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19. We Leave the Front For the Last Time


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 19
We Leave the Front For the Last Time


CHAPTER XIX

WE LEAVE THE FRONT FOR THE LAST TIME

THE AFTERNOON of the eleventh wore on. How strange it was not to hear the rumble of some distant barrage. At night a battery of tripods was placed in position with the guns on the ground along-side and all night we stood guard but on the morning of the twelfth we folded the tripods for the last time in what had been the front line. A copy of Stars and Stripes, the official A.E.F. newspaper, had been brought up and we were happy to see that our Division was not included in the list of divisions making up the Army of Occupation. The old 77th Division was pretty well worn out by the time the war ended and it would have been a heart-breaking march going into Germany.

Packs were rolled and the long march to the rear was started, still not quite thoroughly convinced that the war was really over. The peasants shouted Finis la guerre! and we shouted back at them but we were not particularly enthusiastic. Not far behind the lines in a valley, a French regiment of cavalry was waiting to go forward. They presented a very striking appearance in new accoutrement with sleek, carefully groomed animals.

It was a long, weary march over shell-torn roads back to St. Pierremont and, if memory serves, we pulled in somewhere around midnight. Anything with a roof over it had been used to shelter horses and mules and finding a flopping place was a problem, although we were not too fastidious in our crumby condition at that time. It was here that Lockwood proved himself to be a real buddy. When we crowded into one of the stables I recognized his voice calling my name. It sounded as though he were looking for a companion to go on a detail but, instead, he said, "Don't unroll your pack but take off your clothes and crawl in here." He was up on a platform about four feet above the floor and had a dozen blankets. It seems that he had been back guarding some equipment and nearby was an engineer regiment. When the engineers pulled out, blankets were left behind and, like a good soldier, Lockwood did a good salvaging job. I shall never forget that night's sleep. It was the one clean spot in that billet.

It was here that we gained some idea of the way our ranks had been depleted when we saw the number of replacements awaiting us. In the neighborhood of fifty men were assigned to each company. Many of them were from the Middle West, principally Wisconsin. When we had a chance to get a good look at them in the daylight we found them to be a well set-up, good-looking group. They had not seen any action but had received good training and would have given a good account of themselves if the war had continued.

During the three or four days we spent in St. Pierremont we took the first step back to cleanliness and civilization. The engineers of our Division had installed shower baths in the best of the buildings left standing and had covered shell-torn walls with shelter halves. After a steaming hot bath and new underwear issued, we commenced to get something of the feel of being men again instead of animals. To a person who was not in the Army in France it will probably seem peculiar to dwell on such trifles as a bath and clean underwear but to cootie-bedeviled soldiers just out of the lines it was a real treat and of great moment.

The rest of four days helped immensely and as we again started back from St. Pierremont we were prepared to do a little sightseeing as we trudged along instead of slinking forward expecting to be blown into Kingdom Come at the next step. Rumor had it that we were going back to a training area where the discipline would be stiffer than any we had seen.

The countryside which, but a short time before, had seen the German Army beaten back step by step across its fields now stretched away peacefully and would have been very pretty indeed had it not been for the battle-scarred earth and riddled villages which rose up like spectres. We retraced our steps back to the town of Buzancy where we stopped long enough to have leather jerkins issued to us and we found them very satisfactory in every way. They were a little bulky at first, worn beneath the blouse, but they soon took shape and surely kept out the wind. Somewhere along the line we were issued Bolo knives in tin scabbards. They were supposed to be part of a machine gunner's equipment but, as the war was over, it was not known why they were issued. The only thing we did with them was to throw them at the barn doors, trying our skill at having them enter the door, point foremost, similar to knife throwers in the circus. Who can ever forget those Bolo knives? There is no point in mincing words; they were junk and the Government was handed something when they were purchased. No one shed any tears when we turned them in.

Continuing our march to the rear and skirting the Argonne we passed through such places as Cornay, Fleville and Chattel Chehery. As we looked at the towering trees and shadows of the forest, silent and gloomy and yet so majestic, it was difficult to visualize the struggle that had taken place there in that tangled underbrush.

Entering the village of Lochere, at the edge of the forest, our march came to an end and we remained there for four days. This little group of buildings was just another of the devastated villages in the war zone but it will remain in the minds of the 305th Machine Gunners as the scene of the famous hollow square formation of the Battalion. It was here that Major Peake unburdened himself of another of his choice speeches after the four companies had been drawn up facing inward in the form of a hollow square. Astride his horse, he bellowed, "This town is dirty and you men will see to it that you do not make it any dirtier. You men have been defecating all over France. It will have to be stopped so that when we leave this village it will be cleaner than when we came into it." Those may not have been his exact words but we are sure of the word, defecating. In fairness to the officers of the Battalion it must be said that the companies were never allowed to leave a mess behind but had to police up.

About half a mile across the fields lay the town of Les Ilets where the puff of locomotives could be seen and the screech of whistles reached our ears. We awaited the day when we were to march over and board trains for our destination but, after several days had elapsed, there floated forth the rumor that the French could not furnish transportation and that we were in for a nine day hike.

The report proved to be correct and once again we took to the road. Marching fifty minutes and resting ten, we carried on hour after hour, day in and day out over a period of at least nine days with the exception of Sundays, when we had a day off. Perhaps one of our longest marches was accomplished on Thanksgiving Day. Starting at about six o'clock in the morning, it was not until some-where around nine o'clock at night that we pulled into billets at Tremont, weary and wet, having marched through a pouring rain all day. In the middle of the day, when most people were sitting down to turkey dinners at home in the States, we were eating corned willy and hardtack and leaning over the mess kits so as to keep out the water running from our helmets. Lieut. Simons had ordered the cooks to make up a beef stew for supper but when mess call sounded at about ten o'clock, in Tremont, many of the men had taken off their wet clothes and were asleep and warm in the hay. Others, too tired to eat, said, "The hell with it," and, as a result, those who piled out received mess kits brimming full with plenty of seconds. The writer does not mind admitting that he dined that night in Tremont. The next day, November 29th, we were on the road again.

To attempt to recall each day would be too much of a task and, we fear, would also prove to be somewhat monotonous. We might mention that at the close of the twenty-ninth we were in Bettancourt which was about a kilometer distant from the city of St. Dizzier. It was here that Wanner and Winkle were picked up by the M.P.s on a trumped-up charge but they were released the next day when it was learned that Winkle's brother was a major. Wanner let us know in unequivocal terms what he thought of M.P.s. Little did he know that he would one day join them, but we will tell about that later.
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