THROUGH A SHOWER OF SHELLS
Signs of unusual activity in the corps began to develop as the middle of February was reached. The days were growing longer, and while the cold was just as intense one felt that the backbone of the winter was broken.
The aeroplanes droned across the sky more frequently, and the transport was bringing up great supplies of ammunitions and stowing them in the shell-dumps.
One day a German aeroplane flew over our lines and dropped circulars printed in Russian which stated that the Germans knew we were to make an offensive, that they were aware of all the preparations we were making and were driving up reserves in men and artillery to check any attack we might make. The pamphlet even went so far as to say: "We are aware that you will attack on March 6th, 1916, Russian style."
These circulars were dropped about February 10th---Russian style---which is thirteen days later than our new style.
We were amused at these announcements, considering them just German bluff, and yet we could feel something was really in the air.
Orders came that the entire army corps was to move to a new position about ten miles farther south. We started for our new base on February 27th and found the roads choked with new troops. coming in to replace our corps. For miles they stretched across the frozen landscape. The roads. were like huge brown arteries through which flowed slowly moving columns of men, artillery and transports, ebbing on endlessly to replace our corps---a constant stream of gray-brown.
By March 2nd we were in the trenches taking the place of a Caucasian division which had been holding them all the winter.
All this time a great concentration of artillery was taking place directly in the rear of our new lines. Huge 9-inch and 6-inch guns came lumbering through the village. The roads had not yet begun to thaw and they were easy to move. Endless columns of caissons loaded with shells rattled back and forth bringing up shells to fill their gaping throats. The Russian officers were overjoyed at the immense amount of big guns and ammunition available. They were at last to meet the Germans on an almost equal footing.
"At last we have enough artillery!" exclaimed Lieutenant Muhanoff excitedly one day, rushing into the cabin where we had our base. "We'll give them a pounding and walk right through to Vilna."
Everybody felt equally optimistic, for we heard that General Pleschcoff had been given five army corps to command. They were placed on a front of about 35 kilometers, three in the line and two in reserve.
This was apparently true, for already near our base a reserve army corps of 40,000 men was in billet in numerous little villages and dug-out towns. A division of Cossack cavalry had also been brought up and held in reserve in case we broke through.
There was no question that a big battle was impending. The heavy guns which had reached their positions were heard every day getting the range of the German positions.
On March 3rd I visited the trenches to pick out advanced and main dressing stations in our first division.
The trenches were again at the edge of a great forest, facing across a flat open field, across which was another great forest of pines. The German trenches. were on the edge of the latter. The field was about a quarter of a mile wide without a bit of cover.
The new ground differed from that which we had occupied to the north in that it was simply a great swamp. The trenches were dug in only about two feet. There was a thick covering of ice on the bottom. To make up for their lack of depth, they had been built up in front with banks of dirt and sod. On account of the swampy character of the ground, very few dug-outs had been constructed and not one fit for use was at our disposal. We had to work in tents covered with pine boughs to hide them from observation.
It gave promise of being very nasty, dangerous work. The only protection we had from the German artillery were the tree-trunks.
Our batteries were grouped in the forest. There seemed to be hundreds of them, the three-inch guns being close to the line, the heavier pieces two or three kilometers back. One light battery was up within a hundred and fifty yards of the first line trenches.
As I walked through the forest, I would come upon battery after battery cleverly concealed in the underbrush. A few hundred feet back of the spot I picked for the main dressing station, located about a third of a mile behind the trenches, were grouped sixteen three-inch guns in a line not twenty feet apart.
I did not like having the dressing station so near, but there was no other place available. In this war, strictly military matters have first choice ---the care of the wounded is a secondary consideration.
I dropped in to see the commander of one of the batteries who was known throughout the corps as one of the best artillery officers in the army, although he was a queer old character. He had been wounded on three occasions earlier in the war and had the reputation of being a regular old fire-eater. He was pop-eyed and had a little beard under his chin, and resembled very much a patriarchal old billy-goat.,
He always kept two milk cows with his battery because he wouldn't drink his tea without milk. I had just passed them, stolidly munching hay, tied to trees near the battery. He also carried an old brassy graphophone with him wherever he went.
His men had built him a small hut of logs and dirt, heated by a charcoal brazier. I pushed aside the piece of canvas which served as a door and looked in.
He was sitting hunched up over the brazier, his fur coat buttoned tight up around his neck and his bulging eyes glowing in the light of a candle stuck in the neck of an empty bottle as he pored over a map. The interior of the hut was not much larger than a dog kennel but the graphophone was there standing on a block of wood.
"Come in! Come in! Close the door: it is cold!" he bawled. He always shouted at me, evidently thinking that the difficulty I had in understanding Russian was an indication that I was hard-of-hearing, although, as a matter of fact, he had undoubtedly acquired the habit of talking loudly from the necessities of his work when his batteries were in action.
"Well, Colonel," I said, "I see you are all fixed up to give the Germans a serenade!"
"Serenade! We're going to blow them to hell: we're going to blow them to hell!" he shouted. "They've concentrated a number of batteries in a clump of trees no larger than my hand. We're going to let them have a hundred guns steadily until we have mowed down trees, batteries and everything! You won't find anything left but scrap-iron when we finish."
"Do you think the Germans know we're going to attack?" I asked.
"Know it!" he yelled. "They know the exact minute it is to come off---which is more than I do. I don't even know what day it is to be. They knew long ago---as soon as it was planned in Petrograd."
He was so excited that the veins on his forehead stood out like cords and his face was purple. I returned to our base, and the next day we brought down the ambulances and several wagons carrying three tents, one large and two small, surgical material, three small stoves, provision and horse feed.
We made quite a long column. As we approached our destination we had to go over a road which ran across an open field and which was exposed to the German observers. It was about 3 p. m. and quite light.
"I should advise your Excellency not to cross till dark," advised a sentry. "The Germans have shelled every one who has crossed to-day."
It was a good mile to the screening forest beyond. Not a living thing could be seen on the road, but here and there I could make out the dead bodies of horses lying sprawled out on the road with their legs sticking stiffly in the air.
"All the transport and artillery were brought up at night," the sentry continued, "and to-day only single wagons or a small group of men at a time have been allowed to cross."
I had been ordered to have my dressing station in order by the next morning, however, and as I could not very well fix things up in the dark, I decided to take a chance despite the sentry's warning.
I told the drivers to allow a good space between each wagon and to cross at a brisk trot, whipping up their horses and galloping as rapidly as possible to the other side if we were shelled.
We were half-way across and I was congratulating myself on our good fortune when I heard a warning screech in the air as a shell passed over our heads. It burst with a loud report, throwing up a fountain of black smoke and dirt in a field about four hundred yards beyond, and the drivers whipped up their horses and galloped for dear life, the little two-wheeled ambulances bouncing over the frozen road.
The travelling kitchen was not so fortunate. It was very heavy and the horses could move only at a trot. The drivers yelled as only Russian drivers can and waved their long whips in the air but the horses needed no urging when a second shell came in with a whiz-bang!---this time only two hundred yards beyond the road. Then a yellow puff of smoke appeared in the air ahead and a shrapnel shell coughed out its pellets, making the snow fly up in little spurts in the field just beyond the road.
We were flying along at this time and several more high explosives came over, but all burst beyond the road. We galloped behind a little rise of ground which hid us from. the view of the German observer and we had no more shells for a couple of minutes. When we emerged from the little knoll, however, the Germans were waiting for us and a shell screeched down and burst not a hundred feet ahead of my horse. I crouched low on the horse's neck, expecting to be hit, but nothing happened. Another hundred yards and we were safely in the forest. The wagons came bouncing in under the trees and the drivers laughed excitedly, but I noticed that the faces of many of them were pale. I am sure mine was.
That evening we hastily set up our dressing station. The small tents for the advance dressing station were placed in the forest about a hundred yards back of the first line trenches. We covered them completely with the branches of pine-trees to hide them from the Germans. We placed the large tent a third of a mile back along the road, near the old Colonel's battery. This was to be the main dressing station where the ambulances would meet the stretcher-bearers when they carried the wounded back from the advance dressing station. Horses and ambulances were parked under the trees near the main dressing station. We had a little charcoal stove in each tent. Wood could not be used, as the smoke would have attracted German fire.
The night of the fifth of March was intensely cold. A foot of snow covered the ground. The troops who were billeted in the forest in reserve, however, had no tents and had to sleep in the snow, for there were few dug-outs on account of the marshy nature of the ground. Most of them had to be content with shelters built of brush to shield them from the biting wind where, without blankets, they sat about, crouched over little charcoal fires in the snow.
The Russian soldier is not provided with a blanket---his overcoat of medium-weight having to serve instead. He has underwear of cotton muslin. This, with a pair of heavy trousers and a fairly heavy shirt, or ruboshka, is all he has to protect him from the biting cold of an almost arctic climate.
Despite their sufferings, the soldiers in reserve were extremely patient. Not a complaint was heard. Were they not going to break through the German lines and drive the invader out of Holy Russia?
They sat about in little groups singing softly, for the Germans must not hear them, huddled dose together for warmth. Some were drying out their foot-gear, holding over the glowing embers of their fires. the long strips of cloth which they use in place of socks.
I felt sorry for them at first because they had no socks and asked one old bearded stretcher. bearer who was engaged in the drying-out process if his feet did not become cold without socks.
"We don't like socks," he replied. "We wrap this long cloth around the foot and leg and then slide into our boots. When the foot becomes wet we turn the cloth end for end, wrapping the wet part around the leg, where it dries quickly, while the dry end is wrapped around the foot and keeps it warm."
I have since learned that the German soldiers have in many instances abandoned the sock for this more primitive but sensible article.
That night I slept in the main dressing station on a pallet of fresh pine boughs, wrapped up in my sleeping bag. As I went to sleep I heard the Colonel's old graphophone grinding out the strains of the Berceuse from Joselyn, punctuated at certain points by an ear-splitting crash from one of his three-inchers and the drone of a shell overhead as he sent the Nemets a good-night message.
Chapter Thirteen: The Battle of Postovy.