Friday, October 30, 2009



            "A little while back, three or four years, a conflagration had broken loose in the midst of men—a war such as past history had never known. People by the millions had forsaken all else for the sword. The battlefield was brooding all over the world. Not the battlefield of storybooks, not the battlefield of pomp and glamour. This was the battlefield of stenches, of caked blood, of dirty bandages, lice, rats, eternal mud, and the smell of rotting corpses.

            Groups of men in trenches, thin lines of men on the firing steps. Cold, rain, fog, darkness. A shot, somewhere near, grey phantoms leaping out of nowhere into the trenches. A pandemonium of rifles, pistols, hand grenades, the sound of a bayonet driven home to the hilt, swift grappling with the raiders—the trench knife at play—a paroxysm of fury, the –silence—stifled groan—a gasp—hurried checking up for casualties—daylignt, and the sensing of a charge. A charge to kill, destroy the figures you knew lurked in the trenched across the field. No individual hate—no personal grudge. We were a pack of wolves—a million years back—and the pack in the other trenches wanted our blood. We were going to get theirs.

            It was not the language they mouthed, not the rags they wore, not the land they came from. We cared not at all for that. They were a pack of wolves and we were a better pack, we were going to blow them to hell—and we were going to survive. Days, months of it—endless vistas of muddy grim lines of men. ----

            Civilization--?—eigh! That's only pap for the demagogues and the politicians. The shrill of a whistle, a platoon of olive-drab figures leaping to action—a rushing headlong charge—deployed for action—a rushing headlong charge—deployed for action, action to win. Each man has to keep his place in the formation, to fire at a vital part of a fighting, advancing enemy. To fire with a steady, deliberate aim. A man is leading you. A man who gave all his life to learn how to lead you—and you naturally follow that man into the jaws of hell, and if he falls, you carry on; his leadership still lives after he is killed. That's what made him a leader. He made you self reliant; he made you a better rifleman than your antagonist; your bayonet is as familiar to you as your right hand; you KNOW you can knock the hell out of anybody who wears a uniform different from yours.



         "Before going further it is well to say a word in regard to runners. Runners are as vital today as they were in the days of Julius Caesar, for under heavy shell fire field telephones and buzzers go out at once, leaving runners the only dependable form of communication. The runners in sinister Belleau Wood, rendered splendid service of the most hazardous nature. The battalion commander passed one of them during the big attack lying with his leg badly mangled. He never whimpered, but only said, "Major, I can't run any more."

There were at regimental headquarters some 22 runners, men who carried messages to and from the lines, and with all the other means of communication gone, it was necessary to call on these chaps. One after another was sent forward  by Colonel Foote with messages and none returned. Eighteen men had gone, and of those eighteen, officers at regimental knew enough to realize that failure to return was due to one thing only.  Death or severe wounds were all that could keep the members of that faithful group from doing their duty.

            At last, Colonel Foote wrote out a message for the front once again and this time called for a dispatch rider. There were at regimental headquarters two such men, one belonging to the regiment and another loaned from divisional headquarters to replace one of the 104th regulars who was in a hospital. These dispatch riders had motorcycles and were used mostly in work between regimental and brigade or division. The one remaining 104th rider had been going most of the night and was lying on the floor behind the group of officers in an attempt to get a little rest—the other was on duty when the colonel called for a rider and responded.

            Then occurred one of those intensely dramatic incidents. The Colonel held out the dispatch and said quietly: "Take that message into Belleau to Major Lewis and bring me back his answer."

            The color died out of the rider's face. Looking at the commander he said: "Colonel, that means death."

            The onlookers sat spellbound. The Colonel's face never changed and without even raising his voice, he said calmly: "In the army when you get an order you do not question, you obey it."

            The frightened rider stood riveted to the spot for a second, and in that interval the regular driver, Pvt. Ray Therrien of Holyoke jumped to his feet, and ducking under the other's arm, saluted and said: "Colonel, I'll take that message in."

            The words were hardly said before one of the regular runners, one of the four who were left, stood at his side and said, "Make the message in duplicate, Sir, and I'll go with him."


             "It was evident that the first aid station was too far to the rear, but it could not well be moved up and still be accessible to the ambulances. However, when an additional surgeon was assigned to the battalion because of the heavy increase in casualties, it was decided to establish an advanced first aid station at battalion headquarters.            The new surgeon by the way, was an unfortunate victim of unpreparedness. He weighed over 200 pounds. He had been a doctor in a small town before the war and probably had never seen an army uniform. He had left the States exactly two weeks before the day he reported for duty in Belleau Wood, which at that time, was the hottest place on the western front, or any other front.             There was one thing that would indicate that he had something in him. Whenever a wounded man was brought in, no matter how ghastly and mutilated a sight he might present, the doctor promptly forgot his own troubles and became the cool, efficient surgeon. It is impossible to describe his attempts to put on his gas mask when the klaxon, for the first time, sounded the gas alarm. 

            I saw him toward the end of the war, during the Argonne, still serving with the same battalion. He weighed a little over 150 pounds. He had a clear eye, healthy color, alert manner, and the cool air of a veteran. And every officer and man in that battalion swore by that doctor. He had made good."

THE ATTACK             Then he had his mess kit out. With its cover, he carved away at the cheesy earth. Clumsily he stabbed earth loose with the handle. In the end he was underground, half buried alive in the shaking earth. There was nothing to do but stay there while it shook to pieces. Inside that hole he cowered, no better than the meanest grub or worm, no more heroic, no less ignorant of what was going on in the world above. He'd heard tales of how immaculate British officers walked about under fire encouraging their men. It must have been some other war.            Like a gigantic team and wagon the shaking rolled away. He crawled out blinking and stood up. There was a moment of vast calm, of deep relief. He started a long, slow breath, which instantly was cut in two. It was incredible, those two slow, solid blocks of Germans running clumsily, opening their mouths. They were coming up at him. Two solid blocks of Germans running clumsily. They were coming, nothing was stopping them. Fixed in a cold trance, he pulled out his automatic. Where were  his men? All gone? No, there ahead were two. They rose up from the ruined earth without their rifles and passed below him, running with fixed grins. Another came by, his mouth stretched open. "Halt!" he shouted and jumped out of the hole. He struck at him with the butt of his automatic; the blow glanced off the shoulder. The man dodged over the crest. He shot a cartridge into the chamber. He'd rather get the next man that ran back than all the Germans in the world.            And all the time the two small blocks of running men were coming up the slope. He stood alone in a bare, ruined world without fear, without hope, a dead man, cold and rigid, in the shroud of fate.            Then in the squares of Germans some running men went tumbling as sparse rifles cracked along the line; and then—a sound of joy and wonder—he heard slow tapping up the hill. Beneath his eye, the nearest square broke into fragments, stopped and streamed back down the slope. Now the crackling ran along the line and other crackling lines came up behind him and dinned about his ears, and a loud voice, "Jesus Christ, Lieutenant, get away from there! Beneath this crackling, the other square had melted and was drifting down the fierce stream of their fire.

            Emptying his automatic as he ran, he got among the fox holes of his men. There were fragments, and there were shrunken bodies half buried, face down, on the ground; but here and there, under the tin hats, close to the churned earth, eyes rolled up at him. He ran among them, his dry mouth open wide. "Come on, you buggers, come on! Are you going to let the second wave go through you?"


             As soon as the new Major arrived we moved into the neighboring town of Celeste, where an infantry headquarters was then established. For our own headquarters we took over a fine house, furnishings almost intact, including dishes and drinking goblets, a kitchen range, a pool table upstairs, and a wine cellar. With the Major came our first field duty Y.M.C.A. man who looked the part of a penny changing five and ten clerk. He professed great interest in the men, as a politician loves his voters, showed an exaggerated sympathy for them and displayed a profound respect for the Major.            A German sausage balloon idly poised a few kilometers across country interested us for two days. On the third day she ceased to be a curiosity. The Major and his aides were eating a hearty meal in fine style in the well equipped dining room. A half dozen of us were loafing in the kitchen with the cook when a shell swished into the cobbled courtyard and splattered against the building. The nose of the shell bounced through the doorway, struck the chimney and fell with a crash on the stove. The cook, a minute before a white man, gleamed thru the dust and smoke, frying pan in hand, as would the puzzled end man of an old time minstrel thinking out the answer to a poser.

            Before the ringing was out of our ears, the Major and his dinner guests had tumbled out of a back window and dropped behind the house. Three or four of us dived out on top of them. The cook and the others raced across the courtyard and plunged into the wine cellar, the last chap coming in thru the chute to land heavily on the floor. We lay in the pile of disturbed soldiers, huddled behind the flat, regardless of rank and dinner. Enlisted men counted off the shots as per the muffled commands issuing from the bottom of the heap. Gas was the signal given by our gentry, so we whiffed gingerly when the less savage shells burst or landed in softer spots. The shelling, never above the strength of a battery, lasted perhaps an hour. No casualties resulted here if we except the damage done to the Y.M.C.A. man's nose in the scramble thru the window. Some skin was rudely removed by an elbow of piece of glass, but hardly enough to warrant the duly-requested wound chevron."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi David:
Love your site and have linked to it from mine. Visit Soldier's Mail to read the writings home of Sgt. Sam Avery while on the front lines during the Mexican Border Campaign and in France with the AEF. Letters are posted on the same date they were written more than 90years ago. More great eyewitness history of the Most Gallant Generation from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse.

Rich Landers