ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT APRIL 9, 1919
- THE THIRD ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-
[This is the third installment of the intimate story of the Eighty-ninth Division, written by James E. Darst, former lieutenant of the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine Gun Battalion of the Eighty-ninth. Mr. Darst was gassed and wounded while fighting with this Middle-West division.]
Copyright, 1919 James E. Darst.
We speculated on the chances of the Boche shelling that road. Seemed logical he would. That speculation gave an odd feeling, not fear, but a sort of mild amusement. We tried to make ourselves realize that we were actually in the long-talked-of, long-imagined front lines. We couldn’t realize it. We couldn’t GET it.
No doubt the condemned criminal cannot fully realize it is an eventful day, the day of his hanging. He doesn’t really get it as he mounts the scaffold. Probably he cannot bring his mind from the recollection of the egg that was too well done for his last breakfast or thee corn that is hurting him.
No Time to Think
People only realize dramatic things when they think of them later. In a battle no solider has time to think:
"Well, here I am, in France, in the Argonne, shells bursting–I, I here."
No indeed, he watches his step, leaps a fallen log, takes a squint at the sky, wonders if he can stand carrying that German helmet another mile, or throw it away now.
So he had to quit trying to "get" it and light another cigarette and wonder if the gang we were visiting would invite us to share their dinner or leave us to the sandwiches we carried.
We had penetrated now as far as traffic was allowed and parked the Fords again and hiked up a rock road. Support trenches ran off through the fields to our left. They were our first REAL trenches. They looked more businesslike than any practice trenches could possibly look, for the simple reason that they were built for necessity and not for practice. They did not run where they were not needed; they were deep only where depth was required; they were buttressed with sandbags at just the spot where some "doughboy" had learned sandbags were needed to keep out the water.
They differed in aspect from practice trenches in the same manner that a real office differs from an office shown on the stage. The stage office has the pretty stenographer in a conspicuous spot, whereas in the real office the occupant puts the pretty stenographer in a less obvious place, lest she distract the mind of some client from the business in hand or bring speculation to the mind of the wife.
We came to the dugouts occupied by the captain commanding the forward company. What was dugout etiquette, we wondered. To knock? Give a password? We deferentially put it up to the guide. He yelled: "You there, Bill?" and some one (must have been Bill) answered "yes."
As many as could crowded in. Introductions were somewhat compact. The three occupants of the dugout urged us to partake of cigarettes and asked us what we thought of the outlook. What could we think? One of them, of course, remarked that it was a great life, etc., and we agreed it must be.
Then to business. The machine-gun company that we were to relieve supported a battalion of infantry that held about two miles of front-line trench. It was lightly held, rather. Still no attack was expected there. The three machine-gun platoons would be on their own, about three-quarters of a mile apart.
They had a good system of communication. On account of the great distances the buzzer was used whenever possible and the field telephone. We were cautioned that the Germans could listen in easily on the telephone and that we must never discuss operations on the phone. Runners would carry most of the messages. Four of them were stationed at company headquarters and each platoon leader had two. Other couriers came forward from brigade headquarters. Liaison with the infantry was also kept by means of runners.
Code Names for Posts
Each command post had a code name. As we talked there in the dugout the phone rang and the captain took down the receiver. "Skull," said he. "Bones speaking!" We were lost in admiration. This was the real thing. The captain was talking guardedly. Finishing, he laid out maps for us. He showed our position, the roads, the trench system, the German positions, about a kilometer in front of where we were. He explained the system of holding. The infantry was organized in two lines, the outpost line and the line of resistance. The outposts threw out listening posts, automatic rifle crews and sentinels.
In case of an attack these men forward gave the alarm and fell back to the outposts. Their instructions were to fight until they saw their cause was hopeless and then fall back to the line of resistance, fighting as they went on. On the line of resistance they would be reinforced by the men waiting there and there would be no retreat. The front-line machine guns were stationed in this line of resistance, about 600 yards behind the outposts, and were so disposed as to cover the retreat of the outposts and sweep the ground in front of the line of resistance with bands of fire.
In case of an attack the infantry could call for a barrage by the use of rockets. The captain told us what code they were using. It was getting late and we had to walk far to the trenches we would occupy, so we gathered up our field glasses and musette bags and pistols, and redonned the tin hats and saw to the adjustment of the gas masks, and started out with the guides furnished by the captain.
Each platoon group separated and went its different way. With the noncommissioned officers of my platoon I followed the guide up the road toward Limey, the village on the extreme right of the division sector. After several hundred yards of walking in checkerboard formation, no two men closer than 15 yards, we came to the communication trench that ran up to the front lines.
Not Sure of Making Road
The guide told us that Jerry shelled that road three times by day and usually three times at night, and that a person couldn’t always be sure of getting over it. That guide fully appreciated his position as mentor to a bunch of green ones and he didn’t overlook any bets. He was right, however, in his schedule of shelling.
We made note of the term, "Jerry." Before, we had called the Germans Boche, which was French in origin, or Fritz, which was English. Now we had the American term, "Jerry." "Old Jerry" sounded well, too.
The guide slid down the trench and we followed. An idea struck him then, and he said we could–if we cared to risk it–go along the top for another half-mile instead of using the trenches. I told him we would stay in the trenches. Seemed silly climbing out again. Besides–
As we went along through the trenches the guide enjoyed himself. His attitude was that of the rubber-neck wagon man, who hangs romance, in great globs, over every peanut stand. He would point out the spot where a runner had been killed two weeks before by a shell; this hollow was a lurking place for gas; this particular bit of trench was unprotected and could easily be entered by German patrols.
We wanted to discount, properly, but it rang true. It was. We believed the guide, later when we had been through it.
We came to higher ground and stopped there and looked out over the parapet and there in the late August sun we had our first real look at No Man’s Land. A gentle valley lay before us, stretching for half a mile to the Metz road that ran out of our lines into the German lines, and Metz, their stronghold. The valley was covered with a dead sort of grass and there was an occasional tree. It was broken with brown lines that told where trenches were and to the right in No Man’s Land was the village of Limey, ruined, shattered, uninhabited, except by prowling patrols and rats.
Out of the valley rose another hill that sloped up gently to the skyline. Half way up the slope were other brown streaks. Jerry lived there. He was looking over at us from there. We had come thousands of miles, and now we were within rifle shot of him. It seemed odd. No doubt some Bavarian on the other side of that serene valley was looking our way and thinking of the hundreds of miles he had come from his home to meet us.
No Man’s Land a Back Yard
It was a peaceful No Man’s Land. Up in Flanders and in the Champagne the lines were sometimes only 100 yards apart, each side pushing as close to the other as it dared. Here in the Toul sector an understanding seemed to have arisen between the French and Germans; the lines were withdrawn and No Man’s Land was half a mile wide in places. No one ventured into the open during the day, and all but the necessary guards slept. Night would arouse the occupants and patrols would roam the terrain, clashing occasionally. Shots were fired; things broke loose.
Later we gazed at that scene so often that it all became as familiar to us as the backyard at home, and we felt at home, too, and as if we belonged there.
A few hundred yards farther and we came to our own sector. We felt that it was ours, like prospective tenants of an apartment. As we went along we noted where the parapet needed mending, where the duckboard was worn through. We decided on these improvements when we moved in.
The lieutenant of the Eighty-second, whose place I was to take, and his noncommissioned officers welcomed us and we talked it all over. We asked more questions than any flock of cub reporters ever asked a victim. We tried to think of everything. When the grilling was over, we looked at the gun emplacements. We praised them with the mental reservation, of course, that we would make them look like regular emplacements before we got through.
When we had inspected every foot of the trench sector that was to be ours, we stood around, that lazy August day, and chatted. Already we felt perfectly at home. Behind us was the village of Lironville, where a support battalion was stationed in dugouts, and over into it now the German artillery was throwing some "G.I. cans." The doughboys nicknamed the big ones the 210-mllimeter shell, after the G.I. or galvanized iron cans, that were a part of the issue of kitchen utensils of every company.
We could hear the far-away detonation in the German lines as the shell started on its way. The whine would come closer and when we were sure it was just over our heads we would instinctively look up, expecting to be able to see it. The whine would cease for a moment and then the crash of a wall in luckless Lironville would tell us that the shell had landed.
Shortly a French battery got into the game and threw them over at Jerry as fast as he threw them into our lines. It was highly diverting for us, because we were not the targets. The veterans of the Eighty-second would note the sound of each shell as it got to its peak and tell which way it was going. A person can learn that trick in a few days.
We rejoined our party and started on the long trip back to Toul. One of the platoon leaders had been delayed by the shelling of Lironville that we had listened to. It wasn’t quite so diverting for him, because he had happened to be in the town.
Let me recommend to lovers of excitement a trip back from the trenches early at night along a road that is packed with traffic coming the other way. Thrills abound. All the trucks and side cars and ammunition trains are coming forward then and only you are bucking the line in the other direction. Lights were absolutely forbidden and a person would have been shot at if he so much as struck a match. Remember also that it was raining, the roads slippery and the drivers of the opposite-bound trucks inspired by the usual dash and recklessness that seems to characterize the brood. Looking back we could see the graceful rockets soaring over No Man’s Land. Occasionally Jerry would throw up a very light, for he was a great believer in fireworks and liked not the gloom.
Steal Gasoline Twice
We strained our eyes on the road ahead until they hurt, and in spite of the utmost precaution ran off the road or into a tree or fence approximately every 500 yards. That we did not crash into a truck was one of those miracles people are so fond of saying happen no more.
We got back into Toul at 4 in the morning. Twice we ran out of gasoline and twice a friendly M.P. would help us steal enough from a truck some one had abandoned. Stealing gasoline at the front is a serious offense, but we got away with it. We simply had to.
Two more days around Toul and the order came for us to go in. My company and A company of the Three Hundred and Forty-first were the machine gun companies chosen for the post of honor, the task of holding the front line. We were to go in with our infantry brigade, the Three Hundred and Fifty-third and Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry regiments, the night of August 7-8.
I might say here that this double date is always used in military operations to designate a certain night. Furthermore, the day begins at midnight and the hours are numbered up to 24. Thus 10 o’clock at night becomes 22 o’clock.
In addition to this time system we were now pledged to the metric system of measurements. We had dropped "yards" and "miles" and dealt only in meters and kilometers. It is the easier system when you get the hang of it, not only because of the greater ease of computation, but because it seems easier to estimate distances in meters and kilometers. Perhaps this is due to the fact that all the French roads are bordered by sign posts, measuring the kilometers from one village to another. Tramping these roads, you have it constantly impressed on you just how long a kilometer is. A kilometer is approximately six-tenths of a mile and a meter is ten-ninths of a yard.
Perhaps a youngster getting ready to be taken to the circus would show more eagerness to beat the clock than we did the night we were to go in–but I doubt it. We knew that the One Hundred and Seventy-eighth Brigade had moved in the night before and we were anxious to take our places beside them.
Gigantic Gas Attack
We did not know that the night they went in the Germans put on a gas attack of gigantic scale. The attack evidently was meant as retaliation for the raid the Eighty-second made on the Germans, but the innocent party suffered. Our men were making their relief, a nervous enough job under the best of conditions, especially for green troops, and in the midst of it gas shells were showered on them. The Germans used mustard, phosgen and sneezing gas.
Several whiffs of the sneezing gas will throw the victim into paroxysms of sneezing and vomiting, and it is almost impossible to adjust a mask. The phosgen accompanies the sneezing or arsenic gas, and catches the sneezing man without his mask on. Concentrated phosgen is horridly deadly, although it evaporates rapidly. The mustard gas rarely kills, although it disables in a frightful manner. A splash of the liquid burns like acid. The mustard gas lingers for days in low places and in shell holes and hangs in the branches of trees and bushes.
The One Hundred and Seventy-eighth was unfortunate in being caught in woods and in low ground, and what with the darkness, the confusion incident to any relief and the newness of the situation, there were bound to be heavy casualties. The Germans kept a hail of shrapnel on the higher places, hemming the men into the lowlands where the gas gathered,
Even for several days afterward men were gassed by the poison that lingered in the woods. I have not the exact figures, but have been told by officers of the One Hundred and Seventy-eighth that the brigade suffered 800 casualties all told, and that approximately seventy of those died from the effects.
Determined to Get Revenge
I said that the men of our brigade at that time did not know what had befallen their comrades, but they learned of it later, and you may be sure that we all made up our minds to make the Germans pay dearly for their first blow at the Eighty-ninth. There was no dramatic upraising of hands, no blood-sealed pacts or solemn oaths, but everyone told himself that the Eighty-ninth would not forget. Later events proved they didn’t forget, and more than wiped out the score.
We were to leave Toul in trucks at 7 o’clock the night of August 7. This would bring us to Menil-la-Tour about 8:00, and we would be in position to enter the forward zone at dusk. Eight trucks were assigned to one company. The company strength when we went in was four officers, all second lieutenants, and about 150 men. The full strength of a machine-gun company is 6 officers and 172 men.
This put about twenty men in a truck, not to mention the entire kitchen equipment, sixteen machine guns and about 50,000 rounds of ammunition. All the men wore their heavy packs. They had spent the afternoon on them, and the result was perfect packs. They had donned their tin hats, put on the pistols that the machine gunners carry, tested and adjusted their gas masks, taken a final bath, washed out all their extra clothing–were ready.
A person recalls old pictures of warriors going into battle springing to arms at the bugle’s call, fire flashing from their eyes, horses cavorting on as few legs as the law of equilibrium requires, and banners fluttering.
Do not imagine that the American doughboy–the Middle Westerner of the Eighty-ninth–went in that way. As we loaded in the trucks it was all business.
"Foot out of my face, guy!" some buck would insist.
"Cut out that talking!" a sergeant would put in.
Loaded, every one reported by name. They squirmed around then and tried for ease. Facetiousness would appear. The squad wit would put on a monologue:
"I am well aware, ladies and gentlemen, of the great honor bestowed on muh, this evening, as guest of honor at this choice basket party of the United Sons and Daughters of Inebriety. The honor tendered touches me deeply–
"Not so deeply as you touched me, you robber!"
"––But I feel that I must decline. Naught would please me better than to go with you, ce soir–I relapse into the Frog vernacular–but, rully, I cawn’t. I must to elsewhere. I have a date tonight with a dear little thing, and our itinerary includes the Follies and a roof garden. There we shall consume steak–not too thick, rare, sprinkled with onions, oozing gravy, appetizing."
A man is usually leaped upon at this stage. One must never mention the name of steak. Too cruel.
It was a little more serious for those in charge. But they finally felt assured everything was right, and the order to move out was given. Troop trucks try to maintain 30 or 40 yard distance, so that no chance shell would get more than one. On a reasonably clear night they can be seen at a distance and communication maintained.
Children Gravely Salute
We swung down through Toul. No one paid us much attention, but an occasional French youngster would snap to a salute, very grave and earnest, as we went by, and we would always return it. Sometimes a housewife would come to the door and wave her apron at us. That queer catch in the throat would come occasionally at these demonstrations of French friendliness, but like true Americans we would assume a bored expression and maintain the deception that sentiment was a thing apart from us.
We passed other American sliders, and they would look at us stolidly or wave, and as we sped along the Yank yell would come to our ears:
"Give ‘em hell, boys!"
They say war has lost most of its romance, and I guess it has, but the scientists, the gas experts, the mathematicians cannot take all its romance away. There is still a thrill in the sight of brown-faced American doughboys packed grimly in their trucks–going in. Joking some, others pensive; tin hats stuck cockily on the back of their heads, rifles gripped, heading toward Germany.
As we went along the road leading north out of Toul, the evening shadows lengthened. Other truck trains, containing men of the Eighty-ninth and their equipment, came into view. As we came into Minorville, it was quite dark and we still had some 6 kilometers to go.
We waited in Minorville to get final instructions from Maj. Ernest E. Watson, then our battalion commander. He had been told that a late intelligence report indicated the Germans planned a raid that night. Great stuff! Why couldn’t they let us alone the first night and let us have our relief in peace. We would have trouble enough making it. We worked up a strong feeling of resentment against the Germans for being so unclubby and resolved to make them regret it.
Bad Place in Road.
Now the road led up and down steep hills, covered with a dense growth. No one spoke above a low tone and there was little talking–most of us thinking rapidly, I suppose. The drivers were crouched over their wheels, striving always to distinguish the narrow strip of road just ahead. Suddenly of the gloom would loom another truck and the brakes would be applied quickly and we would groan to a stop.
"What in hell’s wrong now?"
"Just wanted to warn you–bad place in the road ahead."
"Thanks, but we’ll find ‘em as we come to ‘em."
The A.E.F. was profane, I must admit. But it was innocent profanity. It sort of bubbled out.
Now the woods grew thicker and it became a mere question of guessing right as to the road. Another groaning halt. The truck ahead had side-slipped and gone off the road. It had stopped by a small tree and half leaned against it. Some one had halted the truck ahead of it and it was blocked up and chains attached. All this without a glimmer of light.
We could make out a French camion that also had slipped off the road and soon we were pestered as we labored by the French driver who tried earnestly to tell us something. We hadn’t time to decipher his sentences and let him rave. The truck ahead gave a mighty heave, with a road of engines that must have been head in Metz and the stranded truck moved out slowly. We waved to the others to come ahead carefully and they felt their way past the treacherous spot. As each glidded past in the night the Frenchman’s excitement seemed to grow. His eloquence reached the superb. Finally someone got the word "camion." He wanted help, wanted us to pull his truck out too! Stupid of us not to realize. So, although time was precious, we halted the last truck in out line and hooked on to the little camion and yanked it free in a hurry.
(The fourth installment of this story will be printed in tomorrow’s Globe-Democrat.)
More Stories by James E. Darst