ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT APRIL 14, 1919 

-THE SIXTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-


 

"Let’s Go!" Men of 89th Shout as Zero Hour Arrives at 

St. Mihiel and Their Terrific Barrage Pounds 

German Lines Few Yards Ahead

 

Enemy Dugouts Well Lighted, Roomy, Often Papered with Pictures.

Little Prussian Lieutenant Loses Temper When Crew of Machine Gun Refuses to Let Him Die Gloriously by Firing on Advancing Americans.

 

This is the sixth installment of the inside, fighting, hour-by-hour story of the Eighty-ninth Division, composed of Middle West boys, many from Missouri and Kansas. It is the diary of James E. Darst, former night editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and lieutenant of the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine-gun Battalion of the Eighty-ninth. Darst was gassed and wounded fighting with the Eighty-ninth. 

Copyright 1919, by James E. Darst


 

The Eighty-ninth was to go over between Filrey and Limey, with the Second Division on our right and the Forty-second or "Rainbow" Division on our left.

Shortly after dusk we got our orders from brigade headquarters. We learned that the barrage was to start at 1 in the morning of September 12 and would concentrate at first on the German rear positions, pounding roads, dugouts, villages. The zero hour, or "H" hour was just at 5 a.m. and an hour before this time the artillery would shirt to the positions just in front of us and pound them to a pulp, trying to smash trenches and cut barbed wired.

During the artillery fire certain machine guns would deliver a barrage, designed to sweep roads and keep down occupants of German trenches. The rest of the machine guns of the division were to go over with the infantry in the assault, keeping up with the infantry as well as their heavier load would permit and being prepared to engage enemy snipers or machine guns and help the infantry hold the positions they won against counter attacks.

Machine-gun platoon commanders were instructed to stay with the captain of the infantry company they were supporting and turn the guns over to the platoon sergeant. Every company and platoon commander called his noncoms into his dugout soon after getting his orders and told them what they were to do.

Sub-Headings:


 

 

Waiting to Go Over

It was an interesting conference. Every one was looking pointblank at the fact that he might have only a few more hours of life and yet I believe 90 per cent of the men felt sure that it was the other fellow who was going to get it. We felt we could hardly wait for the barrage to start at 1 o’clock, for Jerry had been throwing them over at us with impunity for the last week, our guns replying only with occasional ranging shots. We had comforted ourselves, while dodging a "G. I can," with the thought that Fritz would get his when the attack started.

The men made a few final arrangements among themselves. A man would tell his Bunkie just who to write to in case anything happened. They would give directions about the disposal of small trinkets or debts they wanted paid. There was no spirit of gloom in this, but simply the sensible man’s idea to have things right – in case ---.

At 10:30 the night of September 11, we lined up in our trenches preparatory to making the hike of half a mile through a communication trench to our jump-off position. It was a night whose duplicate I never care to see again. Of course the rain had started again and it was pitch dark. One could not see 8 feet in front of him. He could barely make out the walls of the trenches he was standing in.

The trenches were knee-deep in mud and slime and we stood in them, motionless, for an hour and a half, waiting for the road ahead to clear so we could move. Finally we got out onto a road, leading up the front. The road was being used by the men of three divisions, packed shoulder to shoulder across its breadth. Men of the Ninetieth were on the right edge of the road, working forward in columns of two. In the center were the marines, of the Second Division, and we had the left edge.

Men kept their free hands on the shoulder of the man in front and stuck with him. If someone slipped or the line became broken the word passed up front:

"Halt!"

Back would come a query from the company commander as to the cause of delay. Then the line would jostle forward again, sloshing through the mud, rain trickling off tin hats onto burdened shoulders.

A Truck Gets in the Way

A French battery of 75s had been placed beside the road and a truck was trying to regain the road after hauling ammunition. At length the exasperated doughboys rushed at it and shoved it over, giving the driver time to get out. Voluble French profanity was swallowed up in the gloom.

It took us almost an hour to travel about 600 yards on that road. At no time could we progress more than ten steps before being stopped some obstacle. Had the Germans ever dropped a shell on that road seething with humanity, they would have taken a frightful toll of lives, but that particular road was never shelled and Jerry was too methodical to begin now.

At 1 o’clock we were cutting across a bit of open field to the jumping-off trench, when the barrage started. Every gun along the 30-mile front seemed to open at once, on the tick of the second hand. Of course it is impossible to describe.

The battery of the 75s behind us was firing directly over our heads and the short, crisp bark sounded right in our ears. The sound was magnificent. After the first shock of the sudden blast had died away we found ourselves getting accustomed to the concentrated turmoil and we could note its pulsations. It would swell and recede, like the roar of the sea. There would come a pause, not silence, but diminished noise, and then a sudden burst would come and the din would sweep up the line. Sometimes the peak of the crashing noise seemed far away up or down the line and sometimes we seemed to be in the center of it.

The murky sky was rent by innumerable flashes, like summer heat lightning multiplied a thousand times. There was a low undercurrent of throbbing noise that persisted through the sharper blasts. That was the bursting of our projectiles far back within the German lines.

How Thermite Acts

The Thirtieth Engineers – the "Gas and flame" outfit – had joined this little party and were putting over their specialty – liquid thermite. I believe this is the pinnacle of war’s horrors. The shell bursts in the air, as does shrapnel, but instead of showering pieces of steel, it sprays down molten metal, that burns through the stoutest iron helmet and sears the body of the man beneath.

We could distinguish these thermite shells bursting like graceful rockets and then the white-hot jet of falling death, spreading in the sky.

We wondered how the Germans were taking it. Over in their lines, from the first blast of the barrage, came frantic rocket signals of distress. Vainly they were calling to their artillery and reserves for succor. We could imagine lonely drivers, caught with their trucks on some road far in their rear; German infantryman, crouching in their dugouts, waiting for the walls to cave in; German machine gunners and snipers waiting for the barrage to lift, realizing that their last day was even now dawning, that they were about to take their places as sacrifice troops, to fight without hope of quarter until they were overwhelmed.

We got a fierce exultation out of it. Surely, this was war at its most hellish, but, after all, the Germans richly deserved its worst. As it grew lighter, smoking was permitted and everyone pulled excitedly at cigarettes. We worked forward until we were in place to climb out of the trenches and go over.

We had an hour for meditation, or low-toned conversation, prayer, memories – whatever a man desired. Now the barrage had come close and was playing on the barbed wire and trenches, just in front of us. The shells were bursting as few as 200 yards in front, and the din had become terrific. One had to shout in the ear of the man next to him to be understood. The rat-tat-tat of machine guns now became apparent. They were our own, laying down a close-in barrage. As the bullets passed over our heads, each one cracked, exactly like the snap of a whip. When they hiss it means they are much closer to you.

Everyone’s eyes constantly re-returned to the dial of his wrist watch to note how the hands moved slowly to 5 o’clock. Five minutes more – a hasty survey of pistol belt, ammunition clips, rifle, pack; two minutes – the German machine guns were opening and the bullets had a new sing as they passed over the trench; one minute – everyone ready? Then the platoon leader, or company commander, would make a leap at the parapet, swing himself up on top, turn to the men and yell:

"Let’s go!"

They would swarm after him, helping each other up. One man slipped and fell back into the trench and broke his leg, just as the battle started. Those up first pushed back the strands of barbed wire and waited for the others before they formed. The Infantry spread into open skirmish formation and moved forward at a rapid walk. One hundred yards in front the creeping barrage was moving. In the uproar no one could distinguish one shell from another until the sudden upheaval of the earth in front told where one had landed.

As we came out of the trenches we saw a valley in front of us, flanked on our left by a woods, the Bois de Mort Homme, the cleaning out of which was one of our tasks. To the right a system of German trenches appeared, shattered by the barrage, the wire rolled up in fantastic strands, cut by the shrapnel.

A wave of infantry in front was advancing down the slope into the valley, striving for a space beyond the woods. From one edge of the woods we could note a German machine gun firing. One of my gun sections was given the task of silencing this gun, firing over the head of our own infantry. This was successful, for within five minutes the Germans quit and two appeared at the edge of the woods with their hands held up.

Corp. Floyd Davis, a South Dakota boy of my platoon, asked the man in German if there were others in the woods and on being told there were, directed Jerry to go back and get them. Soon after he reappeared with sixty more willing German prisoners.

The infantry captain, Capt. Ellis of the Three Hundred and Fifty-third Infantry, whom I was accompanying, was shot a few minutes after starting over and I grabbed my machine gunners and went it alone. As we went down the hill snipers and automatic riflemen in the woods took a toll of the infantry and machine gunners. I saw four men killed by a single sniper, or I judged it was the same man, because the shots came from the same part of the woods. A doughboy shot him out of the trees a few minutes later.

Things were pretty well confused now. The waves were becoming mixed and control was getting difficult. We knew only one thing, to go ahead. "The command is forward."

Our Planes Appear.

The sun had come out now and the fog had lifted and we could see our planes zooming up and down over our heads as we advanced. It was their job to show the artillery how far we had gotten. Not ten minutes after we started we saw one plane crash, riddled with bullets from a German machine gun.

We "leaned against our barrage" that is, kept just behind the bursting curtain of fire.

As we pressed forward after the flying infantry, the task of the machine gunners was a cruel one. Each men carried at least 50 pounds of machine-gun equipment besides his pack and pistol. The day grew warm and we were covered with grime. The doughboys were scouting ahead, cleaning out dugouts and machine-gun nests, and we were staggering on, trying to keep up with them.

Impressions became hazy and only occasional incidents stood out. We got over with the marines once, who were on our right, and a marine intelligence officer pleaded with me to get word to the Eighty-ninth Infantry to keep farther to the right.

Then we ran into the German counter barrage and took squad formation as the best protection of a moving body of men against shell fire. We penetrated the Bois de Mort Homme and found the advance party of doughboys there. We had traveled too fast and out own barrage was tearing into the trees then. We "pulled" for it to hurry up and lift.

The doughboys of the Three Hundred and Fifty-third had about 300 German prisoners collected there. They ranged in apparent ages from 14 to 50. Many of them were stupid-looking boys, the glowering kind. Another common type was the peering student, pale, voluble. We commented on the scarcity of officers. A German private explained this by telling how their officers had told them early the preceding night to watch things carefully, for they (the officers) had to go to the rear. Evidently the Boche officers had inside information on our coming drive.

Our own wounded and the Boche wounded were collected under the trees for first aid and the unwounded Boche were being impressed into service to carry the wounded back.

We moved on again and staggered up to our first objective, beating the schedule by two hours. Every one heaved himself on the ground and panted. After five minutes of relaxation we nibbled at our canned "willy" and hard tack and took cautious sips of water, for we had not eaten or drank anything for well over twelve active hours.

We commenced to realize that we were in German territory. There were the sign posts, warning against gas or directing to some command post. There were the abandoned German helmets and pieces of uniform. We looked curiously at the country round and thought of the days and nights we laid our own trenches and wondered what was taking place over here.

The German dugouts were elaborate. Most of them were lighted by electricity and had good stoves. Many were large and roomy and could easily accommodate 100 men. One dugout had six entrances and in the bottom was a small-scale bowling alley. Pianos were not infrequent, pictures lined the walls and it was evident that the Boche was ready to spend many comfortable months there.

We moved on again through a woods that was strong in phosgen gas and came out into an open space. There was a gentle slope rising to a hill, and we moved slowly up it. When we got to the top we found that two Boche machine guns were trained on the slope and could have swept us off our feet had they fired.

A little Prussian lieutenant was in charge of the guns and evidently was very indignant at the crew. They had been put there to stop us, but evidently the men realized that if they fired their days were numbered, and refused to cut loose. The little lieutenant wore the iron cross and seemed nettled that his chance to die gloriously had been taken from him. The iron cross was also taken from him and the lieutenant and his "yellow" machine gunners were sent to the rear.

The going was more difficult now, for we were getting out of range of our lighter guns and into the secondary German line of defense. I have read criticisms of artillery support of certain divisions in other fights. Undoubtedly the men noticed a slackening of their own guns’ fire after they had advanced. This is one of the fortunes of war that cannot be helped.

German "whiz-bangs" were operating successfully against us. The "whizzer" is reputed to be an Austrian 88-millimeter rifle, with a very low trajectory and high velocity. We never knew just what the antecedents and lineology of the "whizzer" were, but we did know that the shells came exceeding fast, the scream of approach being followed immediately by the explosion. There is a brief second of time with other shells before they explode, and a man has a chance to throw himself flat, but there is no dodging a "whizzer."

We had numerous casualties before we got shelter in a depression. It was then about noon. The sky was clear, for the first time in eight days, and we could see far over the rolling hills of Lorraine and discern moving, olive-drab figures. The doughboy was still striding along at this rapid walk. We consulted maps and talked things over with liaison officers and established the fact that we had reached our objective and were called on now to dig in, to consolidate the positions against a probably counter attack.

In Back of Thiacourt

Our position was on a shelf of a hill, looking toward Thiacourt. Below us lay the town of Boullionville, that just had been cleaned of Germans, and some 300 of them were walking toward us escorted by half a dozen doughboys. Each one had the red cross brassard on his arm, but we knew that this did not prove they were in that service. German machine gunners were reputed to always carry red cross brassards in their pockets.

We were dog-tired and went slowly about the work of digging in. All along the line doughboys and machine gunners of the Eighty-ninth were consolidating, getting ready to hold what they had just taken. Down below us in Boullionville some of the doughboys had found a German train on a narrow-gauge track, loaded with delicacies for German wounded. Everyone helped themselves to blankets, new underwear, socks, cigarettes and cigars.

Dusk came on and we commenced to get word of the entire drive. We learned that thousands of Germans had been captured, that our own casualties were light and that the high command was delighted by the showing of the First American Army in its first major operation.

As the shades of night gathered we made ready to abandon our hurriedly dug fox holes and move forward to lay in wait for a counter attack. You can be sure we were weary, for we had not slept the preceding night and little the night before that. We trudged down the slope into the village of Boullionville and noted where our artillery had smashed it. I recollect a garden that the Germans had set out in cabbages. Four shells had landed in the soft earth and the cabbages were slaw now.

We toiled up a road to a plateau that lay on the north of Boullionville and passed many German dead, mangled by our shell fire. They were twisted in grotesque positions. We noted curiously the ghastly whiteness of their faces.

Ordered to Wait

It was raining, cold, dark when we reached the plateau, and we got an order to lie down in the field and wait. We had donned our slickers, and wrapped in these we stretched out on the ground and mounted our guns and let the rain soak in on us. Far in front of us we could see the flames of burning Thiacourt. We waited patiently until midnight, but the Boche didn’t favor us with an attack.

At midnight we moved to take up our positions for the next day’s attack. All night we marched by the compass and the north star, and at 3:30 came to a ditch beside the Metz road that was near to the position we sought. We threw ourselves in the ditch, while Capt. Paul Byrum of Kansas City hunted brigade headquarters to get orders.

He returned in an hour and we dragged ourselves forward again. We stumbled up a hill and came close to the village of Beney. This had not yet been cleaned out and the attack was to start there at dawn. We were so utterly exhausted that we were numb. It isn’t the danger nor the pain that the soldier minds, but the hardships of the march, the digging in without shelter, the living in the rain.

At dawn the attack started. Beney was cleaned and the line swept toward Xammes. The going was tough. The day was cloudy, and our planes had difficult keeping touch with us and locating the German batteries that had been set up during the night. Furthermore, our mastery of the air was no longer uncontested, and the famed Richthofen circus had come to harass us. Our advance, outside of Beney, was up a long, gentle slope, and the Boche had a battery of 88s placed at the top that could sweep the slope. Vainly our planes went over to locate the battery. As the doughboys walked up the slope, in squad columns, the battery fired point blank at them. I saw the attack go forward three times, be halted half way by the rain of projectiles and fall back. It was an hour before the battery was flanked and its gunners bayoneted.

The lines through Xammes was our second and final objective and it was gained ahead of schedule. The Boche artillery fire was gaining hourly in intensity, as they rushed up reserves, and our artillery had not had time to catch us. Boche planes grew in numbers.

The evening of the first day we saw a wonderful air battle, right over our positions, the wings of the planes gleaming silver in the evening sun. At least sixty planes were engaged in a "dog fight," every one for himself. It was at least a ten-ring circus.

Plane Bursts Into Flame

Three or four planes would go at each other, twisting, diving suddenly, side-slipping. The air was full of the streaks of tracer bullets and the putter of machine guns. Suddenly one plane far up in the air, burst into flame and began to fall. We watched it twist and turn, now dropping rapidly, now drifting down and we knew that the poor devil who had guided it was past help now. Blazing like a torch it crashed to the ground. Hardly had we raised our eyes to the struggling planes again than we saw a second plane go down in flames.


Doughboys Make Final Disposal of Small Debts

Darst tells of preparing to go over the top as follows:

It was an interesting conference. Every one was looking point-blank at the fact that he might have only a few more hours of life and yet I believe 90 per cent of the men felt sure that it was the other fellow who was going to get it. We felt we could hardly wait for the barrage to start at 1 o’clock, for Jerry had been throwing them over at us with impunity for the last week, our guns replying only with occasional ranging shots. We had comforted ourselves, while dodging a "G.I. can," with the thought Fritz would get his when the attack started.

The men made a few final arrangements among themselves. A man would tell his Bunkie just who to write to in case anything happened. They would give directions about the disposal of small trinkets or debts they wanted paid. There was no spirit of gloom in this, but simply the sensible man’s idea to have things right – in case ---.

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Question of Artillery Support Declared to Be One of Fortunes of War that Can’t Be Helped

"Whizzer" is Thing You Can’t Dodge

Reputed to Be Austrian 99 Millimeter Rifle, but It’s Antecedent Still a Matter of Guess

The village of Beney was headquarters for the Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry at this time, the second day of the St Mihiel drive. Late in the afternoon we were withdrawn through Beney, preparatory to taking up defensive positions at Xammes.

We had not slept for two nights and had not eaten anything except our canned corned beef and hard tack for two days. To put it mildly, we were ravenous. When we got into Beney we were forced to wait for three hours. Beney was a village of perhaps 1000 souls. German officers had been billeted there and German soldiers had cultivated the gardens. I never saw a finer looking crop of cabbages, turnips and carrots.

The Boches were shelling the town constantly, but no one paid much attention to the explosions. A man soon develops the philosophy that if he is destined to get hit he will be hit and there is no use worrying about it. We found refuge, a company of us, in a barn that probably had been used to shelter the horses of German officers. It was half full of clean hay.

Soon the men were foraging about the place for food. The first contingent explored the gardens and came back with arms full of carrots and cabbages. Carrots, even when skillfully disguised, have never had a direct appeal to me, but somehow those particular carrots tasted like cake. We remembered the stories of Germans poisoning food when they retreated, but we couldn’t think their ingenuity had showed them a way to poison carrots without taking them out of the ground.

Pretty soon another contingent of explorers found a kitchen close-by. It contained everything a well-regulated German kitchen should contain – post, pans, spices, jams, potatoes, lard, two wood stoves, coffee, black bread. We didn’t see any meat but even as we pondered this lack, a muffled squawk came to us out of an adjacent shed and presently a soldier entered the kitchen bearing two speckled German hens, of doubtful lineage but pleasing development of limb and chest.

Experienced Hand Gets Chicken

Some buck from the Middle West, who had administered the coup de grace to many a fowl on his native farm, effected the execution of this pair and willing hands fell to plucking them of their feathers. Someone else had brought wood for the fire. Another had pulled down a skillet. And was greasing it.

There were representatives of three divisions and numerous regiments gathered about, assisting in the preparation of the meal. It was a queer situation. Each party of doughboys rummaged busily among the pots and pans and went about the preparation of his meal quite unconcerned that shells were dropping in the fields near-by and might hit his shelter at any moment.

I ran into a Y.M.C.A. man and we fell to talking . I learned he was from Kansas City and I told him I was from St. Louis. We leaned against a wall and marveled at the scene.

 

Missouri Historical Society Is Preserving Story of 89th

Lieut. James E. Dasrt’s story of the Eighty-ninth Division, which is now being printed in the Globe-Democrat, is being preserved by the Missouri Historical Society at the Jefferson Memorial. Miss Stella M. Drumm, librarian of the society, stated yesterday that the story was being clipped from the paper, pasted on cardboards, and would eventually be bound in book form as the best method of preserving it.

"It is a very interesting and valuable work," said Miss Drumm. "It will be even more interesting and valuable in years to come. Historians in the future will find it a big help in recording the deeds of the troops from Missouri and the neighboring states."

Darst’s story will be an important part of the records of St. Louis and Missouri men kept by the Historical Society, Miss Drumm said.

(The next installment of Darst’s story of the Eighty-ninth Division will be printed in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat tomorrow.)

More Stories by James E. Darst