20. The Argonne

Charles Wadsworth Camp



THE first intimation the 305th had that it would be relieved was brought by advance parties from General Garibaldi's Italian division. The sight of these strange faces and uniforms indicated to everyone that the regiment was going out for a well-earned rest. How deceitful that opinion was, everyone remembers; but the occasion was important and exciting. All our men of Italian parentage greeted the newcomers with joy and hospitality. There was much excited conversation. There were more interpreters than could possibly be used.

While the Italians reconnoitered the Americans packed -joyously, too. The prospect of billets, baths, and cooked food was alluring after more than two months in the line. The thought of quiet after a month of such fighting as the Vesle had developed, was frankly welcome.

The movement commenced on the night of September 15-16. No one had any idea where he was going, except that it was to the rear. And the belief in billets was touchingly firm.

Down roads on which they had advanced under shell fire, the columns wound through the fragmentary and odorus remains of Fismette and Fismes, past Les Pres Farm, at which some fists were shaken, through Chery Chartreuve for the last time, and to the crossroads just beyond where the two battalions rendezvoused.

When the last man was up, the regiment took the road to the left through Dravegny where our infantry was regrouping, Cohan, and Coulognes, to the Bois de Meuniere which was selected for the first bivouac. Between eight o'clock in the evening and three in the morning the column covered 23 kilometers.

After the exhausting work of the past two months -it was a tired, nearly voiceless column that rode away from the flares, the flashes, and the star shells. Many drivers slept on their horses. The cannoneers, doomed to walk, stumbled forward, only half awake.

There was a delay of nearly half an hour just before reaching the bivouac. The column halted as if automatically. The men rested where they were, deciding it was quite like old times. Impatience seized a group of officers, and they rode forward to learn, if they could, why the halt continued. Ahead the road was open save for one obstacle. A machine gun cart rested in the middle. On the seat was a dozing driver. Attached to the cart was a mule, supremely indifferent and content. The group awakened the driver hurriedly.

"Reckon," he yawned by way of explanation, "Jinny's decided she's gone far enough tonight."
Jinny and her master suffered the application of united brute force, and watched the column go by.
It was on this first stage that Battery F wandered astray. In the dark it mistook the 306th column for our own, and followed it for some time, until scouts located it, explained the situation, and led it back to the fold.

During the day men fought the light and the noise again for a little sleep, and at 8 o'clock moved out once more. In the early morning the carriages rumbled across the Marne on an engineers bridge at Vermeuil. The average man's sensations were very different from those aroused by his previous crossing at Chateau Thierry. And again the river was a dividing line. The country seemed immeasurably less disturbed to the south. The march lost its sense of being made under the menace of aeroplanes. And at Mareuil-le-Pont, where that twenty kilometer stage ended, an officer brought joy with several motor trucks assigned to the regiment for the transportation of a certain number of dismounted men. Sixty were chosen from each organization and put in charge of Lieutenants Brassel, Putnam, and Copelin. Although it wasn't generally known at the time, the destination of these trucks was La Grange, three kilometers northwest of St. Mennehould. The rest of the regiment, condemned to the long hike, continued to foresee a glorious rest ahead. The rumor was that the billets were four days' march away.

Mareuil-le-Pont had other cheering features. The weather still held fair. The country, not yet scourged by autumn, was pleasant to men fresh from the gashed slopes and devastated forests of battlefields. The gun park, the picket lines, the straight rows of shelter tents were arranged in pleasant fields; and in the village the civilian population went about its business. There were shops, for the first time since Doue, and they specialized in a fresh cheese that nearly everyone added to his rations. Best of all the column didn't form again until 10 'clock of the morning of the 18th, so that there was all day and a large part of the night for rest.

The roads now were not particularly congested. The regiment traveled rapidly, which is far less fatiguing than a snail's march with many halts.

It was generally known by this time that the French were routing the column, and were keeping it off the congested main lines of supplies. Therefore twenty kilometers were covered by 11 o'clock on the morning of the 18th to the summit of a high hill at Greuves, near Epernay.

The weather threatened here, but the place had matters of interest. It was in the heart of the Champagne country, and the wine was plentiful, cheap, and harmless, as far as one could judge. Thirst was excusable after the last two miles of that stage. The horses would have given up the grade if the men hadn't encouraged them and put shoulders to the wheels.

At 4 o'clock the next morning the regiment was on the road again. Its route lay through the plains of the Marne, a rich country sheltering farms and vineyards which had not experienced the harsher touches of war, There was an added spur to muscles and spirits this day. For wasn't it the fourth stage? Wouldn't night see every-one in the paradise of rest billets?

But the march closed towards noon at Ferme Notre Dame, twenty kilometers southeast of Chalons.
"That's all right," men said wisely. "They're putting another day on the march to make it easier for us. We'll sleep tonight and get there tomorrow."

Yet certainly no one would have chosen to stop at Ferme Notre Dame to make things easier. It was a place at once beautiful and abominable. There was only one well at some distance from the main buildings, so , that it took five hectic hours to water the animals once.
Word passed around that the start wouldn't be made until late the next morning. It fitted in. A short march, then rest, baseball, baths, delousing!

The regiment didn't move out in fact, until 6:30 of the 20th, but the stage lengthened into twenty kilometers, and ended during the middle of the afternoon in meadows near Cheppes, on the bank of the little river Guenelle. For the first time doubt appeared in men's faces.
"What does it mean? " they asked one another.
"Ah," some answered carelessly, "we'll get there tomorrow, or, if not, the day after. This isn't so bad."
Nor was it for men or animals. The one bathed and washed clothing in the river; the othergrazed contentedly in the lush meadows.

Suspicions, too, were lulled when Captain Ried was ordered by Brigade Headquarters to reconnoiter to the south in the vicinity of Bassu for the next night's bivouac. Swinging further to the south, of course, meant rest. But the next morning that hope died. A change was announced. The regiment wasn't going south, and French officers appeared and warned commanders of the necessity of seeking concealment most carefully from now on. At 5:30 on the afternoon of September 21st the regiment moved out-to the northeast, and everybody knew it meant the front again.

The attitude of the men in face of this abrupt change was stimulating. No matter how brave or blood-thirsty he may be, a soldier who expects rest and is suddenly shot back into the line must experience a vivid disappointment. The 305th had the air of having foreseen such a fate. They talked cheerfully of a huge, new offensive which couldn't possibly be successful without the presence of our regiment. If there was any grumbling it was done under the breath.

The march was quick. After twenty-five kilometers the column halted at 11 P.m. in Busy-le-Repos, and found a confusion already suggestive of the front. The 304th had bivouacked in and about the town. Few billets were available for headquarters, and the nearby fields were crowded. The regiment settled itself where it could.

If there had remained any doubts they would have been dispelled here. Captain Olney, from Brigade Headquarters; Captain Reed, from the First Battalion, Lieutenant Wilhite, from the Second Battalion; Lieutenant Mots, from Regimental Headquarters; and officers from the 304th and 306th were ordered forty kilometers forward by motor truck to Les Islettes to make a reconnaissance, locate positions, and figure data.
This party left on the morning of the22nd-the advance guard of the Brigade into the Argonne.

At Les Islettes they were met by French corps artillery officers, assigned to support the Americans. These French-men had foreseen everything, which was fortunate in view of the difficult and tricky Argonne terrain.

They took our officers to the point near Florent which they had selected for the regimental echelon. They led them, then, carefully forward almost to the front lines, and pointed out positions for the First Battalion a kilometer due east of La Chalade, and others for the Second Battalion a kilometer and a half northwest of the First.
These choices were clearly the best available, so the reconnaissance party set to work checking up targets and data.

While they figured in the forest the regiment resumed its march, leaving Busy-le-Repos on the night of the 9.2nd to bivouac a few hours the next day at Verri6res. The column went on that night to the vicinity of St. Menne-hould.

For the moment Regimental Headquarters established itself at the Florent echelon from where it superintended the regrouping of the command and made arrangements for its entry into position at the earliest possible moment.

The men who had come by truck from Mareuil-le-Pont had had a good rest. Moreover, they were full of the gossip of the sector, and possessed rumors without end about what was going to happen.

The situation was, in many respects, fruitful of rumors.

Positive orders came from the highest command that no American soldier was to risk exposure to enemy observation unless he wore a French uniform. That made scouts and observers near the front line masquerade. It also meant that a surprise attack on a gigantic scale was in the wind. Yet no one suspected then how big the scheme really was. The terrain, indeed, seemed badly suited to anything of the sort. War here had practically paused for more than four years. The reason lay before every-one's eyes-the woods and the hills of the Argonne.

Here, one of the few points where position warfare had persisted, both the French and the Huns had developed deep and elaborate trench systems. A large proportion of the work was in cement. There was an elaborate net of barbed wire. The prospect of attacking such defenses head-on was not cheerful. It was whispered, however, that our doughboys were waiting only for our support to go over.

The situation, meantime, remained placid. There was very little firing. As far as could be learned there were no raids. Either the Bosche had been fooled and didn't know what was gathering, or else he was waiting with a little surprise of his own. A day or two now would show.
Both battalions moved into the positions selected near La Chalade during the early morning of September 24th. Regimental Headquarters at the same time went forward to Ferme Ferdinand.

Those positions were trying on both officers and men, not because of enemy harassing but because of their exhausting natural difficulties. Out in front in No -Man's Land, and for a considerable distance back the forest survived only as a ghostly collection of stripped tree trunks. Two thousand meters to the rear, however, where our guns were placed, it had suffered less, and there was a dense underbrush with practically no tracks. The cannoneers, in consequence, had to chop a way in. The pieces were unlimbered on the road, then manhandled a half a kilometer through the brush to their emplacements. That would have been hard enough by daylight. Before the dawn it was a task for a Hercules with the vision of a cat. Still it was done before sunrise and the work of consolidation was got under way.

These positions were in a piece of forest known as the Bois de Haut Batis. They were near some old French reserve trenches in which our infantry waited for the great moment. The doughboys didn't seem to know exactly what was going to happen to them, or to care particularly. The difficulties of the terrain failed to appal them. They watched curiously the artillerymen as they went about their labor.

Ammunition was the chief difficulty. The firing would be intense. Consequently vast quantities of shells would be required at the emplacements. Time was short. Word to commence firing might come at any minute. Yet a point on the road about 400 meters from the guns was the nearest place to which projectiles could be transported on wheels. The G. S. carts dropped them there, and the battery men carried them one by one through the tangled underbrush.

This work went on during September 9.4th and 25th, while everyone wondered if the Bosche wouldn't observe such diligence and compliment it with a little heavy fire.

An odd incident happened on the 25th. There hadn't been a single high explosive burst near these positions, nor were there any later, yet that day six gas shells fell among the pieces of the First Battalion, or in the road nearby.

One of these shells cost the regiment a valuable messenger. Private Carlos Montgomery was thrown from his bicycle by the explosion. Pieces of the casing struck him in the knee, and before he could get his mask on the gas bad burned his eyes severely. He was evacuated and invalided to the States.

Yet within a few yards of where he was injured another gas shell fell beneath a G. S. cart, which five men were manhandling, and failed to injure or gas one of the five.

From the start in the Argonne it was clear that new difficulties of observation would be met. Here and there were observatories cleverly concealed in trees or on the heights above the Biesme River which ran through the French trench system. Officers and men, disguised as poilus, climbed into these, but found the outlook from all unsatisfactory.

Communication, on the other hand, was comparatively simple in the first Argonne position. Regimental Headquarters, the two battalions, the observatories, and the infantry were closely grouped. Later, when the advance commenced, those in liaison with the front line had a good deal of difficulty keeping headquarters informed as to the details of a changing and hazardous situation.

At last the orders came down. The regiment would open fire at 2:30 on the morning of September 26th.

The volume of noise that burst forth at that moment was greater than the Argonne had ever known. To the men serving the guns the terrific uproar came as a surprise. They had not suspected such a mass of artillery had been collected for the drive.

The Germans, whatever they had learned, were stunned by this merciless fire. It was continued until the infantry went over shortly after daybreak. It shifted then to a rolling barrage. It had finally, because of the rapid advance of the infantry and shortage of ammunition, to cease altogether for a time.

Runners brought back word of what was happening out in front. Over the cement trenches and strong points, through the mazes of barbed wire, and the natural barriers of the forest, the infantry made that first day an advance of three kilometers. The artillery would have to move forward at once. The limbers were hurried down and the pieces went over difficult roads through the old French trench system three kilometers to the vicinity of La Harazee

Regimental Headquarters established itself in the remains of the town, and the two battalions went into position side by side within two thousand meters of the new front line.

There were dugouts here, large, luxurious, and fairly safe. So the personnel of the three headquarters and the batteries made themselves comfortable.

But, it developed, there would be no let up in the drive. It would go on at once. New missions were assigned. It was during those days that citizen officers and soldiers displayed an exceptional cleverness and adaptability. They located their guns and their targets on the map, and, frequently without registration, as frequently without observation even, blazed merrily away. It was like firing a revolver in the dark yet when the regiment moved forward it could check up on its accuracy. Then dead Bosche, destroyed shelters, and machine gun emplacements, a torn forest, offered their mute and terrible praise.

The second day the infantry made two kilometers. After that it slowed down for a time, so that by lengthening the range the entire regiment remained in these emplacements until the 30th.

On that morning the First Battalion decided to get farther forward. Major Easterday left at 7 o'clock to reconnoiter for new positions. Captain Reed was to follow with the battalion at 10 to a point near the Abri de Crochet. The infantry had captured this important and pleasant place a day or two before. On the map it appeared as a crossroads. It was, One estimated, scarcely 1000 meters from the front line.

That distance, it was expected, would soon be decidedly widened. It was to some extent, but for a time now the progress of our infantry, was reduced to nearly nothing. There were a number of reasons. The effect of the first rush was over. The men were tired. Every battalion had had serious losses. While the Germans gathered themselves for a stand, several divisions-probably nearly 200,000 men were rushed to their support. In addition to these fresh odds, the country had become if anything more difficult than at first. Then before the advance could get fairly started once more the affair of the Lost Battalion helped hold things up. But on this day of Major Easterday's reconnaissance the advance continued, if slowly.

The battalion halted short of the crossroads while Captains Reed, Dana, and Ravenel, and Lieutenant Kane rode forward to find the major. When, after some time, they joined him, he said he had chosen positions a kilometer and a half to the rear. Coming up the battery commanders had seen these positions, and they were by no means enthusiastic. Major Easterday as usual was ready to weigh the opinions of his battery commanders. Captain Reed meantime had pushed through a fringe of trees and had seen positions on a slope to the right which he believed had possibilities, if a small amount of cutting should be done. Major Easterday approved and with the battery commanders studied the ground more closely, locating positions in which no cutting at all was necessary. in the altogether delightful Abri de Crochet.

Delightful is really the word, for here, in a sort of amphitheater, the Bosche during four years had developed the rarest refinements of position warfare life. The place possessed enormous and intricate dugouts, some of them boring into the rock for nearly a hundred feet. They were furnished. Food, even, had been left, ready to cook, by the hurried Germans. Chlorinated water was forgotten for a time, for the dugouts were well stocked with mineral water, and some stronger liquids. Shower baths invited. Fire wood was cut and piled. Tramways ran here and there for convenience in bringing up supplies.

The network extended so far that battery command posts fared as well as battalion.

The Battery A commander had an experience the first day that illustrates as well as anything else the elaborate scheme of the system. The B commander and he had their eyes on the same dugout. Captain Ravenel got to it first. Captain Dana chose another some distance away. Everyone had long since learned to examine such places for traps. Captain Dana and Lieutenant Stribling went in at once, therefore, with flash lamps, and searched through the galleries. They came to a door. They halted. For something with a slow stealth moved beyond the panels.

In whispers the two officers discussed the situation. A German spy might have been left behind to wait in this comparatively safe retreat until he could slip through the lines with a plan of the American artillery dispositions. There was only one thing to do. The door had to be opened.

The two loosened the pistols in their holsters. Captain Dana raised the lamp. He flung the door wide with a sudden gesture, prepared for emergencies. Across the threshold stood, in much the same attitude, with much the same suspicions, Captain Ravenel.

Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 West Corporation. All rights reserved.