As the struggle at Rimaucourt neared its close, the very atmosphere seemed heavy with impending experiences. During these days in late July and early August, 1918, the world waited breathlessly for the swing of the pendulum of victory. Excitement was at fever heat. Would it be toward the enemy or toward the allies? The Third Battalion finished intensive training, urged on by the distant call of brothers at the front. As the men moved over the rugged slopes of their drill ground, the far-away rumbling of artillery gave a hint of necessity to their extended formations. Those who were on duty in the early hours of morning saw the flashes of myriad guns reflected against the sky in the direction of the front. Orders might be kept "secret" but the doughboys understood the signs of the times.
Finally, August 6th completed the training period. The men of the Third Battalion were confident; incidentally they had conquered "Vin Rouge" and "Cognac," and a few of the more gallant members even bade fair to capture the local mademoiselles. They were now in shape for a round with the more formidable "Fritz." Tomorrow they would be on their way toward the "great adventure." Hearts were tumultuous at the last farewells to the kindly French people. Wonder, anticipation, anxiety reigned throughout the command. Emotions were complicated beyond description but there was no shrinking and no one feared the outcome.
Morning had hardly risen over the eastern hills when the camp broke into activity. Men hustled in and out the barracks, carrying surplus kits here, barracks bags there, kitchen accessories in this pile, ordnance and quartermaster supplies by the road. All this hustle and bustle was directed by shouting, cursing non-commissioned officers who were in turn directed by more loudly shouting and much more worried officers. The road was a cloud of white dust that enveloped ghastly shapes of dun-colored canvas structures emitting a roar like a thousand trip hammers; these were the convoy of trucks. Gradually the piles of supplies disappeared, ration trucks were safely loaded, now came the men. Many a wondering doughboy couldn't conceive how a whole battalion could possibly find room in the thirty odd trucks that were standing in the road. The problem was, however, quickly solved. Twenty-three men were crowded, jammed, and packed into each truck; comfort was left behind. Twenty-three doughboys with full field equipment made more than a load, and in every one of the trucks twenty-three doughboys immediately raised a chorus of prodigious howls that would ordinarily have moved a heart of stone, but not the determined officers who were going to the front.
Some one blew a whistle. The blast of a whistle was not, as a rule, a momentous occasion, except at reveille in the morning or for Saturday inspections, but the blast of that whistle meant the movement of another battalion to the front. It meant that the lives of some thousand odd men were to be thrown in the scale in favor of the allies. It meant the realization of the Great Adventure.
The trucks moved slowly at first, then faster over hills and winding roads through picturesque villages, kilometer after kilometer with never a stop. The French peasants, working in the fields, stopped their labors to wave a farewell. In the villages, the natives lifted drooping shoulders and saddened faces, doubtless reminded of vivacious sons whose memory alone remained. As the convoy rolled on, from converging roads other convoys joined the race eastward until the road, as far as eye could see in either direction, was a teeming line of trucks filled with shouting, exuberant doughboys. Cities came and were passed. Beyond Toul great stretches of barbed wire wound jaggedly over hills and valleys. Villages now were without lights in windows or streets. The heavy darkness that enveloped everything made the men wonder what sixth sense it was that enabled the driver to hold his rushing truck to the faint streak of light representing the road. A frantic screech of the brakes and a sudden lurch to avoid a crash into the truck ahead often brought hearts into throats. Rushing madly along the banks of a canal that wound through the valley, with a towering cliff on the other side, the convoy suddenly rounded a sharp curve and swung from the shadows into the less oppressive darkness of an open plain. At that very moment, a German flare rose, gracefully describing an arc over the hill ahead and suddenly burst into a flood of blinding light. To active imaginations it seemed the loud churning of the engines had revealed the arrival of the Third Battalion to enemy ears, and signals for an artillery barrage were being transmitted from hidden observation posts behind every bush and stone.
In the very dead of night came a halt in the little town of Bouvron. Led by the billeting detail, which had preceded the outfit, the battalion was stowed away for the night in hay lofts, woodsheds, and barns--fragrant reminders of the farms left behind. The men stumbled over hen roosts and boxes, everything but bunks and feather-beds. The night in these quarters was worse than in the trucks. Rodents made raids upon the reserve rations, so ferocious were they that it seemed they hadn't eaten since the war of 1870. Almost before anyone had gotten any "shut-eye" at all, came the signal to get up, not the resounding bugle but sharp demands, "Get up," from surly sergeants hardly awake themselves.
Cooks and K. P.'s valiantly attacked the escort wagons and soon the kitchens were rolling forth odors of coffee and "canned willy" that brought hungry doughboys speedily into the "chow" line. Now the waiting "chow" lines heckled the cooks; mess sergeants answered in kind. The day waned. No Boche were visible until in the late afternoon when a hostile aviator made a flight across the heavens.
Little puffs of white and black smoke from the anti-aircraft guns followed his trail. Although no planes came tumbling to earth in flames, officers all but despaired after futile attempts to keep the battalion under cover.
At night the battalion moved. From now on the most popular song was "Where Do We Go From Here'?" Silently the column wended its way from the shadows of the narrow village streets into what seemed to be a barren, lifeless stretch of plain. Only occasionally did a few trees along the road relieve the monotony, and once or twice the shadows of small villages. Always that menacing star-shell rose in graceful curves ahead. Hour after hour, the men trudged silently on. Only the noise of hobs on the ragged stone road and the rumble of the field train, deadened occasionally by the unmistakable roar of artillery, reached the ears of the men. Some cursed as they began to tire from the back-breaking load of full packs, but the tramp continued onward into the darkness. Finally, early in the morning, the column left the road, wound along a lane and stopped in the edge of dense woods near Domevre. No one spoke above a whisper. Gas masks were at the alert. A rifle shot had been established as the signal for gas alarm. One of the sentinels jammed a cartridge in his rifle and it was accidentally discharged. Some one shouted "Gas"' instantly there was a wild scramble. Gas masks were quickly donned, but those who could not find their masks in the dark pulled sand bags over their heads. The mistake was soon rectified and peace and quiet once more established.
After much confusion and some minutes of impatient waiting, the battalion was finally crowded into the town of Domevre. The small barracks were well surrounded by a dense tangle of roots, quite effectively hid in the darkness of the woods. Many a man stumbled and as he crashed to the ground under the weight of full field equipment his silence gave way to expressions of rage. At that it was hard to do the situation justice. Many bruised hands and darkened faces appeared when morning cautiously slipped over the horizon.
Strict orders to avoid observation from aeroplanes kept the battalion concealed in the woods for the day. After the cooks had the iron rations simmering, "police call" brought from the bunks a surly, wearied battalion. With the exception of a few more battles high up in the sky, nothing else broke the monotony of the day, but the stay in the Bois de Domevre was very brief. A three-kilometer march landed the Third Battalion in Manonville on the night of August 9th.
Manonville was the seat of Regimental Headquarters and the home of the battalion in reserve. It was situated in the fighting zone and had been occupied by the Germans at the beginning of the war in 1914. Although not destroyed like the French villages nearer the front line, yet it was in a dangerous territory. Most of its inhabitants had fled to a safer locality. However, there were a few faithful and brave old citizens who refused to vacate their beloved homes. These few carried on from day to day, disregarding the enemy aero-
planes and the artillery shells that were occasionally dropped into the village. The little city had been sadly neglected during the four long years of war. The first duty of the Third Battalion was to "police it up."
It was a large task. For five days streets were swept, billets scrubbed, tin cans and rubbish gathered in piles, and scrap heaps hauled away. The work was disagreeable, but all took a hold with a cheerful and willing spirit fully realizing the necessity, not for the sake of appearance, but in order to preserve their own good health and the health of the men of the regiment who would follow in their position.
On the night of August 14th the Third Battalion moved to the support position in the woods just south of Lironville, relieving the Second Battalion. Here might be an opportunity to experience some actual warfare. Opportunity soon appeared in an unexpected form. On August 21st at 9:45 p. m. sharp, enemy artillery startled the members of " L" Company. The first and second platoons, both of which were stationed in the woods, were being shelled. It was difficult at first to determine the nature of the attack; many shells fell and exploded with a a loud, deafening sound, while others exploded with a muffled noise. The gas sentries were on the alert and soon detected small clouds arising slowly from places where the shells were striking. As the wind carried these clouds on toward the platoon positions, the odor of gas told the secret. Gas alarms sounded throughout the company sector. Most of the men were asleep, but, upon awakening, quickly became aware of the situation and got into their masks. This, however, was not true in one particular dugout, where one of the men grasped the mask fastened to his comrade and proceeded to lead his sleepy partner around like a pet dog. The owner wondered what force was pulling him ahead, neither grasped the idea of partnership in the mask. Another rudely awakened from his sleep was making a noble effort to insert his head into the mess kit carrier of his haversack. But the gas instruction had been thorough; discipline was splendid, and the men helped one another. There were gases of every variety--arsenic, phosgene and particularly mustard,--but every man stuck to his mask. The gas barrage continued and it became necessary to move the two platoons to an alternate position in order to avoid the mustard gas which was being splashed all over the woods.
The attack was thoroughly systematic. The Germans would throw over a number of gas shells at regular intervals. As soon as the gas from one round had passed over and the men began to move about, another shelling followed. Shrapnel, too, was thrown over with the gas, so as to catch those unfortunates who might be driven out of their dugouts by the gas and compelled to move about in the open.
The majority of the men of the company spent several hours in their gas masks on this occasion. No casualties resulted from the attack--a real victory had been won. The Boche had failed in his ef-
fort to cause casualties. He had given every man an opportunity to try out the gas masks under actual conditions. It is needless to say that every man had great confidence in his mask after this experience and regarded it as a true friend rather than a toy. The men, too, learned the odor of gas and the sound of gas shells.
The next morning was spent in wiring off the area which had been contaminated by the mustard gas. Packs and other equipment which had been damaged by the gas were condemned. This work was accomplished by men of "L" Company dressed in rubber uniforms which covered the entire body. Chloride of lime was thrown into the shell holes and life in this position continued as before.
|Back||Table of Contents||Next|