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Chapter 5 On the Lorraine Front


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


CHAPTER V

ON THE LORRAINE FRONT

While we were wondering where the brigade was to be sent, and whether, like the regiments which had preceded us in Camp de Souge, we should be kept around the base section for an extra month or two, the news somehow filtered in that we were to proceed direct to the front. It was with no little excitement, therefore, that we began to entrain at Bonneau on Tuesday, July 9th.

Now that we had our full equipment of guns, wagons, horses, mules, rolling kitchens and carts of all descriptions, it was necessary to split the regiment tip and give each battery a train to itself. On the first load went the regimental headquarters and the Headquarters and Supply Companies, while the batteries, beginning with D, followed on behind. When it came to getting the horses and mules into the box cars there was a circus. Some of the mules had to be blindfolded and led in circles, and then suddenly backed into the train. One group of stallions had kicked a hole through the side of their car before the train left the station. Captain Kempner worked for half an hour with a mare who had simply made up her mind that she was not going. Finally she landed in a heap on the floor of the car, on top of Sergeant Cote, who had her halter. At length, however, the first train was loaded and on its way, and the others followed in order during the next two days.

This journey was very different from the last. "We're traveling in comfort," says a letter written on the train. "There is no comparison between this and the trip from [Brest] to Bordeaux. For one thing they have the field kitchens mounted on flat cars' so that the cooks can prepare real meals and serve them hot. For another thing, having all the wagons and vehicles along makes more space -things and people aren't crowded together so. And then the men are more used to roughing it anyhow." The flat cars made splendid observation platforms, on which the troops rode for hours at a time, looking at the beautiful French landscapes and breathing deep the fresh summer air. "We have been climbing through hills, passing quaint villages, old mills with their wheels turning by beautiful ponds, one superb chateau with Maxfield Parish towers rising out of a wood, field after field of golden wheat, ready for harvest, often with scarlet poppies glowing in the midst of the grain. Flowers everywhere-golden-rod in full bloom!

And thistles and purple asters! Butter-cups and pink clovers and daisies! No -it's not New England. There's a farm house and a barn built wholly of gray stone with a mellow, red-tiled roof, and funny two-wheeled carts in the barnyard. It's Europe, after all! . . . It all seems so far removed from war., Here we are, rolling toward the front (trundling would be a better word f or the gait of these trains), and yet my imagination cannot see beyond this perfect peace of God's beautiful world. Yet, at the last station we passed a carload of German prisoners going the other way.

After two days' travel we found ourselves coming into French Lorraine. We had known vaguely that we were booked for that part of the front, and although we knew that it was not a very active sector there was a certain thrill in feeling that we were at last getting into a region where actual war conditions prevailed. As one of the men writes: "A spirit of eagerness and curiosity took possession of us all. It was so strange, so quiet. The very air seemed to be filled with impending excitement, but, as may have been expected, nothing extraordinary happened. About 8:30 P.M. we reached Luneville. The town was completely in darkness, and we were told that an air- raid occurred the previous evening. This all added to the suppressed excitement and every one was on his toes as we rumbled into the station."

There was but a short stop in Luneville, for the end of our journey was not there but in Baccarat, a town lying a few miles to the south, famous in times of peace for its glass industry.

The first train reached Baccarat on the morning of the 12th. Colonel Briggs and Lieutenant Martin, who had become acting Adjutant when Captain Sullivan was sent away to the Staff College, at once went out to look over the situation. The infantry of the 77th Division, whom we had not seen since they left us at Camp Upton, were already in the lines, and we heard that they had even then suffered some unpleasant casualties from gas and liquid fire. There had been very little active warfare in the sector since the early fall of 1914. At that time the Germans had found that their easiest access into French territory was through Belgium, and the French, giving up their long-cherished hope of reconquering German Lorraine by the sword, had been obliged to put their whole effort into stemming the tide of invasion in the north. Ever since then this particular part of the front had been used by both forces to train new troops for battle, and to give those who had been worn out by more strenuous work in other sectors a chance to rest without being actually out of the lines. Never-the-less the Germans had a way of keeping track of what troops were opposing them, and when they found a new American division on the ground, they tried all their tricks to harass and discomfit them.

Our infantry held a line which, roughly speaking, passed through St. Martin, Domevre and Ancerviller. The I53rd and I 54th Brigades had each one regiment in the front line and one in reserve. Our regiment was assigned to support the 153rd Brigade, whose commander, Brigadier-General Wittenmeyer, had his headquarters in the little village of Mierviller.

Thither Colonel Briggs went and, establishing himself in the town with Captain Kempner, who was to be the operations officer, Lieutenant Martin and Chaplain Howard, he conferred with the brigade commander and looked up the positions the batteries were to occupy.

The usual arrangement of an artillery regiment in the field is as follows: There is, first of all, an echelon (a French term meaning literally "step"), situated far enough in the rear to be near the source of supplies and as free as possible from the danger of shelling. There the horses and wagons are kept, and the various organizations maintain their offices and their principal base. There the Supply Company is located, and the food is brought each day and put in a large dump, whence it is distributed among the batteries. The post office and personnel office are there and any other part of the regiment which functions for the whole body but is not immediately necessary to the fighting units.

In advance of the echelon, at some central place where easy communication can be established with all parts of the regiment, are the regimental headquarters. Here the colonel and his adjutant have their office; here the operations officer receives the orders for battle and apportions to each unit the part it is to play; here the central telephone exchange is set up, and the sergeant-major, with his force of clerks and messengers, handles the general work of receiving, transmitting, sending and filing all orders which go in or out a task which later was performed by a "message center" detail.

The Headquarters Company is usually located somewhere near the regimental headquarters. They furnish the orderlies and runners, telephone operators, draftsmen, radio experts, and whatever special details may be called for. Each department of the work is under the supervision of a lieutenant.

Farther out toward the front, as near as possible to the gun positions, are the battalion P. C.'s, or posts of command. There the majors and their adjutants live and work. They have with them specially trained officers and men from the Headquarters Company who handle the telephones, wireless outfits, map drawings and the all-important messenger service. There is also a sergeant-major with each battalion who is, like the regimental sergeant-major, a sort of office executive. A first aid station under the charge of a surgeon is maintained in connection with each battalion headquarters, so that these organizations are quite independent and self-sufficient.

The battery positions are located in places, which afford good opportunities for firing both into the enemy's lines and also immediately in front of our own infantry lines. The latter fire is to protect the front trenches in case of an attack by the enemy.

But in addition to a good field of fire, the gun positions must have what is called defilade, that is, they must be so located that the enemy cannot see the flash or the smoke of the guns when they fire, The. moment a battery's location is definitely known to the enemy its usefulness is minimized, for both men and guns are liable to be wiped out by counter-battery fire. Positions are usually chosen, therefore, on the rear slope of a hill or in a gully, screened if possible by trees, and affording an easy place for the construction of trenches and dugouts. The latter are important to shelter the men: they are absolutely essential to furnish a comparatively safe place for the battery commander to work at his maps and firing data, and for the telephone operator to keep at his switchboard and maintain communications with the executive officer at the guns as well as with the battalion and regimental P. C.'s.

Out beyond the battery positions are the forward observation posts. These may be in a screened position on the forward slope of a hill, or up among the branches of a tree. Sometimes they may be in rear of the guns, but always they must be where the observation officer can see and report the effects of his battery's fire, or discover new targets f or the artillery to work upon.

All these various places are connected by telephone lines, which must be laid as soon as the regiment goes into position, and must be kept in working order every minute of the day and night at whatever cost.

The Medical Detachment maintains, as has been stated, a first aid station with each battalion, and in addition furnishes a first-aid enlisted man to each battery. Its headquarters are Wherever the regimental surgeon happens to live-sometimes at the echelon sometimes at regimental headquarters, often with the Headquarters Company.

This brief description of the usual layout of a regiment in the field will make clear a good many allusions as the story proceeds, for, save in the last great drive, where the rapidity of movement did not permit such elaborate preparations at each new position, the same general scheme was followed through-out all the fighting in which the 304th took part.

In placing his regiment in the Baccarat sector, Colonel Briggs put the echelon in a wood some distance back of Merviller. The regimental headquarters and the Headquarters Company were in the village itself, where the Colonel was in constant touch with the infantry brigade commander. Major Sanders with his First Battalion detail was established in Reherey, a little to the north, with Batteries A, B and C on the hill in front, some distance apart. Major Devereux took his battalion still farther north, and, placing his batteries near a road which ran parallel to the front lines, took up his headquarters in the village of Hablainville.

The first battery to move into position was D. Before the last of the regiment was detrained in Baccarat, Captain Mahon had received his orders, and on Saturday night, July 13th, his train of guns and caissons left the echelon and proceeded through Merviller and off to the left until they came to the position which had been selected. It was a splendid position, right in the very middle of a field of wheat. The guns were sunk in pits so that their muzzles barely protruded above the ground. There were communicating trenches and dugouts al-ready well started by the battery which had just been relieved, and the whole emplacement was covered with a single wire net into which had been entwined enough bits of green burlap to make it blend in with the wheat. From the road, only fort; meters away, no one would have guessed, unless well versed in detecting camouflage, that there was a battery anywhere near.

That first move out to the front, for each battery in turn, was a thrilling experience. From beyond the hills, whose outlines could barely be distinguished against the dark sky, there arose, in constant slow progression, a series of signal lights. Now and then a rocket would rush up into the sky and bursting would mingle its shining fragments with the stars. Occasionally a brilliant red or white flare would blaze out, illuminating the landscape, as the infantry, suspecting the presence of an enemy patrol in No- Man's-Land, sought to prevent a surprise. Here and there a chain of blue stars would rise majestically above the hills and then vanish into the darkness overhead. Rarely one could hear the boom of a gun or the distant popping of rifles. Just as one battery was coming into position there burst directly overhead a white flare, which lit up the scene as if a searchlight were being played upon it. The startled cannoneers and drivers thought that their end had come, and expected any minute to have a rain of shells descend upon them; but the flare died out and all was quiet as before, and the guns were placed without accident of any kind.

There was considerable excitement to know who was to fire the first shot. According to the agreement at Camp de Souge, that honor should have fallen to Battery C. But Colonel Briggs found that the 305th, who had arrived ahead of us, had already begun to register their guns, and so he decided that D Battery, which was the first to be ready, might just as well go ahead. Accordingly, on Sunday afternoon, July 14th, Captain Mahon went to his observation post, and, selecting a prominent landmark within the enemy's lines, calculated his firing data and telephoned his orders for laying the guns to Lieutenant Eberstadt, his battery executive. The first piece only was to fire, and the gun crew, under Sergeant Ruggiero, in a matter-of-fact way, but nevertheless with a little inward flurry, followed the directions given them and slammed the shell into the breech.

"Ready to fire," announced the section chief. Lieutenant Eberstadt repeated it to the telephone operator, and they waited. Presently from the dugout came the operator's voice: "Fire."
"Fire!" commanded the Lieutenant.

With a quick pull of the lanyard there was a loud report; the gun leaped- on its carriage as the "whee-you-whee-you-whee-you" of the departing shell sped over the hill. The 304th had fired its first shot of the war!

"What do you 'think you hit?" asked the Chaplain, who happened to be standing by.
"Don't know, sir," replied one of the men, "but I hope we hit the kaiser!"

If Battery D had the best position, -Battery E probably had the worst. They were right out in an open field with practically no screen of any kind except the brow of the hill .in front. Whoever had dug the emplacements had piled all the ,dirt in plain sight, and it was evident to any one passing along -let alone to the aerial observers who flew about each day, that there was a gun position there. Captain Perin said that his one hope was that the enemy, seeing so palpable an emplacement, would conclude that no one would be fool enough to put ,a battery in there! He at once had his men begin work on a new emplacement farther back on the edge of a wood, but it was not finished until just as the regiment was about to leave the sector.

However, the old one did very well, for there was little or no shelling. Two or three times some shots came over and struck fairly close to both E and F, but the only actual casualty we heard of was a cow, killed on the street in Hablainville that first Sunday morning. The infantry, who were constantly doing patrol duty, and who were called on to carry out and repel not a few raids, sustained some losses, but from their whole stay on the Baccarat front the artillery came out scathless.

Nevertheless the work was exceedingly profitable as a training for the regiment under real war conditions. The greatest precautions were observed, just as if we were on the most active front. No names of places or organizations were ever given over the telephone, nor any official titles used. Everyone had to learn to guard his language, and to express his meaning in such a way that an enemy, listening in, would be unable to understand the drift of the conversation.

Sometimes the camouflaged language was very amusing. Major Sanders one day was in Colonel Vidmer's headquarters, and was there told that a certain raid, which he was to have supported by fire from one of his batteries, bad been called off.

"I'll have to telephone Captain Bacon," he said. Then, as soon as he had got the connection, he proceeded, "Bacon? This is Sanders. You remember those securities you were to deliver this morning to underwrite that little deal we were going to put through? Well, the deal is called off. . . . How about what? The regular bond issue? Oh, yes, that holds good. And Bacon, I believe you still have a sum tied up in a safe deposit vault. Better get it out-that bank's not safe-invest it in that lumber company we were talking about this morning."

"What in the world are you talking about., asked the Colonel, as Major Sanders hung up the receiver.
"Why," replied the major, "I just told Captain Bacon that the raid for tonight was called off. He asked me if the normal barrage remained unchanged, and I told him it still held good. Then I told him to get an isolated gun out of an unsafe emplacement where he had it and put it in the woods!"

Camouflage discipline was very strictly enforced. Colonel Briggs was so pleased with D's position, on account of its good camouflage, that he had an aerial photograph taken to demonstrate how well a gun emplacement could be hidden from observation. To his astonishment, the photograph showed plainly, in front of what was known to be the position of each piece, a little fine line extending forward for a few meters. On examination, it was found that the men had once or twice gone out to the aiming-stakes to find out what was the trouble with the little electric bulbs, which are used in night firing. In those few trips, the men's feet had worn tiny paths in the wheat which would never be noticed by a passerby, but which were plainly revealed in the airplane's photograph. It was a good lesson, and the men were taught that they simply must not walk anywhere around the guns except in well-defined paths, which had been known, to exist-before. If ever a new path had to be made, it was continued on past the position, so as not to show, by suddenly coming to an end, that it led to a battery.

While we were not often fired upon, our batteries did a good deal of firing on the enemy. It was much like the work they had had at Camp de Souge, but there was the additional interesting feature that it was intended to inflict damage on some unseen foe. In one man's diary we find the following entry: "Last night we were roused out of bed for some harassing fire. We fired four rounds at 12:10 and again at 12:20, and finally at 12:55 Battery F cooperated. It was all very dramatic waiting in the stilly darkness for the word over the phone which would let loose the fire of death against some unknown enemy that we can't even see."

One night, when no one was expecting it, a terrific barrage burst loose from Battery B. Colonel Briggs could not find any one who had authorized the firing, and he made an investigation. Captain Doyle summoned a man who had been on guard, and who was reported to have seen a red rocket, which at that time was the prearranged signal for a barrage.

"Did you see a rocket last night about eight o'clock?" asked' the captain.
"I did, sor," replied the guard with a fine brogue.
"What color was it?"
"Well, sor, 'twere not white; an' 'twere not red-that is, not so red as the rear light av a train. 'Twere more rose!"
Further investigation proved that the guard was quite correct: a rose rocket had been sent off at that time-but it was a German rocket!

As far as real war went, our stay near Baccarat was not very exciting. The farms and villages were all inhabited, and while we tip-toed about and kept out of sight, the French peasants, both men and women, went placidly about their work in the fields, and hoed their potatoes or reaped their wheat right alongside our guns. But they were earning their livelihood: we were learning the game of war, and what we learned in those three weeks was to be of infinite use to us later on when we got to where the fighting was heavy and the danger great.

The most spectacular thing we saw was the airplane fights in the sky above us. Hun planes came over every day, and as soon as one appeared we would hear the booming of the French anti-aircraft guns trying to drive it away. Indeed that sound was usually the first warning we had that planes were overhead. Bloom-bloom-bloom-bloom! When it burst high in the air shrapnel had a peculiar sound which was unmistakable. Every one would run out to look-very foolishly and strictly against orders -and there in the sky could be seen a plane surrounded by an ever increasing number of little white clouds where the shrapnel had burst. Sometimes an Al-lied plane would give chase, and then it would be like watching some fascinating game. The two planes would swoop and dive, and there would be the rattle of machine guns as they pumped away at each other, and then one would suddenly dart off and disappear from sight.

In the middle of July the Germans began their last desperate drive toward Paris, and as the news reached us those first two or three days of their steady gains, we wondered whether, af-ter all, the Hun would not succeed in breaking through. We knew that he could not win the war even if he did break through, for American troops were pouring into the country and taking their places in the lines with constantly increasing force; and yet we feared for the Allied morale if Hindenburg should ever reach Paris.

Then came the news of the French and American counter-attack of the 18th. At Chateau-Thierry they had smashed the apex of the German salient, and on the sides toward Soissons and Rheims they were driving in like an immense pair of pincers threatening to cut off the Boche if he did not withdraw. Then came that tremendous thrust which hurled the Germans back, back, away from the Marne, away from Paris, and our men were wild with desire to get into the real game.


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