Kansas Collection Books
Contributed by Pam Rietsch and transcribed and produced by Connie Snyder



CHAPTER VI.

WITH THE SECOND BATTALION IN ST. BLIN

   At 1 o'clock on the moonlight morning of June 25, 1918, the Second Battalion train pulled up "somewhere in France." Officers blew their whistles and non-commissioned officers shouted, "Outside, make it snappy." The men rolled up their equipment, slung packs and formed in a column of squads on the road. The question arose immediately, "What is the name of this place?" "Gare," answered one as he pointed to the word written in large letters on the building beside the track. No other buildings were visible. Other questions followed, "Is this the end of the trip?" "Is the Second Battalion to be dumped out here in the open fields to shift for themselves?"

   The billeting officer appeared, he explained that "Gare" was the French word for depot, that the Battalion would be billeted in the town of St. Blin.

   When guards had been placed on the baggage the Battalion began the march to St. Blin, two kilometers away. "Strange ain't it, that the town is so far away from the depot?" queried the men as they trudged along toward the new camp. The guide, who was supposed to answer all questions, replied "France is different from the United States. Towns were built over here long before railroads were invented; when the railroad came through they couldn't hit all the towns and the towns were built of stone and couldn't be moved." In the midst of these queries and explanations the column was halted in the narrow winding streets of St. Blin. The billeting officer showed company commanders the quarters; after the men had counted out a hundred to a building, they filed into the low wooden barracks, where they found double-decker bunks filled with hay. Officers hunted up the rooms that had been assigned to them and in a few minutes the village was still again as the night.

   Meanwhile trucks had delivered rations and field ranges. And the mess sergeants and cooks, always on duty, had breakfast waiting when morning came--the first American rations since Camp Mills, New York. Some of the barrack bags, too, had arrived, but word was received that all "freight" had been salvaged at the base port. And the word "salvage" came into the technical vocabulary of the men. The precious G. I. Cans were lost and all the heavy boxes that had been so carefully made and painted and stenciled and packed with so many precious things!!! Company Commanders breathed easily for the dreaded property responsibility had ceased.

   Everybody turned out after breakfast to see the village. St. Blin, two kilometers southeast of Manois, was situated down at the foot of a big hill. A little stream fed by springs rippled through the village and the rocky plain to the northeast.

   Peasants driving ox teams hitched to cumbersome wagons moved slowly out to their little strips of land about the village. The old


With the Second Battalion in St. Blin      33

sheep herder stood with his faithful dog at the fork of the road. At two blasts of his horn sheep rushed around him from all quarters. Soon no one was left in the village of the civilian population but the shop keepers and the wash women who beat their clothing at the public basin. The young men were away at the Front and the young women in the munition factory of a nearby city. The shop keepers laughed and chatted merrily as they tried to understand the awkward attempts of the American to "parlez Francais." The men could scarcely believe that the pleasant madame who brought up the vin rouge had a husband and three brothers buried somewhere around Verdun.

   Out along the main highway which led to Chaumont was a strange group of men. They wore caps, a loose grayish uniform, and heavy boots. At first sight they appeared to be German prisoners; but there were no guards and no one could talk to them. They worked steadily away as if they were lost in their own thoughts. When the foreman appeared it was easy to establish their identity. He was a tall, fair faced young man with all the marks of the Russian officer. When Russia had dropped out of the war these men were interned in France and continued to serve the Allied Cause in the peaceful pursuit of building roads. In the field across the way another group was busily engaged in the development of an aviation field. Some of them wore red Kepis and bright colored uniforms. And the American soldiers wondered that this secluded little village, two and a half miles from the depot, was after all so cosmopolitan in its population, and so much concerned in the World War.

   In the evening, companies received the Intensive Training Schedule. Here it was in black and white--six weeks to get ready for a place in the line along with the Regulars and the Marines. The papers had just given accounts of how these soldiers threw away their gas masks and drove the enemy back with their bayonets. Most of the men of the Second Battalion, as of the entire Regiment, were raw recruits; more than sixty per cent had not had a full week's drill. It would take four weeks to get rested; could the task be accomplished!

   But calls began on the following day with Reveille at 5:15 a. m. and breakfast at 5 :45. The schedule prescribed the time almost to a minute. March to the drill ground began at 7 :45 and the work continued there as follows:

8 :30 to 8 :45--Close order drill by platoon.
8:45 to 9:15--Company in attack.
9:15 to 10:30--Company specialists-all men to have a fair amount
         of training in bayonet and grenade work.
10:30 to 11:00--Close order drill and developments by battalion on
         alternate days.
11:00 to 11:30--Gas defense.
11:30   --Return to camp.
1:00   --Return to drill fields.


34      Regimental History 353rd Infantry

1:30 to 2:45--Organization of a company strong point.
2:45 to 4:45--Preparation and occupation of center of resistance.
4:45 to 5:30--Outpost, advance and rear guard--to be alternated
         Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Test by battalion
         commander in deployments, attack and defense on
         Thursday and Friday.
5:30 to 6:00--Return to camp.
7:30 to 8:00--School for non-commissioned officers.
8:00 to 9:00--School for company battalion commanders.

   This schedule was based on the absolute requirements of General Headquarters. Training Bulletin No.20, Headquarters, 89th Division, July 8, stated: "Nothing in division schedule will be permitted to interfere with exact compliance in letter and spirit with the instructions from General Headquarters as ordered," and continued:
   "The ten-mile march cannot be combined with other instruction required by the G. H. Q. program. It is suggested that the march be made in the evening, (the work in the afternoon being arranged to cover portions of schedule not calling for special physical exertion), that the troops bivouac for the night, resume schedule on the ground of the bivouac and combine the return with exercises in military training."

   But still more pressure must be added. On July 10th appeared a Division Memoradum entitled "The Use of Training Time." The provisions of this memorandum speak for themselves:

   "It is important that time which is now lost during the hours of drill while soldiers are at rest or are awaiting the development of tactical situations should be fully utilized in such training as can be given by lecture and simple illustration. The following are suggested as subjects which may be taught in this way:

  1. Assignment and identification of targets and sectors of fire.
  2. Care of the feet (The G. H. Q. program requires this to be given by the Regimental Surgeon who might accompany one battalion one day each week and give instruction during rest periods.).
  3. March discipline, general rules governing.
  4. Principles of the first aid.
  5. Use of cover and importance of digging hasty entrenchments; thickness of various kinds of soil necessary to give protection against rifle fire; quickest way of obtaining cover by use of the entrenching tool.
  6. Talks on trench routine."

   On July 20th the Battalion Commander was reminded in a memorandum from Division Headquarters that orders "required men go-


With the Second Battalion in St. Blin      35

ing to meals or company formations must march by squads or other units, in a military manner, in quick time, under their leaders."

   The drill ground was three and a half kilometers east of St. Blin. This was more than could be made in the thirty minutes, even at the increased rate, so the cooks brought out the dinner. Officers and men sat down together on the drill field and talked over the problems as they ate. They looked back to Camp Funston now as the good old days. Even the strenuous training at Smoky Hill Flats was easy in comparison with the requirements of the present schedule.

   The French officers attached as instructors warned against haste and over work. Sometimes they were even impatient with the impetuosity of the Americans.

   "Four years ago," said Lieutenant Chereau, "we were as eager as you are now. We learned since that this war cannot be won in a single mighty effort. Even if it were possible to overwhelm the enemy by sheer force the price of victory would be too great. Profit by our experience and move carefully; make every bit of effort count. That's the plan of the enemy; we must beat him at his own game."

   Lieutenant Lescadron made his contribution in another form. He came to the officers' mess with wine for all. "Such," he said, "is the custom among French officers; the new officer brings his welcome with him." Most of his time was spent in looking about for fresh vegetables and "cheekins." Lieutenant Lescadron was one of the famous Blue Devils. At this very time he was recovering from severe wounds. There could be no question about his effectiveness as a soldier. But the Americans were slow to appreciate his valuable philosophy of war.

   The wisdom of these experienced soldiers became apparent when from fifteen to forty men per company reported each day on sick call. Dysentery, the army disease, was affecting the men. The surgeons made vigorous effort toward control. All drinking water was boiled and the diet, so far as possible, was carefully regulated, but the men recovered only after a few days rest. As time went on, officers began to understand that the suggestions in the memorandum entitled "Use of Training Time" must be applied more liberally as a means of survival. And often times the men rested and not a few slept undisturbed, while officers lectured on military subjects.

   In the midst of these strenuous days, Major Wood, Captain Peatross, Captain Atkins, Lieutenant Wray and Lieutenant Gertesien as well as a picked sergeant from each Company were called to Langres for special tactical instruction. Not until the Battalion had moved to the front did they return. Capt. Milton C. Portman assumed command of the Battalion. Lieutenants were in command of the companies and in many instances sergeants commanded the platoons. At no time, even during the trip from Camp Funston to France, had all the companies been commanded by captains or the platoons by


36      Regimental History 353rd Infantry

lieutenants. The heavier duties thus imposed upon junior officers and non-commissioned officers in time of training helped to fit them for greater responsibilities that must inevitably come during campaigns.

   In addition to carrying out the strenuous training schedule during these days in St. Blin, battalion and company commanders were busy perfecting their organizations. The work along this line was especially difficult because of lack of precedent and definite information. Improved weapons increased the effectiveness of individual soldiers. One man with an automatic rifle was considered equal to six men with ordinary rifles. Men were no longer deployed in skirmish line at half-pace intervals in battle formation; instead they were to be distributed in groups so that the groups could cover the intervening ground with fire. But these groups must be able to co-operate. As a result of this increased individual effectiveness and a consequent wider dispersion of personnel the need of overhead direction and control was greatly increased.

   Company commanders carefully picked men for runners and signal men. Each platoon leader also selected four men to maintain his communication with his company commander and associate platoon commanders. In the company, runners, mechanics, cooks and supply detail were formed into a headquarters platoon. The table of organizations even provided for an administrative officer who would relieve the company commander of all detail work, but this officer was never available and first sergeants continued in charge.

   Neither the training schedule nor the drill ground afforded opportunity for the training of the personnel selected. The training schedule already included more than could be accomplished. Runners and signal men therefore either drilled or wasted their time on visual signalling. Mechanics and pioneers did odd jobs while the problem of constructing cover and shelter remained untouched. Limited space on the drill ground made the service of runners unnecessary and safe distance from the danger made shelter and cover useless. As a result of these conditions, officers and enlisted men carried with them to the front line false ideas of distance and terrain,--the most important information of a soldier in modern warfare.

   Battalion Headquarters, too, were organized at St. Blin. The personnel, numbering approximately one hundred, consisted of scouts and snipers, pioneers, runners, and ammunition men. These men all remained in the companies and drilled with the companies. Special liaison problems were provided for the runners and signal men under the direction of field officers but the limited time allowed for the development of these problems robbed them of their real significance. The handicap resulting from these conditions in the final preparation for front-line duty must be corrected at the Front.

   Later in July representatives from General Headquarters appeared to inspect the Second Battalion. The men were stripped for ac-


With the Second Battalion in St. Blin      37

tion, all their worldly goods, except for the packs on their backs and their arms, consisted now of a surplus kit containing one shirt, one extra pair of shoe laces, one blanket and a box of shoe dubbing. The inspectors could hardly believe that the hardened sunburned soldiers who stood before them were the same men who began their intensive training only five weeks before. They were even more surprised when they saw the men in bayonet drill. It was plain to see that the thrusts and jabs were intended for the throat of an opponent and the growl was little short of terrifying to the strangers. Automatic riflemen made their approaches perfectly as they outflanked machine gun nests. Of course, there was still much to be learned, but the progress already made satisfied the inspectors that the men of the Second Battalion were ready to "take over."




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