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15. The Argonne


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 15
The Argonne


CHAPTER XV
THE ARGONNE

0NE EVENING, as the time drew near to go forward, each officer addressed his men and explained the problem that lay ahead. The type of terrain we were to attack through was described and we were told of the gigantic push to be made from the English Channel to the Swiss border. It would probably mean the end of the war. We could, of course, appreciate what an enormous undertaking it was as we had a fair idea of the front lines from our experience in other sectors. One officer, a newcomer, said he had not been in action before and did not believe that we had seen any real fighting. It made us wonder where we had been all the time and we felt like throwing him into a creek.

We had been fairly comfortable and certainly well-protected in those deep dug-outs but the night of September 25th was upon us and the order was everybody out. We started moving forward along a woods road and in the darkness, looking down into those ravines, we could see electrically lighted dug-outs of the French many feet below. It was around ten o'clock when the first low rumble of the barrage started. It was unceasing and at about this time we noticed that all was not well with one of the men of C Company. The first sign came when he refused to carry his pack. He was relieved of it and an officer ordered that his belt and pistol be taken from him. We soon came upon small detachments of French hurrying out of the lines we were to take over. As they came across the gullies our man mistook their uniforms for the gray of the enemy and started calling for his pistol and raving for us to do something. It was realized that he had broken under the strain and was sent back. No need to mention his name. Suffice it to say that he reached a base hospital where he received good care and returned to the Company, at the end of the war, fully recovered

We pressed steadily forward with the barrage constantly increasing until at midnight, as will be recalled, it was at full tilt. It is almost impossible to describe the thunder and roar of the artillery barrage as guns large and small pounded away all night on the German front line positions, nor is it necessary to attempt a description of the bombardment for the men who were there. Little wonder that men cracked under it. At one time, during our hike to get into position, we fell out in the ditch at the side of the road to allow the engineers to go forward to complete the work of cutting barbed wire entanglements. Gas masks had to be worn but I am not so sure that there actually was gas present. The atmosphere was heavy with smoke from the guns and smell of powder and along with the heavy fog that lay over the land we were pretty well blanketed. The Germans responded with their own artillery, to some extent, and one shell, landing a short distance back from the edge of the embankment against which we were sitting, just about shook our teeth loose.

At daybreak we found ourselves at the jumping off place in the French front line trenches waiting to go over the top when the barrage lifted at the zero hour which was set for six o'clock. This point may have been officially known as Abri-du-Crochet or La For de Paris or some such name but, to us, it was just a scene of wild and utter desolation. Looking ahead, perhaps a mile distant, could be seen the tree line of the forest but in between -that territory known as no man's land, where had been the much talked of German concrete trenches and concrete machine gun emplacements dubbed pill boxes -might be likened to a huge pot of porridge that had been violently stirred by a giant hand. The scene was one difficult to adequately describe with its great yawning craters and debris of every kind, nor did we fully realize the degree of destruction and havoc of the barrage until we actually started moving across that terrain. What thoughts ran through our heads and what prayers were silently offered as watches were nervously consulted during those last few minutes before the zero hour. It seemed an age but the hands at last pointed to six and, as the barrage lifted -WE WERE OFF. The boys from the sidewalks of New York had started a job that was to make history. The first army through the sticky mud of the Argonne where armies in times past had been slowed up and stopped. It was impossible for us, with our heavy equipment -machine guns, tri-pods, ammunition, extra rations, to say nothing of our own packs -to keep up with the infantry. Slowly and laboriously we struggled along up hill and down dale in and out of those great holes made by airplane bombs as well as the artillery shells. At times, when barbed wire and coils of spring wire barred our way, we would fling our equipment over to the far side, dragging ourselves through as best we could. Fortunately for us the enemy had been blasted out and had no time to get artillery set to any extent. A few shells were thrown back at us, however, but caused no damage. We were very thankful that the shelling was light as we were plenty busy trying to make headway without playing hide and seek with exploding shells.

With still quite some distance to go the rattle of rifle fire could be heard in the forest as the infantry regiments contacted the enemy who, by this time, was making a stand under cover of the dense woods and was offering stiff resistance. The entire Division, we have been told, was in the line at the jump off and immediately following, in support, was the 78th Division who had their hands full later on trying to catch up to us to make a relief. As we struggled across no man's land, there was much speculation as to what we would do for artillery support. Every once in a while someone would grumble, "A hell of a chance the artillery has of getting over this" or "We're sure S.O.L. for the heavy stuff". Well, somebody else had also thought about that, no doubt, before it had occurred to us, and we had reckoned without the 302nd Engineers. Those fellows followed right up with picks, and shovels flying and when they encountered those deep holes that you could drop a house into, they just built a bridge across. After we had finally gained the edge of the woods, it seemed no time before the 75's were banging away. It was not as easy for the artillery as it may sound. The engineers helped but the artillerymen had a lot of hard work to do themselves and their orders were to get the pieces forward. If horse power could not do it then man power would. As to machine gunners, orders were to hold every inch of ground taken by the infantry. We stumbled and struggled along and, with dysentery to add to our woes, life was none too sweet at that time.

One thing in our favor was the weather At the outset it was not raining. That came later. Once it started, there did not seem to be any let-up and of course rain meant mud with a capital "M" in the Argonne. Well, along in the afternoon we dropped into what remained of the German communication trenches with the devastation of that first bombardment of the Argonne drive left behind. The short rest in the trenches with its protecting walls was, indeed, very welcome but the war was still on and in a few minutes the order was passed back, "Everybody up", and we were at it again. We had finally reached the tree line that had seemed so far away in the early hours of the morning. The enemy was making a desperate stand and the infantry regiments were up against it as they moved cautiously forward seeking expertly hidden targets. Everything was confusion and everybody seemed to be lost. The Third Platoon of C Company, winding its way along the trenches, soon came out into a ravine and by keeping well up along the forward slope managed to keep out of range of exploding shrapnel shells which were dropping lower down in the ravine. Apparently the Germans could not get the proper trajectory to get them up on the slope. It was in this ravine, near a German cemetery which the men of the Platoon will recall, that Nadel received the frightful wound that resulted in the loss of his left arm and later cost him his life. Again the call was for Kirk who tied that arm fast with first-aid kits but could have amputated it with nothing more than a pair of scissors. Nadel had to be taken back which meant another struggle and, what with dysentery and his crippled condition, he was helpless, as helpless as any infant. Those assigned to the task of taking him back, among them Kirk, were exhausted before reaching the first-aid station and had to summon aid from the Engineers.

As to the rest of the Platoon, it continued on along the ravine, circling around the hill to the right into another ravine and was, at last, halted on the forward slope. Lost? Yes, sir, there the gang sat, with Lieut. Parker in command, looking across at a whole hillside of abandoned German shacks which were the fronts of the dug-outs extending back into the hill. One sign indicated a commanding officer's quarters, another, the beer stube or saloon, and so on. It was all too much for Sidney Rust and he had to have a look into those dug-outs. Everybody yelled to keep out but that intrepid explorer had to have his curiosity satisfied. He was doing just what the Germans expected more of us to do and, within a few, minutes, that familiar whine was heard as a German shell came hurtling over. Wham! another and another, right into their old quarters. Need we tell you how long it took Rust to get off that hill?
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