For Harold Camp, a young man not yet 21, the First World War presented a profusion of sights and polyglot sounds, and the moments of violence and power that marked the world's first brush with fully modern warfare. Kamp reported for duty in San Francisco in October, 1917, and was sent into whirlwind training at Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., and Camp Mills, Long Island. By New Year's day, 1918, he was aboard the S.S. Lapland bound for France, enduring a journey made tense by submarines and rumors.
As a sergeant in the 146th Field Artillery (66th Field Artillery Brigade), Kamp passed quickly through England and touched French soil at a British rest camp near Havre, where the full spectrum of world war greeted him. Wending his way through an "endless numbers of soldiers from the States, British 'Tommies,' Canadians, Scotch 'Ladies from Hell,' Australians, and blue-coated French troopers" (January 13, 1918), Kamp boarded a train bearing a sign reading "40 hommes, ou 8 cheveaux" as a British soldier looking on chimed in "A jolly old war, isn't it?" The regiment debarked at Camp de Souge, near Bordeaux, to begin training in concert with French artillery units, but Kamp was sidelined almost immediately, following the surgical removal of a papilloma from his foot. After over a month of frustration and boredom in hospital, Kamp returned to Camp de Souge to find that the chaos of war, even far from the front, had not abated. On March 18, American soldiers were called out to quell a race riot that had erupted between Malagasy soldiers and Chinese from Indo-China. "How strange it is," he wondered, "that two peoples, fighting under one flag, against the common enemy, should be up in arms against each other, striving to their utmost to destroy their friend and ally. But after all the bestial trait in human character is always asserted for evil" (1918 March 18).
Dodging through the Midi during the late spring, the 66th Field Artillery Brigade continued to train in a succession of towns in Puy de Dome. Kamp was assigned to learn the ins and outs of signal detail and telephone guard, and was still mastering the basics when they were finally sent forward, taking part in the occupation of the Chateau Thierry sector on July 9-14. For Kamp, the front presented a surreal spectacle of violence, noise, and light. "Last night," he wrote, "it seemed that the front must have been as day. Light flares were thrown up incessantly. A continual roar of the guns made it exceedingly realistic." His battery fired its first rounds on July 12th, and sustained its first gas attack on the 14th, while Kamp and his comrades crouched "like animals of the forest, always in the shelter of the trees and dugouts." Attached to the 1st Army Corps over the next month, they were almost continuously engaged in the Champagne-Marne (July 15-18) and Aisne-Marne offensives (July 18-August 6). The 146th Field Artillery had the unusual experience of participating in a 30 km advance of the lines on July 22, passing through Belleau Woods, littered with unburied dead. "The stench of decaying human flesh and animals is repulsive," he wrote, aware that artillery units were seldom exposed to such scenes. "I saw German machine gunners chained to their guns, dieing with fear portrayed on their faces." But while buffered from some of the worst horrors of the war, the artillery was not immune from its psychological reach:
The feeling of having shells burst near one is decidedly uncanny, for without the slightest warning the humming sound of the shell as it passes through space seems only a short space away. Where will it land? One gasps, the explosion is heard and as you turn you see smoke and debris in the air a distance of fifty feet to the rear. What a sigh of relief and bewilderment is uttered when it is over -- but what of the next? One doesn't fear them only the suspense of waiting is a trifle hard on the nerves.
Posted in the Vesle Sector from August 7-12, Kamp enjoyed a brief period of calm along the front -- interrupted by a peripheral role at the Battle of Amiens (beginning August 8) -- before being moved to the rear and reassigned to the artillery of the First Army in positions near Sommedieu, 70 kilometers east of Chateau Thierry. There Kamp waited out the nerve wracking build-up to the "big push" on the St. Mihiel salient, watching infantry, cavalry, and light artillery pore into the sector and gun crews cutting down trees to prepare sight lines. His transfer from the signal section to headquarters may have given him a better perspective of the preparations. The American assault on the salient commenced September 13, with the 146th supporting Fifth Corps (A.E.F.), resulting in the capture of 150 square miles of territory (according the Kamp) and the capture of 18,000 prisoners of war. Their objective achieved, the headquarters of the 66th was withdrawn 20 kilometers to the rear on the 16th to prepare for yet another offensive.
Sent forward again for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 66th Artillery Brigade continued as part of the artillery of the First Army. Fighting during this last great offensive of the war was, at times, as intense as any involving American troops. Witnessing war in its grandest scale, with snarls of airplanes fighting, diving, strafing, and bombing, and heavy artillery duels blasting away night and day, Kamp could hardly translate the scene onto paper:
Shells, more shells. Now a long minute passes. Now one is aimed high, now, one to the left. They are breaking in the air. Timed shots. The town, only a reminder, is (shelling) shelled continuously. The village had corroded and shrunk and flattened; it had lost all depth and perspective; it was exactly like stage scenery, a cardboard representation of some great catastrophe.
A decrease in the intensity of fire on October 14, allowed Kamp to evaluate the devastation surrounding him, human and otherwise. "Hundreds of men," he wrote, "were rounded up in this neighborhood who had fallen back without permission, were cases of cowardice. Some who deserted were found as far back as ten miles. I, myself, have seen those who had lived in dugouts for days, too frightened to come out of their hiding for food or drink" (1918 October 14). Yet despite this experience, on October 27 Kamp requested assignment to gun no. 2 of his battery, clerical work having become "very tiresome." In his mind, gun no. 2 was far from tiresome; it had already fired 2,967 shells, and the battery of four 11,980. Kamp remained with gun no. 2 until the armistice on November 11.
The 146th Field Artillery passed into the Third Army during the occupation, and were assigned to duty near Koblenz. Paralleling the situation on his arrival in France, however, Kamp found himself in hospital, rather than in the ranks, having contracted influenza near the time of his birthday on December 22. His division was withdrawn at the end of February and on March 2, he registered at the University of Grenoble.