Wednesday, October 30. Priez~1a~Fauche
Some days ago Schwab brought in a young officer to be interviewed. I have heard him stuttering around the hallway - stuttering both as to gait and as to voice. What history tells us about war concerns the mass movement of troops, and the victories, or otherwise, of this or that general in command. What meanwhile has happened to the individual foot soldier or his company officers rarely gets recorded. So here is one story at least. It has come out bit by bit in the course of several conversations - its fragments told in a most impersonal manner without a vestige of self-consciousness.
Captain B. of the 47th Infantry was admitted here September 11th 1918, with a sealed letter from B. H. No. 3 stating that from reports he was one of the best of the younger types of officers ---brave and resourceful; also that he was blind when admitted to No. 3 and had very marked motor inhibition. Here for six weeks, with the diagnosis of " Psychoneurosis in line of duty." He has improved steadily, but still stammers considerably and walks with a peculiar muscle-bound gait; has worked very hard to overcome this and is eager to get back to his regiment.
A clean-cut, fair-haired young fellow, 24 years of age, of medium height, and with the build of a football tackle. German parentage and exemplary habits - no tobacco or alcohol. Was very pro-German before the war, and in consequence has always felt that he had doubly to make good. In the Nat. Guard since 1911 and on the Border with the Ist Indiana troops. Enlisted in the Regular Army Jan. 1917 and was commissioned 2nd Lt. eight months later.
The Division sailed May 11, 1918, to Brest and May 19 to Calais. A lot of ill-feeling between our men and the Tommies.--a British N.C.O. was killed - probably stupidity and lack of understanding on both sides. His regiment was billeted at Samer, some of the junior officers, three from each battalion, being sent to the British. front for instruction. He saw a good deal of fighting during the Somme retreat and for nine days was constantly under fire - a very confusing time, with the British morale low. Felt terribly green, but tried to keep his eyes open and learn what he could.
Rejoined his regiment and was put in charge of a group of officers
who were apportioned to our.2nd Division for experience. Was with
them from June 5 to July 9, in the 23rd Infantry, Colonel Malone's
outfit - under fire most of the time. Between June 6 and 10 came
the taking of Bouresches and next the Belleau
Wood affair by the Marines, supported by the 23rd. It was point-blank fighting, as hot as anything could be for a green man, and some places like Lucy were thick with dead. Still they got through, though the casualties were high; one battalion, for example, lost 75 per cent of its men when going through an exposed wheat
field. Things were fairly quiet until July 1, when the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd and the 1st Battalion of the 9th took the village of Vaux - a very successful attack, but there were no reserves, and, had the enemy only known, they could have walked through.
Then a couple of quiet days, when the French on the right of the 9th Infantry went over, and, being a reserve liaison officer, he went with them - a fine advance, getting their objective, Hill 204, but they were driven back by a vigorous counter-attack, in which melee everyone had to take a hand with machine guns and rifles, observers and all. The French had to retreat even behind their former positions, with heavy losses.
On the ninth of July they were relieved by the 102nd (26th Division) and B. rejoined his own unit, the 47th, in reserve near La Ferté Milon, which the French were holding. It being supposedly a quiet sector, a lot of officers were loaned to the French for experience and observation. Here he learned what a real barrage might be, for between July 10 and 14 the enemy made a thrust at La Ferté, with heavy shelling. The French, about ready to quit, would only say, "Beaucoup de Boches - beaucoup de Boches." They dropped behind the barrage, while the attached Americans---company commanders, platoon leaders, and so forth went forward, got separated, and had heavy losses. Everyone was dumbfounded - some few French went forward with the Americans. In half an hour the French came back-pistol, rifle, and bayonet.
It was a brief episode, and after two days, he again rejoined his regiment, which had moved up to La Ferte'. The 4th Division (the.58th, 59th, 39th, and 47th Regiments) had been stationed in a reserve line along the Ourcq from Crouy to Marchiel, and on the morning of July 14 the 39th and 58th attacked at Chézy, B. going with them, the 58th on the right so badly hit that the 59th leapfrogged them - an unsuccessful affair in which the 47th took no part. The next day the Boche offensive opened. B. was recalled to La Ferté and the division had no part in Foch's counter until the end of the first week. Meanwhile, being in charge of the wireless, he knew pretty much what was going on.
On July 25 or 26, he is not quite sure which, his regiment, being fresh and having had no part in the Chézy affair, was sent as shock troops - hustled in trucks through the other formations, first to bolster up the French at Grisolles and La Charme. From there they were rushed forward where the advance had met its chief stumbling block - Seringes, Sergy, and Cierges. They were all night in going up, made their way through the Forêt de Fére, which was full of gas, and to the open fields beyond. Here the 42nd was holding the line, the Alabamans (167th) to the left and the Iowans (168th) to the right. The 47th was to go in between them toward Seringes and Sergy, but being then only a lieutenant he knew nothing of the plan.
They were just too late in getting through the woods to follow the barrage which had been put up for the attack, and had to go it unprotected in double time to catch up to the 168th and 167th, who had already moved forward. No sooner had they emerged into the open than they met a heavy fire. The lieutenant colonel and one major were severely wounded, and soon the other major and B.'s captain were killed, leaving him senior officer of his battalion.
About this time a general appeared from somewhere and asked B. if he had received any orders, which he had n't, and with a wave of his arm the general said, "You 're to cross a river over there and take a town called Sergy." It was tough work-the men had marched all night-they formed. combat groups and went through wheat waist-high under direct fire from the Boche artillery. They carried one day's rations, one hundred rounds of rifle and one bag of 'chochant' (automatic) ammunition. In some unaccountable way, Company L had received an order to withdraw, leaving what remained of three full companies, circa 700 men. The Ourcq, which proved to be a mere creek, was crossed with a run and jump, and, getting into Sergy, they fought their way through by 10 a.m., finally being brought to a halt beyond the village at a sunken road which was filled with machine gunners.
There was terrific shellfire, both our own and the enemy's, which seemed to be concentrated on Sergy, and finally, after heavy casualties, they had to fall back as far as the Ourcq again. Here they established not only their battalion P.C., but a first-aid station in a battered mill (La Grange au Pont), and did what they could for such of their wounded as they could drag in. Later in the day, after heavy artillery firing, the enemy countered. The dwindling battalion met them in the village and drove them out as far as the road again. The Boches came back with reinforcements, and all night there was house-to-house fighting in the village, the boys standing it very well despite their fatigue and losses.
On the next day, with no artillery aid, they succeeded in getting
the village again cleared back to the road and held the Boches
there till dark. Then the Boches countered once more and drove
them back to the mill - and so it went, back and forth, the place
changing hands nine times between Friday the twenty-sixth and
Tuesday the thirtieth, the twenty-eighth being their worst day.
They finally held at the road at the thirtieth and were relieved
on Wednesday the first.
Practically without sleep, with no medical officer, with only such food, after the first day, as they could get off the dead, with almost incessant shelling and many hours of actual combat every day, it was something of a strain. On Tuesday night B. got over to the 168th, and the colonel wanted an estimate of his strength in view of a possible widespread attack: "18 men and one officer fit for duty" - out of 927 men and 23 officers, these alone were left.
B. admits that he was getting rather fed up. He was acting as gas officer, for many of the men were suffering from bad burns and all had been more or less gassed. Then as intelligence officer - in other words, as a runner, once or twice by day and two or three times by night, always in the open - a necessity, since lines that he got over to the 168th were soon blown to bits and there was no one at the 168th P.C. who could read flash messages; there was no communication at any time with the rear. Also as medical officer, directing the getting in of the wounded, always under fire, back to the mill; he did two leg amputations himself with a mess-kit knife and an old saw found in the mill. One night they had sent back 83 wounded men on improvised litters.
When sufficiently quiet, the nights had to be spent in searching
their own and the enemy's dead for food and ammunition. They once
got down to as low as twenty rounds of cartridges, and much of
the.time they used Boche rifles and ammunition
- also Boche "potato-masher" hand grenades, which caused at first a good many casualties among the men, for they were timed at three or four seconds instead of four or five like ours. The Boche food was good when they could find it - sausages and bread and Argentine "bully."
The least fatigued men had to be used to. get in the wounded, for it was an exhausting process, since they often had to be dragged along a foot or two at a time, as occasion offered. Many men with three or four wounds continued in the fight - had to, in fact and a sound man and a wounded man often fought together, the latter loading an extra gun even when he might not be able to stand. Their only protection was to get in shell holes.
During these days B. saw for the first time a case of shell shock, though he did not know what was the matter with the man thought he was yellow. Every time a shell would land near, he would race to shelter, shaking and trembling; but he always came back and got to work. He simply couldn't stand the explosions. They were all pretty shaky from the almost constant artillery fire - high explosive alternating with gas of one kind or another. Many of the men still fighting had mustard burns.
But almost the worst was a "rotten-pear" gas which made them sneeze and often vomit in their masks, so they had to throw them away and take a chance. Everyone was more or less affected, and marksmanship was poor from lachrymation.
On Monday, B. was quite badly stunned by a high-explosive fragment which struck his helmet-like getting hit in the temple by a pitched baseball. Men often thought they were wounded - would feel a blow on the leg, perhaps, and see blood and a tear, but on slipping off their trousers would find only a bruise, the blood having come from a neighbor's wound.
On Tuesday afternoon the Boches sent over a terrific barrage - a combination of artillery and machine-gun fire. They had learned by this time that after a barrage the only thing to do was "to beat the Boches to it"--so he and Lieutenant K. with their eighteen men rushed them (there were some two hundred Boches) and succeeded, after a sharp engagement, in getting into their positions along the sunken road just north of the village. It was a case of "Gott mit uns,') for not one of the eighteen was killed. They captured some machine guns, and, getting them in favorable positions, held the enemy off.
Not long after, word came by runner from the 168th to hold on, for they were soon to be relieved. B. sent back word that they could n't hold much longer without reinforcements, and fifty men were sent over from the 168th in support. At about 2 a.m., B. and two men with chochants and grenades crawled out and put out of commission an Austrian 88 which had been trained on them and from which they had suffered much. They captured the crew and officers. It was the last post holding the sector. The Boches had evidently begun to withdraw.
About this time Seringes was taken by the, Ist Battalion of the 47th on their left. They had probably gone through similar experiences, but apparently Sergy had been the most difficult nut to crack. Cierges had not yet fallen.
Wednesday, a day of intermittent firing, was spent in collecting the wounded. They were relieved at sundown - two officers and eighteen men - and they marched all night to get back, all very much done in. Lieutenant K. had been hit through the heel - was cursing and swearing, and quite out of his head. The men all appeared low indeed - one chap, Madden by name, had had no sleep the whole time, for he had been acting as runner on the left, three or four times every day under observation and fire.
They went through the Forêt de Rre and met the chow wagons about noon - found a new acting-colonel who knew precisely what to do; gave the men good food and made them go to sleep. Not until they had arrived did B. notice that he was shy of his tunic, in the pocket of which was his artillery code - had left it under the head of one of the men, who was badly hurt, and forgot it when the time came for them to go out. Insisted on going back after having a rest - was afraid someone would find it. Was given a motor cycle and to his great relief found the coat where he had put it, but the man was dead.
On coming out he saw one of his own men who had been wounded and was overlooked near the mill at the far edge of the creek. He went down and tried to get him across the creek to the motor cycle, but the Boches opened up and they could not duck fast enough. B. felt a heavy blow on the top of his helmet, which mashed it in against the back of his head. He fell forward - had a sick feeling - found he was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and the back of his neck was bloody. Started to look for the man and found him all cut up with a huge hole in his side and a glassy stare, so he knew he was a goner and left him - reached the cycle and started off under heavy fire.
As soon as he got back they saw something was the matter and gave him a stiff drink of whiskey, he tried to sit down, but came down heavily with a jar, and began to shake and stammer. He was afraid to go to sleep - had an idea he would be unable to see when he woke up. They threw cold water on him, and he felt that his entire left side had given way and all vision was gone except a yellow fog in front of him. Through all this he still had a feeling that he was O.K.- merely exhausted and needed sleep. He was very sick, vomiting more or less all the rest of the day - ears humming - everything swimming.
They wanted him to go to a hospital, but he remembers fighting them much as a football player sometimes does when he is forced to leave the field after an injury; has strangely vivid memories of this occurrence and subsequent events - patchy, though very acute memory pictures. Knew by the hum of the machine that it was a G.M.C. ambulance; couldn't see much except a yellow cloud before his eyes; was taken to a field hospital and a doctor asked him what was the matter. He said "Nothing," he merely wanted a little rest; was talking well enough at the time.
First in a horse-drawn wagon, then in a Ford ambulance, a very rough ride, to No. 7 at Coulommiers, a matter of a good many hours - does not know whether he was alone or not. Terrific headache all the time. His hearing was getting bad - a constant hum in his right ear. When the machine would scrape branches of trees it sounded to him like the whish of a shell-the worst sounds he had ever heard. . . .
"Of course if they had known we were so weak they could have come through at any time. You see, I am now Senior Company Commander and I want to get back because 1 can have the pick of the companies and can get into some really big push before it's all over.
,"The chief trouble now is the dreams - not exactly dreams,
either, but right in the middle of an ordinary conversation the
face of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle
and grimace, comes sharply into view, or I see the man whose head
one of our boys took off by a blow on the back of his neck with
a bolo knife and the blood spurted high in the air before the
body fell. And the horrible smells! "You know I can hardly
see meat come on the table, and the butcher's shop just under
our window here is terribly distressing, but I 'm trying every
day to get more
used to it. Yes, it was unpleasant amputating those men's legs, and we had to sharpen a knife from a ' man's kit for it, but what could one do otherwise? It was not quite so bad as dragging the wounded men in, hunching along foot by foot, both of us on our backs and under direct fire all the time - that was interminable.
But the worst of all are the dying faces that come to me of the men of the command-the men I could not bear to see die - men whose letters I had censored, so I knew all about them and their homes and worries and dependents.".