10. We Relieve the Fourth Division


Chapter 10
We Relieve the Fourth Division



LATE in the afternoon the order to roll packs was issued and not long thereafter the companies were formed and stolidly the men awaited further orders. Company commanders faced their men and the seriousness of the move we were about to make could be read in the faces of those officers. Gone was the barrier of rank and it was just man to man. One captain I have in mind spoke substantially as follows: "Unsling equipment a minute, men, I want to talk to you. I have just returned from a tour of inspection, going over the positions we are about to take over and I can assure you that in this sector it is real war. Every outfit that ever went into the lines has had its losses and without doubt we will have ours. We are going up into what is really the river bottom in the valley of the Vesle River and the enemy occupies strong positions in the hills across the river, completely dominating the area. There is no system of trenches and it will be a case of every man digging a hole for himself and keeping down well concealed by daylight. Those of you who become careless or take chances will be pretty sure to be hit, so be sure to keep your heads down and we will come out in good shape. We will go up there and do our best. What do you say?"

The men were standing in tense, silence but when that question was put to them, there roared forth from those throats one lusty shout, "Let's go!"

Blanket rolls, guns, tripods and ammunition were loaded aboard trucks and in light marching order, the companies started forward across fields in column of twos to that Hell Hole of the Vesle, where we suffered the tortures of the damned. In the gray and purple haze as the daylight faded that eleventh day of August, 1918, we stumbled forward across that shell-torn countryside with the forms of lifeless men and horses to be seen on every hand. We finally swung into a road and were brought from a column of twos to single file with a five-pace interval between men. Off to one side in the woods, amid a shower of sparks and a deafening roar, a heavy artillery gun belched forth its deadly cargo. Little suspecting a gun so close at hand, there was a tendency to duck but an M. P. stationed in the road assured us that it was one of our own artillery batteries firing. As we proceeded, the interval between men was increased to ten paces, then fifteen, and later to twenty-five, so that in the darkness it was almost impossible to see the man ahead. A motorcycle courier sped by, shouting: "Gas ahead", and presently the shout of "Gas!" came back from the head of the column. Gas masks were adjusted and as we approached a crossroad the order was passed back to "Double time, they are shelling the road." The heat and dampness of our faces steamed up the eye-pieces of the masks as we ran blindly forward and it was with the greatest difficulty that we managed to keep to the road, to say nothing of being able to keep the masks on under those unbearable conditions. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, we slowed down to a walk and we heard those welcome words from somewhere ahead, "Gas masks may be removed."

On toward the front we trudged in the darkness, through Chery Chartreuve until at last a stop was made at La Press Farm. The trucks carrying our equipment had arrived and as it was impossible for a man to recognize his own pack, it was a case of grabbing any pack with the hope of getting the right one the next day.

La Press Farm was as near as motor trucks dared to venture to the line and as the place was likely to be shelled at any moment, we had to work fast to unload so as to be clear of the place as quickly as possible. Then, too, there were worn, weary, battle-scarred troops of the 4th Division waiting for us to come up. From La Press Farm up through Mont St. Martin and down that long, gradual slope to Ville-Savoye under full pack with guns, tripods and ammunition boring into us, were long, heart-breaking miles and no doubt are still vivid in the memories of the men of the old Battalion. There were the usual rest periods but after each rest it seemed harder to get started again. Falling in after one of the rests, one of the boys shook the fellow at his side, who it was thought had fallen asleep, but to the consternation of our man after closer inspection, he discovered that he had been shaking a dead German soldier. And so it went. We had become case-hardened, like our guns and death did not mean much to us in those days.

That long stretch of road winding so peacefully down from Mont St. Martin to Ville-Savoye was in plain view of the German lines. It was certain death to venture on it during the daytime and we were to learn more about it later on but at the time we were making our way toward the river the lines were remarkably quiet. Of course, the Germans were still sending up their blue star signal, which, for the want of a better name we came to call their "All's well Rockets." Occasionally the sharp, spiteful cracking of a German machinegun would be heard and in response the usual slow pump of a Chau Chau gun. At times some infantryman would let go with his rifle but in general, as will be recalled, things were decidedly quiet. We entered Ville-Savoye which had been pretty well riddled, in fact, was in ruins, and a halt was made to await orders. The street we were on ran toward the river and if Jerry had opened up, there would have been the worst imaginable slaughter, as troops lay all over the place resting from the arduous hike. However, it was just a case of "Where ignorance is bliss", and we continued to rest comfortably on the stones. The Germans had a gun trained up that street from the hill across the river and the following night it was almost continually swept by a hail of bullets. A number of the boys of the 305th Infantry were killed as they attempted to get water from a pump at the head of the street. Why the enemy did not fire on that street the first night has always been somewhat of a mystery. They knew every inch of the territory and as fast as bridges were constructed they were blown down.

We were now but a very short distance from the actual front line and as we started forward ' instructions were issued to pass back commands in whispers. I believe it was just C Company that entered the lines through Ville-Savoye and we will always remember that stretch of ground from the village to the railroad in the cut beyond the river. There was no shelling at that particular time but there was something about the blackness, the stillness and the damp, stale gas smell of the woods that took hold of one. To my mind a line that seems to describe it was contained in a short poem of about eight lines printed on a scrap of paper that I had picked up from the road some distance back. It had to do with a no-report patrol and while I do not remember it all, one line ran, "It's the silence and the night and the smell of the dead that shakes a man to his soul."

It wasn't always the noise of a bombardment that was unbearable but that tomb-like silence that would settle over the lines, especially at night. It created a feeling that something was about to break at any moment. At the end of the street in Ville-Savoye a water pipe had been broken by shelling and for several yards we plodded through the soft ooze. In my mind's eye, it seems, that I can almost see every step of the way with every now and then a warning passed back from ahead, "Shell-hole on the right," "Ditch on the left," and so on.

We carried on down a spur of railroad track on which there were standing two old freight cars and finally, deep in a patch of woods, amid an entangled mass of barbed wire, we stood on the bank of the Vesle River. It was not very wide at this point and we started across on two planks that reached from each bank to a barrel anchored in the middle of the stream. Due to the spring in the planks we went shoetop deep in the water at each step and when almost across the stream, Lockwood, who had been carrying the trail end of a tripod, slipped off the plank and stood up to his arm-pits in the river. Lieut. Duddy reached down from the bank and assisted in pulling him out.

So far as the machine-gunners were concerned there was excellent discipline with instructions obeyed to the letter, and they were making a very good job of slipping quietly into the line but before long the Infantrymen were coming across the planks and there was a good deal of confusion for a few minutes. They did not seem to realize how close they were to the enemy and as it was almost impossible to distinguish anybody in the darkness, they just sang out at the tops of their lungs, "Hey, 5th Squad! Hey, 2nd Platoon! Hey, 4th Squad!" or whatever it happened to be. Just plain dizzy, we called them, but they were a great bunch, just the same.

Duddy was just about ready to eat someone and so was Lieut. Ed Gorham, wherever he was at the moment. Duddy ripped out an oath and said: "Let's get out of this quickly, men, or we will all be shelled out of here."

We continued on through the woods, stepping over a dead Jerry who lay across our path. Some of us stumbled over him and at last we came out into an open space; that is, open country on our left but to our right there was a patch of woods, which shielded us from the German lines. We followed the edge of the woods for perhaps a hundred yards to where it abruptly ended and turning sharply to the right we started directly for the railroad cut about fifty yards dead ahead. Just short of the cut, about six feet, there was a good-sized shell hole in which we stopped, a couple at a time, to catch our breath before making a leap over that last remaining six feet to go slipping and sprawling down the loose sand of the embankment to the tracks, some thirty feet below. We crossed the tracks to the forward bank and were a welcome sight to the handful of men waiting for us. Some of us were sitting on the rails to rest and one of the 4th Divi-sion men told Duddy to get his men off the tracks into the holes in the embankment. We soon found the reason for that a few minutes later when there was a burst of German machine-gun fire down the track to our left and the bullets whistled by with that familiar Zip! Zip! Zing! We questioned the 4th Division men as to where the enemy was located but the answer was "Dunno, buddy, we just got in this far and we haven't had time to get patrols out. We figure though, that it's all machine guns out there about three hundred yards."

Duddy ordered the guns set up at battle sight and said he would have more information in the morning. There was just a bare handful left of the company we relieved. After a few moments more to settle a few details, one of the 4th men said, "All set, men? Let's go!" and with a shout of "Best o' luck", they sped across those tracks and up the embankment with equipment consisting only of a very light combat pack, gas masks and helmets. We ourselves, learned something about travelling light in due course. It did not take long to effect the relief, the 4th Division men wasting no time in getting out of that hole, and then-it was our job.
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