ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT APRIL 11, 1919
-THE FIFTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-
April 11, 1919 . This is the fifth installment of the human-interest story of the Eighty-ninth Division, written by the former night editor of the Globe-Democrat, James E. Darst, who, as lieutenant in the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine-Gun Battalion of the Eighty-ninth, lived, fought and was gassed and wounded with these Missouri, Kansas and other Middle West soldiers.
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst.
WHERE EIGHTY-NINTH PENETRATED GERMAN LINES
[There is a large map with arrows showing how troops moved. Under the map is "The above map shows the lines before the St. Mihiel drive and the place where the Eighty-ninth penetrated."]
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst., April 11 1919
Frederick Palmer, in an article in Collier’s of April 5 refers to it as the "ghastly Toul sector." I do not believe it entirely deserves that title, although there was considerable more action there than in really quiet sectors further east.
Divisional headquarters was at Menil-la-Tour and headquarters of the One Hundred and Seventy-seventh Infantry Brigade at Minorville. The country was rolling, patched with woods and in some places rocky. The soil was clay.
The support positions were either villages further front of patches of woods, in which there were deep dugouts and plenty of them. Usually the support positions were a kilometer in front of the reserve positions and a kilometer in back of the front-line positions. Of course this varied, according to the nature of the ground.
Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood Says He Is Pleased with Story of 89th
St. Louis, Mo.
April 10, 1919
St. Louis Globe Democrat
St. Louis, Mo.
Gentlemen: I am very glad to learn that you are now writing the story of the 89th Div. In which are so many Mo. men. The Division has made a record second to none–never failing to take an objective and never late at one. A splendid organization of which I am very proud as are all Americans. In telling its story you are giving one of the glorious pages of our military history. Good luck to your enterprise.
Maj. Gen. U.S.A.
Activity Is Limited
Troops in reserve were expected to carry on with drill, seeking places that were sheltered from airplane observation. Necessarily this limited activity. Rifle and machine-gun target practice was insisted on and practice in the use of grenades, trench mortars and pistols.
Already we could see the wisdom of Gen. Wood’s insistence on a thorough training in fundamentals of military science. Knowledge of American infantry tactics for open warfare were his hobby. Some divisions had specialized in the learning of trench warfare as taught by British and French instructors, neglecting American field service regulations. We saw now that the details of trench holding could not be successfully taught in practice, but could be easily picked up in a week in actual trenches.
We realized, too, that the purpose of Gen. Pershing was to make the American Army an offensive force, not a defensive one. His hope was to break through the trenches and force the decision in the open, where American initiative and resource could count.
About this time, from August 10 to September 1, soldiers of the Eighty-ninth, who were not holding the front lines, were called on to dig an elaborate system of trenches, laid about two kilometers in back of the positions they were holding. The Three Hundred and Fourteenth Engineers had done the brain work and the ‘doughboys,’ as well as the engineers, themselves, were called on to furnish the strong back.
The men didn’t object to the work so much as they did to the idea of falling back to these trenches. We never could figure out later whether or not these trenches were built to deceive the Germans as to our intentions. I have been told that they were really intended for use, and the American soldiers would have fallen back to this line if no advance had been made before winter set in.
The idea of falling back incensed the soldiers.
"Why did they send us over?" they would ask. "Are we expected to live like rats in these ditches for four more years as the English and French have been doing? Let us at ‘em. We’ll finish the old war if they will let us attack. Hell, heaven or Hoboken by Christmas!"
Evidently the American high command thought the same way, for the decision was made to wipe out the St. Mihiel salient and the new trench system and other defensive measures were abandoned.
Of course rumors of the coming drive were already afloat, even in these latter weeks of August. We firmly believed, then, that we would go straight through to Metz and storm that stronghold. We knew that all available scout planes had been working out of Toul for weeks and we knew that corps and army artillery, American and French, was being concentrated behind us.
Some of the rumors were mild, and gave only Mont Sec as our objective. Others pledged us to a drive to the Rhine. Some truck driver would tell how his lieutenant had got it from an adjutant that Col. So-and-So said a general had told him we were going straight through to Metz, that we had 15,000 guns to support us, and that the famous "new Edition" gas was to be used for the first time.
Rumors meant nothing to us, for we had been fooled too often, and most of us pursued the safe course of disbelieving everything, but there was no denying that big guns were being emplaced in the woods about us, that groaning trucks were flashing by at night, loaded with ammunition, that headquarters for the marines had been established at our right in Domevre.
The "doughboys" would have the usual discussions about "shock" troops. They all contended stoutly that the Eighty-ninth should be in the fight, but whether they would relegate us to a minor position or use us as shock troops was problematical.
Do not imagine that the Germans were ignorant of events. This part of France was thick with spies and we were all warned to refuse to discuss anything military with the civil population. We knew some one was getting information over for they had learned the trick of shelling roads at the right times.
One innocent old man was a pigeon fancier. It was beautiful to watch him puttering about with them and see his childlike affection for his pets. It was not quite so beautiful, however, when it was found that he was sending messages through to the Boche.
Raids by the Germans against our lines, in the hope of getting information, now became more frequent. Evidently the German command felt sure something was brewing and were determined to take prisoners and get information. Their determination counted for little against the bravery of the Eighty-ninth "doughboys," for the Boche didn’t take a single prisoner in their raids.
Peeved Over Failure
They lost many killed and wounded and many prisoners trying it. One of the men taken by our men in a raid on the Three Hundred and Fifty-third Infantry told an intelligence officer that the German command was getting considerably peeved at their inability to take an American and had vowed that he would use up a whole German regiment, if necessary, to take an American. That was a useless boast.
We spent eight days in reserve and then moved up to the support positions in a woods. Life here greatly resembled existence in a hunting camp. Drill was, of course, out of the question and our vigilance during the day could be relaxed because another line of "doughboys" was between us and the Boche. Deep dugouts were plentiful and except for fleas and rats were tenable. The woods abounded in wild blackberries and when the men didn’t have anything else to do they gathered them and the cooks made them up into pies.
At night we grew more watchful, especially for gas, because Jerry had figured that troops inhabited these woods and knew that gas would linger in the foliage. Every five nights seemed to be his rate of giving us a gas attack, for in this, as in everything else, he was methodical. We caught ours the third night in and my platoon got most of it. Our orders were to withdraw to high ground and this we did, at midnight, loaded with the guns. Four men were severely gassed and sent to the rear.
After ten days in the support position we moved to the front lines for the second time. We knew every foot of ground there and dared the Boche to come over. It’s funny how a man’s attitude changes. During the first few nights a person only hopes that the Germans will delay their attack until he is better prepared for them. After that he wishes they would come, because he feels sure everyone is prepared and he would like to see how well the preparations would avail. Then comes the third stage when the "doughboy" gets tired of waiting for the other fellow to start something and hankers to get over and start things himself.
The Germans put on a beautifully-times raid on our third night back in the front lines. The raid was preceded by a box barrage that was a marvel of accuracy. The trench we were in was in the line of resistance and the outpost line was ahead of us. Two parallel communication trenches, about 800 yards apart, ran forward from our trench. The German box barrage was designed to hit our trench and the two trenches leading forward, to prevent us from going forward to join the advance party.
Raiders Behind Barrage
The German airmen certainly had given their artillery men the exact location of those trenches, for they gave us a busy hour. The barrage started at 4:30 in the morning and lasted until 5:30. Behind the barrage came the German raiding party, about 200 strong. They filtered through the American advance outguards, and got behind the trench occupied by the outposts, and from a position in a cemetery threw hand grenades.
Our men replied with grenades and rifles and formed for attack in their trench. At a command they leaped out and ran at the Boche, yelling like Indians. This took the fight out of most of them, and the others were bayonetted or retreated.
One "doughboy" with an automatic rifle, far forward, was passed up by the attacking force and lay in wait for them. As they came back his way he let them have it and hung up six in the barbed wire.
This strong German attack, with an hour’s artillery preparation, was designed to take prisoners–even one prisoner would have repaid them for their effort. But not a single American was taken and eight Germans fell into our hands. Five Americans were killed and twelve Germans.
It was an attack planned on a pretentious scale, and doubtless the Boche raiders heard harsh words when they got back and told what had happened. Four nights later the Germans tried another raid and were beaten off just as decisively. Our men were determined that none should fall into German hands, because each one knew he would never divulge a word about the preparation for the coming drive and he also knew what lengths the Germans would go to extract information from him.
First Real American Drive
The story of the St. Mihiel drive has been told often, with a wealth of explanation and an abundance of maps and statistics. Every American now knows that this was the first real American drive, planned by American officers and executed by American artillery and infantry. French colonial troops assisted in one part of the line and French tanks and French and British planes co-operated. American naval and French corps artillery also worked with the American Army artillery.
Every one has been told how the St. Mihiel salient, that had existed and menaced Verdun since 1914, was cut off, nearly 200 square miles of French territory liberated and more than 15,000 prisoners taken.
The St. Mihiel drive has been called an easy operation and indeed it was easy compared to the fighting in the Argonne forest. Nevertheless the attack was against positions that had been strengthened during four years of German occupancy, positions that the French vainly tried to take at a frightful toll of lives.
The complete story of the operation has been told by men who were in a position to gather all the data. The Eighty-ninth’s part in the operation has been told in army orders and by men who participated in the fight. But no one man in it, who was not fortunately placed in a staff position, knew how many divisions were operating, how many guns were supporting and how far the drive would pierce.
During our last stay in the front-line trenches in the Toul sector we gradually were made aware that we would not be relieved, but would hold where we were until the order came to go over the top. Since the weather had changed and it now rained every night and every day, almost continuously and our trenches were a mass of mud, we fervently hoped that the attack would be ordered soon and give us a chance to take the dry hills in front of us.
Couriers from the rear brought us word that the terrain in back of us was literally packed with artillery. Artillery officers were holding heated arguments over the locations of their batteries, and at times some one choice position would be contended for by as many as four battery commanders.
Ammunition lined the roads and packed the woods. The roads were packed with trains going forward.
After the Germans had tried twice fruitlessly to capture prisoners in raids on our lines we went a step farther in preparation and sent parties out into No Man’s Land at night to lay in wait for hostile patrols and nip their attack with machine-gun fire. Few patrols were sent out from the American lines because sufficient information was at hand, and it was not worth the risk of losing an American into German hands.
Weather Is Rainy
The weather was both favorable and unfavorable for the preparation for a drive. The constant rain and overcast skies made German airplane and balloon observation impossible, but it also made the roads bad. All up and down the Eighty-ninth sector the skies were gray and a chill mist enveloped the land. Darkness would gather by 7 o’clock and the cold rain increase in violence. Life in the trenches at this time lost considerable of its joy. Even an approximation of comfort was out of the question. The trenches were knee-deep in water in many places and everything a man possessed son became coated with mud.
Even sleep was scarce because of the increased night vigilance. For four nights before the drive I took a party of machine gunners into a patch of woods half way between the lines and we lay in wait all night for a German raid. The rain would lash our faces, the water from the ground soak into our skins and the cold wind pierce our clothing. Jerry would shell those woods promptly at 1:00 in the morning and keep us dodging for half an hour. Then he would call it a day and we would resume our vigil until it was light.
I came back from one of these patrols the morning before the drive and found an order to report at battalion headquarters in Minorville. That was an eight-kilometer walk so I shaved at once and started out.
The rain had increased in violence and the roads were impossible and I was dead tired, but I was glad to make the trip nonetheless, for the territory I traversed was the scene of a wonderful drama.
The grayness of the day had persuaded those in command to throw the usual caution to the winds, and supplies and ammunition were being brought up that usually would have come only at night. Undoubtedly there was such need of haste that these things had to be brought up then. Already the sky was showing a light patch, and any moment the sun might break through and reveal to a Boche plane the packed rods and the hurrying thousands of men, but everyone bent to his task, swearing, stewing, pushing, hurrying to get through.
Olive street at noon ever had heavier traffic than the main road leading up to the front did that September 11. A constant stream of trucks, marching soldiers, artillery caissons, machine-gun carts, rolling kitchens lumbered by. It was a two-way road and side cars and motorcycles and empty trains bucked the line, going back.
The truck drivers’ eyes were rimmed with red, for their had been a continual effort for the last week, sleep snatched for an hour or so at a time before the start was made on another trip. Couriers, on motorcycles dodged patiently through the broken field, taking desperate chances for openings. Her at the side of the road a company of marines were resting, munching at their iron rations.
The marines were grimed with three days of hiking over the muddy roads, unshaven, gaunt with fatigue. They had outmarched their kitchens and were living on the food they carried. Still, they bore themselves with the cockiness of tried and superb fighters, and seemed to defy hardship to dampen their spirits.
The Tangle of Traffic
We came to a place where traffic was hopelessly tangled, and a perspiring M.P. was trying desperately to straighten it out. Finally a colonel leaped from his side car and rushed forward and found that a stalled truck was blocking the way. The driver was trying to urge the truck up onto the road, and the wheels were whirring in the mud. The colonel ordered him to back into the field, and back the truck sank, hopelessly mired now, but out of the way of other vehicles.
Ammunition for 75s to 10-inch rifles was stacked in the edge of woods. Some shells were marked with the green and yellow crosses that told they contained gas. Frenchmen were placing their batteries in positions on the reverse slope of hills, utterly ignoring camouflage in the last hurry to get ready. Machine guns were being emplaced, their legs weighted down with sandbags against the jarring that would come later when they were fired continuously.
In sheltered fields great tents were going up, reminiscent of circus day at home. Soon the operating tables and shining instruments would be laid out in those tents and surgeons and nurses would wait for the trickle of wounded that would start almost with the first shots of the barrage and swell in volume as the drive got under way.
The confusion seemed complete, and yet every one was bending to the one task allotted him, and every one would get there on time–somehow.
Late in the afternoon of September 11 it grew lighter and the rain ceased. The slow-moving procession toward the front still went on. Back in support positions doughboys were getting a final hot meal, all ready to surge forward over the roads to their jumping-off places as soon as it was dark enough to travel.
In the front trenches every one was getting ready to go. The packs were stripped of everything but mess kits, iron rations and an extra pair of socks and toilet articles. It was optional with the man whether he slept in a blanket or not. Slickers were left out of the pack because we expected rain again any minute. Rifles and pistols were given a final polishing, ammunition was counted and arranged over the person, gas masks given a final test.
Property Left Behind
Every one in my outfit took what he had to abandon and dumped it in one dugout. I put a label on the wall over the property calling attention to the fact that it belonged to D Company of the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine-gun Battalion. Of course, it never did any good, and whoever came along later "salvaged" whatever he wanted.
(The next installment of Darst’s story of the Eighty-ninth Division will be printed in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat next Monday.)
More Stories by James E. Darst