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9. On to the Vesle


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 9
On the Vesle


CHAPTER IX
ON TO THE VESLE
THAT Italy rumor was about as strong as any we bad heard up to that time and it must have had its origin in some exceptionally large latrine. Newspapers we had seen carried casualty lists of certain of the divisions already engaged in the action in and around Chateau Thierry and, while at times there was some discussion among the men as to whether we would actually see a really busy front, coming as we did from the sidewalks of New York, we now felt morally certain that we were speeding toward the big show where we would not only be witnessing the performance but actually taking a very important part in it, A few pages back we said that in the Army "Orders are orders" but we will have to plead guilty and admit that they were not always obeyed to the letter. There were orders against keeping a diary and, if they had been strictly obeyed, Carsten Ludder, Lieut. Floyd Smith and some of the other boys would not now be able to submit helpful data enabling us to mention a few dates here and there with some authority for our assertions.

It was the Fifth of August when we finally shook the dust of Lorraine from our heavy, hob-nailed field shoes and as the train jolted out of the station there roared forth from those crowded cars the words of that old favorite, "Where do we go from here, boys, where do we go from here?" It did not matter much to that old outfit as it was simply a case of "Hail, hail, the gang's all here" * Let's go! and we went. The weather had settled and as the wheels clicked out their merry rhythm on the rails we crowded into the doorways of our side-door Pullmans and took in the sights. As night fell every man found his niche and settled into it although some of the boys may have first settled down to a little serious drinking before calling it a day. Along about midnight the train stopped for a few minutes at what was known as a "coffee stop" and there, stationed at the side of the tracks, were French soldiers with cans of coffee. Each man received about a quarter of a cupful, When big Jack Kane of C Company looked into his cup he went bellowing up to Lieut. Duddy about it. "Hey, Lieutenant," he roared, "what in hell are these frogs trying to pull off here? What kind of a cup of coffee is that for a man?" Duddy asked, in his quiet way, "Have you tasted it, Kane?"

"No!"

"Well, have a taste and, if you want more, I will see that you get it."

Kane put the cup to his lips and, as the coffee slid down, he went right back on his heels. "Boy!" Little did he know that the coffee was loaded with cognac enough to give one a permanent wave. "Coffee Camouflage", it was called and how we looked for coffee stops after that!

Everybody back aboard the train and we moved on in the direction of Paris although we were not aware of it at the time. The next day we passed through Bar Le Due which is quite a city and, as the train slowed down, we had high hopes of being dropped off somewhere nearby but no such luck for us. In our case, it seemed to be the idea that the smaller the village the better. We certainly got into some pokey little holes at times. The old locomotive dragging us along picked up speed and we soon saw Bar Le Due dropping from view. Later in the day we stopped at the city of Coulommiers where D Company detrained and marched to a nearby village. It was 5:00 P.M., August Sixth, when we pulled into the village of Mortcerf and the rest of the Battalion detrained. This proved to be the end of the train ride and all hands pitched in to unload the flat cars carrying our gun carts, kitchens, G.S. wagons and limbers. On a sign-post at the side of the road were the words "150 kilometers to Paris" and we had visions of some happy days in that city if we were to be in this vicinity very long but General Pershing had other ideas and he usually had his way.
The task of unloading completed, the companies were formed and as night fell we found ourselves again on the march with that "150 kilos to Paris" sign dropping further to the rear with every step. We were in for another all night march. Obtaining drinkable water was a problem that was always with us and as we did not have a chance to replenish our supply since some time prior to boarding the train, there arose a general shout for water. From various parts of the column would come the yell, "We want water", and at times it was taken up in chorus in cadence with the step. A good deal of it was done for the devilment of it but many canteens were actually empty in spite of the fact that water was always sparingly used and throats were becoming parched, what with the heat of the marching and the dust kicked up by the troops. The officers remained silent, just forging ahead and their silence was ominous.

Late at night we passed through a sizeable town and, as the sound of the marching columns echoed through the silent streets, here and there windows and doors were cautiously opened and we were greeted by the familiar "Vive L'Amerique", when it was learned we were Americans. It is very difficult to locate some of our stopping places on the maps as the villages were so very small but A Company men no doubt recall camping over night near a place called Mourot and later hiking up a long hill to Boussois near Voisins. C Company finished the hike in the small hamlet of Coubertin and, upon making inquiry the next morning, learned that we were approximately eighty kilometers behind Chateau Thierry.

The first formation the morning following that all-night march took place at about ten o'clock and the principal if not sole item to be handled was the matter of shouting for water the night before. Some of the officers may have been lenient but speaking for the First Platoon of C Company, they took as sweet a dressing down from Lieut. Duddy as any we had ever listened to. We had it coming to us and it was a sheepish bunch of soldiers that ambled away to billets after we were dismissed.

It was while we were in this area that we saw our first United States hospital train filled with wounded and as we watched that train-load of bandaged men roll slowly by we knew that there was serious work for us not far away. Nor did we have long to wait. The men of the Battalion were held closely and after a day or two of resting, the sharp, staccato notes of the bugles sounding "Assembly" summoned the companies to formation. The commanding officers carefully selected half of each company, those men being ordered to roll packs and on the morning of the Ninth of August, 1918, we again turned our steps toward the front but this time it was to be indeed a real front. Little did we know that we were starting for that place now indelibly stamped on the minds of 77th men -The Hell Hole of the Vesle.

After several hours of steady marching we were ordered to fall out at the side of the road near a small village where, after a short wait, we were loaded aboard motor lorries which had rumbled up, driven by Animites. From their appearance they were just small Chinamen to us and we referred to them as "Chinks" and let it go at that. There were two on each truck and they were as good as nothing at all when it came to finding out from them anything about where we were going. Their lingo was certainly beyond us. We climbed in on top of our packs, making ourselves as comfortable as possible and presently we started.

The remainder of the Battalion, in fact, the rest of the entire division, got under way sometime later and it required three days of arduous travelling on foot for them to cover the distance we made in the trucks. For a while, as our trucks rolled and jolted along, we seemed to be the only truck train on the road but it was not long before we saw other columns of trucks loaded with infantry and machine gunners rolling along in the same direction we were going. Looking to right and left as far as the eye could see, all converging roads were crowded with long trains of trucks hurrying, hurrying forward. Speed and yet more speed seemed to be the predominant idea. Gradually faces became masked in gray as the gasoline fumes and the dust of the road swept in clouds over the men. Grimly silent we hurried forward. Divisions that had turned back the German hordes at Chateau Thierry and those that had kept up the incessant pounding had been pretty well cut up and when we took over the lines from the 4th Division, the necessity for our haste was evident. Those boys were sorely in need of relief.

Mile after mile slipped out from under the wheels of those motor trucks and we were not certain of our destination until at one point we made inquiry of two small French lads standing at the side of the road. With a limited knowledge of French, it was difficult to find out what we wanted to know but by pointing in the direction in which we were headed and at the mention of Chateau Thierry the boys understood and shouted, "Oui! Oui! Chateau Thierry, Oui!" What memories for those boys to carry with them through their lives!

In the late afternoon we came within sight of the Marne River -that stream that in times past had run red -and ere long we were crossing it on a wooden bridge constructed by engineers. The stone bridge had been blown up and there remained only a mass of debris on each embankment. Continuing on through the town, who can forget the scenes of destruction, devastation and desolation? On all sides there was plenty of evidence of what had taken place and we cannot but be proud of those fine American troops who participated in the action around Chateau Thierry for their indomitable will and courage.

The men of the Battalion following on foot reported that it was slow going for them as the entire Division train was on the road. It is said to have been about seven miles long, necessitating many stops. The men carried haversacks only and the nights were penetratingly cold. After a long hard march they also reached the Marne and many of the men went into the river for a swim but they did not stay in long, however, once the odor of that water entered their nostrils.

The trucks were moving forward more slowly as the roads had been well pounded by artillery fire and it was a rough ride but we kept on going and such names as Fere-en-Tardenoi, Sergy, and Bouresches come to mind. They were perhaps pleasant little villages before the war but were just so many piles of stones and mortar when we passed through them. The shell-torn road eventually had its effect and the truck in which the writer was riding limped to a stop at the side of the road. The remainder of the train soon passed from sight and we seemed to be stranded just about as completely as we would have been had we been in a disabled boat at sea. Those who knew something about engines tinkered with the machinery and when we were ready to start darkness had fallen. Slowly we picked our way through the blackness of the night and at last we stopped. There were no explanations given but the Animite drivers appeared to be making preparations for turning in for the night and Lieut. Duddy ordered the equipment lifted from the trucks to a corner of the yard around the ruins of a house just off the road. One of the men exploring through the house was suddenly confronted by two officers who demanded to know who we were and ordered us to withdraw. With much blustering and show of authority they ordered our man to take them to our commanding officer. I can still see Duddy's tall, erect figure in the darkness and again in his usual quiet way - "Gentlemen, whom have I the honor to address?"

One of the officers mentioned his name and said that he was a second lieutenant of the 305th Infantry, and went on to say that we had stopped at Regimental Headquarters and that Duddy would have to get his men out of there or we would all be shelled out by the enemy in the morning. Thereupon Duddy replied, "Well, don't get Yourselves excited. I am First Lieutenant Duddy of C Company, 305th Machine Gun Battalion. We stay here for the remainder of the night and we will be gone before anything can happen in the morning. Scatter men and make yourselves as comfortable as possible." Duddy outranked the other officers and how we gloated over the way he handled the situation.

When morning came, a runner found us and we joined the rest of the Battalion in Nestle Wood a short distance away. What a place! Where is there a man of the old Battalion who can forget the scenes in that bit of woods -with some of the dead still on top of the ground, others partially protruding from shallow graves, the debris of the battlefield and above all the infernal stench? It got into the nostrils, there to remain, and those hot, dry days of August only served to intensify the odor. Neither did the coolness of the night relieve the situation. Darkness increased the eerie aspect of the woods and the morning sun was indeed welcome. Chaplain Lawson held services there on Sunday, August 11th, practically every man of the Battalion attending, and as they sang "Nearer My God To Thee", the guns in the line up forward rumbled a strange accompaniment.
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