Chapter 10 The Argonne Drive

James M. Howard




Great operations like the one in which we were about to engage were planned, of course, by the supreme command of the Allied Armies. Each separate army was given its definite task in the general scheme, and each commander was responsible for working out the plan of attack for the various corps under him. The corps commanders in turn laid out the work for the divisions, and the division commanders planned in the minutest details just what each brigade had to accomplish. From the brigade headquarters the regiments received their orders, which stated the precise method and schedule of every move that was to be made for days in advance. Thus the whole battle was conducted in accordance with a vast and intricate scheme in which every officer in command of a unit knew exactly what was expected of him. The infantry had certain definite objectives which must be reached within the time prescribed, and beyond them second and third objectives, all of which must be taken according to schedule. The artillery's work, some of which was controlled by the corps commanders, and some, like our own, by the division of which the regiments were a part, was all related to what the infantry was to do

In this particular operation, the artillery was to prepare the way for the infantry, first by pouring a fire of preparation for several hours on specified targets, so as to harass and demoralize the enemy as much as possible, and then when the hour for attack arrived, by laying down a barrage in front of the infantry as they advanced and thus clearing the ground before them. Every conceivable detail, including the length, of time for each phase of the work, the kind of ammunition to be used and the number of rounds per minute for each gun, was all carefully worked out and given to the battery commanders a day or two beforehand. The only information lacking was the day on which the attack was to be launched, known as "D Day," and the hour at which it was to begin, called "H Hour." Shortly before the offensive was to be set: in motion, a message would be delivered to the regimental commanders giving them these two all important facts, which would be transmitted to the battalion and battery commanders in time for them to comply with the orders.

The 77th Division, for the Argonne drive, was assigned to the 1st Corps, under the command of Major-General (afterward Lieutenant- General) Hunter Liggett. There was at that time but one American army-the First-of which General Pershing himself took command. Our division occupied the extreme left of the American sector, and its lines extended from the western edge of the forest about two-thirds of the way across the Argonne. The eastern part was held by the 28th Division (Pennsylvania National Guard), who had already been our neighbors on the Aisne. Our task was to advance through the heart of the forest, clear the enemy out of his strong concrete defenses, and shove him out into the open ground at the north where the Aire River flowed through St. Juvin and Grand Pre. His troops were not very numerous, but, in addition to his heavy fortifications, he had the advantage of a series of thickly wooded ravines which offered admirable cover for machine guns, and he had interlaced the underbrush with a vast network of barbed wire. The initial attack was to be made across a veritable wilderness of shell holes, mine craters, abandoned trenches, wire entanglements and blasted trees -the No-Man's-Land of four years' position warfare-and against a series of trench fortifications which had been constantly improved year by year.

September 24th and 25th were busy days f or our regiment. The gun positions were prepared, arrangements
for ammunition supply were perfected, a liaison system was installed with runners and telephones for quick communication, and the firing data were' calculated and checked. Reconnaissance officers and non commissioned officers went forward, in French uniforms, to the front lines to locate observation posts. The most novel feature of the work was the preparation of the trees for felling in order to clear a field of fire for the guns. For two days the sound of saws and axes rang through the woods. Every tree which in any way obstructed the passage of shells was cut through so far that a few more strokes would bring it down. All along the ridge where the artillery was massed the splendid beeches which furnished such perfect concealment before the battle were to be demolished. They were like a drop curtain on a stage: the audience looks at the forest scene; then the stage is darkened for a moment, and when the lights are turned on the forest had disappeared, and the guns that have been hidden are revealed.

There was with the regiment a man who had never yet been in ac-tion at the front, Mr. Newberry, the regimental Y. M. C. A. secretary. He had joined us the day after we left the Vesle sector. An account he has written of his experiences at the beginning of this drive will help here to give a fresh and vivid picture of the events which took place. "It was my first battle," he writes. "For three nights my sleep had been broken by the creaking and grumbling of guns and caissons hauled up the long hill past the echelon had heard that there were hundreds-some said thousands-of cannon being placed in positions beyond us.

"On the afternoon of the 25th Chaplain Howard asked me if I wanted to go with him to the front. 'Bring along your money order book,' he suggested. 'The men always want to send their money home when they are going into action.'

"We walked through an autumn wood, calm and peaceful in the afternoon sun. Beside the road was a shrine and a little chapel which had been used by French troops, and we stepped inside for a few moments. Farther on was a graveyard behind stone walls, its garlands of artificial flowers old and broken. All was quiet. Even the road was deserted save for an occasional truck or wagon or a passing group of soldiers.

"It did not seem possible that battle was imminent in this great grove of beech and pine. The nets of camouflage that stretched across the road overhead (a device for preventing accurate observation of the highways by aviators) moved gently in the soft wind. Birds flitted through the trees or sang from the bushes.

"As we turned into the road that led up from La Chalade there was another and grimmer aspect before us. Here were the guns in position, French and American cannon of all sizes from 75's to siege guns. Almost hub to hub they stood among the trees, above and below the road. Their crews in khaki and horizon blue, an occasional group of red tufted French sailors to add variety, sat or lay about the guns or worked with ax and saw in the woods. . . .

"Arrived at the batteries of our Second Battalion, I exchanged receipts f or the money our men were anxious to place in less hazardous situation, and dusk had fallen before I realized it. The Chaplain, returning from a visit to the P. C., suggested that we spend the night at the guns and hear the battle's opening.

"The battle starts at dawn?' I asked. I had heard the rumor.
" 'H Hour is 5:30,' the Chaplain confided. 'The artillery begins at half-past two. We might be of use, he continued. 'There may be wounded.'

"I was willing if I would not be in the way, so together we walked on in the gathering darkness to the First Battalion, where, after a hasty supper in Captain Doyle's dugout, I was escorted to the first-aid station of the battalion, which was installed in the same dugout as Captain Lyman's P. C. The Chaplain, saying there was no need for us both to be in the one place, made his way back through the night to the Second Battalion.

"I felt woefully big, awkward and obstructionable in that little square hole in the earth. It was too small to cover its needs even without me. In one corner at a crude table under a window doublecurtained by a blanket was Captain Lyman with his executive, Lieutenant McVaugh. They were figur-ing and checking the data for the firing which was to be done in the morning. A telephone on the desk buzzed frequent irritating interruptions, which necessitated the intrusion of orderlies and runners through the curtained doorway of the cave and the further crowding of the room. I wondered how so tiny a place could possibly house a hospital.

"But the surgeon, Lieutenant Sams, was establishing one. In the farther corner, on a bunk, he had laid out his instruments and rolls of gauze and bandages, and the stretchers were leaned against the wall. Then he sat down on a blanket in his corner and began conversation. Lieutenant Sams was from Georgia and was a hunter, and we compared experiences in low voices that might not interfere with the Captain's calcula-tions or his executive's check.

Lieutenant Sams was young; so was Lieutenant McVaugh; but Captain Lyman seemed nothing but a boy. He called in his four section leaders to hand them the written orders for fire, One of these non-coms on whose shoulders so much responsibility was placed was apparently still in his teens, so I asked his age. 'Twenty-one' was the answer, 'older than any of these others.' It was not a reassurance as to wisdom or profound judgment, as I remarked to the Captain. The latter added his own age to my indictment-twenty-three! 'A young man's war.' So it has been called, and so I admitted it that night. We men of mature age and experience were too slow of decision and action-we must sit in the corner of the du-out and try to keep out of the way.

"The sound of shell fire, always in evidence at the front, became brisker and nearer. 'Incoming,' remarked McVaugh, reentering from above after a look outside.

"A moment later they were bursting over us. A peculiar odor began to creep in, and instinctively, even before the warning word Gas!' I was fumbling into my mask. It was adjusted and I had begun smothered breathing before the Klaxon outside confirmed the alarm. When I had cleared my eye holes and looked around every man was a glaring gargoyle. I would have smiled at the grotesque faces if I had not been afraid of losing my mouthpiece. Captain Lyman was leaning over his desk, his mask almost touching it, still calculating deflections and ranges. Lieutenant Sams, his helmet perched over his mask, was burning bits of paper close to the floor. McVaugh had gone out again, pulling the curtain carefully shut behind him. The runners stood against the wall and breathed slowly through the respirators.

"Captain Lyman lifted his mask and sniffed. Then he re-moved it. 'Safe enough now,' he said, and we cautiously lifted and sniffed. McVaugh breezed in. 'Nobody hurt,' he de-clared, and began the checking of the captain's data.

"I looked at my watch. It was twenty minutes past twelve. 'Crack! Crack! Crack!' Seemingly just outside our door three shells broke. Then a number more distant. I reached for my mask, but neither the captain nor his lieutenant glanced tip from their work. The Boche was sending them over in quantities now. Their crashing explosions sounded like a bombardment, and I was certain that our surprise plans had become known to the enemy and that he was anticipating our attack by a couple of hours. I expected a show of excitement, hurried orders brought and given, a certain tenseness of dramatic crisis, but Captain Lyman went on reading: 'Target number 3 -base deflection left fifteen, range two seven hundred, twelve rounds sweeping-- and McVaugh would reply, 'Check.'

"Again the Klaxon sounded and we held our breaths while we adjusted masks. On the tail of its mournful sound an orderly burst into the room. 'A shell in the gun pit, sir, and a man badly wounded, he reported. Captain Lyman and Lieutenant McVaugh hurried out while Lieutenant Sams, gas mask on, prepared for action.

"In a few moments the stretcher bearers brought in the form of Private Clarence Manthe, wounded so seriously that one glance told me the only issue. Captain Lyman knelt beside him and soothed him by words of well earned praise, while the surgeon worked to make the last hour of the lad less painful.

"There were other wounds now to be dressed and a gas case to be doctored. I sat beside Man the to ease his passing, pressing my canteen to his lips when the fever burned. You are going over, boy, I said softly. Is there a message I can take?"

"My mother-tell her I died like a soldier," he whispered.
"I voiced a prayer, the captain kneeling alongside, and Manthe closed his eves for the last sleep. A few minutes later I nodded to the surgeon. He felt for pulse and heart, then placed a tag with penciled date and hour upon the breast and drew a blanket over the dead.

"Sergeant Young had been wounded in the wrist by a shell fragment but insisted on going back to his gun. 'Stay here,', his captain ordered, and the sergeant could but obey. The wound seemed slight, but the surgeon saw that it was a dangerous one with the possibility-afterward an eventuality of serious complications; yet when, later in the day, I rode with the boy on the ambulance I was forced to use argument and finally diplomacy and coercion to make him go to a hospital.

"The gas case, Private Broderick, was apparently much more serious, for he was an extremely sick man with blinded eyes, a hacking cough and a nausea which was pitifully ineffectual of relief. But he improved rapidly under treatment and afterwards recovered quickly at the hospital. We all absorbed too much Boche gas that night. I picked up a cough which lasted me several months. There were weak and watery eyes for days afterwards."

While these things were taking place in A Battery, the other organizations were having a more peaceful time. Nowhere else was any one hit with incoming shells. The German fire was evidently laid down somewhat at random, the gunners aiming for the road without any exact knowledge of where the guns were located. At the Second Battalion the Chaplain paid a visit to the aid station which Lieutenant McCaleb had established in a deep dugout, and asked to be called if any wounded should be brought in. Then he went to the only place where there was room for him-the dugout shared by the three battery commanders and while the officers figured their data he went to sleep on Captain Perin's bunk.

About ten o'clock in the evening the order was given to fell the trees doomed to sacrifice. Details of men went out with axes to give the final blows. There was a grating, crunching sound, then a terrific crash, and the first great monarch of the forest plunged head foremost down the hill. From that moment on, the woods reechoed with the swishing and crashing of falling trees, until the roar was so great it seemed as if the enemy must hear it. Toward midnight the work was all but finished and the sound died down; and then for some time, save for the hit-or-miss shelling by the Germans, the quiet was unbroken.

About two o'clock there was a stir all along the ridge as the gun crews, alert for the hour for attack, busied themselves with their final preparations.

While our men were thus engaged, there began a rumble of guns far off to the left. Nearer and nearer it came, as bat-tery after battery all along the line received the command to fire. Then the heavy guns all about us burst forth with a roar that echoed down the ravines and rattled the doors and win-dows in the dugouts. The whole forest seemed to rock with the concussion, and the sky was ablaze with flashes of light. At their guns our cannoneers stood eagerly waiting, while the section chiefs, watch in hand, counted the minutes as the hands moved toward two-thirty. Then, at a nod from the section leader, each number two picked up a shell and shoved it into the breech of his gun. Number one closed the breech with a bang and took hold of the lanyard. There was a tense mo-ment of waiting. Then, 'Fire!' In an instant every gun in the regiment leaped on its carriage and sent its shell hurtling over the tops of the trees in the valley below. Now the whole mass of artillery was crashing forth its storm of destruction into the trenches and dugouts and ravines on the other side of No-Man's-Land. The roar of the guns, the tinkling of the empty shell cases as they were tossed aside, the voices of the officers and section chiefs as they gave their commands the whizz of the departing shells all mingled in one vast racket and confusion of noise that no pen can describe.

While the opening of the battle was dramatic enough for those who were actually at the guns, in the dugouts of the battalion and battery commanders the momentous hour came and passed almost unheeded. Mr. Newberry was disappointed. "I expected excitement and movement," he writes. "Certainly the Cap-

'We've silenced them!' I exulted.
"'More likely they've turned them all on the infantry," he
replied. 'They know by now that something big is coming.'

"I glanced at my watch: 5:20. 'Nearly time for the start," I said.

" 'The barrage begins in ten minutes. Come and see what has been done by our fire."

"We made our way through fallen trees to the brow of the hill to find that heavy smoke and fog in the valley made any observation impossible, and came back to the dugout. Captain Lyman, hatless and smiling, stood on the stairs breathing in the morning. 'Any view over there?' he asked. The lieutenant shook a negative.

"There had been no perceptible cessation in our fire, but now it increased in force and intensity. It was a monstrous kettle-drum with sticks in the hands of the god of war who rattled out noisy death.

"They'll go over now," yelled McVaugh above the roar.
" 'God help 'em!' answered the Captain. 'Let's get breakfast. "

While these officers refreshed themselves with bacon, bread and coffee, and others, tired out with their night's labors, lay down for a snatch of sleep, and the cannoneers, working in shifts, continued their toil, the infantry went over the top. There was no wild charge with flashing bayonets and yelling fighters. Out of their trenches they filed through the fog and had been captured lay several miles of unbroken forest where the Germans, now fully awake to the magnitude of the offensive, would undoubtedly reinforce and fortify themselves anew in their well prepared positions and settle down for a stiff resistance to any further advance.

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