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12. A Royal reception and A Short Rest


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 12
A Royal Reception and a Short Rest



CHAPTER XII

A ROYAL RECEPTION AND A SHORT REST

IT WAS not long before things commenced to stir and we noticed soldiers making their way among us. They proved to be men of our own outfit who had not been in the line with us. It seems that when we had decided to stop the previous night it was at a point not more than about half a mile from where the remainder of the Battalion was encamped in the Dole Woods. As soon as we found that the companies were so close at hand there was a general move to be up and going as we were all anxious for a hot meal. We could not understand why restraining hands were laid on our shoulders and we were told to wait for the G.S. wagons which were said to be on their way to pick us up. It seemed somewhat ridiculous not to be permitted to walk such a short distance. What was a half a mile to us? Still every man who came out of the line had assigned to him one of the men who had not been up for the sole purpose of seeing to it that we did not move. We were not even permitted to lift a pack. Those old Packs had come to be regarded as part of us and when we moved it was only natural that they moved too. It was all quite strange but We did not have long to wait for the explanation. Reports were to the effect that we had experienced the most intense gas concentration in the history of the A.E.F. up to that time and as it was not known just how we had been affected the orders were that men just out of the line were to be kept as quiet as possible. I recall how engineers Working on the roads paused to have a look at us and we must have Presented quite a sight what with the dirt and growth of beards we were carrying.

Upon arriving in the woods where the kitchens were located there was general hand-shaking and congratulations from the boys waiting for us and the welcome warmed a man's heart. It was like Coming home. It was the 305th spirit, esprit de corps, if you will, that was there without our having realized its presence. Little did 'We know how much we had been hurt. Reporting to the Battalion Infirmary, I can still see Captain Preston actually with tears in his eyes as he ordered man after man evacuated for hospital treatment.

It was almost unbelievable to see men who had come out of the line, apparently in good condition, lying in stretchers with eyes bandaged with wads of cotton. It is also unbelievable that anyone would stoop so low as to take advantage of a man in that condition but that is what happened to Corporal Montgomery. Lying in the hospital, blinded by the gas, what little money he had with him was taken from under his pillow. There was a mere handful of men who came out of that hell hole of the Vesle who escaped that gassing.

A hot meal was served in borrowed mess-kits while our packs were opened and aired by men wearing rubber gloves. Twenty-four hours absolute rest was ordered and we didn't need a second invitation to stretch out on a blanket under a tree to inhale some fresh air. After that first hitch in the line on a really busy front. For a period of six or eight days we were quite comfortable, living in pup tents in the Dole Woods just out of range of the enemy's long range guns. Of course we had lots of flies to contend with. They were quite determined to make away with the food but they did not stand much chance against hungry soldiers.

Well, there has to be an end to everything and around the twenty-fourth of August our sojourn in the woods was terminated and once again we took up that long march back to the Vesle. We had the benefit of daylight for a while but darkness soon overtook us and another session of groping around in the woods and under-brush in the darkness was upon us. We would have given almost anything to be able to use a flashlight. It seemed that from every throat came the roar, "Put out that light!", when anyone tried to steal a smoke and a match flared for an instant. Recollect the night when the Italian division relieved us and we met them coming up with lanterns swinging under the limbers? That's getting ahead of the story, however, and we will come to that later on. During the time we were waiting in the woods for orders to go forward, Jerry got the range of some guns of the 304th Artillery and the gun crews had to abandon the guns temporarily. The men came tearing back through the woods apparently regarding it as a good joke or sporting event. The shrapnel started dropping from the sky and Pete Windolph of C Company received a nasty wound in the hand sufficient to send him to a hospital. The time arrived for us to move forward and we again faced the tedious task of feeling our way over shell holes and ruts to a position along the edge of woods which afforded a fine field of fire across the valley that sloped gently down to the river with the towns of St. Thibaut near the river and Bazoches further back up the opposite slope. There was nothing to do during the daylight hours but keep under cover and some of the squads constructed dug-outs which, perhaps, represented the most pretentious effort that we made in that direction. The less ambitious were satisfied with funk holes covered with boughs and a thick layer of dirt as protection from shrapnel. A direct hit meant over the hill anyway, so why waste energy? As it turned out later we were never in one spot long enough to give much time or thought to dug-outs.

Doing a little reconnaissance work or, which is more understandable, just plain snooping around to see what we could see, a party of us ran across the body of a 4th Division man who had probably been hit by a shell. We could only guess how long he had been there and suffice it to say we could not move him. He was directly across the valley but we had to make a long trip following the edge of the woods in a wide horseshoe curve, always keeping well in among the trees and underbrush. Picks and shovels were carried around and the task of covering the body was started but before we had gone very far the enemy, ever watchful, shelled us out. When the shelling ceased we returned and finished the job, which was not a pleasant one. Dog-tags, papers and pictures, which were scattered around, were gathered up and turned in to the company commander.

Surprise effect was the watchword with machine gunners and, therefore, we did not fire as much as we would have liked to, always withholding our fire for a suitable target. Most of the time we seemed to be just posing around as targets for the enemy and he always had an eye out for machine gunners. At times, however, we got in some good licks that hurt plenty. While we were in those positions within sight of St. Thibaut and Bazoches a battery of guns from C Company did some effective night firing. Two guns from the Third Platoon were mounted in shell holes out in the open valley while four guns from the Second Platoon went into action some distance away in the hills. The guns were set by compass by the officers and it was our understanding that we were all lined up on a ration or ammunition dump over in the German lines. We were set to go together at ten o'clock and if the Germans made it too hot for us in retaliation the orders were to abandon guns at two blasts from the lieutenant's whistle. Sand bags had been filled and banked around the positions as well as placed on the tripod legs for steadiness and it was a real workman-like job. The Second Platoon guns got going a little before those in the valley but we opened up shortly after and we must have touched a soft spot as Jerry sent up more distress signal rockets than we had any idea he possessed. Burlap bags, soaking wet, were stretched between two uprights in front of the gun to hide the flash but the force of the bullets dragged the uprights inward and they had be held by a man on either side. It was the writer's job to hold one of the sticks and as the muzzle of the gun was close to his ear there was not much else, other than the gun, that could be heard. In answer to the rockets that had been sent up, the German artillery started a searching fire up the valley. It was quite a thrill while it lasted, hanging on to the support for the wet bags and keeping a wary eye on the exploding shells creeping nearer. They raked the valley with precision and our guns were kept going until we knew that the next shell would be right on us and indeed we could hear it screaming directly at us. I do not know whether or not the lieutenant blew his whistle but I did hear Corporal Gregory yell "Beat it!", and beat it we did. Never in the big leagues has there been seen more perfect fall-away slides. The men scattered in all directions hitting the dirt wherever there was anything that looked like a hollow, doing it in nothing flat and less time than it is taking me to tell it. Wham! went the shell right where we had been or so we thought, and someone yelled, "There she goes!"

We got back to the regular position in the woods, soaked from perspiration but none the worse for the wear and nobody missing. About midnight Lieutenant Williams said, "Let's go out and see what happened to the guns." When we got out to the shell holes we found the old Hotchkiss girls sitting there waiting for us to come and get them. The shell had landed only a few feet away. Sand bags were emptied, clips were gathered up and the shell holes were put back the way they had been. In the morning, bright and early, German planes came buzzing around to find out where we had been and perhaps see what their artillery fire had done. Our barrage had been short but very sweet and somebody over in the German lines must have gotten an awful jolt. The enemy had fine command of the situation, however, as they were well hidden in the hills across the river and it was exceedingly difficult to root them out. The infantry boys did great work patrolling no man's land and making occasional smashes but it was almost a hopeless task to get across that valley and up the opposite slope. It was a job for the artillery to keep pounding away and they did just that. One battery, in particular, I have in mind, situated on a wooded hill behind us, kept up a steady fire all day long until the incessant booming became so monotonous and nerve racking that some of the fellows, looking back to where the noise was coming from, would say, "Aw! for the love of Pete, pipe down." If it bothered us what could it have been doing to the Jerries? But it turned the trick. Later in the day Captain Luce came striding across the fields and issued orders to pack up as we were going forward. The war wasn't over but Jerry decided that things were too hot. It didn't seem possible that we were going to be able to climb out of that hole that the 4th Division boys had turned over to us.

Sprague, of C Company, came up with a cart of hot chow. He was told that it was the Captain's order that he drive across the field to where the men were, but after taking a look at the ground he would have to cross, he told the detail to carry. He said he would not risk the horse across those holes and ruts and that we could tell the skipper he could go to hell and that, if we wanted the rations, the only way we would get them would be to carry them. Tilford said he would deliver the message and, to our surprise, he did. The Captain bit his lip and pulled his moustache and it looked bad for Sprague but the skipper had too much on his mind and must have forgotten the incident long before we got back to the picket line.

Down across the river we went and up the hills on the other side, through St. Thibaut and Bozoches which were just heaps of plaster and bricks with plenty of dead Jerries lying about and finally the signal was wig-wagged back that we had gained our objective. The land at the brow of the hill stretched away in a broad plateau and we started that advance that eventually brought us to the heights overlooking the Aisne Canal and River.
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