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6. Lorraine


A STORY
of
THE 305th MACHINE GUN BATTALION
77th DIVISION
A.E.F.
By

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 6
Lorraine


CHAPTER VI

LORRAINE

SLEEPING in cramped positions due to the limited space in the cars was very uncomfortable but the journey was otherwise enjoyable, interesting and educational. At times the train made a good rate of speed while at other times it moved along at the usual troop train pace and we had plenty of opportunity to view the ever-changing scenery of the French countryside. It will be recalled that the German Army had advanced uncomfortably close to Paris and for that reason the train swung off in a wide are from that city. It was not the good fortune of most of us to visit Paris but we at least had the satisfaction of seeing the Eiffel Tower faintly outlined in the distance. There was much to hold our interest, the country was indeed picturesque and with the good nature and fun in the cars, the time did not drag. The train stopped frequently and French boys came up to the tracks offering for sale vin blanc in nicely sealed bottles. A number of sales were quickly consummated but when the train had moved on and the bottles were opened, much to the dismay of the purchasers they contained only water. This spoiled the business thereafter for any French boys offering the genuine article, for "You cannot fool all the people all of the time".

We saw several days fade into night and we continued to roll on toward our unknown destination, Most of us would say, off -hand, that the trip consumed three or four days but one of our boys with a flare for accuracy places the time at sixty hours. We had watched the direction in which we were going and a few sectional maps had been purchased. We guided ourselves by the names of the villages we passed through but soon we ran off the maps and as the tracks swung north, then south and again north, we soon gave up the task of trying to determine just where we were going and settled back to await eventualities. At last our old forty and eight came to a jolting stop and we were ordered to detrain. According to the sign on the station the name of the town was Charmes but so far as we could see there were no charms about the place. We were not there long enough to make a thorough investigation which was our usual practice upon arriving at a new town. I might add at this time that it never did take the 305th Machine Gun Battalion very long to get a place all lined up. It was often a race with the officers and usually the men won out. Perhaps it was because there were more enlisted men than officers or maybe it was due to the fact that officers had a certain dignity to maintain. I do not know.

It was an intensely hot day in June when we arrived at Charmes and our hike from the station, which consumed most of the afternoon, in the broiling sun with full regulation pack and cooties boring in, was anything but pleasant. We arrived at the village of St. Maurice where we found fairly clean, comfortable billets. A thing that stands out in the memory of one of the boys is that upon arriving in St. Maurice we found good beer, real home brew. He tells us that this was on the thirteenth of June. He goes on to say that on the fourteenth we rested but we have not been able to find out whether he means we rested from the rigors of the hike or set down the beer glasses for a rest.

The village of St. Maurice is in Lorraine, in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains and off in the purple haze we could see the mountains themselves. Lorraine was the scene of terrific fighting in the early years of the war but the sector had long since become quiet with no advance being attempted here by either the German or French armies. It was known as a rest sector and divisions of both armies, French and German, were brought here for a rest and reorganization. There was an exchange of shell fire daily, the projectiles exploding harmlessly in open fields with apparently no desire on the part of the opposing forces to do any real harm. The idea seemed to be, principally, that of keeping each other reminded that there was a war going on. A number of American divisions, however, received their first real taste of war in Lorraine. The American soldier could not long be satisfied with such inactivity and on several occasions started things going, much to the horror of the French. The Germans seemed to be willing to oblige our division with an idea of what a real active front was like and some of the men in our infantry regiments recall being caught in a box barrage, subjected to liquid fire and intensely bombarded with gas. It was real warfare to those boys on this supposedly quiet front. The boys in the artillery got a line on a church that the Germans were using for an ammunition dump. They brought up one of their six-inch howitzers at night, mounted it in no man's land, made short work of the ammunition dump and withdrew. An artillery gun so used is known as a pirate-piece. As for ourselves we had our own part to play and we will come to that shortly.

There is nothing like a good beef stew or perhaps a mess-kit full of beans to put a soldier on edge. The old mess cup filled with coffee instead of tea always reached the spot and we were now getting these things regularly as we were on American rations. We cannot complain about the food with which Uncle Sam supplied us. There were times when we went hungry but that was when we were in the lines and we could not be reached for certain very good reasons. It was in St. Maurice that we had issued to us American cigarettes of vari-ous brands along with tobacco furnished by the Washington, D. C., National Tribune Tobacco Fund. It was a treat to see the American tailor-mades as we called them. Who will ever forget the English brands that we have smoked; Gold Flakes - Woodbines - Red Hussars -Wild Rose and others. We also recall the boxes from the Red Cross Christmas Fund which we received in June. They were no doubt sent over for the previous Christmas and we fell heir to them.

The Battalion commenced to take on a war-like appearance as Colt .45 calibre automatic pistols and revolvers were issued and there was a nice feeling of security when the old "gats", as we called them, nestled against us hanging from our belts. There were not enough guns to enable the supply sergeants to issue one to every man so they compromised by giving guns to half of each company and ammunition to the remainder. We tried to decide who got the best of the bargain, those with the guns or those with the ammunition. We did not have immediate use for either so that by the time we did get into the lines the entire Battalion was pretty well equipped with guns and ammunition. It was something else to worry about as the pistols added a little more to the list of things to be cleaned. Incidentally our friends the Tommies abbreviated "small arms ammunition" to "S.I.I." How they got the sound of "I" from "A" is beyond us, but they speak the King's English and if it is all right with the King we suppose that is all there is to it.

Our introduction to the- Hotchkiss Machine Gun, the type used by the French Army, was very informal. One of the guns, mounted on its tripod, stood at one side of the wide entrance to the billet and eventually one of the men summoned up enough courage to ask what it was. The officer in charge explained that it was the new type gun we were going to use. Well, our first impressions were not particularly favorable and it was not a case of love at first sight. We thought we had a pretty good idea by this time as to what a machine gun should be and the idea of an air-cooled gun did not seem to fit into the picture. However, we closed in on the gun to tear it apart to find out what made the wheels go round and what made it tick. After some experimenting it was discovered how the guns were taken apart and the officers were plied with questions and pressed for the names of the various parts. They were as much at a loss for names as the men and as any books on the subject were in French, they were of no help. It was decided to give the parts names of our own choosing so long as it was clear just what we were talking about.

We do not know whether or not the French soldiers ever heard or were annoyed by the names selected but we guarantee that the Frenchmen would be very much upset if they beard the names we called the guns when anything went wrong. Slowly we warmed up to the old Hotchkiss guns and we came to have a real affection for them as there were very few stoppages, the bane of a machine gunner's existence.

We were not quartered in St. Maurice very long. Part of the Battalion moved out to the town of Moyen, some distance away, where they attended a school of instruction conducted by the French. The remainder of the Battalion proceeded to the town of Fontenoy, nearer the lines, where we received instructions and the benefit of the experience of gunners from the 42nd Division, men of our own army who were able to talk to us in a real American way. As we came to know more about the Hotchkiss gun and had fired it on the ranges, most of the men liked it better than the Colt or the Vickers. The gun would run hot but we overcame that to some extent by applying wet burlap.

Fontenoy was an agreeable little village as French villages go. It was occupied by civilians as were most of the villages in Lorraine which were not actually right in the front lines. The buildings showed the effects of the fighting in the early stages of the war. Many houses bad been wrecked by shelling and the pock-marked exteriors of many others gave mute evidence of intense machine gun and rifle fire. The 305th Infantry Regiment was quartered in Fontenoy and this afforded an opportunity to renew old friendships with the doughboys. Their part to play was most difficult. The men of the 305th Machine Gun Battalion appreciate, full well, how they played that part and they have our sincere and profound admiration.

We had our share of poor weather here in Lorraine and we often thought it would have been a good idea if we had been equipped with sabots (wooden shoes) as were the French people. It was like walking around in boats and there were times when a boat and a pair of oars would have been a good idea. Like all villages in France, Fontenoy had its manure piles and it was a standing joke that wealth in those villages was measured by the size of the manure pile under the front window. The Government had made extensive drafts on the farms for horses and it was a common sight to see a horse and a cow teamed together in harness. It seemed to be the custom throughout the country to hitch horses in tandem and it was also the practice in taking horses from place to place to have them follow in line by tying the halter of one to the tail of the one ahead. Yes, we saw lots of unusual things in France and we can still hear the "Gee! Haw!" of the peasants as they drove their horses along the road without the aid of reins.

Wash day in France was always amusing. The people did not have their own tubs at home. Therefore, every village was equipped with a huge basin around which a wide curb sloped to the water. As a rule the pools or basins had roofs over them and were usually situated at the side of a brook, the water being piped in at one end and flowing out at the other. Every French woman had a kneeling pad; usually a box with one side knocked out and the box filled with straw. The most important utensil however, was a paddle and how they wailed hell out of the clothes when they were soaped up. Wash boards, apparently, were unknown.

These public washing places were not always in the form of one large, circular basin, as we can remember one wash shed, at least, where there were about a dozen individual cement tubs probably twelve to fifteen feet long, by three feet wide and two feet deep. We halted for a time near this wash house and, as it was the first of its kind we had seen, it was thought to be a bathing place rather than a place to wash clothes. We all, no doubt, remember little Harry O'Beirn, that ray of sunshine in C Company. There being no civilians around, Harry stripped off his clothes and hopped into one of the tubs. He stood there soaping himself when a French woman put in an appearance with a basket of clothes on her hip. The gang yelled to Harry but being all soaped up and no place to go he had to stand where he was in the tub. Harry blushed a deep pink all over and we waited to see what would happen. The French woman advanced, smiled at the situation and, kneeling at one of the tubs, calmly proceeded with the washing, apparently forgetting that Harry existed. Seeing that she was not bothered, he finished his bath and had the laugh on the rest of the Company.

It is often strange how a thing of comparatively small moment will impress itself on one's memory. It may have been a certain individual, a billet or perhaps one of those long, straight stretches of road bordered with tall poplar trees that we remember but to me it was the church bells in Fontenoy. They seemed to have a certain peal that I have always remembered and with all of our experiences and hardships still vivid in my memory, I can still hear in my mind the Bells of Fontenoy.

Enemy airplanes soared high overhead almost daily and in order to warn us of their approach, buglers were stationed at certain vantage points. At the first sight of a plane the buglers sounded "Attention" which was the signal to seek cover and the roads became deserted. In this way there was no chance for photographs which would disclose the size of the force in an area. We were not permitted to look up as faces would show in a photograph. When the skies had cleared, "Recall" was sounded and activities were resumed. After a short stay in Fontenoy we moved on to the village of Glonville. A battalion of the 305th Infantry was also billeted in Glonville and we stood Retreat with them at which time the National Anthems of England, France and the United States were played. It was a picture to see the infantry battalion run through the manual of arms and to hear those rifle slings "sing". We were listening to a band concert one evening after Retreat when a bugle sounded "Attention". No concert ever ended more abruptly or a road cleared more quickly. Not long after, "Recall" sounded and the concert was resumed almost as quickly as it had ended. The German airplanes had us busy running in and out those days. The village of Azerailles was not far distant and a bomb, dropped on a kitchen at that place, took its usual toll in killed and wounded.

Our training went steadily forward and muscles became harder as we handled the Hotchkiss guns. Tripod and gun weighed approximately fifty pounds apiece and as the breech block of the gun was made of case-hardened steel, shoulders had to toughen up to with-stand the sharp square corners. Then, too, there were the boxes of ammunition with two hundred and eighty-eight rounds in a box. They were carried by leather handles which cut into the palms of the hands and the weight would seem to be pulling the very arms from their sockets when the boxes had to be carried a long distance. It was, indeed, a lovely war. We also received training in throwing hand grenades and we did not envy the doughboys as we watched them insert the detonators into the high explosive with which the grenades were filled, it being a very ticklish job. During our stay at Glonville we had a visit from two American girl entertainers who sang exceptionally well and it was a treat to see these young ladies from our own United States. We did envy the job of the sergeant whose duty it was to drive the car for them.

It seemed that, in spite of every effort to keep the enemy in ignorance of troop movements, they obtained such information some-how and we were very much surprised, one day, to see small balloons float over from the German lines. Attached to the balloons were small slips of paper bearing the message "Good Bye 42nd - Welcome 77th". The time was not far distant, however, when our Division was not quite so welcome and "Jerry" was glad to see the last of us. Their message of greeting seemed to make every man of the Division grasp his rifle a little tighter and, with grim determination, say to himself, "Old boy, you're going to be sorry you ever heard of us."

During all this time the lines were held by the 42nd or Rainbow Division and as we slowly moved forward, elements of that Division started withdrawing. Throughout the night their artillery regiments rumbled through and one could not help being impressed by the hardened, war-like appearance of the men as they rode silently by in the blackness of the night with the horses' hoofs clumping steadily on the hard roads, chains rattling and the heavy field pieces rumbling and jolting along. At other times motor lorries filled with troops would pass through but the occupants were not always silent and, as they caught sight of the guards on the roads there were many wise cracks hurled at the 77th men. The 42nd boys seemed to forget that most of the 77th was from the sidewalks of New York and there was a snappy retort for every sally from the lorries as they lumbered along. We had acquired the spirit of being second to none, as good, if not better than the best, and we took nobody's dust.

Moving day came 'round again for us and we moved further forward, establishing ourselves in the village of Vaxainville, slowly but surely edging our way nearer and nearer to the front lines. This was around the early part of July. As usual we made the hike at night and the orders were to wear overcoats, even though the weather was very warm. While they were uncomfortable at the outset, never the less, we were very glad to have them when we stopped for the regular ten-minute rest period for the air became chilly as the night wore on. Gas alarms became frequent in Vaxainville and we were often required to put on our masks in the billets. A lot of it was, no doubt, caused by jumpiness but we played it safe just the same. It was after one of these alarms or, shall we say, false alarms that we had a good laugh at the expense of one of the men. Things had quieted down and most of us had gone back to sleep. Along toward midnight we were awakened by shouts that seemed to be coming from the cellar but there was no cellar. It was found that the voice was coming from the interior of the mask of one of the boys who had evidently fallen asleep with it on.

A little distance from the village a brook threaded its way through the fields and at one place it reached a depth of three or four feet. A screen of brush had been erected around the spot and it afforded a fine place to take a swim which was very much appreciated and enjoyed, not to mention needed. On the Fourth of July a ball-game was arranged. It was quite a game and it is doubted if there ever was a game more full of action, not only on the part of the players but the spectators as well. Shells broke not more than a quarter of a mile away and they kept everybody alert, with one eye on the game, the other on the exploding shells and all hands ready to make a dive for shelter if they came any closer. There is no need to ask who won the game as it was just one of those things.
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