MENU

The Meuse


HISTORY OF THE 305th Infantry
by
Frank Tiebout

Chapter 8

THE MEUSE


CHAPTER VIII

THE MEUSE

They didn't think we'd do it, but we did."

WE heard the boastful Argonne Players sing it in the woods at Camp de Bouzon, and remarked nastily that we'd rather have fought their kind of war. Or was it then too early for them to have composed and dedicated to General Robert Alexander that modest ditty? No doubt at all that "when Jerry fell in the Argonne Wood," both he and we " got merry Hell and got it doggone good!" We had gone the route, and now felt sure "the big town" that was never reached would finally materialize.

There was wide-open talk of an armistice. Everyone thought he had fought his last fight, that in the general order of things, before our depleted ranks could get into the line again, either the war would be over or the opposing armies would have dug in for the winter. It was growing too cold and wet for further operations; the men couldn't live through many more nights in the open. Even the daily drill in attack formation, the reception of replacements and the reorganization of combat "gangs," the incessant practice with grenades, with German " potato-mashers," with pistol, rifle and automatic and with captured German machine guns could not make all the clouds look a dark gray. The old Band was a-workin' overtime. The first leaves were authorized but. Nobody got 'em.

Although the French were of the opinion that the war was over as a result of the October campaigns, General Pershing rightly lowed as how the American Army was only just beginning to feel its oats. The French could call a halt if they wanted to; he was going on alone to knock the living daylights out o' Germany and really finish the job. And the Commander in Chief seemed to feel that the 77th Division ought to be in at the finish.

There was no bloodthirsty roar of eager approval when General Alexander massed the officers and non-coms below the rostrum at Bouzon. Though we would like to have posterity think us a bunch of fireeaters, with insatiable appetites for more and bigger conflagrations, we cannot truthfully deny that gloom was abroad. However, if the General wanted to "smash the hinges," the 77th Division and the Three Hundred and Fifth Infantry could still put weight behind its sledgehammer.

The sun shone beautifully on the 30th of October, making the overcoat seem a useless addition to the combat pack as the Regiment hiked north; but that was about the last good effort he put forth until the following spring. He gave up the fight, completely. The bulk of the Regiment lay quartered that night in Martincourt Farm, south of St. Juvin and the River Aire, daring the Boche to wipe them out completely with his artillery, which he could have done without batting an eye, but which he didn't. The Third Battalion, that morning, took over a line running northeast from St. Juvin to St. Georges, from units of the 78th and 82d Divisions. On the night of the 31st, the Second Battalion, again under Captain Eaton who had relinquished command just prior to the relief of the 16th, took over from the 78th Division the very positions turned over to them on the night of the 15th! That the lines had not been advanced was a blow, indeed.

Again, the breathless awaiting of the "zero" hour-five-thirty, this time -much as on the never-to-be-forgotten September 26th. Again, an earth-rocking barrage directed against the known points of enemy resistance. A colored engineer sweating on the roads behind St. Juvin found himself close beside the deafening roar of a heavy battery. He surely had pep and en-thusiasm; for every time one of the "big boys" shattered the night air with an ear-splitting roar he would leap off the ground, crack his heels together, nigger-fashion, and shout, "Whoopee! Whoopee! Misto Kaiser, COUNT YO' MEN! "

He certainly would have hated to be on the other end of that noise; yet it wasn't loud enough. For when the Division started just before daylight of the first, the Three Hundred and Fifth in the lead encountered a tremen-dously strong resistance, the Third Battalion on the right suffering about a hundred and thirty casualties from a cross fire directed upon them from positions in the neighboring sector east of the Ravin aux Pierres and from the Moulin Mohin on their front-the Second Battalion reduced to about half of its morning strength by a scorching fire, both shell and machine gun, poured down upon their heads from the high ground at Champigneulle. Late in the afternoon, Captain Eaton was severely wounded and his command next day passed to Captain Tiebout. The enemy trenches to the south of this town continued to be strongly held until morning.

Yet, by three o'clock that first afternoon, the Third Battalion had gained its designated "intermediate" objective and withstood successfully between that hour and five P. M. three massed counter attacks, which they tell us were thrilling enough. That only the intermediate objective of the first day's attack was reached may be fairly laid to the fact that our Regiment had to advance along the main north and south road and, as was natural, that the enemy had put there his strongest resistance.

But with the daylight of November 2d, it was found that the bird had flown. For a couple of hours, the advance was held up while our cannon playfully threw into Champigneulle all their surplus ammunition left over from the day before-the time when it had been really needed. Only here and there was found and potted a hapless Boche who hadn't been able to sprint fast enough on the way through Verpel to Thenorgues where the Regiment dug a defensive position in a pouring rain -not so much facing the north as the west; for the 78th was far in the rear, leaving our flank exposed. There, however, G Company would have had their first hot coffee had not some poor, witless, bone-headed boob tipped over the marmite can! Oooh! He was popular.

Yet one need really never despair, either in camp or on the battlefield, when men say, " When do we eat? " for it is quasi-humorous and really means, " We'd be tremendously happy boys if the chow were to be handed out this minute." Even when men are desperately hungry, it betrays a persistent good humor, patience, vitality and a tenacity of purpose. It is so with the struggling infantryman pushing on through the forest in the face of enemy machineguns or, when hastily digging a funk hole, weathering shell fire, cursing the rain and the mud or bailing out a trench. It is so with the weary doughboy coming back from a relief, or with the machine gunner bent beneath the ungodly weight of a tripod, stumbling over a drunken duck-board, groping for his file leader in the ap-palling darkness, slipping and sliding on narrow forest paths. It is so when he falls at last comparatively safe into a ravine, though the first of his four days of promised rest has been consumed in marching from the lines to the back areas through almost impassable mud; though the second day of the "rest " be spoiled by having to move in the rain from Camp de Bouzon over the hills to Camp Sachsenhain; though the third day be ruined by having to tramp-again in the rain and overwhelming mud-clear back to Varennes for a questionably efficient bath; though the socks so lovingly put together by the Auxiliary are slow in arriving, and the letters from home are not promptly delivered. Just at the point where a Bolshevik might lay down his arms and refuse to play any more a crisis is averted by the simple words, "Hey, when do we eat?"

The foot race was resumed, the other Brigade leading the way through Buzancy, Bar and Harricourt. The towns flew by so fast that the panting doughboys howled for rest, stopping not even long enough really to enjoy a chunk of bully beef and half a succulent cabbage snatched in passing from the Franco-German war gardens. Ever test the refreshing effects of raw cabbage leaf? Nibble a piece of it while hastening to the office some morning; see if it doesn't quench your thirst, your thought, your ardor and everything else.

Headquarters group of 2n Bn., 305th Inf., leaving Thenorgues, morning of November 3, 1918 advancing toward Buzancy, which can be faintly discerned in the background


"Alexander's Rag-Time Band" was on its last legs. The rapid advance over rough ground was little more than a route-march in attack formation, with little food, little rest and spasmodic bursts of intense shell fire. A touch of gas flung over the first day was gradually claiming its victims; men were dropping from sheer exhaustion, bronchitis and disappointment. Units had great difficulty in keeping contact, while runners cursed the day they were born, and signal men romped all over the place in an effort to tie up the various elements fore and aft with wire. Colonel Lewis Morey, who prior to the attack had taken over command of the Regiment when our good old Colonel Smedberg was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General, was generally with the front line troops, making his P. C. in a shell hole, a battered house or his motor car-switching the lights on momentarily, perhaps, by which to read a map, then opening the throttle wide to escape the sudden flock of shells seeking to perch on the tip of the radiator.

In Fontenoy and St. Pierremont, there was time for a breathing spell, while the 154th Brigade took up the forward line-though men of the Second Battalion, who huddled into a tremendous railroad cut through which the 308th Infantry passed in single file all during the day of the 4th, will tell you that the shelling which enemy observers of the movement directed into their snug retreat was no joke. They buried good comrades there, and wondered how shells could land upon the very rails and not kill off all the men who flopped in the adjacent ditches.

More shelling overtook the long columns of the Third and Second Battalions as they snaked northward, all day long, in single file through the Bois de St. Pierremont, past La Polka farm, where a number lie buried who fell when a dozen "H. E.'s" scored direct hits. It was as black pitch and raining cats and dogs when they emerged upon the east and west road near Le Cendriere Farm and dug into the sodden road bank for the most miserable night of their lives.

Dig in! The rifle was many times on the point of being discarded in favor of an extra shovel. If New York ever wants to build another subway, the Three Hundred and Fifth can furnish enough expert excavators to finish the job in a week or so. A word of advice to those who visit a friend in the suburbs over a weekend: master the habit of months spent under the magic spell of pick and shovel. Don't be found in your evening clothes digging a funk hole on the front lawn; use the bed your host provides. When his little boy touches off a firecracker under your chair, don't yell "Down," and flop on the floor. When upon the links, don't point out a good position for the night in the lee of some bunker. On the other hand, if the ordinary comforts of home begin to lose their charm, select some nice rainy afternoon for the resurrection of your old haversack from the cellar. If you haven't the haversack, strap a bag of meal upon your shoulders; take an old shot gun, a bag of rocks,, a can of salmon, an empty flask, a crazy quilt and no umbrella; walk ten miles out into the country; dig a grave, lie down in it and try to fall asleep before it fills to the rim with water. If by morning you haven't shivered yourself into a state of thanksgiving for the blessings of peace, stay there. You won't deserve even the old brass bed and the cracked water pitcher in the little hall room.

Chaplain Johnson paints a vivid picture of that night at Le Cendriere:
"In the first arduous laps of the march, a sturdy private produced a burlap bag out of which he rolled three two-pound cans of beef, a like number of jam, two cans of sardines, some condensed milk, considerable prunes-and was almost murdered for his great wealth. He invariably staggered under such a load of food that the observant eye was confounded. Thanks to him and his peculiarities many weary, hungry men had often tasted food when they could reasonably have expected none-and this happened with a frequency which begot expectancy.

" To the superficial observer, this bounty should seem to have depleted his store but to one knowing him, it was plain, on close inspection, that in addition to the complete equipment of the soldier, there hung from one shoulder a sack tied in the middle with bulging ends; from the other a two-quart German can; and through the tight lacings of his haversack peeped a bright can or two.

" The day was well nigh spent and wrapped in drizzling rain. The trail was narrow, slippery and interminable in its windings. Angry tree trunks seemed unrelenting in their opposition; saplings struck out in smart revenge for one's brushing them. Felled trees must be scrambled over in the trying darkness which came on quickly. But the weary column struggled through the wretched way, finally emerging upon an open road. In a veritable down-pour the troops dug meagre protection from the incessant shelling, in the sodden banks.

" Near the lines of weary, wet men, who lay on the roadside for the night, were a few farm buildings. A long, narrow cow stable squeezed between two dwellings was filled with wounded men who had been there all day without succor. In another building lay more wounded, hungry and suffering. The farm was in total darkness except for one small room crowded with men and officers, some of whom were lying asleep, others standing or sitting as best they could, a few bending over the tattered battle maps upon a table.

" Suddenly there spread through every building in the place the words, 'There's Ratti!' bringing new life and cheer. That old burlap bag and the German two-quart can furnished every wounded soldier a mess of steaming rice and all the coffee he wanted. Everyone had something out of it."

By some miracle of mules and persuasion the cookers had come up over badly mined and muddy roads to a point behind La Besace, to which point some were fortunate enough to be allowed to repair at dawn-in the unceasing downpour. Then through La Besace which was a sea of mud, there finding the liberated civilians grouped ecstatically in the streets, the Third Battalion followed by the rest of the Regiment took up the advance again and plunged sharply eastward into dense woods, in the direction of the Meuse. On the 6th their advance was continued, now supported by the First Battalion which had been under command of Major Frank Sloane since the 1st. Would the Boche never make a stand? Even a fight would have saved us that everlasting hike! The Commander of the First Army Corps evidently appreciated the rapidity of the advance:

HEADQUARTERS 77TH DIVISION
American E. F.
6th November, 1918. General Orders No. 36.
1. The following is published for the information of this Command:
"964/G3 HEADQUARTERS 1ST ARMY CORPS
Nov. 6, 1918. "From: C. G. I st Army Corps, U. S. To: C. G. 77th Division, U. S. Subject: Commendation.
"1. The following telegram just received from the Commanding General, 1st Army, is repeated for your information.
WIDEWING, Nov. 5-6,
Commanding General, 1st Corps.
"Number 238, see G. S. The army commander desires that you be informed of his full appreciation of the excellent work done by your corps during the last three days. He realizes fully the special efforts exerted and spirit that has prompted the troops of your command during these operations. The rapidity of the advance notwithstanding hostile opposition has been remarkable and prevented the enemy from reorganizing. The result has been to force the enemy back on his whole front. The army commander desires that you transmit his congratulations and appreciations to the troops of your command for this work.-DRUM."

" 2. To the foregoing the Corps Commander desires to record his warm congratulations and appreciation of the work done by the divisions of the Corps.

"3. He desires that the foregoing commendation be communicated to all concerned, including especially the engineers, signalmen, supply and laborer troops, without whose splendid efforts the results obtained could not have been accomplished.
By command of Major Gcneral Dickman,
MALIN CRAIG,
Chief of Staff."

2. In publishing the above high commendation for the work done by the officers and men of the 1st Army Corps, I wish to express my personal gratitude for the untiring and successful efforts made by all officers and men of this Division, especially since this Division alone remains in the line of those present at the beginning of the general operation November 1st. In the face of the greatest difficulties caused by continuous rains, enemy demoli-tions, and active resistance, this Division has pushed forward magnificently, overcoming all obstacles met in our advance. It is no exaggeration to say that this Division has taken more ground and material from the enemy since September 26th than any other Division in the American Army, and probably more than any other Division in any allied Army in this period. Without the most strenuous exertions and the most loyal cooperations on the part of the entire Division-officers and men-the results secured would have been impossible.

3. 1 desire especially to commend the conduct of the attached units, viz.: 12th Aero Squadron; 2d Balloon Company, Co. G, 53d Pioneers; and the 506th S. S. U. Section.
ROBERT ALEXANDER,
Major-General Commanding.

It was expected that troops of the Third Battalion could do no more by the night of the 6th than to occupy the heights west of the Meuse, sending patrols through Autrecourt and to the river. But the entire L Company, willing to undertake 'most anything in their quest of food, was joyously received by the inhabitants of Autrecourt that night, and it may have been due to its great capacities that these civilians had to be rationed immediately after the 11th by the Americans. K Company sent a platoon into Mouzen and to Villers-devant-Mouzon.

The remainder of the Regiment pulled into the former town, footsore and weary on the afternoon of the 7th, expecting to go on, for so read the orders. Engineers at Villers were having the Devil's own time erecting a bridge, under machine gun fire and shelling of ever-increasing intensity, to oppose which, K Company sent two platoons across, holding them there until nightfall. The First Battalion was rushed to the scene to cover the building operations, while other elements scouted the towns for raft and bridge building materials.

Villers became a hell-hole, with its constant shelling, the deadly machine gun fire and its blood. Yet A Company, all its officers lost and its ranks sadly depleted, succeeded in getting two platoons across, relieved the tired troops of K and routed out enemy guns, suffering terribly the while. On the next day it was considered a needless sacrifice to hold this bridge head, the troops being withdrawn-some to the heights and others into shelter in the towns, where only occasional shelling took place as though forbidden by some previous arrangement with the inhabitants, and where there was food.

The night of the 9th found troops of the Second Battalion struggling through the woods far to the left, taking over positions of the 307th, the First maintaining its occupancy of the right front. For the Division was extending its front to the north and west to a point almost within sight of Sedan. There were rumors of relief-there had been, constantly; it was certainly due.

There would have been gnashing of teeth could the plodding doughboys, then almost ready to weep from exhaustion and exposure, have known that an order was already started on its way (fortunately killed) for the 77th to take over the positions on the extreme left where the 42d had in the last few days relieved the 78th. As it was, they had to go through the formality of maintaining a strong outpost line, patrolling the wide front, though their eyes had taken on a stupid stare. " Stay with it, boys. The rations will be coming along in quantity soon. But in the meantime, feed on this, drawing whatever consolation you can from the last three lines of the second Paragraph:"

HEADQUARTERS 77TH DIVISION

American E. F.
November 10th, 1918. General Orders No. 37.
1. The following General Order of the 1st Army is published for the information of all concerned:

"After constant fighting for over one month, the 1st American Army launched an attack against the German Army which had established itself for determined resistance. In five days it had penetrated 25 kilometers and had driven the enemy in retreat before it. Its brilliant success, in connection with the 4th French Army on its left, forced the Germans to retreat on a broad front. This Army has fought and marched and endured the rigors of campaign with the most superb indifference to everything except the deter-mination to go forward and imprint upon the enemy the mark of its courage and resolutions.

"All arms and services of those in advance who smashed the way, including those in the air who rendered aggressive and meritorious service, and those in the rear who, by their untiring industry made possible the continued advance, are worthy of the highest praise and gratitude of their admiring country. The Army Commander is proud of such an army; he thanks it for the splendid results already achieved and looks with confidence to the still greater successes that lie before it."
By Command Of MAJOR-GENERAL ALEXANDER.
C. 0. SHERRILL,
Colonel, G. S., Chief of Staff. Official:
Louis B. GEROW,
Adjutant-General, Division Adjutant.

What greater success could lie before anyone at this point than to find a roof, to build a fire, and lie almost on top of it? The world is dark at five o'clock. At ten you and your bunkies take turns rubbing each other to keep warm. You cover your head with the blanket so as not to waste the warmth expelled from your lungs; enough fresh air can get through the pores of that blanket anyhow. The sentry you are due to relieve awakens you at dawn. The frost is on the pumpkiner, that is, it would be, if there were any pump-kin. But if there had been any wild pumpkin roaming about loose, it would have been caught and eaten raw, long since. Under the lee of the steep hill-sides which defilade this position from intermittent artillery fire, the grass is pure white. And so are the long ravines and the steep slopes leading down into the river mists and over to the enemy lines at Ablimont-where Lieutenant MacDowell and Sergeant Barth have been prowling about, three kilos deep into the enemy system, gaining information at the risk of their lives; Barth, with his knowledge of German parleying successfully in the dark with enemy sentries; both deserving the Distinguished Service Cross, but only the officer getting it. Sergeant, you too should have been decorated. Your citation appears in the "ice box" at the back of the book, along with a host of other deserving recommendations.

For the moment, there is peaceful silence, just as if the war were over -only the hushed voices of half-frozen men. For the most part, it is a silence of utter exhaustion. Occasionally, the short little words, "When do we eat?"

Those last days were terribly hard. We had never had any play days, no real rest or recreation-under shell fire and worse practically since June 20th. Time and again it had been rumored and actually announced by competent authority that NOW the 77th was to get a rest! But always, there had been just one more pressing job for the 77th to do.
Over four months in the line! An advance of thirty-seven kilometers since November 1st. An advance of fifty-nine kilometers since September 26th, under fire all the way! The men were fatigued when they began their advance of November. Losses had been heavy, particularly on that first day. Jerry had pulled out so fast that weary troops could not catch him. The frightfully torn condition of the ground, the abandoned ordnance, limbers and wagons and the slain horses, from which half starved civilians had hastily cut the steaks, attested the murderous work of our long-range and lighter artillery which had prevented the Boche from resetting his pieces into position, and which had made such a rapid advance possible.

That, and sheer grit. The troops had far outstripped the supply trains. One of the chiefest difficulties of the Argonne-Meuse Offensive had been the inadequacy of the roads. What there were had been bombed and mined to pieces by the retreating Boches. Of course, it would have been different during these last days, had it been known that newspapers were first screaming, "Peace," and then, " Fake," as early as the 8th. While little old New York was rehearsing its part for Monday the 11th, the innocent doughboy was still plodding his weary way along the heights of the Meuse, empty of food, but full of rumor -rumor of the relief which didn't come.

A thrilling order had once been received announcing in Paragraph '.No. I that the First Army Corps to which the 77th then belonged would be at once relieved by the Fifth Army Corps; in Paragraph No. 2 it went on to say that the 77thDivisionwas thereby transferred to the Fifth Army Corps! But to offset this, Buck had a buddy who was a runner at Brigade. The runner had been back in St. Juvin and had sure dope. He had seen a strange supply truck full of hay. On the hay rode a doughboy dressed in a civilian swallow-tail coat, and stovepipe hat, carrying a child's pink parasol. And he said- that he belonged to the 6th Division!

Here was news, indeed. About to be relieved by a bale of hay and a pink parasol! As a matter of fact, the, 6th was hastening from the rear; but it had been unable to catch up. Consequently, the rumor died. "Yeah, same old bull! "

On the night of the 10th, the Second Battalion's total of a hundred and fifty-two effective men were outposting the Meuse from Villers to the Pont de Garde. The phone jangled nervously; G Company was ordered out as a combat patrol over the river at Villers, and the scout officer with his crew and a reel of wire in the hands of the signal men ran a phone over the bridge to the old mill on the German side. The Battalion was in readiness to cross the river for an attack at any minute. Then, at midnight, a mysterious call from headquarters, not to act upon the information sought and to withdraw the patrols!

At dawn, Battalion Headquarters lay shivering in its funk-hole. Somewhere under the Adjutant's right shoulder blade the telephone rang again. It must have been a tremendous message; for not until the Staff had heard it repeated a number of times did its full import sink into his cranium; where-upon he (the Staff), his telephone, his entire equipment and the roof of the bivvy fell with an ecstatic crash upon the Battalion Commander's neck.

HEADQUARTERS FIRST ARMY CORPS

American Expeditionary Forces
11, November, 18. General Order No. 17.
EXTRACT

2. An armistice with Germany has been signed. All hostilities cease at 11 Hour, 11 November.
All communication with the enemy is forbidden pending definite and detailed instructions to the contrary. The fact must be emphasized in no uncertain manner that the present state of affairs is an armistice only and not a peace, and that there must be no relaxation of vigilance on the part of your command.

Advantage will be taken of the occasion to rehabilitate equipment, push training and prepare troops for further operations at any instant demanded by the situation.

All unit commanders will take special steps to insure a high state of discipline, and to this end division, brigade, regimental, battalion and smaller unit commanders will personally inspect organizations daily with a view to reporting their units equipped, trained and ready for service.

By command Of MAJOR-GENERAL DICKMAN.
MALIN CRAIG,
Chief of Staff Official:
W. A. HAVERFIELD,
Lieut.-Colonel, A. G. D.

The Armistice was a reality! There never was such a celebration as the one which ensued. No. There was very little noise. There were no horns to blow, no cowbells to ring, no strangers to pound on the back, no jobs to quit, no holiday. All such nonsense is for silly, civilized people who live in houses and work when not celebrating. The few men who were still in their holes-one could never keep the American doughboy under cover where he belonged-got out and stretched; stretched the kinks out of their rheumatic limbs.

But wait! It was not yet eleven, and there was to be no forward movement of troops after that hour. Under cover of the mist, Martin snaked his telephone back to the mill, crossing the rickety bridge at ten-fifty, while the Boches took their last devilish fling at him with their artillery. The men not on actual outpost duty were dragged forward into a couple of luxurious cowsheds, where the reserve cans of Corned Willie were cracked open with festive cheer and a bayonet. Oh-it should be said that the first thing they did was to build real, -honest-to-God fires-big ones, hot ones such as they hadn't seen for weeks, calculated to take the chill out of one's marrow in no time at all.

And lights at night, a whole row of them, without fear of calling down the aerial bombs and "whizz-bangs." Ever since we'd been in France, we had longed for the comfort of lights at night. Here they were, not only on our side of the river, but on the enemy's.

" Oh, I say, when do we really eat?"
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 West Corporation. All rights reserved.