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Chapter 6. Merval


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920
Merval


MERVAL

THE Third Battalion, after two or three days at Sergy, had, on the afternoon of September fourth, been moved forward to the Bois de la Pisotte, and then on to Villesavoye, camping there on the hillside as Divisional Reserve. Here a spectacular little incident was played out in the air. The huge bulk of an observation balloon, attached by cable to a motor- truck, moved down the bill from the south, and had barely passed when an enemy plane appeared high above. The balloon began a cumbersome descent, swaying its bead this way and that like some helpless creature attacked; the plane dipped forward in a long nosedive. On the hilltop to the east a machine-gun opened fire into the air, another to the west, then another, another, and another-the white smoke tentacles of their tracer-bullets meeting and crossing in a lacy canopy against the blue sky over the back of the balloon. Down swept the plane like a diving fish-hawk, down along the path of its own thread-like fire, down and down, sheer through that screen of burning bullets, along the broad back of its victim, then up at a dizzy angle and away, while a sheet of flame and some crumpled wreckage dropped to earth behind it. The enemy attacking planes were very active during all this period, and as many as three Allied observation balloons were seen in flames at a single time.

After dark on the sixth, the Third Battalion moved forward to beyond the northern outskirts of Fismette, where for nearly an hour an enemy bombing- squadron turned the still night into a chaos of noise and flying debris about their beads. Here, about midnight of the eighth-ninth, the same night upon which the 28th Division on the right was relieved by the 62nd French Division, they received orders to proceed to the relief of the Second Battalion at Merval; and, after passing with a number of casualties through some fairly severe shelling on the road, they took over at dawn-"K" on the left near Le Verdillon, "L" in the low ground between Merval and Serval, "I" and "M" along the crest of the ridge facing east. Orders had been initiated for a further advance at dawn in conjunction with the French on the right, but were not immediately received by the troops, nor was any advance upon the right in evidence. "I" and "M" were ordered to send each a platoon across the open plateau to take position on the wooded slopes overlooking the ground north of Fond de Vas, and to be prepared to support the French left as soon as their advance should have developed and passed beyond Glennes. This order, whose execution it was, in the first instance, contemplated should take place under cover of darkness, was actually carried out between 8 and 9 A. M., and the slopes, though appearing on the map to afford probable cover, actually afforded none.

As the lieutenant of "M" Company reached the brink, a wolf-like dog, with a message at his collar, trotted out from behind a bush, froze for a startled instant, and then wheeled back at a run. The platoon, looking in vain for its promised shelter, moved down the slope in squad rushes; and at once a battery of field artillery opened upon them with direct fire. Men may speak lightly in retrospect of their dislike for "whizz-bangs," but the point-blank fire of field-guns at a target pilloried in the open is an ordeal to wrench men's souls-the swift rush of sound, the instantaneous crash of the explosion, and then the scream of some disemboweled comrade again and again, and nowhere on earth to turn to for help. The platoon of "M" Company was withdrawn with losses to the sunken road.

The platoon of "I" on the left, with a little better shelter, held on, and, sending word of its condition, was ordered still to hold. No friendly barrage appeared across its front-it bad fallen, such as it was, three hours before-nor was there any movement of French troops across the valley; but instead the fire of machine-guns and rifle-grenades grew steadily in intensity upon its position, mixed with overhead bursts of H. E. and occasional long-handled hand-grenades from the scrub to the left, while an interdiction fire of artillery was laid on the plateau behind. After an hour of hopeless self-sacrifice, when their left outpost had been cut off and all either killed or captured, they too withdrew, singly, along the bottom of a little draw across the plateau, their lieutenant carried out in their rear with a bullet through both lungs. So much for the right.

On the left "K" Company, supported by two platoons of "L," having received apparently mistaken orders to attack, advanced at 3:40 P. M., nine hours behind its barrage, in support of an unsuccessful French attack upon Glennes which had ceased, and moved across the open ground toward Revillon. Again from the sunken road to La Petite Montagne machine-guns and artillery burst into action. Pew even reached the wire; none crossed it; and, at 4 o'clock, "K" Company withdrew with fifty -two casualties.

The First Battalion, in conjunction with the French attack upon the right, had been attacking the Ravin from the south and west, and, after considerable loss, bad established themselves across its wooded southern end. The French, beyond the swell of ground, had gained possession of the bluffs of the Bois de la Sauix up toward Le Chapon; but the eastern side of the valley was still strongly held by enemy machine-guns in concealment, sometimes within a few rods of the American rifle-pits, and was furthermore completely dominated by observation and fire from La Petite Montagne. Though the distance here was over 2000 meters it had been so well measured by the enemy that this long range machine-gun fire was terribly effective; and their mastery of the air during this fighting gave great ac-curacy to their artillery. On the night of the ninth "I" Company established itself in the southeast horn of the Ravin Marion, and "N' in the southwest. There was no immediate resistance to this occupation, though the men, here dug in, remained under a constant fire.

From September tenth to thirteenth there was no conspicuous movement upon this front. "M" Company had pushed a combat group north along its slope to a point a little short of the Fond de Vas; "L" Company, which bad suffered constantly from artillery fire from the left rear-and it always was denied, though not to the conviction of the troops, that this was from friendly artillery-had been moved up into eaves and cellars on the Merval ridge. A field-message book of the lieutenant in charge of "L" Company at this time, picked up in the Marais six months later, shows how constant was this difficulty of artillery from the rear:

"September 9th.-2:45. Our artillery is firing within 25 yards of Company Headquarters. Whizz-bangs, and lots of them.
"September 9th.-3:45. Our artillery just dropped a shell 100 yards east of Company Headquarters, in woods where we have a platoon. Shells seem to be coming from west.
"September 9th.-4:55. Our artillery barraged Serval in our rear at 4:50. It is beginning to tell on the men.
"September 9th.-7:45. Our artillery just fired some low trajectory shells from our left in woods 75 yards in front of Company Headquarters. Do try to stop them."

All this may of course have been slander. Though the direction of the front here ran almost northwest it is often possible to mistake the direction of artillery-fire, and, further, a German gun was reported to be found in action well behind the American line. But the opinion of those who lay day after day in those gas-drenched woods amounted to conviction -and it was uncharitable.

The cave of Battalion Headquarters, where by candlelight the surgeons were constantly at work, passed on its daily quota to hospital or burial. A broken stake, driven into the side- wall of the cave and supposed to be a German booby-trap, was guarded day and night by a sentry, and remained as a modern Sword of Damocles. The roadside cavern near regimental headquarters, itself a cavern in the chalky hill, had been hopefully prepared for American occupants by the slow leakage of gas-shells placed within-and not without results.

For dawn of September fourteenth another attack was ordered, again conforming to the left of an advance by the 62nd French Division, and outposts were drawn in prior to the artillery preparation. This opened at 5:15 for half an hour, mixed with an intense indirect fire of machine-guns from the French. The enemy counter-barrage came down at 5:30, lasting, with drum-fire of 88's, 105's, and 150's, almost continuously till eleven. The eastward valley offered a spectacle of unforgettable grandeur. In the earlier darkness some wooden buildings, afire at its mouth, lit a false dawn in the east. Then in the growing light one saw its level meadows cloaked with the mists of morning, and its steep sides shrouded in smoke; they mingled and merged into one vast cauldron of vapor, stabbed through and through with flashes of fire, blotting out the farmsteads beyond, till only La Petite Montagne, floating above a sea of cloud against a blood-red sky of dawn, lifted its smoking, flame-wreathed head like a volcano in eruption; and always through the crash and shock of explosions wove the swift hammer-song of countless machine-guns. Yet slight indeed was the advance effected. "I" Company succeeded in working along the east side of the valley about half its length to a point of contact with the French, who never gained a mastery of Glennes, if indeed they entered it; "M" did no more than resume its former position along the west side. , "D" Company occupied the valley-bottom until shelled out of it again to join in an ineffective advance with "A" and "B" in the afternoon. Late that evening Lieutenant Jenkins, in command of "D," upon a self-authorized mission to the French major, succeeded, in probably incomprehensible French and lucid gestures, in effectively directing him to reoccupy the bluffs overlooking Glennes, which he was about to abandon.

"K" Company, with half of "L" in support, started upon an eventful day. Battalion headquarters had been moved back, previous to the bombardment, to a cellar in Merval, where, about 6 A. M., qualified orders were given to "K" and "L" Companies. These were to be prepared to take position for an attack upon Revillon within thirty-five minutes of receipt of word that Glennes had been captured by the French. At 10 A. M. the major of the First Battalion, which was acting in close support of the Third, came forward with an order that the left should be prepared to attack at 9:30. The lieutenant in charge of that part of "L" started down into the Marais Minard with instructions to connect with troops on his right and await the lifting of the barrage in his front. The three succeeding messages he sent back were to the effect that there were neither troops on his right nor a barrage in his front. At about eleven he, together with "K" on his left, attacked.

The enemy resistance was in no way weakened, but after heavy losses they dug in along the wire before the sunken road, the line running southeast and northwest from beyond St. Pierre Ferme to somewhat short of the first crossroad. Here they held during the afternoon and the fighting had seemed to be over for the day, when, at 4:55 P. M., the captain of "K" received word that a barrage would be laid down along the wire and the road at five o'clock. There was no time to protest; there was no time to organize a withdrawal; there was no means of guessing that the barrage would consist of some seven or eight shells, which would better have been faced, where the companies then were. They streamed back across the meadows, and reorganized under cover for a fresh attack. But this could not be immediately accomplished, and though "M" and "I" of the 308th were thrown in on the left and "C" of the 307th on the right, the attack, when delivered at dusk, was the most costly yet launched over that trampled, blood-soaked way. They cut a way through the wire, wiped out the crews of four machine-guns in the sunken road, and established themselves in a German trench on the near brink of it. "C" was then drawn back into right support; the two companies of the 308th were in support on the left. Five officers had fallen in the two attacks-Lieutenant Felter with a bullet through the forehead as he emptied his gun at the muzzle of a machine-gun in action-and only one officer was left on the front line.

A fresh squad from "L" Company came down from the cave on the ridge, and, without finding the rest of their company or any one who could give them instructions, settled down on the right. The night came down very dark. At eight o'clock an enemy barrage came down on the position, held for twenty minutes, mostly upon the Marais to the rear, and then lifted; there came the shuffling of feet in the darkness ahead, a command, hoarse shouting of German voices, a calling out for Lieutenant Miller, then a volley of hand-grenades and the American line broke to the left. Lieutenant Miller was last seen doing his single best to rally it, and his body was never found. Two chauchat posts were still in action, firing across the front from the right, but the sunken road and trench were again occupied by the enemy. How the broken troops got back none of them ever knew -somewhere through or around the 308th. There was one more attack before dawn when the Italians, who were now waiting to take over the sector, insisted upon a trench, no matter where situated, for them to occupy; and the captain of "K," sweeping together what troops he could find, filed through the gaps in the wire, reoccupied the trench beyond with a shower of hand-grenades, and, turning it over to the Italians, left them to work out their own salvation. This was found in an early withdrawal.

The Italians bad begun passing that evening through Fismes, where Rear Regimental Headquarters was located in a cellar. The town was still under fairly constant shellfire -a dreary place of dust and debris and sun- scorched carrion. The Italians expressed themselves, through interpreters, as dissatisfied with the whole situation; and no one disagreed with them. Yet their escape in the streets of Fismes seemed miraculous. They arrived, about two battalions together, in close column of squads, and met head on with a column of withdrawing French, where, at the bridge between Fismes and Fismette, a motor- truck had broken down across the right of way. On the street where, since the costly crossing of the Second Battalion, no larger body than a platoon had been allowed to congregate, a force of nearly three battalions stood crowded together; where, for fear of drawing shellfire, never a lighted cigarette-butt had been shown, the place looked like a hayfield filled with fire- flies; and, almost stationary, they stood there for seven hours. The American K P. in charge of road-traffic was faced with a serious problem; and, as neither French nor Italians either understood or followed any of his suggestions, he failed to master it. The interest of Regimental Headquarters was frankly selfish-they wanted the Italians to live long enough to effect the relief, and then they might choose their own way. A little before daylight the Italians won through and continued their firefly-way to the front; and through the whole night a solitary shell exploded near the bridge, and injured only a single mule.

The relief of the front was decidedly complicated. On the night of the 14th-15th, the Second Battalion relieved the First; during the same night the Italians had on the left been persuaded and maneuvered into taking over; elsewhere they expressed a reasonable but untimely wish to reconnoiter. Nothing noticeable occurred during the day, beyond a growing irritation with the Italians, and that night the Second Battalion drew out.

Morning of the sixteenth found "M" and "I" Companies still occupying opposite sides of the unloved valley and adrift in a world of loneliness and foreigners. At intervals a Frenchman, in evident distress, would slide over the bank into the P. C. and gasp out: "Les Boches! Les Boches!" or a deputation of Italians would, with equal emotion, demand explanation of things that no one knew about in a language which no one understood; and meantime there were being sent hither and thither messengers who seldom found the proper recipient of their message, more seldom returned with a reply, and almost never solved the difficulty referred to. Toward noon the lieutenant in command of "M" Company sent word to the lieutenant in command of "I," asking if be were still there and how he did; and Lieutenant Lord, in command of "I," sent reply: "Battalion Headquarters seems a little incoherent, and our new allies a trifle excitable; but I am having a perfectly good time, and hope you are too. Why worry?"

The message expresses much of the spirit of the American army. After dark of the sixteenth these two companies, having received permission to draw out at their discretion, left the Italians to arrange, after their own manner, their difficulties with themselves and the enemy. The 'Regiment was assembled, during the sixteenth and seventeenth, some marching, others carried in lorries, half famished and wholly exhausted, in the quiet woods between Arcis le Ponsart and the Abbaye d'Igny, sixteen kilometers to the south.
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