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5. La Panne


A STORY
of
THE 305th MACHINE GUN BATTALION
77th DIVISION
A.E.F.
By

HENRY W. SMITH

Chapter 5
La Panne


CHAPTER V

LA PANNE

"WHEN do we eat" amounted to a theme song during our first days in La Panne. It was some time before real American rations started flowing in with any regularity. We had to look to the British Army for food supplies and they were unable to cope with the situation. A slice of bacon, hardtack and cold tea would constitute a meal and, for a real spread, add to that a piece of cheese. Marma-lade on a soda biscuit was often served as dessert. Oh! the daintiness of it! Belts were pulled up a couple of notches and uniforms hung loosely. About this time corned willy, in other words, canned corned beef made its appearance. Not bad at first, but repetition is some-what wearying.

Drill started on the Vickers machine gun, which is a water-cooled weapon, with the names of many parts to be learned. It was also necessary to have the correction of stoppages become second nature. How we pounded away at that. Who will ever forget -if the cocking handle stops in the number one position, it is a sure sign of a bulged round or a split case or whatever it was and the old cry "Clearing plug, number two!" Remember? Do you recall the operation of the gun? The gases follow the bullet up the barrel, striking the muzzle attachment and driving the recoiling portions to the rear, and the seat of ejection - and the fuzzee spring - and the seer spring - and repeat all commands - say "UP" when ready - and ammunition, spare parts and gun all correct, sir - and the "tile" of the tumbler. Does it all come back to you? Day in and day out we repeated "tile" of the tumbler until one day someone blurted out to our English instructor, "Say, what in hell is this "tile"? "Tile, tile," said he, "You mean you do not know what a tile is? T-I-I-L, tile." We rolled over on the grass and kicked up our heels. T-a-i-l is tail and we never again said "tile". I mentioned before in this story that these Englishmen did not speak our language. How we recall those speed drills! It was on this spot, "Mount Gun", and that spot, "Mount Gun!" Out of Action, concealment - filling sand bags - sneaking into action and sneaking out again - packing the guns on mules and "capturing" villages! It makes us dizzy to go over it all.

Then there were the gas masks, flipping them on in 5 seconds and flipping them off -carrying in the slung position and at the alert and the English instructor - Sorry, sorry, I said Class and not gas. There, again they fooled us. Our instructions in the use and care of the masks were as complete and thorough as the British could make them after their years of experience in the war and the history of gas in its various forms was traced for us from the time it was introduced into the hostilities by the Germans. At a distance of about two miles from La Panne the British Army had erected a small gas house through which we passed. Windows and doors were sealed and after adjusting our masks, gas was released from tanks. After we had the experience of remaining in this strong concentration of gas the doors were opened to dispel most of it. Before the room was com-pletely cleared we were requested to remove our masks in order to get a sniff of the gas and in this way learned to detect the odor of chlorine, phosgene and lachrymatory gas, the latter being commonly called tear gas and, as I recall, it had an odor of new mown hay. It was calculated that this gas, by reason of causing tears to flow, would make a soldier remove his mask and in this way subject him to the more deadly gases. At another time we had demonstrated to us a cloud gas attack. This gas was released in clouds into a breeze blowing directly at us. At this time the Battalion showed the inherent trait of the American soldier to think for himself. Instead of standing fast and adjusting the gas masks for the purpose of the test, the men walked quietly out of the wind and allowed the gas to blow harmlessly by, much to the chagrin of the British officers. We imagine that at times they thought we were impossible and that we were not properly impressed. In going to the gas field, one afternoon, Major Nolan required us to hike the entire distance with our masks adjusted and, while it was something of an ordeal, it gave us much needed practice in wearing the masks for long periods. Later we handled the machine guns while wearing the masks and at other times were required to wear them for as much as an hour, becoming accustomed to conversing under that handicap. It all helped to equip us for the long periods we were later to be called upon to wear the masks in the front lines.

I might pause here, for a moment, to say that the Battalion was under the command of Major Daniel Nolan who had succeeded Major Winnia, the original commander.

The fields of France were intensely cultivated and we were required to keep to the roads when executing close order formations. There was a field, however, not far distant that was set aside for our use in machine gun work and was designated as the Battalion drill field. How well we recall the small children in their mufflers and smocks who stood at the side of the road and watched us march back and forth each day. They would call Vive I'Amerique! Cigarette! Cigarette ! Souvenir, etc. It was at the Battalion drill field that the British demonstrated their skill in putting four machine guns into action against us without being detected. They did not entirely succeed, however, as some of our men caught sight of them. We had to crawl all over the place ourselves doing the same thing.

The village of La Panne is about fifteen kilometers away from the town of St. Omer which was in the British lines and not far distant from Kemmel Hill. The hill changed hands several times, from the Canadians to the Germans and back again and it is a place that will live forever in the memories of the troops who survived the fighting at that point. We were not in the lines here but got the stories from Canadian soldiers who occasionally brought horses from the front to be rested and cleaned at a small remount depot at the neighboring village of Nordausque. For days on end we could hear the terrific cannonading. It was one long, continuous rumble and, at times, especially at night, it was enough to frazzle a man's nerves. Toward evening the road to St. Omer, which ran through the village of Nordausque, would become active with fresh British and Canadian troops going up and weary troops coming out. How we stood by the sides of the road and watched the motorcycle couriers speed by, and columns of artillery rumble along! Not far distant, over the hill, there was an aeroplane field and we used to watch the planes that had been up over the lines come winging to earth like great, tired birds. There was indeed enough here, more than enough to satisfy those of a romantic turn of mind. We used to wonder when it would come our turn to join the caravan.

For quite a while Call to Quarters sounded at 8:45 with Taps at 9:00 o'clock. The M.P.s would make the rounds of the Estaminets to start the stragglers back to billets. It happened later that Call to Quarters was changed to 9:45 with taps at 10:00 o'clock and the Battalion received the order before the M.P.s. When they started doing their chasing at 8:45 as usual, we stood fast. The M.P.s doubted us, as they naturally would, being M.P.s, when we told them of the change and upon inquiring of their own headquarters, they learned of the new order. How we gloated, and stood around for an additional hour when we would much rather have been tucked away.

One night, long after taps, when only the steady snoring could be heard in the billets, a certain C Company man started things going by coming in a very happy condition. He picked his way over the men to his bunk and, while he was preparing for sleep, he serenaded the bunch with his full rich tenor. The sergeant in charge of the billet, who was nicknamed "The Beast", commanded him to " pipe down", but requesting, commanding and threatening could not make him refrain from his singing. He said that if the sergeant thought he was noisy to wait until the rest of the gang came along. We did not have long to wait until the strains of "Sweet Adeline" greeted our ears. One of the group was a corporal quartered with us and we soon saw his huge bulk in the doorway, outlined against the sky. We must give him his due by saying he had quieted down and was not noisy. His bunk was well across the billet and as he peered into the darkness he scratched his head and wondered how he was going to make it. It did not take him long to decide and he had consideration enough to take off his hob-nailed shoes. Straightening up he said, "Here I come men". Straight across the billet he flew, landing on a foot here, a stomach there and then again right in a man's face. The air was full of grunts, shouts and curses but the bold bad corporal got to where he wanted to go and did not waste any time corking off. We could see the face of the enraged sergeant even through the darkness.

For quite a while after our arrival in La Panne it was often wondered how the term "Sunny France" originated. Day after day it rained. At times the sun broke through but it seemed as though we would never have a full day of sunshine and we sloshed around in mud with great clods of the sticky French soil clinging to our shoes. The weather was very fitful and in one day we could experience changes ranging from a bleak winter's day to the bright warmth of summer. It would be bitingly cold, moderate, snow, turn to rain, blow a March gale, the sun break through, only to disappear in a short time and black, showery clouds whirl across the sky. It was anything but comfortable and was very discouraging. Apart from a few men contracting heavy colds and rheumatism, the health of the men was surprisingly good. One C Company man was confined to his billet with a bad case of rheumatism and was finally removed to a hospital. Good old Frank Lawson, our Chaplain, made his rounds of the billets regularly, holding informal religious services on Sunday mornings and there were, no doubt, many silent prayers for better weather. To add to our woes, a detail returned to Calais for our transport equipment, that is, horses, mules, rolling field kitchens, limbers, G.S. (General Service) wagons, etc.

There was no place available where animals could be placed under cover and they were tethered to a long rope stretched between poles and known as the picket line. Guard duty at this time was divided into three divisions; billet guard, limber guard and stable guard. Limber guard was comparatively easy as it entailed patrolling only the area where the limbers were placed for the night.

Billet guard required a man to make the rounds of all the billets twice from retreat to reveille to see that everything was in order and particularly to guard against fire that might perhaps smolder and burst into flame during the night. The billets were really tinder and, as they were filled with straw, a carelessly dropped cigarette stub or match could prove disastrous. During our entire time in La Panne, about six weeks, we never had any trouble in that direction. Wander-ing along, alone on the roads, unarmed, in the darkness, with no sound save the distant, ceaseless rumbling of the guns in the lines, was rather an awe-inspiring job. Billet guards were later doubled and it helped a good deal to have a companion. At a still later time guards were issued the British Lee Enfield rifles but nothing to put into them. About the first time the guards carried rifles, Captain Roelker, of A Company, was Officer of the Day. Making his rounds in the night, he was halted and identified. Peering through the darkness and not knowing the arms had been issued, he asked, "Are you men carrying rifles?" "Yes, sir." - "Ammunition?" -"No, sir." - "Well," he said, "I suppose a rifle would make a good club anyway." And how he laughed.

Stable guard was about the toughest job of the lot, not excepting Kitchen Police. Any man who has chased horses and mules all over the fields all night will admit that he earned his month's pay in one night. Tie the animals to the picket line with the best kind of a knot and they got loose just the same. It will always remain their secret. What a sweet job it was in an air raid. The animals would break in all directions, going positively wild. Incidentally, we learned about swearing from mule skinners, the drivers who handled the brutes all day. Add to the general excitement of catching frightened horses and mules, the roar of anti-aircraft guns, exploding shrapnel shells, the shrapnel dropping to earth, the steady hum, hum, hum of the German aeroplane somewhere in the sky, with countless searchlights penetrating the blackness trying to locate the plane at the ends of the long fingers of light and then suddenly the deafening roar of the released bombs from the German plane. Occasionally one was brought down but, generally, the steady hum growing fainter, ever fainter, would signify he had succeeded in getting away. The British troops used to say there is nothing like an air raid to get a man's wind up and we agree with them. All would become quiet again and we would get back to sleep but off in the dark soggy fields the stable guard would still be chasing horses.

There is nothing one can do in an air raid but lie and wait. Looking for shelter was of no use for a direct hit meant the end. It has been ably said that a bomb-proof shelter was bomb-proof until hit by a bomb. We had more than enough of air raids in La Panne as the Germans were constantly seeking to bomb an ammunition dump at Audrique. We watched with dread the rocket signals float into the sky. When a plane crossed the front line a rocket was fired and it was repeated at intervals all the way back so that by the time the galloping hum of the German plane came to our ears, all would be in readiness. It was during one of these raids that an anti-aircraft shell dropped through the house where Lieutenant Duddy of C Company was billeted. Fortunately is was a shell that, through some defect, was prevented from exploding. Crashing through the roof, missing the Lieutenant's cot by about six feet, it pierced the floors of the house and buried itself in the ground. It seemed to be an ill omen, however, as Lieutenant Duddy, a fine, upstanding man was later one of the first of C Company to make the supreme sacrifice.

The air raids continued to occur on clear nights and gradually we became indifferent to them. Fortune smiled upon us so far as the weather was concerned for as we approached the month of May we were favored with many days of sunshine. Our rations improved, too, and things at last seemed to be coming our way. It was at about this time that we began to learn who the champions of the Second line were. After the Company had been fed, if any food remained, the cooks shouted to line up for seconds as far as the remainder of the food would go. The cooks didn't have to do much shouting, as the line was generally pretty well formed and waiting. It seems that in every company it was the same bunch all the time. How they were able to consume the first helping so quickly and be waiting for more was a mystery. It apparently required rare skill to be first on the second line. In other words to be the first second if we make ourselves clear. "Second Hounds" we used to call them.

Earlier in our story we mentioned the lad from the backwoods who did not seem to know what it was all about. The Battalion was barely settled comfortably in La Panne when word came that he was missing. We were not particularly ex6ited about that but one afternoon a message was received from the British M.P. Headquarters at Calais that they had one of our men and requested that someone be sent for him. Two men made a hitch hike back to Calais and sure enough they had our little country boy. He had gone AWOL up to the British lines and from the information he was able to give had reached the support line trenches. Not being satisfied with that, he desired to go farther forward and, climbing out of that series of trenches, found his way above ground to the front line. He was taken back to Calais in an airplane and was therefore a couple of jumps ahead of the rest of the outfit. He was very much disturbed to think that he was being detained so long in France and said that he ought to be home getting in the crops. If he had a bicycle he would have gone home and when asked how he hoped to ride across the ocean on that, he said he would ride around it. A couple of the men tried to cut off the moustache he had raised but they found him to be a rugged boy. After the struggle was over he still had his moustache. There wasn't much time wasted on him, however, and he was sent away for observation. Each time he came back he was promptly sent away and the last we heard of him he had been returned to the States.

Our time was fully occupied during the day but after mess, at the end of the day, we had several hours of daylight and we crowded a good deal of fun into those hours. Saturday afternoons and Sun-days were usually leisure periods and we visited such nearby places as Recques and Licques. British soldiers were quartered at these places and at the Recques encampment the boys could buy ale. The road to Recques became well worn. At Licques we visited a British Y.M.C.A. canteen, where we listened to stories of the war and drank the hot chocolate tank dry much to the annoyance of the Tommies.

Apart from the fun we made ourselves, there wasn't much entertainment in La Panne and, therefore, when we received an invitation to a performance of the Tivolis we lost no time in being on hand. The theatre was an old barn over at Recques and the footlights were candles in tin can reflectors. The Tivolis, as they called themselves, was a group of British soldiers of all rank, apparently men who at some time had been identified with the theatrical profession and it was their duty to furnish entertainment for the soldiers. Ability in a theatrical way was not the only requirement; every man of the troupe had to show that he had been over the top at least once. The barn was darkened and, f or a couple of hours, we lost ourselves to the outside world. Who can forget such songs as "I Want a Cup of Cocoa" and "Good Bye"? A skit called "The Leftenant Colonel and his Batman" was a very funny bit. It was shortly after the show was over that we came face to face, on the road, with the Leftenant Colonel who was actually a captain and where but a few moments before we were laughing at his antics we had to snap into it with a smart salute.

There were two days that we liked to see come around and they could not come often enough for us. One was mail day and the other was payday. It was great to receive mail from home and to appreciate what letters meant to us one need only to see a lad who did not receive a letter. The folks at home were certainly loyal and faithful and when it comes to the old question of who won the war, we can give credit to them because they were right behind us all the time and never failed us. Pay day was something else, again, and in our mind's eye we can still see the old huddled groups in the barnyards watching the "galloping dominoes" and the old familiar cry "Come on my lucky lads, get your money down." We do not mean to imply that the entire Battalion put its pay into the great African game. Not at all, a lot of the men drank up their pay while others ate it, if you follow us.

Once, when things were not going so well, the officers took us to task about it and said we should be more like the Infantry regiments and sing while hiking. On the particular day we have in mind we sang all right. We can still see old Lieutenant (Foxy) Gorham as he was affectionately referred to. As he stood at the side of the road watching the Company swing out, he got the songs as soon as the command "Route Step" had been given. He was greeted with such songs as "All We Do Is Sign the Payroll" and "We'll Hoist Old Glory to the Top of the Pole" and "All Re-enlist in the Pig's Whiskers". He tried to retain his dignity but, being a regular "guy", he let out his old familiar guffaw. Those were the days!

We now come to a time that stands out in the memories of all old 305th Machine Gunners - of the entire Division for that matter. We refer to the Watten Hike or as we call it the Battle of Watten. Now, the town of Watten wasn't and for that matter is not today of any great importance so far as its size is concerned but it was the terminus of one long, hard hike on a beastly warm day and it is often referred to when men of the old Division get together. So far as our Battalion is concerned, we can still see that dogged determination as the men tramped, tramped, tramped steadily onward. Did they kick? Did they complain? Yes, we'll say they did but show us an American soldier who hasn't grunted and fumed. The old Battalion went along just the same though with nary a man falling out and they finished in great shape. The last long mile or so up to the town was a steady climb and coming, as it did, right at the finish, it was a heart-breaker. Without mentioning any names, we will tell you about this famous old Battle of Watten from the viewpoint of one of the men who happened to be called for K.P. that day. He was awakened by the guard at 3:00 A.M. and shortly thereafter reported for duty at the kitchen. There was plenty to be done and not to burden you with too many details, suffice it to say that the Company was fed, utensils cleaned up, dinner on the fire and we stood ready to pull out by 7:00 A.M. We had not proceeded more than about half a mile when the horses shied at something, swerving the kitchen into a rut and it parted at the point where the rear end containing the cooking food is attached to the limber by a hook and eye arrangement. As the rear portion up-ended the fire fell onto the road and the water rushed from the pots or dixies, as they were called. All hands made a leap for the pole and dragged it down to its horizontal position, coupling up again. The fire was shoveled up and a survey disclosed that there was enough water on the beans to keep them from burning. With a rapid march the kitchen force caught up to the Company and at the first brook the K.P.s filled the dixies with water. Every time the Company stopped for the usual ten-minute rest the kitchen force juggled the dixies. K.P.s and cooks were carrying full packs the same as the Company and it was not until about half the distance had been covered that permission was given to throw the packs on a limber. There was not much rest for the boys in the kitchens during the ten -minute stops.

The men in the Infantry regiments seemed to be carrying unusual weight in their packs and eventually we passed a group that had fallen out. It was reported that several had actually died. An investigation later developed the fact that practically all of them were still clinging to knitted articles made by loving hands at home and orders were issued to discard everything that had not been sup-plied by the Government. There were many completely fitted toilet sets, razors of various makes and so on and what a neat pile it made in the Watten Woods. The British soldiers lost no time helping them-selves. It was a very trying march and we were fortunate in not being burdened with rifles and bayonets as were the Infantrymen. The day was drawing to a close when we reached the woods beyond the town of Watten. The companies pitched tents and were not long in getting settled. The job for the kitchen men was not quite so simple as the old familiar cry of "When do we cat?" was soon filling the air. Getting water fit to drink was always a problem in France and for several minutes we did not know where we were to get water for coffee. We were advised that we could get a supply about three- quarters of a mile down the road and by four men abreast carrying three dixies we were able to get enough water to serve a cup three- quarters full to each man. There was a kick at that but no one volunteered to make a trip for more water. The Company was fed at about nine o'clock and the K.P.s finished up at ten. It was indeed a long, weary day and at about the time they were ready to pitch their tent the platoon, to which the K.P.s in question were attached, received orders to pack up. Luck was with that platoon, however, as a messenger overtook the lieutenant in charge before we had gone more than a hundred yards through the woods, to advise him that the orders had been changed and to return. It was welcome news and it was a pair of tired, tired K.P.s that lay down in a pup tent that night. From three in the morning to ten at night is a long day. It was not to be a peaceful night, however, as Jerry came over on one of his usual air raids. Jerry, by the way, if we have not mentioned it before, was the enemy. Heinies, Boche, Huns and Krauts were other names, but to the Tommies, the enemy was Jerry and Jerry he remained. We learned the Germans were seeking to bomb an ammunition dump at St. Omer. Lying there in the woods we watched the play of the searchlights as they shone, for a moment, on the underside of the enemy plane like a huge gray bird. The plane would be held in the light for a m6ment only to be lost and the lights would resume their search. During all this there was the ceaseless bombardment of the anti-aircraft guns that we have described elsewhere. The enemy seemed to have met with some success on this raid as the bombs apparently found their mark, judging by the heavy blast off some-where in the distance and the red glare in the sky. Elements of the Battalion were deployed in battle formation, holding positions throughout the night and we were glad to see the sun the next morning.

The Battalion was assembled at an early hour and started its long march back to La Panne. Near Eperlecques we swung off into a field where we were subjected to the same show-down inspection that the infantry had undergone. All articles not issued by the Government were discarded and while many of us parted regretfully with things we had cherished, our packs were less cumbersome and the inspection was really a good thing. Later in our experience as soldiers we learned a good deal more about travelling light and we gave some sound advice to replacements who were chary about discarding surplus equipment because they were charged with it. "Ditch it" and "Give it the air" were popular expressions.

At last we were back in La Panne and as we flung ourselves into the straw of the old billets we had a feeling of being home. Not that home was actually like that, but it was the next best thing to it. During our night in the Watten Woods we had a vague feeling of being close to some real action and we learned that we had really been in reserve behind Arras, one of the most active points of the British lines at that time. Shortly after our return to La Panne the British Lee Enfield rifles were issued to the entire Battalion and for the first time many of the men found themselves face to face with the good old American Manual of Arms. Side arms had not been issued to us and up to this time our only weapons had been the machine guns and fists for minor local engagements. It did not take our outfit very long to master the manual and we doubt that the boys in the Infantry could have shown us up at the game. We did not feel comfortable with rifles, however, as we felt like fish out of water. Handling a rifle wasn't our game as we always thought in terms of a machine gun. We, of course, were operating under the British system which required every machine gunner to carry a rifle in addition to which an extra rifle was always kept at each machine gun emplacement. Practice on the ranges brought to light many excellent riflemen in each company.

We often wondered how long we were to remain in La Panne. A spirit of "Let's Go" seemed to run through the outfit. The day was not far distant when we were to move out of the old village never to return to it as we had done from Watten. It was well toward the end of May that we were to see elements of the 30th National Guard Division trudging into the area and not many days after that, we moved from the old village of La Panne that we had come to feel belonged to us. We hiked into another locality and the names of such places as Hardinghem, Hemelingen and Hamel come readily to mind. Our sojourn in this area was of short duration. Came the day when we turned in our British equipment to start one of the longest three-day marches of our career. Starting about mid-day, we tramped steadily throughout the long hot afternoon and when a halt was called along toward dusk we felt that we had done a good day's work. The halt however was only for mess and, with that over, we were on the way again. Gradually we settled into the grind, eyes becoming fixed on the rhythmic rise and fall of the hob-nailed shoes of the man ahead. The Battalion was leap-frogged, first one company leading and setting the pace and then another. If, perchance, the pace slackened it was "Pull over and let a good company get up there". Through the long hours of the night we pushed onward and, at times, we seemed to be going directly to the front as the flashing of the guns reddened the sky. It was, perhaps, somewhere around two o'clock in the morning when we forded a brook ankle-deep, to be halted in a field just beyond. It had been a long, dusty march and we pitched tents or bivouacked as we chose.

It was a weary, weary Battalion that flung itself to the ground that night, No one was called for guard duty and while that was wondered about, we did not ask questions. We found out about that later when one of the men, roused from his sleep, discovered that one of the officers was doing guard alone without disturbing the men. With a blanket wrapped about him he remained awake and was seen sitting by a small fire. That officer was First Lieutenant Allan E. Foster. He rode a horse the next day and got what sleep he could in the saddle. For three days we pounded the hard white roads of France without the loss of a man. We reached the village of Wamin eventually, where we pitched tents in a field with the boys of the 305th Infantry. After a short stay at Wamin, another hike carried us to the railhead at a place called Hesden. An advance detail had loaded our supply wagons and animals and it was not long before we were ordered into the box cars, the famous 40 and S's that we have already described. Now, forty men or eight horses is one thing, but with some of us it was twenty-two men in one end of the car and four horses in the other. It was something of a thrill sitting on the floor of the car doing fire guard with four animals blinking at you in the dim light of a lantern. If the train stopped suddenly, they lurched forward and one had visions of being trampled to death. The loading completed, the signal was given that everything was ready and, with a long screech as only a French locomotive can screech, the train moved out. We were off again to parts unknown.
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