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Chapter 4 Training at Camp De Sourge


HISTORY OF THE 304th FIELD ARTILLERY
by
James M. Howard
1920


CHAPTER IV

TRAINING AT CAMP DE SOUGE

Pontan6zen Barracks was supposed to be a rest camp, and every one was looking forward to a chance to recuperate after the fatigue of the voyage and of the exhausting hike from the docks. But the term "rest camp" was a misnomer. To begin with, the men's bunks; were impossible. They consisted of wooden frames with slats set about five inches apart, and trying to sleep on them without mattresses was like trying to sleep on some ancient instrument of torture. Then, cooking facilities were very poor, and the mess sergeants had great difficulty in preparing decent meals. Worst of all, for some men at least, was the order which came through requiring the 304th to furnish several hundred men for construction work on the docks at Brest. Those who were unfortunate enough to be selected for that detail spent the best part of their "rest period" at the hardest kind of manual labor.

Nevertheless, those at the camp had considerable recreation. Thanks to the Y. M. C. A., athletic facilities were abundant, and we had a number of good base-ball games. Both officers and men got up teams and played the other organizations in the camp. Over in front of the officers' tents riotous games of, indoor baseball were played, in which every one, from Colonel Briggs and Colonel Kelly down to the junior second lieutenants, took part. Besides these sports, there were hikes which took the men out through the surrounding country, and they found it a real recreation to march along the roads and through narrow lanes, flanked on either side by green banks, or to sprawl during the halts in the beautiful fields, most of which were enclosed by peculiar earthen fences overgrown with vines and shrubs. The country was fresh and green, the air soft and balmy, and the villages and people were new and interesting.

On Tuesday, May 7th, our Journey to some training camp was to begin, and at three o'clock in the morning we were routed out of our blankets and told to prepare to move. In the pitch dark, made denser by a thick fog, we packed our belongings and ate a hasty breakfast, and by 6:30 we were on the road marching toward Brest.

Arrived at the railroad station, we found our trains awaiting us-trains the like of which none of us had ever seen before. They consisted chiefly of little four-wheeled French freight cars, so tiny that they looked like toys. On the side of each car was painted the legend "Hommes 40, Chevaux 8, en longue (40 Men, 8 Horses, lengthwise)." It was hard for the men to believe that they were actually expected to travel in those "cattle cars," alongside which the ramshackle coaches of the Long Island seemed like Pullmans. But such was the case. By crowding in on the rude wooden benches which served as seats, forty men were compressed into each car. Lying down had evidently not been taken into consideration by the authorities who planned the trip. A few men were fortunate enough to be put into second- and third-class coaches, but the vast majority traveled "Hommies forty," as they called it. The officers, in accordance with French custom, were provided with ancient first-class compartments.

All that day and night, and all through the next day and up to midnight, the three trains bearing our regiment rolled southward. Occasionally there were stops where one could get out and stretch one's legs, and at two or three stations French coffee, horribly bitter and black, was served from huge cans on the platforms. The meals consisted chiefly of canned corned beef and "bully beef," and butterless bread. There was plenty of it, but the diet was one to which the men had yet to become accustomed. Sleep, for a great many, was out of the question, and although every one enjoyed the interesting and beautiful country through which we passed, it was a weary lot of soldiers that responded to the order to detrain when, about midnight on May 8th, we reached the little village of Bonneau, a few miles outside the city of Bordeaux.

There we were met by Major Sparks, who, accompanied by Sergeant Smart, of Supply Company, as interpreter, had left Camp Upton ahead of us and come over as advance agent to prepare the way. With the Major for guide, the regiment marched along the dark, wet roads f or what seemed an interminable distance (in reality it was less than three miles) to where we were to undergo a course of training in artillery work. A wooden arch over the entrance bore the sign "Camp de Souge," and for the first time we knew the name of our destination.

After a few hours' sleep, the men were up and at work getting the barracks in order. These were low, wooden buildings with concrete floors, well ventilated and equipped with electric lights. The bunks were solidly made wooden cots which, when covered with straw-filled bed sacks, were more comfortable than any beds the men had seen since coming into the army. The camp was arranged with the officers' quarters and mess-hall, as well as the hospital, down near the entrance; and then a single long street flanked by double rows of barracks reached straight out through a sandy plain to the Y. M. C. A. hut, the school buildings, and the Camp Commander's office at the farther end. A new section, occupied temporarily by Chinese coolies, extended to the left from the end of the street.

Those Chinese coolies were a novel feature. They were supposed to be doing the labor on the roads and unfinished buildings, but their method of work was, to say the least, peculiar. They would saunter past the barracks in the morning carrying umbrellas, bird cages and musical instruments, as well as a few picks and shovels. Arrived at their place of labor, they would sit around and talk, while occasionally some of the more ambitious would get up and shovel a little dirt.

"These Chinks," wrote one of our men in a letter "can get more rest out of a shovel than I can out of a feather bed."

About f our in the afternoon they would come past again on their way to their quarters, bearing in their hands chickens, bunches of onions and all sorts of vegetables, and singing weird songs in a shrill monotone while they made the most hideous noises on their ridiculous instruments.

It was not until after we had reached Camp de Souge that we learned that our four-point-sevens had not arrived in France, and that, in place of them, our regiment, like the 305th, was to be equipped with the famous French 75 millimeter gun. Moreover, not only the 304th but the 306th as well, with their big howitzers, instead of the tractors and motors for which they had been organized and trained, were to have horses. This meat-it, for us, not only the unlearning of all the knowledge we had acquired about motor transportation, and the development of a school in horsemanship, but the complete reorganization of the whole regiment. Pistols were to be substituted for rifles. Instead of three battalions, we were now to have but two, of three batteries each, and new tables of organization called for changes all through the regiment.

Nevertheless, to overbalance these difficulties, there was the good news that a complete equipment of 75's was ready for us. At last we were to have real materiel to work with, and should be compelled no more to resort to the "simulation" which had characterized our training at Camp Upton. After a few days rest, therefore, an eager lot of soldiers entered with a will upon the hard grind of the artillery school.

The first two weeks were spent almost entirely in gun drill. Both officers and men were divided into gun sections and put through a rigid course in all that pertains to sighting, loading and firing the marvelous little piece of which the French had been making such deadly use all through the war. Aside from going through the motions, every one was required to study the mechanism of the gun. The construction of the 75 is extremely simple: much of it can be taken apart and put together without the use of a single tool, and every one was delighted to be handling so perfect an instrument, and eager for the time when the regiment should be considered proficient enough to begin actual firing.

This time arrived in short order, for on Saturday, May 18th, word was given out that on the following Monday work on the range would commence. The batteries which had made the best record in the preliminary drills and tests were to be the first to fire, and this honor was accorded to Batteries E and C. On Sunday they dragged their guns by hand through the sand to the great champ de tir (firing field), where, after putting the pieces in position, the cannoneers camped for the night.

On Monday morning the officers piled into trucks and were taken out to their stations in two of the observation towers. From these points of vantage they could see to-right and left of them a long series of such towers, in one of which the officers of the 305th were assembled. About a hundred meters in front stood the guns, their crews busy with preparations for the mornings work. Beyond lay the vast field-a sandy waste on which stood a few groups of pine trees and a number of white panels, some of which represented vaguely houses and a church or two, but most of which merely marked the trenches which had been dug for use as targets.

Presently the instructor of the Second Battalion gave out the first problem, which was to adjust the fire of the four guns on a certain group of trees. The object was not to hit the trees, but by "bracketing" them, that is, by placing the shots first beyond them and then on this side, and by getting the bursts at the right height from the ground and at the right distance apart, to determine just what steps would be necessary in order to demolish the target if that should be required. This primary information gives the "base deflection," which, once established, serves as a guide in solving each successive problem thereafter.

Captain Perin, whose battery was to be the first to fire, gave his orders through a telephone operator at his elbow, just as he would do at the front, to Lieutenant Martin, the executive officer in immediate command of the guns. There was a moment of quick activity on the part of the cannoneers as they carried out the directions and slammed the shells into the breeches.
"Ready to fire, sir," reported the telephone operator.
"Fire!" ordered the Captain.
"Fire!" repeated the operator.
There were four flashes and four loud reports.
"On their way!" called the man at the 'phone.

Every officer raised his field glasses and peered at the group of trees. Presently four little puffs of white smoke appeared in a row just-beyond the target, as the shrapnel burst in the air. The first round of our career had been fired!

All morning long the guns of the two regiments banged away. Each battery commander in turn, and each battalion commander, had an opportunity to fire a problem and then to be criticized by one of the instructors. Some of the lieutenants, too, had their turn, and each officer tried to profit by the mis-takes and the good points of his predecessors.

For the men at the guns it was, as one of the gunners wrote, a red letter day. At last," he says, "after all our long months of 'intensive' training we have finally fired a shot. And it is some sensation to be seated on the gunner's seat when those 75's begin to roar. Most every one was a trifle nervous at first, but this soon wore off, and at the conclusion every one acted like veteran cannoneers."

The instructors agreed with this last statement, for during the entire morning, although the work was new and exciting, not a single error was made by the gun crews in carrying out the orders given them, and Captain Perin and Captain Bacon were congratulated on the fine work of their men and of the executive officers.

Before another week had passed every battery was having its turn at the firing, and every officer was given the opportunity to acquire the knack of quick decision, accurate calculation and clearness in the giving of orders. Often they made mistakes -sometimes big ones-but the instructors, who were French and American officers that had seen service at the front, were very patient and very encouraging, and it was not long before every one was gaining confidence and skill.

Those gun crews which were not on the range were always kept busy at their drills. Great emphasis was laid on this practice with unloaded pieces, for it was essential that the men acquire speed and accuracy in shifting the guns about, adjusting the sights, and performing all the functions of their office. To stimulate competition, a contest was held every Saturday, in which all the batteries went through the same series of problems. Their time was kept with a stop watch, and after each problem the instructors would check up what had been done to see whether the work had been exact as well as rapid. General Rees promised that the battery in the brigade which established the best record during the training should fire the first shot when we got to the front. Battery E led the 304th at the start, but Battery C climbed gradually to the top, and at the end of the course their cannoneers were pronounced champions of the brigade.

Meanwhile the horses had begun to arrive. Here many a man who had not qualified as an expert cannoneer had opportunity to show what he was worth. A good many of the last increment of recruits we had received before leaving Camp Upton, as well as some of the up-state New Yorkers, were farmers and accustomed to horses. Without them the task of getting the regiment ready for the front would have been enormous. It was often amusing to see some of the city -bred boys, many of whom hardly knew a horse from a mule, standing at arm's length trying to groom the hind legs of a nervous quadruped, and ready at any moment to dive beyond the reach of the animal's heels. Even those who, by their experience on farms or in livery stables, knew something about horses were not versed in army methods, and instruction had to be given from the very bottom in the elements of grooming, feeding, riding and driving.

While the cannoneers were being drilled and the drivers taught their business, all the specialists were receiving a thorough schooling. One group was given a course in wireless telegraphy, including not only the transmission of messages, but the art of signaling by divers means to airplanes. Telephonists were taught everything connected with the operating, construction and repair of field telephones, the laying of wires and the setting tip of exchanges and switchboards. This work is of incalculable importance in the field. Draftsmen were busy in the school of topography, map-making and the drawing of panoramic sketches. Mechanics were studying the fine points of the guns, so as to be able properly to repair and care f or them. A section of each battery was detailed to the machine gun school, in order that enemy airplanes might not come too close, and that, in the case of an attack, the men might be protected while getting their guns out of position. Then there were the non-commissioned officers who had been designated to study the uses and dangers of poison gas: they were to serve as instructors to their comrades, and to have general charge of the gas defense at the front. An inconceivable number of specialists such as these are necessary to every artillery regiment, and ours were all busy from morning till night. This included the ever-present buglers and drummers who made the -hot afternoons mournful with their melancholy rumblings and too Lings.

The officers were even busier than the men. Out at the range every morning from seven-thirty till twelve, they spent their afternoons in studying such all-important subjects as orientation, which is the science of being able to locate oneself and to determine the exact position of one's whereabouts on the map. The purpose of this is not so much to keep from getting lost as to enable an officer to figure his firing data with a map when he has no means of observing the shots. Then there were classes and lectures on camouflage, liaison, mat6-riel, the construction of gun emplacements and dugouts, and all the hundred-and-one subjects which an artillery officer is supposed to know. Nor did the evenings bring them a rest, as it did to the men, for if there were no lectures in the school the battalion commanders inaugurated little classes of their own, and many an evening found a group of weary lieutenants sitting in Major Devereux's room staring at a blackboard, or reclining in chairs in the moonlight outside Major Sanders's quarters listening to criticism and opinions and suggestions on the work of the day.

Presently the gas masks arrived, and the absurd but necessary drill in the use of these inventions of the devil was inaugurated. Of all the helpless, suffocating, strangling sensations known to man, there are few to be compared with the first attempts to wear a gas mask. After the first day's drill Colonel Kelly remarked, "If ever a gas shell explodes when I am around, I can see nothing for it but to lie down as near the spot as possible, take a few deep breaths, hold my identification tag up in my hand, and wait patiently for the end!" After a little practice, however, we all got used to them, and soon we were having relay races and baseball games with those hideous things strapped to our faces.

It was a great disappointment to us all when, early in June, Major Sparks was taken away from us and assigned, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, to the 17th Field Artillery. In his command of our regiment during the absence of Colonel Kelly in the fall of 1917, he had won the respect and affection of officers and men, and in his work at Camp de Souge he had shown exceptional skill in the use of artillery. But no one could grudge him his promotion, especially as the regiment to which he was going was already at the front.

Shortly afterwards Colonel Kelly, who was at the time away with a large detail of men buying horses for the brigade, was also transferred, and, as it happened, to the same regiment as the Major. He had made so many friends among us, and had done so much while he was in command to build up the esprit de corps, that his going, too, was a great disappointment. The men Who were with him at Montargis on that horse detail still maintain that they never had a commanding officer like Colonel Kelly. But he went with the full rank of colonel to take command of a regiment, and we could not but wish him joy in the prospect of immediate service on the firing line.

With all the strenuous labor of the school, some form of recreation was an absolute necessity. For the officers it con-sisted chiefly in weekend leaves to Bordeaux or to the sea-shore resort at Arcachon, where they found relaxation in a change of scene and air and in the good dinners which were to be had at the restaurants. For the men, overnight leaves were forbidden, but those who earned good-conduct passes were allowed to go to Bordeaux in the morning and come back at night, while a great many spent their leisure hours wandering through the countryside, sitting in the woods, dining in the fascinating little inns with which those villages abound, or buying souvenirs in the shops. Because of the hot weather and the physical fatigue, athletics were not popular. The men preferred to spend their free time in loafing.

In the camp itself the Y. M. C. A. had, at first one and later two, well-equipped huts. There the writing-tables, books and magazines, canteens, entertainments, lectures and band concerts attracted great numbers of the men every evening. Especially was this true when shows of our own concoction were on the boards. Considerable talent was unearthed which had never been suspected in Camp Upton, and all three regiments, as well as the Ammunition Train, contributed their share to, the enjoyment not only of our own troops, but also of the brigade of regulars who about the middle of June replaced the Chinese in the east end of the camp.

Because the 304th was midway between the two Y huts, both of which were crowded to capacity, the Chaplain, during the first week of our stay in Camp de Souge, secured an empty barrack in the midst of the regimental area, where a recreation room was opened. It soon became known as the "'Chaplain's joint." With the cordial cooperation of the Y. M. C. A. authorities, writing tables and benches were installed, a branch canteen was established, and a small library was put in circulation. Unfortunately no piano could be obtained, so that no entertainments were held there; but the band gave a concert once a week, and every evening the canteen did a thriving business, while the tables were always well occupied by men writing letters or reading or having a quiet game of checkers or dominos.

In this same building a communion service was held every Sunday morning. This was well attended, not only by the Protestants of our own regiment, but by a good many from the other organizations in camp. At the Y.M.C.A. stood there were always morning and evening services, conducted by the two Protestant chaplains. For the Catholic men, masses were said by Chaplain Killian, of the Ammunition Train, and Chap-lain Sheridan, of the 305th. The latter had his services at a little out-door rustic chapel built by the French. The ready response to these opportunities for religious devotion on the part of the men was an indication of the seriousness of mind which, because of the separation from home and the approach-ing move to the battle front, was steadily growing upon them.

The feeling of separation from home was augmented by the slowness and irregularity of the mail service. Letters from America were few and far between. The post office, which occupied a small room in the front of the Chaplain's building, was besieged with men asking questions about the probable arrival of mail and the carts-Is of the delays. The mail sergeant, Charles McDermott, who knew no more about it than any one else, became so unpopular that he had to close the window in his office to prevent people from poking their heads in and telling him what they thought of him. Then, at length -the mail truck would stop in front of the building and dump, off several great sacks of American letters. They would be seized and dragged inside, where the mail clerks, behind locked doors, would sort the precious cargo, and in an amazingly short time every battery and company would be the scene of a wild scramble as the first sergeant stood and called off the names of the fortunate.

The scarcity of mail was partly responsible for a general feeling of homesickness which began to take possession of a great many of the men. For some strange reason the idea spread that we would never go to the front, that the war would be over in a few weeks, and men began to speculate and even to bet on the possibilities of our being home by early fall. Some of the soldiers persisted in this attitude even after the terrific German offensive started on May 27th. On the map which hung on the wall in the Chaplain's building was a row of
which marked the battle line. The fact that these pins shifted daily, and always backward to-ward the Marne, opened the eyes of some, but there were others who hung about in little groups and talked about going home until it seemed as though something ought to be done to check it.

The battery commanders talked with their men and pointed out the power of the German drive and the necessity for heroic efforts on the part of the Allies, and especially for speed on our own part if we did not want to be too late to help save the cause from defeat. The Chaplain, with the enthusiastic backing of the commanding officer, had a regimental service one Sunday in which the whole issue was put very squarely, and an appeal was made to the men to put aside their thoughts of home and to throw themselves heart and soul into the work of preparation. All these things had their effect, and the slump, which, though it had been general throughout the brigade, was merely a temporary reaction, gave place to a new spirit of eagerness and impatience to get through with the training and get into action.

The final event in the course was the firing of a night bar-rage by the entire 152nd Brigade. The regiments went out to the range one afternoon late in June, and, putting their guns into position, prepared their camp for the night. The line of the supposed infantry trenches was indicated to the regimental commanders, as well as the place in front of the trenches where the curtain of protecting fire was to be laid down when it should be called for. No one knew what the hour would be, but all preparations were made to be ready to fire at an instant's notice. Each battery was assigned its definite field of fire, the guns were laid, and, supper eaten, the men lay down to sleep.

Suddenly, a little after midnight, the peculiar shriek of a certain compressed air whistle, used at the front as a gas alarm, -burst on the silence of the night. It was the call for a barrage! Instantly every officer and man leaped to his feet and darted for his post. Within a few seconds the first gun went off with a roar, and immediately the whole line was ablaze with the fire of seventy-two guns, while the space out in front of the "trenches" was lit by the bursting of shrapnel and high explosive shells. After a few minutes the order was given to cease firing, and all was silent again. Three times during the night this was repeated, and by morning the men felt almost as if they had had a taste of real war.

By the end of June the course was finished. After that there were one or two hikes to give the drivers and cannoneers practice in handling the guns on the roads and in bringing them into action as in open warfare, but the great event of those last days was the Fourth of July parade in Bordeaux.

In this celebration the firing batteries of the whole brigade, as well as a good many other troops, both French and American, were to take part, and on July 3rd the 304th set out with horses and guns for the city. It was hard work, for the weather was hot, the roads were dusty, and, above all, the drivers were green. It is no small task for inexperienced men to get a team of six horses, with gun and limber, around a sharp turn, and for the first few miles it looked as if some of the guns might be ditched. Colonel Briggs, himself an expert in all that pertains to horses, waited at every corner to watch the batteries go by, and to make suggestions to the drivers. With the faults at the head of the column he would be very patient.

"Let go your off horse, my man. just drive the horse you're on; the other will follow along. That's it. Don't touch him!" but by the time the sixth battery came past and the drivers were still making the same mistakes as the first, he would be ready to commit murder.

"Let, go that off horse!" he' would roar. The poor driver, terrified by this sudden command from some one he had not noticed beside the road, would promptly do the wrong thing, and dropping the reins of his own horse, would begin to be-labor the other.

"Do you hear what I say? LEAVE THAT OFF HORSE ALONE! You've got enough to do to drive your own. DROP THAT REIN!"

After a few experiences of this kind, however, the drivers began to learn and on the return trip, two days later, the guns rounded the corners as if they had been running on tracks.

At evening the three regiments came to an immense field which, before the war, had been a fashionable race course. There the shelter tents-familiarly known as "pup tents "-were set up and a camp was established. By the time the place was in order and the horses groomed, the battery kitchens had supper ready. Sitting on the clean turf, the men enjoyed a restful meal as they watched the lanterns land kitchen fires twinkle in the summer twilight. By dark a tired lot of soldiers were rolled in their blankets asleep.

Next morning at an early hour we were on the road again moving toward Bordeaux. On reaching the city we found the streets lined with people, and as we approached the center of town the crowds became more and more dense. The sidewalks were jammed, and at every window and on every balcony enthusiastic men, women and children were waving flags and shouting their welcome. All along the line of march the troops were greeted with cheering: not the perfunctory hand- clapping of the usual Fourth of July celebration, but the warm, joyful welcome of a people who were thoroughly -lad to see these new additions to the armies that were fighting in their behalf. Through the narrow streets, out into the square where, by the reviewing stand and about the great monument in the center, thousands of citizens were massed, the whole feeling seemed to be what one often heard expressed in those days: "There are the American soldiers who have come to save France!"

After the parade the men and officers had the rest of the day to themselves, and they found plenty of amusement in and about the city until, in groups of threes and fours, they made their way to the tents for a good night's sleep before the long hike back to the training camp. The whole experience had been well worth while, and all who took part felt that our stay in Camp de Souge had reached a fitting end.


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