Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In Company K by William March we read: " Private Carroll Hart:Sergeant Tietjen was with me that day we took the machine gun nest in Veuilly Wood. We found the crew all killed except one heavyset, bearded man, and he was badly wounded. Just as we came up, the bearded man  reached inside his coat and fumbled. I thought he was going to throw a grenade, so I emptied my pistol into him. His arm came away from his coat with a jerking, irregular motion and his palm rested for a moment against his lips. Then the blood in his throat began to strangle him, and he made a gurgling, sighing sound. His eyes rolled back and his jaw fell open.I went over and opened his palm to see what he had in it. It was the photograph of a little German girl. She was round-faced, and freckled, and her hair was curled, for the occasion, over her shoulder. "That must have been his daughter," said Sergeant Tietjen.

That night I couldn't sleep for thinking of that German soldier. I rolled and pitched about and toward daybreak Tietjen came over and lay down by me. "It's no use blaming yourself that way, fellow," he said; "anybody in the world would have thought he was going to throw a grenade."

            In "The Ribbon Counter" in Points of Honor, by Thomas Boyd we read:            " The Machine Gun Nest--…It had seemed impossible that one division should accomplish, in one attack, what another division had failed three times to do—but when morning came, so faintly over the soggy earth, the infantry was close behind its own barrage with fixed bayonets pushing through the heavy woods, parting the low tree limbs and trampling the brush.            Captain Osborne, in the lead when the battalion broke into the woods, was the first to reach the clearing, a flat piece of ground at the base of a hill, black with trees. The clearing buzzed with the maddening, inquisitive zip-zip of the machine-guns ahead, but Osborne pushed on calmly, his shoulders a little bit forward, his head drawn into them so that his neck appeared shorter than it really was, and holding a Colt automatic in his hand. Strangely, MacMahon found himself following closely, with Morrow and Thomas joining. There were others, but they did not enter MacMahon's consciousness, not even when they sprawled foolishly on the ground. MacMahon saw only the few slabs of grey rock which peaked the hill, the untrampled, brown-tinged earth which led to it, and Captain Osborne and himself drawing nearer each moment to the slender muzzle of the Maxim outthrust from a crevice in the rock. Like a rapier of a thousand blades held by an invisible and expert fencer, the bullets of the machine-gun flashed by so closely that he could feel the scorch through his cloth puttees. Then, for the first time, Captain Osborne's pistol answered, and, as if it had been agreed upon, MacMahon shifted his rifle to his left hand and reached in the pocket of his blouse. Slowly his hand came out, grasping a grenade. For a moment he was scared, ready to fall to the ground: he could not put down his rifle, and he could not extract the pin from the grenade with one hand. His energy was draining away as he caught the pin between his teeth and twisted it out with a jerk. Calmly, his arm drew back; he aimed, and the missile, on a dead line, whined through the air, struck the top of the rock and bounced inside. He fell forward as the thing roared out in explosion, then watched the mushroom cloud of dense smoke rise above the gray slabs.            Of those who had climbed the hill but four reached the emplacement, though the machine-gun had been silenced, and as MacMahon followed Captain Osborne into the nest, where the biting smoke still hung, he saw the gunner, his face resting against the stock of the Maxim, his right hand clinging to the trigger guard and his left thrown in front of his head. The loader was seated beside the water-cooler, his body limp and his head lolling against his shoulder. His face was a chronicle of ten days' fear and privation: an uneven growth of beard on his cheeks was matted with grime, yellow where the dirt had not changed it to drabness; his pale blue eyes could not have taken on much of a difference in death; the lines at the corners had been engraved by nights of waiting, by the strain of repulsing an enemy three times, and the pupils had long held the knowledge of his end.

            The main line of resistance would be a short distance ahead, and Captain raised the German from the Maxim and placed the machine-gun so that the barrel pointed in the opposite direction, while MacMahon was sent back to discover how far the rest of the battalion had advanced."

In the book Fix Bayonets! by John W. Thomason, Jr., we read: The Charge at Soissons."Miles of close-laid batteries opened with one stupendous thunder. The air above the treetops spoke with unearthly noises, the shriek and rumble of light and heavy shells. Forward through the woods, very near, rose up a continued crashing roar of explosions, and the murk of smoke, and a hell of bright fires continually renewed. It lasted only five minutes, that barrage, with every French and American gun that could be brought to bear firing at top speed. But they were terrible minutes for the unsuspecting Boche. Dazed, beaten down, and swept away, he tumbled out of his hole when it lifted, only to find the long bayonets of the Americans licking like flame across his forward positions….His counter-barrage was slow and weak, and when it came the shells burst well behind the assaulting waves, which were already deep in his defenses….The battle roared into the wood. Three lines of machine guns, echeloned, held it. Here the Foret de Retz was like Dante's wood, so shattered and tortured and horrible it was, and the very trees seemed to writhe in agony. Here the fury of the barrage was spent, and the great trunks, thick as a man's body, were sheared off like weed-stalks; others were uprooted and lay gigantic along  the torn earth; big limbs still crashed down or swayed half-severed; splinters and debris choked the ways beneath. A few German shells fell among the men—mustard gas; and there in the wet woods one could see the devilish stuff spreading slowly, like a snaky mist, around the shell-hole after the smoke had lifted….

It was every man for himself, an irregular broken line, clawing through the tangles, climbing over fallen trees, plunging heavily into Boche rifle pits. Here and there, a well-fought Maxim gun held its front until somebody, officer, non-com, or private—got a few men together and, crawling to left or right, gained a flank and silenced it. And some guns were silenced by blind, furious rushes that left a trail of writhing khaki figures, but always carried two or three frenzied Marines with bayonets into the emplacement; from whence would come shooting and screaming and other clotted unpleasant sounds and then silence."

            In the book The American Spirit, by Joseph A. Minturn we read:

            "At Commercy we began to see buildings wrecked by German shells, and at a stop, a train load of German prisoners stood on a track next to us. They immediately began clamoring for tobacco and were willing to trade their caps, buttons, blouses, anything they had in fact, for a taste of the weed. We got several little trinkets and were preparing to get more when a French sergeant and a private soldier came along and ordered all traffic stopped. They reinforced their orders with fixed bayonets—those shivery needle kind of theirs—and handled them so recklessly in their excitable way that we were afraid they might hurt somebody and gave up idea of acquiring a "Gott mit Uns" belt buckle just at that time. German prisoners aggravated a Frenchman more than they did later after becoming more common. It had been too much the other way. As illustrating this feeling the story was current of a French general who saw a squad of German soldiers as he was passing. He got out of his car scowling, gave the order like von Hindenburg, calling them to "Attention!" in German, to which they responded like automatons. Then he walked behind and gave each prisoner a good swift kick and continued his journey a happier man."

            Leonard H. Nason, in his book Three Lights on a Match, tells us:            "So here he was. This was hardly his idea of what war should be. He had had some vision of men marching as they had done down Fifth Avenue, bands playing, flags waving, perhaps a few cheering spectators, and the bold brave Americans marching on the cowering enemy, who immediately yielded up their arms.            It was rather a shock to discover that the gallant soldiers looked like tramps, that they were not noble, but always hungry, and that the enemy did not cower. Sheehan had been led to believe that the Germans were demoralized. It had been his impression that the Americans had only sent over a few men to have the flag on the battlefield, and not to help toward winning the war.

            Whoever was throwing those shells about seemed to have no lack of nerve, nor did he seem to be on the verge of defeat. The obvious nervousness on the sentry's part had completed Sheehan's disillusionment. These men were afraid and so was he."

            Author of The Top Kick Leonard H. Nason tells us:            "A rifleman can burn up a tremendous amount of cartridges, upwards of four or five hundred rounds a day, provided he can get it. The ammunition pockets in his belt will hold only a certain amount, and the amount that can be carried in bandoleers is limited.            In the shank of the day the dead and wounded do not yield very much ammunition, having been shooting all day themselves. A machine-gun is in the same fix as a rifle, only more so, because of its greater rapidity of fire.                Author of Dear Old "K" James T. Duane tells us:            "On the return of the boys from France, many questions were asked by the home folks, and among the most frequently asked was, "How did you fellows every have the nerve to face the machine-guns and bayonets and how did it feel to be under artillery fire?"            Let me tell all my good friends that it is harder to describe the feelings in those events than it is to go through them. To advance in the face of machine-guns is no pleasant task, and to fight hand to hand with bayonets is another rough form of entertainment, but, when one realizes that he is there to accomplish a purpose, and the only means of accomplishing his end is to use his bayonet, he gets his fighting spirit up and advances with the idea that it is either you or the other fellow and, of course, you always vote for the other fellow. Perhaps the feeling under artillery fire is the easiest of any to describe, but the only feeling that I can liken it to, as the shells come toward you and you imagine your name is engraved on each one, is to be strapped onto  a railroad tie; as you lie there you feel the vibration of a heavy train coming in the distance. As it approaches with a terrible rumble and rattle, you await the moment to have it reach you with a rush and pass over your body, only to find that you were on the small section of the tie outside of the rail. It is always a happy relief when a shell which you hear whizzing in your direction lands—somewhere else in France. During a heavy shelling one day the enemy sent many shells far to the rear—fifteen landing near Division Headquarters. As they sailed over the heads of our lads, they shouted, "Go to it, Boche, give them more back there so they will know the war is still on; if you give them a lot, we're all for you.            Of the great days in a soldier's career, the morning of a big attack leads all. The orders have been issued and all final instructions have been transmitted to officers and men; everybody is moving about with a high tension spirit, and all await with a nervous strain the hour of starting. At the set hour our artillery lets loose a perfect thunder, and the fun is on. The artillery plays on the enemy lines for a given period, at H hour (zero hour) the artillery advances its range, and with a yell of "Let's go, boys," the doughboys are on their way, and after passing through great depths of barbed-wire entanglements, they reach the first enemy line. There is a certain thrill that keeps the chill running up and down the spine as you advance, but the greatest nervous strain is waiting in the moment when you come in personal contact with the enemy. You meet him, and the excitement is so great that you have no time to think of personal fear.             Have I been afraid in battle? Yes—awfully; I'll be no one in the army felt any more so than I. If a man says he was never afraid in battle, he is one of two cases—he is mentally unbalanced or else is handling the truth rather haphazardly.             As the boys said, "How could a man stand up and not feel a little fear when the Jerries were throwing freight cars, ash cans, and railroad tracks (as the big shells were sometimes called) at him?"            The machine-gun nests were difficult things to attack. The machine guns are usually so placed that they cover every portion of the enemy line, and are enfilading the whole position; that means that when they fire, each gun is firing its bullets so that they overlap the other, and this forms a sort of scissors-effect, the guns on the right firing to the left, the left guns to the right, and the frontal guns covering the interval. Thus every single inch of front is being covered by bullets."
David Homsher
American Battlefields of World War I: Chateau-Thierry--Then and Now
ISBN: 97809702444307 $19.95.
Winner of three National Book Awards. Available at bookstores everywhere.
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