Last year, I had a remarkable group of students who worked with me on the Wesley College Documentation Project. We spent time in the Wesley College collection in the University of North Dakota’s Department of Special Collection’s Wesley College papers. In a folder titled “Harold Sayre Tributes” the students discovered a pair of poems written by Horace Shidler who served with Sayre in World War I. Sayre died in the Great War.
Sawyer Flynn, one of the students in the class, transcribed the poems and prepared this introduction. He generously gave me permission to publish this material here.
Last semester at the University of North Dakota, I had the pleasure of working with a team from the History Department under Dr. William Caraher. A 1 credit course based on documenting “Two Old Buildings” (which became the name of the course), ultimately lead to the Wesley College Documentation project. Over the semester, a group of students, faculty, and outside experts went room to room in Robertson-Sayre and Corwin-Larimore halls, buildings that in some cases dated back to 1909, documenting the architecture and the objects within. While our findings on this front were interesting, we weren’t expecting to find a story as deep as that of Sayre Hall. While most buildings on campus are named for important administrators or donors, Sayre Hall was named for a man who was, by all accounts, a war hero.
Harold Holden Sayre left Stanford University as a sophomore and enlisted in the American Field Service in 1917. While he began service in the ambulance corps in the Balkans, when the United States formally entered the war, he entered the U.S. Army Air Service in the 11th Aero Squadron.
There, as a rear-facing gunner for his pilot, Horace Shidler, Sayre lost his life on September 14th, 1918 over Saint-Mihiel. Ambushed by Jasta 11, the squadron Manfred Von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”, had commanded until April of that year, the bombers were easy prey for veteran German pilots. The German fighters emerged from above the bombers using the cover of the sun and quickly engaged multiple bombers, losing only one of their own.
Harold Sayre opened fire on the fighters and was struck repeatedly by machinegun fire. In spite of this he “kept his guns going until life left his body”, and in standing up to fire, shielded Shidler from the volley of bullets that would have taken his life.
When the strap holding Sayre’s body upright was struck by a bullet, Sayre’s body fell against the controls in the rear cockpit, forcing Shidler to crash land in a copse of trees. There, Shidler buried Sayre, despite being badly wounded himself. A German soldier waited at a distance for him to finish, and then captured him.
Shidler became a prisoner of war, and it was in his cell that he wrote “AT THE GRAVE OF A DEAD GUNNER.” The second poem was written in 1919, after the Great War had concluded.
These two poems struck me as incredibly poignant when I first read them. Today, the 100th year anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, the Wesley College Documentation Project went back to the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections to scan these documents in honor of Harold H. Sayre and all the men and women who served in “The War to End all Wars.”
Citation: Harold Sayre Tributes. Wesley College Papers. UA 63, Box 4. University Archives. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.
AT THE GRAVE OF A DEAD GUNNER.
By His Pilot. LIEUT. HORACE SHIDLER
April 17, 1919.
Oh Pard! I’ve come back to you,
As you lay here beneath the sod.
I can see your features strong and true,
Turned upward toward God.
Thinking of the hours that you an I,
Have spent, as thought we were one.
Sailing across the pale blue sky,
‘Tween earth and the burning sun.
When we roamed together through the vineyard,
By our billet in the old Chateau,
And felt that growing kindred.
How close that kin did grow!
Since you left me, Pard, I guess I’ve been
Through near an earthly Hell.
Thro’ Par, you know it was not through sin
That I went to the Prison Cell.
In the evening gloom would go the wall,
in that cell of German Alsace.
And becknoning to me with a call
You would come in to its place.
Wearily the days and weeks went by,
And at last come the end of the war.
No more by the deadly weapons to die,
Were men in battles’ horror.
But is stand here, Pard, beside your grave,
With a wound that is bleeding tears.
While you’re with the One whose life He gave,
For humanity, through all these years.
But a life I’ll live in honor to you,
With the help of God on High.
I’ll think of you my whole life through
And join you when I die.
LIEUT. HAROLD SAYRE,
From his Pilot at the Front,
Lt. Horace Shidler
On the fourteenth morning of September
Just after the clouds rolled off;
On a mission of death they sent us
to bomb a place southwest of Joeuf.
We crossed the lines at Verdun
Where the ground was soaked blood,
The Archie was pounding up at us
And burst with a hollow thud.
Thru a screen of shrapnel we flew,
Led by a man who’d of’t been before;
Who had gone thru many of such
and who lived to go thru more.
Over the objective the Squadron sailed
And the signal to bomb was given,
Straight to their mark, like a leaden dart,
Our heavy bomb were driven.
I saw them light in the yards of Conflans,
Saw a train fly to bits by their crash,
It was the troops, artillery and supplies
Of the enemy we had to smash.
Then the guns from the ground ceased firing,
And the shrapnel ceased to burst;
We were alone with the moan of our engines
I knew mine was doing her worst.
Pard and I was flying the position
Of end on the wing to the right;
The easiest machine to attack,
In case of an aerial fight.
Then out of the sun on our left
Dropped thirty German Chasse;
Straight into our flanks they drove at us
Attacking in a mass.
Oh! where was the American Chasse!
To help us against these numbers;
South of our lines, of course
Peacefully resting in slumbers.
The squadron that came against us
All fliers, knew to be bad;
They were the remnants of the old Ritchthoffen,
The best the Germans had.
The first to fall of our number,
Was one in the left of the flank;
The machine behind gave throttle,
And moved forward to fill the blank.
The next to go was a German,
Who pitched forward into flame;
And it wasn’t from the wreck of that machine
That they found its pilot’t name.
Then on to us drove three black streaks
In desperate hot pursuit;
The dash was splintered, the fabric split,
My God! how they could shoot!
And here the sadness of it begins,
As i tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.
Harold Sayre was a man of men,
Proud was I that he should be;
The man that handled the guns,
That protected the aft of we.
He was shot and fell against the tarrel,
And held by the belt around him;
For after protection I knew I had none
and I felt so helpless without him.
Then close up they came,
For they knew I was defenseless;
With throttle open I tried to run
For I know that I was helpless.
I was getting away while around me flew,
The tracers in all directions
They shot the dial, they ripped the wings
Sure they shot me up to perfection!
The belt that held poor Pard was shot,
It broke and let him fall;
On to the controls, I felt them jamb,
And I knew that that was all.
The right wing dropped into a slip
The machine then started to spin;
Three followed us down still shooting,
Just trying to do us in.
With only a little rudder control
And just a little stick;
I got the old bus out of the shot,
And managed to turn the trick.
To try to land upon the ground,
Would be certain death for us both;
I had hopes of Pard still living,
Then I saw blood come from his mouth.
A forest then was our only chance
To it we had to make it;
So toward that I worked our way,
And smashed headlong down through it.
The wings stayed high in the tree-tops,
We came to rests three feet from the dirt;
Then I yelled to Pard who was silent,
“Oh Pard! How bad are you hurt”.
My belt was quickly unfastened
Over the wreckage I made a leap;
And there in a sickening looking pile
Lay Pard, “lifeless”, in a heap.
Then to get him out of the wreck,
Was a thing I had to do;
I lifted and pulled and tugged,
Until I exhausted grew.
But finally I got him out of the wreck,
And by him on the ground I knelt;
There alone with him in those woods,
Only God knows how I felt.
He was the closest friend I ever had,
A model of his kind;
Healthy and strong in his body
Clean and straight in his mind.
A soldier in his “teens” had found us
And his feelings seemed to be deep;
When he saw how close I was,
On the verge of beginning to weep.
A tree stood near Pard’s head,
And there I carved into its bark,
His rank, his name, a cross and then,
The date beneath his mark.
I am not a “goodie” fellow
No one likes a “Man” like I;
Some say it is only women
Who pray, and weep, and cry.
But there in that Loney timber,
In range of the Mighty Gun;
I prayed to the Heavenly Guardian
For the sake of someone’s son.
How my own flesh wounds are almost well,
And soon will be no more;
But the wound in my heart will never heal
For it reaches to the very core.
As I sit here now, alone in my cell
My eyes dim till it is hard to see;
Remembering the look on his pitiful face,
When he looked up at me.
Strange things happen in peace or war,
To this we’ll all agree;
Oh God! if one of us had to go,
Then Lord why wasn’t it me.
But now you have chosen me to stay
In this land of joy and trouble;
Let me live and raise a boy to be,
A “Harold Sayre’s” double.
LIEUT. HORACE SHIDLER,
U.S. Air Service,
Returned Prisoner of War.