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Chapter 9.The Depot De Machines


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

The Depot De Machines


THE DEPOT DE MACHINES

AT dawn of the 28th, the two battalions, with "M," "K," and "I" across the front, took up their slow and groping progress across the ridges. A more difficult country for an infantry advance, or one better suited to delaying rearguard action, it would be hardly possible to find. The ridges were cloaked in a dense growth of small trees and the bottoms choked with underbrush; it was seldom possible to see over twenty yards, often not five; the keeping of direction and of contact was a problem new with every moment, and each opening through the leafy wall was a death trap. There was rifle fire from across the narrow valleys-it needed but a few men to do it, well hidden in chosen spots, and looking for a glimpse of khaki among the green, or the shaking of bushes; there were bursts of automatic-fire down the narrow lanes-if the gun had been sighted already, the sound of crashing progress was target enough; there was the slow steady drain of casualties, with never a blow to be struck in return, and oh, the long weary way those wounded had to travel back.

The Tranchee des Fontaines, lying almost wholly in the sector of the 306th, was refused on the right, and it held; so that "E" Company, charged with maintaining liaison with this organization, cheerfully attempted the impossible, and stretched itself across the whole distance of this opening flank. By nightfall "I" Company, running into strong resistance in the gulch leading north to the Depot de Machines, had withdrawn from its dead to a little quarry by the roadside; "L" Company, on the brink of the gulch six hundred yards to the east, had met the fire of heavy machine-guns, and made its midnight, groping, burials in the rain. The other companies lay where darkness had overtaken them, ignorant of their own or of each other's positions, "E" Company stretched out in a series of Cossack-posts across the whole three kilometers of the day's advance. It was a ghastly night of uncertainty and sudden alarms, of bursts of fire coming from none could say where, of hunger, and of long, long hours of drenching darkness:

"Morning brought a flood of relief and of thrice welcome sunshine. We had lost all contact about sundown, when a sudden burst of shelling close on our rear had hurried us forward; our patrols at dusk down the valleys to southeast and northeast had found nothing but sniping and machine-gun fire, and the fire which had struck the head of our company came from the west. We had passed the night with outposts to every point of the compass, believing ourselves alone in the wilderness, but with the first hour of daylight we found f our other companies within a radius of as many hundred yards. Then came word of rations somewhere down the narrow-gauge line by the Pavillion de Bagatelle, the first, save what we had carried, for three days and four nights. By dint of struggle we got ten sacks, and, as the company was supposed to be in the support line, withdrew some five hundred yards to the little high-walled German cemetery. Its enclosure was a glorious oasis of flowers-roses, blue larkspur, yellow and white blossoming shrubbery-and we sat in sunshine on the brick walks amidst rain-drenched grassy graves and flowers, and ate, and smoked, and felt again the joy of living. Whatever had been or was to come, here at least was peace and beauty, sunshine and food."

On the 29th, little or no progress was made, save on the right where "E" Company, stretched far beyond the breaking point, had abandoned the open flank and pushed to the front, across the head of the east and west valley, to the crossroads southeast of Les Quatre Chenes. Here, with "M" and "H" in support, it lay face to face with a group of machine-gun nests, which it had tried in vain to outflank from either side. The Machine-Gun Company gave supporting indirect fire from behind the Fontaine-aux-Batons, their bullets clearing the beads of "M" Company by a margin of some fifteen feet and spattering along the road in their front. It was an example of extreme efficiency in fire, but was yet not enough to overcome the enemy resistance. The German efficiency was shown by a direct artillery hit upon one of the American machine-guns.


On the left, the 308th reported their forward battalion in the neighborhood of the crossroads northeast of the Boyau des Cuistots; but it was cut off from the rest of the regiment, their Lieutenant-Colonel being killed by machine-gun fire in an effort to join it. The whole slope of timber south and southwest from the Depot de Machines seemed to be filled with machine-guns, and the long east and west ridge to the north of it was lined with them. The two combined battalions of the 307th faced north and west upon these two fronts with their right flank neglected and open, and with forward battalion headquarters, as usual upon the outpost line, in a log hut halfway between the cemetery and the De'p6t, its open door facing the fire.

From the left came the sound of "I" Company's chauchat teams, trying in vain to force the slope, and their casualties came back in a slow but steady stream; in the northeast was the sound of something like a pitched battle round Les Quatre Chenes, a message from the lieutenant in command of "E" reporting cheerfully that he was in close touch with the enemy; a German plane passed over, skimming the tree-tops, and then their artillery opened. With uncanny intelligence it searched the slope for the log hut, whose walls shook with each nearing explosion, and they were not such walls as one would have chosen for the occasion. As one spoke, every sentence was cut in half by the incoming shriek and crash. Out on the plateau to eastward there spread a thick blanket of smoke, lit toward evening by the red flare of explosions, and through which dim figures of men loomed and disappeared as the supporting companies were withdrawn in search of shelter. Night brought a slackening of fire, but no change in the situation.

By afternoon of the 30th, it was evident that the enemy position was being evacuated, and the two battalions were deployed in double line for a concerted assault behind half an hour's artillery preparation. This artillery preparation had frankly become a thing to dread. There was no direct observation of their fire, due to the blind character of the country and the still apparent lack of aeroplanes; nor was there any direct communication from the infantry units to the batteries. If a platoon or company were suffering from the fire of their own guns, they could send a runner with a message to that effect to Battalion Headquarters, perhaps half a mile or more distant through the woods; and Battalion Headquarters, if their wires bad not been blown out, would communicate with regimental headquarters, who in turn would take it up with the artillery; and the artillery would quite likely re-ply that the infantry were mistaking enemy fire for their own. Of course, a more reasonable course for the infantry unit was to move out, provided that this could be done. But what was also probably a fruitful cause of trouble was an almost criminal inexactness on the part of very many infantry officers in map reading. The terrain was undoubtedly difficult for the attainment of this exactness and of certainty; but that alone would not sufficiently account for the mistakes made. It was the one salient point on which the training of infantry officers was found to be deficient. Many a company commander or liaison officer was entirely capable of waving a vague finger over a valley marked on the map, while stat-ing that the troops in question were "on that hill"; and, if pressed to be more precise, he would give as their coordinates figures which represented a point neither in the valley to which he was pointing nor on the hill on which they were. Another technical difficulty which may or may not have led to misunderstanding, but which certainly seems capable of doing so, was that infantry and artillery officers were actually taught quite dissimilar methods of representing a given point on the map by coordinates.

Be all this as it may, at four P, M. of September 30th it was known to a sufficient number of officers just where the barrage line was to fall; and there the greater part of it fell, but not all. A company of the second line had just posted its right platoon with its head resting on a group of birch trees, when the barrage came down three hundred yards in front, all save one gun, which made hit after hit on the birch trees. The platoon recoiled, shaken and lacking its sergeant and the gun ranged forward into the center of the front line company. "E" Company, still playing out of luck, received no word of the coming barrage, which fell entirely behind it, so that it was, for the time being, surrounded on three sides by enemy machine-guns and on the fourth by its own artillery fire.

When the artillery ceased, and the infantry went forward, the enemy position was found to have been abandoned, but abandoned with a haste which had found no time for the removal of all the machine-guns from the farther crest, nor of the large stores of material along the railroad. Some of this had been loaded on hand-cars and these left upon the rails, while a few prisoners were captured of those who had too long delayed their withdrawal. Undoubtedly, for all its damage inflicted, the artillery had saved the infantry from far heavier loss at the hands of the enemy. The left of the Regiment had reached and passed the Depot de Machines; beyond it the 308th was also in position across the valley; and, although the right of the Regiment was still in the air, at a farther point the 305th had gained considerable ground. For some in the support companies it was a night of strange luxury in the German bungalows, with their elaborate white-birch balconies, and their comfort of cots, blankets, and stoves, of strange pink bread, tasting of malt, and of apple jam.

At early dawn of October 1st, the advance was resumed, though now leading to the west of north, and with the right flank as open as the sea. On the left of the brigade the activities of the 368th were said to have produced somewhat the same situation there. There was the usual rear-guard delaying action, and by evening, after one and a half kilometer's slow advance, the leading elements bad encountered another position of organized resistance along the ridge south of the Bois de la Buironne. It was fronted with strong wire and heavy machine-guns, and was not attacked in force on that day. The attack of the next day can perhaps best be typified at first band.

"Our company lay in right support across the road north of Les 4 Chenes, facing what was actually a No Man's Land to the northeast. There had been during the evening some Stokes' mortar preparation on a position in front, and the companies had all been some-what withdrawn for it, though it had produced no noticeable effect. At three A. M. Captain Blagden came into the old German dugout where I had been sleeping to tell me that we were to attack behind a rolling barrage on the left front at six, and I remember that my teeth were chattering so with cold that I could hardly answer him. A ration party brought up some stew and coffee from the Depot before we started, but not enough for every man to have some of both. They rose, shaking with cold, from the half-frozen mud of an old trench and stumbled numbly forward through a forest white with frost. There was a blind kilometer to go through darkness and dense undergrowth to our appointed position on the line of the coming barrage, and little enough chance for checking up on that position, for we met no other troops. It was as ticklish a piece of map memorizing and topography reading as one would wish; after which we waited for the artillery to tell us if I had guessed it right. It was a relief when the first shells pitched in a hundred yards ahead. We crossed a flat ridge of open timber, whose leaves had all turned yellow over night, the sunrise gilding the tree- tops. Our artillery was enough to encourage an advance, but certainly not to destroy any wire; from somewhere in front came occasional bursts of machine-gun fire and the sound of bullets striking the tree-trunks around us. Then came a down-slope of thick brush to a muddy ravine running off to the left, and a farther steep slope with wire. The shelling seemed not to have touched it at all; but neither, fortunately, was it swept by the enemy fire which all passed overhead. We were cutting our way rather cautiously through this when we met with 'H' Company on higher ground to our right, and knew that we were with the Battalion again. Beyond their right 'E' Company was almost abreast, though we did not then know it, for the north and south wagon road between was swept by a machine-gun fire which prevented any efforts at communication. A message at this time from its C.O. is fairly graphic:

"295.95-275.45. Am on this line and Boche is putting minnenwerfers on us. M.G.'s still in position and one is at bend of road ahead. Have tried to flank him every way, but be is covered by other guns and it is hard to see in this brush. Can't locate guns close enough to get them with Stokes and think artillery had better be put on them. But if so let us know in time to withdraw, as it has a habit of hitting us."

The other companies had been last heard of near the horse-shed that served as Battalion Headquarters, and of what they might have done since then we knew nothing. Some of the enemy fire seemed to come from overhead among the big beech trees in front, but most of their machine-guns were apparently to the right and had effectively prevented any cutting of the wire there. The sniping was rather serious so that, to reduce casualties, I moved my first and second platoons back across the ridge into support, and put the others into a narrow trench beyond the wire.

A runner came over from the 308th, some-where on our left, having had to circle far back to reach us, and I was trying to find out from him, on a map which he didn't understand, where they were, when we got an order to attack. A barrage would open at twelve-ten and play for twenty minutes on the ridge in front, after which all front-line companies would assault together, and the 308th would assault simultaneously on our left. If only one could believe it! There seemed not a chance that the artillery would destroy the wire before our center and right, without which neither "H" nor "E" could advance; the runner from the 308th shared my doubts that his regiment expected any immediate move; the support companies, and we did not know what their orders were beyond the ridge half a mile to the rear, and two of my platoons with them; it was already after twelve. I sent back a runner, a red-beaded Irishman named Patrick Gilligan, to hurry forward my rear platoons, and had just gotten word to the others to be ready for an instant advance in open order, when the shelling started. Nothing seemed to be falling
short, but it was all beyond the wire of the center and right, and we moved forward from our trench to the edge of the barrage line, a brigade attack consisting of two lonely platoons. I was thinking of the letter of a would- be suicide once published in the papers ending: "Good-by, old world, goodby," and I wondered whether my men realized what they were up against. The barrage was stunning to watch for those twenty minutes, there within forty yards of it-the thick smoke among the leaves, the black fountains of earth, and the great yellow trees crashing down in front. Then it ceased, and at once the whole forest began to echo with a sound like a hundred pneumatic riveters at work. We moved forward into a close wall of foliage, combed and recombed by the traversing bullets, and we fired blindly into the leaves as we went. The noise was deafening, and I could bear "H" and "E" going into action on our right rear, but nothing from the left. Then Gilligan came up with the other two platoons and saluted with a grin. I told him that I had thought he was lost or headed home, though in reality I didn't see how they had come so quickly nor found me so directly.

"Never fear, Captain," he answered, "and praise God it's here that we are and in time for it all, and yourself so safe." And even as be spoke be was down with a bullet through the brain. I think be was the first to be killed.

We were now on the broad top of the ridge and were beginning a turning movement to the right in the hope of rolling up the enemy line from west to east, if only the rest of the battalion front could do something through their wire. I sent Lieutenant Rogers with the two new platoons to extend our left in search of the 308th, wherever they might be, and to carry on the enveloping movement. We were facing now nearly east in a wide curve, and it became increasingly bard to preserve direction. When I reached the extreme left of the line I found it well over the farther slope and firing dangerously close to our right; but as I took a man by the shoulders to change his aim, he caught a message from the man beside him and passed it on: "Fire more to the right."

Later I found that the message had been started by the lieutenant with the right platoon to prevent its firing on our left, and is the only instance I know of a verbal message passed successfully and without change down a whole company, which it was never meant to do. We were widely through the enemy line, but with our left and rear open to the whole of Germany; yet, if we had only known, that left was within four hundred yards of the position taken up that evening by the "Surrounded Battalion" of the 308th, which had not yet made its historic advance. There seemed no longer anything to prevent the progress of our left to the north, an opportunity which it then appeared useless madness to seize, but for which, later, scores of lives were sacrificed. The position we were attacking lay to the east, and already we were completely separated from our battalion. So to the east our left swung, broke through a narrow belt of wire, and came face to face with the first of the enemy-a huddled group of fifteen men with four light machine-guns, who had been driven from position by the artillery barrage and startled into surrender by the sudden appearance of our men. They were sent to the rear with a guard of four, and I had moved back to our center when there came a hoarse shouting from in front, and cries of ""Kamerad, kommen Siehier." My best sergeant, an Englishman, was starting toward them, where we could see their helmets among the leaves, and I shouted to him to stay where he was and shoot.

"It's all right, sir," he answered, turning. "They're most anxious to surrender;" and then pitched forward on his face, and I emptied my pistol over him with, I hope, some effect. Three other Germans came out on the left, empty-handed and calling: "Wommen Sie hier;'' then dropped to the ground as a machine-gun opened fire above them. Some one was shooting at them, but I don't know with what result. I went over to the sergeant, who was bleeding, but not very fast, from a wound in the thigh. He asked for a drink of water and died as I gave it to him; I never knew why. A new machine-gun had opened down a narrow lane ahead, showing a close wake of bullets through the long grass, and listening to the right front I found that from the rest of .the battalion the fire had ceased. We hid broken their line but we seemed to be facing them alone, and there might be heavy wire in front. A further advance would mean a sweeping victory or annihilation. We desperately wanted support for our flank and rear. I reached for the message book in my pocket, and, as I did so, caught sight of some more helmets moving across our front from left to right. At first I thought it was our left platoon that had lost direction, till one showed its steep German sides, and then I forgot the message book.

At about that time a runner brought me a written order to withdraw and prepare to receive a counterattack, and so that ended it; though it took nearly an hour, beginning at the left, to roll up and collect our whole line. The fourth platoon on the right we never did find, though the lieutenant and I walked over the ground on which we bad left it shouting ourselves hoarse; so we concluded it had dropped back down the slope to the left, and two hours later its runner reported to me at the mouth of our old dugout to ask whether it was to dig in where it was, a few rods forward of where we had been and alone in Germany.

Neither "H" nor "E" had succeeded in penetrating the wire in their fronts, though the latter had lost some half-dozen men in the attempt. "H" and "L" each lost over twenty. Due to the complete lack of warning, the support companies, which, if thrown in behind "L," might well have turned the scale to victory and saved the five subsequent days of bloody struggle for that ground, did not arrive until the attack and withdrawal had been completed, and some of them not until dark. By dint of dropping back half a kilometer to cross the wagon road, "E" now came up on the right of "H." These companies were sufficiently protected from surprise by the wire in their front, and on the left, "L," in the trench beyond the wire, threw forward sentry-squads into the brush; but no counterattack was delivered.

Through the night there were sounds of activity upon the ridge, though the companies on the line, knowing nothing of the advance of the 308th, accomplished that evening along the ravine to their left, could not guess that they listened to the closing of the gate behind them. With the morning a field-gun went into action on the ridge at some three hundred yards' distance, searching the slope behind the line with direct fire and bursting its overhead H. E. above the lip of the trench. In that trench, shoulder deep and too narrow to admit of passing, the bursts of four shells caused casualties to men lying prone along its bottom; and even for those who were not struck the sound of its point-blank discharges was unnerving. A carrying detail started back for ammunition, and, though they had been warned to keep off the trail behind the solitary dugout, they had scarcely started before there came a burst of machine-gun fire and then a calling for help. Five were down; and as a lieutenant reached out from the bushes to pull one back under cover a bullet broke the skin across his knuckles and another cut from side to side through the gas-mask strapped to his chest. The day was spent in opening covered routes of communication and in attempting more exactly to locate the machine-gun positions. At dusk a relief of the front was made by the supporting companies, and, though this coincided with a suddenly increased activity of enemy artillery upon the line, there was no further immediate loss.
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