MENU

Chapter 4. The Chateau Du Diable


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

The Chateau Du Diable


THE CHATEAU DU DIABLE

THE regiment arrived toward midnight at Fere-en-Tardenois, groping its way on foot through the block of traffic in the ruined town to the wooded hill above, and sleeping broadcast through the bushes where the German dead bad not yet all been gathered. At dawn of the twelfth, the Third Battalion marched out to take position on the as yet undefined Blue Line, or second line of resistance, along the front of the Bois de Voizelle. The great French and American counter attack, launched on July eighteenth along the Marne, bad slowed down to a check along the Vesle, and, though a bloody way was yet to fight toward the Aisne, something approaching definite and organized lines were being established. "I" Company on the right took position along the northeast and eastern edge of the woods, overlooking Les Cruaux; "M" on the left stretched along the northern edge and over the open through Dole to Les Batis Ferme, beyond which was the 153rd Brigade. Battalion Headquarters with "K" and "L" lay in the Bois de la Pisotte.

"M" Company arrived first on its chosen ground as tired and hungry as usual, and with an equally customary lack of prospect of any cooked meal for the remainder of the day. But there was found a battery of artillery from another division with headquarters in these woods, whose officer, with the utmost hospitality, provided a hot meal for the entire company; and an organization that could, without the slightest warning, necessity, or apparent difficulty, off-handedly feed two hundred extra and hungry men suggested a condition of ration supply incredible to the minds of the 307th Infantry.

Save for an unwelcome fieldful of noncombatant, but increasingly unneutral, horses, and the fickle policy of their adherent millions of flies, this situation was, for the two forward companies, at least, very delightful. The Bois de la Pisotte had been too extensively lived in and died in by both Germans and horses, and was rather completely spoiled; but the Bois de Voizelle confined its relics for the most part to cooking utensils, feather quilts, and steel helmets, with the latter of which it was almost paved, that being apparently the article which the German always first discards when hurried. The organization of the ground for defense formed a most interesting task, untrammeled by suggestions or interference from above, and undertaken in the spirit of creative art-some-what leisurely, first because it was known that the ground would never have to be defended, and second because, when the engineers found time to give it their attention, they were certain to alter all dispositions. This they eventually did, and, to the staunch opinion of all company officers, greatly for the worse; but, in the meantime, enfilading positions were dug in echelon, covered approaches arranged, interlocking belts of fire sighted, and interesting chauchat positions constructed in the trees to cover bits of dead ground. The company commander on the left, having convinced himself that the post of danger lay in the deserted hamlet of Dole, selected its prettiest and most rose-covered cottage for his home, furnishing it from the wide antiquity shop provided in the surrounding orchards.

The weather was immaculate, and had been so almost continuously for three months past; and at evening one would sit at the edge of the woods, looking out over the broad valley, picking out with glasses the new artillery positions established on the farther heights, and watching the similar efforts of the German shells, searching over the grassy slopes or bursting with clouds of white smoke or pink tile-dust in the hillside village of Chery Chartreuve or the farms. Occasionally a weird form of projectile would burst with a mass of black smoke high in the air, to be followed the next instant by a leaping fountain of flames from the ground beneath, and sometimes one that gave vent to two, three, or even four separate explosions on the ground. Toward sundown the hostile aeroplanes would come over, in twos or threes, for an attack on the observation balloons, very often successful, and would turn back from their flaming victim scarcely bothering to rise out of range above the drumming machine-guns; nor did they ever seem to pay the penalty for their bravado. At night-fall dim columns of artillery and transport would wind down the hill, with the gleam of helmets moving ghostlike through a fog of moonlit dust; the whirr of enemy motors would grow in the darkness overhead, the swish and shock of falling bombs with extravagant pineapple forms of fire springing from the earth; or from the misty valley-bottom, where the heavy artillery was thundering, would come the red flare of explosions, hoarse shoutings and the blowing of claxton gas-alarms. It was a wonderful pageant of war, spread daily before one's eyes, to be watched with all the apparent safety of the theater-goer.

Once, at noon, two American planes were seen circling directly overhead, and, a thousand feet above them, three Germans against the blue. A faint splutter of shots was heard, but the distance was far too great for effective fire, and the danger of the Americans did not seem imminent when they were seen suddenly to crash together and the wing of one to shear off at the shoulder. Down it dropped, dropped, dropped, slowly, swiftly, and then with appalling speed, gathering impetus with every fathom, nose first, in one plummeting chute, the sunshine gleaming on its painted sides and the whirr of its motor growing to a deafening roar, sliding like a lost soul through thousands of feet of air, a glistening, living thing headed for utter destruction; and it struck, in a pile of crumpled debris, at the edge of the wood. The other, reeling from the blow, came down in a staggering spiral, almost under control, fouled in the top of some cottonwoods below the hill, and turned end-over on to the ground. Each bad carried only a single man, and Lieutenants Smythe and Wallace were buried side by side in the Bois de Voizelle.

The pleasant time of sunshine and ease and almost disinterested observation was soon over, the pleasanter in retrospect for it never occurred again. The Division had relieved both the 4th American and the 62nd French Divisions on the line, the 305th Infantry taking over at first the entire divisional front. Four days later the 308th had taken over from it the right half, as forming the sector of the 154th Brigade; the 28th Division lay on the right in Fismes. The Red Line, or Line of Resistance, in this brigade sector followed approximately the crest of a high ridge along the southern edge of the Bois de Cochelet-a dense wood of small birch-trees springing from a subsoil of chalk. Beyond the northern foot of the ridge, where the woods again ceased, the land stretched in an open grassy plateau, dotted here and there with small orchards, to then steep and wooded declevities of the valley proper. This was perhaps half-a-mile's width of swampy bottom-land-meadow, marsh, and willow-scrub-across which the Vesle, a river some thirty feet broad and six or eight feet deep, looped back and forth. Beyond the valley to the north the open bills rose higher toward the Aisne, and beyond it again culminated in the great commanding ridge of the Chemin des Dames, for which the French and Germans had wrestled for years. Everything forward, and a good deal that was back of the Red Line lay completely open to enemy observation and fire; the position for the supporting troops formed a practically insoluble problem; there could be no reenforcement nor supply of the front except at night, nor was there any natural cover from the very searching artillery fire. This, several times a day, would comb out the length of the valley's rim, where was the only woodland; and any movement in daylight of even one or two men across the open table-land would draw a sniping fire of 77's.

On the night of August eighteenth, the Third Battalion moved forward, relieving the Third Battalion of the 308th on the Red Line in the Bois de Cochelet, and itself relieved by the Second Battalion from Dravegny. The First Battalion, which had remained in the Boise de Saponay, above Fere-en-Tardenois, till the fourteenth, was already in the Bois de la Pisotte. Save once, and then seemingly by chance, in the woods beside Baccarat, no part of the Third Battalion had as yet been under shell-fire; and "K" and "L" Companies, along the eastern edge of the Bois de Coebelet, were still comparatively immune; but "M" and "I", bordering its south on the high ground, soon came in for their share. Batteries of six-inch howitzers were in position beneath the fringe of pine trees under the crest of the bill; and huddled under their very muzzles the companies dug into the hard chalk. One platoon of "M" was at first placed in the little wood between Les Pres and Resson Farms, to maintain liaison with the 28th Division on the right -a liaison that was never maintained for more than twenty-four consecutive hours before it was found that the latter had disappeared, and scouting parties would be sent to search for them. The front edge of the wood being lined with 75's, it was constantly searched by enemy fire, and the platoon was moved to Resson Farm, whose medieval vaults, when not filled with water, offered the only effective shelter of the Red Line.

The woods along the hill crest were indescribably filthy with the refuse of former occupation, and haunted by incalculable flies. The narrow rifle-pits and half-finished trenches of the men, covered with branches and shelter-halves loaded with chalk, as protection against shell fragments, being comparatively clean and cool, did not seem an especially attractive resort for the fair-minded fly, particularly in view of the lavish banquet spread broadcast through the woods; but the flies felt differently about it and were very determined. A man would crawl into his shelter, with a leafy branch in either hand, and, lying on his back, would begin threshing above his face, gradually working down the length of his body. As the aperture was approached the flies would become desperate, charging back at the waving branches, and facing death by scores rather than suffer ejection. When this process had been two or three times repeated a sufficient clearance would be effected to enable the man perhaps to get to sleep before the place again filled up. At night they hung in black masses over the walls and roof, noisily propagating their species through the hours of darkness, and every crashing discharge of the 155's overhead would bring down an avalanche of chalk and flies. The yellow wasps were only really bothersome when an issue of jam arrived, at which times it was practically impossible to separate the two long enough to eat one without the other.

Just why the infantry were held, inactive but permanent, directly under the muzzles of the guns, drawing observation upon the artillery while the latter drew fire upon the infantry, was never made evident to either party of the unwilling combination. The shelling of this area was systematic but far from severe, and seemed intended mostly for the batteries. Had it been otherwise, congested as the men were in their improvised shelters, the losses might have been appalling. It consisted for the greater part of three-inch H. E. (high, explosive), much of it with overhead bursts, and of sneezing gas. Every precaution was taken to keep the men under cover during daylight, but the ration details, carrying the two meals a day from the company kitchens at Chery-Chartreuve, were a constant source of danger. The platoon at Resson Farm, alone, however, was under observation by balloons. A line of trenches had been laid out on the lower ground of the Bois de Mont St. Martin, where the thick trees seemed to offer adequate protection from observation, and work upon them was begun by details from the four companies. Three German planes were seen through the leaves hovering high overhead and soon the shells began ranging in. So accurate was the fire and efficient the observation that, among the first half-dozen shells, one broke on the lip of the trench, wounding four men, who lay prone along its bottom. Chery-Chartreuve, a mile to the southwest, where the company kitchens were located, concealing their smoke in empty barns, came in for its daily bombardment. A fair description of the place may be quoted from a letter written at the time:

"There had been shelling as usual in Chery that morning, and the outhouse next to our company kitchen, where some of the ration -detail were sleeping, had been blown to pieces. A runner came up to get replacements for the detail, and reported that two of the men had been hurt and a third bad disappeared; the roof had fallen in, and, though he seemed to feel sure that the missing man was not under it, he did not speak very convincingly about it, so I went down to see what I could find. It was a day of breathless heat, and the white road was padded with dust. I passed a steep hillslope of empty funk-holes, looking like a great rabbit-warren, or a village of cliff-dwellers, and in spite of the two robust-looking horses at its bottom, each with two legs pointing straight to the sky, it struck me as a very preferable location for our men. The road-side was littered with chauchat-magazines, carriers, and cartridge-belts, half hidden in the dust. The village lay lifeless beneath the sun, a thin white fog of dust from some recent shelling hanging above it, and the taint of gas in the air. In the ruined outhouse was a sidecar, rather badly damaged, beneath which the missing man, an Italian, was supposed to have been sleeping-though I couldn't see why he had selected it. It was a relief that the debris of the tile roof did not look enough to conceal a man. To make sure, however, we lifted off such beams as there were, but without raising anything beyond a cloud of tile-dust mixed with mustard gas.

"There didn't seem to be anywhere else to look for him, since the surgeon who had dressed the other two knew nothing of him, and I concluded that eventually be would be, as eventually be was, reported from hospital through some unexpected channel; but now as I stood looking up the blistering way to our hilltop that I had to travel, my eye was caught at the turn of the road by a long, roofed, stone-flagged washing-place, such as the French blanchisseuses use all over the land. In a moment I was beside it, and in another moment I was in it. It was full to the brim with clear cold water, four feet deep in the middle and twenty feet long, and the sheer joy of that swim I shall never forget. I hadn't seen so much water together in one place since I left the ocean. After that the mess-sergeant cooked me a meal with a lot of delicious fresh vegetables he had gotten from somewhere, and I went back up what we called Shrapnel Hill with the feeling of having spent a week-end at the seashore."

Les Pre's Farm, where the first-aid station was established close under the bill, was subjected to a constant and accurate fire, so that it became increasingly a matter of wonder that the place held together. Almost every day a few were wounded, the sight of the stretcher-bearers carrying their burdens down the slope becoming too familiar to cause any comment beyond a question as to the man's company. Dysentery too became everywhere prevalent. Water was scarce, and the days were long and irksome with the glare of heat from the sun-scorched chalk. But at night a glamor spread over the mist-filled valley, with its stabbing white flashes of artillery and red flare of explosions. Once an ammunition dump of 75's was fired in the open, and continued all through the night, sending its empty shell-cases wailing about like banshees through the darkness. Once, on a still night of midsummer moonshine there passed a strange flight of projectiles, like a flock of migrating birds, high, high up in the moonlit silence, coming from one knew not where, and traveling with a drowsy note and on even keel to some remote target far in the inaudible distance.

On the night of August twenty-fifth, the Second Battalion, leap-frogging the Third, took over the front line from the 308th. The next day a battalion attack was ordered for dawn of the twenty-seventh. The front of the regimental sector at this time ran along the south bank of the Vesle through the woods due north of Villesavoye, crossed the river on a footbridge and followed north along the west edge of the woods to the railroad, passed under the tracks through an open culvert, the track itself being swept by enemy enfilade fire of machine-guns, and occupied the southwest corner of the woods beyond. A switch line ran east along the track, and, though not continuously, south along the eastern edge of the wood to the Vesle once more. Another and isolated position was held a kilometer to the east at the Tannerie. Battalion Headquarters as originally taken over from the 308th was in a dug-out on the steep wooded slope southwest of Villesavoye, but, on account of the continuous shelling of this area, was changed to a large cave on the high ground south of the Tannerie. The dressing station was in another cave on a bluff south of Villesavoye, readily distinguished in the distance by the continuous bursting of shells at its mouth. Very little inter- communication was possible between the various portions of the line, and this only by devious routes. Both flanks were very open and ill-defined, and much of the ground was debatable. Maps of the region were scarce, were all of very small scale, and of a particularly perishable quality of paper. There were some, but not all, made with two systems of superimposed non-parallel coordinate lines- all leading to very possible errors in the locating of positions. An incident in this connection is worth mentioning when an officer of the Third Battalion, on August twenty-fourth, previous to the receipt of the order for the leap-frogging of that battalion by the Second, going forward to reconnoiter the position of the right forward company, was provided with a guide supposed, more than any other, to be familiar with that ground. The guide conducted the officer in broad daylight into No Man's Land and onto the muzzles of a German machine-gun nest beneath the concrete signal-house, having previously been restrained, only by the growing pessimism of the officer, from scaling the railroad embankment at a point where its opposite side was afterwards found to be lined with enemy rifle-pits. In justice be it said, however-for the man was as brave a soldier as he was inefficient a guide that when lying behind a single bush across only eighty yards of open meadow from the machine-gun position, with a bullet through the stock of his rifle, two through the empty ammunition box on which it rested, and another through his shoulder, his only thought was for redeeming the trust which be felt he had betrayed; and be continually urged that he crawl out to the north to draw the enemy fire while the officer make his escape to the south. Fortunately a more cheerful solution was eventually reached.

The order for this attack of the Second Battalion gave as its purpose the "retaking of all positions lost by the 308th Infantry," and defined as its objective the crossing of the railroad with the Rouen-Reims national highway and the chateau du Diable-ground which, while in enemy hands menacing the river valley, was itself dominated by the bills to the north, and was well-nigh as difficult to hold as it, was to take while the bills were held in force by the enemy. The two platoons at the Tannerie, in the few yards of ground between the road and the river, bad a lookout stationed immediately north of the national highway, but the latter itself was swept and commanded by enemy fire from either flank. The Chateau du Diable rose on a precipitous slope of woods filled with accordion-wire, dominating the low--lying swamps and willow-thickets to the south. For the rest, the whole region had been fought and fought over by the 4th, the 32nd, and the 28th Divisions. Every wood and march was filled with cast-off equipment and the broken wreckage of war; St. Thibault, Villesavoye, Bazoches, and Fismes, all were unspeakable with the human debris of unsuccessful or inconclusive attacks-flotsam and jetsam cast upon the dreary shores where the tides of victory had ebbed and flowed.

The absence of any clear knowledge as to the enemy's strength or dispositions-for little of this could here be gathered from the troops relieved-the very vague and non-continuous character of the line, and the lack of any natural position of strength or shelter, from which assault might be launched, or to which, in case of unsuccess, withdrawal might be made, rendered the coming attack, delivered as it was to be within the first twenty-four hours of occupation of the line, undoubtedly hazardous. Major Jay, it should be said, threw the whole weight of his influence toward obtaining at least a postponement-but other counsels prevailed.

A paragraph of the official report made after the attack may be quoted at length:

"At a conference held at the forward battalion P. C. (Poste de Commande) during the afternoon, Major Jay, commanding the Second Battalion, stated that he did not feel it was possible for him to reconnoitre and prepare properly to make the attack on the morning of the twenty-seventh, as had been suggested, and requested that the hour be delayed until the morning of the twenty-eighth. An additional reason for this request was the fact that the supporting artillery of this Regiment was assisting an operation of the 153rd Brigade on the night of 26th-27th August and would not be available to support an operation in our sector. It was determined, however, that the attack would be made on the morning of the twenty-seventh, and Lieutenant- Colonel Benjamin, commanding the Regiment, received instructions, copies of which are attached hereto, to that effect. He immediately notified Major Jay."

A prisoner captured that day by the 112th Infantry at Fismes brought word that a German general attack along the sector was preparing for the morning of the twenty-seventh -which promised ill for the reception of the Second Battalion. An officer of "Y' Company went out to reconnoiter the ground for a possible attack upon the chateau from the Tannerie on the east. He was injured by a shell, and a second officer volunteered for the task. But from the east the only way lay over the open marsh where "C" Company of the 308th had been cut to pieces in a similar and fruitless attempt, and it was determined to at-tack from the west.

At about 2 A. M. of the twenty-seventh the Major held a conference in a little dugout by the railroad culvert, where their duties were assigned to the four company commanders. "H," lying north of the tracks, was to attack the Chateau, "E" to attack along the tracks to the railroad crossing, "F" to move in support, and "G" to guard the left from counter-attack. Zero hour was set for 4:15 A. M.

It was still dark when they started, and low over Bazoches to westward hung the thread of a dying moon, while beneath it grew the dull roar of the attack of the 153rd Brigade. Shells were passing overhead, but all toward Bazoches. Through dense swamp the leading platoons moved forward in column, and at the edge of the open meadow deployed in line. Less than a hundred yards of wet grass in the gray of morning, and beyond it the thicker darkness of unknown woods. A Very light shot up on the left, calling for such artillery as was to aid. An enemy smoke bomb exploded on the tracks in front, blotting out whatever movement of troops occurred behind, and then the machine guns opened. From the Chateau to the river the woods seemed alive with them, for it was not for nothing that the enemy had prepared their attack upon that very ground at the same hour, and upon a scale intended to insure success. A regiment was massed upon that slope of woods, and with it two extra machine gun companies-perhaps fifty guns in all and against them "H" and "E" Companies advanced to the attack. They did not know the odds against them-it was not known until after the war-they only knew that they were struck by such a blast of fire as made life impossible. That part of "11" which attempted the open meadow was swept away, while the rest, gaining only a few rods through the neck of woods, there clung under a steady bail of bullets.

"E" Company, on the right, not facing the main position, at first did better. They crossed the first stretch of meadow to the line of trees and flung one platoon across the tracks, then, astride the tracks, they crossed the second meadow. Their leading platoons disappeared in the woods beyond, and for a while the rest waited. The fire was appalling, crossing from the hill to the river and sweeping down the tracks. After a little the platoon to the south, losing direction in the thick swamp, reappeared, and, to give it time to reform, its support platoon attacked through it. Nothing was heard of that to the north under Lieutenant O'Brien, and of runners sent to that corner of woods those who returned reported that there was nothing there but German machine guns. It was gone, and not a man of it came back. Captain Adams of "E" and Lieutenant Scudder, starting in search of it, fell side by side, each shot through the neck as they lifted their heads above the railroad embankment. Major Jay, a hundred yards down the track, dropped with a broken arm, and, after a brave effort to retain his command, was carried back. Captain Davis of "Y' then took command, but no one could judge what was taking place in that inferno of noise in front. Corporal Halberstadt undertook to find Captain Adams, and did so, reporting to him when both were prisoners in the German lines. There was fire from the right and the word spread that it was chauchat fire-that part of "E's" right platoon which had lost direction was shooting on them, and, calling that be was going to find out, Lieutenant Reed, the Battalion Adjutant, plunged into the woods there. He was not seen again except by one man, who reported that he had found him shot through both legs, and that when be bad tried to help him back the lieutenant had told him to bring back the message instead-that it was enemy fire. Then "H" sent word that they could not hold their slender gains without reinforcement, and, almost as the reinforcements from "Y' started out, came a second message that "H" had withdrawn.

That finished it, for no further effort was possible for the troops at hand. Another part of "Y' had already been sent to clear the woods east along the river, and the danger of a counter-stroke from the west was too great to allow the withdrawal of "G" from their position. South of the tracks the line had been advanced to the strip of trees across the first meadow, but on the north the former positions were resumed. Long afterward a few of the dead were found among the fallen poplars at the base of the Chateau hill, and some even near the far eastern edge of the woods, but for the most part the battleground was left in the hands of an enemy who glean it well.

The price was heavy--of officers, 'three wounded and four missing, of whom only one, Captain Adams, returned alive after the armistice, and of men, sixteen killed, eighty-four wounded and forty missing-one hundred and forty enlisted men, ten from Battalion headquarters, eleven from "F," twenty-one from "G," thirty-five from "E," and sixty-three from "H." Throughout the action, lasting some two hours, the heavy artillery had played upon the support positions south of the river -causing "G" its losses, but overshooting the rest of the Battalion.

It seems probable that the enemy, taking the attack in conjunction with that, more costly and scarcely more successful, of the 153rd Brigade upon Bazoches, had believed it to be much stronger than in fact it was, and their artillery sought only to break up the reserves, of which, fortunately or unfortunately, there were none present. Perhaps for the same reason no counter-attack was launched.

The attack of the Second Battalion had failed, in that neither of its two objectives were for a moment seriously threatened; and yet, with the clearer knowledge we now have of that against which the attack was launched, it may be that its bloody failure should be reckoned success-a distant and unconscious parallel to the "Revenge." For the devotion of two companies to their appointed task held immobile before them a force perhaps six or eight times their number that was intended to attack; and the blow they struck against it, however impotent to achieve their purpose, served at least to prevent what might have been a disaster to the battalion and to the line. There can be no estimate of the enemy loss, though to have so completely paralyzed their initiative, it must have been heavy.

A feature of the enemy organization, learned through prisoners of either side, may here be mentioned as of interest; namely, that each German infantry company carried with it normally a section of heavy machine guns, composed originally of eight guns, but at this time reduced to four-whereas the American infantry company, unless by special detail, had none; and that the German company carried also a section, or even platoon, solely for the evacuation of the dead and wounded of both sides during an action. These men were seen going about unarmed upon their task while the attack was at its height, and their activity will largely account for the constant feeling in the American lines that little or no losses were being inflicted upon the enemy. Night of August twenty-seventh saw the regimental sector practically unchanged, while on their left the 153rd Brigade had taken and at terrific cost relost Bazoches, and on their right the 28th Division had been driven from their scanty footing in Fismette.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 West Corporation. All rights reserved.