The last sound heard by many a soldier echoes across the land when fireworks explode on Independence Day.
It’s the sound Cottonwood native Julius Holthaus heard when he met death in a foreign land. One of 98 Idaho County men sent to World War I in 1918, Holthaus didn’t win any medals and he never came home. Four months after his family bid him goodbye, he was killed in a French forest, the victim of a gun nicknamed “the devil’s paintbrush.”
For Clyde Cremer, Holthaus’ untold and scarcely remembered life is one of the most telling stories of World War I. He represented thousands of young, poorly trained men sent to Europe to face horrors never before encountered in war.
In 2004, Cremer visited the battlefields of Europe and sought out the grave of Holthaus, a distant cousin who was baptized in the same church as him in Iowa. Later, using GPS coordinates, Cremer located the exact spot in the nearby forest where Holthaus died. He discovered three, five-round clips of U.S. ammunition in the dirt that inspired him to dig deeper into the life of the Camas Prairie farmboy.
“This is about the little guy, not about the Medal of Honor winner. He was never trained to fire a shot,” says Cremer, 72, a U.S. Army veteran and retired forester who lives in Pueblo, Colo.
Over the next decade, Cremer combed through thousands of pages of documents and newspapers to detail Holthaus’ experience, from the Cottonwood Chronicle to the National Archives. He also drew from Holthaus’ letters home to his family and his diary, which was in his left breast pocket when he was shot through the heart. Cremer thought he would write a family genealogy but ended up self-publishing a book, “The Life and Times of a World War I Soldier, the Julius Holthaus Story.”
In 1914, the year World War I began, the Holthaus family moved from Iowa to Idaho. Their arrival was noted in the Cottonwood Chronicle.
Julius was the oldest son. His grandfather was a German immigrant. German-American families came under increasing suspicion as the war against Germany and the Central Powers progressed. German was no longer to be taught in schools or preached in church. The word sauerkraut was replaced with liberty cabbage and hamburger with Salisbury steak. Julius was fluent in German and had an account at the German State Bank in Cottonwood. As Cremer writes, “he was going to meet his grandfather’s German ancestors through the sights of a Model 1917 Enfield army rifle.”
In June 1918, the week Holthaus left for war, “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin” played in the local theater. During the changing of the reels a so-called “four-minute man” would address the audience about the war effort. Only positive things were said. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to cast the government or war effort in a negative light. One punishment included painting your barn red, white and blue.
The Cottonwood draftees, many dressed in their Sunday best, said goodbye to their families and boarded a train for Grangeville, where there was a huge street concert and dance in their honor. Lt. Gov. Ernest L. Parker came from Boise for the occasion. The next day the men went by train to Camp Lewis at American Lake, Wash. After a few weeks a train took them to another camp in California. From there they went to New York where the Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic, took them across the Atlantic — then nicknamed “periscope pond” because of menacing German submarines.
Most of Holthaus’ training was spent marching, saluting and digging trenches, says Cremer.
“His brother said, ‘he died so quickly. He went out there and died so quickly,’ ” Cremer says, recalling a conversation with Holthaus’ brother, Richard Holthaus, who was born in Cottonwood in 1914 and died in 2003.
“When replacements came in they weren’t street smart on the battlefield. Some had never fired a shot,” says Cremer.
Nor were they prepared for the new methods that quickly evolved during wartime to kill more men than ever. Tanks, machine guns, mustard gas and the portable flamethrower were all introduced during WWI.
Among Holthaus’ equipment was the latest gas mask with a filter of activated charcoal made from peach pits and coconut shells. Before the masks, soldiers would urinate in their handkerchiefs and hold them over their faces. Urine negated the effects of the mustard gas. Later, a special fine mesh tissue paper was invented, today known as Kleenex.
Holthaus never needed his gas mask. He died on his second day of combat in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The largest battle in the U.S. Army’s history is little known today. Holthaus was one of 558 U.S. soldiers who died every day of the 47-day battle, Cremer writes. He was 23, the average age of the dead.
According to an oral history, his family says his dog inexplicably howled the day he died. They learned of his death by telegram on Nov. 9, 1918. The war ended Nov. 11.
The telegram said Holthaus died Oct. 1, but Cremer’s research revealed he actually died Sept. 27, struck by a German bullet from a Maxim machine gun that men called “the Devil’s paintbrush.” The amount of shells fired in three hours during WWI exceeded all the artillery ammunition fired by the Union during the entire Civil War.
Unexploded shells and ammunition still litter the battlefields of Europe. Cremer believes the U.S. ammunition he found in the Argonne forest belonged to Holthaus.
“I get real irritated when I talk about World War I. No one knows about World War I,” Cremer says. “This is a way of remembering a person. … This is about the little guy. I think that’s important for the boys from Idaho County, for all the little guys who died.”
Cremer’s book is available online through iuniverse.com.