Preface to the 1986 edition (University Alabama Press) by Philip D. Beidler
Excerpted by permission
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The chief impression one gets of all this is of decision and control. It all strikes us as quite calm and businesslike-this text of the most furious novel of war ever written by an American up to its time and quite arguably at least as furious and graphic as any written since. And therein ties a great part of the story. Control, one senses, must have been enacted at an enormous price. And the story of how Company K came to be turns out to be just this: that for William March in particular the price came awfully high.
William March and Company K
The biographical circumstances of the genesis of Company K are likewise
attended with a similar strange sense of quiet, impervious enigma. We
do know for certain that William Edward Campbell, to be remembered by
the literary world as William March, was born in Mobile, Alabama in September
1893 and experienced a fairly typical southern childhood of the period
in the small towns of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. We know that
after some study of law in the early years of this century at the University
of Alabama and later at Valparaiso University in Indiana, and after a
clerkship in law in New York City, March enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps
and saw action in some of its hardest campaigning in World War I in France.
We likewise know for a fact that as a result of his actions specifically during an assault on Blanc Mont, March received the French Croix de Guerre and both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross for valor. (The latter feat, one should add, to anyone with a knowledge of the military services, is literally mind-defying. The two decorations constitute the second highest awards, next only to the Congressional Medal of Honor, of what were then the two main branches of the American armed forces, the Army and the Navy.)
We know that after the war he became an organizer and later vice president of the Waterman Steamship Corporation, and then moved for an extended period to New York, where, eventually resigning the successful business position that also carried him abroad in the 1930s to such places as Hamburg and London, he became the author of Company K, of a large body of short stories including some of the most remarkable of his exceedingly talented American generation, and of several other novels, including most notably Come in at the Door, The Tallons, and The Looking Glass. We know that near the end of his, life, he returned home to the South where, in a quiet house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he composed his last book, The Bad Seed -- ironically, as it became transmuted after his death first into a play and later into movie form, a work of a kind of semi-notoriety he would have found concomitantly amusing and faintly distasteful -- and eventually died in his sleep one night in mid-May 1954.
Of what happened to William Edward Campbell in France that specifically made him William March, the author of Company K, we have a general record. A member of the Fifth Marines in the United States Second Division, March saw his first action on the old Verdun battlefield near Les Eparges and shortly afterward at Belleau Wood, where he was wounded in the head and shoulder. He returned in time for Saint-Mihiel and for the attack on Blanc Mont, where he performed so extraordinarily as to receive the three major decorations for valor cited above. He then participated in the Meuse-Argonne and, along with his company, was preparing for a new assault crossing of the Meuse itself at Mouzon when the war ended. In addition to this summary view, we also have the more focused and suggestive record of March's own after-the-fact reminiscences and pronouncements, and particularly of his going back in conversation on repeated occasions, we discover, to a critical episode-one, it seems, in which while isolated from his company, he encountered face to face, a German youth, blond and blue-eyed, at whom he instinctively lunged with his bayonet. As Roy S. Simmonds, March's biographer, describes the rest of the incident, the young German "stumbled and the bayonet pierced his throat, killing him instantly, his eyes wide open and staring into William's face" In this same connection, we also must adduce some few further facts of subsequent psychological history, particularly in light of what a current American generation of war now again attempts to come to terms with under the weighty clinical designation of "post-traumatic stress." Again, Simmonds puts it succinctly: "It is certainly not without significance that at various stages of his life March experienced hysterical conditions related to both his throat and eyes"
Of information concerning the specific episode of bravery that won William March that chestful of medals, we have curiously little. Available to us at least, is the citation to the Croix de Guerre, which reads: "During the operations in Blanc Mont region, October 3rd-4th, 1918, he left a shelter to rescue the wounded. On October 5th, during a counterattack, the enemy having advanced to within 300 meters of the first aid station, he immediately entered the engagement and though wounded refused to be evacuated until the Germans were thrown back."
We have also the citations for the Distinguished Service and Navy Crosses, but they too are notably scant on particular information. We must simply know of William March's bravery, in the main, that he surely had it. And even without what we have of the biographical record or the medals or the certificates, of course, we would still know that he had it. it would still be there, inscribed in Company K, in a novel by a man who had clearly been to war, who had clearly seen his share of the worst of it, who had somehow survived, and who had committed himself afterward to the new bravery of sense-making embodied in the creation of major literary art. It is of that bravery that we still have the record of magnificent achievement, the brave and terrible gift of Company K.