Chapter 10. The Surrounded Battalion



The Surrounded Battalion


THE night of October 3rd saw the Second and Third Battalions widely scattered. "L" dropped back into battalion support on the right to find evidence of enemy occupation of that ground since their departure before dawn of the second. There was sniping fire all down that flank during the night, a light machine-gun raking- the road before the battalion headquarters' horse shed, and sounds as of a pitched battle off to the right rear, where the 153rd seemed to be in difficulties.

The amount of enemy initiative and efficiency displayed by this infiltration of small groups of light machine-gunners and snipers, apparently independent of officers, into the gap between the two brigades, is worthy of note and considerable admiration. In the opinion of the writer it is doubtful whether many of the American troops, in spite of all that has been written about their acquiring the art and skill of the Red Indian in forest warfare, could have been counted on to do as well.

For the discovery of a gap in a hostile line, the percolation through it, in small and isolated groups, to a depth of over a kilometer, harassing an open flank while the harassing is good, and then at the last moment skillfully withdrawing to one's own lines, all represent a grasp of the general situation, a knowledge of the terrain, and a self-confidence of individuals which are not easily come by.

To return, however, to the disposition of the companies. "M," together with "F" and "F" combined, had been ordered up in support of the attack of October 2nd, but had arrived too late-"-M" shortly after the withdrawal, but "I" and "F," guided into a maze of wire down the slope to the west, never reaching the ground at all. They returned to Battalion Headquarters after midnight and were directed, after getting a hot meal at the company kitchens near the Depot de Machines, to proceed two and a half kilometers up the railroad track of the north and south valley, and to extend the right of a position in the cross valley, east of the Moulin de Charlevaux, just taken up by five companies of the 308th. Starting again about three A. M. of the third, they met "M" Company, ordered on the same mission, in one of the side valleys to the right, and together they pushed on.

"K" Company, advancing before them, had been guided up the line of the 308th runner-posts across the western foot of the ridge, and was already in position on the right of that now famous ground; but "I" and "M," proceeding without guides up the railroad tracks to the left of the stream, and never finding the line of runner-posts, which had perhaps already ceased to exist, were met at gray dawn with a sweeping fire from the open mouth of the valley, and recoiled for shelter into a side draw to the right. The door was closed which it should nearly wreck the brigade to reopen.

The First Battalion had, on the night of the third, taken over the front, and by noon of the fourth "E," "G," "H," and "L" were grouped in Divisional Reserve about the Depot de Machines. They had had one splendid were cooked meal, the first in nine days, and were for the most part washing in the muddy little stream and removing the surplus population of their clothes, when orders came for them to report for duty to the Colonel of the 308th north along the railroad. By three o'clock they were massed along the draw running east from the Moulin de I'Homme Mort, and half an hour later "G" and "L" were launched in assault up the north valley. Somewhere in front a battalion of the 308th was cut off, but few if any of the company commanders knew where "G" advanced with a platoon in skirmish line through the swamp along the line of the stream, "L" a little to the rear along the tracks. So they passed the more open part of the valley to where it narrows and bends farther to the north; they came under a fire from both flanks and the front, and they looked at the work before them-a steep and narrow ravine, its sides choked with brush and wire, the crests to right and left held with machine-guns, rifle- and hand-grenades, a long-distance machine-gun fire sweeping down its length from the north, and the first ranging shells wailing in from across the bills. Roncesvalles or Thermopylae may have looked so to their assaulting columns, grim in the sunset light; and the thought rose unbidden to the mind-what a place chosen for men to die.

"G" halted under fire across the swamp, and "L," as directed by Colonel Stacey of the 308th, assaulted the heights to the left under a fire from their front, right, and rear. There was no artillery preparation other than of counter-battery fire. By dusk they had reached the crest of the plateau, but with the loss of the battalion commander, all three of their company officers, and an unknown number of their men. Lieutenant Rogers, the last of the three to be hit, had crawled forward alone some two hundred yards along a shallow ditch, in an effort to locate the enemy machine- guns, and in so doing had passed over the bodies of two others who had apparently died in the same endeavor. Within thirty yards of a machine-gun in action his knee was half shot away by a sniper even nearer to himself; and under this point-blank fire he managed to free himself from his pack, get a tourniquet on his leg, and crawl backward to the company, which he outposted and put in position for defense. A lieutenant from the 308th was then put in command of the company, but was in turn wounded by morning. Captain Grant of "H" Company, being after the first half-hour the senior officer left in the battalion, started forward to assume command of it, but, before reaching the front, was killed upon the railroad track by a shell, which also mortally wounded his only lieutenant. Lieutenant Jenkins, in command of "E" Company, found himself also in command of the Second Battalion, and almost its only officer, together with, at least temporarily, such elements of the 308th as were on that ground. A precarious footing had been gained on the edge of the western plateau, facing a strong line of wire and trenches to the north, and almost all available reserves had been already engaged. During the night the troops huddled into such shelter as they could find, while the enemy artillery blasted the valley from end to end.

Toward noon of October 5th the brigade commander, coming up on the ground, found the troops withdrawing from a seemingly hopeless position upon the left, and ordered another general assault along both sides of the valley. The companies and battalions were by now thinned and merged beyond definition. New lieutenants, coming up from the rear as replacements, were put in charge of whatever elements were at hand and launched upon whatever attack was under way. Few who took part in those continuous assaults can give any consecutive account of them. Officers returned wounded to hospital never knowing with what troops they had fought, and the men moved to obey their orders half-drugged with exhaustion.

The attack on the east of the valley ran foul -of the acres of wire where "I" and "F" had vainly struggled two nights previous, and it got no further. That on the west regained their former positions, but could not better them. The main hope lay in an infiltration up the track, where a platoon of "E" was sent, crawling in single file along the ditch. When the last had disappeared around a slight bend in the way, the battalion commander followed to watch their progress. They all lay in sight of him, and one was yet alive, shot through the legs and returning with his rifle the fire of a machine-gun in position upon the tracks, till another burst of fire from it tore him to pieces. So the attack failed.

On the sixth it was reported that the French would attack from Binaxville, and another attack was ordered upon the western plateau in conjunction with them. The American attack was delivered, though that of the French seems never to have developed; nor was a yard of ground there gained. There was no further attack upon the left. The story of the right is that of the First Battalion.

The First Battalion, which, after the launching of the First Army Corps offensive at dawn of September 26th, had been moved up in Divisional Reserve to the former French front line facing the Biesme, had on October 1st been shifted again forward but to the west of La Harazee. It was reported that the 368th Regiment of colored troops, acting in liaison between the 77th Division, the left of the First Corps, and the 38th French Corps to its left, had fallen back, leaving a gap between the two. Thus the First Battalion found itself far to the left of its two leading battalions in the Tranchee de Breslau and Tranchee de Magdeburg, the former German front line, in position to stop a possible danger at this point. On the morning of the third the Battalion started forward to the Depot de Machines, then in the hands of the regiment, and that night effected the relief of the front, "D" and "C" from right to left on the line, "B" and "A" in support.

The next day they went forward in their first attack, "D" providing a holding fire on the right, while "C" threw a platoon and a half through the wire on the left; but there was little result save a heavy toll of casualties, and by nightfall of the fourth their lines had not been advanced. On the fifth, after a two hours' artillery preparation beginning at noon, the battalion again attacked, "C" and "D" in the front as before, and again was thrown back with heavy loss. The story of the right now also becomes confused. The field messages are largely undated, while in others the dates or map coordinates are seemingly mistaken. Yet the substance of these messages will serve to outline the picture.

"Lieutenant Kenyon ('A' Company) having trouble on right with M. G. in valley. We are filtering forward. Hastings ('D' Company)."
"Have developed a Boche post at 95.7-75.8 and M. G. at 96.1-75.7. We are getting M. G. fire from ravine on our right front. Just lost 4 men from it. Am trying to envelop. Till-man ('B' Company).
"M. G. fire from junction of creeks and in front. Been following wire, which goes down slope to north. 'D' to push forward, and think they will get it strong.
"'D' slowly moving forward, pushing out small combat groups and coming up to them. Seem to have run into an organized position on their right front. M. G. and rifle-fire from front and right. Whiz bangs on 'D' and 'A.' Hastings has sent for one pounder and is placing Stokes. Tillman has sent patrols to locate 306th.
"Wire is 30 feet thick in places. I-lave cut through at turn. 'D' is 150 yards in advance of this turn, and will swing N. W. following wire as soon as M. O.'s on our front are disposed of. They have just bad two killed trying to cross the path there. We are attacking what I believe is the left of their organized position.
"306th left flank platoon is at 97.0-75.1.
This is authentic." (Their liaison officer had reported them a kilometer north of this point two days previous.)
" 'D' has been stopped. Patrols report large force 200 yards to N. M. G. fire from front and right. Rifle fire from N. apparently very close. Some fire from left."

Major M'Kinney had been placed in charge of operations on the front, and had determined upon a turning movement from the east; but an attack at early morning of the sixth, delivered on the right by "A" "B," and "D," and continued by steady pressure throughout the day, advanced the line there only slightly beyond the position held by "E" four days before, and did little more than move the field of operations to that point. At night "M" Company was brought up into the line, and a bombardment of the supposed machine-gun positions effected with Stokes mortars. At dawn of the seventh the attack was resumed, and by noon the enemy showed the first signs of withdrawal.

Moving along the ridge from the east, under a constant machine-gun fire, and cutting its way through the wire, the battalion at length reached a Position of vantage. "D" was left to continue a holding fire upon this front, while "B," led by Lieutenant Tillman and supported by "A" and "M," moving northwest along the lower slopes, outflanked the left, already partly withdrawn, of the enemy. They advanced in single-file along a winding trail, an ineffective fire passing overhead. It was done almost without loss; yet to those who knew him the death there of Sergeant Watson, then in command of "M" Company, marked the advance with loss enough. He bad pushed out to locate a machine-gun firing from the flank, and fell shot through from shoulder to hip. They crossed the stream into the Bois de la. Buironne and stumbled upon a bombing party operating against the right of the surrounded force. It consisted of only seven or eight men, and some may have escaped, but most were killed where they were met. A few rods farther, and, a little before dusk, they had reached the Binarville-Apremont road and the right of that dreary graveyard with its beleaguered survivors.

Such is the story of the relief of the Surrounded Battalion, of which very little has thus far been written, and that little not always with accuracy. Without the slightest wish to begin unprofitable controversy, when, in a publication given as the official history of the division, it is stated:

"Simultaneously . . . came the electrifying news that the 308th had penetrated the enemy's position and reached Major Whittlesey, relieving his battered, famished, but unbeaten command. Nightfall of the seventh saw our victorious soldiers occupying a front . . . along the road held by the 153rd Brigade, with the latter in liaison to its left with the beleaguered battalion of the 308th."

In common justice to his regiment, the present writer feels obliged to protest. The testimony of innumerable and competent witnesses indicates that the remaining elements of the 308th, while joining in the attacks on the left, did not reach, nor see, the surrounded force until, after its relief by the 307th, it had withdrawn from the ground it had so bravely defended; and that, again after that relief had been effected, patrols sent east by the relieving force in search of the 153rd Brigade returned reporting it to be nearly a kilometer away on the right, and that it did not propose extending to the left.

As to the story of the Surrounded Battalion itself, it belongs primarily to the 308th, and should be told by them. The relation between their advance and the attack of "L" and "H" Companies of the 307th on their right is very difficult to establish, but the latter appears to have reached conclusion before the former was begun. Testimony is widely at variance and memory uncertain as to the exact hour at which events took place, nor is there any help in studying the hours stated in orders, as these were very often not even received at the hours set in them for action. The most probable conclusion seems to be that the attacking companies of the 307th unconsciously aided in breaking the way for Major Whittlesey's advance, since "L" Company's turning movement swept clear for a time at least almost the whole west end of the ridge; but the total lack of cooperation, and indeed ignorance of each other's whereabouts or intention, between these two elements of the brigade must be regarded as the primary cause for the agony that followed to each. The companies of the 307th, organized as a thin skirmish line, reconnoitering an as yet unknown and strongly defended position, had ten minutes in which to prepare and launch an assault in force. Their orders stated that the 308th would attack simultaneously upon their left, which it did not do; while the 308th, advancing somewhat later, were told that both the 307th on their right and the French upon their left were also advancing to extend the flanks of the position they were directed to occupy, which at that time was not actually the intention of either.

The very costly attacks delivered upon the hill to the west of the railroad appear to have been ill-advised. It seemed to be perhaps the strongest point of the enemy position, and there may have been something of internation-al rivalry involved. The French, more elastic in their advance and retreat, and less concerned in never losing a foot of ground than in hus-banding their fearfully depleted man power, having already swept beyond Binarville, had been repulsed at La Palette Pavillion, and bad withdrawn largely beyond the former town. There may have been an intention to show them what American troops could do. But apart from the great strength of this position on the west it did not actually command the ground held by Major Whittlesey's battalion, and was still held by the enemy during the night after the relief, but without effectively interfering with the relieving force. The first company launched in attack upon this bill was the same, which had broken through the enemy line on the ridge to the east two days previous, almost reaching the later coveted grounds. Had that ground been then designated as the objective of attack, the writer, who was in command of that company, is convinced that it could have been reached; and had the attack been coordinated with that of the 308th, a connection with their right flank could have been maintained. Or again, later, bad they been informed as to where the surrounded force was located, which was known to their superiors, and had they been given any option in the matter, they would most certainly have elected to repeat their former attack over somewhat the same path. But they were merely directed to assault to the west, and did so in the supposition that the battalion they sought was somewhere beyond the crest of the plateau before them; and when their attack was finally checked there was no one left who had taken any leading part in, or apparently had any knowledge of, their previous success. The eastern ground had undoubtedly been strengthened in the interim, and yet, save for an attack by a platoon and a half of "C" Company, it does not seem to have been seriously tested again; while success there both appeared more probable, and if gained would have proved vastly more effective, than upon the west where so much effort and bloodshed were expended. The final success was gained by passing completely around the eastern flank of the enemy position.

But to return to the story of the Surrounded Battalion itself. It had advanced under orders to occupy the north slope of the valley stretching east from the Moulin des Charlevaux, and, after some loss, had there taken position by nightfall of October 2nd. "K" Company of the 307th, under command of Captain Holderman, who had joined the regiment on September 22nd from the 40th Division, reached position on the right of this force at about dawn of October 3rd. The force consisted of Companies "A.." "131" 6CC 9 1~ "H" and "G" of the 308th Infantry, under command of Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry, and two platoons of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion under Lieutenant Peabody; the position extended for some four hundred yards along the lower slope of the ridge between the Moulin des Charlevaux and the Bois de la Buironne. "K" Company, advancing over the lower shoulder of the southern ridge at the end of night, ran the gauntlet of some machine-gun fire and suffered some slight loss before reaching the farther valley. The messengers sent back to report their arrival and coordinates to

Captain Blagden returned to "K" Company with the news that the runner-posts were gone, and the way was closed by the enemy; the ration-parties, which they bad been promised would follow them, failed to arrive; and within the hour of their arrival they realized that they faced siege and starvation.

They had had a cooked meal before starting forward, but carried with them not a greater average than a single day's ration each. With the marshy stream close behind them, their water was assured, but, except at night, only at the price of casualties. The duty of the commander of "K" was clear, and be placed himself under the orders of Major Whittlesey. These were for him to push back the enemy who were closing in on the rear. Recrossing the valley, "K" encountered a system of wire, which they traversed, but only to find other wire beyond, and were themselves in some danger of being cut off from the rest of the battalion. They fought out a rear-guard action and regained their former position, where they formed the defensive right flank of the force. The first enemy attack was delivered on the evening of the third, the grenade throwers advancing above the cut bank along the road behind a barrage fire of trench-mortars while, covered by an enfilading machine-gun fire, riflemen attempted to close on the flanks. The attack was beaten off, but with inevitable loss. There was not, either then or later, any massed infantry assault in the commonly accepted meaning of the term; the method of attack which had astonished the world in the early struggles with the British for the Channel Ports or with the French for Verdun seemed by now to have passed out of their repertoire. With the possible exception of the Marne in mid-July, it is safe to say that American troops have never been faced with such methods, though in this instance the ground was singularly well suited to it. An assaulting wave could well have been massed under cover above the cut-bank and hurled down the hill-slope across a position which had no natural strength. Had the determination of the German attack then and later been in any way comparable to that of the American defense, only one outcome would have been possible; but although a few of the enemy were killed within fifteen or twenty yards of "K" Company's front not a member of the company at any time saw a bayonet fixed on a German rifle. Against the methods actually used by the enemy the battalion's position on the steep hillside had several advantages. They were completely defiladed from the front, and, it soon became evident, could not be reached by hostile artillery; the swamp in their rear, which might have been a danger, proved only a defense from rear attack; but against the constant fire of trench-mortars they had little or no protection.

On the fourth there were bombing attacks during the morning, and in the afternoon an American barrage fell squarely upon their position-the fire to which "L" and "G" listened, passing above their heads as they advanced to their first attack up the throat of the ravine to the southwest. Carrier-pigeons were loosed, and their presence with the battalion comes rather as a surprise, calling for a change in the range of these guns, and the incident was not repeated. Two days later, when another barrage was laid down, it moved across the swamp to their rear, and, jumping their position, struck again before their front with a precision that could not have been bettered.

By noon of the second day the last of the food had been eaten and starvation began to weaken the strength, but not the spirit, of the defending force; fortunately, though there were two nights of rain, there was no severe cold, as on the few days previous to their advance, to further exhaust their resistance. Patrols were frequently sent out in an effort to get through the surrounding cordon, but only one man, Private Krotashinski of "K" Company, succeeded in reaching the American lines, and very many did not come back. Aeroplanes sometimes tried to drop food to them, though never successfully. The days brought little change. There was a more or less constant fire of trench-mortars and of sniping, bursts of machine-gun fire from the flanks, small bombing attacks from over the cut bank, and an attack in some force at evening. There was the steady drain of casualties; the wounded , though given every possible aid, died from lack of the care that it was not possible to give, from loss of blood, from exhaustion, or from gangrene, and, dying, still shared the shallow rifle-pits with the living. It was a nightmare time, brightened only by the courage of all to see it through, and by the steady background of sound beyond the ridge to southward where their comrades could be heard hammering and hammering upon the wall that lay between. In that anvil chorus from across the hills, the slower throbbing of American Chauchats, like the bagpipes at Lucknow, could always be distinguished from the swift sound of the German machine-guns, and as it sounded fainter or louder brought its message of hope.

At least one act of chivalry by the Germans should be recorded in fairness to an enemy whose reputation for chivalry is not high. A single man of "K," creeping down through the bushes to fill his canteen at the water-hole, where the bullets were constantly splashing, was shot through the leg and disabled. There a bombing-party of the enemy later found him, dressed his wound with care, and offered him his choice of being carried back with them as a prisoner or left to be found by his friends. He chose the latter, and was known to the company as their best-bandaged casualty.

On October 7th an American soldier, captured on patrol, was sent in to Major Whittlesey with a written demand for surrender. The message was in English, on clean paper, and had been written on a typewriter, something which certainly could not have been produced by any American battalion on the line. It was courteous to the verge of being flowery, a point worth mentioning because the rumor spread among the men that it was very bloodthirsty in character. On the contrary it began by commending the messenger to the Major with the assurance that he had been captured through no fault of his own and had shown himself a brave soldier. It then went on to state that relief by their comrades was clearly impossible, that the crying of their wounded was distressing to bear, and that in the name of humanity they would do best to surrender. In the face of such courtesy one may venture to question the accuracy of the reported answer, more especially as there was no one to whom it might be addressed; actually no message at all was returned, and the American messenger was retained with the command. But there was discourtesy enough, and good American spirit enough, too, for that matter, in the remark of a private over the incident. He asked Captain McMurtry whether it were true that they had been called upon to surrender, and being told that it was, without asking what answer, if any, had been returned, he pushed back his helmet and exclaimed:

"Why, the sons-!"
It is safe to say that the attitude was typical of the whole command, as was that of another soldier who, lying near an officer's feet, received a wound from a hand-grenade in the face. He looked up rather dazedly to ask how, badly be seemed to be hurt, and being told to go down the slope to be bandaged, answered cheerfully:
"All right, sir, but I'll be right back."

It was considered as something of an April fool joke that Captain McMurtry was going about, quite unconsciously, with the wooden handle of a German potato-masher sticking in his back. The preservation of such a spirit under such conditions speaks worlds for the men and for the officers to whom they looked for guidance, since courage is as contagious as fear.

The name of humanity, already disregarded by Major Whittlesey, received perhaps a ruder shock when the enemy, during the same afternoon, attacked with flame-throwers. Certain memories of Neuviller in June will always abide with those who probed the secrets of that unhappy village, and will stamp with detestation the use of that weapon. The present attack was of very small compass, only two Germans being seen with fiammen-werfers, and both of them being killed; it is thought, though not with certainty, that one man of "K" was first killed by them. Later it was learned, with probable truth, from the German major commanding, who was met after the armistice by an American officer at Coblenz, that he was awaiting a large supply of flammen-werfers for his final attack upon the position. So much for the piteous crying of wounded, and the dictates of humanity.

The flanks of the battalion had at first been strengthened with machine-guns, but these, on the right flank at least, had been knocked out by trench-mortars and replaced with chauchat teams. Ammunition was very low, so that orders had been given to fire only at well-defined targets-and enormous handicap in that close brush-fighting. Yet the evening attack of October 7th, preceded by an intense machine-gun barrage, was beaten off as successfully as had been the others. And then, a little after, there was a burst of rifle-fire off in the woods to the right, of rifle-fire which they had not fired and which was not fired at them, and men looked at each other as they lay, weak with hunger, among their delirious wounded and their sun- scorched dead, and they questioned each other with the look. And then, through the gathering twilight, a company of American infantry moved in upon them.

That was the end. Not another shot was fired upon that well-fought ground, until two nights later some long-distance artillery threw in a few shells. Company "B" was the first to arrive, led in by Lieutenant Tillman, and closely followed by "A" and "M.' The ground was quickly outposted to the front and flanks, but without encountering a single enemy; then the rations, such as they carried, were distributed. By morning not a German was to be found on the ridge south of the valley and the valley itself presented a scene like some hospital or rest-area, filled with ambulances, trucks and staff-cars. "K" Company, which had gone in with eighty-six men, was able to march out with forty-three, of whom very many were wounded, and a like proportion obtained for the whole battalion of six hundred.. Had fresh troops been available the enemy on the ridge to southward, already almost surrounded, might by quick action have been themselves intercepted and captured; but the limit of endeavor had for the time been reached, and they were allowed during the night to draw out to the west.

While the losses to the Brigade during these six bloody days must have been beyond all pro-portion to those inflicted on the enemy, and while it seems probable that the German general retirement was here actually delayed in the hopes of capturing the surrounded force, rather than that the enemy were compelled by their advance to retire-yet there can be no question but that the indomitable spirit of this defense has added a chapter to the tradition of American arms which will survive. It is to tradition, no less than to purpose, that the soul of a nation must cling, and upon which it must build its life. The tactical or strategic results of the defense or capture of Cemetery Hill and the Peach Orchard have long since vanished into the limbo of the past; but the tradition of courage there bequeathed to the nation, alike by the men of Hancock and of Pickett, will not vanish. And so, in lesser degree, will the siege of the Surrounded Battalion remain to enrich the story of America's part in the Great War.
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