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21. Precigne - We See General Pershing


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

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 21
Precigne - We See General Pershing


CHAPTER XXI

PRECIGNE -WE SEE GENERAL PERSHING
IT WAS four when the order to move was finally given and we started for the railhead at Bricon, twelve kilometers away. The weather was bitterly cold and the road was a solid sheet of ice so that it was not long before the Battalion had lengthened out to almost half a mile. Slowly we made our way, slipping and sliding, and comparatively few were able to hold their feet for the entire route. Bricon and the box cars came into view at last and, to finish off our hike, we pulled into a field, swinging from column into company front formation knee-deep in snow. Jam sandwiches and hot chocolate were served by the Y.M.C.A.

The floors of the cars were covered with straw and, in view of the intensely cold, bleak weather we had been experiencing, the time we would spend aboard the train was looked forward to with some trepidation. Once loaded aboard the cars, they were not uncomfortable, which was probably due to animal heat. With the usual shrieks from the locomotive's whistle and a series of jerks, we rolled out of Bricon with no idea of where we were going but in good spirits. Once again we were viewing France from our side door Pullmans. On the eleventh of February we pulled slowly through the city of Angers. For a brief moment we thought that we had arrived at our destination but we should have known better. Angers was too large a city for us and, while the train was moving slowly, it kept rolling. We soon discovered that Angers was not for us. About midday the train stopped out in the country at a small station with not a soul to be seen. This was more like it.

The sign bore the legend, Pince-Precigne, indicating that the small station served both villages, but they were nowhere to be seen. The weather was ideal. Only two days by train from Gillancourt and yet there we were on the hike to Precigne with perspiration running down and overcoats hanging from packs. A march of about three kilometers brought us to the village of Precigne and its timid population. Here again the people seemed to be somewhat fearful of American troops. It was either because they had no idea of what we were like or had been made nervous by troops that may have been there before us. It did not take the men long to dispel any misgivings and, later, those who were billeted right in the village enjoyed numerous pleasant gatherings with the villagers.

B and C Companies continued through the village, swinging to the left along a road we later learned led into Sable, where Division Headquarters was established. About half a mile out from the village B Company entered the grounds of a large chateau. C Company's hike ended about a mile further on where quarters were taken in another chateau and outbuildings. The luck, at this time, seemed to be with B Company which no doubt had the best accommodations of the Battalion. A large modern garage on the grounds accommodated quite a number of men while others occupied stalls in the stable. The sanitary conditions, however, were of the best as it had been years since horses had been bedded in those stalls. Building operations had been under way when the war started, in 1914, and the shacks and tools of the workmen were still on the grounds as they had dropped them to take up arms. The lawn in front of the chateau was used by the Battalion in preparation for the inspection and review by General Pershing.

Some of the buildings occupied by C Company were very old, one, in particular, having been built in 1732, and the hand-hewn rafters and beams were held together by dowels. It was not long before the outfit was comfortably settled and Sable was easily accessible to the men of C Company. Of course the orders, as usual, were to keep out of Sable but that didn't mean a thing and everybody went trooping into town as often as they liked. Strange as it may seem, there was one dutified numbskull in C Company who approached Capt. Downing for a pass into town, stating that, as most of the men had been in, he wondered if he couldn't have a pass. The Captain said that it was out of bounds and was horrified to learn that the men had disregarded his instructions. It was a good act and there were no heads chopped off. Captain Downing had been with the Company but a very short time, having joined the outfit after the Armistice and, when he left in advance of the Company to return to the States, it was mutually, deeply regretted. It was not easy for him to say goodbye and he said that it had been a real pleasure to command the Company. Certainly we liked him.

The political prisoners in the jail in Precigne made a good deal of noise in the evenings, as they shouted through the bars, which livened things up. In addition, the men of the Battalion, quartered in the village, had some lively evenings of their own making. During one of the sessions a small Ford truck ended up in somebody's manure pile but we do not have the details or the names of the original cast As we understand it, it all led up to an amusing skit entitled "The Sergeant Major's Revenge". Cy Copper became a member of C Company at about that time. There was also an amusing sketch put on by C Company, those participating wearing any kind of costume they could get together. Harry O'Beirn, who was pintsized, himself, did a riotous turn with a donkey. Things kept moving pretty well, what with having group pictures made of the various units of the Battalion and one thing or another to pass away the time. The men selected to go to Sable on an engineering detail had a pretty good time with a minimum of work and a little "gold bricking" thrown in. Some of the men, unfortunately, were transferred to more distant points and did not rejoin.

After much drilling and brushing up the day finally arrived when we were to march forth to see and be seen by the big boss, himself none other than General Pershing. In high spirits, we hit the road at about seven A.M. to go about twelve kilometers to a field outside of the village of Soilsmes. The entire Division pulled into place and we commenced running up waiting time on the meter. Capt. Downing straightened up C Company and let it go at that, but Capt. Turnbull had B Company doing "Right Dress" every hour on the hour. After standing all day, with just a bacon sandwich to sustain us, the General put in an appearance at three or four o'clock in the afternoon, but nobody bawled him out for being late. What a picture he made as he mounted his big black horse with white trappings! Every inch the soldier, he set a fine example. After looking us over generally he made a personal inspection with each company commander. Head and eyes were kept to the front if we never had held them there before. The General said that we were a fine looking body of boys but told the skipper that the shoes looked somewhat dry and to keep plenty of dubbing on them. He didn't seem to realize that we had sloshed through puddles from a rain the previous night and that, after waiting all day for him, the mud had a fine chance to dry. We just couldn't get one hundred percent. Capt. Downing's only worry was whether or not he had been in step with the General. Pershing stopped before Pete Windolph and inquired concerning his wound. Pete's chest was swelled up and he gloated that of all the men in the Army, the Chief bad to speak to him.

Underbrush separating the field we were in from an adjoining one had been cleared out by the engineers during the day and, as Pershing gave the command, "Pass in Review", the Division moved forward into the next field which, apparently, had been plowed. We can only imagine what our lines looked like as we went ankle-deep in soft earth. When we had passed the reviewing line and the order was double time, the men in the infantry regiments, trying to keep rifles on shoulders, were floundering and falling in all directions. Sometimes bayonets came down first into the ground and it was a wonder somebody wasn't hurt. The job was over at last and we were glad to swing back toward our billets. We had covered most of the distance when a motorcycle courier overtook the Battalion and we fell out at the side of the road. After a short conference, we were told that outfits with ten or more kilometers to march were to be carried in motor lorries. That was a hell of a time to be telling us. The lorries were on the way to pick us up and the officers gave us our choice of waiting or marching in. We of C Company elected to push on and we were pretty well through mess when we heard the trucks go roaring through with the companies that had waited.
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