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Chapter 13. The Home Trail


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

The Home Trail


THE HOME TRAIL

THE further story of the regiment may be briefly told; for, though the months seemed long in passing, they left behind them few milestones in memory to mark their progress. There were the long leagues of muddy road, back across the old battlefields and through the old ruins, and still on over a country untouched by war; till, in the first day of December, they reached a more or less permanent station near Chaumont. Clairvaux, Ville-saus-la-Ferte', La Ferte'-sur-Aube, Jouvancourt, Dinteville, and Silvarouvres-the little villages stretched for a dozen kilometers along the valley of the Aube-a pleasant enough country when finally it bad exhausted its capacity for rain, and the mud bad frozen bard, and the steep pine-clad bills were covered with snow; but this was not until the last days of sojourn there. There for five weeks they drilled, deloused, and equipped, but mostly drilled. To many it seemed that they drilled too much, for it was six hours a day and, on orders from high authority, "regardless of weather." Yet one who undertakes to disregard the weather of Northern France in winter is undertaking much, and it is more easily done in the office than in the mud. Then, too, the minds of all were filled with but one thought: "When are we going home?" The war was over, and it was an effort of mind that anything else should seem to matter.

An episode of interest to more than a few was the discovery of the loss, by almost all wounded officers, of all their baggage. This bad been turned over through proper military channels, and then, as the old hymn has it, "not lost, but gone before"- that is, gone before the rightful owners could find it. It was squeezed dry by the friction of its passage through the above-mentioned channels, or else it grounded on a reef somewhere in mid-channel and never saw port at all. The writer found one bit of salvage from his bedding-roll washed up, as it were, in a bottle-a packet of papers marked with his name, and anonymously returned months afterward, which he had tenderly packed away, before entering the Argonne, in the center of the roll. Apart from this solitary Enoch Arden the bedding-roll foundered with all hands. His locker-trunk was returned from storage in the Government Storage Plant at Gievres, where it had been sent long before, with its lock torn off and a number of its crew washed overboard. Many officers received their suitcases as empty derelicts with not a soul on board, but most received nothing, and cherished only a memory and a vanishing hope.

An episode of much more limited interest was the return of a certain company cook to cooking. He was an Italian, and though needing only a black patch over one eye and a wide- brimmed hat to pose successfully for the Pirates of Penzance, was yet a very excellent cook. Unfortunately he drank, and quite without sense of proportion; and, having so drunk, he would sharpen a carving-knife while he looked gloomily at the Mess Sergeant, whom he professed to dislike. The Mess Sergeant, while doing his duty to the very best of his ability, and ready in a general way to give his life for his country, took a growing aversion to the carving-knife, and complained about it to his captain. So the captain spoke quite sternly to the cook, explaining to him that he had failed to appreciate his many privileges, and had betrayed most of his trusts; finally, that he should make up his pack at once and report for duty on the outpost line.

This had happened during July in Lorraine, and the captain had fervently hoped that contrition would soon follow, for the cook had to be substituted in the officers' mess by a man who was, properly speaking, a butcher. The cook, in spite of his rather moth-eaten piratical appearance, looked neither strong nor brave; and it seemed probable that a few nights of lonely sentry-post under sniping fire, or at most a few long marches with a pack, would prepare him again for his flesh-pots. But they didn't. He accepted his punishment meekly, in a combination of Italian and French, and then, having once tasted of the line, nothing would persuade him back to the kitchen.

When the picked platoon was chosen to represent the company in the proposed raid against Ancerviller, though not chosen, since., among other short-comings, he had almost never fired a rifle nor drilled with a bayonet or grenade, he none the less went. And so, till the end of the war, he remained, and the company had gained an excellent soldier, of whom there were many, but had lost a superlative cook, of whom there were no more.

Toward the middle of February came the next stage of the long trail home, when the last battalion of the regiment moved out at night, under a cold half-moon, company after company in dim silhouette of packs and rifles, black against the moonlit ice, with the calling of good-byes behind, and twenty kilometers of glare ice in front-that and a four-hour wait at dawn for a train unheated, in numb and bitter cold. The war was not over with the signing of the armistice.

In the Embarkation Center about Le Mans and Sable life became pleasanter, for there the spring was already beginning. Again there were the wide-scattered billets-Asnieres, Poille', Fontenay, Avoise, Parce', and La Rougealiere. There was continued drilling, but less of it, continued delousing, and more of it, equipping, some excellent baseball, and innumerable inspections, which quite definitely required a black and brilliant polish on shoes which were frankly intended to be rough and brown.

On February 24th the 77th Division was re-viewed at Solesme by General Pershing. It had been reviewed at Florent just three months previously by General Alexander, but this latter occasion seemed more notable, and the Commander-in-Chief made a remarkable statement. So remarkable was it in fact that, for fear of misquotation, one almost hesitates to set it down. For he said:
"I consider the 77th Division one of the best-in fact it is, in my estimation, the best division in the A.E.F."

It is a distinction which, of course, every self-respecting division both claims and proves; but one can only assume the verdict of the Commander-in-Chief to be final. In any case it offered a most magnificent spectacle, massed upon the field in line of battalions formed in close column of companies, at one-half normal distance, showing with their steel helmets and fixed bayonets like some great Roman testudo or Macedonian phalanx of gleaming metal, a mighty and resistless engine of war. Yet, in the words of Canrobert: "C'est magnifiquo, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

In March there was a military and athletic meet of all the divisions in the Embarkation Center, which the 77th Division won, and in which "H" Company of the 307th won both the platoon and company drill competition for all these divisions. Then on April 16th came the final move. It was full spring, and the meadows were jeweled with cowslips and violets, and the hedges were white with black-thorn-and, oh, how long ago and how untaught seemed the times in Upton, when the Regiment had adopted that emblem for its own -when the battalions moved out to their entraining points. At Avoise all the school children, with their teacher and village cure, lined the street to bid them good-bye, and every soldier came out with a flower in his cap or the muzzle of his rifle. The teacher had written in English on his blackboard a message of affectionate farewell, and had taught each child to know it by heart. It is worth telling such things to those who have only heard of hostility between the Americans and the French.

The Regiment sailed from Brest between April 20th and 22nd, divided into its three battalions on board the America, the Louisville, and the St. Louis-the latter the same cruiser which had convoyed their eastward passage just a year and a day before-and by the first of 'May the last of them had reached New York. It was different, very different, from the going forth. There were excursion steamers in the Narrows, crowding on either side of the transports, covered with banners and placards of welcome, filled with brass bands and such fervently rejoicing people, shouting their quick, eager questions and greetings across the water. Then came the Statue of Liberty (which will always hereafter mean far more to her troops than ever she has meant before) and the strange, familiar pinnacles of the city-the docks of Hoboken and Long Island City, with the American cobbles under foot-the eager,
pressing throngs, crowded behind the iron bars, their reaching hands stretched through, and their eyes bright with tears and with worship.

And the troops pressed forward along the narrow ways, their heads lifted as though for crowns, and the hot blood surging round their hearts, swallowing back their tears as they looked into those wonderful adoring faces-the roar of feet, the crashing thunder of the drums, the music echoing and reverberating through the streets, and the cheering, cheering, cheering till even the music was drowned into silence. How wonderful life seemed on that May day evening to pilgrims coming back to it again- back from the already forgotten shadows of that twilight world beneath the portcullis of death. How the little troubles and purposes, that loom so large in the foreground of vision, how they dwindle and vanish down the long diminishing perspective of time; while higher and more and more commanding grows that great mountain of sorrow and of grandeur to which the pilgrimage has led, and to which the eyes of future generations in awe will turn.

For the days through which we have lived have been heroic days, and the world has not seen their like before, nor will know them again; and the memories of those days are a heritage to the race of men which shall not be forgotten. So the Regiment came back to Camp Upton, where it was born, and was mustered out into the citizenship from which it came.
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