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John W. Kress book One of the Last 'Rugged Individualists'
for the day. At 2 p.m. we formed for another march but remained in position until 5 p.m. when we moved out.
Men began early to fall by the wayside. Darkness soon came, but we plodded on, always hoping for a stopping place but never seeming to get to one. Finally, at 11 p.m., we arrived at the village of Recourt and were placed in an open field for the night. It did not take long for the tired and hungry men to fall asleep that night. They expected to have a long sleep the next morning, as they had had on the previous day.
All too soon their dreams were shattered by an insistent call to form up and prepare to move out. Only by quick action and omitting breakfast was the Company able to get into line by the designated time. It was evident that this day was to be a test of the best. About three o'clock men began giving up by the hundreds. They lay along the roadside as we passed, too exhausted to do more than lay on their backs as they fell.
We now came to a series of high hills, We had climbed to the top of one hill only to find another one before us. So it continued, all afternoon, until we reached the village of Fresnes. Half of the Regiment had fallen out along the road and many of the companies had separated and maintained paces of their own. At Fresnes we were cheered by the news that the next village, two miles ahead, was our stopping place. This was the village of Rupt, where we were placed in billets in an old French camp just outside the village.
Here at Poret de Hesse the Regiment attempted to regain control of its organization and to count the cost of the victory. Equipment and baggage were reclaimed from the dump. Reclaiming pack rolls was almost a free-for-all. First come, first served, some losing everything they had before they went into action, others coming out wealthy.
The cost to the Machine Gun Company had been severe. One officer and five men had given up their lives for the cause. Twenty-eight men were numbered among the wounded, about ten had been evacuated to the hospital on account of disease brought about by exposure and fatigue, one mule had been killed, the two horses on the rolling-kitchen - two fine big splendid blacks - had been killed, and the rolling-kitchen itself completely destroyed.
The Company had lost considerable stamina although there was a quiet grim, and determined air pervading all. The gaunt, ashen features of everyone portrayed the grim realities of war and some of the privations and sufferings of the past five days.
CHAPTER VIIIAt 5 pm on October 3rd the Regiment formed up for a night march, only to remain waiting in position until 9 p.m. before orders came to move out. The Machine Gun Company, as usual, was in the rear of the Regiment, followed by the 24 carts and the supply trams
It is difficult to conceive of worse torture than marching at night in the rear of a column of exhausted men. The head of the column will march along smoothly, but some careless man along the line will close up too much and then pause, throwing the man in the rear out of his step. This pause will be transmitted down the entire line, enlarging as it goes and throwing each man out of pace until, finally, it reaches the end of the column, which must stop for several seconds. This is repeated at regular intervals so that marching in the rear becomes a series of stops and starts and pauses.
Because of the worn-out condition of the men, the next few nights were exceptionally bad, and the march back to a new area away from the field of battle was one of the most trying this Company ever faced.
To show the desperate character of the move, and the lack of romance in some of the deeds of war, a platoon with fixed bayonets was placed in the rear of the column with orders to force all men, at the point of bayonet, to keep up with the column. This platoon operated with success for a few hours, but it was finally overwhelmed by the numbers who simply could not master the task before them.
We slowly plodded through the darkness, passing through the villages of Dombasle, Nixeville, and other smaller ones until we staggered into the village of Sennoncourt about 2 a.m. After much delay, we were placed in the woods nearby for the remainder of the night. Everyone slept late the next morning. About 11 a.m. one small meal was served, which comprised our breakfast, dinner, and supper
This trip back from the front is one that will long remain in the memories of those who made it. It is typical of those countless sacrifices demanded of the soldier and to which there is no glamor or glory attached.
The heat of battle is its own stimulus. One forgets countless privations and sufferings endured at such a time. But when one tramps and tramps along the winding roads of France with his own weight upon his back 'till he can tramp no more . and then gets up and tramps some more . then surely he learns the meaning of the word "sacrifice."
It was evident that our privations the past few days had taken something from us. We no longer had the strength to respond when things were demanded of us.
The need for vitality and endurance in the soldier was forcefully demonstrated. The only regret connected with the affair was that too often there was a display by those in control of a lack of plan and knowledge of what they were to do, entailing many unnecessary agonies on the part of those plodding along the roads. As I look back, I have no doubt that those few days' experience destroyed much of the faith and confidence of the men in their superiors. The soldier is quick to perceive any unnecessary or misdirected effort, and he knows where to place the blame.
This little camp up in the woods, which the Machine Gun Company occupied alone, we christened Camp Van Dusen in honor of our popular lieutenant who had been killed in action.
For six days we lay here, content to rest and pray for more days of rest to come. However, the American Army knew no rest these last few months of the war, and accordingly we received orders on the night of October llth to form up for a march at midnight.
It was with many regrets and forebodings that we said goodbye to Camp Van Dusen. Our stay there had been quiet and restful, with no excitement other than the visit of a German aeroplane which dropped interesting pamphlets from the sky.
We marched for a few hours. Then, just as the new day was breaking, we went to rest in the woods near Woimbey. To our surprise . and pleasure .. we remained there for two days. It was there that Captain Battles returned to the Company and our acting commander, Lieutenant Keeley, turned over to him the Company command on October 12th.
That night at 6 p.m. we formed again, and after a three hour march, we came to the village of Ambly where we were billetted in deserted dwellings. Our quarters here were very comfortable, for both the men and the animals, and we made the most of them. Two regiments of our division were now in the front lines holding what was called "the Troyon sector" while we were considered in reserve, waiting to relieve them. Our duties here were very light and the food was good. We were soon able to lay up a reserve of energy for coming events.
Late on the night of October 21 we received a sudden call to vacate our quarters and march to Mouilley to wait further orders. We arrived at Mouilley at midnight and were informed that we were there to repel an expected attack from the enemy. We lay on the hillside above a large cemetery of buried Poilus, waiting the balance of the night for an attack that never came.
About 10 a.m. we turned back and marched the six miles to Ambly. We again took up our vacated billets.or what was left of them. They had been looted by troops permanently situated at Ambly.
On October 23rd, our depleted ranks were increased by the arrival of 21 men who were brought in from a replacement camp. These new men were good and willing, although none of them had seen action. Because of their inexperience, we made them all rnule drivers and placed the regular drivers on duty with the guns. It was a considerable responsibility for these men, but they soon grasped the technique of the mule.
On the night of October 24th, we formed again and headed north. We knew at once from the direction of our march that we were in for more excitement. A few hours later we heard shells bursting in the distance. After three hours of march we came to the village of Sommedieu, where we were placed in billets. The next two days were spent in overhauling and inspecting equipment in preparation of the impending action. On the night of October 27th we were once more on the road marching north. After marching and counter-marching, we finally found a stretch of woods that would afford us a resting place. It was by then about 1:30 a.m.
We passed the day quietly enough, each one trying to secure a reserve of rest against the trying times that were ahead. Regulations again became strict as to movement during the day, and, on the approach of an aeroplane, everyone was forced to take cover. Our previous experience convinced us that we were on the eve of another action.
At dusk, we were again headed north, passing to the left of Verdun to a small place near Promerville. By midnight we were fairly comfortable and resting. As darkness fell the next evening we were on our way north, and soon we began to enter the devastated regions of a former "no man's land." The night was intensely dark and the roads were in very bad condition. The six hours exhausted both men and animals.
We rested during the early hours of the morning in Forges Wood, a forest captured from the Germans at the time of our first drive in September. Artillery of every calibre was pounding away on all sides of us, and enemy shells were occasionally bursting in the vicinity. Even this didn't prevent us from enjoying a hearty rest until late into the next morning.
We were all now aware that we were going into the front lines somewhere, but speculation was rife as to just where it would be. The line was directly to the north of us and also toward our right in the direction of Verdun. We lay in the bend of the line above Verdun. The woods and country gave every indication of the recent hard fighting in that vicinity and the wreckage of war lay about on all sides.
Should we go across the Meuse and take over the heights east of the river, we knew we were in for some hard action. The reports from this section showed very wicked fighting taking place there.
Early in the afternoon, Captain Battles and Lieutenants Colbert and Girard joined a reconnaisance party to locate our sector in the front lines. The following day we were ordered to stand by for a move under cover of darkness.
CHAPTER IXWe learned that we were to meet Captain Battles and the guides at Regneville, east of the Meuse river. From there we were to take over a sector in the very bend of the lines above Verdun, relieving the 29th and part of the 26th Divisions, both of whom had fought a long and sanguinary struggle under trying conditions.
We formed on the road in darkness and, because of some tangle ahead, we lay there for about three hours before moving. We were directly in front of several large, long-range cannon which were firing at frequent intervals into the German area about ten miles away. The night was very dark, and, as these tremendous blasts occurred, the force would almost throw one off his feet. The blinding flash made it practically impossible to see.
After about a three-hour wait, we began to move out slowly . turning to the left toward the village of Forges . taking what we thought was a short cut. We had gone some distance on this road when we found it in such a condition that a man could barely make his way through . much less could our two-wheeled carts. The carts were turned back to return to the road fork coming into the village of Forges from the west.
There really was no village existing there at the time; merely a mass of smashed timber and crushed stone. This village was perhaps one of the most completely destroyed of any we came across in the region of Verdun. Some wit, displaying characteristic American humor, had erected a sign on the crossroads near the town reading "This was Forges."
An open plot of ground just back of the first platoon sector showing 6 groups of graves or crosses in one picture. Men of four divisions lie beneath the crosses; the 33, 29, 26, and 79th Divisions.
The infantry took a trail to the left at Forges and crossed the Meuse valley. The Machine Gun Company took the road to the right in order to find a suitable cart trail. After a few miles walk, we came to the village of Regneville and halted. It was here we had instructions to meet our guide. After some delay, not finding anyone there to direct us, we moved to the village of Samogneux, crossing the Meuse river on a pontoon bridge. Here we met Captain Battles. In a few minutes discussion, we decided to camp in the vicinity until the next night. It was now too late to go to the front.
We moved the Company off the road into an open field near the Meuse canal and turned in. We were not here very long before shells began to fall around us. However, we were all too tired to pay much attention to them. At odd hours during the night, the Germans continued to throw over these shells, not so much for destructive effect as to keep us awake and guessing.
A picture of the German lines in Belleu Wood showing a large observing platform and the trenches below.
When morning came, we found ourselves in the midst of the regimental supply train, which had moved into the same field early that morning. Also in this area were located some of the kitchens of the 26th Division. We learned from them many important things relative to the sector we were going into. Reports also reached us of the relief made the night before by the infantry and of the bad luck they had had in getting into their sector. For some reason, the German artillery had opened up with destructive effect while they were moving in. This caused as many as 40 casualties in one company alone. All sorts of rumors were about. We were interested to learn that the valley up which we had travelled when making the relief was known as "Death Valley" and "Pershing's Graveyard."
At a consultation that morning, it was decided to send two platoons forward that night to make the relief; the first platoon under Lieutenant Keeley and the third under Lieutenant Girard. The second platoon would stay in reserve at Samogneux. The day was spent building a row of dugouts lining the canal bank to protect the train and the platoon in reserve.
That night the two platoons formed their carts and headed up Death Valley. It was very dark and therefore very difficult to keep connection along the line. The squads were ordered to maintain a considerable distance between carts so that if the artillery came down upon us, the casualties would be fewer. The darkness hid from us the wild character of the surrounding territory; it also made it the more difficult to traverse the shell-torn road. Now and then we passed a dark form, which a hasty glance disclosed as that of a dead horse or man. The road followed this narrow valley in and out among the steep hills. There was no other way to get to the front lines. The Germans were well aware of this, and at all hours of the day and night, at irregular intervals, they poured shells into the valley on the theory that once in awhile they would get something for their efforts. The appearance of the valley upheld this theory. The route was marked by the crosses of fresh graves, the bodies of men and horses that were not so fortunate in securing burial, smashed kettles, and even quantities of food dropped by some ration party . perhaps massacred in their attempt to get it to their fellows in the front lines.
About two miles up the valley, we came to the regimental dump, and the procession stopped and removed the fighting equipment from the carts. We had decided to carry the equipment forward from this point in order to avoid the chance destruction of our transport. If the Germans opened up, the carts would be completely unprotected, and they made so much noise they were liable to bring down the wrath of the German artillery. The carts started the return to the reserve camp at the canal while the men gathered their loads for the long pull to the front lines.
About 2 p.m. the platoons relieved the machine gunners of the 26th Division, who lost no time in making themselves scarce. Their promptness in parting gave every indication that this must be a warm spot. Fritz seemed to be everywhere. Every few minutes he would send up flares that would come in far behind our own lines and light up the vicinity for miles. Immediately, a machine gun would open up with a burst. Then there would be silence; but not for long . someone else would open with a bang at something. It took only a few minutes to show that Fritz was awake, on the job, and sticking pretty close to our own lines.
After what seemed an age of waiting, morning came and we were able to locate ourselves. We were in Belleu Wood, right out in the elbow of the bend in the line above Verdun. The Third Platoon was on the right of our sector with four guns in position, and the First Platoon was on the left with two guns in position and two lying by for support. The Captain had located his post of command on the reverse slope of the hill, at the edge of Death Valley. Belleu Wood .was a wild growth of heavy timber covering the crest and slopes of a high, rugged hill. The right platoon's line was an inverted V-sector on the crest of the hill with one gun on the end of the right wing of the V, one gun on the point of the V, and two guns along its left wing. Along the same line, with the guns, were eight posts of infantry garrisoned by two platoons of D Company of the 314th Regiment. The right fork of the V ended at the edge of the woods, where began a cleared slope which dropped rapidly away into the valley. A big gap occurred here, no garrisoned posts being established until a wooded point across the valley was reached. Here the 2nd Battalion of the 314th Regiment held a position. In the middle of _tl«forkso the V, about 20 yards back from the lines, was an abandoned dugout which was used as a post command and ration dump for the Third Platoon. The gun positions and the posts of the infantry consisted of a series of shell holes and foxholes which were not connected to each other but which were close enough to keep in touch and form a tight line to prevent the entrance of the enemy. Because of the heavy undergrowth and the descent of the slope, the field of fire of the guns, or the distance they could fire at any object, was not more than 20 yards.
Dugout in Belleu Wood used by the third platoon as a P. C. (Post Command) and ration dump by Lieut. Kress.
We held the crest of the hill, while down the slope, sometimes only 40 yards away, were the German lines, hidden by the thick underbrush. Due to the break in the surface of the ground, we could not fire directly at the Germans, but our fire would pass over their heads. Likewise, their fire passed just a few feet over us.
The First Platoon joined the left fork of the inverted V with one gun thrust forward in a commanding position, some distance beyond the infantry lines and the other set slightly to the left and rear where it filled the gap between the 314th and 315th Regiments, which held the left of the Division sector. The line here also consisted of the same series of shell holes, with two platoons of C Company of the 314th Regiment garrisoning the posts. Slightly back of this outpost line was a captured German trench which was used as a support trench. About 300 yards back from this trench was located the regimental support of two companies. They had entrenched there for protection from the heavy shellfire.
The morning of November 2 was a typical French morning of fog and drizzle. The light was sufficient, however, to show us the gory character of the surroundings. Before us we saw a real battlefield, and hundreds of stories of death struggle were portrayed by the muted dead lying about. Here lay a German, his arm drawn back and in his hand a grenade, caught at the critical moment by the messenger of death. There lay another with a flare pistol in his hand, crouched as if he were about to fire, even as a final bullet pierced his brain. There a machine gun, with a heap of burned cartridges and two bayoneted Germans beside it. A few paces away, several un-"buried doughboys payed silent tribute to the work of the machine gun. We could see a small hillock with a hastily entrenched position on one side, and then a like position on the other, showing that both sides had hastily entrenched on this spot as they fought and re-fought for it. All about lay the shattered bodies of American and German dead, torn and retorn by the constant fall of shells and mortars. Invesigation of the bodies showed them to belong to three divisions, the 26th, 29th, and 33rd. Some of them must have been lying there for weeks.
Immense craters opened up on all sides, spreading a layer of fresh sticky clay through the forest and making passage through it almost impossible. These craters must have been the result of the work of our heavy artillery, brought to bear on this hill some time before. Tree trunks three feet in diameter lay severed and shattered as though cut by some giant knife. Rifles, grenades, machine guns, clothing, and ammunition of both armies lay scattered about through every bush and shell hole. Rumor had it that the woods had been taken by Americans, then retaken by the Germans and again retaken by the Americans, who held it against attack after attack, even though the Germans launched five attacks against it in one day. The fury of their attacks had by now spent itself, and they merely clung to our line, content to leave things as they were.
A typical crater in Belleu Wood. One machine gun was mounted in this hole by the first platoon. Our orders on coming into the wood were to hold the position at all costs and to be prepared for an attack at any time. The position was strategically important because this was the last ridge to overcome before the Americans had entrance to a wide, level, valley through which the Germans were sending considerable traffic. The position of the Third Platoon was especially exposed. A determined attack launched along the left fork of the V could cut off the entire garrison from its support; their sole line of communication was along this left fork to the First Platoon. "Both sides -were active at a\\ times in the eiiort to locate some movement on the part of the enemy or to make a successful shot. There was an intermittent crash of small arms, particularly from the German side. Our men were taught always to retain their fire and to play the waiting game. Shooting at vague targets was a waste of precious ammunition, and also was liable to bring trouble. As long as we remained quiet and in concealment, the German did not know exactly where his enemy was. At times, this quietness on our part seemed to have put terror into the heart of Fritz for he would let loose with everything he had, as if he were about to launch an attack. The man who is the most frightened usually tries to make the most noise, to bolster up his wobbly feelings. All day long artillery fire passed over this crest, at a height that just cleared our heads, and burst in the valley back of us. Many of the trees in the area had been cut off about 20 feet above the ground by shells that had failed to clear them. At first, we tried to locate the direction the artillery fire came from, but it seemed to pass over from all directions, even from points we thought were in our own lines. Directly to our front and not far out, there seemed to be one particular battery that persisted day and night in its destruction. The German Minnenwerfers were one of the worst weapons we had to combat, and one against which we had no comeback. These weapons were similar to our trench mortars. They threw a destructive shell at high angles over their own troops into the enemy lines. Their approach was silent, and they exploded on contact with the ground so that there was little chance of escaping their fragments. The approach of an artillery shell often can be heard before it arrives, giving one a chance to escape some of the disastrous effects. Night in this inferno was a hideous nightmare. As soon as darkness approached, Fritz began to get nervous and to throw lights into our lines. Those famous flares of his would light up the landscape for a considerable distance, and the only way to escape detection by son;* sniper was to lie flat and quiet until the light was out, and then to make your move before the next light was up. The German machine guns persisted in a disconcerting habit of swinging through an arc while firing, producing a varying stacatto similar to beating on th« paling of a fence. Patrols would wander about in search of information, and usually would secure nothing more than additional she':-fire from the Germans. Ration parties also operated during the nigh'. attempting to get warm food to the men. Darkness and the constant shellfire usually made it an all-night job and several times completely frustrated the ration parties.
November 2 passed quietly enough, with all becoming hardened to their surroundings . if such a thing were possible! That night, for about an hour, the Germans cut loose with an exceptionally intense fusillade, but miraculously there were no casualties. Again and again, the men would watch the lessening of the German fury and give thanks to the Almighty. I doubt it there is a man w\vo went through the experience of those front lines who can say today that he does not know the meaning of prayer. It was things like this that made it come naturally.
About five o'clock on the morning of November 3rd, Lieutenant Girard was severely wounded by a shell which exploded in a shot-tered tree trunk. Lieutenant Kress, who was back at Samogneux with the reserve platoon, was sent for to take over the command of the Third Platoon. Sergeant Oberlander carried the message back through Death Valley and acted as guide for Lieutenant Kress, who arrived in the sector about noon. This same morning Corporal Smal-ley was killed at his post on the right flank gun, and Privates J. F. Woods, N. G. Terry, and W. Feury were wounded. This was a severe blow to the Third Platoon, among whom Corporal Smalley was very popular. The wounded men were gotten back to medical attention with great difficulty, and the Platoon became even more determined to make the Germans pay. That afternoon Corporal Smalley was buried where he fell, and a small symbol of Christian Hope placed over him. This was a great mark of honor to the Corporal, as other victims by the score lay about without the honor of formal burial.
There were no casualties this day although there was a remarkable escape recorded at the gun position on the point. Corporal McDowell held this post, and early that morning the enemy located his position and fired several trench mortar shells into the vicinty. They were so close that while the squad was getting its gun out and into a new position, Private Draper was thrown from his feet three successive times by the force of the explosions, yet he somehow escaped mutilation!
On the night of November 5, the Germans placed some shells into the vicinity of the Company post command, one of them landing on the bank of the trench protecting the headquarters platoon. When the smoke cleared away, a scene of destruction was disclosed. Corporal E. P. Gardner, one of the cheeriest and most willing men of the entire Company, lay dead; Sergeant W. J. Brown was terribly mutilated, but alive; and Corporal Dieck and Private Miller were injured. Captain Battles, Lieutenant Keeley, and several others close by escaped unharmed. Sergeant Brown was administered first aid and sent to the rear on a litter, up the long, perilous trail through Death Valley. As the litter was being borne up the valley, a shell exploding nearby claimed another of our men. Private Charles Dick was killed at his post while attempting to remove his comrade to safety, and Private H. Branson was so severely wounded that he later died in the hospital.
On the morning of the 6th, the infantry companies in the front lines were relieved by those in support, but the Machine Gun Company stayed on, doing double duty. We all felt that we now owed the Germans a score, and we were not ready to call it quits, no matter how much we would have liked to rest. It's debatable whether those in support got as much rest as we in the front lines. In our position we were so close to the German lines that they dared throw heavy shells into our area only during occasions of special stress, for fear that they would do more harm to their own men than to ours. Our back areas they could shell at all times and know that their own troops were not endangered.
However, in the front lines there was that constant menace of having Fritz land on you with something new and vile every moment of the day and night. The sight of a German would have been very welcomed; it would have given us something on which to vent our wrath. In warfare, as we found it, the rarest thing was to see a live Observation tree that stood between the lines when we came into the sector. This tree stood at the point of the V and six dead lay beneath it. The German lines were about 40 yards beyond the tree. enemy.
On the afternoon of this day the outpost gun of the First Platoon claimed to have accounted for eight Germans, so we felt that the score was being evened.
Our ranks were being thinned rapidly, and the toll of sick and casualties reduced the available number of men so much that it was found necessary to send for the first section of the Second Platoon. Private Shope, while carrying the message to the rear, was wounded while in Death Valley, but managed to get his message through, and the Section reported to the Company P.C. on the 6th of November.
Ration parties required a great number of men, for it was exceedingly difficult to get the rations to the front lines from the regimental dump, which was about two miles from the front lines. Casualties were very numerous, and sometimes whole parties were wiped out or were unable to get the food forward until the next day. The kitchen back near Samogneux prepared the meals, and, at about 5 p.m., sent the three meals for the next day forward by carts to the halfway point. Here the rations details from the front lines took over the load of containers and strings of bread and started overland. (The loaves of bread were strung on a wire in order to carry them easily.) One afternoon we succeeded in getting chocolate, cigarettes, and cigars into this wilderness, and it almost seemed civilized for a time.
On the night of November 7, things broke loose with a vengeance. For hours on end the shells rained over us into the valley to the rear. It seemed as if the Germans had been given the task of throwing over so many thousand shells, regardless of where they threw them, so long as they got them over. Their machine guns caught the spirit of the competition and were doing their best to outrival the artillery in the amount of lead put over. Dawn saw no cessation in the firing. About 8 p.m. things again returned to normal.
The. 315th Regiment on our left had for several days been attempting to push their line out to a point even with ours, and early this morning they had attacked with more success than usual. Toward 9 o'clock there came a lull in the firing from the left, which continued for some time. About 11 a.m. machine gun firing broke out all along the German lines. It was noted almost at once that it was a peculiar sort of firing; the kind that a good machine gunner never employs. Prom the firing one could tell that the gunner was placing the belt in the machine gun and running through the entire belt without removing his finger from the trigger. A machine gunner always fires in what are called "bursts." These may be from three to 30 rounds of steady firing, then a pause, followed by another burst of a like number of rounds. This strange firing from the German lines continued for some time, but gradually ceased at almost all points so that by noon the lines were absolutely quiet except for occasional artillery fire. This ceased about 3 p.m., and the unusual silence was noted at once, and a patrol sent out to ascertain what the enemy was up to. A few moments reconnaisance disclosed that the enemy had retired from our immediate front.
CHAPTER XPew of us will forget our relief following the realization that the enemy had retired from our front. We saw in it the fulfillment of a rumor, existing for the past few weeks, that the war was going to end. We could not fully grasp the idea that it would end like this. We remained in our positions, awaiting definite information that the Germans were not up to some of their tricks. We couldn't accustom ourselves to this almost unreal silence.
By six o'clock, however, we had learned that the war was not ended; we got orders to form up and advance at once. In a short time we were ready and in formation. Our Company was to support the First Battalion in its advance, and to follow a general direction almost due east. The companies formed up in narrow columns to facilitate passage through the heavy underbrush and difficult country.
Third Platoon moved out in support of Company D but advanced only a few yards. This position was held in a brisk rain, without advance, until midnight. Finding at last that they could make no progress that night, they returned to the vacated dugouts nearby and attempted to sleep through the early hours of the morning. The First Platoon, in the meantime, stood in the rain until light appeared to permit the troops to advance. About 6 a.m. the advance began. W!e proceeded in battle formation over wild, torn, hilly country which had formerly been held by the Boche. We had plenty of opportunity to witness the destructive effects of our fire on the German lines. A heavy mist lay over the land, turning at times to a drizzle, making the freshly torn earth a paste which stuck to our feet and made walking extremely difficult.
We advanced into the village of Crepion after making certain the Boche were all out of the place. We then advanced onto another high hill, directly ahead, and descended into the village of Moirey. Here the line of attack was changed slightly, and the troops formed to swing their attack toward Hill 328, a long sloping hill directly ahead, partly visible through the fog.
This hill, with several ranged beside it, formed a natural line of resistance for the Germans, and, from where we were, it gave every indication of being heavily fortified. Patrols were sent out to probe the German resistance. After they had advanced some distance, these drew enemy fire. The Third Platoon was first into action with two guns firing in answer to the smoke clouds rising from the German trenches. The First Platoon followed immediately with two more guns. Two one-pounders cannon then came up from the rear and went into action, although by this time the machine guns appeared to have silenced the German fire.
Orders came for the infantry to advance on the hill. By this time the Machine Gun Company had six guns in action, and under cover of this fire, the infantry moved out to the attack. The enemy artillery had become active and scattered shells through the ranks. Despite this withering fire, the infantry never faltered in its attack.
There now occurred an act of colossal stupidity on the part of the infantry that brought great sorrow to the Machine Gun Company. As the rear of the attacking elements were moving through our guns,
The German lines directly in the path of the Machine Gun Company, on the morning of the Armistice. This picture shows the spot where the attack ceased and the system of trenches to the front. a cry arose that the Germans were attacking our rear. A clatter of small arms and grenade firing was heard in the rear, and then it suddenly ceased. The infantry, appearing to have handled the situation to its satisfaction, moved out to the attack.
Some of the machine gunners had watched the target of this fusillade on the hillside above us. This target now appeared as a still, dark form in the tall grass. They investigated, and were horrified to find the body of Captain Battles there before them. When the report was brought to the Company, we refused to believe it. However, a personal investigation by Lieutenant Keeley and me confirmed it.
To this day, it is a mystery why the infantry fired on Captain Battles. It is thought that the long green slicker he wore for protection from the rain made him resemble a German soldier and caused someone to open fire on him. It was thought at first that a second person had been killed with the Captain, but investigation disclosed that he had been walking alone down the hill, having shortly before left the Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, convinced that he was off his sector.
The Machine Gun Company had borne its share of the burden thus far, and now to have this added blow was a severe shock to them. They felt heavily the loss of the man who had shepherded them to war and had led them to his own death. Amid a sound of cannon and falling shell, a burial detail placed him to rest on the spot where he fell.
Lieutenant Keeley took command and worked to reorganize the Company and encourage the men. We prepared to move forward to a new position, to consolidate with the infantry, when word was brought that the Regiment would cease the attack immediately and fall back across the valley to Moirey to await further orders there. The German artillery now began to open up, and since they had good observation, they did some very effective work.
A small, but vicious, aeroplane constantly hummed about our ears and succeeded in scoring a few hits. The aviator was very daring and often darted down to within 20 or 30 yards of our heads.
The return of the Regiment across this artillery-swept ground was a costly, and entirely uncalled-for, maneuver. It was done in the face of increasingly heavy shellfire, but the Machine Gun Company managed to get back to the hills behind Moirey without further mishap.
Considerable confusion prevailed, and, as dark was coming on, it was decided to place the Company in a long, narrow trench for protection against the constant shellfire, which continued throughout the night with a varying degree of success.
After a restless night in the cold, one of the coldest nights we had seen thus far, the Regiment formed at dawn to re-attack Hill 328 across the valley. Our artillery had come into position during the night, and now, under cover of the fire from our Company, one company of the 311th Machine Gun Battalion, and the artillery, the in- fantry moved forward and stormed the hill.
The Germans, having learned the purpose of our attack the day before, were well prepared to meet it. In spite of their resistance, we took the hill by frontal attack and drove them some distance along the top of the ridge of 328. Once the crest was gained, we found ourselves exposed to a withering converging fire on a bare, flat, top and further progress was almost impossible without more heavy loss of life. We therefore began to dig in on the slope away from the Germans.
While we lay there, we had ample opportunity to witness the skill of the German artillery in placing its shots on this reverse slope in almost any spot they chose. This skill gained the respect and, naturally, the condemnation of all who got within miles of the front lines at any time. There seemed to be absolutely no protected spot on the side of this hill, even though it stood between ourselves and the Germans. A stretcher party of four men, while passing below us, was hit directly by one of those shells. The patient disappeared, and the four bearers were thrown in all directions . two of them to be borne to the hospital themselves, while a third bounded to his feet and made off down the hill.
About 3 p.m. one of those welcome, "often heard of but rarely seen" ration parties came up to us, loaded with the "Soldier's Delight" . corn willie and biscuit . and we really did it justice.
At 4 p.m., just as we were preparing for a night's rest, orders came to attack in half an hour. We had barely time to gulp down our food before we were over-and-after the Boche again. Our attack was preceded by a light barrage, put down about ten minutes before the hour. The attack was a complete surprise to the Germans. According to all tradition, we should have remained here 'till morning before starting another attack, but here we were, starting after them just as darkness was coming on. This was consistent with outspoken German opinion of us, which was that we didn't know how to make war because we did such foolish things.
The Machine Gun Company was divided into two platoons as the attack began. The First Platoon was placed on the right flank of the attacking infantry, and the Third Platoon on the left flank The Second Platoon was at this time on the way to the front with more ammunition. The Company was acting with the Second Battalion of 314th Infantry, supporting the First Battalion in front.
As the troops began to advance, word came that the machine gun company which had been ordered to support the attacking battalion had not shown up. We were hastily moved forward to take their place.
The two platoons came together from the flanks, and amidst a clatter of hurried shellfire and the sound of small arms, they set out across the top of the hill, with Hill 319 looming up in the moon-light across the valley.
Just as the Company was moving out, a small figure stepped to the front and asked to go along. He turned out to be a correspondent, Henry Whitaker, aged 52, of San Francisco, who wanted to see the "real thing." Our path led us down through a valley and across a number of barbed wire lines and trenches, all vacated by the Germans as we advanced. We took several machine guns, which were still hot from firing. This, and the amount of abandoned equipment and clothing, showed the haste with which the Germans had retreated. Several times we encountered terrific shellfire which caused us to lie down for safety. Some of these shells were just skimming over the surface of the hill and along the slope, striking back into the valley we had just traversed. It seemed as if we could smell the grass burning from the heat of the shells passing through it. With remarkable success, we located the gaps in the thick wire and finally reached our objective, Hill 319. Here, we got in touch with the left flank of the infantry and placed our guns in position for a counter-attack. All night long we stood guard here, but Fritz seemed content to grant us the hill, amusing himself by throwing shells over at odd hours. It was during this breathing spell that correspondent Whitaker tried to pass us the news that the war would end on the morrow. No one took kindly to this, as we had all been fed up on it for the past month. To the soldier, there is only one kind of talk that counts the talk of guns, and they were speaking loud in those days. The day's operations had added a few casualties to our list. Corporal McDowell had received a severe wound from a machine gun bullet that afternoon and was removed to the dressing station. While the party of stretcher bearers was on its way back to the Company that night Private Francis Kelley was killed by a shell and Private James Smith was mortally wounded. Reports also came in that Private Lawrence Broderick had been injured. We had paid the price for our progress, and all mourned these losses. Dawn failed to reveal our position. A heavy fog lay over the land, and we could see only about 50 yards in any direction. We had no idea what lay ahead of us or around us, or where the Boche were. We were sure, however, that they were also in the dark about us, or there would have been more artillery! Orders came up for the continuation of the attack at 9:30 a.m. At this hour, we were to move out and attack Cote Romange, which was directly ahead. We formed in support of the Second Battalion. As we were getting out of the trenches, the Boche seemed to sense our attack and let loose with a violent artillery fire. One of these shells unfortunately landed in a trench near Sergeant Winner, and the resulting blast instantly snapped the life of one of our bravest and most promising men. His death, and the death of Private Efl-wards, some few moments later, were the most tragic in the Company, later events would reveal. They stand forever as martyrs to a needless sacrifice of life. In spite of this artillery fire we pressed forward, and after a short distance, we had contacted the advance posts of the German lines. Pushing them back, we were soon up against the real line of German resistance, and our advance came to a halt We were still following along the crest of a hill without knowledge of units either on our right or left. As we waited here, the scouts were feeling the enemy lines Suddenly a man came running wildly from the rear, calling- for the Battalion P.O. As he passed us, he called out that the fighting was to cease at 11 a.m. and he faded away in the mist. A few moments later Lieutenant Keeley hurriedly joined us and ordered everyone down under cover. German dugouts occupied by the Company for five weeks after the Armistice. These dugouts were located near the village of Wavrille. It was 16 minutes to 11 a.m. Everyone burrowed and dug as he never had before, determined to live through these last few minutes The artillery pounded away, up to the very last minute, and the Boche machine guns kept up their usual task of making a noise These were surely the longest moments we ever lived! The men bunched and crowded into shell-holes, begged of their "bunkies" to keep down, and cursed as fools those whose curiosity prompted them to peer around. It is beyond the power of pen to describe the feelings, the emotions, the happenings of the next few minutes. One moment, it was an inferno along the line! the next, the line was silent as the grave It was too unreal; it must surely be a dream. A second of silence then, up out of the fog around us rose voices full of heartfelt emotion. Cries came from the German lines; cries of "Gott sei dank " and other expressions of thanks and rejoicing. On the part of the doughboys there was little demonstration Mostly, they seemed to be dazed, but happy. One thought was in the
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John W. Kress book One of the Last 'Rugged Individualists'