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Chapter 3. Lorraine


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

Lorraine


LORRAINE

ON June seventeenth, the First Battalion moved to the ruined hamlet of Mesnil, the high-water mark of German invasion in September, 1914, and thence, the next evening, to Vacqueville, a dirty and inhospitable little village close behind the rather ill-defined Line of Resistance. On the twentieth, Battalion Headquarters moved up to St. Maurice, with companies D and A on the front and support of the right sector at Neuviller, and companies C and B on the left in Grand Bois, relieving the forward elements of the Forty-second Division on the line during the night of the twenty-first. The Third Battalion moved on the eighteenth to the meadows outside Rambervillers, and the next evening through the town, against the turbulent counter-current of the Forty-second's Alabamans, a splendid-looking lot of men, who appeared only by chance to be wearing uniforms.

With darkness came rain, at first a few large drops and then a roaring cloudburst. The evening had started fair and the raincoats were stowed inside the packs, where they alone remained dry. Somewhere in the drenching darkness ahead was a convoy of motor ambulances, traveling at the unexhausting rate of two miles an hour, and halting every fifteen or twenty minutes for repairs. Then the rain ceased and moonlight flooded the dark sprucewood, lighting mysterious vistas in its wet and misty depths. Through the gaunt ruins and moon-blanched streets of Mesnil the black column wound its way, looking beneath its gleaming steel like some invading host of old, but feeling less romantic than tired and wet. Toward midnight it reached Deneuvre on the hilltop overlooking Baccarat and billeted amid its crooked alleys in barns already crowded with troops who were supposed to have left.

The day following the troops moved across the Meurthe to the Haxo Barracks of Baccarat for another week of training, including the first firing with the new rifles and recently issued chauchat guns, and the first general use of rifle and live hand-grenades. The initial nervousness of most in handling the latter, and their evident desire to get rid of them, once the detonator had been fired, in almost any direction, was ample proof of the value of this opportunity without which, however, the First Battalion had entered the line. On the twenty-second, the Second Battalion took station on the Line of Resistance at Vacqueville, where Regimental Headquarters had also been located, and with the Supply Company at Creviller the regiment had established itself in its new sector.

The battalion at Haxo Barracks was for rest and training; that at Vacqueville and Les Carrieres for a perfunctory manning of the Line of Resistance with half-companies, while the rest could practice their chauchats and Eve grenades in the nearby quarry; and the forward Battalion held two companies on the outpost line and two on the Line of Support, which was in fact a line of resistance, that in front of Vacqueville not yet having been dug.

The region about and behind the front was of vast woodlands alternating with open and dusty meadows. In places the woods had been blown to pieces with artillery fire, and in places the meadows were pitted with craters of sun-cracked clay. One particular stretch of open marsh, near some abandoned artillery emplacements on the Line of Resistance, had been churned up into something like the surface of a sponge, and still, on misty nights, reeked with the sickish acid smell of gas. The white dusty roads were lined with dilapidated festoons of burlap, or screens of wilted and dust- covered rushes-to shelter from observation such traffic as must pass. Little half-ruined villages of roofless walls and tumbled masonry, like empty sea shells upon some desolate coast, lined the high-water mark of early invasion -and in the center of each rose the skeleton of some beautiful old church, its tower pierced with shell-holes and its entrance blocked by the fallen chimes.

The line was throughout jointly held with the French and under their command, one platoon of French being usually interlarded with two of Americans. The intention was for the practical instruction of inexperienced troops in trench-life and patrolling, the sector being notoriously a quiet one-in fact the opposing lines were substantially as determined in the first winter of the war. But while the French, especially the company officers, did their very best to produce cooperation, the system. was not regarded as successful by most on the American side. Extremely few of the officers and practically none of the enlisted men could speak each other's language, making whispered consultations in No Man's Land somewhat unfruitful of result; the orders for the defence of the sector were written in French and did not obtain translation until Major Jay, of the Second Battalion, so translated them during his tenure of the front; and the habit of the French outposts of firing on principle, broadcast through the night, got on the unseasoned American nerves, without mentioning the resultant danger to friendly patrols who were trying to win home.

At dawn of June twenty-fourth the regiment and the brigade first came to hand-grips with the German, with results largely in favor of the latter. Neuviller, a tiny ruined village on an isolated hill, that must once have been a very pleasant little spot, and is still, though more grimly, picturesque, with its loopholed cobblestone barricades, stood out as a dangerous salient from the French lines. The road to it from St. Maurice was still intact, but counted as No Man's Land; and its garrison of two American platoons and one French had only a single communicating trench, some three hundred yards long, connecting it across the marsh, for retreat or reenforcement, with their ting troops at the Moulin des Tocs. and Buisson, though at this time the support company was also forward in the Bois de la Voivre. The defences of the village were an extensive and intricate system of largely abandoned trenches, whose field-of-fire, in so far as it had ever existed, was in great measure obscured by overgrowing bushes. There were also dugouts, which have no proper place on an outpost line, and all indications pointed to its having been originally laid out for a purpose quite different from that for which it was now being used. Its present garrison was too weak for effective defense and too large for speedy withdrawal; the general orders of the Americans were clear about holding any part of the line entrusted to them; the policy of the French, though not then well understood, appeared to be to withdraw when attacked and counterattack. The Americans further had not yet had time to become accustomed either to their ground or to their weapons, the Machine Gun Company, which had two guns in the western outskirts of the village, and one near the Moulin des Toes, having also been very recently rearmed with Hotchkiss guns in place of the Vickers, and very insufficiently armed with automatic pistols-only three to the squad of eight having been issued. In reference to the time required for preparing Americans to meet the German armies in the field it is worth noting that though many of these men had trained for nine months as soldiers, yet, due to this exchange of arms, they first entered the line with weapons with which less than fifty per cent of their teams were familiar. This on the 307th front was the setting for the brief drama; with the 308th on the right at Badonviller the results obtained indicated much the same conditions.

About three A. M. of the twenty-fourth, a single shell came wailing in from over the Saillant du Feys and exploded near the church; two more followed, and then the storm burst. It extended over the Grand Bois des Haies on the left, through St. Maurice and the Bois de la Voivre, heavily mixed with gas, back across the Bois des Champs and over Badonviller on the right, with a storm-center and a box-barrage over Neuviller. The men ducked to the nearest shelter and waited; they waited too long, and they had done better not to have ducked. The rocket signal for counter-barrage brought a total of forty-two shells only from allied artillery. After nearly an hour of intense fire, the shelling ceased on the town, though still continuing around and behind it; there was hoarse shouting in the darkness, and then the Germans attacked. They attacked with rifles, hand-grenades, light machine-guns strapped to the back, heavy machine-guns from low-flying aeroplanes, aeroplane-bombs, and with flame-throwers; and they came in from the northwest and up the swamp from the southeast. A confused fight took place in the gray of dawn through the dense smoke of the echoing ruins. The French had for the most part withdrawn at the first opportunity; the Americans, broken into scattered groups amidst the maze of trenches, wire hurdles, and barricades, fought the best of their way back to the St. Maurice road; a number were caught in the dugouts and shelters, and bombed or burned to death; the bead of the communication trench was held by a German light machine-gun firing down it to prevent reinforcement. A stand was made at the western stone barricade to cover the scattered retreat, and the black tar-like stains over its front, with a few charred rifle-barrels from which the stocks had been burned away, bore evidence to the nature of the attack upon it. The report of a machine-gun lieutenant to the captain of that company gives a few interesting details:

"The guns were in emplacements in the extreme west end of the village, flanking its north front, and about one hundred yards apart, the rear gun with no infantry support and the forward gun with two chauchat rifles nearby. At 2:45 A. M. all were asleep in a dugout near the rear gun except one American and one French sentinel at each gun.

"While returning to C. R. Neuviller (i. e., Buisson) by trench, and when in rear of Moulin des Toes I was sniped at twice, one shot bitting the top of the parapet in front of me. I bad just arrived at the C. R. when at 3:05 A. M. the barrage started. I aroused my platoon sergeant and we went to M. G. A-20 (enfilading the east front of the village). This gun was in action despite the fact that several gas-shells were landing close to its emplacement. We then tried to get over to Neuviller, but were stopped by a Boche auto-rifle, which was firing from the village along the trench. It was strapped to the back of one Boche who lay prone while it was fired by another. Their contact planes were especially active right above us, and I counted six at one time. We were forced then to lie in the trench and wait. At about 5:45 A. M. three sharp blasts of a whistle were heard from the village, which must have been their signal for withdrawal. The barrage bad ceased and we now entered the village. Here I found considerable confusion and a number of wounded, to whom we gave what assistance was possible, and arranged for men to assist them to the C. R. I then visited the gun positions. At the rear gun I found two men still on duty, although the emplacement was so badly knocked to pieces by shells that it was useless. At the forward gun I found five Americans and three Frenchmen. Two Americans and two French were missing -the former, I learned, when the barrage opened, had remained in the dugout, which was gradually filling up with soldiers seeking refuge there. When the barrage lifted these two came out of the dugout and met Boches armed with band grenades. They fought their way through them, one with his pistol, and the other, being unarmed, with his fists. An auto-rifle opened on them from a position near the barricade about 75 yards up the street and he who was unarmed got out of the village by the rear road; the other lay down in the gutter and opened fire with his pistol. He had emptied one magazine when a Boche with an auto-rifle came out of the alley-way to his right, and, swinging around on his stomach, he emptied the next magazine at him, and he believes he got him. Having no more ammunition be then left the village. Meanwhile the Boches-had thrown two grenades into the doorway of the dugout and then began with liquid fire. A corporal slammed the door, and they held it shut till the liquid fire had burned through it, when three men rushed out past the Boches and into the street to the forward gun position, which succeeded in firing about a hundred rounds while the Boches were withdrawing."

"A" Company, in support, bad sent up a runner who succeeded in penetrating the barrage and, though wounded, returned with some account of what was going on in the village. At daylight the company, with some French troops, counter-attacked, but found the battle ground deserted, the Germans having, however, taken time to rifle and destroy the stores of the "D" Company kitchen and to remove their own casualties. One German, a sergeant, shot dead in the central square, and another, transfixed by a French bayonet in the outer wire, were all that remained. "D" Company reckoned seven killed, twenty-five wounded, and three missing; "C" Company, one killed, and two wounded from artillery fire; while "B" Company, working through the ensuing day about the shell holes of St. Maurice, bad seventy men gassed. The left company of the 308th bad., except for those gassed, still heavier losses. Of the number of enemy engaged in the coup-de-main no fair estimate can be formed, though information from American prisoners, taken at this time and returned after the armistice, fairly indicates that a special force was brought from elsewhere for the attack, departing by train from Cirey the next day, and that their losses, incurred for the most part by machine-gun fire during their withdrawal, were quite unexpectedly heavy. One man of "D" Company, whose discretion had never been questioned, spent the entire period of enemy occupation beneath the company rolling kitchen, maintaining a strategic silence while the kitchen stores were being looted, and even while the kitchen itself was being blown up with grenades. He emerged to greet the counter-attacking troops of "A" Company, and seemed to claim a certain distinction at not having been driven from his post by the whole of the Hindenberg Circus, which he bad faced (?) single-handed.

On the night of July twenty-eighth, the Second Battalion took over the line, the Third Battalion moving to Vacqueville, Xermamont and Les Carri&res, and the First Battalion to Haxo Barracks at Baccarat. On July eighth the Third Battalion took the front. During this time there had been little or no activity beyond nightly patrols into the vast desert of No Man's Land, where enemy patrols were seldom encountered, and never at close range, and where the principal danger faced was from the somewhat nervous fire of both French and American outposts. Patrols occasionally penetrated the enemy lines, in search of prisoners, at the Saillant du Feys and the Are de Montreux, but without encountering resistance. They were usually ordered so to penetrate and reported having done so-in good faith but often with doubtful accuracy, for in that labyrinth of old wire, crumbling trenches, unmapped trails and willow thickets it was difficult in the darkness to be sure of position. By this time the garrison at Neuviller had been reduced by half, with orders to fall back on Buisson as soon as seriously attacked; the remainder of the right forward company carried the outpost line from the Moulin des Toes southeast along the edge of the Bois de la Voivre, and formed a first line of support, as yet unmarked by works, across the swamp meadows of the Blette to the Faiencerie. The Line 1 bis of support, actually of resistance, ran along the north and eastern edge of the Bois des Champs to its extremity at the rail-road, with Company Headquarters at Le Creux Chene, forming a switch line with that of the forward company. The left forward company stretched across the Bois des Haies toward Ancerviller, with a joint-post near the Mare' and its support company north of St. Maurice.

On July fifteenth came word that the long- expected German blow bad fallen on the Marne, bringing something of relief to the troops of Lorraine, and on the sixteenth the French were withdrawn from the sector. Am incident of this withdrawal, as given in a letter at the time, is worth recording:

"The withdrawal of the French, involving a considerable extension of our front to right and left with a reassignment of limits, had been ordered for 9 P. M. that evening, but up till noon we bad received no orders as to that reassignment. When the orders had come, and I had studied them for a while, the French captain, of whom I had grown quite fond, a curious-looking individual with brilliantly bald head, very long nose, and, in spite of their regulations, crimson breeches, came over to ask if everything was clear. I admitted some difficulties since the orders had overestimated the strength of my company, but told him that we would make out. He considered for a while with his finger beside his nose and then made this extraordinary speech: 'The orders to me,' he said, 'are to have withdrawn my whole command by nine this evening, but I have not yet issued any to my men, as I wanted first to be sure that you would be all right. Unless you assure me that you are, I will give no orders tonight. I am not of the regular service; I have done enough to establish my reputation; and I don't much care what my colonel thinks of me; but I will be d---d if I will go off and leave you in a hole. With another French officer I would probably not feel so, and would tell him that his difficulties were not of my making and he must do his best with them; but I can't do that to an American. So say the word and I stay.'

"I am sure that the proper procedure would have been to kiss him on either cheek, but I couldn't risk the technique. Of course I did not say the word, and that evening, after he had taught him an English drinking song, which he greatly admired but seemed incapable of mastering, be marched away through the woods, still humming it wrong. I missed him greatly and the pleasant meals we had had together in the little rustic summer-house with the rose bushes, at the edge of the vast oak wood and the open meadows of the Blette; and I missed, too, the long midnight talks in our sheet-iron hut in the greenwood, when he had taught me all that his long experience could tell of the war.

"That night I withdrew the whole garrison of Neuviller, save one outpost in the west end of town, establishing a new platoon headquarters at St. Agathe. We crept out in silent pro-cession over the starlit meadows, picking our way across the wake of the old box-barrage, which showed like a line of trenches in the darkness. It was important that the enemy should not know that the village would be left empty at night. I walked at the head of the column with a sergeant clasping to his breast the huge strombos born used for alarms of a wave-gas attack, and, having jumped the brook, asked him if he could make it. 'Easily, sir,' he answered, as he fell flat on his chest across it, and 'Boo-oo-om' went the great horn, echoing out across the silent meadows, while, over the wide battalion, startled soldiers snatched on their gas-masks and prepared for death. When at last we had choked it off we could only sit where we were and laugh till we were tired."

In the succeeding days there seemed a marked increase of enemy activity. Reports were constant of Germans seen at dark along the Blette; winking flashlights were sometimes seen at night in the Bois des Champs behind the lines; and both by day and night there came spasmodic auto-rifle fire from No Man's Land upon the outpost line. Yet conclusions were never reached by the nightly patrols, and though one patrol under the captain of "A" Company penetrated as far to the east as the Tranchee Philemon, the only prisoners captured were three who surrendered themselves at the church in Neuviller after living there, between unsuccessful efforts at surrender, for nearly a day and a night. An earlier German patrol in the village, meeting one from men unfamiliar with the outpost positions, had by tact and a judicious use of English obtained the password for the night and gratefully withdrawn; but to this day the subject cannot be safely mentioned to the Battalion Scout Officer whose patrol it was.

It having been determined that on July twenty-first the Americans should launch a blow, at 2 P. M. of that day, the First Battalion again holding the line, Captain Barrett of "B" Company led out some fifty men through the thick woods on the left front to the Barricade du Carrefour. A way had been cut through the very heavy wire in front, but there was no artillery preparation, and the raid was conducted in broad daylight-presupposing a thinly held enemy line and surprise. Whether or not the enemy had obtained advance information, or merely bad accomplished very quickly their preparations after warning from scouts, it is impossible to determine. The American force bad advanced several hundred yards, and, after cutting through the heavy wire before the Barricade du Carrefour, had passed along it to the right, when, in the silence, came the clear notes of a German bugle. Like the clarion blare of trumpets, when the curtain rose on an old-world pageant, that brief tragedy opened. A line of German infantry rose up in a trench in front; enfilading machine-guns opened up on either flank, and across the wire auto-rifles fired from the trees in rear. To the undying credit of Captain Barrett be it said that he ordered and led a charge. His one lieutenant, with a third of the men, was sent to cut through the wire to the rear, while the remainder of the force, against hopeless odds, tried to clear the front. Poor, brave, beloved Captain Barrett, with his little silk Confederate flag folded in his breast pocket, to fly from the first enemy trench captured -never was the flag of the Lost Cause more gallantly borne, nor to more utter disaster. Of that charging line not one man came back, the captain reeling from a wound and staggering on to death, and of those taken prisoner only one was unwounded. But the others, the lieutenant and sixteen men, came through, and two were unhurt. The score of the First Battalion was mounting.

Captain Barrett it was said by prisoners, was buried with full military honors at Montreux, toward which place another raid was now being prepared by the regiment. A provisional company was formed from the Third Battalion, then at Haxo Barracks, a picked platoon being sent with one lieutenant from each company for rehearsal at Vacqueville. Save for their inexperience this was probably as fine a body of troops as was ever turned over to a captain for any enterprise-and they were keen, fearfully keen. The ground selected by brigade for the attack lay adjacent to that "B" had traversed, where the wire was very heavy and in places over five feet high. Perhaps this was the reason that the order for attack was cancelled, but in any case after throe days at Vacqueville the men were returned to their companies.

The First Battalion had done a second and prolonged turn of duty on the line; the Headquarters Company, with its Stokes mortars and one-pound cannon, and the Machine Gun Company, had never left the line at all, when, on the night of the twenty-ninth, began the relief of the regiment by the 146th Infantry, 37th Division, the latter taking over first the support positions. The Second Battalion took over the front from the First Battalion on the thirtieth and were themselves relieved by the 146th on the night of August third. "B" Company had been temporarily relieved by "E" for three days after its costly attack, and had recruited from the rest of the regiment. The battalions marched out, the Third on the night of August second, 23 kilometers to Giriviller, the Second on the night of the third to Badmenil, and the First on the night of the fourth to Serainville. They were exhausting nights of endless hills, and on one, almost at its most exhausting stage, when sore feet had become an agony and the burden of heavy packs intolerable, when hope no longer suggested that each hill might be the last, nor that there was any last hill to hope for, when sullen or cursing men began to throw themselves down by the roadside-there came out of the darkness a voice. It was a cheerful voice, albeit some-what drunken, and its drunken cheerfulness was as persistent as only such can be. Its owner had in court-martial for persistent drunkenness already forfeited his entire pay for many months both past and future, and yet he remained cheerful.

"You can't beat Company -," he announced to the darkness. "We've got the officers and we've got the men. So what more d'you want? What you all groanin' about? Don't like soldiering? Well, you're gettin' paid fer it, ain't yer?" Then, with immense pride: "But I'm not gettin' paid fer it. I'm doin' this fer nothin', I am-just fer nothin'. Ev'ry month when I come to the pay-table Captain calls me a 'optimist,' and that's all I get paid. Yes, sir, doin' all this fer nothin', but you don't hear me complainin', do yer? We've got the officers and we've got-all right, sir, I won't say another word; only you can't beat Company -, can you, sir? We've got the officers and we've got the men, so what more do you want?" The Government was confiscating all his pay, but he was worth three men's pay to the Government.

From these stations the battalions moved again to Remenoville, and Clezentaine, and in these areas remained till August seventh. Then came a pleasant daylight march through the sunny forest of Charmes to a bivouac among the beeches of its southwestern edge; and on the eighth the regiment entrained at Charmes for the Marne. The night of the ninth was spent in and about La Ferte' Gaucher, at St. Simeon, and Jouy-sur-Marne, and at noon of the tenth the troops were loaded on motor busses for the north. It was an interesting though exhausting twelve-hour ride through the wake of recent battles-the half-ruined villages, the huddled rifle-pits, the shell craters, graves, and the trampled wheat-fields where the charging feet bad passed. Chateau-Thierry was already filling with civilians, patient old men and women returning to their gutted and windowless homes, amidst the still persistent odor of decay.
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