Queen of the battle field”. In real life, however, we are just “mahra”. And one individual infantryman is a “mahor”. That’s life…
…No sign of the enemy in the window at the other side of the house, and we leapfrog, taking short bounds, crouched half our normal height, towards the Central Train Station. High above in the sky, a jet fighter is bombing the city with high explosives and shooting at somebody’s positions from an unreachable height. Down here, there is no single front line. Gunfights start everywhere sporadically and sometimes turn into some kind of cheesecake: ragheads, us, ragheads again, and so on (US Marines call it a “cluster fuck”). In one word it could be called a madhouse, almost no coordination anywhere. The Internal Forces are especially difficult to work with. To be precise: all THIS is their operation, but we, mahra, are doing their job for them. Often we storm the same objectives in complete ignorance of each other’s presence. Sometimes we even point the Air Force guys onto them and they onto us. In the dark we fire on each other and take our own grunts prisoners.
Now we are going to the Central Train Station, where, in almost full complement, the Mikop Brigade was wiped out. Vanished into the night. Nothing was done before they were sent in. No reconnaissance to ascertain the spooks’ defensive positions, no artillery preps to soften them up. After the battle, when our boys began to fall asleep (imagine no sleep for a week, adrenaline and Vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner), spooks crept up and wasted them from a point blank range. Just the mistake Chapaev made: no guards along the perimeter. Here, though, all guards were soundly asleep or spooks knifed them quietly. Everything was on fire, all that could burn and even all that couldn’t. It seemed like the Earth, asphalt and house walls were ablaze from the burning fuel. People panicked in the inferno. Some tried to return fire, some tried helping the wounded. Some even shot themselves so they wouldn’t get into the ragheads’ hands. Few were trying to flee. Not one of them must be judged. What would you, my reader, do in that hell on earth? Don’t know, huh? That’s it, then. Don’t you dare judge them!
Mironov. Assault on Grozny Downtown
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Mike Borlace. Spider Zero Seven: A life in combat.
Louis Barthas. Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918
Rufus R. Dawes. Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers: Four Years with the Iron Brigade.
John Hasey. Yankee Fighter: an American in the Free French Foreign Legion
Herbert Mcbride. A Rifleman Went To War.
Vyacheslav Mironov. I Was In This War: Chechnya 95.
Also: Assault on Grozny Downtown [“Я был на этой войне”, Миронов, Вячесла́в Никола́евич]: as seen through the eyes of [a] Russian Captain.
(See also The God Damned Infantry.)
Tim Spicer. An Unorthodox Soldier