Sunday, November 29, 2009

Doughboy in Battle



             "The advent of the new Major was unannounced and by no means welcome. His predecessor was a known factor and a man well liked whereas it appeared at once that there were possibilities of surprise in this new arrival. A tall, spare, and businesslike figure, he wore laced thick-soled boots that evidently had seen service somewhere. Bedford cord breeches that really fitted, and a British enlisted man's coat like the ones many of us were using then for wear in the field. He had a short-clipped moustache, a clipped accent, and a voice that could purr and shout in the same breath. We knew he was there as soon as he appeared among us.             It was one of those French wintry days so often unhappily chosen for division field exercises. Frozen shoes cut your flesh in the morning and the midday thaw drenched your feet with icy water. The troops moved along mechanically or stood idly, enduring dumbly and obediently, but supremely uninterested in anything except getting it over.            The new Major spoke aloud, unconscious that he did so. "They're not learning anything," he said; "they're suffering!" But then he shouted "Keep the formation there! Go through that wood with a fine tooth comb! There's bound to be Boches in a place like that!"            As wood gave away to plain and plain to wood, a whole series of orders and explanations from him followed. We were at once astonished, galvanized into action, but made a little resentful. But in any event we began to warm up with interest and exercise, and to our own surprise found ourselves in the end hunting imaginary enemies all over the whole terrain. The whole afternoon passed quickly.            "You've done this kind of fighting in earnest, Major?" we asked diffidently as recall was blowing.            "Two years up with the Canadians," he briefly replied. "And now, gentlemen," he added, "before we start the march home issue a rum ration and give the men hot tea—scalding hot!"            We compromised on slum and coffee, both very hot. And with this touch of humor from the new Major at the end of a long day we marched cheerfully the six miles home to our billet wondering what would be happening next.            Actually a remarkable thing was about to happen—our own transformation from a miserable, dispirited outfit into a confident, united family—a battalion in reality as well as in name.            We were a little apprehensive, but nothing happened for several days except the Major ceaselessly observed, inspected—and kept his comment to himself. And then he summoned all of his officers to a conference, after which action followed action so fast it took our breaths.            "Our object," said the Major, "is to develop a first-rate fighting battalion. We've got all  the elements, but we haven't got the battalion."            "True," he went on, "there are serious shortages of things we need badly. There are many difficulties to overcome. Things aren't cushy. But we can do a lot if we make the most out of what we have." And now was the time to do it, for once we got in the line it might be too late, and failure now meant failure then.            "The first thing to do is to make the men comfortable and happy." We had good officers, he said, good men, good basic discipline. With spirit of the kind that was in us we could get things done. But we couldn't depend on anyone else. We had to do it ourselves.            Now, what to do?            Stoves? Make the best use of what we have. Give up those small rooms where a new NCO's and lucky soldiers toasted themselves while the rest of the troops got chilblains, and put more stoves in the larger places.            Repairs? We can use the old lumber laid away in the village. It will do in a pinch. Shore up the roofs where they need it, patch the leaks, calk the cracks. Put a few expert men on the job to go over all the billets, make them ship-shape, and see that the stoves draw properly. He'd knocked around in many a place—Mexico during the revolution for one, and he'd seen what handy men could do for comfort with little enough for materials.            Firewood? No use sending whole companies of green men to the woods to pile up green wood and make the French holler about damage to their forests. A few good men could do the job right. There must be some woodsmen in the battalion.            Every man must know exactly what his authority is, and for the higher command to hold him responsible only to the extent of that authority.             The system begins with the squad. It has a commander, but it also has a collective responsibility. Every man in the squad should be rated second, third, fourth-in-command, and so on down to the last man. Then the squad will always have a leader. Moreover, when an offense against good order occurs the offender must automatically be disrated to the bottom of the list. And then every other man in the squad becomes his commander and responsible for guiding his steps back into the straight and narrow way. And since the whole squad is involved whenever a man goes wrong, the way of the transgressor is hard. So, few men go wrong and few troubles ever occur that cannot be settled privately—some of them very privately—within the squad.            Suppose—the Major kept on—that a man falls in unshaved in the morning, or is late or absent. Next day the whole squad sees to it that he is up and dressed a half hour early, with plenty of time to do what he needs to do. The section leader also gets up to check him. And if both his sections are involved, the platoon leader also arises early to supervise. After a little, the supervising system can be reduced; only one sergeant per company and one officer per battalion need then rise to attend defaulters' formation. A little while more and there will rarely be such a formation for anyone to attend.            A battalion built up in close-knit units formed on this model is a tough-fighting outfit. "It can stand fifty percent casualties or more," said the Major. "It can come out, fill up, and go in again in a hurry. It takes that kind of battalion to do the work in a war like this. The secret of it is that the men quickly form new squads, sections, and platoons even in action, and new men who come into such units catch the spirit and settle into harness faster than you would think possible."            If something goes wrong in a company the battalion commander doesn't merely say to the captain, "You're guilty!" That's easy enough, but it doesn't work.  And it makes bad feeling, leaves a sense of rankling injustice. The thing to do instead is to trace the fault down to see who was actually responsible because of something he did or neglected to do. With good officers, like ours, you could usually trace the fault to the inner workings of some section or squad. And when you have placed the responsibility where it belongs, the rest of the men soon let the guilty ones know what they think of them, for a platoon is small enough to make its public opinion felt. And when it has "platoon spirit" it makes its opinions effective.            Every commander down to the squad, continued the Major, would be given definite authority to deal with certain offenses, and no such dereliction was to be referred up for action unless the circumstances were exceptional.            No one would expect any of his commanders to do things that were obviously impossible. Expectations must be based on what is reasonable, considering all the conditions.             And about the overcoats. They must be cut off at once. No nonsense about so many inches below the knee. Cut them off well up above the mud, but at the place best suited to the size and shape of the man. Any woman would know. So the captains should engage a seamstress to alter the coats at the rate of one franc per garment. Just say to your seamstress, "Madame, make my soldiers look their best!" It would be surprising if the results were not good. (They were excellent).            As to money, he put this up to the company commanders. He would himself contribute 1000 francs if it were needed. Unless he was much mistaken, the captains could handle this or any other matter that he had to refer to them.            Company and platoon barber shops would be set up at once; price of a haircut, one franc. But barbers were forbidden to shave the men; that was an individual matter. Cut the hair short. No prison haircuts, but those pompadours had to go. "Lice love long hair."            Washing. He had purchased boilers and other containers. Pay when you could. A hot bath for every man at least once a week. Company mechanics would make wash-boards, and clothes washing would be a platoon formation.            Every working day, after work was over, each platoon would form under its commander to wash feet and change socks. This custom would prevail wherever we might be at the time, for nearly everywhere could be found a canal, a stream, a pond, or some kind of water. If any man's feet were in bad shape this would thus be found out so special treatment could be given.            A shave in the morning, a foot-wash at night—every day.            Public drunkenness had to stop. The wobbly soldier intent on quietly getting home would be assisted; but noisy drunks would be tied up in rear of quarters and "soused" till they became unsoused. (This also became routine and even pools of rain water were used for the purpose.) Closing cafes ought to be unnecessary. (It soon was unnecessary).             There had been some fights over women. This was absurd. In war women might be expendable, but good soldiers are not. He supposed that no one but a fool would attempt to dictate personal taste in such matters, and for his part he didn't care an emphasized damn what any man did with his spare time as long as he wasn't a filthy beast. But with a war on the battalion had to come first. And in war nothing else mattered so much as the comradeship of fighting men. The men would learn to value each other far above any minor affairs of the heart.            There was a leave system, too, for use along this line. Well, use it right, he urged, for men who really need it. No damned silly routine following of a roster. Some of our men, unless his eyes were failing him, wouldn't want to leave our own town even to go on leave. Others were in a different situation. "You must be able to talk to your men heart to heart. Make proper use of that sort of thing."            The next few days would be spent in cleaning up. Inspect. Repair. Scrub. Think up improvements. The adjutant would issue detailed orders. If the battalion supply officer couldn't supply what was needed, improvise. If that wouldn't work, come to see the battalion commander. And present the platoons for his inspection as soon as they were ready. If they didn't come hunting him in two days he would come hunting them.            It would be pleasant to say that the results of this directive were immediate. But it is not enough to simply desire high standards; you have to know how to go about attaining them. Our battalion had to learn that the new regime ordered nothing that was impractible, but expected the enforcement of every order that was issued. Many men lost their early-morning sleep until they learned that to shave every morning meant just that. A few "lice-farmers" actually wept when sent back to be shorn of their fancy locks. It was some time before clothing presented the appearance desired. But a twelve-mile march by nigh for every man who appeared at a certain inspection with his spare shoes carrying old mud under fresh dubbin left no man unconvinced that halfway compliance would not be enough—the more so since every corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant who contributed a man to the march accompanied the column.             But standards rose visibly, and courts-martial cases declined in numbers. The Major had some novel and even startling ideas as to substitute measures to take the place of trials and the public opinion of the battalion supported him fully.            Reveille soon went back to six o'clock; but even after it did there were only a few defaulters who ever had to attend that assembly.            Serenity replaced fuss and flurry.            The supply situation was still bad, and the Major exerted himself to the limit to get what was needed. He had some personal collisions with supply functionaries who attempted to wave him away, deceived by the USR on his collar. He had to tell one or two plainly that they could talk to him about military procedure once they had done some real soldiering. He inspired interest in himself, and not a little respect, but all supplies we needed were simply not forthcoming.             The Major knew that in battle the slightly wounded would far outnumber other casualties—which we know now is true enough. "A nice cushy wound is a free ticket to the hospital." (A certain brightening of the eye and moistening of the lips on the part of the troops). "But a good man comes back as soon as he can to help out in the line." No one worth his salt wants someone else to do his fighting for him."            Then the welfare policy. "You gentlemen let me know if the men seem to want sports or theatricals. I rather think they get all the exercise they need, and they're keyed up to get ready to fight. As to recreation, they seem to find their own among the population." From which it is to be inferred that if there had been much free time, or if the incentive to get ready to fight had not been enough, or if the population were not to be fraternized with—all of which was true later on in Germany—the Major would have gone in strongly for a battalion recreation program. You can see that he fitted his method to conditions.            "This competition idea needs watching. It can lead to bad feeling, it can damage esprit de corps instead of helping it." So he pitted his men against obstacles to progress, but not directly against each other.            Then finally came the confidence born of unity—the sense of being one no matter what betide.            "Captain," from Private Jones (or whoever it was), "I heard this man here talking furrin blah-blah to another fellow." The Major said, "No more of that! They're to talk United States or keep their lips buttoned up."            "Sir," this confidentially from Private Angelini when Private Jones, his stand approved, had gone out. "I was talking to Private Muscatti, my cousin, from my own home town—in New Jersey. We forgot about speaking English. It was wrong. We won't do it again."            Then the appearance of the "platoon spirit," so strong that it needed counterpoise: You'd make so-and-so company runner. He'd say, "I like the platoon, sir." "You'll come to company headquarters. That's a real platoon, too!"             "Sir, I'll report out to the Corporal, the Sergeant, and the Lieutenant" (they even did this when wounded in battle) "and move my stuff in at once."            As time went on we began to work out an adaptation of our old tactics to 1918 conditions. Unfortunately, our pre-war musketry and combat practice systems were of recent growth and both the British and ourselves had allowed this training to lapse. The British were reviving it now but our Major had never encountered it, and the spring fighting came on before we had really solved this problem. For that matter, our GHQ did not get around to securing effective training in this—the culminating stage of infantry training—until the war was over. So our whole army—not we alone—paid the price because we did not really know how to combine our fire and our movement. The Major, gleaning his ideas from us—ideas based on our scanty pre-war training—was about to solve this problem of problems for us when we lost him. But he had been a fighting soldier during all his service, and he had never had time during his campaigns to do the thing that the professional soldier is expected to do during peace—to project his philosophy ahead of actual events, and to solve new problems before they occur. Had the Major been spared to us, his practical experience of war as it then was found in western Europe, and his readiness to absorb ideas and apply them would have spared us many trials.             When the battalion entered the line that spring, its calm efficiency dealt with raid and bombardment as if it had known them aforetime. And it spent its spare hours, even in the trenches, keeping up its standard of routine performance, even polishing up the rusty old grenades and other articles of trench-stores. "When they're awake, keep them busy. When we're busy, we don't worry."

            No firing off of rockets and Very lights except in emergency. Keep the front dark and get used to doing your work that way. A dark front makes the enemy worry."