THE BATTLE OF THE STOCKHOD
As we approached the Stockhod, the sound of the cannonade grew louder and we began to meet regiments of Siberians hurriedly marching toward the fighting line. We received word to speed up our troops, as we were needed to relieve a division which had suffered heavy losses.
We according left the heavy luggage transport wagons in a forest about five miles back of the positions and pushed on with all speed, taking only the ambulances and a wagon carrying surgical material.
When we reached the high ground three miles back from the river we could plainly trace out the fighting line for many miles north and south by the great German observation balloons hanging suspended in the air back of their lines. From one hill I counted eight of them. The Russians called them "sausages."
Shrapnel could be seen bursting over the trench lines as far as the eye could see up and down the river. Our road was fortunately well screened by forest and we were able to bring our ambulances up to within half a mile of the trenches.
We established our main dressing station in the woods alongside the road which ran down to the trenches. From this point on, the road was exposed to observation, as only stunted trees grew along the sides.
The dressing station was hastily constructed from a piece of canvas stretched over a frame. work of poles, Sods were piled up around the four sides as a protection against H. E. shells and rifle bullets. There was no time to construct a dug-out. The entire thing we covered with boughs to hide it from aeroplanes, and we placed the Red Cross flag carefully beneath a small pine-tree where it was visible only to the wounded soldiers as they passed by on the road.
As it grew dark I took some orderlies and two students into the trenches and established an advance dressing station in a support-trench about one hundred yards back of the fire-trench in a large dug-out which we found there.
Fig. 19. A dressing station during the battle of Stockhod. Note the crude structure and camouflage of branches hastily flung on. It was the habit of Germans to fire on the Russian Red Cross stations, so that great precautions had to be taken.
Fig. 20. Type of two-wheeled springless cart that served as ambulance on the Russian front. Often the wounded travelled from 30 to 40 miles over frightful roads in these carts, owing to the great distances in Russia and the scarcity of railroads.
The first-line trenches were in marshy ground and were very shallow affairs. They afforded little protection from the heavy shell fire that the Austro-Germans were pouring in on them. Our Siberians had just taken them over in the afternoon.
Looking out over No Man's Land, I wondered how it would be possible to make a successful attack. It was a great quaking marsh grown up with reeds and cattails. The Stockhod River flowed through it, dividing at this point into three branches, each about thirty yards wide. The German trenches were about four hundred yards away on top of some sand-hills which sloped up from the marsh. Down the sides of these hills could be seen the gray haze of belts of barbed wire. There were two of these hedges, each about forty feet deep, with a bare strip thirty feet wide separating them.
A road ran across the swamp, crossing the three branches of the river by small wooden bridges, now destroyed by the Austro-Germans as they retreated. This road had been built up with dirt about two feet above the surface of the swamp. Nothing, could pass over it now, for it was under the direct fire from their machine-guns and artillery and was blocked at the further end by great barriers of barbed wire.
Our artillery, from the cover of the forest in the rear, was pounding the German barbed wire and first-line trenches in preparation for an attack by the infantry. The Germans were retaliating with a brisk cannonade on our first-line and communication-trenches and on the roads leading up to them. We were beginning to have a few casualties from this heavy fire, so that there was work f or us as soon as we got our dressing station set up.
I found my friend Muhanoff with his company in the fire-line. He had just received his captaincy a few days before.
"You are a kind, dear friend," he declared when I congratulated him on his promotion; "but, do you know, I feel sure that I shall be a captain for only a few days. For some weeks I have had a premonition of impending death and I feel positive that it will come in the next few days."
I tried to reassure him, but I don't think I made much impression.
"This is going to be a difficult place to get across," he continued. "Just look at that marsh. When you walk out on it, they say, it quakes like so much gelatin and you sink in above your knees at each step.
"The Germans have certainly selected a beautiful line of defense. They command every inch of it from their position on the sand-hills.
"Did you hear about the artillery observers who went out on the marsh between the lines?" he asked.
"No," I replied; "what's the story?"
"Well, it shows what kind of ground we'll have to go over when we attack-which, judging from the sound of our artillery, will be sometime tomorrow morning, about the time when it becomes gray. It happened this morning. just at dawn an officer observer and four telephone men crawled out on the marsh to establish an advanced observation point between the first two branches of the river. The telephone men carried with them the reel holding the wire, which they unwound as they advanced, letting it lay on the ground in back of them as is the usual method. They crawled out under a cover of grass and reeds and reached the spot where they were to locate the observation point. They hooked up their telephone and as it became light called up the battery saying that everything was prepared to spot the shell-breaks and correct the range when the battery began to fire. They were lying close together, concealed in the reeds. The battery fired several shots but no word came back from the observer and his crew. The battery commander called repeatedly to his observer, but the line was dead. He concluded that German shell had hit the wire and broken it, as sometimes occurs, or that the connections had become separated in some other way. He sent a lineman out from the battery to follow the wire, find the break and mend it. The man found everything intact through the forest where the wire was strung on the branches of trees and he continued on to the trench lines' and then crawled out on to the marsh and through the reeds, and still he could find no break. He kept on, however, going carefully over the quaking bog on his hands and knees. Finally he came to the first branch of the river. The wire stretched out before him, clearing the river by being stretched from the reed which held it up. He got into the stream, sheltered from the sight of the Germans by the banks, and waded across. The wire ran straight to the center of a tangled growth of vegetation on that little island. The soft mud and rotting stuff shook beneath his weight so that he was fearful of sinking through. He crawled carefully on and was astonished to find the wire running right down into the mud in the center of a funnel-shaped depression. He pulled on the wire and felt something heavy on the end. He carefully hauled it up, hand over hand, getting in six or eight feet, and then through the oozy mud appeared the receiver and transmitter which, as you know, in the field telephone is in one piece. Not a sign could he find of the officer or the four men except the cap of one lying on the edge of the funnel-shaped depression. He cleaned the receiver of mud and water and called up the battery and reported the obvious solution of the mystery. The group of five men had been too heavy for the surface of the bog to hold. The tangled weeds with their roots form a sort of surface covering the liquid mass beneath, but there is a limit to its capacity, and down the five men had gone into that sticking, bottomless ooze, where they were drowned or suffocated in a few moments and that, my boy, is the terrain over which we must attack to-morrow morning."
"Look at those crows out there on the marsh!" I exclaimed, pointing to a flock of the great black birds as they rose heavily out of the reeds and circled about over the surface of the swamp, finally settling down again in the same spot in which they had risen.
"Something dead out there," commented the Captain. "That's why they stay despite the sound of the artillery. They don't seem to mind the noise as long as there is something to eat. Imagine having them pick at your dead carcass! Ugh!" and he shuddered as he contemplated the disgusting scene.
Some time later I recalled his horror at these vile birds, and the recollection steeled me to do something which I scarcely believe I should otherwise have attempted.
"I must be getting back to the dressing station and see that everything is in order," I said, rising from the fire-step where I had been sitting. "Come and see me to-morrow and tell me how the attack came off."
He promised to come but, as we shook hands, he added: "If I get back from the attack."
I reached the main dressing station on the edge of the woods without any adventure, although the Germans were pounding our positions pretty severely. A few wounded were coming in . They had been wounded by the shells. There was enough work to keep me up all night. Our artillery was going full blast and the Germans dropped a few shells unpleasantly near us during the night but we had no casualties in our personnel.
Just as dawn was beginning to break I heard the tell-tale sound of machine-guns and rifles, and going out onto the road could see the rockets shooting up which heralded the attack as the Captain had predicted.
A village back of the German lines was burning, set on fire by our shells, casting a lurid red glare on the clouded sky.
In a short time the lighter form of wounds---hand and arm cases---came pouring down the road, making for the dressing station, and we were all soon hard at work. After about half an hour the rifle and machine-gun fire slackened and we knew the attack was over.
The attack was unsuccessful. The German barbed wire had not been blown up sufficiently to make large gaps for our troops to get through and the Germans had an enormous number of machine-guns on the sand-hills which had not been put out of action. After suffering heavy losses on the marshy ground, our attack had broken down after almost reaching the German first-line, and what soldiers were left were forced to come back. All the wounded were soaking wet from fording the river, and all complained of the difficulty of advancing rapidly through the mud.
One fellow, a fine strapping lad of about twenty-six, wounded by a bullet through the shoulder, wept bitterly while I was dressing his wound. I thought it was from the pain and told him that it would stop hurting in a few minutes.
"It is not the pain of the wound, Excellency," he sobbed. "I'm used to that. This is the third time I've been wounded. But now I've got to go to the base hospital for heaven knows how long, and so far I have never even seen a German, much less get my bayonet into one!"
The Russian soldier can stand more pain without a murmur that I had believed it possible for the human organism to bear. They were the most patient, enduring fellows, and as fine soldiers as I think the world has ever seen. I speak of the old days---when we had good morale and discipline in, the Russian army. These men simply could not be downed. They would sit in the trenches and be blown to pieces---regiment after regiment---when they did not have shells to reply to the Germans and when they could see nothing to shoot at.
There is no greater test of the bravery of troops than holding fast to a position when they are smothered in artillery fire from long range guns and have nothing with which to hit back at the enemy. Yet these Russians did it time and time again in the early days of the war, when the very trenches in which they sat were entirely obliterated by shell fire and whole regiments were annihilated without firing a single shot.
But to get back to our story. I worked on through the morning until nearly mid-day, and was wondering what had befallen my friend Captain Muhanoff when a soldier approached the dressing. station and addressing me said: "I am a soldier in Captain Muhanoff's company. He was killed this morning in an attack and Lieutenant Saparoff of his company sent me to tell you."
"Muhanoff dead!" I exclaimed, stunned by the news. "No, it cannot be!"
"Yes, Excellency, it is so. We're all heartbroken. We loved him. He was like a father to us. After the attack this morning all that was left of our company, which had numbered two hundred, was sixty. I saw the Captain fall. We had lost heavily going across that awful marsh. He was ahead of us as always in an attack. We followed, dropping by the dozens from the terrible machine-gun fire. We couldn't go faster than a walk, for at each step we sank in above the knees in mud and water. It was just getting daylight and the Captain had reached the first line of German barbed wire. He was going along the edge, stooping low and looking for an opening. He went only a few steps when he seemed to find a place where he could get through, for he turned and beckoned for us to come on, and then started through the opening. I saw him throw up his hands and fall backward and to the side into the barbed wire. His coat caught in some wire which had not been broken and his body fell backward, bending over the wire, the arms hanging down. He was quite dead when I rushed up. I was about to try to get him down and carry him back when I heard the whistle of the Lieutenant, who was now in command, sound the retreat. The few who were left of our company turned and went back through the marsh as fast as they could go, and I knew it was certain death to remain, so I came back, leaving the Captain hanging on the wire. When I got back to the trenches I looked back over the marsh and I could see him still hanging there, held up by the wire. He can be seen quite plainly, and if you will come to the trenches with me I will show him to you."
We had about completed our work and no more wounded were coming in, so I accompanied the soldier to the first-line trench. He put his rifle through a loophole, sighting it carefully across the marsh toward the German. lines.
"Look now, Excellency," he said; "the front sight is pointing directly to the body of the Captain if you line it up with the rear sight."
I could plainly see a gray-brown object hanging from the front of the first wire hedge, and through my binoculars I studied carefully the ground surrounding the body, fixing in my mind its relation to various landmarks. There was something terrible for me in the fact that my friend's body hung out there on that wire and would continue to hang there until it became a horrid putrefying object on the landscape unless something were done.
As I stood occupied with these distressing thoughts, the soldier at my side kept staring out through the loophole at the body of his late captain, fascinated, I suppose, by the horror of the thing. All of a sudden he fired, and before I could say a word he let go four more shots in rapid succession.
"My God, man I" I exclaimed. "Stop I Have you gone mad?"
He was firing point-blank at the Captain's body!
"The crows, Excellency, the crows!" he exclaimed, continuing to fire as fast as he could work the bolt action of his rifle.
A sickening sight met my eyes as I looked through my binoculars. 'there were two crows in the air, hovering around the head of the Captain's corpse, and a third sat on his shoulder. Its head was moving with short. vicious stabs in a most significant manner.
The soldier beside me was cramming a fresh clip of cartridges into his rifle and I could hear him sobbing as he worked. On my left stood another soldier, gazing stolidly out over No Man's Land through the next loophole. He was paying no attention to us but watching for a glimpse of a German or an Austrian in the trenches beyond. I snatched his rifle from his hands and before he realized what had happened was rapidly firing out of my loophole, aiming directly for a black spot against the brown background. The soldier at my right was also firing slowly and deliberately.
Thank God! That hideous black bird suddenly took wing---startled by the impact of a bullet on the barbed wire or some nearby object, and sailed off. We both stopped firing and heaved a sigh of relief, and I handed the empty rifle back to the astonished soldier.
"Will you stand watch here until to-night and shoot at them if they come back, providing I get the permission of your company commander?" I asked the soldier.
"Yes, surely," he eagerly replied.
"To-night I shall cross that marsh and bring his body back if it is the last thing I ever do !"
"And I shall accompany you, Excellency. Without my help you could never find the body, much less carry it back."
"Very well; you remain here and I'll join you at nine o'clock this evening when it is beginning to grow dark. It will be clear and I think we'll be able to locate it by that big pine-tree and the bushes on this side."
I obtained the necessary permission for the soldier to remain on watch and also told the commander of the regiment which held the line at that point of my plan to rescue the Captain's corpse. He consented but warned me of the danger of the undertaking.
"Be sure and get back before twelve because we will probably attack again at that time," he added.
Metia, the student, hearing of my plans, requested permission to accompany me. He was always on the lookout for some adventure and this affair was to his liking, and I consented.
At nine o'clock we joined the soldier.
"The crows did not return again," he reported, "but if we don't get him in to-night, they are sure to be back to-morrow."
Snipers on both sides were firing occasional shots, and every now and again a machine-gun would let go with a sputter. Our artillery was hammering away in a methodical manner, and the Germans were replying with a moderate fire on our first lines.
While it was still dusk we slid over the parapet cautiously into the long grass in front of the trenches and crawled out through a gap in our wire, which was only a few rows in thickness. We wormed our way carefully through the grass out onto the marsh, where we were protected by the tall reeds and could advance with less caution although still forced to crawl on our hands and knees. Metia and I carried revolvers and the soldier had his rifle. The pine-tree standing out against the after-glow from the sun looked black as ink and we had no trouble in keeping a direct course. We forded two branches of the river and crawled out on the boggy ground that separated them from the third branch. It was very soft, so that we sunk in almost to our elbows when our weight rested on our hands. We were soaking wet but did not feel cold.
We could not advance farther until it was quite dark, and lay quietly in the reeds waiting. Occasionally a bullet would hit with a plop in the marsh near us, and the Germans began to throw rockets up occasionally as it grew dark.
When it was quite dark, we started forward again. We had to be on the watch for German patrols and wiring parties which were certain to be out on No Man's Land, the latter to repair the damage done their barbed wire by our artillery during the day. After we had waded through the third branch of the river, which came up almost to our arm-pits, and were advancing across the next piece of marsh, I heard a regular dull pounding and knew that this was a German wiring party driving stakes with a wooden mallet wrapped in cloths to muffle the sound. They seemed to, be several hundred feet away and as they would probably be intent on their work I did not fear detection and crept cautiously forward.
When I reached the bushes which I had spotted during the afternoon, I could see the stakes of the German entanglements, and directly in front of me and not forty feet away was a dark object hanging from the first strands of the barricade.
The pounding continued on the right and occasionally I could hear the guttural sound of voices speaking German, but I could not distinguish any members of the party.
Just as we reached the wire, not ten feet from the body, a rocket rose from the German trenches about seventy yards away. I felt as though I must have stood out before their view as plain as an actor on the stage with a big calcium spotlight on him. We lay perfectly flat on the grass until it died down, and as nothing happened we decided we had not been seen.
I felt as though a million eyes were peering down the slope of the hill at us as we crawled up to the body and carefully and noiselessly disengaged it from the wires on which it was caught. Barbed wire is like the strings of a piano when stretched and the slightest thing catching in it or striking it produces a loud tang audible for some distance, so we had to be extremely careful.
We got it down, however, and started crawling slowly back, Metia and I taking hold of the Captain's icy hands and dragging him between us while the soldier brought up the rear watching and listening carefully for danger.
We had reached the clump of bushes about forty feet from the wire when I heard the soldier hiss sharply through his teeth. We stopped crawling and lay perfectly flat. We could hear the swish of the marsh grass as several persons approached.
I reached for my revolver and Metia did the same. We thought we were surely in for it as the sound of tramping men approached . Three dark forms appeared in the gloom between us and the wire, walking slowly along, examining the entanglements. If they had seen the body before they evidently did not notice its absence, for they passed on toward the left.
It was a difficult job getting our pathetic burden through the streams and the thick weeds of the bog beyond, but we eventually reached our barbed wire without mishap, and when we reached the trench parapet waiting hands received the body as we slid it down, dripping wet from its passage through the river and marsh.
I was soaked to the skin and the night air was cool, but great beads of perspiration were running down my face as a result of my exertions. I thanked the soldier who had accompanied us.
"Nichevo, Excellency," he replied. "I could not do less for our poor Captain."
The next day we gently lowered the body of the brave fellow into his last resting-place and placed over his grave a rough wooden cross on which was burned, with a hot iron, his name, regiment and the date of his death.
I felt glad that we had been able to give him a decent burial. I know that had we not recovered his body I would have been haunted all my life by the vision of that dangling form on the barbed wire with the carrion crows hovering around it for their horrid work.
The horrible conditions which exist in No Man's Land after heavy fighting is one of the things that makes the war so awful to the man in the trenches.
Fig. 21. Cossacks charging into a burning village to clean out the Austro-Germans, during the battle of Stockhod. A bomb burst in the field to the left just as this photograph was taken, and the two men ahead can be seen turning sharply around. In this village the author was shot by a German who was concealed in a dug-out.
Fig. 22. "I know that had we not recovered his body I should have been haunted all my life by the vision of that dangling form on the barbed wire with the carrion crows hovering around it for their horrid work."
Chapter Twenty-One: We break through!