ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, APRIL 17, 1919

-THE NINTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-


LIEUT. J. E. DARST, WITH 89TH, GOES OVER THE TOP IN MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE AFTER A CONTINUOUS, ALL-NIGHT SHELLING BY THE GERMANS

 

MACHINE-GUN FIRE ADDS TO NIGHT’S NOISE

 

This is the ninth and final installment of the James E. Darst story of the Eighty-ninth Division, composed of Middle West boys, a great many being from Missouri. Mr. Darst, former night editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, was a lieutenant in the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine Gun Battalion for the Eighty-ninth. His story is being saved by the Missouri Historical Society. 

Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst.


 

The country hereabouts was indescribably desolate. The ground was rolling, with deep valleys and rounded hills. The surface was a mass of shell holes that overlapped and lay one on the other. In the old holes fat weeds had sprung up, making them even more hideous than the newer ones where the fresh earth showed. Trees were stark, maimed stalks, blasted by the months of unceasing hail of bullets and shell.

The two villages of Esnes and Malancourt had laid alongside the road to Montfaucon. They simply did not exist now. The driver pointed them out to us when we were within 100 yards of each, and we had to look close to see anything that even remotely resembled a collection of houses. A few piles of mortar and brick half merged with the earth was all that remained. The two villages literally had been blown off the face of the earth.

Montfaucon had once housed the headquarters of the crown prince, when his armies were storming the gates of Verdun. A high church tower still remained where he was rumored to have laid in watch, equipped with powerful glasses, while his men struggled on the plains below him. His Boche had been hurled from Montfaucon by American doughboys and our infantry swarmed its streets and our engineers mended the ravages in the roads.

Out of Montfaucon a steady stream of traffic flowed toward the front. Trucks bore ammunition for the drive of the next morning. Reserves lay in patches of woods along the road and munched at iron rations. The road doubled back just out of Montfaucon and led to Esnes, some three kilometers away.

 

At last we found ourselves at division headquarters. An adjutant took our orders. Then he smiled, and said:

"Well, you boys came back at just the right time. We go over the top at 5:30 tomorrow morning."

It has grown dusk now and we started along the road to Romagne, on foot. The Germans had just finished shelling the road and two blazing trucks stood in the ditch. At another place a crowd of artillerymen were arguing their mules out of a display of temperament. The night was black when we got to Romagne, although it could not have been later than 6:30. We found battalion headquarters in a dugout that faced the wrong way and had been persistently shelled. There we were given some details of the attack of the next morning.

The Eighty-ninth had gotten short of officers and we were welcomed back. The companies averaged about three officers each in place of six and the company strength in most cases had fallen to around 150. We learned that the machine-gun companies of our battalion were to support the Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry regiment, firing a barrage from 3:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. and then taking up the attack.

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Dressed Up for Action

We still had on our Sam Browne belts and lacked heavy shoes and pistols and ammunition, so these things were produced for us and we dressed for action. Our companies were to take up positions in the Bois de Bantheville at midnight of October 31, and we were ordered to join them in the woods. We were furnished a guide to take us to the place for the woods was a jungle.

The attack that was to take place the next morning, November 1, was what was later known as the last phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Of course, we didn’t realize that it was a "last" phase. The war didn’t seem any nearer its end that night, ten days before the consummation of the armistice, than it had three months before, back in the Toul sector.

The attack of November 1 was made by three corps, the Third, Fifth and First, from right to left. This time there was plenty of artillery. In the Third Corps were the Ninetieth and Fifth divisions; in the Fifth Corps the Eighty-ninth, and Second and in the First Corps the Eightieth and Seventy-eighth. Behind the First Corps was the Forty-second Division, in reserve, and behind the Fifth Corps was the First Division in reserve.

Thus the Eighty-ninth went over between the Ninetieth and Second. The One Hundred and Seventy-seventh Infantry Brigade was to lead the assault and be "leap-frogged" later by the One Hundred and Seventy-eighth Brigade.

This attack had been planned for weeks and a date had been set several times and then abandoned. The Germans were well aware the attack was coming and were amply prepared for it. Of course, the details of this drive had been written often by men who were in a position to know much more about the facts than I.

After Lieut. Blair and I left our battalion headquarters, accompanied by a runner as guide, we worked our way north. The night was perfectly black and we stumbled over piles of debris and hillocks. We entered a woods and followed a winding trail toward the front. Plenty of troops were going the same way, but we vainly inquired after our particular companies. It took us from about 7 in the evening until about 11:30 to reach the outpost line.

Lines Close Together

At this point the two lines were close together. The night before a German soldier had walked confidently into our lines and made inquiries, in German, for his regiment. Discovering his mistake, he turned to run and was killed.

The woods were the Bois de Bantheville, a dense growth of trees and bushes, full of declivities and soaked with rain. Eventually we located a battalion headquarters of the Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry. Headquarters were in a foxhole, about six feet square and covered with earth and grass.

We entered by sliding in feet first and reported. We were told that our companies had not yet appeared, but that Lieut. Harry Scheibla of C Company, Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine-gun Battalion, commanding in the absence of Capt. Mabrey Mellier, who had been wounded, would arrive there about midnight and we could get directions from him.

The assault had to pass the place we had reached, so we felt sure our companies would come that way. Lieut. Blair’s company was in the second wave and mine in the third. We were advised to find a fox-hole nearby in the woods and wait there until Lieut. Scheibla appeared.

We skirmished through the woods, where we couldn’t see 10 feet, and finally located a hole large enough to hold us both. Our runner found another hole and we lay down. It was necessary to do this and quickly, for the woods were being heavily shelled and splinters were flying.

We nestled in the hole and felt around. We found it was a roomy home as fox-holes go, with a shelter half for covering and a shelf dug in the earth for a candle. Evidently the former occupant thought it safe to strike a light here so we indulged in several cigarettes.

At 12:30 we made another pilgrimage to the infantry headquarters and found Lieut. Scheibla had not appeared. We asked further orders and were told to wait where we were until dawn and then find our companies. This surely was sensible for we could have found nothing at night in those woods, never before having been in them and the companies we sought not yet established in their positions.

The shelling had become violent and constant detonations shook the ground. Meantime, our guide had disappeared. We never knew if he was killed or wounded.

Conference Is Weird

The conference in the fox-hole was a weird one. I cannot convey the impression, but it was an unforgettable sight; the little group huddled on the ground, poring over maps; the candle guttering in its niche; the waving shadows on the mud floor of the damp Argonne. Shell fire was continuous, but when several concussions would sound close everyone would look at each other with the wonder expressed in their eyes where the next one would hit.

Back in the fox hole we wrapped our coats close about us and huddled together for warmth. It was about 1 in the morning, and we knew our barrage would begin at 3:30, and that "H" hour was 5:30. The machine-gun barrage was to continue until 6:30, the guns firing over the heads of the advancing infantry. We had about four and one-half hours for sleep.

The fox hole contained, besides ourselves, several blankets, two mess kits and a sawed-off shotgun with some shell. We were in the position of the little boy who invaded the bear’s cave and we wondered when the rightful owners would come along and kick us out. We figured on putting up the best battle we could, for it would have been decidedly unhealthy having no protection.

Our speculations were answered about 2 in the morning, when an infantry lieutenant came along and attempted to insert himself into the fox hole. Finding his home occupied he made an emphatic inquiry why and wanted to know "What the hell?"

We explained we had no homes of our own and he took it graciously then, and told us to stick where we were. All he wanted was an hour beside us for he had to go out at 3 on a patrol. We moved over and he crawled in At 3 he roused and made off into the blackness of the night and those woods.

I had looked for a crashing burst of shell fire at 3:30, such as we had at St. Mihiel, and as we lay there and watched. the second hand creep close to the exact moment we rather braced ourselves for a volume of noise. But so loud had been the shelling all night long that we could scarcely distinguish a difference when our own batteries opened at 3:30.

Machine Guns Open Fire

The chief difference in sound came from the machine guns. Promptly on the second they all spoke together. They were located, several companies of them, about 300 yards behind us, and evidently were firing over our positions. The whip-crack sound of the passing bullets was continuous and the never-to-be-forgotten rat-tat-tat of the guns. Now they would chatter in a long burst, then there would be a pause, and then the chattering would swell again. The bark of the 75s was distinguishable, too.

It wasn’t many minutes before the German counter barrage began, and they made those woods hot. The roar of exploding shell dinned in our sears. Somehow, crouched in the dark, we felt comfortable, for it is comforting during shelling to be in darkness or some place where you cannot see the explosions. The even though you know they are coming close, you are not sure exactly how close.

The Germans were trying for the machine guns, and they did well in their efforts. My own company, I found later, had lost about ten men killed and some thirty wounded by shell fragments during the night. Heaven knows what the total casualties were in that woods that night. They must have run well into the hundreds.

After we had grown accustomed to the road we felt drowsy. Shell fire frequently causes this effect. We glanced at our watches, and, finding we had an hour and a half before zero, we lay back for rest. It was fitful sleep, because at intervals the roar of an explosion very close to us would rouse us and the tremble of the earth and the distant whine of splinters would let us know how near we had come to getting it.

During the last hour we were forced to sleep, or attempt to sleep, with our gas masks adjusted, for the woods had become filled with the dense gases of combustion and we came close to strangling. We didn’t put on the face covering, but merely slipped in the mouthpiece and closed out nostrils with the nose clamp.

It grew horribly uncomfortable, for the continued sucking of air through the mouth dries the saliva and the tongue swells. The pressure of the nose clamp also is extremely irritating after an hour. It was stand it or choke, however.

Two Minutes to Spare

We had synchronized our watches at battalion headquarters, and turned to them every time we awakened to be sure we didn’t oversleep. The last time we awakened together and looked at our wrists together. We didn’t need to comment on the fact that it was 5:28. We had just two more minutes to spare.

We saw to our pistols and put our masks back in the carriers. Lieut. Blair took along the sawed-off shotgun and a pocketful of shell. We crawled to the edge of the fox-hole and looked out. It was a rotten sight.

The day was just well begun but the sun had to combat obstacles in those woods. The smoke of the night-long artillery fire hung along the ground, mixed with some fog. So much for the visibility. The country-barrage seemed to have increased in violence and the woods rocked with the din. The persistent clatter of the machine guns rose and fell like the beat of a tide. The bullets both cracked and whistled. Those that cracked were bound over our heads toward Germany and the softer-spoken, whispering bullets were bound toward us. The whispering kind do the damage. It is an odd sound, much like the "pst" sound a person makes when they wish to gently attract someone’s attention.

The combined noises were so great that we had to lean over and shout in each other’s ears to make ourselves heard. And so, not knowing the plan of attack, not knowing where our companies were, not even sure of the direction of the German lines, we started out to find someone who did know all these things.

No one was in sight and at the infantry battalion headquarters we could only find a doctor with an advance first-aid post. We started through the woods, bound north and following an unproved dirt road that was little more than a path. Still, we found no one to give us directions.

At length we came to a fork and paused to try to calculate the branch to take, but since a crossroads is a bad spot to linger around, we took the left branch as a matter of luck and went our way. About 200 yards along this road we came to two doughboys dug in at the side of the road. We asked them to what division they belonged and they told us the Ninetieth and that they were machine gunners who belonged to a team that was firing from the bushes some forty yards away. To show how intense was the din it might be said that we had not even heard these machine guns as they fired.

Staggered by Blinding Flash

We knew that the Ninetieth’s position was on the Eighty-ninth’s right, so we decided to continue down the road we were on, that bore to the left. We left the doughboys and walked probably fifty feet when a blinding flash staggered us. Coincidentally with the flash I felt something hit my left arm and swing me about and a fraction of a second alter I heard the explosion of the shell. I turned to Blair and said:

"That son-of-a-gun got me."

"Got me, too: he replied.

He pointed to two holes in his blouse near his left shoulder, and I looked at a hole in the sleeve of my raincoat. We withdrew a few yards and sat down. I guess he felt weak and I know I did.

Even then we realized that we had found out something we always had wanted to be sure of – whether a man can hear the shell that kills him. This was an old doughboy argument, some stoutly contending that a man could hear the shell coming and others claiming he would never know the sound. Our cases seemed to prove that the sound would not be heard, for we felt the blow of the splinters before we heard the detonation.

Neither of us had first-aid packets and we wanted to get dressings for our wounds. Blair was for continuing down the road to find aid, but I remembered the dressing station we had just passed and held out for going t it. It didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, for neither of us had the slightest notion where we might be.

I must have passed away for a minute, and when I came to Blair was gone. I started in the direction where I thought the first-aid station lay and ran into some bad shelling. I was walking toward a battery of 75s and my own company’s machine guns, it developed later, and the Germans were dropping 210s at about the rate of one every ten seconds. A close one bowled me over, without wounding me further, and I knew my luck couldn’t hold long.

I found a lean-to built by the Germans in the side of a big hole and some wounded were collected there. We waited until the machine-gun barrage stopped at 6:30, and then walked toward the guns. The first men I ran into were the men of my own company. They had been firing the barrage that had cut over our heads as we lay in the foxhole the night before.

Finds Arm Wounded

We had a reunion right there, and I dug out my mess kit and joined them in breakfast. We waited there perhaps an hour and then started to push on. I got a first-aid bandage and found where my arm had been ripped. It got more and more painful, of course, and I left the company on the way to Remonville.

The field hospital was packed with wounded. On the way back I had passed four men of my company who were badly hit by shell fragments, and I knew they couldn’t live much longer if they stayed where they were. I asked the commanding officer at the hospital to send his stretcher bearers for them, but there were none available, so I told him I would go back and get them if he would give me some sort of assistance. He waved his hand at a bunch of Boche prisoners.

"Help yourself to them," he invited.

I do not think the laws of so-called civilized warfare permit the working of prisoners in the danger zone, but this seemed an exceptional case. I picked out sixteen of the huskiest looking Boche and got four stretchers. A Medical Corps sergeant accompanied me. It was more than two miles back to where the men lay, and the Boche seemed somewhat apprehensive of the shell fire, but we found the wounded and the Boche were gentle enough about loading them on the stretchers.

A wounded man on a stretcher is a heart-breaking load even for four men, but I can’t say I gave the Boche prisoners any rest on the way back. They groaned and coughed, but we made it without a halt. There wasn’t any time to waste in the cases of two of the men, either.

The wounded were collected in many large tents, and as the stream swelled the tents overflowed. Naturally, the Boche were the first to go out into the cold of the dark November day. Some of our men could talk German, and they entered into conversations with the wounded Germans prisoners. They were very patient and anxious to please. One studious-looking fellow exhibited three machine-gun bullet wounds in his shoulder. He told us that he had been wounded three times, always by bullets and always in the shoulder. He said he thought that was tough luck.

As the gray day wore on the tents and grounds became packed with wounded, and the rows of the dead, with their white faces turned to the leaden sky, increased. The Germans slouched about, whimpering a little in the cold, gathering in groups, with long faces. At that, they fared just the same as the American wounded, for all of us whose cases were not urgent waited all the day before our turn came for a bandage.

K of C. Distributes Chocolate

Knights of Columbus secretaries circulated through the big tents, distributing cakes of chocolate and cigarettes. The booming of artillery crashed in our ears. We slept and awoke to find the same gray day and the same drawn faces about us. In the evening our turn came to be evacuated and thirty of us were loaded in a truck and rode thirty miles to Fleury. The night was cold; we had no blankets, and it took about six hours. At Fleury in the early hours of morning we waited and you can be sure we were only too glad when we were next. After the ether–returning consciousness in a white bed.

The Eighty-ninth was pressing on, the men who were left, and were holding the center of the forward curve in this drive, as they had held it at St. Mihiel. On the night of November 10 they crossed the Meuse River under terrific fire of artillery and machine guns, located on the heights of the opposite bank. This has been described as the most spectacular incident of the war. The losses were very heavy, but on the fateful 11th they were dug in on the east bank of the Meuse, still going strong.

It was for their deeds of heroism that the Eighty-ninth was chosen to form part of the Third American Army, the army of occupation that occupied German territory on the Rhine. They had gained a reputation as the division that never failed to take an objective and never was late in taking one.

At St. Mihiel we felt we were raw recruits at the fighting game, but before the last drive in the Argonne the Eighty-ninth was considered a veteran division. That the enemy shared this good opinion was shown by a German intelligence report that declared the Eighty-ninth to be a strong shock division, especially dangerous at patrolling.

It was for the reason of excellence and no other that the Eighty-ninth was chosen for the Army of Occupation. The records of the other divisions chosen–the First, Second, Forty-second, Twenty-second, Third, Twenty-sixth, will bear out this statement.

I must say that I cannot even tell exactly the number of citations issued to the division. Since it was in the fighting to the last day, the list of awards is not yet complete, but recently the number of Distinguished Service Crosses came to ninety seven, and the number of Congressional Medals of Honor to ten. The latter decoration is the highest that can be bestowed, and is only given for a deed that is valorous outside the line of duty. No other division had a better record in this and only one other division equaled it.

Account Now Curtailed

Or course, the real story of the Eighty-ninth Division is not finished until it returns from Germany and is demobilized. Such an account of its activities as I have given is necessarily curtailed because I could not be in more than one place at one time, and because I had not access to divisional records. A war diary of all combat divisions is being kept, in which all actions, citations, advances and captures are recorded. Only when the division has completed its work in foreign territory and the diary is finished can the complete records of this glorious organization be completely known.

I have spoken of the infantry of the division–the Three Hundred and Fifty-third, Three Hundred and Fifty-fourth, Three Hundred and Fifty-fifth and Three Hundred and Fifty-sixth regiments, the machine gunners and the engineers. The divisional artillery has been left out simply because after arriving in France our artillery was separated from the infantry and thenceforth worked independently. The One Hundred and Sixty-fourth Artillery Brigade, consisting of the Three Hundred and Fortieth, Three Hundred and Forty-first and Three Hundred and Forty-second regiments of field artillery, crossed to France about two weeks later in June than did the infantry and engineers of the Eighty-ninth Division. Their training area was in Southern France, at De Souge Camp, near Bordeaux. The brigade joined the action at St. Mihiel some four days after the drive started and supported the Eighty-ninth Infantry for four weeks. When the infantry moved to the Argonne the artillery stayed in support of the Thirty-seventh Division. It rejoined the division in Germany.

I have written the foregoing without notes, for notes are difficult things to keep during action, and have relied on my memory of places and names and dates. I have hesitated writing a story of the division for this reason, that I necessarily would omit important events and fail to tell the names of men who fought and died gloriously.

In concluding, I wish to urge St. Louisans and Missourians to remember that the division is, in great part, their own; that its reputation as a fighting unit was gained during ninety days of continual action; that its high rating has been given it by entirely unprejudiced judges, who rated it among the "Class A," or best shock troops. It is because of the undeniable fact that St. Louis and Missouri have been inclined to forget the Eighty-ninth, that I have told what I know of the outfit, in the hope that it may get more recognition.

It has been rated among the five best divisions of the whole American expeditionary forces; has been called by many judges the "best" National Army division; but the reputation the Eighty-ninth can stand on is portrayed in the words of Gen. Wood, its old commander brought back from Washington–"The division that never failed to take an objective and never was late in the taking."

(THE END)


James E. Darst 

Brief History of the 89th "Midwest" Division

Missourians of the First World War

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