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Prisoners


HISTORY
of
THE 306th Field Artillery

The Prisoners


NOTE: Towards the afternoon of September 28th, when Lieutenants Hamilton, von Saltza, and Badin failed to return from reconnaissance in the Argonne Forest an anxiety as to their whereabouts, naturally, was manifested at the regimental post of command. Telephone messages to the battalions and to other units, failed to elicit any information. Searching parties were sent out from several points. Some of these penetrated through the forest as far as the front-line positions. Officers answering the descriptions of the three lieutenants had been seen, but no definite information concerning them could be obtained anywhere. Thereafter, their fate was a mystery. Rumor had it that all three had been shot and killed, and state-ments drifted into headquarters that an infantry unit had buried them. It was not until some time after the cessation of hostilities, that the regiment learned the truth.

AT nine o'clock, on the morning of September 28, 1918, Lieutenant Philip von Saltza, Regimental Gas and Engineer Officer, Lieutenant Jean Badin, a French artillery officer attached to the regiment, and myself, Regimental Reconnaissance Officer, left the regimental post of command near Le Rondchamp to go forward on a reconnaissance for possible P. C.'s, battery positions, and routes through the forest. Arriving at La Harazee, we followed a rough road up the left side of a ravine running northeast. We left the road after it reached the plateau, and followed a telephone line to an old German trench system, then occupied by a small number of our infantry. They told us that it was a reserve position, that the lines had been carried forward four or five kilometers the previous night, but that snipers still lurked in the vicinity.

We followed this trench system for perhaps a kilometer until it intersected a narrow-gauge railway in a deep cut. This brought us to an opening in a wood where several shots fired at us struck the ground uncomfortably close. We took cover in the railway cut for a few minutes, but hearing nothing further, emerged again. Drawing no fire, we continued forward until we struck a path to the left leading up to what we thought was a high point in the woods. Hoping to find a place for an observation post, we followed the path and reached the crest, but found the woods too thick for observation. We rested there a short while and studied our maps. Lieutenant Badin walked off, and in about ten minutes, returned, reporting that he had found a deserted German headquarters. This we decided to visit.

It was a group of semi-dugouts, neatly built on a slope to the north. In the largest, which we entered cautiously, were numbers of maps, mounted and in rolls, showing machine-gun or artillery positions with their fields of fire. While Lieutenant von Saltza and I gathered these up, we began to feel suspicious of our surroundings, for it seemed strange that such things should have been left when there was no indication of damage from a barrage in the vicinity. In the meantime, Lieutenant Badin had walked a short distance down the slope to the north until he was lost to view in the heavy underbrush. As we stood outside one of the dugouts, awaiting his return, a number of shots was fired suddenly from a point very near by. This volley was followed by shouting. Instinctively we took cover in the dugout entrance, and almost immediately, Germans appeared from all sides. Hoping that we had not been seen, and that, by waiting, we might escape, we withdrew into the dugout and destroyed all the maps and papers of importance we had with us.

It was only a matter of a few minutes before we could see, through the two glass windows and the door, that the entrance to the dugout was covered by a large party armed with rifles, grenades, and pistols. They called to us to come out. We, seeing that resistance against such superior forces was useless, reluctantly obeyed, and were relieved of our pistols, belts, field glasses, and map cases, under the direction of two young officers, after which the men were ordered not to touch us. None of the party spoke English, but they managed to ask us a few questions in halting French as to what we were doing there. When we asked about Badin they told us that he had been killed.

Then began our long march under guard to the rear. Enroute we met a weary German captain who asked us in good English what we Americans were doing in this war against the Germans, who had never done us any harm-a question which we soon found to interest the Germans more than any other. We replied that we were in it for good and sufficient reasons we did not think it necessary to discuss at that time. Just before we left him he told me that he thought I looked like a " reverend" but I assured him I was not. We were led to a German headquarters in a deep ravine where we were held a short time while an additional guard saddled his horse. Further back at an artillery headquarters, a number of officers came out from their mess and spoke to us in English, asking a few questions as to our identity, and examining the papers taken from Lieutenant Badin's body. They seemed to be pretty good sports, and as fellow-artillerymen guyed us for being taken prisoners. I told him that we had come part way at least to Germany on an excellent German ship, the Vaterland.

Our march continued through Langon and across the Aisne to La Bois-de-Lord-Ferme which was being used as a brigade headquarters. The road was being heavily shelled by 155's. At the ferme, we were asked a number of questions, mostly of little importance, by some young officers who spoke English. One said he had lived in Spokane, Washington, and when I told him I had been there, he asked if I remembered the name of the restaurant next to the Hotel Davenport, where he used to take his girl on Saturday nights! After a stop of perhaps half an hour, the march was resumed, taking us through Grand Ham and up the Aire valley to Grand Pre. On the way, we crossed the Aire a second time, and then came the closest call from our own 155 shells. They were falling just off the road in a field where a wagon train was parked and we gleefully watched the frantic efforts of the German drivers to get out. As we were about to cross a bridge, a shell dropped in the water ten feet from us. Our guard cautioned us to " Macht schnell! " and needless to say, we did! Shortly before entering Grand Pre a fat little German walked along with us and inquired in good English:
"Where are you gentlemen from?"
We told him.
"I am from San Francisco," he replied.
To my question, " Why in hell didn't you stay there? " his only answer was:
" I wish I had! "

We reached Grand Pre at dusk and while awaiting an automobile to take us to corps headquarters, we had the only good meal the Germans ever gave us during our two months' visit. It consisted of Hamburger steak, noodles, Swiss-cheese, bread, and tea.

At the division we were not questioned. An automobile took us a short distance to the little town of Briquenay, where we were taken before two officers, apparently Prussians, who appeared to be in a highly nervous condition. We were ordered to empty our pockets, and were relieved of all our letters and papers, but were allowed to keep our money. We were questioned on a number of subjects. When asked the location of our front line, we replied that if we had known we certainly would not now have been in our present predicament. Our answers were evidently by no means satisfactory, for we were soon taken out and thrust into a cell with a motley crowd of soldiers, including American negroes. The few bunks were already occupied, and there was nothing for it but to lie on the dirt floor with no covering except my raincoat.

At about eight o'clock the next morning we were marched to Vouziers, a distance of fifteen kilometers, before a mounted guard, and locked up in a room in an old house surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. The room had but two other human occupants, an American infantry lieutenant and a French aviator, but the " inhuman " occupants which infested the bunks were numerous. In the late afternoon, we were given the only food since the previous night. It consisted of black bread and " Ersatz " coffee, a coffee substitute which we were told was made of acorns, and which tasted like -well, I can't describe it!

During the four days we were held in Vouziers, a few more American and French officers were added to our household. Our daily menu was: breakfast-" Ersatz" coffee; dinner-a thin soup of potato peelings or cabbage; supper-coffee and bread.

The town was being bombarded by long-range guns, and was also bombed several times a day by large groups of Allied planes of which I counted seventy one afternoon. Many German wounded passed by in ambulances and on foot, and an almost continuous stream of wagons filled with furniture, forage, rabbits, and anything else that struck the German fancy, rumbled by. Our "house" was in charge of a disagreeable lieutenant who interviewed us several times. On one occasion he complained that the Allies were using "black men" against the Germans. I rather peeved him by replying, "How about your allies the Turks? They have done things no man would do! "

On October 2d, all prisoners, including over a hundred French soldiers and a few Americans, were assembled in the yard of the old French barracks and marched sixteen kilometers to Le Chesne. There we were housed for six days in a good sized building with a central courtyard. The officers, then nine in number, were put into one small room furnished with bunks and several varieties of insects. The room was not locked and we were permitted to be in the yard as much as we wished until dark. Although we had the same scanty menu as at Vouziers, we succeeded in buying an occasional pitcher of beer and some German cigarettes-very small, very poor, and very expensive.

On October 8th, we hiked twenty-five kilometers further to Amagne-Lucquy, where we entrained the next night. We traveled until five the following afternoon in a third-class coach without glass in the windows and without food. But on our arrival at Metz, we were given coffee, bread, and raw sausage. We entrained again at nine o'clock. While waiting in the station, the city was bombed twice by Allied airplanes. At Strassburg the next morning, we were allowed to buy a breakfast of sausage, sandwiches, and tea.

We arrived at Karlsruhe that afternoon. It was the first German city we had seen, and we were favorably impressed with its neatness. The old hotel, which was our home, looked most promising from the outside, but proved one of the worst places we had struck. We were crowded eight in a room behind a locked door-a small transom window the only ventilation. We were permitted to leave the room only to go across the hall to the wash room -and we had no reading matter. A British officer warned us that the place was equipped with dictaphones, but I doubt if the Germans obtained any information other than Allied samples of profanity. We were held here for six days and then moved to the Allied Officers' Camp in the central square of the city, a comfortable and well-equipped camp with plenty of American canned goods furnished by the Red Cross at Berne, Switzerland.

On October 18th, the American officers were assembled and marched to the station to entrain for the American Officers' Camp at Villingen in Southern Baden, which was to be our "home" for the remainder of our stay in Germany. We reached Villingen in the afternoon after a fairly comfortable journey through beautiful mountainous country. The Villingen Camp on the outskirts of the town, was well planned and not uncomfortable. An enclosure about three hundred by five hundred feet was surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence and a ditch with trip-wires. The low one-storied barracks, mess-buildings and offices were built around the four sides, the center occupied by an amusement hall and a number of smaller buildings, among them a library, a music-room and a canteen. There was also a volleyball court and an old tennis court built by the Russian officers who had previously occupied the camp.

The commander of the camp, a fat old lieutenant colonel, was not a half-bad fellow. The day following our arrival, he examined us through his inter-preter. The only question that seemed really to interest him was whether or not we knew his friend, the manager of the Hamburg-American Line in New York. It is interesting to note that the examining officer was invariably supplied with a printed pamphlet giving the complete organization of American divisions with the names of commanders, etc., as they had existed in the States. Changes since arrival in France were not so well-known. Information of our tanks, the " new Edison gas," and the air service was always sought, but above all our questioners seemed to desire to know our reasons for entering the war.

The hundred or so American officers in the camp had their lives pretty well organized. They had appointed committees to take care of the library, athletic entertainment, and Red Cross affairs, The last was by far the most essential, for through it, the food and clothing received from the American Red Cross was distributed. The food question was most important. In the officers' prison camps in Germany the ration furnished was supposed to be, and I believe was, the full civilian ration. Although that may seem large, as far as nourishment went it really amounted to almost nothing-" Ersatz" coffee for breakfast; a thin soup and a vegetable dish for dinner; the same for supper, 250 grams of black bread each day, and a piece of meat about two inches square once a week.

With the food furnished us by the American Government through the Red Cross we had practically all we needed. This was shipped in bulk in a sealed freight car from Berne to Villingen with a bill of lading. It was received by our committee and checked under German supervision. I believe we got all that was sent to us, which was not always the case with individual parcels that were sent to detached groups. Our committee issued one week's ration at a time to our small mess-groups of four or five. We did our own cooking in our barracks, which we had equipped at our own expense with small cook-stoves. These proceedings were usually watched with hungry eyes by our emaciated guards, for our supplies consisted of attractive combinations of American army canned goods, bully-beef, hash, salmon (God bless the goldfish!), beans, a little jam, butter, milk, coffee, tea, sugar, and hard bread. Once in a while a few " Sweet Caps " would come through, -and believe me, I shall never scorn them again. When there was a good supply of this food we lost interest in the German ration except in their potatoes, which were the best thing they had.

Our daily routine at Villingen was one that would make any loafer happy,-no reveille or retreat,-only a roll-call at nine, another after supper, and lights out at ten. Unless you were K. P. or cook, you did nothing but wonder how long the war would last. Some of our time we spent reading the books the Y. M. C. A. had furnished, playing volleyball, and cards, or walking around the enclosure like caged animals. There were even walks outside, for which you signed an agreement not to escape. The country, in the Black Forest region, was beautiful, and it was indeed pleasure to have no guards, a lone German officer, or a non-com. being our only escort.

Once a week we were permitted to have a " movie, " for which we had to pay. The pictures obviously were of German make, especially the comedies. They were as funny as a funeral. There was considerable talent among our fellow-officers, musical and otherwise, which helped these little entertainments. The Russian officers had left some weird instruments, and with a hired piano, a drum, and a few other essentials, we organized a pretty fair jazz-band.

Several of the officers who read German subscribed to some of the papers, so we received the news quite promptly. By the time we had reached the camp, it was evident that the lid was off the press, for the Allied communiques were published in full. In the editorials there were rumblings of the revolution which later occurred. The camp, like every other place in the world where there are soldiers, seethed with rumors, Some officers who understood a little German would overhear part of a conversation among the guards or the cooks, and would promptly spread it with a few additions. We heard of the Kaiser's abdication the ninth of November, and of the terms of the armistice the tenth. They looked very stiff, and for some time rumor had it they would not be accepted, but on the morning of the eleventh, we learned the truth. Happy we were, but I doubt if we were any more so than our guards. They did nothing but grin.

A few days later, representatives of the Soldiers' and Workingmen's Council arrived-fired the German lieutenant colonel who commanded the camp, and told our senior officer that we should no longer consider ourselves prisoners, but rather "guests" of the new German government. We were permitted to leave camp alone, and to go anywhere we chose within a radius of five kilometers from nine in the morning until six in the evening. This freedom was a welcome change.

We took long walks through the forests and the picturesque town. We discovered several cafes where wine could be bought, and for a time German officers and soldiers had difficulty in finding seats. The soldiers often sat at the same tables with us, but the officers, while not so amiable, were at least courteous. The attitude of the civilians varied. But we were never insulted. The children, like those in any part of the world, were much interested in us because we were foreigners, and the younger grown-ups were openly friendly. The sour looks came from the older people, naturally perhaps, as they had lost most. The lack of proper nourishment showed plainly in the children's faces, almost always thin and colorless.

Our semi-freedom continued until November 26th, when we were moved in a first-class train to the German-Swiss border, at Lake Constance. We were disappointed to learn that we should have to wait there until the 29th, the day after Thanksgiving, for the Swiss military train, which was to carry us across Switzerland to France. November 29th was one of the most memorable days in our lives. In the early morning we were marched to the station along-side a long train of second-class carriages with a guard of Swiss soldiers and officers, a fine-looking lot in smart uniforms. We were held an hour, awaiting a train bearing about four hundred British and French officers. Near nine o'clock we got under way and a few minutes later a wild shout went up as we crossed the line into the Swiss part of the town.

Allied flags, which had been kept carefully hidden appeared in the windows of most of the cars, while similar flags were waved at us by the Swiss, who appeared to have heard of our coming. From then on, until midnight, when we crossed the French border at Bellegrade, we felt like popular presidential candidates. Everywhere we stopped we were cheered and showered with food, chocolate, cigarettes, flags, and flowers. At Berne, the American Red Cross and the Y. M. C. A. were there strong with a bunch of real American "peaches" to cheer us. I don't know why we didn't all die from indigestion. While the Swiss were cordial everywhere, they outdid themselves in Geneva, where the whole town went wild. The borders of the railroad were illuminated with red fire for several miles, and the station and the big square outside were packed with people. Here we serenaded the crowd, ending up with the Star Spangled Banner sung in a way I have never heard before. When we had done, the audience went wild. It would have done credit to any American football crowd for enthusiasm.

A half hour later we were again in France, just two months and two days from that unhappy day in the Argonne, when our prospects looked so black. We may all have our own opinions on the relative merits of France and America, but home never seemed better than France did to us that early morning.

EDWARD P. HAMILTON,
First Lieutenant, 306th F. A.

Drawings by PHILIP VON SALTZA,
First Lieutenant, 306th F. A.
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