MENU

Chapter 9 A Ten Days' March


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


CHAPTER IX

A TEN DAYS' MARCH


That was a happy Sunday we spent in the Bois de Munier. A warm sun overhead, soft turf under foot, ample water near at hand for the horses and for washing, and, above all, the knowledge that we were out of the battle for a while and on our way to some rest camp for a clean up and fresh clothes, made it a day long to be remembered. There was a sort of holiday feeling among the men. Mr. Dolphim dug into the baggage wagons and got out his band instruments, and about sundown there was a concert. The band was sadly out of practice the players hands were stiffened by manual labor and their lips had lost their skill but their music seemed a thing divine! The Chaplain held a service in 'the woods, and although the fact that it was watering time for the horses interfered somewhat with the attendance, a goodly number of the men joined reverently in the worship and thanked God heartily for His goodness.

Night brought a welcome opportunity for more sleep. The lighting of fires or of cigarettes after dark was still prohibited, but there was a sense of security that no one had enjoyed for weeks.

Monday was spent in getting the wagons and horses, as well as a few blistered feet, into shape for the march that lay ahead, and that evening, after a hot supper, the regiment swung out of the woods and took the southward road.

That night we crossed the Marne again, this time in no feverish haste, but slowly and easily. The beautiful valley, bathed in moonlight, lay before us as the column wound down the hill to the bridge, and presented a picture that lingered in the minds of the most unpoetic. Then up a long slope on the southern bank, made easy by the fact that we could see where we were going, and by the evenness of the well paved highway. Eastward then we turned, following the valley of the Marne, until, about daybreak, we reached our camping ground in a sweet smelling pine wood.

The next night it rained. One who has never traveled on foot at night cannot realize what a difference the ability to see makes in the amount of fatigue one feels. In the moonlight, when the road lies ahead like white ribbon, and the surrounding hills and valleys and woods and fields stand out clearly and lend variety to the scene, marching is comparatively easy. But when the sky is overcast, and no moon nor stars give their light, and the darkness is like a wall shutting the travelers in, the feet grow tender and stumble over pebbles, the pack becomes heavy, and every step is an effort. Or, if one is mounted, sleep attacks the rider with a sort of vindictive persistence, and will not leave him alone. He nods and droops, and then, beginning to fall, catches himself with a jerk, only to lose consciousness again and be jerked once more into a half intelligent realization that he must keep awake. Then he dismounts and tries walking, and at every halt leans against his horse and dozes anew with an overpowering drowsiness that brings no rest. And when it rains, these conditions are aggravated by the water that gradually soaks through one's clothes and filters into one's shoes and turns the road under foot into a series of muddy pools through which horses and pedestrians splash and ooze their way.

Yet the men bore it patiently, because they were headed away from the front and toward some unknown haven of rest; and when, with the morning light, the regiment pulled into a broad meadow, near the town of Epernay, and the sun, peering through the breaking clouds, revealed a fair hillside covered with vineyards, and streams of water near at hand, and cordial villagers coming up with eager offers of eggs for sale, and wine, and good French bread, every one was content.

When, at evening, the regiment was preparing to resume its march, an unusual thing happened. Let a corporal's diary tell the story:
"About 11P. m. . . . all the canonneers were given two days rations and marched off through a drizzling rain to a neighboring town where we were hustled into trucks and on our way. What distance we traveled and what route we followed that evening will always be a mystery to us. Suffice it to say that the trucks were loaded to suffocation and sleep was of course impossible. We rumbled and rocked along through the mud. The morning, though, was clear and bright. We passed scores of villages, all of which were well behind the lines, but which all had their quota of American troops. About 10 o'clock A. m., we arrived at the little town of Braux St. Remy. The battery was split up and billeted in different places, our section faring the best. We were assigned to a long stable, and here we enjoyed the luxury of cots, keenly reminiscent of Camp Upton days. The town itself is utterly devoid of any attraction, save for the one wine shop where John Barleycorn reigns supreme. For two days and a half we stayed here, led the simple life, with no drills and no formations-quite a contrast to what we had undergone at the front." And, one might add, quite a contrast also to what the rest of the regiment was undergoing in the meantime.

For while these cannoneers, some four hundred strong, were being conveyed across the country in trucks, the rest of us made our way on foot. We wondered vaguely where the cannoneers had gone, and why. Our answer came within a day or two.

One afternoon (we were marching by day now, and sleeping at night) the regiment came down into the valley of the upper Marne. We had been following a general southeasterly direction now for five days, and we were beginning to wonder where that rest camp was and when we should reach it. But when we saw the broad, green meadows of the river valley, with the stream meandering through them; when we parked our guns and wagons on the beautiful turf, and pitched our tents on the rich carpet of soft grass, we decided that, if only they would let us stay there, we could easily be content without any rest camp, for we could rest where we were and be happy. Men sprawled on the ground in utter abandon. The horses and mules were turned loose to graze, and some of the weariest looking nags kicked up their heels and raced about like colts. It required considerable skill in stalking them to gather all the animals in when it was time to picket them f or the night. There was a restfulness about the place that surpassed anything we had ever known in France, and our sleep that night was deep and dreamless.

The next day baseballs were produced, and although there were no set games there was considerable exercise for all who wanted to indulge in it, and the exhilaration of a real early fall day made everybody feel fresh and active. Several neat villages near by served as an attraction for some of the men, and they explored them at will and sought vainly for eggs or poultry. Alas, the 305th had got there before us, and there was not a thing to be bought! It was fun to wander around, however, and the desire to stay in that spot grew as the day wore on.

But about four o'clock a messenger dashed up on a motorcycle and delivered an order to Colonel McCleave which brought surprise and consternation to the whole camp. We were to pack up and be on the road, ready for a march, within twenty minutes! And we did it, too. Such a bustling preparation as there was during those next few minutes, such a buzzing of tongues, such a wild spreading of rumors! What was up. Where were we going? Why all this haste? Why another night march?

Presently we were on the road. Colonel McCleave rode along the column and spoke a few words to each organization commander, and as he passed down the line the ominous order was given out. "Gas masks and helmets will be worn." We were going back to the front!

What a gloom spread through the regiment! No rest, no bath, no clean clothes? Do they think we are fit for front line duty without them? Aren't there enough American troops in France to hold the lines without calling on regiments that have been doing their share for two months without a letup? These were the thoughts that sped through men's minds as we crossed the Marne at Vitry le Franqois and turned northward toward the front. Little was said, but a feeling of indignation ran high.


Perhaps the only man who was really happy was Mr. New-berry, the Y. M. C. A. secretary who had joined us the day after we had quit the Aisne, and who was eager for service at the front. Colonel McCleave rode up alongside the supply wagon on which he sat beside the driver, Bill Hawkins.

"Newberry, I've got some good news for you. We're going back into the lines, and I guess you're the only man here who will be thoroughly glad of it!"

The next day's march brought us to a little place called Busy le Repos. The very name was a mockery! It was Sunday, and a great crowd of the Catholic men thronged the little church, where Chaplain Sheridan, of the 305th, said mass. Chaplain Howard had arranged for a Protestant service in the afternoon in an old Y. M. C. A. hut, but when the time came the regiment was busy getting ready for the march again. In a driving rain that turned the roads into a morass the dreary column started on the worst hike in our whole history.

Mention has already been made of the difficulty of night marching in the rain. On this occasion the hardships were augmented by the fact that the route lay, for the most part, up hill, and by the depression which reigned among the men when they started.

How it poured! Within an hour every one was drenched to the skin. Up and tip we climbed, until it seemed as if we must be reaching the top of the world. The horses were tired, and no one not absolutely needed f or driving or working the brakes was allowed to sit on a vehicle, or even to take hold of a wagon or caisson. The packs on the men's backs grew heavier and heavier as the rain soaked into the blankets. Their shoes oozed with water. The riders, who must dismount at every halt to rest their horses, had to climb, when they started again, into wet saddles that gave a fresh chill with every mounting.

We passed through woods that cast additional darkness on the road, and made it utterly impossible to see where we were going. Each man followed the one in front of him with a blind, dogged monotony of compulsion.

Then the column emerged from the woods and, still climbing, came out on a high plateau that was utterly bare of trees, save for an occasional row of thin poplars that swayed mournfully in the wind. There was nothing to offer any protection from that steady gale which drove the beating rain right through to the marrow of our bones.

As we took our way on this interminable march, still in a north-easterly direction, evidences that we were nearing the front began to make themselves felt. Military traffic began to appear on the roads. As we turned into a great highway, there loomed in the darkness long trains of camions. Some hurried past us toward the rear, empty, but most of them were rumbling along in our direction, loaded with French and American infantry. Something unusual was afoot. A bewildered M. P. on a crossroad, questioned by one of our officers, said that troops had been pouring through for hours, and we could well believe him, for from every road that we passed new columns of men and guns and wagons streamed in to swell the volume of the mighty river of war traffic that moved on toward the front.

At last we turned aside into some black and wet and uninviting woods. After crossing a bridge and pushing along a little farther in the darkness, the column halted, and the foremost wagons were directed to turn in to the left. One by one they bumped down a steep incline, wallowed for a moment at the foot, and then creaked their way into the blackness and disappeared. As each organization moved up to the place it was piloted into the woods by a drenched reconnaissance officer, and told where to put up for the rest of the night. No one could see his hand before his f ace. Not a light could be lit, not so much as a single flash from a pocket lamp. The men had to feel their way around, and what they felt chiefly was mud. The ground under foot was nothing more than a marsh, and it was becoming more swampy every moment as the rain poured in and saturated the soft loam.

That was our camp. There the men pitched their tents, and there they crawled into their wet blankets and drowsed in a fitful, uncomfortable sleep until daylight.

With the dawn came another day of rest as the artilleryman on the march knows it. No reveille nor drills, but horses to be fed, watered, groomed, and perhaps shod, harness to be overhauled and mended, wagons to have new wheels put on or springs repaired, wood to be fetched, blankets to be spread out in a vain attempt to dry them, and then the feeding and watering all over again until at last the order is given: "Roll your packs; harness up!"

During the day we tried to piece together the bits of information which had been picked up along the way during the march of the previous night. There were many conflicting stories, but on one point they seemed to agree: a great American offensive was in preparation, and all the available troops in our army were being rushed into it.

Before nightfall our higher officers, at least, had some definite information as to our movements. The '77th Division was to take its position in the heart of the Argonne. The infantry had gone in ahead of us, and were already concealed in deep ravines behind the front lines. The French, who had been holding this sector by strongly fortified entrenchments for nearly four years, were to leave a thin garrison in the front line trenches, in order that the Boche might not suspect the presence of American troops. Ever since the Crown Prince, in 1915, had been baffled in his attempt to force a passage through this forest, the two opposing armies had lived in comparative peace and quiet, each secure in the knowledge that the other could not possibly break through. Now the Americans, making their assault simultaneous with a general Allied attack along the whole front from Verdun to Rheims, were to try, by a sudden surprise, to rush the Germans out of their elaborate fortifications, and hurl then back out of the forest and into the open country beyond the Aire River.

The rank and file, however, knew nothing of this. They knew only that here were more troops than they had ever seen before, and, tired and discouraged as they were, they could not suppress a feeling of elation that our regiment was to have its share in some great operation.

It was with a sense of growing interest, therefore, that they took the road again on the night of the 24th, and, passing through the trim little town of St. Mennehould, "Queen city of the Argonne," moved eastward along the Paris-Metz high-way.
On reaching the village of Les Islettes, our column turned sharp to the left and started due north along, the road that led into the forest; and at Le Claon the headquarters and sup-ply detachments, and all those who go to make up the echelon, turned aside. After toiling up a frightfully long and steep hill, they pitched their camp in a grove of superb beeches, while the firing batteries, joined once more by the cannoneers who had gone ahead in trucks, moved up the valley into the Forest of Argonne.

What a beautiful place it was. Lofty beech trees towered above the road, their smooth trunks gleaming in the moon-light, their tops lost in the darkness overhead. Deep ravines stretched away on either side, cradling soft blankets of mist. "Little wonder," writes one of the officers, "that the Argonne should have been from time immemorial the scene of tales of romance and of the supernatural. Indeed, our imagination refuses to connect these charming scenes with the modern offensive soon to start in their midst. It seemed as if the opposing forces in this great forest, after making futile attempts to destroy each other, had long since succumbed to the magic spell cast by these proud woods over the unseemly activities of warring human beings."

But there was enough of the actuality of war to keep one's thoughts from soaring too far. At one of our halts we saw tired doughboys lying all about by the side of the road, their packs still strapped to their backs, sleeping. Replacement troops they were, sent in to fill up the depleted ranks of our own infantry. Most of them had never been in the lines before.

Skirting the edge of the forest, the batteries proceeded through several ruined hamlets, whose crumbling walls gave evidence that heavy shelling had once taken place in the now quiet region. Great shell craters yawned by the roadside, filled with water from the recent rains.

Presently they came to La Chalade, shell torn and deserted save f or a few soldiers on duty. One of the latter proved to be a marker left there by Captain Bateson, who had gone ahead to find positions for the guns of his battalion. He furnished the information that the batteries were to turn aside here and proceed up the steep road that led off into the forest.

The difficulties experienced by both battalions in getting into position are well set forth in the following description written by Major Devereux:

"My route lay up a winding, narrow, and terrifically steep road flanked by high banks. It was necessary to clear and keep open this road before the battalion started up, otherwise we should be in a nasty jam.

"Urging on my horse, I had just reached a sharp turn, when my worst feats were realized. Down the hill in a steady stream came a column of motor trucks, swaying, skidding, and giving forth all the squeaks and noises peculiar to their breed. I yelled at the first driver to stop, but he paid no attention, and I narrowly escaped an ignominious death at his hands. Finally I obtained a hearing from one of his followers. He was one, he said, of a great many more behind that had just delivered ammunition to the gun positions and were going back for more. I inquired about the width of the road, and learned that it widened out about a quarter of a mile farther on.

'But there's a hell of a tie up ahead of you,' said the driver. 'The road is covered with tractors.'
"Sending a mounted messenger back to hold the battalion until a clear passage was assured, I hastened up the hill and soon encountered the tractors. Looking like giant lizards of prehistoric times in the night mist, they literally sprawled all over the road, and with them a battery of eight-inch howitzers, covered with huge fish nets and boughs.

"After much questioning, I found the lieutenant in command of these monsters. His temper was at the breaking point, for he had been ordered to be in position before morning, and here he was on the wrong road, with dawn threatening to break at any moment, and movement over this road in daylight strictly forbidden. But if be and his pets started down the hill, as he threatened to do, it was goodbye to my own plans. In the most honeyed tones I could command, I reasoned with him, and he finally agreed to move to one side of the road and remain there. With much growling and snarling both by his men and by the monsters, a pathway was cleared.

"Meanwhile from up the road another truck, in trying to turn on a ten cent piece,' had performed the feat of the Vindictive in Ostende harbor, and beyond it were blocked a motley column of camions and motor ambulances. The drivers, dozing on their seats, awaited developments. Coaxing, cursing, ordering, pleading, I rallied a sufficient force to attack the truck, and, by overwhelming it with superior numbers, we soon had it turned about.

"Just as the trucks had moved far enough to leave a pas-sage for the oncoming batteries, there suddenly appeared from nowhere an ammunition officer, who announced in no uncertain tones that he was from some army or corps ammunition park with orders to deliver many thousands of rounds of 75mm. shells at the positions before morning, and that I had no business holding up his trucks.

"By that time, my philosophy of life was hanging on a thread. Turning on this new annoyance, I silenced him with the logical retort that guns with some ammunition were a damned sight more desirable than a lot of ammunition with no guns. He disappeared, muttering.

"Presently the battalion came along, and as we reached the top of the hill and emerged from between the steep banks which had been cramping us, we found ourselves in a wide avenue that bristled with artillery of every description. It reminded me of a dog show, so varied was the array, though these dogs of war had not yet commenced to bark. The crew of every gun were laboring feverishly to get their emplacement prepared before morning.

"It was with inexpressible relief that we came presently to our 'positions.' Never before had I seen such a place selected for artillery fire. We were on top of a ridge that ran directly across the forest, parallel, in a general way, to the front line trenches somewhere to the north. On each side was a deep ravine. Everywhere there were magnificent great trees that completely shut off the view. Our guns were to be placed almost wheel to wheel just off the road, and in the midst of this vast forest. I thought my adjutant had gone crazy to select such a place, for it would have been impossible to fire in any direction without hitting a tree.

"He saw my look of amazement, and, with a wave of his hand toward all the other guns, big and little, which lined the road, he said, 'It was the only available position.'
" 'But what about the trees?'
" 'They are all to be sawed through and ready for felling just before the attack.
"It was then that the magnitude of the operation in which we were about to engage first dawned upon me, for what Frenchman would have permitted the beautiful Bois de la Chalade to be thus laid waste unless great things were to come of the sacrifice? Ha, this was something worth being in- the great offensive, and perhaps, with the help of Providence, the last of the war!"

So the Second Battalion hauled its guns off the road and pointed them to the north, ready for whatever might come.

Meanwhile, Major Sanders, with his battalion, had come tip behind, and, groping his way in the darkness, had gone into position a little farther to the West, not on top of the ridge, but well down the forward slope of the northerly ravine.

The stage was set, the troops were ready, and with eager curiosity we awaited the plan of operations for the Argonne drive.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 West Corporation. All rights reserved.