What is the secret of being a hero? This was the question asked of one of the most noted heroes of World War I in 1928. Daniel Edwards thought a moment and replied, “When you get the proper combination of courage and of fear – and more fear than courage – you have . . . It.” The Texas native and later Arkansas resident had a colorful life. While some parts of his life are hard to verify, his record of gallantry in World War I was well-documented and made him into a celebrity. Whatever else his life might have been, when lives were on the line, Edwards did whatever it took to save others.
In April 1897, according to family and army records, Daniel Richmond Edwards was born in the tiny farming community of Mooreville, just south of Waco, Texas. Some sources, however, claim his birth date as 1888.
His mother died when he was very young. He was wild and undirected as a youth by his own admission. Bored with school, he dropped out after the eighth grade and went to work on his brother’s ranch further west in Coleman County.
Edwards drifted from one adventure to the next and was reported as a man who enjoyed life. Many details of his life are difficult to verify, as his own tall tales often conflicted with one another. He alternately claimed to have worked in a bar in New Orleans or fought with Pancho Villa in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and even serving with the army in the Philippines or with the 1914 American occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, though the army had no records of his service in those days. His gifts as a storyteller, however, so charmed his audiences that they scarcely minded the occasional truth stretched out of shape.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he was not far from his hometown and quickly enlisted in the army in nearby Bruceville. He served in the First Infantry Division, but his service record was spotty. He had attained the rank of sergeant twice but was demoted due to a number of incidents while drunk.
While American troops arrived in France, they continued training while preparing to enter combat later in 1917. Not long afterward, Edwards found himself in bitter fighting. In October, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France, one of their highest honors, for his actions helping a French unit. A month later, he was with another French infantry unit that came under heavy artillery fire from the Germans. One French soldier was blinded by an exploding shell and was caught in the open. Edwards jumped out of the trenches and pulled the man to safety. The grateful French awarded him the Medaille Militaire.
In late May 1918, his unit was attacked by the German army near the French village of Cantigny. His unit fell back, but Edwards and three others stayed to protect the others while they found safety. He single-handedly carried an 80-pound machine gun over his shoulder, fighting off the Germans. The four were in a chaotic mess of machine gun fire and flamethrowers, and the other three died. Edwards found himself alone fighting German bayonets, which pierced his wrists and stomach while he fired away.
Bloodied and in searing pain, he continued to fire at the Germans, refusing to be pulled out himself until his unit was safe and relieved by a fresh company of American troops later that night. He was taken to the nearest hospital to recover and was awarded the Silver Star for his gallantry that day. In 1923, some years after the war, the army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for his service at Cantigny.
Ultimately, Edwards became one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I. He spent the next six weeks in a field hospital near the front lines. His wounds were severe enough that he was on his way back to the United States. On July 18, an increasingly desperate German Army launched a withering attack on his unit. Seeing his friends fighting desperate battle, Edwards pulled himself out of his hospital bed and stepped onto the battlefield. His actions that day would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. For years afterward, Edwards modestly deflected the attention from his actions. “It is all a matter of self-preservation,” he said
Kenneth Bridges is a professor of history at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado.