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13. Advance to the Aisne and Some Rumors


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 13
Advance to the Aisne and Some Rumors


CHAPTER XIII
ADVANCE TO THE AISNE AND SOME RUMORS

THIS table-land apparently did not offer much in the way of protection but the same problem, no doubt, had presented itself to the Germans when they originally came through this territory and they solved it by making excavations about four feet wide and deep and perhaps twenty to thirty in length. There were any number of these holes so successfully hidden by the dry grass of the fields that it was several minutes before they were observed. They were well protected against shrapnel. When we had wondered where the Germans went when our artillery started warming up, these were, no doubt, the holes into which the Jerries scampered. Well, the enemy remembered all about these holes that they had left behind and when they stopped their retreat and had set up some artillery guns they naturally shelled the place. It didn't take us long to move right in and we were really quite grateful to Fritz for having provided for us in this way. Shelling, however, was always sure to get somebody and one hit was made between two infantrymen carrying a stretcher. We leave such pictures to your imagination.

Members of the Battalion will recall that it was here that an enemy airplane zoomed down at us with the machine gun roaring. He caught us flat-footed with our rompers at half-mast and came so low that we fired at him with side-arms on the chance that a lucky shot would bring him down. We did not get him and on the other hand no one in the Battalion was hit, to the best of my knowledge, which was one of those unexplainable happenings of the war. This open field was no place to be loitering, nor did we tarry as Jerry had to be followed up and we started again in the direction of a village named Perles. On, on we went with no opposition from the enemy and presently the smoke of the burning village of Villier en Prayere came into view.

Pushing on we eventually entered a wooded section, once again enjoying a false sense of security that the foliage afforded. If memory serves correctly, we remained here for a couple of days during which time the 302nd Engineers put through an emergency trench system and it is doubted if any trenches, anywhere, were ever dug with more speed and dispatch. Moving further forward and still under the cover of the woods we dropped into a system of German trenches. A shallow dug-out with a tin covering was immediately occupied by Murphy, Pavia, Traub and Zaccaro of C Company and it proved to be a fatal spot for them. It was sometime in the early afternoon when the enemy made a direct hit on that dug-out. Corporal Kelly was on his knees handing in rations at the time and, strange as it seems, it left him with only a slight case of shell shock. Almost at his fingers' ends the lives of the other four were snuffed out. Pavia lasted until nightfall but died before an ambulance could be brought up under cover of darkness. Still moving forward, positions were taken up on the heights overlooking the Aisne River. The Germans had made another stand at this point with another waterway to help them hold us at bay.
We of Company held well-distributed positions for a day or two when Lady Rumor fluttered around again with whispers of a relief. We were relieved sure enough but only by Jim Mahoney and that bunch of bandits from A Company which meant that the Battalion was not going very far away. Well, back we went to Vauxcere and those caves familiar to all of us. What a feeling of absolute security when you entered those holes under the hills! They were big enough to accommodate almost an entire company and I believe there were larger ones elsewhere around the town.

While riding along a road near Vauxcere, the mule Zachatelli of C Company was mounted upon was hit by shrapnel, dying later in the day, but Zach was uninjured. Capt. Luce was severely wounded in the hand by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a base hospital and did not rejoin the Company. As I recall it, our first replacements were received during our sojourn in the caves. As an initiation to the lines a detail from the contingent assigned to C Company was called upon to dig the hole to bury Zachatelli's mule and, of course, that was some hole.

With nothing in particular to do other than to keep out of harm's way we had a fine opportunity to watch the activity of the airplanes. The Germans had such supremacy of the situation that it was won-dered if the Allies had any planes. We found out, but that's an item for later pages. Another interesting sight was a battery of the big guns of the 306th Field Artillery Regiment that went into action in a sunken road not far distant. The guns were being handled with such precision that one gained the impression that those gun crews had done nothing else all their live but handle six-inch howitzers.

Old Dame Rumor was a busy old girl fluttering about from one outfit to another and sure enough she again paid us a visit at Vauxcere. This time it was a beauty. We were not only going to be relieved but the powers that be realized that the 77th had been kept in the lines for a long time and was going to be rewarded by a long rest at a big rest camp four kilometers from Paris. In what back yard did that originate? The date was now somewhere around the middle of September and, without doubt, the units of the Division were dirty, weary and fed-up, especially after the experience on the Vesle. Then, too the Division had been active almost without let-up from the time it landed in France. Rumors kept up the morale and, although the talk of the rest camp near Paris sounded a little too good, we were in a good condition to believe anything. Anyway, it was a pleasant thought. Consequently, when packs were rolled and we moved out of Vauxcere in the twilight of one of those September days we stepped along full of hope for a good rest, at least. One thing was certain and that was that we were being relieved. Came the darkness and at the same time we commenced to meet the relieving force, none other than the 8th Division of the Italian army. Just how the Italian troops fared after they took over the lines, I have never heard but when we met them on those dark roads they seemed to be going up for a picnic. Machine guns were packed on mules and, wonder of wonders, lanterns were lit and swinging beneath their limbers. Most of us knew nothing more than "Hello, friend", in Italian, which we worked overtime and you can imagine the surprise when a voice from the Italian column called out, "Anybody over here from Jersey City?" Another shouted, "If I ever get back to Pittsburgh, they'll never get me again." As we drew further away from the lines some of the Italians must have had time to take over and what a display their rocket signals made as they burst in the air. No doubt you recall twisting your neck to watch the fireworks. No one knew what it was all about but it seemed as though the Italians were in for a party the way they went up to the lines.

Hour in and hour out we trudged along and it seemed that we would never stop but the red glow in the sky and roar of the guns were not far behind which was something. At about one o'clock in the morning the hike came to an end in the usual place, namely, the middle of a dark piece of woodland. What did it matter? Were we not on our way to Paris?

The blackness of the woods made it next to impossible to find a place to bivouac for the remainder of the night or, as we called it, a "flopping place". Many of the men were satisfied to drop almost where they had stopped but this proved to be very unwise. In getting into the woods without being able to see where we were, we had traversed a woods road. We had barely settled down when the trans-ports started pulling in along the same road. While the ground was firm enough to walk on it was too soft for the supply wagons and limbers and the mule skinners commenced urging the animals on as only mule skinners knew how. In they came, with all their din and clatter and their nice, choice selection of profanity. Only mule skinners really knew how to swear. It seemed as though the transports were rattling in all night but we slept through all their racket.

The next morning, bright and early, what was our surprise to hear Major Peake acting as his own bugler. Who can forget the sight as he strode up and down the road? I can still hear him bellowing at the top of his lungs "The cooks will get up and start preparing breakfast. The stable crews will feed and water the horses. The horses are tired as well as the men. That's a command of execution and I want action." Heads came up from blankets all over the place to see what it was all about and as quickly disappeared beneath the blankets to smother a few pleasantries. What was said under those blankets will not bear repeating here. We might say, though, that the cooks did get up and the stable crews did feed and water the animals.

It has been mentioned that the date was the fourteenth of September and that we were in the Cohan Woods near the village of Caulonges. A pleasant surprise was in store for us here. In the afternoon we were paid and that was that. Chaplain Lawson had a lot of cigarettes and chocolate but there was no place to spend a cent. Little circles of men formed here and there and soon the little white dominoes were galloping again.
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