The Argonne-Meuse Campaign

THE 306th Field Artillery


THE relief by Garibaldi's Italian Division had become a reality. Already the regimental Post of Command had been taken over by the general himself.

Bazoches and Fismes looked innocent enough there in the afternoon sun. Both were but heaps of broken stone and brick. Now and then as you watched, a bit of Hun Kultur would go screaming over, and a dirty black cloud would mark the spot where it struck. Fismes was receiving particular attention. Hour after hour, the town and roads about it seemed to vomit flame, black smoke, and debris.

The time to start approached and a strange stillness settled into the little valley as the sun gave way to a brilliant moon. Everyone's hopes went up as nine o'clock was reached. For some reason Jerry was quiet, and we might slip through the valley and across the river before he got busy. The column was formed. Horses and men stood motionless so that the airplanes overhead would pass them by unnoticed.

Coming across the narrow bridge was an endless column of Italian Infantry, and French artillery, all hastening to get by the congested shelled area. Suddenly the shrill whistle Of 77's floated overhead. The lurid flashes in the town and beyond showed the targets.

Overhead throbbed a heavy bombing plane in search of prey.

Into the crossroads at Fismes, the column pushed its way, men and horses bending forward in the dark to accomplish their unpleasant task as quickly as possible. The crossroads were blocked. The French and Italians were trying to come in on the road on which we were going out. Shells were bursting just beyond the turn and the air was heavy with gas, which tickled the nose and choked the throat. We moved ahead and swung the corner. Every man crouched low, wondering where each screaming shell would land. The pace was terrific but no one minded, thinking only of the flash,-the noise of the close falling shells. At first they burst all ahead, then all around, and at last, all behind us.

We began to realize how far and fast we had traveled. It seemed as if a heavy load had been lifted from us. We pushed on. Occasionally a plane hovered overhead. Here and there, we could see the flash of a gun in a ravine and way off to the right a converging circle of searchlights, punctured with little red bursts of flame, told the story of a night bomber. The marching became easier. The strain was gone. The sound of the guns was far be-hind and our month on the Vesle was but a memory.

Early in the morning, camp was pitched in the woods near Coulonges. After a few hours' sleep there was readjusting of packs, inspection of equipment and horses, and a big meal (the first the regiment had had together for over a month). At dark, the moon came clear and brilliant in a nearly cloudless sky, and the long column, like a dark snake, uncoiled from the woods of our camp and started its long journey supposedly to rest. A little after midnight we crossed the Marne on a pontoon bridge and started eastward along the broad highway. Little did we know where it would take us but soon there grew a feeling that this was a race against time and that such a race would never end in a mere rest.

There were nights of cold and drenching rain; when men were so weary that they slept on their horses and the horses stumbled and staggered under their loads; when the troops and guns going by took on weird outlandish shapes like ghost things herded onward. There were early mornings; when camp was made where everything was wet and there was little fuel; when the tired things would just fall asleep drenched and cold. There were marches by day when the sun shone and all were happy. The fields were bright with the green and the sun. The country folks smiled and we smiled back. The horses did their best and we put many miles behind us. There were camps outside of interesting old places (Epernay and Chalons) where (in spite of their tired bodies) the men would go to buy food and souvenirs.

One morning, it was whispered around that we were going back to the Front and that the biggest " show " of the war was to begin. The elation an excitement of participating in big things began to creep in, and by night, excited whispers told of some mighty battle in which we were to fight.

Indeed there was, and each day we saw new evidences of it-miles and miles of marching troops, trains of motor transports, and huge lumbering guns, all pressing on as if striving to be first at some worthy goal. Then the great Argonne Forest was in the rumors, coupled with stories of a great offensive from "Switzerland to the Sea."

On a beautiful frosty night, we passed through St. Menehould, the gateway of the Argonne. There were high dark woods, hard long hills, and quiet water in glades, which gave back a bluish haze from the moonlight.

Soon word was passed back that the lines were very close and, driving off the road into the woods, we camped for the night, sending the guns forward and camouflaging them near their positions north of Florent. We were in the Argonne Forest, soon to start one of the greatest battles of the war, having marched one hundred and eighty-five kilometers in eight days.

Next day, a gun boomed out just ahead and we realized that the appreciation of things of beauty would have to be suspended until our work was over. Again, it was brought home, for there was the unmistakable whistle of one coming in-just the old desultory firing of an inactive front. All were cautioned to be careful and keep out of sight and any reconnaissance forward of the batteries had to be in French uniforms.

The battery positions had to be prepared, the trail pits dug, and the troublesome orienting completed. Cover too, had to be found, for no one knew exactly how much the Boche suspected and he usually backed up his suspicions with a little H. E.

The woods bristled with guns. Here you could see the little graceful 75's, and there the long serpent-like heavier rifles, and, in little unexpected nooks and hollows, the uglier businesslike snouts of our own howitzers.

We found our first real dugouts, some that would hold six hundred or seven hundred men, well equipped with bunks, water, and electric lights. A single small hillside could swallow a regiment and still yawn for more.

Overhead the sky was bright blue, spotted here and there with fleecy clouds, behind which an occasional plane would dart to escape the avalanche of bursting shells sent up by the anti-aircrafts. Time and again the Hun would try to come over, only to be driven back. Late in the afternoon, two huge bombing squadrons drifted over to harass the lines of communication. The night came and again the stillness of the great forest closed down. The stars were large and near, and a bright moon flecked the ground with silver between the trees. Now and then a shell went over, and now and then one came back; and it was still again.

Another morning was here and no news. The telephone lines were laid, but we were under orders not to talk or even ring up, for fear of Germans listening-in and discovering our preparations. The last work on the guns was finished and the regiment reported ready.

Just before noon a messenger arrived, his arms full of papers. He told us as he handed them over that all lines were to be tested by noon by ringing and saying "Oui" or some other French word. The papers were maps and barrage orders-the first news of our part in the great offensive. There followed hours of feverish figuring so that all data for the guns would be ready and checked, the shells separated, and the charges prepared for action at any time. By nightfall, everything was set and ready for the word that would send over the greatest avalanche of shells ever poured on any enemy.

Darkness came on. Suddenly a ruddy flash and then another lit the heavens, bringing the trees and battered buildings into sharp relief against a lurid field. The heavens were filled with never-ceasing lightning that sent ugly screaming things on their way to destroy, while the air beat on our ears and the very earth rocked with the thunder of it. Not until three hours later did the iron throats abate their howl of hate and then only to shift-some to the creeping barrage, others to zones where men and material would collect.

The morning was bright but the unceasing roar rolled on and on. Now and then, away to the left, could be heard the singsong of a French seventy- five barrage, and to the rear, the heavy crash of a big one sending over its hundreds of pounds of high explosive. Noon came and the fire slackened, but there was no news. We knew that the infantry had gone across, but scattered battalion reports gave little information.

By noon the order to advance had arrived. Not far, but over the ridge, through the old French reserve line and down into the valley of the Biesme. Here, we saw, for the first time, what four years of war meant. Heaps of grown-over ruins, myriads of trenches and wire, and cleverly built dugouts that made each hill a protective abode. Such dugouts could have been conceived only by the French. There were ornate homelike entrances, comfortable rooms with fireplaces and long extending tunnels that burrowed and intercommunicated within the hills. In one of the larger ones, there were the unmistakable recent evidences of cows, chickens, and pigs. Such were the hardships of the Argonne before September 26, 1918.

The road running through the valley north of the river was a slowly moving mass of supply transports, infantry, engineers, and artillery, all pressing forward to their new battle line. Near this road at La Harazee, the guns first went into position. Here the artillery sat down to wait, for there were indefinite reports and no chance of observation and the firing was confined to scattered shoots at definitely dangerous areas.

Now we had our first chance to see the real Argonne. First a slightly battered, grand old strip of woods, filled beneath with heavy brush through which were strung masses of heavy wire. Here and there a few logs and sandbags showed where some old wet and musty dugout went down thirty feet or more into the clay, where one might find a doughboy's full equipment, except the very fighting tools. Then the old No Man's Land, a waste of broken stumps, blackened and burned and everywhere thrown up in masses of yellow and grayish dirt.

For two days the lines did not seem to move but reports showed them farther and ever farther away until the news of the "Lost Battalion" reached us. At first, it was only a rumor spreading as rumors go but later confirmed in the regimental Post Command itself where every word was interrupted by the whine of the bullets overhead. All this time we waited, firing now and then as targets were given, but never performing any carefully adjusted work.

There was one day of fire to help this " Lost Battalion" of advancing infantry that had lost contact on its left and right and had been surrounded by the Germans. General Johnson himself led his men in a heartbreaking futile attempt at rescue. By day, planes loaded with food and ammunition attempted to reach the sorely tried men but always the precious parcels dropped in enemy hands.

Situated as they were in the cross part of a T-shaped ravine with the top pointing towards the enemy, the lost or beleaguered battalion was completely dominated by the fire from concrete emplacements on all sides. After many unsuccessful infantry attempts the artillery was called upon to demolish the emplacements on the left side of the T. There was a heavy concentration put on this area by the whole regiment, which although not adequate to effect a breach for a successful infantry attack, succeeded in relieving the situation and breaking up a gathering German attack.

Soon after this, news came back that they had been reached and that the Germans were falling back. Everyone had a new eagerness to get on. Here was the first real feeling of victory that carried us on to the end. Traces of pitted mud, each pit filled with yellow water, showed where the shell-torn road had been. It was a bottomless sticky affair that would swallow hooves, shoes, and wheels and hold them fast against the best efforts of man or horse. Such were the roads that ran forward through the battered, twisted maze of stumps, trees, and wires.

On and on, the horses and men struggled, through rain, mud, and darkness. Finally we came upon one of the wonders of the war-the German dugouts -modest entrances, well protected with overhanging concrete lids, nicely modeled rooms with stained wood trimmings, mission furniture, and tinted walls. Beds, too, with springs could be found tucked away in cozy little rooms where open fires gave them charm. There were complete lighting systems, hot and cold baths, and central mess establishments. However it was not safe to be too curious, for often-times, opening a door, lighting a fire, or switching on a light, blew dugout and all beyond all possibility of recognition. There were whole towns of these luxurious quarters, for thus had the Germans been living when caught by the barrage of September 26th.

After a few days of all these German comforts, fires told us of a new retreat. There followed a long march through muddy roads dimly outlined by the fires of German destruction, past a crossroad about which were grotesquely twisted shapes that back in 1914 had been Binarville, shown on the map as a fair-sized town and on the ground by an unmistakable German sign with letters a foot high.

Beyond, the Argonne ends, a pointed fringe of thick oak, covering sharp ridges which jut toward Grand Pre from the south and command the Aire for long distances on either side. Behind these ridges between Langon and Grand Ham were our new positions; the Second and Third Battalions on the west side of the forest, and the First Battalion on the east side, and along their sides the infantry and machine guns were catching their breath for the next plunge. This was to be one of the hardest phases of the war for us. By working twenty-four hours a day the masses of ammunition were brought up and one misty morning the hills rang again with the barrage that helped in the downfall of the German's second line.

This second line hinged on Grand Pre, a town built on the point of a ridge jutting down from the northern end overlooking all of the crossings of the Aire as well as the railroad leading up the valley. Above the town, the cemetery, with its heavy stone terraces, and embankment walls, overhung the town below like a protecting fortress and gave excellent machine-gun control of the surrounding valley. This cemetery was the main obstacle to the capture of the town. For this reason it was continually swept by our artillery until only a powdered tortured mass of stone and earth remained. On both sides, rolling hills stretched away to the north, behind which were many Boche batteries of all sizes which were deluged with fire as soon as discovered. These wooded hills were ideal for the cleverly concealed German machine guns. Perhaps the strongest of them was the Bois des Loges, a heavily wooded crest that sloped to the very banks of the river. Hidden in the protection of its trees, the Germans had done their utmost in machine-gun defences. It was the work of the artillery to crush these nests and kill or drive out their defenders. After the battle (so well had the guns done their work) it was hard to see how a sparrow could have lived through it. There were other difficult and sensitive places such as Belle Joyeuse Farm (the German forward Command post), Farm des loges, an excellent machine-gun fort, and the crossroads at Beffu le Mort Homme, always crowded with traffic. All of these received hourly attention up to the time of the attack, when every gun became intent on crushing each obstacle as the infantry opposed it.

Over across the railroad, the meadows, and the Aire, the infantry went to the heights beyond, where the rapidly thinning ranks dug in. It was then a question of one machine gun at a time, of appalling losses and just plain guts. Always, the shells went over and one by one the machine guns stopped their clamor until at night, St. Juvin and Grand Pr6 were taken, a main line railroad cut, huge stores captured, and the Argonne cleared.

Finally the welcome relief came, followed by a march back through roads crowded with troops, camions, and supply wagons to our old second position at La Haraz6e in the now quiet valley of the Biesme. There, many rumors, those phantom hearsays of armies that come from nowhere and amount to nothing, had the division on its way to various camps and rest areas.

At La Harazee there were baths, new clothes, leaves, and the old close-order drill. The horses were rested and put on fresh hourly. The guns shone under constant cleaning. There were band concerts and school. The war was left behind, we went about without helmets, strolled on the streets without an ever strained ear listening for one coming over. The very air seemed sweet and good to breathe.

One night, there was a visitor. All along the line the cry "Lights out!" warned us, before the heavy throbbing told us, of the hated prowlers of the night. He passed us up to bomb the more important target of railroads and dumps. Next morning, rumors of returning to the front were rife, and by night orders were issued that meant once more the 77th Division was to take up its part of the now never-ceasing push.

Just after noon, the regiment stripped to the absolutely necessary transportation-for the horses were far too few-started again to take its place in the line. That night, camped in the thick woods under pup tents, we heard again the old familiar whistle of the shells coming in. They were scattered, however, and did no harm.

With the morning came an early start and a long march to a gun-lined area. There were guns everywhere, along the roads, in buildings, under trees, and in the open. So many that it was hard to find room for a battery in the neighborhood of Cornay-Fleville without overlooking many of the ordinary requirements of a position. It must have been hard indeed, provided the Germans knew all, to pick their particular target, for a shot anywhere would have done damage.

Then came days of adjustment-for there was good observation-on which every gun was registered, so that every round would tell. The Germans were not idle, however, and flocks of snarling, whistling death were poured over with much too good precision.

Day after day the air was full of planes and the puff-specked sky told of their hearty reception on both sides. Occasionally one would topple and fall, and fill up the " brought down " list on the next day's reports.

Much was the information these 'planes brought -eight hundred guns behind one hill-seven divisions of Huns ready to cut us up. Often the new weapon -propaganda-would float down giving the arguments on both sides in innocent little leaflets that helped to win the war. It is easy to see how effective these missives were, for men went hundreds of meters over shell-swept ground in pursuit of them.

The night the blow that was to knock the Hun to his knees arrived, everyone was excited and eager. A heavy counter-battery was expected, but the tremendous weight of our own guns was to crumple the enemy up like leaves and blow them away as by an autumn wind. Soon the air was filled with the most dense and destructive barrage of our war. It seemed the heavens were shrieking with the agony of it. The night was made light as day. Morning came- the fire kept up-the infantry went over but the Germans bad orders to hold at all cost. Those left stuck to their posts and all the day it was the old story of clearing a nest here and a nest there. We fired until our guns smoked with heat.

During the morning the infantry had hard work of it, but by noon parts of the line broke through. Plans were made for us to follow, but because the horses were pitifully few, the First Battalion had to stay behind at Marcq, turning its horses over to the battalions going ahead.

Night came, we moved up and started the feverish dash at the German line that was to end with surrender on the banks of the Meuse. There were heartbreaking marches over roads seemingly impassable from mud, mines, and shell holes; days and nights without food (for ammunition came first), horses dropping in their harness, men eating cabbage from the fields, and drinking from filthy shell holes; and nights of heavy firing. Each man did the work of ten and would have died to ram home the last shell. But ever the spirit of victory pulled us on through hard-won St. Juvin and shell-destroyed Champigneulle, to Thenorgues and Buzancy; and on beyond to Sommauthe, to Raucourt, and to Haraucourt, where the Germans cried: "Enough!"

Behind them, the Boche, left a trail of blood where the big shells went home; there were men, horses, and material broken and smashed by the roadside. The Meuse was reached, the guns in position to fire on Sedan. Patrols were across the river, when on November 11th a breathless and beaming messenger brought Foch's message that hostilities would cease at 11 A.m. For a minute it was hard to understand; and a non-comprehending silence spread over all; then a burst of joy, given vent to as only soldiers can, marked the end of it all. " Fini la Guerre.
Captain, 3o6th F. A.
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