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Chapter 8. The Forest Argonne


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

The Forest of Argonne


THE FOREST OF ARGONNE

AT dawn of September 17th, the last elements of the Regiment, after a long night march, reached the hilltop above l'Abbaye d'Igny, and fell asleep in the sunny woods; after dark of the same evening the regiment was loaded in motor trucks for the Argonne. The name meant nothing then, only a vast stretch of forest where nothing occurred, and the regiment little dreamed that its immediate task was to alter that meaning. It thought it was going to rest. The St. Mihiel drive had just been brought to brilliant conclusion, and it was satisfactory to know that somewhere things were going well. The morale was good, but the troops were rather discouraged, very ragged, and utterly tired; most of the sergeants were gone, and the companies averaged not more than two officers a piece.

The journey by motor trucks was unqualifiedly awful. They were desperately crowded and quite innocent of springs, so that he who found room to sit felt as though perched upon a cocktail shaker; and it lasted for sixteen hours. On the afternoon of the 18th the troops were unloaded at Le Chatelier and Givrey, remaining there in wooden barracks until evening of the 19th. That day came word that the Regiment would move at night, and all baggage, kitchens, and rations, should be dragged to the crossroads; at nine P. M. came word that the regiment would not move, and all baggage, etc., was to be returned to billets; and at eleven-ten P. M. came word to move at eleven-thirty. After some turmoil, and in misanthropic frame of mind, not improved by the rain, the Regiment started upon its longest march of thirty-four kilometers. Toward dawn, when the lameness or laziness of the few was giving place to the serious exhaustion of the many, a staff-car passed the head of the column which had halted for a ten-minutes rest; and, to those who stood near, it is probably one of the bitterest memories of the war that that staff or field-officer, whoever he may have been, as be leaned from the window of his car, could find nothing to say to those tired men beyond a sharp reprimand that they should be found smoking at a halt in the rain. It was long miles behind the line, and the rain would effectually prevent any aerial observation; yet it seemed to him a good opportunity for disciplinary authority, and it seemed so to no one else.

About nine A. M. the battalions, in admittedly ragged formation, drew into Florent. Here they had just succeeded in billeting themselves and eating all the eggs in town, when orders came for the battalion and company commanders of the Second and Third Battalions to proceed-at once to the Line of Resistance held by the French four kilometers to the north. The two battalions were to follow and effect the relief of the line that night. The company commanders had never quite acquired the habit of doing and dying without, at least privately, reasoning about it, and they now proceeded, still reasoning, upon their way. By midnight relief was effected of the rear elements of the 71st French Division, the Third Battalion being placed forward on the Line of Resistance in the Bois des Hauts Batis, across the Florent-La Placardelle road, West and a little north of La Chalade, the Second Battalion two kilometers farther south on the road, and the First Battalion just north of Florent. The picket-line, which was in fact a line of resistance, was still held by the French along the steep slopes southwest of the Biesme, opposite the Four de Paris, as was also the line of outposts, on the lower part of the bleak ridges across the river. The French thus preserved a screen intended to conceal the arrival of American troops in their rear; but the significance of this was not yet apparent to those most interested.

September 21st to 23rd was of a calm which, it became increasingly evident, presaged a storm. An increment of men was received from the 40th Division, seventy-two to each company, excellent material, mostly from Montana and Nebraska, but largely untrained and wholly inexperienced, and bringing none of its greatly needed N. C. O.'s with it. Though none had apparently ever seen a grenade, and many seemed never to have fired a rifle, yet they were healthy-looking, untired, and well- clothed, which was true of not many of the others. These men had in fact been inducted into the service only three months before, and had spent two of those three months in travel. They had at least no prejudices to be overcome and were used to taking care of themselves in the open. The companies were re-squaded and reorganized, with provisional appointments to fill the gaps, but, for the forward companies at least, no drill or training could be attempted. The region was thickly wooded and it was ordered that men should be kept at all times well hidden in the woods. They lived, greatly crowded, in old log dugouts and shacks; the manning of the Line of Resistance was, save for a few sentry-posts, little more than an academic exercise to provide a basis for reports.

It was, and had long been, a very quiet sector; the dense forest made movement well-nigh impossible for either side, and the lines had remained practically unchanged since the first autumn of the war. In '16 a German attack had been flung back across the river, since when the lines had been held with fewer and fewer men; and, beyond the occasional cutting off of an outpost at night or the perfunctory shelling of a crossroad, little had been attempted. It was understood that the German line was deeply and thoroughly organized with machine-gun positions.

The French territorial troops, benign old men looking rather like walruses, who manned the machine-gun positions of the Allied Line of Resistance, and had done so apparently for years, spoke of the war as a background to life rather than as an occupation, and reckoned casualties only by season and by name. The Americans began to feel encouraged and to look forward to growing old beside them in this pleasant sunny forest. Then on the 24th the company commanders were directed to reconnoiter the front.

As seen through a slot-like aperture in an observation post overlooking the Biesme, it seemed quite unalluring, and on closer inspection was even worse. It was a bleak, cruel country of white clay and rock and blasted skeletons of trees, gashed into innumerable trenches, and seared with rusted acres of wire, rising steeply into claw-like ridges and descending into haunted ravines, white as leprosy in the midst of that green forest, a country that had died long ago, and in pain. The closer inspection, made in the disguise of French overcoats and helmets, showed a single bridge across the stream, whose approach-trench, completely enfiladed by the enemy position, bore evidence of direct hits by artillery; and, beyond the disused highroad, and the solitary ruin of the Four de Paris, a labyrinth of approaches and trenches, largely abandoned and blocked with wire, debris and brambles. The many dugouts were also largely blocked with wire and broken cots, while their steps, degenerated into a uniform slide of mud, suggested travel in but a single direction and to a destination quite unknown. The little garrisons of the outposts half way up the slopes, already separated beyond redemption from their friends, sought to achieve a like isolation from their enemies by means of portcullises of barbed wire; but life seemed only possible in the place on a basis of live and let live, which was apparently something of the basis of mutual agreement then reached.

That day the commanders of the units down to and including companies were assembled by the divisional commander and informed that they were about to take part in the greatest offensive yet launched, which should extend from the North Sea to Switzerland, and, it was hoped, would finish the war. Of course it was so hoped, but, by most of the regiment, without exuberant optimism; for the war, as last seen in and about Merval, seemed to require more finishing than did the 307th Infantry.

Then artillery began to arrive. All night long it arrived, crushing and clanking through the underbrush, and in the morning the woods were filled with it, concealed under screens of new-cut leaves. Two hundred guns were massed in the divisional area-the 304th and 305th light artillery, the 306th heavy, and the 802nd heavy trench mortars. In spite of precautions the enemy guessed at attack, though, as was later learned, on no such scale as was being prepared. During the 25th their artillery fire reached a volume such as the forest had not heard in two years of its peaceful warfare. Aeroplane photographs were distributed, and innumerable maps dealing with a country visionary leagues to the northward. Even clothing was received, though in large measure too late to be distributed to the ragged leading battalion, and a vast supply of unfamiliar grenades and pyrotechnics. As the battalion filed out at dusk of the 25th, an officer stood at the roadside explaining their various purposes and methods of functioning, and expounding, like a patent-medicine artist at a fair, their many sterling qualities.

"This one will call down a friendly barrage in your front; you better take a couple. This one will indicate your position to a passing aeroplane, works equally well by day or night, every soldier should have one (wait till the plane circles about and drops six white stars). This will burn through flesh and bone and provide a high quality of illumination for night -attacks (may be thrown by hand or from the rifle). And here is one (with apologies for the fact that it weighs ten pounds) that will
destroy man and beast within a radius of forty yards (pressing it into the arms of some bewildered soldier)," and so on till his voice was lost in the darkness.

There was a mile of open road, then a trench dipping steeply down the slope. The French captain in command of the forward troops, a tall splendid-looking man, stood on a side terrace assigning the guides to the companies and half-companies, each on a separate ridge, "M", "L" "K," and "I" from right to left. Then a clasp of hands, a cheery "bonne chance," and so onward, slipping down the muddy trench, over the silent stream, and out into the open road beyond, where the companies split upon their different ways.
"Vous allez attaquer?" whispered the guide at one's elbow, incredulous at this American madness, "Ici dans IArgonne?" From Switzerland to the sea, and God only knew what it might mean.

On the right of the regiment moved the 306th and 305th Infantry, and beyond them, along the edge of the forest the 28th Division. On the left was the 308th Infantry, with the 368th colored Infantry, from the 92nd Division, act-ing as liaison between the 77th and First French Divisions. A word of explanation may here be inserted pointing the difference between the meanings of the words Argonne and Argonne Forest. The former refers to the whole region between the Aisne and the Meuse, largely open country, though with small patches of woods; while the latter refers to a very dense and continuous woodland some twelve kilometers at its widest point from east to west, and thirty kilometers from north to south. The path of the 28th Division was to carry it free of the forest by the third day's advance, while that of the 77th lay squarely along its major axis from La Harazee to Grand Pre, where was its northern boundary. It is thus worth noting that only the 77th was to fight completely and continuously within the forest, because, in spite of this handicap, it was one of the few divisions that was not relieved during the Argonne campaign. The right of the American sector hinged upon Verdun and the whole sector formed the hinge of the great swinging Allied assault. To use the oft repeated simile: if the door could be blown off its hinges, it would constitute a more effective entry into German territory than if it were merely kicked open.

The regimental front, forming the right of the brigade, included from the mouth of the Rivau des Courtes Chausse's across the Ravin Intermediaire, the Rivau des Meurissons, the Ravin Sec, the Rivau de la Fontaine au. Mortier, to the Ravin St. Hubert, a distance of nearly two kilometers, all of which was to be spanned by the front of the Third Battalion. The Second Battalion was to move in support, the First to remain along the Biesme in reserve. The artillery, after holding for three and a half hours of drum-fire on the enemy lines, was to advance one hundred yards in five minutes thereafter, and the infantry were to keep within five hundred yards of their rolling barrage-instructions which recurred some-what hopelessly to the leaders of units during the ant-like wanderings of the morrow.

Instructions had been given for a very open- order advance, and as the direction lay due north, cutting diagonally across the steep ridges, it seemed probable that some merging of units would soon result-an estimate which was amply justified by the event. It was hoped that visual liaison would be established by daylight; but it never was. In the many branching trenches squads and platoons became separated in the darkness, or met head-on in the narrow way where no, passing was possible. It was never possible in the regiment to pass an order down a column in single file with any hope of its carrying through-a Polack or some limited intellect would invariably intervene as a non-conductor-and the French guides were on this occasion unusually poor, even for French guides. They disbelieved in attacking in the Argonne Forest, and wished to be out of it before any such thing was started. When the occupation of the front was complete, probably between one and two A. M., runners were sent to report it to Battalion Headquarters; and perhaps half of them succeeded in finding its location, but none succeeded in returning to their companies. So the platoons settled down, isolated in the deep chill dugouts with a few sentries posted, awaiting the zero hour, five-fifty, for their advance. The following description of one company's advance is probably typical of all:

"The bombardment started at two-thirty A. M. with a roar stretching from horizon to horizon, and the upper air grew alive with whistling sounds; on the high ground in front the shock of explosions merged into one deep concussion that rocked the walls of the dugouts. The night was thick with mist and bitterly cold -a pale thread of moon gliding and disappearing amidst the moving vapor, the lurid glare flickering up and down along the front. As the night dragged on the mist thickened, wrapping the world in its blind, cold blanket, and blotting out the last stark tree-stump ahead. Orders had been given before leaving camp for a very open-order advance, and there was no chance of getting word to the troops to change the formation no matter what the weather was. So at five-fifty I climbed out with the nearest platoon into darkness and impenetrable fog mixed with powder-smoke, started them forward by compass, and went to look, or feel, for the others. I didn't find them again until afternoon. Our artillery was supposed to have blown a passage through the heaviest wire between some craters marked on the map near the head of the Ravin Sec, but there didn't seem much chance of finding it by sense of touch. The heavy fog had kept the powder smoke down, and as morning began to lighten I found myself, with my striker and two runners, adrift in a blind world of whiteness and noise, groping over something like the surface of the moon. One literally could not see two yards, and everywhere the ground rose into bare pinnacles and ridges, or descended into bottomless chasms, half filled with rusted tangles of wire. Deep, half-ruined trenches appeared without system or sequence, usually impossible of crossing, bare splintered trees, occasional derelict skeletons of men, thickets of gorse, and everywhere the piles of rusted wire. It looked as though it had taken root there among the iron chevaux-de-frise and had grown; and it was so heavy that only the longest-handled cutters would bite through it.

"There seemed to be very little rifle-fire going on and the shelling was still almost all in front and growing more distant. I remember trying to light a pipe, but the tobacco was so saturated with powder-smoke and gas that it was impossible. At the end of an hour's time

I had collected two squads of infantry with a few engineers, and together we steered on by compass over the seemingly limitless desolation. About nine o'clock we heard voices in a draw beside us, and, taking a chance, I hailed them. They proved to be a platoon and a half of my company with one of my lieutenants, and I was never so glad to see any one in my life. In another hour we had picked up the other lieutenant and something more than an-other platoon. I figured that we had gone nearly a mile forward without meeting any Germans save two or three killed by shells; the fog was as blind as ever, and we hadn't an idea of what was happening on the ridges to either flank; I knew we were too far to eastward but didn't want to leave the high ground until we could see something.

"We had got beyond the bare moon-country into a dense forest of undergrowth, and were working out the very recently occupied trenches and boyaus when, about noon, the mist suddenly rolled up. There appeared first a deep valley to the west, then a farther slope of brush with scattering pine trees, the sun shining on their wet tops, and finally the wooded ridge to southward from which we had come. Two contact-planes were flying low over the ridges to the west, but except for the whirr of their motors and some very distant shelling there was now no sound, nor could I see any sign of other troops. It was not one's idea of a battle; several of the men had already dropped asleep in the bushes. In the opposite slope, and a little behind us, a cul-de-sac, with some wooden shacks in it and a little cemetery, looked like the Fontaine la Mitte on the east boundary of our regimental sector and promised developments; so we slipped and slid down to the valley bottom and were met with automatic rifle-fire from the farther crest. We were able to outflank them on both sides, though, and they didn't make much of a stand. I told Lieutenant Rogers to try out our new model thermite rifle-grenades on them, but nothing occurred, and I didn't discover till long afterward that the detonators came in separate boxes.

"The sound of our rifle-fire had brought up a wandering half of 'E' Company, so with forces joined we pushed on into the thickest jungle I have ever seen, and it seemed to go on forever. Then came a boyau with some deserted machine-gun positions-the guns and tripods still in place, and three or four sets of body-armor, a straight disused road, a further jungle almost impenetrable, and a sudden burst of rifle and machine-gun fire on our right flank. One man fell at the edge of the road and as two others lifted him out they were each shot, one of them through the heart, and the wounded man was struck again through the body. The map showed an ominous dark blue semi-circle on our right, called the Tr. de Prilep, and though we had almost reached its northern end there was considerable wire about it and apparently a number of guns, so that it did not seem wise to try to force its flank without some knowledge of the rest of the regiment. Afternoon was turning to clear evening with a growing sound of infantry fire off to the southwest, as we took up a position for the night, buried our two dead, and started our wounded back with a runner to search for Battalion Headquarters and report our location.

"Two stray elements from companies of the 306th came up, attracted by our occasional fire, and, though my third platoon was still some-where at large, we were building up quite a fighting force in front of the Tranchee de Pri-lep (Tr. des Fontaines), when our runner re-turned with one from Battalion Headquarters he had chanced into, bringing a verbal order for me to report there with my company. It sounded like a mistake, but one couldn't risk refusing it, so we started back; and in a deep trench, beyond the Fontaine la Mitte, we ran into what looked like a whole battalion of the 308th. What they, who belonged on our left, were doing on the extreme right of our regi-mental sector I am sure they couldn't have told, but as we were trying to crowd past them the Boche opened with whiz-bangs directly on the spot, getting four of my men, so we didn't stop to ask.

"By now it was black night, and my guide confided the, news that, though he knew where Battalion Headquarters was, he didn't know how to get there. It reminded me of the lost Indian who said: 'Indian not lost. Indian here. Wigwam lost.' Only now it seemed probable that both the wigwam and the Indian were lost, together with most of the tribe. My conversation with the guide did not assist me to any idea of 'where it was,' though he still had confidence in his knowledge of it; and by one o'clock, in a fifteen-foot trench, with unscalable walls of mud and a stream along its bottom, I knew where nothing was except the guide, my company headquarters, and half a platoon. It rained all night and we slept in the stream."

A field-message from one of the captains of the Second Battalion suggests more concisely something of the same story:

"26th September, 9:30 A. M. Presume 11 am at 295.9-270.3. Have touch with only one platoon. Am trying to get liaison with 308th on left, also to the front. Have just found 'K' Company, that is, Lieutenant Pool is here with nine men. Rest are lost. Grant."

It was on the second day that a message was sent forward from the colonel to the C. 0., Second Battalion, saying:

"I have a direct order to reach intermediary objective today at 95.3-74.8, 96.6-74.7."

Pure optimism, be it most respectfully said. That row of innocent-looking figures represented the ridge beyond the Depot-de-Machines, of which more hereafter, and the order was not, could not be, fulfilled. There was in fact very little advance at all upon that day, which was largely spent in collecting lost fragments and reorganizing for advance upon the 28th. The Second and Third Battalions were to some extent merged under the joint command of Major M'Kinney, who had very recently joined the regiment, and of Captain Blagden, and so remained during the succeeding days. The regimental front had in general reached the southern side of the Ravin Sec (not that of the same name previously mentioned) stretching from the Rivau de la Fontaine aux Charmes to the Tranchee des Fontaines.
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