St. Louis Globe-Democrat April 7, 1919 - The First Article in the Series.
By JAMES E. DARST,
Former Lieutenant of 341st Ma-
chine Gun Battalion, 89th
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst.
This is the story of the Eighty-ninth, as I saw it. I shall try to set down those day-by-day incidents that, pieced together, make war. "Try" to set them down, for the Eighty-ninth’s is a glorious achievement that no one can hope to express in words.
This has been said so often of other things that it sounds cheap. I can only say that it really applies in this case, as anyone who has seen our wonderful men in action will attest.
It will not be the official story – the day-by-day diary of advance and relief, of march and consolidation, of sector and kilometer. Chroniclers who have the statistics at their elbows have an abler grasp on these things than have I. The "doughboy," snuggling in his "fox-hole" for that last hour of rest before the "zero hour" had no notion of Foch’s plans. He didn’t know that the British also were driving that night; that the division on his left were having their first experience as shock troops; that the alternate brigade would relieve his in four days, at such and such a point on the map, at such an hour. He only knew that the lieutenant had told his corporal that they would start at 5:30; that the preliminary barrage would last four hours; that the woods ahead were sure to prove tough sledding; that all that was expected of him was to lunch forward–keep going–always forward.
Orders Sometimes Sketchy
That sort of experience was mine. Sometimes our orders were sketchy. Sufficient, but far from being complete specifications of a battle. Furthermore, I was away from my division in the hospital for a number of weeks at the time when they were resting after the St. Mihiel effort, and making ready for the last stage of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
I would like to have the personal pronoun forgiven whenever it appears. I hesitated to write this story because personal mention is bound to occur so frequently. But I felt that it was for the division. And since fate and a German shell willed that I couldn’t stay with the outfit until they came back from Germany, I wanted to do my part by letting people know some of the things they should know about their division–which entirely unprejudiced experts admit was unexcelled in the A.E.F.
Hero-worship makes any real "doughboy" sick. The men who were in it haven’t the heart for glamor. They can’t forget the buddies who won’t come back; they can’t forget that it was only the will of Providence that permitted them to return and other real fellows to stay there forever. The real "doughboy"–and I am using this term in its wildest sense, meaning the men in any branch who saw active service overseas–is sickened by the actions of some of the men who beat him home. He finds men wearing wound and service stripes who were never in France; wearing weird decorations that are unauthorized, unearned and silly; describing the hell of the big guns when the noise of street cars in base ports was all that ever assailed their ears; displaying souvenirs that they brought from a secondhand store in Paris or Bordeaux; knocking men and institutions and customs, whining, posing.
The "doughboy" knows that the civilian United States citizen is getting sick of it, too.
"I wonder if the people here know how much faking is going on?" a friend of mine asked a New Yorker, immediately after landing.
"You bet we do!" was the answer. And they do. You can’t fool the people of this country. They read, they compare notes, they reason shrewdly. They are wise now to the fakes and the fakers.
They, and the returned men of the A.E.F. are sick of the breed.
Appreciation at Home
That was why I hesitated to write. But since it may help to make known the glorious achievements and spirit of the Eighty-ninth, I shall do my best.
It also may help to make things right for them when they come home. Some of them have been hurt by what they considered lack of appreciation by their own people. They knew that cold and unbiased staff officers rated them class A–among the cream of the divisions–and they could not understand why the folks at home had never heard of their achievements.
Don’t let the faker element–those few men who are stealing the laurels of others–spoil it for the fighters. Remember the real fellows, not only with jobs, but with appreciation. Do not be misled by the fakers, but do not think the real article is bogus.
I shall try to answer the questions that have been asked me at least a dozen times each in the month I have been in the United States. Everyone I meet asks me some one of these questions, usually all of them. They must be the things in which the people are interested.
Weren’t you scared stiff?
How was the food?
How about those stories of camp horrors, at Brest and the other cantonments?
How does that gas feel?
How did our men compare with the Huns as fighters?
Did you ever see Foch?
Does it rain all the time in France?
Is life in the trenches actually as bad as it has been pictured?
Can the Germans really fight?
How did they look–intelligent, well fed, well cared for, confident in their cause?
Are the French really friendly toward us?
How was the care in the hospitals?
Just what is a barrage?
Did you have such a thing as a rum ration?
Can you see a shell going over?
How does a burning airplane look when it falls?
"Our Soldiers the Best"
These seem to be the things the average man and woman want to know. The "experts" have told them all the gory details, the statistics, the interviews, the prognostications. They want to know the simple, human things.
I can answer one of those questions immediately. Our soldiers are the best that ever fought–rest your mind easy on that point. Some one may have felt that he was not getting a true conception of our men; that American newspapers and magazines were certain to exaggerate American prowess. Let me say that no exaggeration of the bravery, the fortitude, the cheerfulness of our men is possible.
A queer feeling comes into a man’s throat when he thinks of them.
He recalls a November morning in the Bois de Bantheville, when the last phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive was four hours under way. I had rejoined my company after an all-night hunt for them in the jungle. I found one of my section sergeants, Sergt. Harry E. Flannery, a South Dakota boy, lying against a bank at the side of a road. The company had stopped for breakfast and were eating it as unconcernedly as if they were in an Olive street (St. Louis) restaurant instead of on a road that the Germans were shelling incessantly.
Flannery had been hit shortly after midnight by a large piece of high explosive that had pierced his abdomen. We didn’t think he could live another hour. I walked over to him and said:
"Well, old man, they came pretty close to you, didn’t they?"
Pretty close! He was about to die.
"They nicked me a little, lieutenant," he said. "But they can’t keep an Irishman down."
Flannery got the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. His citation mentions that he directed the work of his section with remarkable coolness despite the fact he had been wounded and refused aid until other wounded had been cared for.
Plain, Brief Instructions
I recall, again, the night before the St. Mihiel drive. Sloppy, rain in torrents. The trench in which we were "living," a ditch of gluey clay and water. My dugout was the only place in the trench in which a match could be struck to look at maps and I had the noncommissioned officers of my platoon in for directions as to our part in the drive.
I explained it briefly. It had to be brief for my own instructions were far from elaborate. We were to go straight forward to the Bois de Mort Homme–"The Dead Man’s Woods"–then turn sharply to the left and clean it out. Then straight ahead, again, and then clean again to the left. At zero plus three hours we were to assemble at a designated point on the map. Brigade headquarters would be established there. Then we were to push on to our second objective.
We were huddled there in that 6' x 6' dugout, mud to our ankles, soaking wet, excited by the prospect of the morrow. The men heard what I had to say. They asked a few pertinent questions. A shell whined overhead, coming from Fritz and bound toward our own batteries, several kilometers in the rear. It sounded like a street car with a flat wheel laboring up a steep grade. Some one laughed.
"Let old Jerry throw ‘em over now," he said. "He will get his in the morning."
Someone else asked when the chow would be along. The carrying party had gone for it hours before.
"Hope they give us plenty of coffee tonight," another remarked, "for it sure is going to be a hard night on the poor mariner."
They turned to go. They hesitated uneasily. Some one spoke up:
"We just want to let you know we are all with you tomorrow, lieutenant," he said.
Bashfully put, but meant from the heart. I cannot imagine any words that I had heard before or ever will hear that will sound so good. It summed up all we had been striving for in the long days of training camp, of National Army cantonment, of training in France, and it was the reward for all this labor. We were confident of each other, we were ready to face the issue together.
Personal Equation Necessary
It will be necessary that the company and the battalion I was with will appear frequently in these lines. That cannot be avoided any more than the personal pronoun can be avoided. However, what is said of them applies equally to all the men of the Eighty-ninth.
The personal pronoun is obnoxious, too. Many saw more of the hell than did I. But I feel that I saw enough.
I was assigned to the Eighty-ninth, not as a correspondent, but as a soldier. I went to the division September 6, 1917, after three months at the First Officers’ Training Camp at Fort Riley, Kan., and was with them until November 1, 1918.
I saw the men come in from the first draft, a never-to-be forgotten sight. Perplexed, they were, and ill at ease and fearful and clumsy and woefully ignorant of things military. We had speculated on their behavior. We felt, we feared, that there might be resentment among them; sullenness, fretfulness at discipline.
How we were disillusioned! Never since the sun has shown was there a body of men so eager to adapt themselves to a new life; to learn quickly–above all things quickly. They would come to us and ask for books that they might study after the arduous drill hours were done. They vied with each other to be the "snappiest" at saluting. They speedily developed an esprit de corps, each man feeling, knowing, that his regiment, his company, his platoon, his squad was the best in the division, and the division the best in all the armies.
Each man’s conviction was borne out in the fierce test of battle. His division WAS of the best. It proved to be a division whose name can go down in glorious history with such illustrious names as the Marines, the Thirtieth Infantry, the Seventh Infantry, the Rough Riders, Doniphan’s party in Mexico, Pickett’s Brigade, the Four Hundred, the Coldstream Guards, the Alabamans.
One hesitates in placing credit. Every one did their part. We didn’t think we were good. I remember several of us talking before the St. Mihiel drive and ruefully wondering if we could stand the pace set by the famous divisions that were to go over on our flanks. We knew we would try.
"Never Fell Down"
A lieutenant of the division, recently returned from France, summed it up:
"We didn’t think we were good," he said. "I guess we got our reputation because we never fell down on an order. We always did what were told to do."
It seems, however, that to two persons special credit is due: to Maj. Gen. Wood and to the average, to any buck private. The former laid the foundation by insisting wisely on perfect discipline, hard work and a cheerful outlook. The later completed the job by perfect and cheerful obedience, utmost bravery, initiative and resourcefulness, abundant "guts."
They came to us in September, raw and untrained. In October they were doing "squads right" and "on left into line." They were working feverishly. The more ambitious had become noncommissioned officers. In November they were still at it. There were hardships. No heat, insufficient clothing and blankets, no amusements. Also there was little equipment. Artillerymen fashioned guns and even horses of wood and learned their drill with these makeshifts. Infantrymen, right-shouldered arms with broomsticks. Machine gunners "mounted guns" and "loaded" with logs, mounted on wooden legs.
We would go out to drill early those frosty November and December mornings. We would march up into the hills that looked down on Camp Funston, Kan., from the west, and each organization would seek out its allotted drill ground. First would come physical drill, then several hours of close-order drill, open-order drill, signaling. As the sun rose higher one could look over the sweeping Kansas hills and see them dotted with moving figures. It reminded one of the old civil war pictures, the misty distances, the blue-clad figures (every one wore overalls the), the checker-board formations of masses of men.
Also, it reminded one of stories of Coxy’s army, of comic opera revolutions–the wooden guns, the overalls, the makeshift ordnance. But it was not comic, but deadly grim. The obituary of one William Hohenzollern was being spelled out by those moving figures in their ill-fitting uniforms, the figures in this camp and in dozens of others throughout America. It was real. It was earnest.
"Some Did Die"
"Feel proud of your uniforms," Gen. Wood told us. "They are the uniforms you will fight in, may die in."
We did feel proud of them. Some died in them.
January and February brought cold weather, more camp amusements, cohesion and finally real equipment. We had real machine guns to work with now. Colt guns, of a model that Central American revolutionists favored, but, still, real machine guns.
We were expecting to "go over" all this time. Rumors flew, for an army camp is thicker in rumors than in cans of "tin willy." We would leave next week, next month and then not until autumn. It was elating and at the same time discouraging.
(In the next installment, to be printed tomorrow, Darst will tell of a trench inspection and the first night in the trenches.")
More Stories by James E. Darst