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7. We Take Positions in the Line


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 7
We Take Positions in the Line


CHAPTER VII
WE TAKE POSITIONS IN THE LINE

THE TIME finally came for us to take our places in the line and under cover of darkness we moved out realizing that, at last, after our months of preparation, our goal was in sight and that we were to assume our parts in that greatest of dramas. Our positions were in what was known as the main line of resistance beyond which were merely petit posts of infantrymen. French soldiers were also in line and the troops of the Battalion were spread out through such towns at Pettonville, Montigny and Herbervillier while Battalion Head-quarters was located at Mervillier. Division Headquarters was at Bacarrat and the area was known as the Bacarrat sector.

Not only would it become monotonous and wearying to attempt a description of every machine gun emplacement but, frankly, from the viewpoint of the men in the ranks we were able to tell only what transpired in and about our own small niche. We will, however, mention just two or three.

One gun crew occupied what had been the pit of an artillery gun and close at hand, in the trench, was a crude hut made of a huge semicircular piece of heavy corrugated iron, known as elephant iron. This afforded shelter and sleeping quarters for the men of that particular gun. Some of the men slept on the ground in the hut while others had accommodations in rough wooden bunks overhead. No lights were allowed and with the door closed one can well imagine the condition of the atmosphere after a short time. There was a certain coziness about it, however, in fact real clubbiness and, after all, what a tired soldier wanted was just a "flopping" place. Guards took up positions in the trenches and we were launched on our career as a real front line combat outfit. It was all very quiet and weird and the horizon blue uniforms of the French soldiers in the darkness looked like the gray of the Germans which did not help things a bit. The night wore on with German rockets silently soaring into the black sky and occasionally somewhere in the distance the report of a rifle shot or the slow pump of a Chauchau gun would be heard. Suddenly the stillness of the night was broken by the rasping voice of a klaxon horn. The sound was repeated again and again and it could not be imagined what business would bring a motor lorry so far forward and why a Maxon was being blown so furiously on the roads that were devoid of traffic.

With a start the guard stationed at the door of the hut became conscious of the fact that what he supposed was a motor lorry on the road was really a gas alarm. Slipping into his mask, he flung himself against the door of the hut, kicking the door and shouting the alarm. Where but a moment before all was serene within, with only the breathing of the men to be heard, now all was confusion. It was almost a repetition of the scene on the boat except that on the boat it was a scramble for life-belts and this time it was the trusty gas masks. While it was a tense, serious moment at the time, looking at it in retrospect, we have been able to appreciate the humorous side of the incident. As a matter of fact, we could not detect any gas and the alarms were simply repeated from some point that had actually been gassed. In fairness to the men they did remarkably well in adjusting their masks after their sudden awakening and they really had them on in less time than it has taken us to tell about it. In spite of our training in regard to gas alarms we failed for a moment to get the meaning of the sound of the klaxon in the lines but it was simply another case of theory and practice. We had been instructed in many things behind the lines but the old adage, "Experience is the best teacher", seemed to hold true.
Our first hitch in the line was of short duration and while the enemy sent over a few shells at regular intervals, as previously explained, they exploded harmlessly in open fields. The stretches of guard duty during the long hours of the night furnished something of a thrill due to the uncertainty of what might happen at any moment. We moved back to Vaxainville for a breathing spell and upon returning to the lines the position occupied was in a former German concrete emplacement. There were well-constructed double tier bunks in quarters below ground and the solid concrete walls gave a fine sense of security. It was here that Butler of the Battalion Medical Detachment helped pass away the time in his own inimitable style. Standing between the bunks, he gave his usual fine exhibition of jigging, at the same time singing "The Darktown Strutters' Ball", a song popular at the time. You no doubt recall some of the words:

"I'll be down to git you wid a taxi, honey, I'll be down about half-past eight. Now, honey, don't be late, etc. etc."

Nothing seemed to be more absurd, in view of our situation, than to hear Butler sing that he would "be down to get you in a taxi" and when he reached the line about being down at half-past eight somebody said, "Willie, at half past eight you will be right here, so stop kidding yourself".

Herbervillier is a name we all no doubt remember but with the passing of the years it perhaps has become nothing more than a name to many of us. It may be a case of first impressions being lasting but there was something about Herbervillier that has stamped a picture of the town indelibly on my memory. There were no civilians in the town, of course, and every house, without exception, it seemed, had been ruined by shell-fire or bombs. The ruins stood like great, white ghosts in the moonlight, presenting an eerie spectacle. Of the church, all that remained standing was a steeple and parts of the Grotto. A statue of the Virgin Mary, only slightly chipped from the shelling, stood in the Grotto and it was really a very pathetic sight. The head of the figure was in a slightly downward position as though pondering the sorry mess of what had been the church now lying in a shattered mass at her feet. We later saw many villages more completely leveled than Herbervillier but somehow that village has made a lasting impression.

Passing up the main street of Herbervillier to the line of resistance, one gun section of C Company took up positions on each side of the highway not far distant from the edge of the village. In order to screen the road from the observation of enemy airplanes, pieces of burlap were stretched between poles placed at intervals along the road. The strips of burlap were perhaps three or four feet in width and were placed some fifteen or twenty feet above the road. It may be wondered how this would effectually obscure the roadway but it was simply a matter of viewing the highway at an angle from an airplane. The top edge of one piece of burlap would appear to be joined to the lower edge of a piece further along and in that way it had the appearance of one complete strip, hiding the traffic on the road. Most of this camouflage was in place when we took over the lines and it was intensely interesting. A simple and novel means of camouflage was an ordinary piece of wide mesh chicken wire with bits of green cloth tied at the intersections of the wire. During the day gun positions, not only machine guns, but artillery as well, were covered with this wire and viewed from above the pieces of green cloth blended with the surrounding grass and foliage. It was an easy matter to lift the wire from our guns at night, replacing it at dawn. We learned the value of camouflage and always concealed our positions whenever possible.

Where the road crossed the trench a tank trap had been dug. This was a huge hole cut into the road to a depth of about twenty feet and some thirty or forty feet in length. It was well concealed from above and the piles of earth that had been lifted out were covered with straw and resembled hay piles. Access to one of the guns was gained by passing through the tank trap. Two sentinels were on duty at each gun position in the trench and in case of trouble the gun crews could be summoned by jerking a wire running from the gun to a bell in the dug-out. At first a French soldier stood guard with an American soldier and it was rather lonesome for each as neither could speak the other's language. The Frenchmen stood like statues gazing steadily out through the barbed-wire, with their long thin bayonets towering above the parapet and it was remarkable how they could hold the same position so long. The American soldiers did just as good a job of watching no man's land but it had to be accompanied by a little dancing around and perhaps a quiet tune. During the daylight hours German snipers were on the job and the ping of a bullet and a little spray of dirt kicked up would serve as a reminder to the guard that he had become a little careless and had perhaps raised his head a little too high. Communication trenches seemed to run in all directions. The system of trenches was well known to the enemy and one night a German soldier, who was evidently out on a little scouting expedition all by himself, was suddenly discovered a short distance away. One of the boys saw him and immediately shouted an alarm whereupon the German dropped into a trench and made his escape. I well recall our first experience at night firing. Under command of Lieutenant Duddy, we took a gun down the trench some distance from our regular gun position, the Lieutenant setting the gun by compass. Each man had a chance to fire several strips. We had no idea what our target was but it was a real pleasure to crouch behind the gun and to watch it respond. The flash arrester had been attached to the muzzle but in spite of that the fire seemed to equal that of any artillery piece. The enemy did not reply or if he did we were not there to know about it. We did a quick job and were soon back to our permanent position. By the time all hands had a chance to run the gun it was quite hot and had to be carried by chain-mail gloves designed for that purpose.

Infantrymen were stationed at intervals along the trench, and in order to warn them that we were carrying a hot gun, we gave them the old cry of the mess boys on the ship, "Hot stuff coming through". They would crowd close to the wall of the trench to allow us to pass.

No man's land was extremely wide between the enemy and French trenches in Lorraine. It was found that the Germans were using part of a road running through no man's land at a certain time each night and an ambush patrol of Infantry supported by two guns from the Battalion were assigned the task of going out to lie in wait for the German party using that road. The patrol was organized and started on its precarious task at nightfall. All night we watched and waited for the rumpus to start but the hours slipped by and no sound from up ahead. In the morning somewhere around five or six o'clock the patrol came shuffling back. They were a bedraggled, weary, wet and hungry bunch. All night they had lain in the wet grass scarcely moving but, for some unknown reason, the enemy did not put in an appearance on the road.

It was the task of the Infantry to go out each night on wire patrols, that is, a party had to go out to make an inspection of the barbed wire to see that everything was in order and that no wire had been cut. Lanes cut in the wire would indicate a proposed attack or raid. The boys in the Infantry certainly did not relish getting out front at the wrong end of our guns. When they came up from the rear, the patrol was halted and a couple of the men would pay a visit to each gun emplacement as regularly as clockwork. Every night it was the same admonition, "Hey Machine Gun, we're goin' out front. If you guys see enything movin' out there, it's us. Give us a loud challenge and we'll answer promptly, but for the love of Pete what-ever you do, don't open up." It was the same story every night and you may be sure that we were extremely careful while they were out. Far be it from us to have had anything go wrong with those lads. Their job was hard enough.

A short description of the accommodations at this position, we feel, you will find interesting and if you exclaim, "Some war!" so did we. We would have been glad to have spent the summer there.

To the right of the road, as one faced the German lines, stood the remains of what had been a fairly good sized house, the entire structure having been demolished with the exception of one side wall that remained standing. It was beneath this pile of debris that the French had constructed a dug-out, the wreckage of the house forming good overhead protection and it had not been necessary to excavate to any extent because of that. Stepping down two or three steps one entered a long passageway leading to the part of the dug-out we used and a similar passage led to the quarters occupied by the French soldiers. It was necessary to assume a crouching position when walking through the passage as there was not much head-room. The dug-out itself had a slightly higher ceiling but we still had to bend our heads in order to avoid cracked skulls. The place was poorly ventilated, of course. As a matter of fact, the only air that got in came through the doorway leading to the passage over which hung a heavy blanket as protection against gas. Candle light illuminated the interior but at that it would take several minutes to become accustomed to the dimness after entering from the light of day. There were the usual bunks equipped with bed-sacks filled with straw and, while the sacks originally, no doubt, had been white, when we were there they were a nice shade of brown due to constant use and the accumulation of dirt. We can imagine what they were like at the end of the war. We were not spotless ourselves so that a little thing like dirt did not bother us. The dug-out was not very attractive but we did not have occasion to occupy it during the daylight hours. Things were too inviting outdoors. Part of the grounds had been an orchard and there were a couple of tables and benches erected in the shade of the trees. We were amply screened from observation of the enemy by the wall of the house that had not gone down with the rest. When the kitchen force brought up the rations, we served them on the tables and it was a real "Dutch Picnic". Some ingenious soldiers had stretched strong wire between several trees and by placing a bed-sack on the wire we had as nice a hammock as one could desire.

It was indeed most peaceful and restful drowsing away the time in the warmth of the sun. Of course the sun hatched out a fresh crop of cooties but a few more this way or that did not make much difference. For the more ambitious and athletic there was a chinning bar close by to work out on but I do not think it is a violation of confidence to say the chinning bar wasn't used much. We had a nice soft spot and we made the most of it while we could before the rougher times.

It was while we were stationed here that Sergeant Dudley's commission as Second Lieutenant came through and Lieut. Williams had an extra pair of bars which he pinned on Dudley's shoulders. The sergeant was very proud and happy even though the seat was out of his breeches but his promotion made no change in the man. He said that we could be as military as possible when any other officers were around but that when we were alone, it was to be "Dud" the same as ever. We lined up and gave Dudley his first salute which proved to be his last salute, so far as we were concerned, as Dudley was transferred to another machine gun battalion only to make the supreme sacrifice a short time later.

A good deal of care had to be exercised in Lorraine, possibly due to things being so wide open and when challenging, the guards were required to demand a password and countersign. These were changed daily and they were usually the names of two cities in France. It seemed to be a comparatively easy matter for spies to make their way behind the allied lines in Lorraine disguised as French or American soldiers but by the use of the password and countersign they could be readily apprehended as it was necessary to have the words when going from town to town throughout the area. Sometimes the words would slip from a man's memory which would cause some embarrassment. We recall the time when this happened to an officer, not only once but on two successive occasions. The officer in question came up from the rear with a patrol. When he arrived at our positions he was halted and the password and countersign were demanded but, much to his, chagrin, he could not recollect the words. It happened that Lieut. Dudley knew the officer, they having been to training school together, and the incident passed to the amusement of all concerned. The very next night, however, the same officer again put in an appearance with a patrol and again he did not have the password and countersign. He became quite annoyed this time saying that he had been stopped the previous night and that we should have known him. "I can't remember the damned words," he said, and we had to get the Lieutenant to help him out again.

It was not long before detachments of the 305th Machine Gun Company (Machine Gun Company of the 305th Infantry Regiment) pulled into our positions to relieve us. We were sorry to leave our summer garden but the best of friends must part.

Our stay in this sector had a steadying effect on us without our having realized it and, at least, we had become accustomed to shell-fire. It is not desired to create the impression that we had an utter disregard for enemy shells but that we had gained a knowledge of judging where they would break by the whistling of the shells as they sped through the air. One never hears the shriek of the shell that sends him west. It happens too quickly. There were rumors and more rumors as to where we would go next but what fun is there in having an army without rumors. One extremely persistent rumor had it that we were bound for Italy but another rumor said Chateau Thierry where a real battle was already under way. Incidentally we had our own name for Chateau Thierry which does not look well in print.

And so we withdrew from the lines in Lorraine.
As usual it was night when we pulled out to make a long, hard hike back to we knew not where. We did not have the assistance of moonlight and the white road was about the only thing we could see. Eventually that, too, became almost invisible as rain started falling and we were caught in a heavy thunder storm. The night became inky black and it was necessary to reach out and touch the pack of the man ahead to avoid walking on his heels and to follow in line. The going became so extremely difficult that the column was halted and we stood in the road taking the full force of the storm until the skies brightened sufficiently for us to proceed. It is not recalled at just what hour of the night we arrived at the small village of Gellacourt but it was welcome news to learn that we were almost at the end of our journey. Swinging off the main road, we plodded along a dirt road for perhaps a quarter of a mile to a group of one-story barrack buildings which were to be our homes for a while. Entering the bar-racks we found them furnished with double tier bunks filled with fresh straw. What a feeling of relief and comfort to be indoors, under a roof, our battle with the elements over temporarily. We lost no time unslinging soggy equipment, the webbing straps of which had been drawn taut and stiffened by the rain, and peeling off our soaked and steaming uniforms. As we crawled between our blankets on the straw that night, we did not have to call upon the top sergeants to sing us lullabys to put us to sleep.
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