Early on the morning of June 25th, the long train of "Side-door Pullmans" slipped quietly into the little station of Rimaucourt. This train carried the Third Battalion, Maj. George W. Blackinton in command. Many of the half-awakened passengers looked listlessly out of the windows, wondering, "Where are we at." Some one inquired of a French official as to the cause of the stop and the reply was "fini," and even at that early date in our French career it was realized that he meant, "this is the end."
The "hard-boiled top sergeants" immediately routed everybody out. Soon the Battalion marched drowsily along the road into the town. No one was stirring and it seemed like a deserted town. The billeting party, which had preceded the battalion, conducted the companies to the long wooden barracks which had been occupied by the American troops who had previously trained in this area. The officers were also shown their billets, but everything was locked up and it was only after considerable knocking on doors that they were able to get any response from slumbering housewives. The officers criticized the members of the billeting party for not having met them with the house keys, but the next day when they asked for a key they learned that a French key is not a thing that can be carried around in bunches of ten or twelve--one does well to stagger along under the weight of two or three.
Later that morning, after everyone had gotten his location, and there appeared to be some life on the streets of the town, the men strolled forth to see what manner of place this was in which their battalion had landed-for the battalion was now, for the first time, separated from the Regiment, and must go it alone. Already the farm wagons were moving out of the village to the surrounding fields, and invariably the drivers were women or old men. The absence of young men was most noticeable. This brought the first serious realization of what the war meant to France.
Lucky was the "Buck" or officer who had paid attention during that half hour of French at Camp Funston in far away Kansas, instead of taking a nap, which of course at that time appeared to be much more beneficial. Now the lucky one could display before his comrades his superiority in the French language. Much to our surprise quite a few villagers knew some words of English, which they had picked up from the classical New Englanders (26th Division) who had preceded the Third Battalion to this camp. Truth, however, compels the confession that this vocabulary was mostly confined to the particular class of words and phrases which has become well-known as typically American and highly expressive.
The town of Rimaucourt was the metropolis of the towns occupied by the 353rd Infantry both in size and accommodations. Here was the Railhead (supply point) of the 89th Division, also the
location of the Division Quartermaster, the Division Finance Officer, the Division Post Office (A. P. O. 701) and the Division Trains. Headquarters of the 177th Infantry Brigade were also located in this town. The billets of Brigade Headquarters were in a well-appointed modern chateau, and the officers in a small building not far from the camp. Every company of the Battalion was quartered in Adrian Barracks which as billeting places are as superior to the ordinary French barn as cheese is to chalk.
The 353rd Infantry had not been lucky enough to draw the better towns of the Reynel Area, but Rimaucourt was well located and easily the pick of the lot. This advantage placed at the patronage of the battalion caused them to be the envy of the Regiment. Here was that Mecca of all A. E. F. troops, the Sales Commissary, and the only "Y" building in operation in the area (for some weeks) open for service. There was also nearby, at Andelot, that most hospitable "Y," presided over by "Mother" Fitzgerald and Miss Heermance, whose names will ever be spoken with reverence by all the men of the 353rd Infantry. All these superior advantages of Rimaucourt caused the doughboys of the Third Battalion to be regarded, by the rest of the regiment, as being "in luck."
The Division Quartermaster called for many details to unload rations and equipment. These details were always furnished cheerfully because no other troops were available. The result was that there never was any delay or mix-up in getting rations for the Third Battalion--no one lost weight in Rimaucourt.
Soon after breakfast, on the first morning in camp, the outfit moved down to the railhead and sorted out the regimental baggage and when this was all accomplished there was found a surplus of five New Royal typewriters which bore marks that indicated they were intended for the British Army. An unofficial investigation brought out the fact that when the detail unloaded baggage in Liverpool, it was reported to Captain Schutt that "L" Company's typewriter was missing. When the detail from Company "L" was sent to Southampton to load baggage, Captain Schutt in his mild but persuasive way explained the reported loss to them and hinted that it was quite essential that this typewriter (or its equivalent) must be found. This detail kept its mission ever before them and inadvertantly those Royal typewriters became mixed with the Regimental baggage, and pending an official investigation, one of them was turned over to each company and one to Battalion Headquarters to be taken care of and to be used only in case of emergency. It developed that "L" Company's typewriter came in with the baggage after all. An emergency immediately arose in the form of a tremendous "paper barrage" and the foresight of this baggage detail was very much appreciated. The Division Quartermaster was notified through military channels that these typewriters had appeared in the baggage. In accordance with his instructions they were boxed up as the Battalion moved to the front and sent through the same channels to their proper owner.
Besides the Third Battalion and 177th Infantry Brigade Headquarters Detachment, there were other small bodies of troops at Rimaucourt; a baggage detail of another Division and Battalion of Engineers. The latter were engaged in the completion of a large Base Hospital; this hospital was just receiving its staff of surgeons and nurses when the area was vacated by this battalion. After the St. Mihiel offensive some of the wounded of the 353rd Infantry were evacuated to this same hospital.
One thing lacking at Rimaucourt was a detachment of Military Police so the Third Battalion was ordered to form its own M. P.'s. These duties were turned over to Lieut. R. H. G. ("Long") Smith and a few carefully selected men from each company. So well did they perform their duties that after the second night one could hear a pin drop a block away after "Taps" and throughout the night. The second night they were on duty, several members of a nearby labor battalion who had looked too long on some of the local fire water became somewhat boisterous and were gathered quietly in the guard house by the M. P.'s. It so happened that Sergeant Metzger of Company "K" was sergeant of the guard that night, and when these prisoners began to think it was time to start a little trouble in the guard house, he addressed them in no uncertain terms and told them what he would do to them either individually or collectively. They hesitated for a moment and took a careful look at his jaw and surveyed his general make up and quietly withdrew to the corner of the guard house and retired for the night. After breakfast the next morning Lieutenant Smith sent a message over to the C. O. of the labor battalion stating that he had six of his men in the guard house for disturbing the peace and explained that since there were only enough rations for our own battalion it bad been impossible to serve breakfast to the prisoners!! The prisoners were finally delivered to an officer of the Labor Battalion about noon. The business-like way in which these improvised M. P.'s handled the situation so impressed the members of the neighboring battalion that they gave no further trouble.
The fame of our M. P.'s traveled on to the nearby town of Andelot where a detail of one of the National Guard Divisions was guarding baggage. Major Johnson was in charge of an Intelligence School there and called for assistance when the sergeant in charge of the baggage detail, and his men refused to obey his orders. Liententant Smith and a detail of his M. P.'s went down to Andelot and escorted the sergeant and his entire detail (some twenty men all told) up to the guard house in Rimaucourt. They were mumbling a few remarks among themselves as to the superiority of the members of the National Guard Divisions and making certain statements as to their unwillingness to obey Reserve Officers, when Captain Baxter, as officer of the day, appeared at the door of the guard house. "Attention" was called. The prisoners paid little heed whereupon Captain Baxter turned upon the prisoners and in a few well-chosen remarks gave them some hints as to the duties of a soldier, which they never
forgot while the Third Battalion was in Rimaucourt. He then assigned a billet for each of them, two feet wide and six feet long on the floor, which they proceeded to occupy. They were especially advised to hold no more conversation and make no more comments until such time as they were released. These men were transformed into well-behaved soldiers in a very short space of time and the following day were sent back to take charge of their baggage. Their later conduct bore evidence of having profited by this brief contact with the National Army both in Andelot and Rimaucourt.
During the stay in Rimaucourt there was more or less cognac and French wine available for those who thirsted. In the beginning no rules or restrictions were laid down locally. The first two days three members of the battalion partook too freely of these new drinks. Prompt was the punishment, prompt also was the action of the men of the battalion to prevent similar misconduct. In each company a small self-appointed detail saw to it that any member of their company, who showed signs of going too far in the consumption of these beverages, was quietly conducted to the little stream behind the town and thoroughly drenched. The result was that no rules were necessary to govern the men in this respect; liberties continued but no over-indulgence occurred after the first three cases.
Now and then a low muffled rumbling told us that we were not very far from our ultimate goal, the front line. Sometimes we were mistaken, however, as to the source of this rumbling. One day the engineers blew out some rock in a section of trench that they were digging for a new water system. It sounded so near and ominous that one highly nervous old French woman took to her cellar with all possible speed, and was only coaxed outside again after considerable explanation. While this incident was rather amusing its suggestions were serious.
We were now in the Reynel Training Area, one of the twenty-two established in France for the American Expeditionary Forces, and training started in dead earnest. As has been before related, a large number of our men were received in the last few days before leaving Camp Funston and their training had barely begun. After some preliminary work in close order drill, a French officer came to the battalion as an instructor. He was enthusiastic about reverse slopes and so eloquent in his presentation that he entirely converted the temporary battalion commander, the Duke of Wellington, (Major Blackinton was at that time attending the special course for field officers at Langres). As a consequence our drill field was changed to a place some two and one-half kilometers southwest of the town, where a fine system of reverse slopes was located. Many a bloodless battle raged over those slopes; perspiration, however, flowed freely. Trenches were taken and lost many times during the hot July days, but the most popular event was the capture of a famous "strong point" which gave the victors a chance to rest in the shade of a thick grove of trees.
For the further development of this training ground, Lieutenant
Chase was detailed to construct a bayonet course. This required that trenches and shell holes be constructed, but the ground was too solid for a pick and shovel. The 508th Engineers supplied dynamite to expedite the work. The site for one of these shell holes proved to be an unfortunate selection, for after the generous charge of dynamite had been exploded, Lieutenant Chase dashed up to Battalion Headquarters and announced that he had struck a flowing well. Careful investigation of this phenomenon showed that the charge had been laid over a joint in the city water main and as a result the supply of water in the city suddenly ceased. It took the combined efforts of our best French students to convince the inhabitants that no unfriendly act was intended. Everyone had been struggling to pick up a little of the French language for his own use, and the French people had been extremely patient, but as teachers few could get up to "second speed." This emergency demanded that some American go into "high" immediately.
Private Snyder of "M" Company was the only one who could qualify. To this day it remains a mystery why the inhabitants should become so excited over this accident to the water works. They had no fire department; they never drank water, and seemed to have very little use for it for any other purpose; yet they were very much excited when their supply was cut off. The source of the supply was out in the hills, a distance of two miles. Private Snyder finally made arrangements with the mayor to send the superintendent out to shut off the flow. There was a single key available to the large chamber from which the supply started to the city. After waiting several hours, Snyder was sent out in search of the superintendent and followed his trail to a wine shop down near the railroad station where it disappeared. Neither superintendent nor key could be located. The mayor at length gave permission to break the lock. The engineers who furnished the dynamite helped to mend the break. Private Snyder dashed off to the reservoir with his trusty bicycle and replaced the plug. The water supply restored, friendly international relations were again resumed. In fact, the whole matter was handled so diplomatically that it did not get into the official reports. For his excellent work in this crisis, Private Snyder was promoted to sergeant and was assigned to the intelligence section at Regimental Headquarters.
In spite of all mishaps and difficulties, the bayonet course was completed and men could be seen at all times of the day rushing the dummies with fixed bayonets and fierce "do or die" expressions on their faces. Other specialists, too, had to be trained. Groups of men practiced throwing dummy grenades; automatic riflemen worked over their Chauchats, taking them apart and putting them together again so as to become familiar with their operation and the replacement of spare parts.
Trenches were then outlined and newly-trained automatic riflemen, hand bombers, rifle grenadiers and ordinary riflemen practiced raids and made assaults, reaching through the first and second line
to the third line trenches. Thus the pleasant (in retrospect) July days passed. As a result of the intensive training the men were rapidly becoming efficient soldiers. Discipline was good and morale was high; all were looking forward with keenest interest to the day of leaving for the front.
Inspections followed the completion of training. Colonel McMasters appeared on the scene and directed each platoon leader to look over his platoon and report the number of men needing hair cuts. These reports were handed in and the number varied in the different platoons. In one platoon, no hair cuts were needed. This platoon was ordered forward; the others stood back with envy in their hearts. Surely this platoon and its leaders were to receive some kind of medal or decoration for their unusual accomplishment. The men of this platoon were ordered to take off their caps. Now they were to be decorated and were to stand uncovered during the ceremony. Some one had blundered. When the men were directed to brush their hair forward, it became painfully evident that not more than half of them had seen a barber for over a month. A curtain is drawn over the scene but soon after this incident short hair cuts became very popular, the shorter the better. In fact, a committee of officers, led by Lieutenant Zipoy, ably assisted by Lieutenant Temple, intent on seeing that no one should miss the benefits of a cool, well-shaved head, made the rounds of the quarters and succeeded in making flowing locks one of the scarcest possessions in camp.
The training period was finished off by a long hike to a system of trenches near Gondrecourt. Here a night was spent in trying to find the way into the platoon sectors, while wearing gas masks, the supposed enemy being particularly active in that sector during that night. It was a weary battalion that dragged back to Rimaucourt the next day. A French woman who saw the column coming into the town, tired and dusty, called out, "Fini la guerre?" But it was just the beginning for the Third Battalion.
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