It is June 1917. World War One has been bleeding Europe to the marrow for three years and ten months.
The United States Marines land in France at St. Nazaire on the River Loire. They are the first American troops to enter the war since it had been declared on the Central Powers ( Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey) on April 6, 1917. They come from Marine bases all over the world; they have come from the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti and as far away as China. They have chased Chinese warlords and bandits; fought insurrection in the Philippines, Cuba and Nicaragua. They have been formed into the vastly understrength 5th Regiment of the 4th Brigade of the combined Army and Marine 2nd Division of the United States Expeditionary Force.
Squad Sergeant Fallon Killrain, the only child of Brennan Killrain and Theresa Fallon, who died in childbirth, stands at the head of the 3rd platoon of the 17th Company of the 2nd Battalion. Since there is no other sergeant in his platoon and no officer, he is the titular commander of the unit. His platoon is the third one to land in France. The 17th Company is commanded by Captain Robert Stoddard, his commanding officer in China. The eight men in his platoon, a platoon that should be filled by thirteen to eighteen Marines, had been all over China with him and the captain looking after U. S. interests. When they debark, they are met by “Vive L’Americain” and “Thank God you’ve arrived.”
They encamp just outside of St. Nazaire. They are bivouacked in a temporary camp, awaiting orders for their deployment. The rumor that they will train with France’s best combat unit, The Chasseurs Alpins-elite French mountain troops-in Gondracourt. It is a rumor which becomes reality, and they entrain for the town situated just below the Vosges Mountains, in the southeast of France.
Fallon’s company is stationed at the town of Houdelaincourt where they begin training with the Chasseur Alpins in preparation for the trenches. The Chasseur are impressed with the Marine discipline and especially impressed with their ability to shoot; they are all sharpshooters and expert marksmen and very proficient with the bayonet. Their relationship with the Chasseur Alpins is very cordial and mutually respectful as professional soldiers. The 17th Company’s training consists of most things that the Marines had done many times before in their constant striving for perfection. They train in attack and defense of the trench system, one of the few things for which they hadn’t trained; they are told about trench raids and the best way to conduct them; they are told about poison gas, another thing they weren’t familiar with. Everything about attack and defense, most of which they already knew, is the crux of their training.
In the interim, before their deployment, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wants the Marines to assist military stability as military police and he also want’s to use them as communication troops. Captain Stoddard orders Sgt. Killrain and Cpl. Dicky White, another China Marine, and now MPs, to go to Paris and transport a recalcitrant former 1st. Sgt. in the Philippines, Pvt. Damond Brace, whom Stoddard knows from a previous deployment, back to St. Nazaire. He’s been accused of slapping a girl and getting drunk in a Bistro called the Black Owl. He is currently in the neighborhood Gendarmerie on the Rue Caumartin in the Montparnasse section of Paris.
When they escort Private Brace back to Houdelaincourt, he claims he never hit the girl. The French gendarme, Gilles Bracaud, formerly of the French Army and wounded at Verdun, confirms Brace’s innocence. When they return, Captain Stoddard sees to it that Brace is transferred to his company, to keep an eye on him.
Capt. Stoddard and his second, Second Lt. Stephan St. James, have been ordered to observe the combined British and Canadian attack on the German strong point at Passchendael-the Third Battle of Ypres-being waged in Flanders, Belgium. But, before he leaves, he talks to Fallon Killrain about the tools of the past can be used to fight a war of the present. He spells out his idea of using the Sharps Buffalo Rifle against the Germans at long range-the Sharps Buffalo Rifle, which was an essential weapon in vanquishing the Native American Tribes on the plains-has an accurate shooting range of 800-1,200 yards. The captain has met Fallon’s father, Brennan Killrain, who is the shadow behind the shadow of power in New York City, indeed, New York State. Robert Stoddard had met Fallon’s father at a banquet thrown by then Mayor George B.McClellan while he was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before his posting to the Caribbean, South America, the Philippines and China.
Fallon writes his father, mentioning the captain’s request for the Sharps Rifles. When he writes to his father, he always writes separate letters to his stepmother Elizabeth, whom he cares for greatly, and his two brothers and both of his sisters,keeping in touch with a normalcy that helps him step aside from his growing affinity for the violence around him: He has come to like killing and violence, recognizing that crooked face, darkly painted and staring back at him in his psychological mirror. He had seen that face when they were chasing warlords in China. He and Dicky White are given leave and immediately head for Paris.
When Sgt. Fallon Killrain and Sgt. White arrive in Paris, they open the door to their room in the Hotel Belgrade, a cheap, Socialist hotel, and head for the Black Owl Bistro.
The Black Owl Bistro is, at the same time, expansive and intimate; garrulous and quiet; where music is played by the Black Owl’s trio and where jazz is introduced to Europe by Lt. Noble Sissle, a member of the 390th Battalion, the “Harlem Hellfighters”, a unit of black soldiers attached to the French Army because the United States doesn’t allow black soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers. It is the place where Anouk Gabrielle Plessé works; a place where someone like Nguyen Tat Than (Ho Chi Minh) comes to talk and relax after his baker’s job ends for the night.
And Anouk Gabrielle Plessé begins to shine a the light into Sgt. Fallon Killrain’s dark places. Anouk is a former member of the Ballet Russe, and now a fine artist; an experimenter with colors. Her work sells moderately well and she is pleased. She loves her job at the “Owl” and when she sees the two American Marines walk in, her eyes widen at the taller of the two and picks him out.
The Black Owl is a place that is a nexus for artists, renderers, sailors, pimps, thugs, sailors, and now American Marines; a place for the famous and the unknown. The Black Owl Bistro is a crossroads station in a world of cataclysm; a place, once entered, it’s never forgotten and always presenting those who enter with an invitation to an interesting night.
Soon after the sergeants return to Houdelaincourt, they learn that they are being deployed to the trenches. The Fourth Brigade replaces a British division which has been transferred to help the offensive at Ypres.
On a trench raid, sent to get a prisoner, preferably two, Fallon gets his first kills...and he is introduced again to the eroticism of killing; thinking about it as he often has, questioning why it’s so pleasurable. When they get back to their line of trenchline, everyone is pleased, even the visitor from their British neighbors on their left flank, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The visitor is a former commander of the British battalion, one Winston Churchill, who has wandered over from a visit to his former battalion wanting to see how his American cousins are doing. He’s is very pleased with the way they have conducted themselves, offering the raiders his flask, and walks back to his beloved Fusiliers very much encouraged.
Because of their skill with the Sharps Buffalo Rifles, Sgt. Killrain’s 3rd platoon is sent to Ypres to assist the Canadian Princess Patricia Battalion in the assault against the Germans at Passchendaele. Their actions with the Sharps against German machine gun positions enable the Canadian attack to succeed. One of their number, Corpsman Franco DeBerio wins the Canadian Military Medal for his actions in saving and ministering to the Canadian wounded during the fight.
After another leave spent with Anouk and at the Black Owl, the Regiment is sent back to their trenches.
Just after the German Spring offensive begins, the Marines attack the German trenchline opposite them and during the assault there is a gas attack. Many men have forgotten to put on their gas masks. Fallon begins running from man to man,helping them with their masks forgetting about his own. He doesn’t get his mask on in time and he is blinded by the mustard gas. He is terrified. He stumbles over bodies, calling out, struggling to get on his feet.
Fallon is taken to the hospital, bandages over his eyes, holding onto arms of men he cannot see. Anouk comes to see him. And just the sound of her voice is a healing thing. And he begins to recover his sight, not knowing what it’s done to his lungs; a slithering question mark now embedded in his brain. He is nominated to receive the Navy Cross for his actions at the German trenchline. And he is beginning to see again. He is finally released after his convalescence and sent back to his 5th Regiment at Chateau Thierry.
The German offensive continues. Paris is the objective. Take Paris; negotiate; capture all they can while they can. But the Fifth answers each German move with one of their own.
And they halt the advancing Germans on the Paris-Metz Road. And they continue to hold in assault after assault. The Germans come at the Marines near Les Mares Farm, coming fast at the double but stopped by withering fire from the Marine Springfields. And the Germans begin to retreat. There will be triumphant staring up at the Eiffle Tower for the Germans. They stop the German last serious threat of WW1 fifty miles from Paris.
And the Marines chase them into Belleau Wood; twenty-four days of viciousness; they chase them to the Soissons-Chateau Thierry Highway at the Marne River and break them again. At St. Mihiel Fallon sees more of his men go down; men he had come to France with; men who take little pieces of him with them when they die. He wonders if his heart will always be embedded with pieces of them. And then the Inflluenza Pandemic begins to take its toll. And many Allied soldiers, especially the wounded become infected and die-”sick in the morning, dead by night.”
They break the Germans again and push them until they are in full retreat. And the rumors start about an Armistice and then it becomes a reality. General John Pershing is against the Armistice. He believes that unless the Allies bring the Germans to their knees, they will have to come back and do it again. Fourteen thousand Americans are killed in the last week of the war. On November 11, 1918 the Armistice is signed. Fighting will cease at precisely 11am. But many still fight; there are three thousand American casualties on the last day of the war. Some of them are close to Fallon.
Fallon arranges for Anouk to follow him a week after his departure in February, 1919. She will meet his family. And his desire to reenlist fades. And he thinks of that dark character; will it, too, fade?