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3. With The British


HISTORY
of
THE 308th INFANTRY

By

L. Wardlaw Miles

Chapter 3
With The British


CHAPTER III

With the British

I
MANY supposed that the Regiment would spend five weeks in England training at Winchester, but at Liverpool orders were received to proceed immediately to France. Great was the speculation which ensued, and rumor raged as intensely as during the last weeks at Upton. A short march through the streets of Liverpool, with a brief glimpse here and there of unfamiliar advertisements on the hoardings, of a strange. variety of tram cars, or of a helmeted policeman, and then the companies lined up beside the waiting trains. Here also lined up stood Australian troops, big fellows straight and easy in their carriage, with looped-nup hats and informal manners, which put us on good terms at once. Soon however we left them, and with the cheerful slogan "Dover and Over" boarded our trains.

The unfamiliar English compartment trains called forth much humorous comment, which diminished, however when it was discovered that the cars were heatless and all but lightless. Speed nevertheless they had, and only fleeting glimpses were possible of the beautiful English country, its fields and hedgerows now verdant with early April. At Rugby a halt was made for refreshments, and the scarcity of food in England became evident. A cup, of weak, sugarless tea and a fish sandwich provided poor satisfaction for a healthy doughboy 's appetite.

In the late afternoon we passed around the outskirts of London. Our identity was easily recognized by the many small American flags waved from the car windows. in answer to these, the population of girls, old women, and boys crowded into their small back yards and gave us fervent acclamation. One gesture in particular prevailed, the sweeping of the arms, and hands in the direction in which we were going, and which eloquently expressed the unspoken words: " Hurry on before it is too late." The sight of these people into whose souls the iron had entered for almost four years of war was very touching.

Arrival at Dover was late. In an ominous darkness due to the frequent air raids, and in a silence which seemed a necessary part of the precaution, men detrained, gathered together their equipment, and marched across railway tracks and through the narrow winding streets of the darkened town, hobnails resounding on the stone pavements with a hollow ring. The hill leading to the camp on the cliffs above the town would have been a severe test for a hardened hiker, not to mention men who had not had time to lose their sea legs. A weary and footsore lot of soldiers turned in that night to enjoy the comforts of the "Rest Camp."

Sunday, April 21st, proved a beautiful day. The gulls flying high above, the glint of the waters of the Channel far below, the keen salt winds, the quaint town at the foot of the chalk cliffs, English soldiers marching to church to the quick step of a band, all these left indelible impressions. A part of the Regiment crossed that day, and a part on the next. As our troops marched away to the docks, the populace turned out en masse to see the "bloomin' Yanks," the first Americans to pass through England in considerable numbers and the first members of any National Army Division. The pier at Dover was a temporary hospital as a number of boats, carrying British wounded and gassed, arrived on the morning of the 21st. Naturally the impression made on the officers and men of the 308th was a vivid one. No time was lost in boarding the small craft which constantly bore the wounded back to " blighty " and the troops to France. Two destroyers from the famous Dover Patrol guarded each transport while a great dirigible flew protectingly ahead.

In less than an hour Calais was reached, its sandy shores and red-roofed houses sparkling in the sunlight. Gathered on the quay, curiously watching the arrival of the Americans were soldiers of all the Allied nations. Not the least conspicuous were the Chinese coolies, resplendent in heterogeneous uniforms of every conceivable pattern. Later we found a large camp of these Orientals, who did much of the labor behind the lines, situated near our own. Signs in Chinese characters were frequent. Cheerfully grinning coolies would approach the Yankees and confide the assurance, "Melicans tres bon," to be rewarded with a much coveted American cigarette, which they proudly showed to envious comrades.

In France at last! As the Regiment marched through Calais the fact that we had now stepped upon the stage of the Great Drama became evident. An air raid had taken place the night before, and several buildings lay in ruins to prove the nearness of the enemy. But we had not come as sightseers and there was little time for observation before we were hurried to the Calais Rest Camp. On the very next day the familiar Springfields were exchanged for British Enfield rifles and gas masks, and steel helmets were distributed.

"Why British rifles? "

"The Boche have broken through and the 77th is to be thrown into the gap at once."

Many such questions and answers were repeated in that dark hour of the Allies' cause which followed the last successful German drive, and which was to precede the dawn of Allied victory.

With the British in Flanders. A "Tommy" instructor in the bayonet

It was on the first night at the Calais Rest Camp when, after a good meal, the men had turned in to sleep soundly on the board floors of the marquees that they were awakened about 10 o'clock by the howl and whine of a great siren. The Americans at once rushed out to see the fun. Immediately the penciled rays of huge hidden searchlights played here and there across the sky like long fingers feeling for the approaching planes. From far overhead came the characteristic fluctuating drone which later became so familiar as the warning of an enemy machine. Then the hoarse barking of the Archies; sputtering of machine guns; and bright flares bursting overhead. In defiance of all this, the insistent drone of the planes grew louder and louder. The searching rays flashed back and forth, for an instant catching a plane and converging upon it, then losing it again. Above all the noise sounded the deep and unmistakable detonation of a bomb which had elsewhere descended. Almost as suddenly as it had begun the noise ceased, and the lights went out. In an hour it was all over, and the rest of the night left for a discussion of the first air raid.

2

Leaving the camp behind, the Regiment entrained during the next two days for Audruicq, the Division Railhead, midway between Calais and St. Omer. Now was obtained the first sight of the gray-clad Germans-prisoners working like the coolies quietly along the railway. At the railhead, battalions were separated into companies and marched to the towns in which they were to be billeted. Division Headquarters had been placed at Eper-lecques. Regimental Headquarters were established in the beautiful Chateau Cocove near Zutkerque, the remainder of the Regiment being scattered in the towns Of Helbrucq, Bayenghem, Nortleulinghem, Nortkerque, Recques, and Grasse Payle.

Machine Gun lessons under the British

Each of these little Flemish towns possessed its square, its estaminet, and its church. From the latter constantly soup-led the bells, sometimes somewhat harsh and jangled but rarely without plaintive sweetness. There was the inevitable churchyard with its graves marked with wax immortelles under glass covers. The cure, venerable, benign, and courteous, proved an excellent object upon whom to try one's French. The peasants, for the most part little children and old men and women, spoke a patois that would have presented difficulties for better French scholars than were to be found in the 308th. Nevertheless one learned somehow of sons and husbands and fathers from each family fighting at the front or already killed, and on Sundays and Saints' Days the black dresses and crape veils of the women bore further mute yet eloquent testimony. Moreover now for the first time came the sound of the guns at the front-a far off muffled, ominous sound like the slamming of great subterranean doors. In spite of spring blossoms, peaceful fields of green, and the poplar-lined roads of Northern France, leading from one little red-roofed town to an-other, the Real Thing was drawing nearer. And in the wistful long-drawn twilights of early summer, these white roads stretched dimly away into a future of wildly-surmised adventure, while the bells chimed softly from far-off steeples, and the billets smelled strongly near at hand, and men thought thoughts alone, or foregathered in estaminets to drink red wine and sing " Mademoiselle from Armenti6res, parlez-vous! "

The men were billeted in barns where straw took the place of the spring cots of Upton. Washing facilities of a French barnyard are restricted, and the constant intrusion of poultry and rats and the imminence of the manure pile proved unattractive features. All was borne with fine good nature. The British ration caused considerable dissatisfaction. Tea, jam (apple or plum), and cheese appeared with wearisome regularity at every meal; hardtack seemed a poor exchange for the good and generously supplied bread of the American ration. Local estaminets became very popular. Here one could obtain a meal of pommes de terre, oeufs, coffee and bread for a few francs. Soon, however, the shrewd peasant discovered the large pay and the small thriftiness of the American soldier, and prices soared proportionately,

Training which had been suspended perforce during our travels was resumed as soon as the troops were in billets. Under the tutelage of the British 39th Division, American methods were largely abandoned. Somewhat later those who attended British schools of instruction heard such unfamiliar commands as "About me, in two ranks, fall in!", which sounded very strange in ears accustomed to the I. D. R. Greater power was now given to the N. C. O.'s, and they amply justified the wisdom of a policy in which the drilling was for the most part done by them while the officers exercised general supervision. Two or more men would be selected from each platoon to receive instruction from the British in the Lewis automatic rifle, the Enfield rifle, bayonet and hand grenades. These men would later become themselves instructors to the platoon gathered in a circle about them. Some days were devoted to shooting on miniature ranges with cartridges of reduced charge. Lectures for both men and officers were delivered by British officers, some of whom had been in the war from the start.

The British and American officers fraternized in the actual meaning of the word. With the men the relations were less cordial for a number of reasons. Chief among these possibly was the already mentioned British ration. If, as Napoleon said, an army moves upon its stomach, it was but natural that our troops should wish to move upon their own stomachs-and stand upon their own legs. Another reason was the large number of Irish among us. It was hardly to be expected that the lads who had on their way over cast wistful glances towards the old country would be enthusiastic over English methods and English instructors. When, however, one considers the striking differences of tradition and experience belonging to the two armies, the relations between the two were on the whole remarkably friendly.

Along with the new rations and equipment a number of new expressions became adopted: "Carry on!", " cheerio! ", " wind up, " " blighty, " " washout, " "bloody, " "the Show." Also one learned to designate the enemy either as " Jerry " or by the impersonal but always understood "he." A random but vivid memory recalls some long distance shelling in a little town near Sombrin, and the tones of intense bitterness with which a Tommy, working on the road, straightened his back to remark, "E's a bloody barstard! That's what 'e is!"
It is interesting to see how our troops looked to others. That acute observer, Sir Philip Gibbs, has written:

Physically they were splendid-those boys of the 27th and
77th Divisions whom we saw first of all. They were taller," than any of our regiments, apart from the Guards, and they had a fine easy swing of body as they came marching along., They were better dressed than our Tommies, whose rough khaki was rather shapeless. There was a dandy cut about this American uniform, and their cloth was of good quality, so that, arriving fresh, they looked wonderfully spruce and neat compared with our weather-worn, battle-battered lads.

And again:

I was struck by the exceptionally high level of individual intelligence among the rank and file, and by the general gravity among them. The American private soldier seemed to me less repressed by discipline than our men. He had more original points of view, expressed himself with more independence of thought, and had a greater sense of his own personal value and dignity.'

Not all these observations agree with those of the present writer. Perhaps it was because the British troops we saw were in a back area, but to him they seemed to have much more swank and swagger and their uniforms to be far neater than those of our men. The British salute was particularly a marvel of ceremonial and click. The " gravity" is a matter of opinion. "Every land has its laugh." Certainly there passed cheerful evenings at the Officers' Club at Calais and in many estaminets when gravity seemed the least noticeable characteristic of either nation. Sir Philip is, however, probably right in regard to the non-repression by discipline and the independence of thought. It is to be questioned whether time was not lost in attempting to impose certain forms of British discipline on our men whose genius, from the whole nature of their civilization, was more akin to the less formal and more elastic methods of the French.

Mention has been made of the schools of instruction. The Commanding Officers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions attended a profitable two weeks' course for Field Officers at the British 2nd Army Central School at Wis-ques, Colonel Gilbert Hamilton of the Grenadier Guards, Commandant. Here, as at other schools for musketry, automatic rifle and bayonet instruction, it was impressive to note how English neatness, comfort, and good form had invaded an alien territory. Every officer got his bath in the morning, a thing for which many of the American officers had often longed in vain. The difference between a batman and a striker was characteristic. Indeed the servant problem, so well solved in English life and so perplexing in America, was unexpectedly reflected in the Army, as were so many contrasting problems of the two civilizations. The standing to drink the healths of King and of President at an Officers' Mess was only one of a hundred things which made us feel that we were younger brothers in an older and more orderly house than our own. Perhaps nothing so touched the imaginations of some of us as the bagpipes. Whether, as at the mess of the Highland Light Infantry, they were played marching around the table when the port was served, or whether as elsewhere we marched behind them to the rifle range, to hear them was a thrilling experience. Such moments did not suggest mud, poison gas, and high explosives, but rather "the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war," touched in more innocent times by the light of romance itself.

But certain selected officers and noncommissioned officers now had the chance to see actual modern war. In small groups, dubbed "Cook's Tours," they visited the British front for brief but very instructive trips of observation. One of them, Lieutenant Knight, returned slightly wounded. The prestige enjoyed by these men and the fusillade of questions to which they were subjected may be imagined. They seemed chiefly impressed by the vast amount of shelling and the relatively small results, as well as the great importance of the gas mask

Those officers and men who visited the Canadian felt very much at home, the atmosphere being not unlike that of one of our best National Guard Divisions. With these troops opportunity was afforded to watch raids, and in some cases to participate in them and take prisoners. The Battalion Officers received a most valuable lesson in going through the Relief by a battalion in the support line of a battalion in the front line. Those officers who visited the Guards were much impressed with the discipline and smartness of that organization in most trying circumstances.

3

Once established with the British, Brigadier Evan M. Johnson, who brought the Division overseas, returned to his former command of the 154th Brigade, Major General George B. Duncan succeeding him as Division Commander, in the chateau at Eperlecques. Motorcycle couriers speeding with messages from town to town now became a usual sight. A few officers who had never straddled leather before were struggling daily to learn to ride the splendid mounts received from the British. The Colonel looked as happy as only a cavalry man can who finds himself again in the saddle. Astride a spirited white charger, he was continually riding over the wide regimental area.

The transportation equipment received from the British was different from anything ever used by the American army, and replaced our escort wagons, mules, and field ranges with limbers, caissons, horses both riding and draft, and rolling kitchens. The excellent condition of all these, after four years of service, was remarkable. Captain Popham, the Divisional Red Cross Officer, having no Red Cross work at Headquarters, moved over to the Regiment and was made Regimental Transport Officer, an office till then unheard of in our forces. His fine work, based on thorough knowledge and love of horses, was made evident at a horse and transport show held near Sombrin. The Inspector General of the Army, who happened to be present, expressed high praise.

On May 13th, the 154th Brigade consisting of the 308th and its sister Regiment the 307th, started from their Eperlecques training area, north of St. Omer, to proceed to a new area nearer the front and west of Arras. The rest of the Division remained behind in the original training area. This marked the end of our first phase of training with the British. When the 77th Division arrived as the first draft division during the dark days of April, it was used as a hurried reinforcement of the badly broken English forces with the idea that it might help if the Germans broke through. But the German offensive did not continue, and other National Army divisions arrived. So far no definite decision had been made as to the disposal of American troops. Both French and English needed men and would have been glad to incorporate our troops with their own. Indeed it was with this idea in view that the 154th Brigade was now to be shipped to the Arras front, and the 77th Division to be temporarily broken up. A little later it will be seen how all units of the Division came very near losing their identity and being absorbed with the British.

The 308th entrained at Audruicq. At Doullens a trainload of the Regiment experienced an organized air raid on that city. The train crews made a hasty retreat to a few nearby dugouts, but there was nothing for the troops to do but to remain in the unprotected cars. Fortunately there were no casualties, most of the bombs landing near the hospital, which was a considerable distance from the railroad.

This trip was for most of the Regiment an introduction to that traveling in France of which so much was to follow. Now for the first time men crowded themselves and their equipment into the small French box cars marked "Hommes 40-Chevaux 8," and began a slow and interminable journey. The officers fared more comfortably in passenger coaches, but it was not luxurious travel for anyone. Nevertheless it was not without fun and interest for all in spite of cramped quarters and meager rations. At Mondicourt in silence and intense darkness, relieved here and there by an electric torch, men woke late in the night to detrain stiff and weary. The muffled muttering from the front had now grown louder, and when we marched from the station and lined up in the road outside the town, one could see the low clouds-it was a warm wettish night with a sprinkle of rain-lit constantly with flickering artillery fire and with Very lights, bright colored stars which rose lazily on the horizon and hung there a few moments spreading a baleful glare. There far off in the night was The Thing Itself which we had step by step so long been nearing.

The hike which followed was long and bitter. At the head of some of the troops marched British drums and fifes, playing gay tunes in odd contrast to the anguish of weary men staggering on with blistered feet under their rifles and eighty-pound packs. Yet even while the men cursed the music, it helped them. Many, however, had to be left by the way in spite of the threats and exhortations of their officers. The pluck and endurance shown on this and many later hikes was worthy of all praise.

At last at early dawn the assigned billets in the different small towns, some ten kilometers from the front line, were reached. On this occasion-the only one of such known to the present writer-hot tea and rum was issued as the worn-out troops arrived. It was unspeakably elcome. The 2nd Battalion got theirs at Mondicourt Pas, and a Highland band drawn up in a circle played while the men drank tea and ate bread and jam.

The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions were respectively quartered in Sombrin, Warluzel, and La Bazique Farm. The new training area was inferior to the old and some-what handicapped for space. That the new sector was a more active one became obvious. The 308th was now actually a part of the British defense scheme. It was attached to the 2nd British Division and had become temporarily a part of the same. An American Regiment corresponded to a British Brigade, but instead of the 308th acting as a unit, its three Battalions were each attached to a separate British Brigade, and thus the identities of American Brigade and Regiment were temporarily lost no less than the identity of the Division itself.

Training was resumed largely along the English methods with a grateful lack of interference from their higher command. At this time the 2nd Battalion underwent the rather unique distinction of being inspected by the Inspector-Generals of both the B. E. F. and A. E. F., Generals Lawrence and Brewster. The activity of the sector and its nearness to the front were evidenced by shelling from the long-range guns which searched out the busy Arras road and the adjacent towns, causing the Regiment's first casualties, Private Stanley Belen, killed, and Private George Schiesser, wounded, both of Company I, at La Bazique Farm on May 21st. Regimental General Orders NO. 2 recorded this fact and expressed the sympathy of the Regiment to Belen's family.

Now many men had the unforgetable experience of being under shellfire for the first time. Whenever it might occur and whatever experiences might follow, it is safe to say no one forgot that first crashing detonation, at once so sharp and loud, and the great geyser of earth and d6bris which spouted up into a gigantic mushroom of smoke and then drifted slowly off, while a man always asked himself: "Where will the next come?" At night the air raids, which had already begun in our earlier position, became more numerous. The French populace rushed into such abris and cellars as were available. The Americans generally waited where they were with a fatalism which indicated no lack of interest in the outcome.

On June 4th, came the order for the 2nd British Division to leave its support position and take over the front line just south of Arras. In simple form these directions were received at the 308th Regimental Headquarters. Captain Whittlesey, then Operations Officer, drew up the orders for the different Battalions, giving the information as to place, time, and manner of relief of the front line troops. When this order reached the Battalions, they learned that they were to be broken up and lose their identity as such.

Even the companies were to be taken from their captains. The platoons of the companies were to be attached to British companies, and thus the platoons only were to preserve their identity.

Everything was ready to accomplish the disposal of the American troops just described, when only a little more than twenty-four hours before the relief, everything was countermanded. So close did the 308th come to being merged into the British Army, when, in the sudden dramatic manner described, its identity was saved by the memorable and history-making decision of General Pershing to use American troops under American command.

And so on the afternoon of June 6th, with the order to go into the front line under British command suddenly rescinded, the Brigades started hiking in another direction. Lewis guns had been returned, Enfields re-exchanged for the original Springfields, when with a final "Cheerio" to our British friends, we left them behind.

Good-by-eel Don't cry-ee!
Wipe the fear, baby dear, from your eye-ee!
Though it's hard to part, I know,
I'll be tickled to death to go.
Don't cry-ee! Don't sigh-ee!
There's a silver lining in the sky-ee!
Bon soir, Old Thing! Cheerio! Chin, chin!
Na pooh:" Toodledy-oo-Good-by-ee!
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