BERNARD F. BURCH
Musician 3d Class | Bandsman
The amount of ephemera related to touring France might indicate how Bernard Burch’s exploits with his comrades of the “Sight Seeing Sixth” coined the Division’s name, but the phrase came from no pleasurable experience. The nickname also holds irony for Burch as he rarely traveled away from his quiet home in Wadena, Minnesota – the second known occasion after his wartime tour being when, after great persuasion, he traveled to Washington D.C. for his only son’s wedding in 1963. That first occasion, which began in 1918, took him across France in a miserable, unending march chasing a battle that never came.
Almost a year after he registered for the draft, Bernie’s induction notice came on May 2, 1918 and after a fortnight he had passed through basic and joined G Company, 53d Infantry Regiment. He was an old infantryman among the young soldiers of the regiment, shown by his receding hair and glasses. Though he was only 29-years-old, the glasses paired with his peppery toothbrush moustache pushed him towards a grandfatherly appearance. At his age, he was indeed elderly for an infantryman and shortly before embarking for Europe, transferred to Headquarters Company to join the band as a snare drummer.
The Division’s departure in the beginning of July began a nearly three-month period of waiting to get to the front. They made it across the Atlantic, debarked in England, and crossed the English Channel on the night of July 22d. A month of training at Juzennecourt followed and finally, at the end of August came the long-anticipated day when they departed for the front.
After traveling all night, they arrived near the Alsace border by morning and settled at La Brasse where they soon met their first action. It was brief, against only one company of the 53d’s sister regiment, but enough to blood the Division before they were relieved in early October. As the weather chilled, they moved to the Argonne and detrained at Clermont. Due to a serious lack of animals and vehicles, the Division wondered if they were ever going to see anything more in the coming offensive.
Burch on the far right, standing, snare drum at his feet.
The entire Division was allotted only 1000 of the 3200 animals they needed. The amount covered their kitchens, water, ration and medical carts, but none for field or combat trains. Those thousand were convalescent remounts handed over from the French Army and one third of them perished over the next two weeks.
The regiment rose before dawn on November 1st to prepare for their march, only wait all day under the weight of full pack. They finally departed through the Siegfried Line in single file through over the narrow trails through the Argonne woods and surrounding hills. Only the column commander carries a map, through the battalion commanders at least knew the name of their town of destination. Where the woods gave way to what was once civilization, the troops saw only devastation left by prior years of fighting. By the third day, rain left them drenched and slogging through deep mud through which they dragged their machine gun carts and equipment by hand due to the lack of adequate transportation.
The long column halted near Buzancy and pitched a shelter camp where the troops built small fires along the road. They took the moment to cook, dry clothing and equipment and attempt to warm themselves, but their fires soon became little beacons for German aviation and searchlights. They targeted the bright pinpoints with little effect, but enough for the men to quickly extinguish their fires and return to their tents in chilly darkness.
They eventually reached Verdun nearly exhausted, soggy, and filthy, but largely the members of the Division were enthusiastic and ready to fight. Corps and Army commanders noted that the Division’s fortitude and spirit during the first eleven days of November required more discipline and soldierly determination than many engagements with the enemy. Such an engagement never materialized when the armistice took effect shortly after Burch arrived in Verdun.
The long war was at a close, but the long march was not over for Bernie. The regiment continued through the Verdun area through the next several days. On the 14th, they wore their new insignia for the first time – a red six-pointed star with an embroidered numeral ‘6’ to accompany their well-earned nickname of the “Sight Seeing Sixth.” Their last march to their final camp brought them to a ration dump where they eagerly raided the stores for their first rations in two days. Primitive baths were also made available and Bernie attempted to clean the filth and growing stink developed over the past weeks of rugged activity. His clothes and shoes were worn, clean drinking water had been scarce, and he was constantly cold in the damp late-autumn air with only an issue blanket. Some men were not so fortunate.
The next morning, they found life to improve dramatically. Though still sleeping in shell holes, Burch ate his first three hot meals during the day – the first time in twenty days such a service was provided. The rain and bitter cold continued each day, but with the use of proper roads and reliable kitchen service, the men were satisfied. They reached Cote d’Or on December 6th, ending their 36-day 339-mile hike across France.
With their combat tour at a conclusion, Burch and the regimental band continued to travel, but for entertainment. They were tasked with playing at hospitals, festivals and gatherings for displaced persons. He gladly left behind instruments of war for the snare drum and in the coming months, truly saw the beautiful country not ravaged by war. Lovely towns nestled in the mountains and cities that survived pummeling artillery preserved the culture of France and Germany. Bernie collected several tour guides and pamphlets from each location that served as a record of his vast travels from the end of 1918 into 1919.
Souvenir photographs, large fold out maps, postcards and thick booklets and of typed French for Cauterets, Castelnaudary and Brest, and sheet music with a poster-like cover for Quand Madelon illustrate his vast journey from the Spanish border back around northern France across through Verdun and Alsace-Lorraine. Into Germany he visited Coblenz where he took notes in pencil at the Rhein Museum and a long map tracing the course of the Rhine from Cologne to Mainz. In those days, as spring began to touch the war-ravaged countries and melt away the chill of winter, the idyllic vision of ‘Sight Seeing Sixth’ came to fruition as Bernie experienced the most he could of Europe before returning home in June 1919. Most Doughboys would never see these lovely areas outside of the Western Front, whether they simply sailed home after months in the trenches or stayed with the occupation forces to clean up in the Hun’s wake, but for the year he was overseas, Bernie had the fortune of touring with the regimental band to such beautiful locations before settling back to a humble life in his comfortable, quiet home.
Russell, Christopher. The Gold Chevron: A History of the U.S. 53rd Infantry Regiment in World War I. Baritone Books, 2017.
Lloyd C. Parsons. Operations of the 54th Infantry, 6th Division in the Meuse Argonne Offensive. 1919.