World War I veteran’s diary a legacy to his heirs
The diary that Joe Coughlin’s father kept sheds light on the physical and emotional pain soldiers dealt with fighting on the front lines of World War I.
Ambrose B. Coughlin grew up in La Crosse and enlisted in the Army as a young man when the war broke out. He was a machine gunner in the trenches between France and Germany during the final days, and was there when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918 – Armistice Day.
Ambrose’s son Joe and his wife, Elaine, have been Hudson residents since 1992, when they moved into their retirement home at the Wintergreen Apartments. The Coughlins came here to be near their daughter Jennifer Borup, as well as sons in the Twin Cities and Chippewa Falls.
Joe Coughlin, too, is a veteran. He was in the seminary at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Feeling an obligation to serve his country, Coughlin left the seminary and enlisted in the Navy. He ended up in flight school, and because of his skill and education, spent the war training Navy pilots at Corpus Christi, Texas.
Coughlin met Elaine at a USO club while in flight school at Ottumwa, Iowa.
“From what I understand, it was love at first sight,” says son-in-law John Borup, the retired director of the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Department.
The Coughlins have been married for 68 years. He’s 91 and she is 92.
A brother of Ambrose Coughlin ended up with his war diary. When the brother’s wife discovered it, she transcribed the scrawled handwriting onto typewritten pages (19 of them) and distributed them to Ambrose’s offspring including seven children and dozens of grandchildren.
Ambrose’s grandson and Joe (Joseph S.) Coughlin’s son -- also named Joe (Joseph V.) -- brought the diary to the attention of The Chippewa Herald, which reprinted parts of it in its Sunday edition. The younger Joe Coughlin served for 25 years as police chief for Chippewa Falls.
“I was pretty enthralled by it,” the younger Joe told The Chippewa Herald, recalling the first time he saw the diary. He’s read through it a number of times since then.
“You talk about the history of World War I and other things from that era and they’re not very personal,” he said. “But when you talk to someone who was there, or you read their account of it, it makes you appreciate what they must have went through.”
The soldiers lived in the trenches through all kinds of weather -- rain, cold and snow. They wore the same unwashed clothing for weeks on end and fell victim to pneumonia and influenza, as well as enemy bullets.
“It makes you appreciate what they did for our country,” the younger Joe said.
Ambrose’s son Joe of Hudson also served his country with distinction, according to his son-in-law John Borup.
His father-in-law is a humble person, Borup said, and would never stand up when a speaker called for veterans in an audience to be recognized. He felt that honor should only apply to soldiers who went into combat.
But Joe Coughlin was a bright young man who the Navy decided was more valuable to his country training pilots, Borup said. And he trained hundreds of them over the course of the war.
After his military service, Coughlin returned to Madison and became a police officer. He also went to graduate school and moved on to a job with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
That led to an offer to serve as the state of Iowa’s director of corrections. From Iowa, he went to Illinois, serving as director of juvenile corrections and then the entire department.
He ended his career as a corrections instructor at Southern Illinois University.
Coughlin was a longtime volunteer at Hudson Hospital after moving here.
“He’s quite a guy,” said his son-in-law. “He’s someone who would always serve his community in any way he could.”
Coughlin’s grandson -- yet another Joe (Joseph D.) -- is the band director at River Falls High School. His bands have won eight state marching championships.
Excerpts from Ambrose B. Coughlin’s World War I diary are reprinted below. Some paragraph breaks were added. Coughlin uses the abbreviation M.G. for machine guns and Inf for infantry. Bosche is the French word for Germans.
Ross Evavold, general manager/editor of The Chippewa Herald, contributed to this report.
Excerpts Ambrose B. Coughlin’s World War I diary
Advance all day in the deep woods and underbrush found C company ahead of the Inf — it was just dark. A narrow strip of cleared land separate them from the Bosche Inf who had fell back so far as their light artillery. Our men lay quiet in the brush -- they could hear the loud commands of the Bosche Officers ordering the artillery to retire.
Arouse! Arouse! Morning came we dare not fire a shot as the line on the R&L had not caught up to our line yet -- Germans would come out in the open look all around trying to find our lines.
One of them walked into the brush by our men — one of our men jumped on Him taking him prisoner — then they tried a little strategy by sending a dog over thinking the dog would give the alarm when he run into our men. Dog went right thru our lines — next thing they tried was a pig with a bell on — thinking our men would come from their unknown places to capture the pig — but this scheme also failed.
A few hours latter the line caught up — Mr Bosche received an artillery barrage and in short order Mr Bosche saw our lines jump up from the unknown. Dutch prisoners said our artillery was crazy and our Inf. was drunk. They didn’t think sober men could have the stomach to go up against the raking M.G. fire they put over. Our artillery they couldn’t figure out at all.
Entering at 4 oclock in morning beautiful day — Sun — followed woods coming to a clearing shells breaking a hundred yards to our left. Got in some holes along a little raise that run along the side of a road many American packs and rifles laid here wounded walking back one poor wounded guy helping along a fellow worse wounded than himself.
A Lieut went by with his steel Stetson flat as a pan cake don’t see how he escaped death. A machine gun was picking off men in the open. We moved up following covering of the woods passing lots of dead Huns little stream nearby full of them. Shacks in the woods nocked to pieces.
Finally reached our position. Machine guns picking off men in the open we kept to the edge of a scanty woods with some low brush skirting the edge — Germans two hundred yards in front of us. They saw us and shortly a heavy barrage started from the Huns, they sure let us have everything on hand — shrapnel machine guns — gas 8 (?) 1 pounders.
What a hell fell on us 2 men of our company laying 5 yards away from me got it — one lost a leg the other got home — I tried to dig in in the midst of a bunch of bushes. Who! They were coming fast. Gee! But I prayed as I never did before — couldn’t dig in too many stones so I moved to a little creek where there was a little protection of a bank couldn’t dig here.
Obrecht & Bert Jones were on top of the bank and succeeded in getting a hole to cover them so I laid just below them and picked stones out of the water piled these around me as shrapnell was flying everywhere clipping off top of the bushes 3 ft off the ground.
Shrapnell fell in my lap & every once in a while the old stones on my sides would stop a piece. Whang I thought that one exploded in my face of all the dirt lumps and stones that fell on us 8 hrs of this hit and miss stuff left a marked impression on me what a barrage was.
Ate beans that nite flavored with mustard gas — Dug implacements out in the open that nite for a counter attack had to pass back and forth over ground where two of our dead Yanks lay — Every time I walk over this ground in the dark was afraid I mite step on the poor fellows just imagined they were sleeping. All that day streams of wounded & dead poured by us. 2 p.m. Infantry went over the top — capt lieuts & many men killed by M.G.
The Original Armistice Day
Nov. 9th Saturday — Up early rolled packs and started to hike for the line — 8:30 a.m. stopped at De Muse, had supper of hard tack, salmon & coffee — resumed hiking at 5:30 p.m. Hiked 9 kilos to Haramont reaching there 3 a.m. slept two hours in a ruined horse barn & rolled out again at 5 a.m. Sunday Nov. 10th and again resumed the march at 8:30 a.m., hiked till noon stopped in valley waiting for food. Hungry & tired ate our reserve rations.
Crossed Muse River at 9:30 p.m. over Pontoon bridge, just as our kitchen & train reached Bridge a Bosche bombing plane came over and let three big ones off the rear tail board. He missed the bridge but the con-cushion rolled some of our wagons into the water — resumed marching — begin to meet wounded coming to the rear, Germans shelling a woods on our left.
We finally reached Reserve Positions — took cover behind a big stone Quarry. Germans began to shell road we just left. Made a fire and waited for orders. Our Inf. went over the top to move into front line. Dutch shelling at intervals on our Right, left & Rear. Were told to unroll our packs & make ourselves as warm as possible. Gen. Haan went by us on horse back. Great old General. Went to bed with a prayer that the end might soon be over.
Was woke up on the 11th of Nov. by the cold — so foggy couldn’t see more 10 meters — Runner came up from Hdq. Capt. Hill read message and then read it to us. Armistice will start at 11 p.m. No further orders to move. We let one great whoop and immediately the whole woods was one great voice, Old Glory was sent to the front line — bands played & indeed the fighting men were happy.
Our 64th Brigade was in the line - having went over the top the last time yesterday morning. A great valley lay just below us & plenty of German barracks were down there so after 11 p.m. we moved down to these billets and I found a good place for my four Corps & two Sgts and myself. This place was two German officers quarters, stove & bunks — what a luxury, and think of it, lights at night no bombing no shells coming over could Heaven be more. Shaved cleaned up & undressed for the first time in two months.
All officers and Sgts & Corps the Division were assembled and Gen Haan gave us his hearty thanks for the good work our Division had done thru out the war — said he had not a thing to say but what was in our favor. Then he said he had a little secret to tell us. This is it.
We are to have the honor of marching to the Rhine. As a special mark of our Distinctive work & Victories we were to wear an arrow on our left shoulders — this arrow with a line thru it, to indicate the way we left the German lines where ever we struck.