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Chapter 6 Headed For the Unknown


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


CHAPTER VI

HEADED FOR THE UNKNOWN

Toward the end of July came the word that we were presently to be shifted to a more active sector. There were rumors that our destination was to be Italy, where some American troops were already being sent, but every one hoped with all his heart that it might be our lot to go into the thick of the fighting in France or Flanders.

On the night of Thursday, August 1st, our positions were taken over by a French battalion which, worn out with terrific battles in the north, had been sent to Baccarat for a rest. The infantry was relieved by the 37th American Division, and we were glad to know that we were not again to be separated from them. The 77th Division bad begun to feel its unity, and although the different branches of the service had by no means perfected the art of cooperation, a certain esprit de corps was beginning to make itself felt, and we had no desire to have it interrupted.

On this occasion we had our first experience of taking the regiment on the road at night. Most of the batteries got out of their position without any mishap, but Battery A, just as the drivers were hitching the horses to the guns, was startled by the sudden grinding of a Klaxon: the gas alarm!
"Gas!" shouted the officers.

"Gas! gas!" yelled the men, as they struggled to get their masks on in the dark. Soon every one was masked. Then, "Put the masks on the horses!" ordered the Captain, and a wild scramble took place to get those queer smelling bags out of the cases which hung under the horses muzzles, and -to slip them over the animals' noses and fasten the straps. It was Bedlam let loose. Nobody could see in the dark through his mask, and they all stumbled over each other and over the guns and barked their shins and fell into the gun pits, until Captain Lyman, lifting his nose clip and sniffing the air, discovered that there was no gas at all!

"Gas masks may be removed," he cried, taking off his own, and presently order was restored and the guns were moved out in peace.

Battery A's little farce, however, was mild compared to the circus parade of that first night march. To begin with, the French artillery was moving in on the same road on which we were moving out. Our drivers had not yet learned to keep well to the right of the road, and the French are notorious for spreading themselves. One of our organizations would be held tip for a moment, causing a break in the line, and instantly a French column would butt in and get us all tangled up. Wagons, piled high with boxes and bundles, got pushed off the road into the ditch. Horses stepped over their traces. The seventy-five new stallions, which had been delivered to us two days before, squealed and pranced and backed all over the road, while the Frenchmen jabbered in their unknown tongue and our own drivers exhausted their vocabularies of profanity.

Colonel Briggs, as usual, was everywhere at once. Riding along the column he would see a traffic congestion, and would at once leap from his horse and dive into the midst of the turmoil. His quick eye would soon diagnose the cause of the trouble, and his mind and hand never lacked for a remedy, and presently the mess would untangle itself and the column would proceed. Once he had just straightened out one driver's difficulty and was about to mount his horse when another, a few paces farther back, not knowing who he was but only seeing that he was a friend in need, called out, "Hey, Buddie, come over and give me a hand, will you?"

At length, after two or three hours of unutterable confusion, we got through the town of Baccarat and started on our way. The men who had to travel on foot soon showed their lack of training in the gentle art of hiking. Tender feet began to blister, and unused leg muscles became tied up with cramps. All along the roadside men began to fall out and sit down. There was a ten minute rest after every fifty minutes of marching, and it was, of course, against orders to drop out without permission, but in the intense darkness it was impossible to keep track of everybody. The men, who believed that as members of a regiment of horse artillery they should either be mounted on wagons or on horseback, were shameless about it. They were tired, they were blistered, they were sore, and they didn't care who knew it! Eventually those who sat down joined in with other batteries as they came along, and some of them managed to beg rides on trucks or wagons, so that by the end of the hike the whole regiment was present.

But it was a weary night. Shortly after sunrise a very tired and discouraged crowd of soldiers dragged themselves into a wood, and, after putting the horses on picket lines, sank down to the ground without stopping to get out their blankets. By seven-thirty it had begun to rain, but few men had the energy to rouse themselves and put up shelter tents. They lay where they were, in the open, and let it rain.

There was another night of marching, in which the order and discipline were much better; but the hike was very exhausting and the hours dragged on interminably before there were any signs of the journey's end. Morning came at last, however as we passed through Bayon and pulled into a splendid wood whose clean open fields seemed just meant for tents. Moreover, there was a river nearby for watering the horses and f or bathing. The news that we were to stay for several days was received with gratitude, and from Saturday, August 3rd, until Tuesday, the men really enjoyed themselves. There was work to be done, of course, but there were also leisure hours, especially on Sunday, and we basked in the sun and bathed in the river, and lay around taking it easy. Sunday morning many of the men walked to a nearby village to attend church, while others went to the Chaplain's service in the woods; and on Sunday afternoon, to our astonishment, a truck drove in and deposited a load of American mail.

On Tuesday, August 6th, Colonel Briggs received orders to take his regiment to a place called Einvaux, where trains would be waiting to move the troops to their next destination. What that destination was he did not know: he was to start under sealed orders.

That night we marched some twelve kilometers to Einvaux and entrained. This was a very different operation from what it had been at Bonneau, for the men knew now how to put their horses and wagons into the cars. There was little or no confusion, in spite of the fact that the work had to be done in the dark. Quietly and steadily they went about their business, and train after train was loaded and sent forth on its mysterious way.

Where were we bound ? No one knew. One thing only was sure: with the present state of affairs at the front it was un-thinkable that our division, now fairly well schooled in the principles of warfare, should not be sent where fighting troops were needed.

As the first train bowled along through the country, one man got out his compass and set it on the seat beside him to discover what general direction we were taking. All day long the train rumbled toward the west-toward Chateau- Thierry and the region where the fighting was thickest-and soon after dark we came to a station called La Ferte Gaucher, situated on one of the tributaries of the Marne River. There we detrained, and, marching northwest, reached a group of villages in the neighborhood of Rebais. Some in billets and some in the fields, the batteries found their stopping places, and inasmuch as Colonel Brigs instructions did not carry him any farther, the regiment, with headquarters established at St. Leger, settled down and awaited developments.

While we were in that region a new officer came to take command of the 152nd Brigade. General Rees, who had commanded us for more than six months, had been relieved just before we left Baccarat, and in his place came Colonel Manus McCloskey. The latter had just led the 12th Field Artillery through the terrific fighting of the Allied counterattack at Chateau-Thierry, where, as part of the 2nd Division, it had done splendid work, and it was in recognition of his able services that he had now been given a brigade and was to be made a brigadier-general.

On Saturday, the 10th, there was a bustle of preparation throughout the regiment. The wagons were carefully repacked, the rolling stock was all examined and put into good shape, such horses as needed it were shod, and finally the tents were struck, and the packs rolled. About sundown the various units came out on the roads and the long column started on its momentous march toward-toward what? -

We were headed north, but just what that meant no one could fully grasp. We were coming to a jumping-off place where we must take a leap in the dark into something utterly unknown. There was a general feeling of curiosity and of sup-pressed elation. Big things lay ahead of us, and they loomed large in our imagination as we tried to compass with our minds the significance of this strange new venture.

By this time the men had learned how to march. The column moved evenly along the right-hand side of the road, and the gaps which had been so evident on the first night hike were far less frequent. The feet of the unmounted men had become toughened, and their packs were better rolled and better adjusted. The whole regiment was able now to be content with the ten minute halts for rest, and to travel a considerable distance without too great fatigue. It would hardly be true, however, to say that the men did not get tired. To start after one has been working all day, and ride a rough-gaited horse or drive a four-line team, or walk with a fifty-pound pack on one's back throughout the night, is quite enough to tire any normal man. The long waits which so often occur on the roads, when no one knows the reason for the delay nor how long it is to last, add an element of irritation which inevitably increases the drain on physical and nervous energy. It would seem as though the mounted men and drivers had by far the best of it, but when the end of the journey comes and the guns are parked and the wagons rolled into place, these men have to look after their horses and mules and put away the harness before ever they can think of attending to their own needs and comforts. As a matter of fact, though each man is tempted at times to envy some one else's lot, there is no one who does not have his full share of drudgery and labor, and there is no one who is not tired out when the night's work is done.

The first stage of our journey toward the great unknown brought us in the intense dark of a cloudy night to a forest road on which, shut in by overhanging trees, the blackness could almost be felt. Groping their way about, the men finally got their horses tied up, and without waiting to put up tents, threw their blankets on the ground and fell asleep.

Morning revealed the fact that we were in the grounds of a beautiful chateau on a hill overlooking the Marne River. Some of the officers had discovered the chateau the night before and had crept in and slept on sofas or on the soft carpets; but most people were lying in the tall wet grass which grew in abundance all about the place. It was Sunday, and aside from the necessary work, which must always be done, the day was spent as a day of rest. A warm August sun lured many to the river, where they took off their clothes and bathed and swam about. The 305th and 306th regiments were encamped near by, and the stream was fairly alive with men. One can imagine the relief it brought to tired and dirty bodies to plunge into the cool water and then come out and sit in the sun. A great many lay down under the trees that afternoon and slept until word was passed around, "Everybody up! Roll your packs; we start right after supper."

The march of the night of August 11th was one that we shall never forget. Pulling out of the chateau grounds, we moved along parallel to the river for a while, and then turned to the left and went straight for the historic town of Chateau -Thierry. As we made our way along a wide avenue flanked with handsome dwellings and beautiful shade trees, it was hard to realize that we were actually in the place where the French and Americans had hurled their first terrific counterattack across the -Marne. But as we got farther into the city itself we could begin to see, in the darkness, the scars of battle. There were houses which had been wrecked by shellfire; there was a general atmosphere of disorder; and there was a certain indefinable odor which we noticed there for the first time, and which came afterward to be associated in our minds with destruction and death.

Arrived at the center of the town, we found ourselves on the famous bank of the Marne. The old bridges had been destroyed, but a pontoon bridge had been constructed, and on this we crossed. Our progress through the city had been delayed by a freight train which cut in between batteries as the column was passing the railroad and stood for a half hour directly in the way. The result was that we were holding up the entire brigade on the road behind us, and Colonel Briggs was anxious to get over as fast as he could. He sat on his horse by the bridge head and urged every organization as it came along to make as great speed as possible. Some of the horses were frightened and balked, and one mule fell into the water, whence it took considerable time and trouble to extricate him. But at last the regiment had passed over, and leaving the town we started tip the hill on the northern bank.

As we reached the crest of the hill we looked to the north, and there, on the far horizon, was a continual play of what looked like heat lightning. We watched the flashes come and go, and gradually the significance of it dawned on us: we were looking toward the battle front, and the flashes were the flashes of guns and flares and rockets where at that very moment good American troops were struggling with the Boche for mastery of the hills beyond the Vesle !

Fascinated as we were by the sight, it was necessary to look sharp about us, for we were passing now over roads where recently the fighting had been intense, and there yawned beneath our feet shell holes and mine craters which must be coimpassed with great care by the guns and vehicles. Slowly we plodded on our way, through shattered villages and wasted fields which brought us from time to time that unmistakable odor of death. After toiling tip a long and difficult hill over the roughest of country roads, we came at last to a clump of woods where the order was given to park our guns and pitch camp for the rest of the night.

On waking up in the morning we found that we had been sleeping on a veritable battle field. In the thick underbrush about us were innumerable little pits, half covered with branches, where Boche machine guns had been planted to pour their deadly fire on the French and American troops as they advanced up the hill. One man found that the little mound of earth he had used for a pillow was a grave. Nearby was another grave with no mound whatever over it, and the feet of the corpse were sticking out of the ground. Everywhere scattered over the hillside were the things which the Germans in their retreat and the Americans in their pursuit had thrown away to lighten their burdens in the furious running fight, rifles and ammunition, blankets by the score, helmets, canteens, cartridge belts, and every conceivable object the riddance of which might make for freer, faster movements. It was a dismal place, and yet it had a morbid fascination for the men, and they spent hours rummaging through the woods ;and looking f or traces of the battle.

As we took the road about dusk that night we realized that we were coming close to the front, for in the gathering darkness the lightning in the sky to the north became more and more vivid, and we could from time to time hear the rumble of guns. Red flares blazed up and threw a lurid glow halfway across the heavens, and then died down again, leaving the sky black save for where that constant flicker of light showed where the battle was raging.

Late in the evening we began to pass a stream of troops coming back from the front. They were a part of the 4th Division, which was being relieved by the 77th after several weeks of terrific fighting through the Chateau-Thierry drive. First came a regiment of engineers, stumbling along over the shell-torn road, grumbling as they went. "I don't know what ailed them," writes an officer in his diary, "but I never heard such a lot of growlers. We all remarked it. Doubtless they were tired out. One man stopped right alongside my horse at a halt, leaned over and vomited. Then, in a matter-of-fact, disgusted way, he exclaimed, God-damned gas!' and went on his way."

After the engineers came the infantry. They cursed us softly from time to time for being in the way, and for being mounted while they had to travel on foot. They overlooked the fact that at least half of our men were plodding along with packs like themselves. Especially were they irritated by presence of a band.

"Look!" they cried, one after another, as they passed. "These guys have got their band with 'em. You won't need any bands up there, Buddie-you'll get all the music you want!"

But at our halts they stopped and chatted with the artillery, told them wondrous stories of their adventures with the Hun, and wished us joy. "Give 'em hell!" was the slogan all along the line. "Go to it! They'll need all the guns you've got to blast those damned Boches out of the hills across the river

Some time after midnight we passed through the skeleton -like runs of Sergy near Fere-en-Tardenois, which, as an important road center, had been one of the main objectives in the Allied drive. The streets were deserted save for an occasional M. P. on a corner, and the rattle of our wheels and the clatter of horses' hoofs on the pavement resounded with a mostly racket which contrasted sharply with the deep rumble of the distant cannon.

Bearing off to the east for a short distance, we turned sharply to the left and began a long, steady climb up into the Nesle Woods. Arrived at the top of the hill, the regiment halted while the foremost battery turned in from the road, bumped along under the trees for a while, and then unhitched their horses and prepared to camp. The other organizations followed in turn, and after considerable maneuvering- among the stumps and ditches and holes, we were all settled for a sleep.

We had hardly begun to doze when suddenly there was a terrific report, which sounded very close, and at the same time an enormous white flare burst over the edge of the woods and floated down among the trees. A dozen Klaxons screamed the ,gas alarm. Every one was up in an instant, and the cry of "Gas! gas!" could be heard on all sides. Fumbling in the dark we pulled out our masks and put them on, and then there was a rush for the picket lines to get the horses protected. Hardly had this been done when Major Sanders's voice was heard above the din, "Gas masks may be removed!" Some of the battery commanders, before repeating the order to their men, dispatched their gas sergeants to the Major's tent to find out what was up. "False alarm!" was the report. So we took off our masks and lay down again.

Within a few minutes there came again the rasping of a Klaxon, and immediately every guard in the camp began to sound the alarm once more. This too was found to be false. Major Sanders, who was in command that night in the absence of the Colonel, gave orders to the officer of the guard that no alarm was to be sounded without an express command from the gas officer, Lieutenant Keller.

But fear of this dreaded device of the Hun overcame even the Major's orders, and within an hour one of the guards,, hearing a gas alarm way down in the valley, thought it his duty to warn the camp first and get his authority afterward, and turning to the tree where his Klaxon was mounted, he seized the handle and ground away for dear life. By this time every one was exasperated, and yet no one was quite sure that it might not be a real alarm, so for the third time the whole camp was roused.

"Put that man under arrest!" shouted the Major. "Officer of the guard, arrest that man! There is no gas whatever in these woods!"

Then at length the alarms were at an end. The men lay down again, and this time they slept soundly until the sun was well up in the heaven.

When we looked about us in the morning, we found that we were near the edge of the woods on the crest of a hill. Be-low us in the valley lay the little village of Mareuil-en-Dole, through which ran the main road from Fere-en-Tardenois to Fismes. All about us among the trees were shallow trenches, which had been used by the infantry when the battle passed that way. Machine gun emplacements were also numerous, and there were a few rude shacks which had once been used by the Germans for officers quarters and as stables for their horses. The smell which we had noticed all along the way from the Marne was here overpowering. We had been nauseated by it the previous night when we moved in, and when day came the cause was not far to seek: within a few yards of us were a number of dead horses. Indeed, the whole countryside was littered with them, and although our men were immediately started on the happy task of giving them decent burial, the stench they made had permeated the ground and the air, and during our whole stay in the sector it was part and parcel of the atmosphere we breathed.

Along with the dead horses must be mentioned the flies. France is not noted f or its good sanitation even in peace times; and during the war towns and villages abounded in filth where flies throve and multiplied. Added to the swarms which came from such places were myriads breeding wherever troops had lived or battles had been fought, and in the Vesle sector they were so thick as to be almost unbearable. Even with the best of food, eating was never a pleasure. The worst little railroad restaurant in America is a paradise of cleanliness, so far as flies are concerned, compared with mess time in those woods. Not until night fell was there any peace; and even in the dark the slightest touch on the under side of the shelter tent brought down a buzzing shower of flies,

After our experience with the flare on the previous night, and with the sound of aerial bombs which had seemed so close at hand, we wondered whether we were not by this time nearly to the front. At first we were told that we should probably make one more move forward, but the following day the Colonel brought us word that, for the present, the Nesle Woods was to be our echelon, and that the batteries would go into position immediately. On August 15th, shortly after supper, 13 Battery's guns were on their way, and before the night was over, all the firing batteries had taken over the positions of their predecessors. The long expected day had arrived: at last we were on the real firing line!


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