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The Advance to the Aisne


HISTORY OF THE 305th Infantry
by
Frank Tiebout

Chapter 6

THE ADVANCE TO THE AISNE


CHAPTER VI
THE ADVANCE TO THE AISNE

THE Second Battalion had been relieved again, dragging its weary feet back to Mareuil en Dole all through the night of September 1st, moving on backward the following night through Nesle to Sergy, twenty kilos from the front. "Next morning, we started in before breakfast to pick cooties from our clothes by the hundreds, to splash in the River Ourcq, a dinky stream hardly big enough to hold a fish, and to lie around naked in the grass. First call for drill blew. We cursed like Bowery hoboes for we were tired, and they were starting to hand out their dizzy orders to drill. All we wanted was an opportunity to write home; but no chance, as they figured on getting all the work they could out of us. That was unfair, for we done our work well and figured we earned a rest for all the stuff that was pulled off up on the Vesle."

The night of the 3d the tired troops were roused from their slumbers by a stirring, Call to Arms. Messengers ran up with orders to roll combat packs and be ready to move out at a moment's notice. After waiting interminably, an officer hiked to Battalion Headquarters for further instructions, only to find the entire establishment sound asleep.

But by noon of the following day, it was rumored that the German was on the run. Off to the northward packed the troops in haste, picking up rations, ordnance and ammunition amidst all the hustle and bustle and flurry at Nesle. As far as the old positions at Mareuil en Dole the columns struggled under a broiling sun, only to be ordered onward to the Bois de Mareuil, where every man got two hand grenades, ammunition for rifle, pistol and Chauchat, and the weighty old rifle grenades. The tromblons or grenade dischargers were long since conveniently "lost" on account of their weight. But there was no rest for weary bodies. The other battalions had crossed the river, and this one must occupy a strong position in old St. Thibaut. There it rested for the night, thoroughly spent.

The success of de Rhara's patrol had sent the entire First Battalion under temporary command of Captain Purcell over the river to positions previously designated on the plateau to the north. The Third Battalion followed under command of Lieutenant Husband, Major Woodward having been evacuated, sick. An order to resume the advance kept the men on their feet most of the night. In skirmish line they ploughed around in circles, one company hopelessly lost, accomplishing an advance of about two kilometers.

How different St. Thibaut looked at dusk, as the Second Battalion filed through, even more crumpled and twisted than it had been three days before. Old Number Thirteen was still standing. But instead of shells crashing right and left, instead of the streets being deserted, here were columns of troops in single file, motor trucks, limbers, fourgons, ammunition trains boldly occupying avenues down which had poured streams of machine gun bullets, waist-high and whistling. There was the old First Aid station, now a pile of stone and dust, and the embankment where the first casualties had occurred; but the curiosity seekers were to be denied further reminiscent investigation. Enemy shelling had diverted traffic to the west over a hastily constructed bridge and through the old railroad yards where the 306th had a week before lost the better part of an entire company in attacking Bazoches. Here and there lay the dead of the previous month's fighting, although burying and salvaging parties had that day started a search and a cleaning up of the former No Man's Land.

The advance through Bazoches was as calm and quiet as the seventh inning of a world's series game at the Polo Grounds - there was shelling a little bit further up the river, the enemy having the wrong tip on our bridges. We crossed the battered railroad track behind which forward elements had once dug for protection, and which we secretly hoped the engineers would rapidly reconstruct so that we could use it soon when moving out to a rest area.

Skirting the town, other columns struggled through the jam of vehicular traffic to the Rheims-Rouen road, thence east and north around the base of the ominous hill which had confronted us for so many days, and from which the Germans had poured down on our heads a rain of machine gun bullets, " Minnies " and 88's. Full in the road lay the body of a German soldier -over which the trucks were passing, to and fro. "Ah" said the boys, "there's a good German!"

About ten kilometers for the most part a lofty plateau cleft at intervals by steep ravines-lay between St. Thibaut and the Aisne. Although the Germans were mighty anxious to reach the heights of the Chemin des Dames north of the Aisne, they sought to retard the advance of the Americans as, much as possible while defenses were being prepared. Their machine gun fire and heavy shellfire swept the heights over which the Regiment passed; yet casualties were comparatively slight.

Major Metcalf had rejoined and on the morning of the 6th constituted and held down the frontline all by himself. With a couple of runners he went forward of Vauxcere and Pincon Farm and located the large cave behind Longueval as a possible headquarters, sending back for his staff and corralling the scattered companies. It had been reported that the 307th had rapidly advanced beyond that point on the right - that the 28th Division, further to the right, had reached the Aisne-and " for God's sake, hurry up." They were nowhere near the river! The 307th was blocked at Petite Montagne. On our right, the "front" extended sharply to the southeast, leaving about three kilometers of flank exposed. Our sector stuck out like a sore thumb! D Company had been ordered into position to the right of Villers en Praye'res, and had sought shelter from a terrific burst of shelling in a small ravine where they were virtually imprisoned for several days. B Company entered the latter village and took position in the outskirts of it, A Company extending to the left. The Third Battalion was hurried into the breach offered by the exposed flank, unable to make much effective progress in the dead of night, but hoping to get there before the enemy could launch a counter attack, which would have been disastrous indeed for b Company in its precarious position.

At this juncture, a message came through from the French to the effect that they politely and earnestly hoped for the capture of Longueval. Major Metcalf sat calmly on a log several kilos beyond it. A few minutes before, the 1st sergeant and clerk of C Company had stumbled into it seeking shelter, and hoping to find some point where the affairs of the company might be administered. Since it was "held" by a 1st sergeant and a company clerk was it not proper to report the town as already captured by C Company?

"In this locality there were numerous excavations and old limestone quarries which afforded considerable shelter, although likely gas pockets. These positions were consolidated by additional digging, and the Regiment entered upon another period of semistabilized warfare, such as had been experienced on the Vesle, while our artillery crowding up from the rear grad-ually increased the din. Shelling, during the days and nights of the advance, and particularly after the Regiment had dug itself in, was at times of the most furious density. The German batteries would seem to let loose in all their power and shells would fall as fast as hundreds of guns, heavily concentrated, could drive them." The doughboy, while he knows that without friendly artillery his task would be considerably more difficult, can never overcome the feeling that he bears the brunt of the artillery duels. It is a case, he argues ., of the opposing artillery units saying, " I'll blow your infantry to bits while you try to bust mine."

The first real attack participated in by the Three Hundred and Fifth was disastrous. Company A had been ordered to advance on the morning of the 7th against machine gun outposts which lined the Aisne Canal, in conjunction with a parallel advance by elements of the 306th upon the immediate left. At five A. M. everything was in readiness for a six o'clock jump-off - but liaison failed. A countermanding order which subsequently came to the other regiment did not reach Lieutenant Dwyer, commanding Company A, in time. One of his platoons proceeded successfully over a stretch of exposed terrain before the rest of the company took up the advance. Immediately, the Germans who had perfect observation of the movement opened up from the left, the front and the right with everything they had-machine guns, trench mortars and " ' whizz-bangs." The company commander was killed, the only other company officer wounded, and many more grievous casualties sustained.

Without officers, the non-coms kept the company well in hand and held their gains until relief could be brought up at nightfall.

C Company went into that position. "Our first night was' ' you might say, tranquil,," one of its members writes. "We didn't know who was on the right nor who was on our left, nor just how many there were on our front. German flares appeared on three sides of us. But, aside from that, the constant shelling and the machine gun jabbering, we had not a thing to worry, about."

In Villers en Prayeres, the enemy persisted in shelling close to the company P. C., making it so uncomfortable that a change of headquarters was necessary. The street was termed "Shell Shock Alley" and it lived up to its reputation. Shelled out of that second place, they sought a third, finally doing a successful business in an old French sheet-iron dugout. During the day the men found not much to do, excepting to draw rations and avoid 88's, which came in more liberal doses than the rations. Back in the support positions of the Second Battalion near Pincon Farm, the shelling was just as heavy and just as constant. " Yet," said Captain Briggs, " I maintain that this helmet is no earthly good, whatsoever." That apparently ended the argument, for the Captain disappeared around an elbow of trench. At that instant, a shell burst on the parapet; in a moment, he staggered again into view with a dent in the top of his tin hat as big as your fist. "Beg pardon," he gasped; "you're right; I'm wrong."

Naturally, the runners who almost without exception proved themselves a game and loyal crew found their work in this situation particularly dangerous and difficult. The poor little devils not only had to carry messages back and forth, morning and night, always in readiness, but took their turn at carrying rations, standing gas guard through the night, and the like. When all is said and done, the runners perform one of the most difficult and important jobs the army in the field has to offer. Our hats are off to them.

Those who drove the ration carts up through Vauxcer6 at night under fire in an effort to bring hot food to the weary, mud-stained men in the trenches deserve their meed of praise as well. Despite their good work, supplies were often low. Beyond the support line at Pincon Farm everything had to be carried, in order to sustain those units feeling forward as far as the Aisne. A doughboy from D Company has a story to tell which he calls Fifty-fifty in the Front Lines: "During the advance, all we had in the line of eats was our iron rations, consisting of one can of beef and about half a pound of hardtack; our kitchens of course couldn't go right along with us. Yet, I was lucky enough to have grabbed off an extra can of beef. After I had shared this with two other men, I was stripped clean, as far as food was concerned. So were most of the others. But food has nothing to do with orders, so we were soon on our way forward again, without food. Later in the day I managed to get a few hardtack and half a canteen of water off a dead man. That night I received orders to report to Battalion Headquarters, to which I was sometimes attached as scout, and next morning I was handed a nice job-looking for one of the companies which hadn't been heard from for some time. Gosh, but I was hungry, yet I couldn't stop. After searching the ground ahead for about six hours, seeing no one but a German airman who kept me ducking, I landed up on the left of our sector, finding a captain of the 306th about to have something to eat in his cramped dugout. When I arrived on the scene, there were about three sardines and four hardtack. He must have noticed how I looked sideways at the ban-quet table, for he asked if I was hungry. I told him when I had eaten last, and be said, 'Well, I'll go you fifty-fifty,' and handed me a cracker with a fish on it. I got what dope he could give me, and we went up top to have a look around. And then to my surprise he added, You'd better go down and tackle another shark and a cracker before you go.' I had often read how officers got pretty familiar with the men in the trenches. He seemed on the verge of doing it so I risked slapping him on the back-and obeyed orders."

It was not long before the kitchens were herded under a shed at Vauxcere where cooks and " K. P.'s " ground out doughnuts, coffee and other good things, despite the shellfire. Even then, one never knew just when the next meal could be trundled up by a carrying party. "Sir," announced an orderly, poking his head around a traverse in the trench, "dinner is served ... .. What's on the menu today? " inquired the captain with an air. "Well, we have some very fine quail." Not quite, but almost! Spitted and neatly broiled over a can of solidified alcohol was a scrawny old nondescript bird which a runner had picked up on the trail, killed by a shell fragment.

The Third Battalion had taken over the front lines. Friday, the 13th, had been successfully tucked away without disaster, when 'long about the night of the 14th, came a welcome crowd of Italians trying to stuff both donkeys and drivers into the dugouts. They put six or seven men into a hole where two of us had felt crowded before, and left cabbage leaves, cheese rinds, and all sorts of garbage lying around.

"Relieved by the Roman Army, commanded by one of Old General Garibaldi's descendants," writes a doughboy. "They seemed to have precious little ammunition but lots of chow, which made them welcome. A very compact little army-men, mules, wagons, guns, everything all bunched up in the middle of the road as we had been taught not to do it. If Jerry had ever gotten a line on them and planted a few shells in their midst, Marc Antony would have had to write up another burial oration."

It was a ten-hour affair-that hike to the rear through Vauxcer6, Bazoches, St. Thibaut, Chery Chartreuve, Nesle and Sergy to Dravigny. But awaiting the boys were the old packs and real food; grape jam, cookies and oodles of cigarettes from the Auxiliary; again a stream to bathe in, good cover for the dog tents and a canteen in which to spend our pay. Lots of mail, too. The few officers and men who had to remain twelve hours to show the Italian relief the ins and outs of the old positions went bowling to the rear next day in a French motor, lorry, feeling as happy as if on the road from Camp Upton to New York. One could bask in the sun, finally out of shell fire, watching the old observation balloons lazily riding up in the north, though potted now and then by the impertinent German aeroplanes. "Had a young meal of beefsteak, potatoes, onions, coffee, bread, rice, crullers, jam and four cartons of cigarettes," boasted one of the grimi-est, lustiest boys ever seen. I et till I near bust."

" Save your money for the big town," was the word. The rumor spread that we were going into a rest area. The officers spread it. They announced it to cheering throngs. They got it straight from higher up.

It was even said we were going to parade triumphantly in Paris. Great was our happiness-for we thought we deserved a rest, having been under a continual nervous strain and worse since the latter part of June.

A day of inspection followed one night of undisturbed rest. At 4.35 a luscious meal was brewing merrily in the bursting kitchens, mess kits itching for the welcome thud of chow upon their brilliant inner surfaces. But, "The battalions will be ready to march with full equipment at 4.30," read the order which dumped both fires and food upon the unappreciative ground while mystified men rolled up their baggage in preparation for the gruelling dash to Cohan and Coulonges. But that was all right. Who wouldn't willingly sacrifice a dinner for the ride on lorries to " the big town? "

" We'll sing till the lorries arrive," said a bunch of men sitting by the roadside at half-past eight. They did - but throats were raw, and the songs they sang dated back to the days of " Bedelia " long ere one o'clock, at which hour the stream of dusty camions drew up. Those French drivers had not slept under a roof for eight days, they said, having transported troops from one part of France to another without rest. Their driving showed it. Without illumination of any kind, the trucks tore through the night. At dawn their speed in the direction of Verdun increased to the point of recklessness. Drivers dozed at the wheel and trucks collided, crushing the careless feet which hung over a tailboard; they ran into the ditch; they interviewed unyielding trees; one truck overturned, sending a couple of men with broken ribs to the hospital. Minor halts while in the districts of Champagne permitted hungry, thirsty men to leap from the camions for the pilfering of dusty grapes from vineyards bordering the road; but there ensued a race to make up for lost time. Through Epernay and Chalons the Americans were roundly cheered by old women and children who seemed to care not at all if someone vaulted the hedge to steal an apple, hitching on as best he might when a following truck swept by

To live in dog tents in a slippery, hilly pine grove near Viel Dampierre, which was probably never plotted on any living map, certainly did not resemble life in "the big town ... .. Red Mike" was scarcely proper food for a man oil vacation. To be ordered out for drill and at the same time warned to keep undercover suggested no proximity to a Rest Camp. "Somebody is dizzy," was the general verdict. Yet, there was still hope. Sudden ordrs arrived the night of the 19th not to turn in, but to strike tents at once. Then an order to pitch tents! With the tents going up and the rain coming down, another order to roll them tip again! At eleven o'clock the Regiment marched north.

"Where are we going now?" Corporals asked their sergeants, and sergeants asked their lieutenants. They, not knowing, asked the privates who get things by wireless. " Why, to the big town; St. Menehould is just north of here! " You should have seen the men hike! It was a cinch to keel) them from straggling-everyone in fine humor, believing that finally he was on the way to the rail head. In fine humor until the column struggled through St. Menehould without stopping.

This quite outdid anything previously suffered-even during the Battle of Watten. At 8.30 next morning, the Regiment hove into Neufour in two factions: the superhuman half of the Regiment, and the human half in charge of the provost guards. With blistered feet and aching bodies, a few found shelter; the others dropped from sheer exhaustion where halted in the street, despite the frantic protests of the French quartered there who feared that enemy planes would discover the advent of American troops in a sector new to them. War gardens were plundered, for nothing edible arrived until the middle of the afternoon. When Colonel Smedberg remarked at Brigade Headquarters that the troops were much too crowded to enjoy this rest area the answer was, "We go into the line tomorrow. "

That night we relieved the French, taking over all but the forward outposts, with heavy hearts.
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