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11. The Vesle River


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 11
The Vesle River


CHAPTER X1
THE VESLE RIVER

MEANWHILE the other companies of the Battalion were relieving various positions in the line. Each unit had its own problems to contend with and accomplishing the relief was a precarious task in that sector. Lieut. Floyd Smith reports in his diary that A Company made its way through gas to the line and brought up in front of the ruins of the village of St. Thibaut with the Boche across the river. The line in this sector swung forward toward the enemy in an irregular pocket shape and due to the winding of the river, some units had to cross it at certain points to make the relief. Lieut. Smith in the brief memorandum he was able to make in his diary at the time, states that guns in his command were in a sunken road at St. Thibaut, describing it as an awful place with dead men and horses all around. The position was intensely shelled and it was impossible to move around in the daylight. The men of A Company, no doubt, recall the place very vividly and we dare say those who were fortunate enough to get out of it unscathed have often wondered how it was possible.

The name, St. Thibaut, is familiar to all of us and mention of it brings to mind a thousand and one pictures and sensations. We had made all possible haste to effect the relief during the darkness, but in spite of it all, the gray light of dawn was touching the hilltops at about the time we were all set and we looked forward to our first day on a real front with some of the best of the German Army opposing us. As the curtain of night was slowly lifted and the warm, bright sunlight spread across the land it was very much as though a weird tableau was being presented upon some huge stage. Those of us who were on the embankment of that railroad cut will have no difficulty recalling the wave-like appearance of the rails, the ends of which were bent upward, evidently by charges of dynamite. As far as the eye could see in each direction the rails had been destroyed and the enemy had made a thorough job of rendering that section of track utterly useless. There was a number of dead German soldiers lying between the rails while at the top of the opposite embankment one fellow was propped up in a sitting position against a tree and he was watched with a certain morbid curiosity as day after day he gave way and slumped nearer the earth. A short distance down the tracks there lay a number of soldiers covered with blankets but their uniforms were olive-drab, the same as ours.

Daylight meant activity and the command, "Stand to", was quickly flashed along the line. How it all comes back to mind when you raised your head just high enough for your eyes to clear the parapet of the railroad cut which formed a huge trench and took a long look out into no man's land, expecting at any moment to have a bullet skip off your helmet. Remember the feeling of having every eye in the German Army watching you - just you?

Well, that first morning wasn't so bad, things in general being rather quiet, but we were all more or less a little jumpy. The boys of the 305th Infantry were stretched along in line with us. When we saw them getting across the river the night before, there seemed to be no telling where they would be likely to end up but there they were right with us. Old reliables, somehow always in the right place at the right time. We had a fine opportunity here on the Vesle to watch those fellows work and who can forget the sight of them going out into no man's land on daylight patrols.

In crouching positions, feeling their way forward through the long grass and weeds, the enemy watching like hawks, allowed them to come just so far when they would open with a withering burst of machine-gun fire. When the firing ceased it was then that a man's heart would sink as he noted the scant few who had not been hit, get back to their feet to carry on with their almost hopeless task of feeling out the enemy and bringing back valuable information.

As the sun rose higher the heavy mustard gas lying in the pools of water in the ditches at the side of the tracks was vaporized, causing a shout of "Gas" and masks had to be worn for quite a few minutes. The afternoon's heat was sweltering. To add to our discomfort the place was alive with flies that sailed from the dead men onto our food and back again and when the Karo syrup cans were opened, around swarmed the yellow jackets. Then too we always had with us that nauseating odor of carrion men.

We were getting through the first day fairly well but, of course, we had to go through the twilight hours which meant "stand to" again, as anything was likely to happen during the dusk and the night time held its own terrors. The day, however, was not to be uneventful, as we of C Company received a blow that rocked every man of the Company. I refer to the death of Lieutenant Duddy. As will be recalled, we mentioned earlier in our tale that an enemy sniping machine-gun operated throughout the night on our left flank, firing directly down the tracks. The German gunners had just about started their activities for the night when the lieutenant was cut down in the twinkling of an eye, Lieut. Gorham catching him as he fell. It was almost unbelievable that Duddy was gone.

At the first opportunity his body was carried some distance back and Chaplain Lawson, of our own Battalion, and Father Halligan, Chaplain of the 308th Infantry Regiment, laid him away as best they could under very trying conditions. At about this time Williamson, of C Company, was also killed as he lay in a funk hole and the war had started to take its toll of our Battalion.

Now it is generally admitted, at least, by infantrymen and machine gunners, that there was only one of two places to be in - either in the front line or out of the lines completely. The long, tedious grind of coming up through the territory behind the lines that was constantly being shelled was particularly annoying to troops bound for the front line and once through, there was no desire to go over the roads until relieved. This was particularly true in the Vesle sector and anyone who had to cross the river on a couple of wet planks did not care to repeat the operation very often, but supplies had to be brought up and so with the darkness came calls for details. One detail of perhaps twenty men was called from positions in the railroad cut and retracing their steps through the dank, gas-filled woods and across the river, they arrived again in Ville-Savoye, but instead of the quiet street of the night before, Jerry was raking it at intervals with machine-gun fire and dropping in artillery shells to com-plete the work of pulverizing the town. Getting into Ville-Savoye was a combination of hop, skip and jump and tag, with Jerry doing the chasing. When a shell came whistling over, it was a case of making a wild dive into any kind of a depression available and what a thrill one fellow received when he landed in a hole on top of a couple of dead Germans. Out he came faster than he went in, if such a thing were possible.

The detail arrived at last in what had been the courtyard of the house, in the cellar of which Captain Luce had established his P. C. The wreckage of the house afforded fairly good protection, but later on, because of intense shelling, the place had to be abandoned. The Captain was deeply affected by the loss of Lieut. Duddy and to avoid further possible losses ordered the entire detail down into the dug-out. We did not need a second invitation, as several shells broke uncomfortably close. The supposition was that we were on a ration detail and we stood around expectantly waiting to hear the good word that the food would be brought in shortly. And then the captain spoke. Said he, "Men, there is an ammunition dump at Mont St. Martin and we may be needing plenty, so you fellows will have to bring it up."

AMMUNITION! And we were thinking of food. Mont St. Martin was a mile to the rear and away we went over that winding road. What a fine target if the eyes of the enemy could have penetrated the darkness. From time to time they sent up star shells and the old familiar "Hold it" rang out. Well, we got back to Mont St. Martin, grabbed the boxes of ammunition and returned to Ville-Savoye without mishap, but it was a perspiring crew that sat down to take a breath before starting back to the line. But wait, it was not to be that easy. The captain informed us that word had just been received that the rations had just been brought up as far as Mont St. Martin and as it was too late to call another detail, we would have to make another trip. So back we trudged. Returning again to Ville-Savoye with the sharp edges of boxes of canned goods cutting into shoulders, the Germans decided to send over a few shells. One, with that distinctive whine we all knew so well as a warning of a close hit, seemed to be rushing right at us and in less time than it takes to tell it, there was a shout of "Down!" and down we went, hit-ting the roadway just about the same time that the shell exploded. A quick check-up showed that no one had been hit, but the shell had landed not more than twenty feet ahead of us. The Germans evidently elevated their guns as further shots went a good way beyond us and we again arrived in Ville-Savoye with no damage done.

These trips had consumed most of the night, so that by the time the front line was again reached, daybreak was almost upon us and we wasted no time getting down from the reverse embankment and out of sight of the enemy. It had been a good night's work with no compensation for overtime.
Ville-Savoye was an excellent target for the enemy and we understand that Captain Luce was forced to change his Post of Command three times. During the time he was occupying the first dug-out the men with the captain at the time tell of hearing the melody, "Somewhere a Voice Is Calling", played on a piano while the town was being shelled. Each one was afraid to speak of hearing it, believing his mentality would be questioned. (Rohrich has mentioned the incident, also Jourdain and Magrath.)

The source of the music was investigated and a doughboy was found playing an old piano he had run across in the debris of what had been a house.

Another exceedingly warm day was dawning and we looked forward to more torture from the flies and yellow jackets as well as continued harassing from the enemy. Our first tour of duty in the front line of the Vesle sector showed us that France could be a real sunny place, but we were not in a position to enjoy it. Again came the order to "Stand to". The command was passed along for the infantry to fire five rounds slowly and the machine-gunners had to sit there withholding their fire and watching the infantrymen blaze away. Surprise effect was our watchword. It so happened, however, that when we had an opportunity to let go we do not know who was surprised-the enemy or ourselves. "Watch your front!" was ordered and as each man traversed a section of no man's land with his eyes it would seem as though there was a German soldier peering out from behind every bush. The gray light of dawn or dusk, no doubt, played tricks on our eyes and occasionally there would be a crack of a rifle from some of our own men, to be taken up here and there along the line by some of the more jumpy. We recall one evening when the whole line opened up, machine-gunners included. It was great while it lasted, but when the officers investigated to find out what started it, the best they could get was that someone had seen a light in the woods over in the enemy lines. A lot of it was perhaps due to a certain amount of nervous tension, but it showed that the boys were right on their toes all the time. There was plenty to keep on the alert about in that Hell Hole of the Vesle and we used to say Jerry threw over everything he had, including his old shoe. The place was bombarded regularly with all sizes and varieties of artillery shells, with gas shells mixed in and the long, drawn whine of projectiles high in the air indicated that the boys in the back areas, where our own artillery guns were located, were also getting a straffing, as it was known. One never could be sure from what angle would come that spiteful cracking from a well-concealed machine gun, the bullets kicking up the earth along the parapet and under cover of darkness a minnenwerfer, or, as it was called, a "Whiz-Bang", went into action seemingly not more than a couple of hundred feet out in front. The men who were up along that railroad cut will never forget that gun as it came into action against us each night with the ground-shaking crash of the shell that followed by seconds that terrifying whiz, giving rise to the name "Whiz-Bang". All along the line, in fact, it was the same story, as Lieut. Floyd Smith tersely put it in his diary, "The old iron is coming over. A number of infantry hurt. Hagar and Newbrand wounded." Under date of August 15th his entry reads: "Got mussed up by a shell at Dead Man's Curve. Bell killed. Roach wounded. Worst night I have ever spent." On the sixteenth he reports being sent to a field hospital where he found Chaplain Lawson on the next stretcher with a hole through his foot. This ended things for a while for Lieut. Smith and the Chaplain, and apparently things were fast and furious in their neck of the woods. It was misery in the daytime and the hours of darkness were filled with suspense as the enemy machine guns continued to crack spasmodically with an occasional burst of artillery fire thrown in for good measure, but there would always seem to come that time when it was just "Silence and the night and the smell of the dead."

The artillery regiments of the Division were getting in some fine work during all this time and at "Stand to" when the infantry called for a short barrage it was very satisfying and steadying to hear the thump of our guns immediately followed by the whistle and crash of the shells as they broke in regular order forward of the line. On one occasion, however, one battery fired short into our line getting in three or four shells before it could be stopped. Several packs lying about were ripped apart and the fact that no one was hurt can only be described as a miracle. Patrols were constantly being sent out to feel out the enemy and one afternoon orders were sent along the line to prepare combat packs and to stand by to go over the top at five o'clock. Just how the machine gunners were going to fare in keeping up with the infantry was a thought that flashed through our minds but the orders were to get ready to go over and we were going. There were many silent prayers offered that afternoon. The situation, however, did not exactly click in the mind of one of the sergeants and, taking the initiative, he summoned a runner and instructed him to report to Captain Luce to see if going over with the infantry met with the Captain's approval. It did not and the Captain came forward to the front line and told us so in no uncertain terms. The action was finally called off for everybody but we were all on the anxious seat for a while.
It seemed ages since we had seen anything of a hot meal and so far as a bath was concerned we had commenced to think that that was something we read about in books. We had heard lots of stories from the Tommies as to how they shaved even in the front line trenches but there on the Vesle River there was no time to be thinking about cutting whiskers and we were kept busy guarding against close shaves from Jerry. Most of us had lost track of the day of the week and when one asked for the time from a buddy lucky enough to still have a watch, the usual response was "What do you care, you're not going any place!"

Another thing that we had not heard for some time was a good rumor but in due course one filtered along the line and it was a dandy. From outfit to outfit floated the report that we were to be relieved shortly, and it turned out to be true. The time of the relief was all set for Wednesday night and while we have no way of knowing what information the enemy may have had regarding the relief, they certainly acted as though they had full knowledge as to what was about to take place. Starting early in the evening they stormed our lines for hours. A parachute light was dropped over Ville-Savoye, brilliantly illuminating the remains of the village and while the light slowly descended the village underwent another terrific artillery bombardment. The men in the back areas had our heartfelt sympathy. Any attempt to effect a relief was abandoned and we stood fast for another day. On Thursday night we withdrew from the front a squad at a time. Men from each company were stationed at various Points along the dark roads to check the squads as they came out and to direct the men back to the picket lines. The shelling was not as severe as it had been the previous night but the enemy pounded away at the roads with gas for miles to the rear, necessitating our wearing masks for a considerable distance especially where the roads dipped into hollows. After travelling many kilometers and not running across the kitchen or picket line, the first platoon of C Company decided to go no further until daylight and upon being put on their own by the sergeant, most of the men went into a field and were soon sleeping the sleep of the exhausted. It seemed no time at all before daylight was upon us and, although we were ragged and hungry, lying there on the broad of our backs, it was good to be alive; to be able to breathe the clear air once again and to be away from that incessant cannonading.
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