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Chapter 8 Across the Vesle


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


CHAPTER VIII

ACROSS THE VESLE: VAUXCERE


All this time the 153rd Infantry Brigade, which we were supporting, had been trying to cross the river and obtain a foothold in Bazoches. Every attempt had failed, because of the superior position of the German forces and the extreme skill with which they used their artillery and machine guns. It became evident that no frontal attack either in the 77th Division's sector or in that of the 28th on our right could succeed. Our only hope for an advance was that continued pressure by General Mangin's French army on our left around Soissons would force a retirement all along the line. Every day we could hear the French guns thundering, sometimes in terrific barrages which lasted for hours, and little by little news began to reach us that they were slowly forcing the Germans back.

Toward the end of August it became apparent that the Huns would be obliged to straighten their front and that retirement across the Vesle was imminent. General Alexander, in command of our division, began preparations for taking his troops forward. Vigilance in every observation post was doubled, and although actual troop movements were never seen until the very last day, great fires were visible behind the German lines, and we knew that the enemy was preparing to withdraw.

On September 4th came the order to advance, and the next evening our regiment, following a course parallel to the 305th on our right, moved forward over the hill and down into the valley of the Vesle.

There was a thrill of excitement about the fact that we were now actually in pursuit of the retreating enemy, but there proved to be little romance about it. It meant the laborious work of breaking camp, packing and moving the wagons, bringing horses and limbers out to the firing batteries and hauling the guns from their emplacements, and finally, f or most of the men, trudging along an uphill road under full packs in a drizzling rain.

The Germans had destroyed the bridges across the river, and while the infantry got over on a hastily constructed footbridge, the artillery had to wait for the engineers to build something a little more substantial. Accordingly we halted south of St. Thibault, and after considerable stumbling and crashing about in the pitch dark in a wood which no one had had a chance to reconnoiter, the horses were tied up and the men stretched themselves on the ground for a little sleep.

Next morning, while the engineers were laboring with the bridge and the road, we got a glimpse of what our infantry had been experiencing. St. Thibault was in ruins, and in among the debris of fallen buildings were the dugouts and shelters where the doughboys bad lived.

The road leading into the town was in full view of what had been the enemy positions on the hills across the river.

There were open spaces in the streets on which Boche machine guns had played a murderous rain of bullets every time a soldier had showed himself. In the field that sloped down from the village to the river lay a great many American dead, killed in some of the early attacks. They had lain in No-Man's-Land for several weeks, because no one had been able to reach them.

At length the bridge was finished, and we crossed over to Bazoches. There we had an opportunity to observe some of the results of our own fire. The town was reduced to a heap of crumbled stone, largely by the powerful shells from the howitzers of our neighbors, the 306th F. A. On the hill be-hind the town were innumerable machine gun nests. These had been our special targets, and there was a grim satisfaction in seeing how the ground around them was pockmarked with shell holes. In one abandoned nest sprawled four dead Huns: a silent testimony to the accurate shooting of one of our guns.

Meanwhile the Germans, closely followed by our infantry, had covered the ground between the Vesle and the Aisne, and, leaving a thin line of resistance along the bank of the latter river, had taken tip strong defensive positions on the high hills beyond where lies the famous Chemin des Dames. (The French had lost hundreds of thousands of men in this same spot in 1915.) With their artillery mounted on the almost impregnable height, the Boche now controlled the whole valley below them.

The American infantry advanced to the forward slope of the hill south of the river, facing the enemy, and the artillery's task was to go into position on the rear slope whence their fire could be directed over the heads of the infantry to the German lines along the Aisne and on the hills beyond.

Once more the enemy had us at a disadvantage, for he was fighting a defensive battle from carefully prepared positions, while we were attempting offensive warfare in territory of which he, having just moved out, knew every inch of the ground, and would be able in a short time to locate our every battery.

As we moved forward through Bazoches, the regimental headquarters and the First battalion swung to the left and reached Vauxcere, while the Second Battalion took the right hand road to Perles. These two villages lay on a plateau which had no woods and hardly any trees where guns could be hid. Little hollows in the open fields, and some old German gun pits (which faced the wrong way, of course) were the only positions at first available. Captain Lyman did manage to find a grove for Battery A, considerably to the rear, but far enough advanced to enable him to fire effectively. Captain Doyle and Captain Bacon took their batteries right to the crest of the hill, with no cover except camouflage nets which were spread over the hastily dug gun pits. D and E went into what had been German emplacements, the former in a sunken road, the latter in the side of a bank that was honeycombed with abandoned Boche dugouts. Major Devereux with his battalion headquarters and Captain Ewell with Battery F found a ravine just outside what was left of the village of Perles.

Vauxcere was built on a very steep slope, and just below the crest, on the side away from the Germans, were a number of caves. Into one of these General Briggs moved the regimental P. C. Outside the cave was a courtyard, and into the buildings which formed it went the kitchen and the clerks' office and a horse or two. Captain Doyle and Captain Bacon' also used caves, both as P. C.'s and as sleeping quarters for those cannoneers not actually on duty at the guns. Major Sanders moved into a house on the main street of the town. The place was full of troops. Besides our own, there was one battery of the 306th, their heavy guns perched on the hill immediately over our headquarters cave, so that, every time they fired the whole place rocked. Then there were infantry and engineers aplenty, not to mention General Wittenmeyer with his brigade headquarters.

The enemy soon discovered how populous the town was, and he systematically shelled it every afternoon. Those who were in caves could afford to laugh at the explosions they heard, but any one who happened to be on the streets or in one of the houses was likely to have a lively time of it. Major Sanders and his adjutant, Captain Perrin, in their first-floor rooms used to have tea about four o'clock each day, and invariably the shells began to fall just at tea time; but although the blinds often rattled and occasionally neighboring houses caved in, no shell ever succeeded in breaking up one of the Major's tea parties.

Not only the town, but the whole hill top was subjected to a deadly harassing fire every day. The night Battery C moved into position, just as the third gun had left the road and was being hauled around to the place prepared for it, a shell burst right beside the lead team. The driver, Owen Pierson, and both his horses were killed outright, while on the swing team, just behind, Private Gaughn was mortally wounded and both horses were killed. The wheel driver, Akvick by name, displayed remarkable courage and presence of mind. Although the shell which had played such havoc had struck right in front of him, and others were falling all about, he went to the aid of his fallen comrades, helped carry them to a trench where they could receive medical attention, unhitched the dead animals, moved the gun into position with the two horses that remained, and drove his limber back to the echelon.

Battery D, in their sunken road position, were soon located by the German artillery. One morning about dawn, when every one was asleep except three men on guard, Captain Mahon heard the familiar sound of incoming shells. He looked out of his dugout to make sure that his men were all under cover, and seeing no one about took it for granted that all were safe. Calling out that every one should lie low until the shelling was over, he went back into his dugout. A few minutes later, when the fire had ceased, Lieutenant Thomas came out and started along the road. Suddenly, from one of the little hollowed out places in the bank, covered over with corrugated iron, in which the men slept, he heard a cry for help. Darting to the place, he found the three guards, McDevitt, Lincoln, and Pessalano, buried under a mess of debris. They had all taken cover there when the shelling began, and a projectile had made a direct hit on the dugout. McDevitt alone was still alive. The other two were buried that day within a few yards of the spot where they had fallen, while the wounded man was sent away in an ambulance. He, too, died within a few hours after reaching the field hospital.

Battery F, in their ravine on the edge of Perles, were subjected to what most men are agreed is the most terrifying form of hostile fire, namely night bombing by airplanes. The machines can be heard very distinctly overhead, yet it is impossible in the darkness to tell where they are. One listens tensely to the Zzzz-Zzzz-Zzzz of the motor, and then suddenly the noise stops; the aviator is releasing his bombs. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! they fall in quick succession, and once again the motor resumes its Zzzz-Zzzz-Zzzz as the plane sails off.

On this particular night, Battery F was preparing to move into a new position, and the horses had been brought up and were being hitched to the pieces. A plane was heard in the sky, and all at once a brilliant flare of white light burst overhead and floated gently down across the ravine.

"Drivers, stand by your horses!" shouted Captain Ewell. "Everybody keep still! Don't move!"
It was an awful moment. 'Every man and horse stood out in bold relief, the men with their-faces upturned, the horses with their ears alert and eves staring. No one stirred. Then, as the flare died out the plane swooped down and crossed diagonally over the ravine, releasing as it passed a set of six bombs. With a deafening racket they burst, scattering fragments through the ravine, and startling the horses.

"Is anybody hurt?" called the Captain. No one answered; but presently, as he made his way to where the teams stood, he heard a groan, and stooping over, found Private Rosner with his arm badly shattered. It was a miracle that there were not more casualties.

While the firing batteries were having these harrowing experiences, some of the men at the rear were getting their share of excitement. "Life at the echelon" is a byword among those whose work takes them forward into the danger zone. The echelon must be near the source of supplies, and it is supposed to be free from danger-a place of comfort and ease. The following extracts from a cannoneer's diary show the attitude.

The writer had been having a strenuous time at the front: "Guard duty from midnight to 1 A. M. Up at 7 o'clock. Barrage from 7: 15 to 1 P. m. At mess time the Huns sent over several shells which clipped off two Battery E men and others from other organizations. Helped carry up Private Shannon, who was badly wounded."

Then comes a change: "Ordered back to echelon. After a difficult trip arrived there about ii P. M. Sergeant Dunphy treated us to stew, bread, coffee and prunes. This is the echelon life." Next day: "Washed socks and towels, good face wash and wrote letters till noon mess. Rest all P. m. and good sleep through a rainy night." Next day: "Up at six -pancakes for breakfast-5 packages Melachrinos-life of Riley -biscuits galore for supper."

This is how the cannoneers feel about the echelon; and yet the place is always within easy range of the enemy artillery, and it was this same Battery E echelon which was treated one morning to one of the severest shellings that the regiment has known.

A wagon had just driven in with a load of supplies and with mail from home. The mail clerk, George Seiber, was sorting the letters and a group of eager soldiers were standing about, when suddenly Pfzzz-Bang!-a shell crashed right in among them. Pfzzz-Bang~another, and another, and still they came. Seiber was killed outright. Seven others were wounded and had to be evacuated, three of whom-Grace, Stillinger and Ormstadt-afterwards died in hospital. As soon as there -was a pause, Sergeant Stine, who was in charge at the time, ordered the men to get ready to move at once; but first it was necessary to bury poor Seiber. The burial squad were interrupted time and again by shells before they could finish their work. There was not time to get the Chaplain, who was in Vauxcere, but Private Brown, who had a prayer book in his pocket, read some Scripture and a prayer when the grave was finished.

Emphasis has been placed on these shellings which the regiment received, because for a while to many men that seemed to be the principal part of our existence. General Briggs, in his speech to the Association, explained the reason:

"The Germans knew that they had strong positions here, and put some of their very best troops in front of us. They were Prussian divisions-well-known divisions that had been through the game, and they knew something about fighting. We were just a little bit new. At first they had us at a disadvantage. We never saw them, hardly. We heard them and felt them, but they knew how to take advantage of cover. It was like fighting in the dark. But it wasn't long before our men had learned the same game, and we gave them a little bit more than they had bargained for."

One day Lieutenant Boyd, of A Battery, who was representing our First Battalion as liaison officer with the 306th Infantry (for each battalion of artillery keeps an officer and several men on duty at all times with the infantry it is to support) telephoned to Major Sanders that two platoons of German artillery were giving the infantry a very uncomfortable time by systematic and accurate shellfire. Careful observation had given the exact location of the guns in question, as well as a house where operations. The battalion commander had a peculiarly satisfactory experience during a big attack on the morning of September fourteenth.

In the advance from the Vesle to the Aisne, the 153rd Brigade, which we were supporting, had pushed right up to the river itself. On their right the 154th Brigade, and the 28th Division which adjoined it, as well as the French division beyond, had met heavier resistance made possible by the nature of the terrain, and had been brought to a standstill some distance short of the Aisne. The result was that the troops directly in front of us were exposed to a flank attack and to dangerous enfilading fire from Boche artillery.

The higher command, therefore, ordered a general attack along the whole front in order to advance the entire line up to the river, and our regiment was ordered to shift the direction of its fire to the right, so that the 154th Brigade, supported by our guns as well as those of the 305th F. A., might attain its objective.

For several hours on the night of the 13th every battery was hard at work pouring a fire of preparation into the Ger-man positions, and then at the zero hour in the early morning, our guns, worked by tired but dogged cannoneers, began a rolling barrage that crept forward in front of the advancing infantry.

The hours wore on with no letup in the fire. The guns were so hot that more than one gunner, leaning over his piece between shots to adjust his sights, had his face scorched. The men could have cooked their dinner on the gun barrels.

Major Devereux, who had taken the precaution to run a direct telephone wire to the headquarters of the 308th Infantry of the 154th Brigade, became impatient and called up Colonel Prescott, who was in command, asking for any information he might have about the progress of the attack. The reply was not encouraging. The troops had not been able to keep pace with the advancing barrage, and were being subjected to a deadly flanking fire of artillery and machine guns which had, for the time being, blocked their entire progress.

"Can you suggest any change in my fire which would be more useful than this barrage?" asked Major Devereux.

"Just a minute, and I'll let you know," replied Colonel Prescott.

While the Colonel was investigating further, Major Devereux Was endeavoring to gain permission from his regimental commander to slacken his fire so as to save ammunition.

Presently the telephone ran. It was Colonel Prescott. It seemed that there was a column of German infantry approaching a crossroad on his flank, apparently massing for a counter attack. This might wreck the entire advance of the 154th Brigade, and Colonel Prescott would like to have the. Major open fire on the crossroad as soon as the Roche got there.

"Can you give me the coordinates?" asked Major Devereux. The exact location was given.
With Colonel Prescott still on the wire, the Major called up Captain Perin of Battery E and explained the situation. He wanted him with two guns to fire high explosive shells fitted with instantaneous fuses on that column of Boche infantry.

While Captain Perin was calculating his firing data, the telephone connection was extended to include the commander of the threatened infantry battalion, and he gave the information that the Germans were almost at the crossroads.

Just then Captain Perin's voice announced, "Ready to fire." "Fire!" ordered Major Devereux.
"Direction good-fifty meters over," came the infantry ma-jor's report a few moments later.
Another round was fired.
"A little too far to the right; range good," was the report.
"Left ten," said Captain Perin. "Fire!"
Again the two guns banged.
"One shot plumb on the crossroads, and the other very close!" came the excited observer's report.
With that, Captain Perin let loose a withering storm of shell that plastered the crossroads and wrought havoc with the troops as they came up.
"Good-that's great!" cried Colonel Prescott.

Then another voice broke in: "Who are all these people on this line?" It was General Wittenmeyer, and how he managed to get on the wire no one ever knew.
"Just wait a minute, General," said Colonel Prescott. "I have a pla-toon Of 75's from the 304th shooting up a road full of Boche. We are in the midst of the firing-,"
"Fine!" said the Gen-eral. "I'll get off the wire."

Then Colonel Prescott asked the Major to sweep northward along the road, and Captain Perin shifted his aim, drenched the whole region with a concentrated rain of fire until word came that no more was needed. The counterattack had been broken up before ever it began.

This incident is interesting, not only because of the work accomplished, but because it had furnished a rare opportunity for demonstrating to the infantry we supported the effectiveness of artillery when it is given exact information as to what is wanted and immediate reports as to what is being accomplished. Nothing is more satisfactory to the artilleryman, and nothing more encouraging to the infantryman, than to know that the enemy is actually being demolished, and that every shot is counting for victory.

To mention all the events in which our batteries took part would be tedious. Enough has been told to show something of what the regiment was doing, and to indicate what the men were going through. It was a terrible strain on them. They were working night and day. They were dirty, and there was no chance for a bath or for clean clothes. Above all, they were tired. The lack of sleep, the never ending labor, the continued nervous strain of being under fire,, had brought many of them to the point where they did not see how they could hold out for another day. "If we could only get some sleep!" was the remark heard at every battery position.

The officers were as tired as the men. They did not have so much manual labor, of course, but they had more responsibility, and just as little sleep. Night after night the regimental commander and his adjutant would be routed out by a message from the infantry, or from the brigade commander. Captain Kempner, in charge of operations, would have to get up and lay out the work for the battalions. The battalion and battery commanders would be called up and given new orders, and they in turn would have to rouse their weary cannoneers for more firing. Lieutenant Bruns' endurance was taxed to the limit trying to keep everybody supplied with shells and fuses. The runners were on the go with messages night and day. The telephone linemen were driven to distraction by the orders for new connections, and by the continual breaks in the wires caused by shellfire. To the battery drivers it seemed as though the guns were never allowed to stay in any one position f or more than a few hours, so often were they called upon to take out their horses for moving the pieces. The Supply Company men had to bring their wagons up every night across that bridge in Bazoches which the Germans were doing their best to destroy, and over roads which were targets for expert Boche artil-lerymen.

Moreover, General Briggs had now left the regiment, having been ordered to return to the United States to bring over a new brigade, and the lack of his presence was distinctly felt. He had been replaced by Lieutenant- Colonel McCleave, who, although he was an artillery officer of some years standing, had yet to win the confidence of the regiment. He was cool and deliberate, and we missed the eager interest in every detail to which we had been accustomed in our former commanding officer.

Other shifts among the officers had also taken place. Captain Ewell had gone to the Supply Company to replace Captain Garrett, who had been recalled for duty in the United States. Battery F was given a new commanding officer-Captain Eberstadt, who, up to this time, had been Captain Mahon's executive in D -Battery with the rank of first lieutenant. With him were assigned First Lieutenant Hunter, from Headquarters Company, who had just received his promotion, and Lieutenant Thomas, from D. Lieutenant Amy had gone from Battery A to Battery D. All these changes were necessary, but they involved a certain amount of readjustment and added to the general feeling of uncertainty.

In short there was a universal longing for relief. More than four weeks of strenuous labor under conditions that were far from ideal had told on the spirits of our inexperienced troops, and they felt that they had earned a rest.

At last the Longed-for day came. On September 14th, the very day of the attack just described, the order was received that we were to be relieved by an Italian division, and on the 15th, detachments of these troops began to move into the sector.

They were a queer lot! They had no telephones, no fire control instruments, no anything, except guns and ammunition; and they strolled in the most casual sort of way, as if they were engaged in a play war. We wondered how they would fare at the hands of the experienced troops across the river.

Night came, and the relief began.

Italian officers had installed themselves in our headquarters cave, and our guns and wagons were moving out onto the roads for the hazardous march to the rear. The men in the courtyard around the cave were packing up their belongings and the office equipment, when, to our consternation, the Germans began to shell the town.

Not content with raking the streets, they began to drop shell after shell right into our courtyard. One struck the door of what had been the clerks' office, and burst into the room, wrecking a typewriter and tearing some officers' bedding rolls to tatters. Another landed just outside the kitchen, and the cook, Peter Anastas, and Captain Kempner's orderly, Oscar Johnson, were both seriously wounded, (Johnson died afterward in a hospital). The cave, crowded with officers, both American and Italian, bustling about giving orders and attending to a hundred final details, while the two wounded men lay stretched on the floor waiting for an ambulance, and a third, slightly shell-shocked, sat staring blankly at the confusion about him, presented a scene which no one who was there will ever forget.


To add to our discomfiture, the Italian infantry had come into the town, and with an utter disregard for the precautions in which we had been so carefully trained, were massed in the streets, laughing and talking and lighting cigarettes with matches which flared up in the darkness, giving ample evidence of 'their presence to any aerial observers who might chance to be overhead, and blocking up the roads in front of our wagons.

Our route lay along the hilltop, through Perles, and then southward into the valley of the Vesle, not at Bazoches, where we had crossed before, but at Fismes. Every kilometer of the road was fraught with danger, and our convoys were intentionally broken up so as not to have too many troops in any place at once. Overhead we could hear the frightful scream of the high velocity Austrian shells (familiarly known as "whizz-bangs" on account of the noise they make and because the explosion follows so quickly on the sound of the shelf as it passes). Luckily there was no moon, and our movements were screened in a pall of thick darkness.

How the regiment ever got through unscratched no one knows. There were some narrow escapes. The head of the column was caught tinder fire at a crossroad where it had halted to make sure of the direction, and shell fragments whistled about. Some of the batteries reached Fistnes just as it was being shelled, and had to pass through the ghostly ruins of the town while walls were tumbling into the streets.

But no one was hurt, and as mile after mile was passed, the sounds of battle grew fainter and fainter, and gradually died out altogether; and at length, after an interminable march, the regiment drew into a wood near the village of Gussancourt. There, in the broad daylight of a Sunday morning, a tired lot of soldiers stretched themselves on the ground for the first peaceful repose they had enjoyed in nearly six weeks.
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