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Chapter 11 The Argonne Drive: Through the Forest


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


CHAPTER X1

THE ARGONNE DRIVE

THROUGH THE FOREST


On the evening of September 26th the artillery was ordered to advance and take up new positions in support of the infantry. By eleven o'clock the batteries were packing up and moving out along the dark roads. Forward they went, through ravines, across brooks, picking their way in the night among rocks and stumps and trees. Sometimes the hills were so steep that six horses could not pull up a gun, and it was necessary to unhitch other teams and add them to the haul. Then, while the drivers urged and coaxed and swore, the cannoneers would put their shoulders to the wheels and heave, and the gun would lurch its way to the top. After many hours of labor all the batteries were in position in a ravine near what had been the front line the night before, at Le Four de Paris. There they stayed for two days, firing almost constantly in a pouring rain.

One of the cannoneers, who had been left behind with a detail to bring up ammunition, gives some interesting bits in his diary:

"At 7 A. M. when limbers came back, loaded same and advanced to positions. . . . Was pretty well drenched. Huns tried to counter attack at 5 P. M. and we sent over a barrage which foiled them. After mess was put in charge of two G. S. limbers with Bill and told to go to old positions and draw rations. Very dark night, raining, muddy and hard to see. Got in barbed wire entanglements, ran into trees, and feet in slop over shoe tops. Returned at 2.30 A. M."

While the batteries were firing on the 27th and 28th, a few officers and men had gone

Forward to reconnoiter in the direction of Binarville and Abri du Crochet, and at daybreak the following morning the guns were ordered to move forward toward the latter place. This advance took us out across what had been No-Man's- Land, and our men got their first sight of the hideous desolation of that awful wilderness.

The roads had long since ceased to be roads, so torn and mangled were they, so full of treacherous holes and miry bogs. Save for a few engineers working at a task which seemed about as hopeless as baling out the ocean, the only sign-of life was an occasional crow perched on a skeleton tree, in raucous notes calling attention to the ruinous domain of which he was left in undisputed possession.


The Second Battalion went into position on the side of a deep ravine near a place called Barricade Pavilion, which had been a point of strong resistance for the Germans in their line of defense. The First Battalion, temporarily under command of Captain H. B. Perrin, pushed on farther and reached Abri du Crochet. (Major Sanders had been called away to Division Headquarters the previous night, and had gone, leaving his adjutant in command. He did not rejoin the regiment until November fourth, so that for a considerable period the operations of the battalion were directed by Captain Perrin, with Lieutenant Boyd acting as adjutant.) For a day or two there was little firing, because of uncertainty regarding the exact location of the infantry's front lines. This was also the reason for the fact that the Second Battalion, in its next advance, moved so far forward that the guns could not be used at all, for they were too close to the infantry to be able to fire over their heads without landing far beyond the targets they wished to hit. Indeed, enemy machine-gun bullets, intended for the infantry, spattered right in among the cannoneers, one of whom, Private Busch, was wounded.

It was in that position, on October 3rd, that two privates in the Medical Detachment earned a citation for bravery. Corporal Mack, of Headquarters Company, who was with the Second Battalion wireless detail, had been seriously wounded by a shell which wrecked the wagon in which the apparatus was packed. He was lying in an exposed position, and the two medical men, Robinson and Warns, went to his assistance. Disregarding the shells, which were bursting all around them, these two men dressed the corporal's wounds, put him on a litter, and carried him to shelter. Probably the only reason they were not killed or wounded was the softness of the ground, which allowed the shells to sink in before they burst and prevented to some extent the deadly flying of broken fragments. Both men were covered with mud thrown up by the explosions.

The battalion remained in that position only for one day. The infantry, meeting heavy resistance, did not advance as rapidly as had been hoped, and Major Devereux decided to move his guns back to Abri du Crochet where he could do some effective firing. There, with the two battalions only a few hundred meters apart, the batteries remained until October 8th. While frequent reconnaissances were made to prepare for further advances the guns were busy, firing for the most part on machine gun nests which, cleverly concealed in the thick underbrush and skillfully manned by expert gunners, were making the progress of the infantry extremely difficult.

During this period a battalion of the 308th Infantry, off to our left, after advancing and capturing a hill, found their flanks dangerously exposed. On attempting to withdraw far enough to reestablish a connection with the troops on either side, their commander, Major Whittlesey, found that his battalion was surrounded by the enemy. In spite of all the Germans' attempts to annihilate his men or compel him to surrender, Major Whittlesey held out until, on October 7th, the enemy was obliged to withdraw. Our guns took part in a big attack which was planned to relieve this battalion on the morning of the 7th. The attack itself was not successful, "but [to quote General McCloskey's report] the artillery fire caused such losses to the enemy in men and material as to compel his withdrawal" the following night.

While the batteries were firing from these positions, Colonel McCleave was established close by in a dugout alongside the one occupied by General Wittenmeyer and his 153rd Infantry Brigade headquarters. The various officers and men connected with our regimental headquarters were living in dugouts in a ravine behind the Second Battalion. Some of these places were very interesting. They had been built for permanent quarters by the Germans, and were fitted up with conveniences such as we had never dreamed of. Five of our officers slept in a dugout which had belonged to a German battery commander. It was nothing less than a little house, built of concrete, in the side of the ravine. The door opened into a sitting-room about twelve feet square, wainscoted in dark wood and equipped with comfortable chairs, tables, closets and built-in bookcases. In the corner was a brick stove. The ceiling was made of steel I beams, painted white. The bed room adjoining was finished like the sitting room, and contained a washstand and a brass bedstead. Both rooms were equipped with electric light fixtures, and both had glass windows with heavy steel shutters which, when closed at night, prevented any light from escaping. Outside was a little terrace on which stood a rustic table and chairs and several urns in which palms were growing. In another dugout near by was a vast quantity of bottles of excellent mineral water. They had lived well in the Argonne, these Germans. So had the French. And why not? For nearly four years these dugout villages had been their winter and summer homes.

A little farther to the rear, in a ravine occupied by a battery of the 306th F. A., was a good example of what our infantry was having to contend with in their advance through the forest. The side of the ravine, which sloped at an angle of some forty-five degrees, was covered with underbrush and trees. At the top of the hill was a mass of barbed wire, so thick that even now it was difficult to find an opening through which to pass.

Behind the barbed wire were deep trenches, and scattered along at intervals of a few meters were machine gun emplacements. Here the German rear guards had made one of their stands, and the American infantry had scrambled up that hill in the face of a wicked fire and driven them out. Many unburied dead of both armies told how bitter had been the struggle.

The frequent moves made by our batteries made it necessary to keep the horses near the guns. Each battery therefore maintained a forward echelon at some place where the problem of water would not be impossible. In spite of the heavy rainfall, which was becoming a matter of almost daily occurrence, good watering places were scarce, and the few ravines where springs were found were cluttered morning and evening with long lines of impatient horses and exasperated drivers. In the course of a few days the watering was arranged in some sort of order by the battalion commanders from the various regiments, but at first it was a wild push and scramble to see who could get first to the meager troughs.

The main echelon was still on the south side of the old No-Man's-Land, for the roads were in such a terrible state and traffic was so congested that the division supply trains could not get through. Our own Supply Company, therefore, had its regimental dump at the echelon, and the drivers were obliged to take their escort wagons up daily by roads which were well-nigh impassable. New divisions were coming in the 82nd was relieving the 28th on our right, and the 78th was moving in behind us with the result that trucks and wagons and guns and men were pushing and crowding along in unutterable confusion. There was a traffic jam near a crossroad at Abri du Crochet one evening which blocked the passage of every vehicle during the entire night. The accumulating congestion extended back for miles, and it was not until daylight that the tangle was unraveled.

The unceasing toil was beginning to tell on our men. They were tired, dirty, ragged, lousy. They had not had a bath (save, perhaps, with an occasional bucket full of water) for two months. They had had no change of clothes, not even underclothes, for more than five weeks. Nearly every one, both officers and men, had lice, and some had fleas. And they were worn out. "When are we going to get relieved?" was the question asked a hundred times a day.

Then news began to reach us of the great Allied successes on every front from the English Channel to the Holy Land. We heard that the Turkish armies in the East had been shattered, that Bulgaria had caved in, that the British were driving the Boche hard in Flanders, and the French were crowding them back toward Laon. Then came the word that Germany and Austria had asked for an armistice! The war was not over, but surely the end was in sight, and that thought wrought a miracle in the morale of the regiment. The men forgot that they were tired, forgot that they were dirty, forgot that they needed new clothes, forgot everything except that the enemy was in front of us, that our heroic infantry were advancing through difficult and dangerous terrain and needed our support, and that the one important thing in the world now was to fire every shot so that it should count toward bringing the whole wretched business to a speedy end. In that spirit the men at the guns went on with their laborious work. In that spirit the drivers brought up the ration wagons, the cooks prepared the meals, the linemen ran their miles of new telephone wires, the messengers carried their dispatches at night through the inky blackness of the forest. Every man did his work, whatever it might be, with an amazing willingness; and when, on October 8th, the order came to advance again, the whole attitude was, "Come on: let's go to it and finish the job!"

The advance which followed was a long one. The German lines had been driven almost clear of the forest. With only one or two stops for firing, the First Battalion went away off to the northwest and took up a position on a hill just east of Malassise Farm, across the river from Grand Ham, while the Second Battalion went equally as far and established itself near La Besogne. Regimental headquarters was located in the Bois de Taille, and the main echelon was set up not far from Lanqon. These positions were taken by October 10th, and on the 11th our guns began to fire on German troops beyond the Argonne Forest across the River Aire.

All this time we had been keeping four of our guns forward with the infantry. They had not been called upon to do much firing during the progress through the forest. The infantry commanders, under whose direct orders they were placed, found it difficult, with observation rendered impossible by the nature of the ground and the woods, to use them. But now that the Germans were out of the woods, direct observation was easy, and the "pirate pieces" did great execution on the machine gun nests across the river. Moreover, the artillery observers could now establish 0. P.'s on the heights south of the Aire, from where the fire of all the batteries could be accurately adjusted.

The division had reached the enemy's line of resistance known as the Kriemhilde Stellung, and for the first time since the drive started we were confronted with a large quantity of heavy artillery with which the Germans hoped to prevent our further advance. This called for a kind of work we had not done since we left the Aisne, namely the smashing of Boche batteries in an attempt to put them out of action. It was a great relief to fire at such definite targets after the uncertain work in the forest, and the observers in their 0. P.'s and the battalion and battery commanders at their guns enjoyed the test of real skill in directing and adjusting their fire. The rain was still constant, and the men were soaked a good part of the time and their blankets at night were laid in mud; but they worked with a will, knowing that their shots were telling. The American heavy artillery attached to the Corps had not yet been able to come up, so that for a while all this counter-battery work had to be done by the field artillery, and every gun had its full share of important work.

On the morning of Sunday, October 13th, we were greeted with the news, telephoned down from corps and division headquarters, that Germany and Austria had agreed to President Wilson's terms for an armistice. That they had asked for terms we knew, and also that the President had replied that no armistice could be granted so long as their troops occupied invaded territory and their submarines were engaged in unlawful practices at sea, nor so long as their governments were responsible to any one except the people themselves. To this the two Central Powers had now replied that they would withdraw their forces from France and Belgium and recall their submarines, and pointed out that such changes had taken place in the governments that those in control were now answerable to the people. This looked like the beginning of capitulation, and hopes ran high that an armistice might be proclaimed which would, at least, give the army a chance to rest. Some grew so hopeful as to place bets that an order to suspend hostilities would be forthcoming within twenty-four hours.

No such order came however. Rather were we told to in-crease our efforts to crush and break the German lines. That very day preparations were begun for an attack on Grand Pre, and, while most of the preparatory fire was conducted by the 305th F. A., backed up by the heavier guns of the 306th, our own batteries took some part in the destruction of fleeting targets and in protecting the 302nd Engineers while they were constructing bridges across the Aire. On the 15th, the attack was carried out, and the 154th Brigade of Infantry captured the town.

Another important engagement in which our regiment had a larger part was the attack on St. Juvin, on October 14th. This place was at the extreme right of our sector, where the lines of the 77th Division joined those of the 82nd, and it was a strategic point in the Kriernhilde Stellung. A general advance was to be made by the entire First Corps, but the particular objective assigned to the 153rd Infantry Brigade, whom we were still supporting, was the town of St. Juvin. There was to be some preparatory fire by the artillery, in which all our batteries took part, and at 8:30 A. M. the infantry was to attack from the east of Marcq, which was really out of our sector.

The most exciting part of the battle for our regiment was that played by a pirate piece under command of Lieutenant Richard, of Battery D, who had been, since October 9th, on duty With the infantry. About midnight on the 13th he received orders to take his gun out beyond where the infantry's front lines were located and go into position where he might be able to do whatever firing should be required by the infantry battalion commander. It was necessary for him to start at dawn, move out along the La Besogne-Marcq road, which was in full view of the enemy, pass through the town of Marcq, which was daily being subjected to heavy shell fire, and reach the front lines by 7:30.

What this experience meant to the men is vividly described by the section chief in charge of the gun, Sergeant Grandin, in a letter written shortly after the battle. "The Lieutenant called me into his dugout," he writes, "and showed me where we were to go. (Imagine! For a full kilometer in plain view of the Boche and headed straight for the enemy lines.) It looked like certain death for some of us, but in the army orders are orders, and it was up to us to carry them out. . . .

"Away we went about 5 A. M., none too confident, but willing. It was raining like the dickens and the mud was ankle deep. Nature was with us, for as we came to the open part of the road there was a dense fog, and we got along finely until we reached the town."

Upon arriving in Marcq, Lieutenant Richard left Sergeant Grandin in charge of the gun while he went forward to reconnoiter. The Sergeant started his gun up the hill, but found the six horses unable to make the haul, so that he was obliged to wait f or one of the wagons, which for the sake of precaution was keeping a respectful distance behind, and take an extra team to put on the gun. He then went ahead to make sure of the position selected by the Lieutenant, and, after being nearly picked off by snipers, found him in the only available place-behind a clump of bushes, in front of which the ground sloped away unbroken by woods or cover of any kind toward the German lines. There were a few trees near by, and in one of these Lieutenant Richard established his 0. P., while the telephone men set about establishing connections with the infantry P. C.

The Boche had started to fire, and was dropping shells on the road and near the gun position, but time was pressing. The Sergeant went back to the road and signaled to the drivers to bring up their gun. "With the men riding like jockeys, they fairly flew up the hill, dropped the gun, and got away again without a scratch. The Boche shells seemed to just miss them each time.

"We had about twenty minutes to get set before the infantry was to go over. The latter and the machine gunners were all dug in, some in front, and some just behind us. There were an awful lot of machine guns there, each of which, we were told, was to fire at the rate of a hundred rounds a minute for a while before the advance was to start. One of their officers advised us to lie flat on our bellies, as their bullets would pass about two feet above the ground. We got things ready and lay flat on the ground or in shell holes and waited. Lieutenant Richard was up in his tree.

"About quarter past eight the machine guns let loose, and what a racket! It would have been impossible for us to fire even if we bad been able to stand up, for no one could have heard the commands. Some of the bullets clipped leaves from the tree where the Lieutenant was sitting.

"The machine guns had just finished their barrage when I heard a voice cry out, 'On your feet; load rifles; fix bayonets; gas masks; keep cool and give 'em hell!' Where they all came from I don't know, but here were the infantry, going over the top. Such a sight! The expression on their faces I can never forget it! The big and small guns were all ablaze by this time and the shells were flying over our heads. The attack was on.

"As soon as the doughboys had passed, we jumped to our feet and got into the party ourselves. Telephone communication had become impossible, owing to the fact that the wires were being continually cut by shells. Every time the linemen went out they found three or four breaks. Our orders were therefore brought by a runner: 'Open up on any suitable target. Lieutenant Richard picked out a party of Boche near St. Juvin, and we blazed at them. We had fired just four shots when the Hun spotted us the flash of our guns had given us away. We managed to get off three more under terrific shell fire, but then it became too hot."

Lieutenant Richard was about to move his piece to a healthier position when the enemy guns shifted their fire to another target, and he decided to try again. After a half a dozen shots had been fired, however, there poured in a rain of high explosive and gas, and the men were ordered to take shelter.

A change of position was imperative if the piece was to do any effective work. Accordingly, during the next lull, the drivers and cannoneers, led with great coolness and skill by Corporal McDonough, dashed up to the gun with the horses in record breaking time, and limbered the gun. Then, while the cannoneers scooted on foot, the drivers lashed their horses into a gallop, and away they went, bumping and lurching over rocks and holes, across a railroad track, and into a sheltered place behind the crest of the hill. The Boche saw them going and opened fire. Gas shells which necessitated the putting on of masks complicated the move, and two men, Privates Tansey and Johnson, were wounded; but the crew got the gun safely to its new position, and during the rest of the attack they fired without further accident. They had the satisfaction of knowing that they were repaying the Boche for all the trouble he had given them, for the observers, watching the bursts of their shells, saw them working havoc in the German lines.

The whole attack, in which this forward piece had a small but interesting part, was a splendid success. St. Juvin was captured, and with it a considerable number of prisoners, and the entire front of the First Corps was advanced as the Germans were compelled to fall back to new positions in the rear.

Meantime Colonel McCleave, taking with him a minimum number of officers and men on account of the danger, had advanced his P. C. to La Besogne. There both the regimental headquarters and the batteries were subjected to considerable heavy shelling, in which several men were wounded and a number of horses killed. Some of the infantry of the 78th Division, who were moving in to relieve the 77th, were in the same ravine with our battery kitchens and horse lines, and they suffered heavy casualties. The First Battalion, in their positions at La Malassise Farm, did a great deal of firing, but came out practically unscathed. Our main echelon, near Lanqon, was subjected to some annoying enfilade fire oil several occasions, but no real damage was done. All things considered, the 304th was remarkably fortunate throughout this whole Argonne drive.

The news that our division was to be relieved was received with enthusiasm by a weary lot of soldiers. Tired as they were, our men knew that the infantry had suffered far more heavily in their steady advance through what General Pershing in his official report has called "the almost impenetrable and strongly held Argonne Forest," and they were as glad for the doughboys' sakes as for their own that relief was in sight. The Division Commander had not asked for it: be preferred to leave that decision to the higher command, who knew the circumstances and should be able to judge when our services could be spared. Nevertheless, both officers and men were glad when, on the nights of the 14th and 15th, the infantry of the 78th Division took over the lines held by our 153rd and 154th Brigades respectively. Our own guns remained in position until the change was effected, and then, one by one as their places were taken by fresh troops, our batteries moved out. By the afternoon of the 16th the last organization to leave the front lines was on its way to the rear for a rest, a bath, a change of clothes and a new lease on life.


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