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Chapter 12 The Final Push


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


CHAPTER XII

THE FINAL PUSH


We had a long but easy march. The roads had been put into fairly good shape by labor battalions brought up from the rear, and there was little congestion of traffic. When, at nightfall, we reached our destination, it seemed as though we had arrived in the promised land. Not that the place was attractive. We were in a very flat part of the valley of the Biesme, into which seeped all the water from the steep hills on both sides, making it soggy under foot-too wet for comfortable camping. Put at least we were free once more from the strain and toil of the front, and we had in prospect a bath and a complete outfit of new clothes. Between La flazaree and Le Four de Paris the Sanitary Corps had erected a bath tent, with shower baths and hot water; and in the adjoining tent was a huge pile of good, warm, woolen underclothes and socks, new flannel shirts, and winter-weight uniforms.

While the men were being bathed and clothed, word came that the officers were to be allowed a three days' leave at the discretion of the regimental commander, and a dozen or more promptly availed themselves of the opportunity and started for Nice (via Paris, of course-in going from any place in France to any other place, it is always necessary to pass through Paris!).

Clean once more, and comfortably dressed, the troops found that their spirits rose, and they were quite willing to forego any further move toward a real rest area if only they might be let alone for a while. Some one discovered a piano in an old recreation room at the foot of the hill, and, hearing that part of the 306th was to be billeted there, our men carried the piano off bodily and deposited it in the shed which Captain Ewell had taken over for a supply room. There for an evening or two music and song and laughter sounded hour after hour.

Then we found that the military authorities had what seemed to many of the men to be original ideas about rest, for, after giving us two days in which to clean up and get the guns and wagons and harness into good shape, they issued a training schedule a mile long which provided close order drills and gun drills, equitation and radio schools, and all the old stuff that we had agonized over for two months at Camp de Souge. Every experienced officer will see that this was necessary to restore the discipline which had been relaxed during the fighting; but a feeling of gloom spread through the regiment and all the troops around us. Why couldn't we be let alone!

Suddenly, out of a clear sky, came an order, which changed everything. The whole division was directed to pack up and be ready to move. The officers who had gone on leave were wired to report to their organizations at once-the telegrams were awaiting them when they arrived at Nice. On October 25th the regiment was again on the road in march order. No one could imagine what was up. It seemed incredible that the 77th Division, especially the infantry, who had suffered such terrible hardships and lost so many men through wounds and exposure, was to be sent back again into battle.

Yet such was evidently the case, for our route lay directly across the forest toward the northeast. After one night spent near our old positions at Abri du Crochet, we turned into the, valley of the Aire and marched northward to Chatel Chehery, where the whole regiment halted and pitched camp. There we had a good view of the main road, and day after day as we waited on the edge of the forest we watched an ever increasing stream of troops, guns, trucks, and wagons pouring past us. Another drive was in preparation!

If any one had doubts on the subject, they would have been dispelled by a trip out to the point where our guns were ordered to take tip their positions. The narrow sector assigned to our division was already so crowded with artillery that we were obliged to go over into the territory of the 80th Division on our right, and our batteries therefore crossed the Aire and proceeded through the town of Fleville, and then off to the right to the high hills overlooking the village of Sommerance. Our men thought they had seen massed artillery when the Argonne drive started, but that was as nothing compared to the vast array of cannon that now blocked every road and covered every hillside throughout the entire region. There were great naval guns, and the long and powerful 155mm. rifles; there were enormous 9.2 inch howitzers that had to be hoisted on and off their carriages by cranes; there were batteries of 120'S and 90's, 155mm. howitzers like the 306th's, and finally an abundance Of 75's like our own, manned by both French and American gunners. Surely, here was an operation worth being in. Perhaps-who knew?-it might prove to be the final ,drive which, coupled with the terrific British offensive in progress up in Flanders, and the aggressive onslaught of the French north of Laon, would break the German armies and force them back to the Rhine!

There was no mystery about this drive, as there had been about the start of the Argonne offensive. There was no forest to cover us, and the troops in double and even triple columns were streaming along the great arteries of traffic in broad daylight. Division after division crowded in: marines, regular army, national army, National Guard, and all (save for a considerable number of French batteries of artillery) were American troops.


Here, for the first time in our experience, vast squadrons of American airplanes soared overhead. They seemed to come in droves, some sailing, in their peculiar V-shaped formations, toward the German lines, sonic circling about to protect the observation balloons, some swooping down from high up in the clouds to pounce upon an occasional Boche plane that ventured over to pick tip information. Fights in the air became a matter of daily occurrence. Sometimes there would be two or three going on at once, and we were distracted trying to watch them.

Once, when the sound of machine guns was heard overhead, and our men rushed out of their tents to see what was going on, the air was so filled with planes that no one knew where to look. It was on that occasion that some one called out, "Get your official programs here! You cannot tell the individual players without a program!" It was like trying to watch a three-ringed circus.

There were several days of anxious waiting. They were anxious because the gun positions, where only a few men were on guard, were being shelled every night, and we were having some casualties before ever the real battle began. One shell struck in A Battery's kitchen, riddling pots and pans with holes and wrecking the dugout where the cook slept, and another burst beside one of B's guns and killed one of their most loyal and trustworthy soldiers, Private James Brady.

At last, after several false alarms, the order came on October 31st to send the full gun crews out to the positions. The battalion commanders had established their P. C.'s on a very high hill behind the guns, from where, if the weather was clear, they could see far into the German lines. Colonel McCleave moved his headquarters to Cornay where he had quick connections both with his batteries and with the infantry. Lieutenant McVaugh, of Battery A, and Lieutenant McDougall, of Battery E, were sent forward with pirate pieces to the infantry lines, and everything was ready.

The plan of battle for our sector was for the 77th Division, after the usual artillery preparation, to send forward its infantry from St. Juvin and on the first day to capture the town of Champigneulle. As soon as the town was in our hands, the artillery was to rush forward and take up new positions to support a further advance. "D day" was announced as November 1st, and "H hour" as 5:30 A. M.

As the evening wore on, every one who could do so lay down for a little sleep, but there was a tenseness of expectation that made rest difficult.
Soon after midnight, the German guns began their usual serenade. All over the slope where our batteries were across the valley and up toward the battalion -P. C.'s they plastered their rain of shells. It seemed impossible that no one was being hit, but, at the aid stations the surgeons waited in vain for any reports of trouble.

After about a half hour the shelling ceased, and then began the answering barrage from the American big guns. Heavier and heavier grew the fire, with ever-increasing intensity as more and more batteries let loose their awful roar. The air shook with the concussion, the hills seemed to rock, and the sky for miles around was lit by the flashes that belched from the months of a thousand cannon. So mighty was the volume of sound that when, at 3:30, our own little guns joined in with their vicious bark, men back on the hill behind then-1 could not tell when their fire began.

Yet without doubt the Germans knew! Every gun had its definite target, and by accurate registering the previous day each battery commander had been able to calculate perfectly his range and direction. One platoon was sweeping back and forth along a road, which the Boche must use to shift their troops. Another was pouring its rain of death into a wood where Huns were camped. Another was smothering a trench where machine gunners were hidden, while a fourth was blasting to pieces an infantry battalion's P. C. There was not a gun in the whole vast array but had its definite part in turning the enemy's lines into a living hell.

Five-thirty came, and as the infantry went over the top, our fire increased in its intensity. Day was breaking, but a heavy mist obscured the scene so that we could not tell just what was going on. Moreover, our own infantry, it will be remembered, were considerably to our left, quite out of our line of vision, so that we were compelled to wait impatiently for news of their progress.

By 7:30, groups of Boche prisoners began to appear, driven along by Marines. The latter were on the right of the 80th Division and they seemed to be living up to their reputation. All day, in gradually increasing numbers, their captives marched past our positions. Some one counted those that went by along one road: there were fifteen hundred and sixty-three. We went out and spoke with some of them as they halted at a crossroad. A miserable lot they were, for the most part, pale and worn and dirty, and apparently glad to be out of the fight.

"When do you think the war will end?" we asked several.
"In about a week," was the usual reply.
.
Now and then an officer marched, grim and defiant, with his men. One of these was standing by while the privates were hustled into a truck to be taken to the rear.
"Now then, you get aboard," ordered the driver when the men were all in. The officer started to climb tip into the seat.
"No, not here. Get in with the rest," said the driver.
"Do you mean to say," said the officer, in perfect English, "that you expect an officer to ride with privates?"

"0, so that's bothering you, is it? We'll soon fix that." Ripping out his knife, he cut the shoulder straps from the officer's uniform. "Now," said he, "you're a private. Get in!"

The barrage by this time had slackened and finally died out altogether and there was nothing for the batteries to do but wait. The hours dragged by interminably with no news from the front. At last, however, the Second Battalion received the order to advance. The pursuit was on!

Moving off to the left, our batteries proceeded to St. Juvin. There they were told that the infantry, meeting with a withering fire from the machine guns at Champigneulle, had failed to take the town, and it was necessary to halt for the night. The next morning, however, the doughboys renewed their attack and rushed the Hun defenses, and Major Devereux's battalion following as closely as possible, pushed ahead and came that night to Verpel.

Meantime the First Battalion, still commanded in Major Sanders' absence by Captain Hervey Perrin, had
received orders to advance, and pulling out their guns they started forward on the afternoon of November 2nd. The battalion and battery commanders rode ahead to locate the infantry and to find suitable positions for the guns, leaving guides at the various crossroads to pilot the batteries as they came along.

By the time the guns were on the road it seemed as though the whole American Expeditionary Force had crowded into our sector in a mad rush to overtake the fleeing Huns. The few roads leading north were literally jammed with troops and trains.

There were huge trucks, piled high with ammunition and supplies, snorting through the mud and trying desperately to avoid the shell holes and ditches that hampered their progress. Now and then one would get stuck, and the entire column, reaching back for miles, would be blocked. Chains, ropes, horses and manpower would be applied in an endeavor to persuade it to move and then, if no other means could succeed in removing the vehicle, a hundred men would lay violent hands on it and heave it over bodily into the ditch. Amid the shouts of men, the creaking and rumbling of wheels and the purring of motors, the endless procession would start again, only to be halted a few rods farther-on by some other accident.

Long lines of escort wagons, with their prairie schooner tops, bumped over the rutted roads. The drivers, from their lofty seats, coaxing and cursing by turns, urged on the long-suffering mules that strained at the traces. Horse-drawn wagons, too, were crowding along with the rest,-ration carts, limbers, water carts, baggage wagons, fourgons and blacksmith carts, in endless profusion; but always the great army escort wagons loomed above the rest, giving the column the picturesque appearance of an emigrant train in the early days of the western plains in America.

Here would be a vehicle one of whose wheels had caved in-probably a fourgon, for those French wheels were notoriously weak-tilted at an angle which prevented any team from passing. If it could not be mended, or if no extra wheel was available, it would share the fate of the truck and be thrown into the ditch.

Yonder could be seen an emaciated horse that had given way under the strain. There was no time to waste over him! If he could stand, he would be unhitched and led off the road, and put under the care of some disgusted soldier. If the horse were completely exhausted, he would be dragged to one side and shot, and once more the column would move forward.

There were little two-wheeled machine gun carts, each drawn by one quick-stepping mule. There were rolling kitchens that rattled and banged over the rough roads. There were despatch bearers on motor cycles threading their way through the traffic, singly mounted riders trying to get ahead, and irate generals in automobiles, impatient at the delays. There were batteries of artillery struggling to move forward where they could go into firing positions,-light field pieces like our own, their cannoneers trudging along, wearily carrying their packs so as to save the horses, and huge rifles and howitzers that lumbered behind the coughing, panting tractors which pulled them.

All mixed in with the vehicles, sometimes walking alongside, often taking to the fields to escape the mire and confusion of the roads (and finding it just as muddy there as everywhere else), marched the infantry. With packs on their backs and rifles in their hands, with hatchets and shovels and trench knives and bayonets hampering their movements, that continuous stream of doughboys toiled along, weary and footsore, in a kind of dumb, uncomprehending monotony of effort.

In the fields as they passed sprawled the dead, both Germans and Americans, who had fallen in the previous day's fighting. Here and there a shattered wagon lay, its load strewn about in disorder, its horses and driver lying where they had fallen; in a pool of blood-a sickening tribute to the accuracy of some American gun crew.

Frequently at the crest of a hill would stand one or two deserted German cannon, whose crews had worked them until the last, and then had fled or been captured. Nearby, and at every available place, lay huge piles of empty shells and unused ammunition. All along by the road lay the stuff which had been thrown away by pursuer and pursued to make travel easier: helmets, rifles, packs, blankets, shovels, overcoats, pistols, harness, cartridge belts, saddles, reels of telephone wire, canned food, mess kits, shoes, everything that could possibly be discarded was strewn about in wild disorder.

The villages through which we passed were mere skeletons. Pounded by shells and gutted by fire, their streets a labyrinth of mine craters and wreckage, they added but one more detail to the vivid picture which stamped itself on every man's memory.

Through such scenes and in the midst of that vast throng our regiment made its way on that memorable second day of November. The batteries which got farthest ahead and followed closely on the heels of the infantry escaped some of the traffic confusion, but for about six days the bulk of the regiment forced its way along in the thick of the turmoil. When it is remembered that the supply companies and the ammunition trains had to bring every ounce of food and every round of ammunition forward to the men in the front lines, take their wagons back again and repeat the whole trip day after day, the wonder grows that we had anything to eat or to shoot.

On the night of November 2nd the First Battalion overtook the Second at Verpel. They had had a long, hard march of some fifteen kilometers, most of it in a drizzling rain. The battery commanders, who had gone ahead with Captain Perrin to reconnoiter, spent some anxious hours of waiting in Verpel before the batteries arrived, for the roads were being shelled, and the town itself was under fire. But at length, long past midnight, the last battery pulled in and camped in the muddy fields just outside of the village.

The next morning we were all astounded by an unheard of order from the Brigade commander; on account of the shortage of horses, one battalion in each regiment was to be demobilized, in order that the other might have the animals needed! Major Devereux, being for the present the senior battalion commander, was given the privilege of taking his batteries forward as the pursuit battalion, and he was presently on his way, reinforced with a new equipment of horses and one extra gun, under Lieutenant Graham, of C Battery. Reluctantly Captain Lyman, Captain Doyle, and Captain Bacon parked their guns in Verpel, and settled down with their men to that most difficult of all tasks-doing nothing!

Meanwhile Colonel McCleave, with his staff and the headquarters detachment of telephone and radio men, orderlies, runners, and a cook or two, and Major Devereux with his three batteries, "started (as Lieutenant Welling's song has it) hell or-leather riding over France."

Each day a new P. C. was established, as close as possible to the advancing infantry lines, in order that we might keep constantly informed of their exact positions and the location of the enemy's points of resistance on which we were to fire. At one place, La Besace, our headquarters were in the town before it was really in possession of American troops. Going forward in the morning to reconnoiter, Colonel McCleave and Captain Martin had found the bridge across a stream destroyed, and had been obliged to leave their car and walk toward the town. Finding that the infantry had not yet taken it, they returned. In the afternoon the colonel with several of his staff proceeded by another route, but coming to a place where the road had been blown up, Colonel McCleave got out, and taking with him Major Sanders and Captain Kempner, walked into the town while Captain Martin and Lieutenant Cunningham, with one messenger, went back with Corporal Moran, the chauffeur, to find a road by which the guns could be brought up. They were caught under shellfire, during which Corporal Moran showed his nerve by remaining in the car-the most dangerous place conceivable-while the officers continued their reconnaissance on foot. By evening practically the whole staff was in Besace, and a P. C. was, established while enemy machine gun bullets were still whistling through the streets.

The main firing batteries never got quite so near, but they were continually on the move, and frequently went into position very close behind the infantry's front. Fortunately they were not often shelled. The Boche was so busy withdrawing his artillery that he used but few of his guns. Every afternoon he would open fire on crossroads, bridges and suspected gun positions, and several times we had occasion to realize that our enemy still knew how to shoot. But by midnight his guns would be silent, and we would know that he was withdrawing again, and that our guns would presently have to be advanced in order to keep him within range.

Lieutenant Graham and Lieutenant McDougall, however, with their forward pieces, had to keep right up with the infantry itself. The former had relieved Lieutenant McVaugh when the First Battalion was demobilized at Verpel; but Lieutenant McDougall had been on this difficult duty ever since the night of October 31st, and had already taken part in several attacks and had suffered one or two casualties. In the assault on Champigneulle he had fired, with open sights, about a hundred rounds into the Germans in the town.

On November 4th, he was with an infantry battalion commander, Captain Newcomb, on a hill near St. Pierremont. The infantry and some machine gunners were deployed in funk holes along the side of the hill. From the opposing hills to the north the Germans were pouring a heavy machine gun fire toward them, and for the infantry to cross the valley for a frontal attack was out of the question. Captain Newcomb said that several companies were attacking the Germans' hill from the east and west, and suggested that if Lieutenant McDougall could drop some shrapnel into the woods it might shut off some of the machine gun fire and enable him to advance. Apparently the only way to accomplish this was to take the gun around the left end of the hill, right out in the open in front of the American lines.

This Lieutenant McDougall did. Driving around the shoulder of the hill he moved across an open field and, getting the gun into position, opened fire directly on the Boche lines before him. It was a daring move, and it might have succeeded had not a German battery on the left suddenly begun to fire on McDougall's gun. Evidently he was at the point of a salient protruding into the enemy's lines.

Looking in the direction from which the fire came, and seeing the flash of a gun, he quickly ordered the gunner to shift his aim and lay the piece on the spot where the Boche battery was located. He was just about to fire when a shell burst close by, dropping three of the crew. The shelling was now so heavy that it was useless to try to do anything further, and our men were ordered to retire with their wounded to the cover of the woods. All three men were badly hurt, but only two could be carried at once. There was no time to discriminate. Privates Clark and Schoenberg were picked tip and borne away, and Capasso was left for the second trip. 'It looked like certain death for any one to go back to where he lay, for the Germans had calculated the range perfectly and shell after shell was dropping within a few feet of him. Two men volunteered-Corporal - and Private Fromni-and with splendid heroism they ran out boldly, picked up their fallen comrade, and brought him safely back. He had not suffered any further injuries, but the original wound was mortal, and Capasso died that afternoon at the first aid station.
Meantime our main batteries bad opened fire on the Huns, and in a short while their guns were silenced and the hill was taken. When Lieutenant McDougall went back for his piece he found both gun and caisson hopelessly smashed.

During the advance through this region we had, begun to meet French civilians, released after four years of virtual captivity within the German lines. Some had been living in their homes in the villages all during the enemy occupation, enduring the tyranny of an unfeeling and brutal invader. Others had been carried away early in the war to the region around Sedan and kept there as laborers until the approach of the American army, when they had been sent forward to where the rear guards were fighting and then left behind when the Boche retreated, with white flags flying from the housetops to announce their presence. They were a pitiful lot: old men and women who had seen their precious property seized and destroyed; middle aged people grown old and haggard from terror and hardship; young girls who were soon to become the mothers of children begotten by German fathers, and little boys and girls who had been denied the rightful joys of home and childhood. They appeared dazed by the sudden change when they found themselves among friends. Some of them wrung our hands with delirious joy as we entered their towns.

Some talked freely of their experiences and expressed their opinion of the Boche in no uncertain terms. Many dug into their scanty stores and brought food and hot coffee to the men who dropped into their houses. Others there were who could do nothing except stand in their doorways and look on in dumb amazement as the Americans poured through the streets.

The German retreat had now taken an easterly direction, -and on November 6th, closely followed by the whole American First Army, they withdrew across the River Meuse. The 77th Division pushed right up to the west bank of the river, and the 153rd Brigade in front of our regiment established itself in the vicinity of Autrecourt. Our headquarters accordingly moved to Raucourt, where they were bothered every night by a harassing fire from the long range guns across the river. One shell crashed through the roof of the house where our men were billeted, and it was indeed fortunate that none of them were there at the time. Our French interpreter on one occasion took to the cellar during a bombardment, and when he went back to his room he found the whole wall of the house piled up on his bed.

The firing batteries passed around Raucourt and took up their position on the high hills behind Autrecourt, overlooking the Meuse valley. With admirable liaison established with the infantry, they did effective work in demolishing dugouts and trenches across the river. The two forward pieces, one still under Lieutenant Graharn and the other under Lieutenant Richard from D Battery, were located well down toward the foot of the forward slope, where they fired directly on the German positions.

By this time rumors began to reach us concerning a new German appeal for an armistice. We had been misled so often that for a time we gave no credence to these reports, but on Saturday, November 9th, word was handed down officially that a German commission had actually had an interview with Marshal Foch and had received at his hands the Allies' terms, and that their answer was due in a very short while. Far from slowing tip the Americans' efforts, this news served only to make the men more eager to deliver all the blows they could, in order to make the final catastrophe as complete as possible.

On the afternoon of the 10th our guns, directed by Captain Kempner, and Lieutenants Graham and Tunney, who were in an observation post with the German lines in full view, fired round after round of high explosive shell into a series of Boche trenches. Those who were observing could see that the Huns were much disconcerted, for pandemonium reigned, and the Boche could be seen running about and ducking for cover in all directions.

But the final stroke of artillery genius (at least, so the infantry believed) was made late that afternoon by Lieutenant Richard. He had been relieved from his forward position, and was back again with D Battery, when the telephone buzzed. Captain Bateson was on the wire. "Richard," he said, "I've got a job for you. The infantry reports a German dugout located across the river, with smoke coming out of a stove pipe. They want it demolished."


"Have you got the coordinates?" asked the lieutenant.
"That's just it," replied Captain Bateson. "They want us to put down this fire, but they could only give us the hectometric coordinates (i. e., approximate location) of the position. I told then we'd fire four shots. They could observe the fire, and if they thought it was worth while we would continue. They cautioned me to be careful, because the place is pretty close to their own lines."

Lieutenant Richard took down the coordinates. "All right," he said. "I'll figure my data and then add a couple of hundred meters to the range for safety!"
Presently four shots rang out. Then -there was a few minutes' silence, while Captain Bateson awaited the infantry's report.
"I don't believe they can see anything," he said. "It's almost dark."
Just then the telephone rang. It" was the infantry headquarters.
"What did you see?" asked Captain Bateson.
"Here is the observer's report," was the reply: "one direct hit, one ten meters left, one a trifle to the right, and one just over. Please continue the fire!"

Fifteen rounds were promptly pumped into that dugout, and although the darkness prevented further observation, we had the satisfaction of knowing that these, our last shots of the war, had convinced the infantry that their supporting artillery knew how to shoot.

On Sunday evening, November 10th, there was heavy cannonading away off to the right, but at our own gun positions it seemed strangely quiet. An occasional whizz-bang came over, and we could hear the "Bow!" as the German gun fired, then the short, wild shriek of that peculiar shell as it rushed over our heads, and finally the "Bloom!" of the projectile's burst somewhere behind us in the valley. Aside from that, the night was very still.

After supper the men of the battalion headquarters detail gathered for a service in the center of their little encampment. They sat on a huge log, and some of the officers brought chairs and joined the gathering. There in the darkness, while the Chaplain recited some Scripture and offered prayer and gave a brief talk, there was an atmosphere of peace which in an undefined way prepared men's minds for the present cessation of war.

Monday morning came, and while preparations for the usual activities were tinder way, we wondered vaguely what was taking place at the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Command. The most credible rumor was that the Germans were to reply on that day to the terms which had been offered them, and most men believed that the end was near.
Then suddenly the telephone buzzed in the Major's P. C. Captain Bateson took down the receiver.
"Captain Martin? . . . Yes. . . . Yes. . . . All right."
He turned to the group of officers standing about, and in a matter-of-fact voice announced, "By command of Marshal Foch, all hostilities on this front will cease at II A. M. to-day."
The war was over!


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