ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, APRIL 15, 1919
-THE SEVENTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-
This is the seventh installment of the James E. Darst story of the Eighty-ninth Division. Mr. Darst formerly was night editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He was lieutenant in the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine Gun Battalion of the Eighty-ninth, was gassed and wounded, and has been returned to St. Louis as convalescent.
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst
Could you imagine, six months ago, that you would ever experience this?"
It was the old question. Of course, I couldn’t.
Soon the chickens were sizzling in one frying pan, French fried potatoes were cooking in another, coffee was boiling. Someone had tried the jam and found it good and a jar of pickles was thrown wide. Someone had gone into the shed again and discovered a pen of Belgian hares. In a few minutes every doughboy had a hare dangling by the ears and their span of life was brief.
F. Hopkinson Smith once wrote at length and charmingly about eating. Half a dozen men, gathered in a club lounging room, told, in turn, of the most memorable meal of their lives. Food was glorified.
Personally, I never expect again to taste food that was so ravishingly good as those fried rabbits and chickens, prepared by amateur cooks, under shell-fire, in Beney, that September 13. Remember we had not eaten hot food for forty-eight hours and had been constantly tramping and living under the skies for that time. Everyone gorged. Just when we had finished word came to shove on, and in the dusk we took the road toward Xammes. We felt like new men, pulsing with energy now, ready for anything.
We spent our first six hours in our new positions digging in. We were lying alongside a rock road with open fields on either side, into which the Boche were constantly dropping high explosive. I never could understand why he did not shell our road.
"Digging In" a Bad Job.
Digging in is a rotten job. We didn’t have enough short-handled picks and shovels for everyone, and a man had to work awhile with a pick and then turn it over to his neighbor, and scoop out the dirt with the lid of his mess-kit. We were racing like mad to get our holes deep enough to give us protection in case the Germans shifted their artillery fire to our road. As we dug we threw the dirt toward the enemy and built up a small parapet. Later we would connect the holes so a man could go along the line without leaving protection.
It is precisely in this way that trench systems are formed. Many persons imagine that all trenches were prepared long in advance, but this is true only in cases where the retirement has been ordered long in advance. The trenches that extended from Switzerland to the North Sea were almost invariably started as we were starting them at Xammes. A party of men would seek shelter from artillery fire after an advance or a retreat. Each man would scoop out the ground at his side and when it was a big enough hole to hide him he rolled into it and set about enlarging it.
As the days and nights passed each soldier would deepen and broaden his hole and extend it toward the hole beside him. When all were connected there was a continuous trench. Later, communication trenches were dug towards the rear to facilitate the bringing up of supplies.
We weren’t planning on any future trench system, but we were grimly in earnest about getting our own holes deep enough. Long after midnight everyone had scooped out a hole about 3 feet wide, 6 feet long and 4 feet deep. Blankets were spread in these, and everyone who could be spared from his vigil slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
There wasn’t much sleep for some of us. We knew the terrain in front was probably full of German patrols and that an attack in force might come any minute.
We knew that all along our line the Eighty-ninth had attained all its objectives ahead of time and were not strengthening those positions. We were up against the test of real soldiers now. The thrill of the advance strengthens and heartens a man for danger. The zest of the attack carries him through. Things become really heart-breaking when the advance is over and men are required to lay in shallow holes, pounded by enemy artillery, the ground swept by machine-gun fire, hostile airplanes sweeping through the sky, dropping bombs and turning their machine guns into the trenches.
Life About the Same.
The Eighty-ninth remained dug in on the St. Mihiel front from September 13 to October 1, and on that date took over the sector held by the Forty-second, or Rainbow, Division, holding there until October 8, when they were sent to the Argonne forest to take part in the drive along the Meuse River.
Life along the front held a great deal of sameness after the first thrill of consolidating positions was over. Regiments and battalions relieved each other in the front positions and the outfits in the rear had the opportunity to relax a little, wash their clothing and get hot and regular meals.
In the front positions the men still lived in foxholes. "Foxhole" was the doughboy’s name for the shelter he dug for himself in the side of a hill. I don’t know why the fox was dragged into the nomenclature, for a fox is reputed to be a wise animal, and if he deserves his reputation certainly would never inhabit such an uncomfortable home as the soldier was forced to cling to.
Days were a great deal alike in the foxholes and yet filled with plenty of excitement. Every day was a typical day.
The Three Hundred and Fifty-third Infantry and our machine gun battalion occupied a road between Beney and Xammes. The latter village evidently had been an important German reserve position, for the houses were stored with food and clothing when we entered, and a complete advance hospital, instruments and all, was captured and converted to our use.
To the right of Xammes was a large and luxuriant cabbage patch, and many of the infantry dug in there because the ground was soft. The Germans shelled the town at about one-hour intervals and the cabbage patch always got more than its share. A stroll down the road into Xammes was a high adventure, for the shelling might start at any moment and there was no protection against it.
The terrain here was rolling and green. The foxholes were dug in the slopes of the gentle hills. Ahead of us was the village of Xammes, behind us the road to Beney and the rear. Doughboys held the advanced positions in Xammes. Behind us the Three Hundred and Fourteenth Engineers were working desperately to repair the roads to enable the artillery and supply trains to come up.
As dawn came on a person could make out the figures of soldiers squatting in their holes near by. Usually two men occupied a hole together, and if they were both fortunate they were sleeping in utter exhaustion, huddled together for warmth. We had "borrowed" a number of mattresses from the German stores of supplies in Xammes, and these were placed in the bottom of the holes. When it rained all a person could do was wait resignedly and bail out his home when the downpour had ceased.
When it grew lighter most of the men would bestir themselves and take a bored view of the new day. A man then would go about making his toilet. If he were lucky his water supply would consist of a few drops in a canteen.
The first process was a vigorous shaking. Rising cautiously, the "buck" would remove his "tin hat" and shake out the accumulation of clods that had lodged in his hair throughout the night. He would then "dust" his hair with his hand and set about seeking a piece of mirror. The mirror would be propped up in a niche and the soldier would cautiously survey himself. If he were a strong man he could survive the initial shock without losing the desire to live. For a man becomes exceedingly unbeautiful when his post office address is a ditch, dirt showing its strong affinity for the human countenance.
"Is this here mirror an accurate instrument, Bill?" the doughboy would call over anxiously to his bunkie.
"Absolutely accurate. And why?"
"But, Bill, I don’t really look as bad as it says I do?"
"Much worse. You are one of the horrors of war."
Doughboy Washes His Face
Sighing, the doughboy would resume his toilet. Fumbling in his pack, still on his knees, he would bring forth a rag that would make a skillet shudder. Carefully removing the stopper of his canteen, he would transfer a few drops to the rag and go about washing his face as cats and rabbits do, making up for lack of moisture by the vigor of the application.
The drying would be done with the other end of the rag. Then he would part his hair with his fingers, readjust the tin hat and be ready for the day.
Shaving was a much more intricate and painful process. Let whiskers grow for three or four days and mix them with grime and a razor meets stubborn resistance.
As the day would come on our chief duty would be to keep out of sight and on the alert. Soon the hum of airplane motors would come to our ears and a cautious survey of the sky would show half a dozen planes in battle formation, ranging above our lines. It was exceedingly interesting speculation whether they were our planes or Boche. Glasses would be brought into play, and finally a close scrutiny would reveal the circular markings of an allied plane—or the black Maltese cross of the Germans.
If they were Boche every one would remain low and motionless. Whoever was moving at the moment dropped where he was and stayed there. At the same time every one kept a sharp eye on the invaders. Sometimes a plane would sharply disengage itself from the formation and suddenly swoop low over the rows of foxholes. A warning cry would run along the line, and every one would strain his ears for the first crackle of machine-gun fire from the plane.
When the burst came every one would huddle in the corner nearest the direction of approach of the plane and draw in his legs and arms to the smallest compass. Conscience would smite a man then—why hadn’t he dug that hole deeper when he had the chance? An anxious moment while the plane was zooming above, and then it was past. No one allowed himself the luxury of a breath of relief, however, for they knew how fast the plane could wheel in its tracks and pay a return visit.
Usually the plane paid several return engagements, varying its angle of approach and making the men in the foxholes seek different positions.
Feeling One of Helplessness
It is the most helpless feeling imaginable. In our sector at that time we had orders not to shoot at planes with machine guns, and all we could do was to lie there and take it. We felt that the Boche aviator must be having a fiendish delight in strafing us. How we longed to get our clutches on him!
Bombing always added to the delights of a perfect day. An airplane bomb makes a much louder noise than an exploding shell and gives a much greater feeling of danger. Shelling somehow seems impersonal, for you know that the artillerymen, miles away, doesn’t see his target and doesn’t particularly care who gets hit—just so it is someone. But one knows that the aviator has his target spread out before him and you are the target. You know he can spot his own shots and take immediate steps to correct errors.
There is nothing to do but stick it out and hope you are lucky. Indeed, you have to be.
As the day wears on the shelling grows in intensity. Doughboys, busily engaged in figuring where an approaching shell will land, have time to "cuss out" their own artillery.
"What are those bums doing back there?" they ask.
"Probably having a great time. I do hope the nasty old war isn’t keeping them from their fun."
As a matter of fact, the artillery is having its hands full "back there" dragging up their guns over impossible roads, meeting a rain of shell fire, hurrying without rest to gain new positions and support their infantry. The doughboy doesn’t take his own criticism seriously, but it is human nature to think the other fellow is loafing and having it easy while you are working hard.
Among the stores captured in Xammes were many kegs of German beer. It was dark and sweetish, evidently a kind of Muenchener, but of poor quality. However, with water scarce, it was decidedly welcome—and perhaps would have been welcome even with water abundant.
Ever and anon one would perceive a strange procession coming down the road out of Xammes. As it came closer one could make out half a dozen doughboys in solemn escort of a keg of beer, mounted on a wheelbarrow. They would relieve each other at the handles of the wheelbarrow and never slacken their progress toward their own positions.
Beer as a Protection
I remember two marines making that pilgrimage one day. Probably they were foraging on their own initiative; equally probably their offense would be condoned if they got back safely with the beer. They were coming slowly and doggedly up the road, the two of them, pushing the loaded wheelbarrow and utterly unmindful of falling shell. The big ones, the "G.I. cans," were dropping all around, but they paid them not the slightest attention.
"I say, Buddy," some intrenched doughboy called out to them, "You know you’re going to get hit?"
"Me hit? Never. Those Dutchmen ain’t going to shoot close to a keg of beer!"
Evidently the marines were right, for they disappeared over the brow of the hill in safety.
Well, that beer came in handy, for washing and shaving (and drinking). It was too insipid to tempt any one to drink too much. With the beer the Germans had stored thousands of cartons of a compressed honey that seemed to be a popular article of their diet. It probably was a chemical, synthetic honey and had about the consistency of a paste. It came in cubicle boxes, about three inches in all directions and, served with German hardtack, it made an acceptable food. The German hardtack came in muslin sacks, holding about three pounds. We also captured hundreds of earthen jars of apple butter.
This honey and hardtack and jam was our ration for three days until our kitchens caught up with us. Of course, soldiers are fond of sweets and we appreciated the Germans leaving us anything to eat, but you can bet it palled on the jaded appetite after the first day.
Every one accumulated a store of jam, honey and hardtack in his foxhole and served his own meals whenever the fancy moved him. These "meals" and the shelling were the only diversions.
Of course most of the night was spent in vigilance, but occasionally every one got the chance to sleep. Sleeping in a foxhole is just one step better than never sleeping. The damp from the earth strikes through the blankets and clothing and thoroughly chills. Your pillow is the useful "tin hat," which doesn’t make a bad head rest, if it be pulled down on the back of the neck.
Must Sleep on Back
It is almost imperative that a person sleep on his back because the gas mask is tied under the chin and prevents much rolling about. As you stretch your legs and carefully place your head in the tin hat you discover how much loose earth fringes the edge of your "home," poised to roll in on you. The slightest move brings down a shower of clods. Dirt finds its way into your eyes and you feel the insistent bulge of a large lump that has lodged just under your backbone.
If you are sufficiently exhausted—and it is probable you are in this condition—you pass up these minor inconveniences and fall asleep. Hours later you are snatched from a land of sunshine to the wide-awake realization that shells are bursting near. The detonations are rocking the ground around you and new clods are being dislodged and are tumbling in on you. You hear the zing of shell fragments cutting the air.
Strange as it may seem, a man can sleep peacefully during a bombardment. As soon as you can assure yourself that the shell are not destined for your immediate neighborhood, you fall peacefully to sleep again. Shell fire has a lulling effect on the nerves of a tired man—at least I found it so.
After several hours of sleep it is time to go on guard. The vigil in the foxhole differs from the vigil in the trenches. Lights and other of the pyrotechnics of No Man’s Land are taboo in open warfare and the blackness has no relief.
The Germans were reputed to use "duck calls" or an imitation of the chirp of birds as a means of keeping in touch with each other when they came over in patrols, and it was easy to imagine this sound during the stillness of the night.
Of course, during all this drive in the St. Mihiel sector and during the consolidation after the drive, men were being killed and wounded, gassed and overcome by the horrible fatigue of the thing. I don’t know whether I have made clear how terrible this fatigue was. You have been ordinarily tired, in civilian life, and have thought you had reached your limit of endurance. Then, perhaps, you were called on to rouse and keep going.
Imagine keeping up this going for hours and days after you knew the limit had been reached, marching at night, when your legs were numb with exhaustion. Stumbling on when your feet ached and were swollen, your eyes were red with weariness, your whole frame aching.
Heaven, a Clean Bed.
Imagine getting to the point where heaven was represented by a clean bed, with sheets on it, where a hot meal was paradise. But I do not think anyone can imagine it.
Col. Conrad S. Babcock, now in command of the Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry, summed it up: "I have seen my regiment go into an attack, get its objectives and then dig in and hold. They had taken along no slickers and few rations. Supplies could not be brought up. The men lay in the mud and the rain came down on them. What did they do? Why, they walked half the night to get enough warmth in themselves to sleep through the other half.
"Will their folks in St. Louis and the other Missouri towns ever realize how their sons fought and went through the campaigns? Will the people of any part of our country? I do not think it is possible for them to do so. Only the men who have been in France can understand.
"Mud? The man back home talks of mud when he gets the uppers of his shoes dirty, but mud will always be a horrible word for the returned soldier. The very day the armistice was signed I went through the regiment, telling them it was all off. I remember going through a field, when I found a lone doughboy. He was trudging along with his pack and his shoes and puttees were caked with red.
" ‘It’s all over,’ I said. ‘The armistice has been signed.’
" ‘Thank God,’ he replied. ‘Now we can get out of the mud.’ It was his first thought. He had been sleeping in it, marching in it, living in it for weeks."
As it was with the mud, so it was with the hunger and weariness. I have purposely dwelt little on the so-called horrors of war because it is of no avail to recount them. But it is well to say that it was not the danger, not the sight of sudden death that sickened the soul, but the filth, the weariness, the discomfort.
Since this must in great part be a personal narrative, I must say that I left the division September 16, when the drive and consolidation of positions was over. Three days of fever got me and I was sent back. I had blamed the fever on the exposure, strain, rain and hunger, but I found in the hospital that I had consumed much more phosgen gas than I had known at the time, and this had affected my lungs. I soaked up the oxygen and rested and felt better. Later flu and pneumonia developed.
Darst’s Hospital Experience
I had an experience with American hospitals at this time that extended over six weeks. Since some 7000 men of the Eighty-ninth and thousands of men of other fighting divisions went through similar experiences, and since relatives of these men are also interested in hospital conditions, it might not be amiss here to tell what I know.
In the first place American hospitals, like the American Army, could not be surpassed. Everything was done that human—and American—ingenuity could do.
The advance hospitals were pushed up into the very front lines of the infantry. When the doughboy was hit or gassed he found medical attention at his hand. To begin with, he had his first-aid packet, carried on his belt. In the packet were two bandages, wrapped in such a way that he could handle them without infecting the part of the bandage he would place next to the wound. If his was a walking case, he could make his way to a first-aid station, or, if he were helpless he could be carried there by stretcher-bearers—who went forward with the assault—slightly-wounded comrades, or captured Germans.
(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