Trenches Abound in Odors, but There Is One Easily Detected Gas, for Which All Are On Lookout
YELLS OF 'HOLDING THE LINE AT LAST'
Notices ‘Men We Relieved Looked that Way’ and Probably Thought They Were Never Coming Back.
This is the fourth installment of the 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. Darst was night editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and joined the colors at the first call. The next story will be printed in the Globe-Democrat tomorrow.
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst
Now, we came into the clear and the graceful rockets showed No Man’s Land ahead of us. Farther north there was the rumble of thunder-heavy artillery. We disembarked from the trucks and staggered up the road under the burden of machine guns, tripods, ammunition, spare parts – in addition to packs, pistols, overcoats, and tin hats and gun masks.
Guides were ready for us and we followed ours into the communication trench that led to our position. From the road to our position was a sweet little jaunt of a mere two miles, loaded to the exhaustion point. We had to hurry, else dawn would be on the people we were to relieve before they could get back to their positions, and yet frequent stops to catch our breath were imperative.
Trenches abound in odors, but half way to our position we detected one we had been taught to watch for – gas. Down went the guns, the tripods and ammunition and everyone slid into his mask. Traveling had been hard enough before – now it was next to impossible.
Somehow we made it to our positions. The men we relieved looked that way. I dare say they thought we were never coming. All along our sector the men of the Eighty-ninth were slipping into place and the men of the Eighty-second slipping out. A good two hours before dawn all our sentries were posted, all our machine guns emplaced. Nervous doughboys were gripping their rifles and excitedly peering over the parapet as a rat scampered by and dislodged a clod; whispered consultations were being held as to the exact nature of some dimly outlined shape in front of the trench, and debate was hot as to whether it moved or did not move; feverish second looeys were poring over maps and endeavoring to figure just where the Boche were; staff officers were making reports to those higher up. The Eighty-ninth was holding the line at last!
"Trenches to Ourselves"
The raid that we had been told to expect did not materialize, so we had our trenches to ourselves that night. It was better that way, for no one wishes guests on the first night in a new home. Everyone was nervous, I admit. In the chilly hours just before dawn a man’s imagination is running top speed and the barbed wire post just in front of you moves if you look at it long enough and the whisper of the wind through the long grass deepens to the guttural mutters of a German patrol. Occasionally some "doughboy" would be unable to stand the strain and would fire wildly, bringing a hurried visit from a sergeant.
"What did you see?"
"Out there, don’t you see them?"
A long, long look and then the sergeant would decide there was no cause for alarm.
Finally dawn came, and as the light grew we could make out the ground in front of us, the valley, shrouded in mist, the ruined town of Limey to our right and Flirey to our left, the Metz road leading over the hill into Germany and mystery. Even before the sun was up we could discern a "sausage" hovering like a suspended elephant far back in the Boche lines. Someone else made out two planes winging their way across our front. Everything was still, and not a human being was in sight.
The earlier crop of war writers, who specialized in horror, made out the trenched as ghastly places. Perhaps they were bad in Flanders and certainly they were uncomfortable in all sectors during the winter. But trench life during the summer, or at any time, is a picnic compared to the "fox-hole" life in the open warfare of advance.
I do not want to seem to underestimate the horrors of war, for they are real, but most soldiers try to forget the ghastly as they would forget a nightmare.
I believe I am safe in saying that most of our men – the vast majority – enjoyed the first tour of the trenches. It was a free unhampered sort of life.
Of course discipline was strict, orders were numerous and the work never seemed to have an end in sight, but it was healthy, albeit dirty; interesting, although with the spice of danger; comfortable, even in the crude sort of comfort of a hunting party.
Dugouts were scarce in our section and the men lived in holes burrowed toward the enemy. Every man took a great pride in his particular "home", usually shared with one of two bunkies. They would scrape the holes clean, enlarge them, line them with "shelter-halves" and then tastefully dispose their packets, blankets, mess kits and shaving apparatus. A man had to insert himself into his "home" with just the right degree of care, else his foot would lodge in his mess kit.
Pride in Being Shaved
They also took pride in being shaved daily, although water had to be carried three miles. However, if a man goes about it right he doesn’t need much water. In fact, we used captured German beer at St. Mihiel, and while it was sticky, it worked up a lather.
They also saw to it that the trenches were kept clean. One would no more throw a piece of paper into the trench than he would throw it into his front yard.
Orders were to keep out of sight when planes passed over so the enemy could not know how strongly we were holding and the doughboys developed considerable ingenuity in twisting out of a hole to look at a plane without exposing themselves.
"Chow" was supplied from the company kitchen twice a day. The kitchen was located in a grove of trees on the reverse slope of a hill, about three miles away. Sometimes the Germans were unkind enough to shell the kitchen and since cooks are only human – although we sometimes doubted that – they were bound to cease their ministrations to the slum and seek cover. Carrying parties went for the "chow" in the morning and in the evening and staggered up two miles of trench, loaded with marmite cans, suspended from poles. These cans kept the food hot and there was always plenty.
Rations in the front lines were all that could be asked, fresh meat, vegetables, bread, sirup, and coffee. Often bread pudding would intrude its hideous presence, and canned salmon – the "submarine turkey" of the "doughboys" anathema – was our boon companion. As far as the men of the A. E. F. are concerned salmon may as well quit getting caught.
Tobacco was a part of the ration, and we could get cigarettes from a near-by Y. M. C. A. hut, also cookies, of a French persuasion, and chocolate.
Right here is a good place to make mention of the Y. M. C. A. and the abuse sometimes heaped upon it. Suddenly, last autumn, it became the fashion in the A. E. F. to "knock" the "Y." Everyone thought up all the old kicks he had laid away in mothballs and added then to the general fund of horrors.
Fairness Given Y. M. C. A.
Personally, the "Y" means nothing to me. I confess that before the war I had a sort of mistrust for the institution, But fairness compels me to say that my own experience with the "Y" was always pleasant. I have heard all the stories – sale of supplies at high prices, discourtesy, absence from the front lines, soft jobs for secretaries – and I suppose there must be some basis of fact for each one. But the "Y" men of my experience did not hold us up, were plenty of places where the "Y" hut was the only place of amusement, the only place into which to retire out of the mud and rain.
I am not saying that men with other outfits had no kicks coming, but I do say that I and plenty of others I have talked to found the Y. M. C. A. accommodating, helpful, hard working.
This goes for the Knights of Columbus, whose work was superb, and the Salvation Army and, of course, the Red Cross. I mention the "Y" particularly because it has been criticized.
The night life in the trenches was what a Broadwayite would term "good" – everybody up all night, no disposition to go home early, sleep ignored. But the only bright lights were the German fireworks.
As dusk comes on everything is set right for that attack that may come. Orders are passed out as to patrols, wiring parties out in front, work to be done. The snipers creep back into their dugouts, after lying all day, trying to look like sticks of wood, and their places are taken by the night-shift men – the listening posts and lonely pairs of sentinels, thrown far out into No Man’s Land.
If one feels poetically inclined, he can lean against the parapet and strive after those lines from Macbeth:
"Light thickens and the crow makes
wing to the rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse."
As the long shadows gathered, the last of the planes had swept homeward and the clumsy sausages were drawn down on both sides of the lines. Now every "doughboy" and machine gunner, every officer and private "stands to" at the parapet for dusk is a nice time for an attack. Purple deepens into gray and the gray into black, and as soon as the Big Dipper shows its outlines in the north the rockets shoot up from the German lines and burst into four stars that hang for a minute and then twinkle out, one by one. They are beacon lights for returning planes, to show where the lines are located. Not knowing this we try desperately to gather their significance.
Order to Leave Trenches
Orders informed us that a patrol would leave the trenches at our position at 9.30 that evening, or 21:30 as the order put it. Soon the members of the patrol come shuffling along, proud to be of the chosen. They line up in the trench with us, scattered around several traverses, for crowding in a trench is forbidden, The lieutenant in charge consults his wrist watch approximately once every fifteen seconds and his non- coms bring husky messages to him.
"Think we ought to run into them tonight," he comments.
"So? How many going?"
"Officer, three corporals, fifteen men. Out to investigate the Bols Tiangulare. Reported Germans have machine-gun emplacement there.
"Thanks. Gee, I wish I could light a cigarette."
As the exact second for departure came the lieutenant clambers out of the trench, worming his way on his stomach and after him creep the men. They disappear in the gloom. Anxiously we wait for the sound of shots in front that would tell of their discovery.
Finally, stand to is over and the hour about ten. We are safe to presume that the Germans will not attack in force, although the possibility of a patrol happening in on us is still strong.
Some of the men retire to their holes and prepare to divide the watch of the night. Somewhere up the line a rifle cracks out, a pause, then a burst of shots from a Chau-Chat. We hold our breaths. All is quiet again. False alarm.
Someone is heard stumbling up the trench. The sentry faces that way and as the man rounds the traverse, whispers fiercely:
"Halt! Who’s there?"
"Friend with the password."
"Give the password!"
Captain, Visiting Posts.
The friend proves to be an infantry captain, visiting his posts. There ensues whispered conversation as to the meaning of the shots of a few minutes before. Then the captain moves off down the trench, swinging his trench cane, a formidable weapon, in case he should be waylaid.
Midnight. Suddenly a distant boom tells that Jerry had set his alarm clock for 11:45 back in some battery position and is firing according to schedule, now. The whine of a shell comes closer. How close will it fall? A pause and then the explosion. The flash and the sound tells how close. Someone 500 yards to the right got it. Thank the Lord they are "busting" and not exploding with a hollow grunt. The latter means gas. Here comes another and this time the whine hurries into a rapid shriek, followed by a hearty bang. It’s in front of us and everyone throws himself to that side of the trench, low. The zing of pieces of shell casing, like angry bees in flight, comes close. Around the traverse a big piece drops. Cautiously someone raises his head and everyone gets to his feet. Here’s another. Over, this time. Everyone to that side of the trench. The flash is closer and everyone makes himself as small as possible. Lucky guy, the runt, now.
The officer orders two-thirds of the men to work their way down the trench to a dugout. The parties start, not more than two men together, running fast, listening for the approach of a shell, falling flat, then rising again as soon as the flight of fragments is over. The officer and men remain in the trench, wait stoically and guess on which side of the trench the next one will fall. A merry ten minutes follows before Jerry shifts his fire to another spot. Then toll is taken and two men are found to be scratched by small pieces of fragment. They are sent to the first aid dugout for dressings.
Our own batteries come to life behind us. Soon big ones are going the other way.
"One for you, Fritz."
They keep it up, having the time of their lives, these artillerymen. Then they call it quits. Silence reigns again. Far, far to the northwest sounds a faint rumble. Verdun is getting it again, no doubt. The real fighting is up there.
A sergeant makes the rounds of the holes in the trench wall. He pulls at a protruding foot until its owner gives vent to a husky complaint.
"Who’s that?" sergeant asks.
"Johnson. I just came off watch."
"Right. Who’s with you?"
"Say, come to life. Who is in there with you?"
"Lessee. Bill Morton and Sandy."
"Awright. Bill! I say, Bill! Come to! Time to go on watch! Out of it, Bill! Shake it up!"
Bill’s Head Appears
The blankets heave and toss and Bill’s head appears. A search for pistol and tin hat. The gas mask already is snugly on Bill’s chest. Presently he emerges, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Neither he nor his bunkies had so much as heard the shell bursting close by.
The sergeant continues the rounds, waking them up, picking his men. They shiver a little from the dampness and take the places of the old watch.
"They shelled us, you boob! Where was you?"
"I can’t be bothered by shells. Wish they’d come over, if they’re coming."
Another hour. Time for that patrol to be in. Very lights go up in the trenches opposite. Scattered shots. By George! They have seen our patrol. Stuff’s off. No, the shots die out. Just some nervous Dutchman seeing ghosts.
A weird sound comes from far down the line, the creaking of a gas-alarm siren. It is taken up and passes closer. Jerry must have thrown over some gas with that high-explosive. Everyone sniffs anxiously and finally it is decided that there is some gas. The order goes out to put on masks. Conversation becomes difficult. After fifteen minutes the lieutenant tests for gas by lifting the side of the mask with his finger and making a scooping motion by ducking his head and then removing his nose clip and sniffing gently at the air in the mask
The noncoms follow his example. They shake their heads in negative. They take off their masks and sniff some more. No gas. Evidently the alarm is false or else the gas is only real farther down the trenches.
The men are ordered to remove their masks. Joyously they do so. Feelingly they curse the spreaders of the false doctrine and resume their peering out into the night.
Now the sky grows gray and again the sergeant makes the rounds and rouses every one, this time. Another "stand to." Across the way a German machine gun sputters, more slow and methodical than ours. One hunches himself at the parapet, a grenade or two handy, rifle or machine gin at elbow, eyes peering into the haze. Thoughts leap the miles and one pictures the good old U. S. A. What are the boys on Sixth street doing? Wouldn’t it be great to have a date tonight with a girl, not a German? Rosy shafts of light streak across the sky and the old familiar landmarks stand out once more. Now the sun shows and the hum of an engine overhead tells that the planes are already busy. Once more the captive balloons appear. Another night over. Most of the sleepy ones stumble to their holes. The required few keep the vigil. Day is come.
The Second Battalion of the Three Hundred and Forty-third Infantry was holding the front-line trenches at this time, and the Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry was holding to their right. In this sector a battalion was called on to hold the front line for from eight to twelve days before it was relieved by the battalion in support.
The weather had been clear and the trenches comfortable, and artillery and infantry activity was light, so we were allowed to hold our positions for twelve days before a relief was made. Several times small German patrols got as far as our lines, but when they were discovered they did not linger long.
Activity on the whole Eighty-ninth sector was confined to work on the trenches in the daytime and patrolling duty at night. A defense system was worked out and the machine guns placed to sweep the territory they would have to cross to get at us.
On the night of August 19-20 the battalions holding the front line were relieved by the battalions in support and the reserve battalions took up the support position.
We were told in the morning that we would be relieved that night and would go back to the reserve position in Manonville. Officers from the relieving battalions had visited our trenches, preparatory to taking them over. Of course they vowed to make improvements as we had done, and we defied them to find room to do so. Our point of view had changed since we had come in and we felt that we knew how to hold trenches and that they were rank outsiders, green, raw.
Waiting for the relieving party in the trenches is an exasperating job. You feel sure that they do not realize the importance of haste; that they must be loafing along the road somewhere in back of you. You watch the hours go by and the silence of the night seems ominous, for you figure that the Germans probably have the exact dope on the relief and are waiting to catch you on the roads going back.
Every detail has been arranged beforehand and the trench property is ready to be turned over. Why don’t they come along now, when everything is quiet, and give us half a chance to move out before the Boche begin shelling the communication trenches?
Work of Transfer Done.
Finally they are heard coming along and the work of transfer is done. The relieving party invariably is quibblish over details, very sure that everything must be just so. At length, when they confess they are "sitting pretty" the relieved party gathers up its impediments, counts noses and starts back. The star rockets are still soaring gracefully, but the night is quiet. Slowly they work their way back through the communication trenches and find the trucks that are to take them to the reserve position.
Off we start. The road is dark and frequently a debate is held at a fork as to the proper course, but eventually every one finds his way to Manonville just as the dawn is breaking. Billets are ready and every one tumbles in.
Most "doughboys" will tell you that they prefer the front lines to the reserve and support positions, because the enemy artillery seldom goes after the front trenches unless a raid is imminent, but prefers to strafe the roads and lines of communication further back. Enemy planes locate the position of ammunition dumps and supply dumps and mark villages where troops are billeted and their artillery shells these frequently.
The reserve positions of the Eighty-ninth in the Toul sector were not trenches, but the troops were billeted in the villages which were just out of the extreme range of enemy machine-gun fire. These villages, Minorville, Manonville, Lironville and others were only partly wrecked by shell and were still partly inhabited by French citizens, who conducted the small shops and tilled the fields.
Member of Darst Platoon Says He Is Glad 89th Is Recognized
The following letter has been received:
St. Louis, April 8, 1919
To the Editor of the Globe Democrat:
I have been reading with great interest Mr. Darst’s series of articles on the Eighty-Ninth Division.
I wish to say that I know these articles are the genuine thing because I was in the same platoon of the same company as Mr. Darst was and know that he knows what he is talking about.
The description of the training of the Eighty-Ninth, both in France and in the United States, of life in the trenches and the making of reliefs, is absolutely accurate. It gives the spirit of the game exactly as it existed.
I am one of those who is glad to see the Eighty-Ninth get the recognition from the people of St. Louis that it long ago was given in the A. E. F. People here have not known enough about their own division and have not been told enough about it.
3426 Osage street.
(The fifth installment of Darst’s story of the Eighty-ninth Division will be printed tomorrow.)
More Stories by James E. Darst