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Artillery


HISTORY OF THE SEVENTY SEVENTH DIVISION
Phase 2
Artillery


The infantry when it moved from Camp Upton during the first weeks of April left behind it a great camp area and a despondent brigade of artillery. A few days before leaving and even on the day of departure requests for men by hundreds were received at artillery headquarters to complete infantry units.

Infantry, engineers and machine-gunners bad gone and yet no orders came for the artillery. The emptiness of the streets and the desertion of the barracks on the days following were no consolation for those who felt that the war would surely be finished before they arrived overseas

Then as suddenly as bad been the depletion came new arrivals, big sandy raw boned men from the west and northwest. The atmosphere became more cheerful as shipments of equipment marked, "Rush, for 152d Brigade Field Artillery" began to arrive and dejection gave way to suppressed excitement.

On Sunday night, April 21st, two regiments, the 304th Field Artillery, the 306tb Field Artillery and Brigade Headquarters followed the night march of the infantry over muddy roads to a darkened station. By daylight all trains were moving. The 305th Field Artillery and the 302d Trench Mortar Battery took other boats some days later. By early forenoon, ferries from Brooklyn were taking the last of the departing troops around the Battery and across to the great German piers.

New York looked magnificent that day. The clean salt air and the brilliancy of the lower city were contagious. As one boatload after another passed under Brooklyn Bridge, the men gave a big spontaneous cheer that swelled out over the water and echoed like a gun at sea. The big hull of the Leviathan, which was to carry the two regiments and other troops overseas on this trip, finally loomed far out in the stream beyond its fellows.

All that day and part of the next, troops were filed in through the troop gangway. It seemed to be an endless chain, which the ship devoured. Uniformed women of the Red Cross worked incessantly along this line giving out sandwiches, doughnuts and cigarettes. When aboard the men were sent at once to their sleeping quarters.

The bunks were of canvas set in iron frames. They extended tier on tier, for the most part on lower decks, but some were located in salons that had previously been stripped of any pretense of finery. On this trip, the Leviathan carried fifteen thousand souls, ten thousand of whom were soldiers and the balance the crew and naval replacements for the European fleet.

That night Manhattan Island, across the Hudson, as seen from the deck of the Leviathan seemed strangely distant and detached. Its beauty was visionary and far off. The low wharves were shrouded and shadowy under their bluish arc-light glare. Many arcs bung about the sides of the Leviathan and searchlights played on it from either neighboring dock.

On Wednesday, April 24th, some time between midnight and dawn this great ship nosed out and departed. Not a light was showing. Within each door that led to the decks, guards were posted, and only a few bluejackets strolled casually about.

The next few days were without incident. Schedules were arranged for physical exercise and for daily inspection. The health of the men was carefully guarded while they were living under these crowded conditions. Daily abandon ship drills were held and it became customary to hear the shrill startling call of the ship's bugler sounded at double time.

The sixth day out, five torpedo boat destroyers steamed alongside as escort. These lively little sea-dogs circled and cavorted about as if teasing their big charge. The Leviathan traveled free from the usual convoy as she raced along her zigzag course, depending more on her speed than her armament.

On the morning of May 2d, the harbor of Brest was reached. The old citadel and the city itself were both beautiful from the waterfront. High over the town, which sloped upward as it extended inland, was a big observation balloon.

The ship took a position off shore near the other camouflaged steamers and French gunboats. After a wait of several hours a cutter bringing French Naval officers came up and following was a hospital boat. This was the first visit the big German prize had made in French waters.

British lighters in the early afternoon took the troops ashore by regiment. The Britishers had certain conceptions of loading men that would have put to shame a subway guard on the Bronx Express. The bands were there and played artillery airs. Everyone was in high spirits. On landing, the men climbed up the stone quay and formed in the railroad yards.

This was really the theater of war. The big sausage balloon that swayed on its cable high above the city had some vague connection with the front; just what the relation was no one could exactly ascertain. Many trucks were about, some of which carried healthy looking German prisoners. The prisoners were loading flour under the direction of an antiquated French guard who strode about with fixed bayonet. He was as lean as his charges were fat.

The troops moved out quickly, and soon the columns were winding their way through the narrow streets and upward to the higher country. The march was a matter of only a few kilometers, but because of the recent confinement aboard ship, it was harder than a normal march of three times the distance.

PONTENAZIAN BARRACKS

The first regiment that passed through the big stone port of Pontenazian Barracks was the 304th Field Artillery, led by Colonel Raymond W. Briggs. The 306th Field Artillery followed immediately led by Colonel L. S. Miller.

Pontenazian is an old Napoleonic garrison whose past dates vaguely back to its occupancy as a monastery, and at one time as a prison. It is a great parade ground on one side of which is a line of low stone barracks. A street of khaki tents stood along an adjoining side, evidence of the presence of American troops. The place was not without attraction. Little fruit trees blossomed within the high stone walls, and the quaint old barracks were weathered old relics of an earlier age. These buildings were damp and gloomy inside. On rainy nights more than one buck private remarked on the beauty of the place as he dented a stone wall in a vain attempt to land a misshapen shoe on one of the big rats that browsed about the place. It was rumored that Napoleon's ghost clad in khaki walked about at night.

The first days here were devoted to drills and athletics. No officers or men were permitted in Brest except on official business, but the batteries were occasionally marched out through the country. These sight seeing marches frequently led quite near the city. The Bretons in their quaint and immaculate dress, and the farms and homes of these interesting people, were incidents of these trips. Small boys as always took great interest in these big soldiers. Some favored youngster would be permitted to carry a soldier's rifle, and would proudly stride along trying to keep pace under the added weight.

The children did not ask for money but incessantly begged, " Avez vous un cigarette," which soon changed to the English, "Cigarette for papa," emphasized with outstretched hand.

The 305th Field Artillery and 302d Trench Mortar Battery reached Brest, Saturday, May 4th, on the Von Steuben and a Northern Pacific mail boat converted. They did not debark until Monday, May 6th, at which time the other regiments were preparing to entrain for "somewhere."

This first railroad trip in France, the first of the "somewhere" trips, unfolded itself on the map after two days into a coastal trip down through Nantes, La Rochelle and Bordeaux. These big army centers were at that time in process of development. There was much speculation as to the next destination. When the regulation trains of 51 cars pulled in and it was seen that practically everyone would ride " 3me classe " those who had expected box cars were agreeably surprised.

Equipment, men and corned willie were piled aboard in short time, and the small engine (then and there dubbed "peanut roaster") gave a shrill toot and began to move. The French conduc-tors wore little flat peaked caps and black coats that looked like Prince Alberts gone shabby. Everyone who had a map of France began to brush up on his geography.

The first of the trains passed through Bordeaux on the evening of the second day and the troops detrained twelve miles beyond at Bonneau, the rail-head for Souge, to which troops, guns and supplies were shipped for Camp de Souge.

CAMP DE SOUGE

Camp de Souge to the incoming artillerymen was like entering a circus, "The greatest show on earth." The main entrance was an elaborate archway on which was surmounted a crowing chanticleer. Flanking this were the booths and shows of a minor Coney Island; a show at which the performers of the big show inside became the audience. After drill hours the little rows of cafes and stands swarmed with soldiers. Cheese, fruits, nuts, silk creations, pipes and vin-rouge were sold to the "bon Americaine. " Flaring pictures of American movie stars were posted about and below them was the caption in French.

Within the gate was a long street of barracks extending back from the gate as far as the eye could see. Near the gate stood the small camp hospital and a set of barracks, which became the quarters of the Brigade Commander, General Rees, and the officers of the three regiments. Schools were at the opposite end of camp. In this way everyone had an equal chance of getting to class on time, except the favored few who rode in automobiles.

Pine trees shaded this end of camp. A few scrubby trees were scattered down the line of the men's quarters, and batteries vied with their neighbors in decorating the plots around these trees.

Out on the main street, beyond the point where any pretension to neatness was made, stood the prisoners-of-war cage and the Coolie camp. Here among the brush and sand was the great clown department of this circus. The Coolies when the brigade arrived in camp seemed merely Chinamen who stole other people's clothes, and with whom it was possible to make strange deals for worthless trinkets. Later they became the chief source of amusement in camp. It was not an uncommon sight to see one of these men, with a shovel in one hand, an umbrella in the other, trying to make a half-hour's job last all day. It became a saying around camp that they got more rest out of a shovel than a soldier gets out of a feather bed. They wore all manner of dress, acquired from French soldiers, Americans and the Far East. Several of the Coolies had hand-made box fiddles which they would stroke with a rude bow while mooning along the camp streets.

The first days of rest soon passed and the brigade, officers and men, plunged into training and into intimate contact with the sands of Souge. French 75's were on hand and the officers of the " 75 " regiments began their course by forming into gun squads and doing the work of gun crews. The French equivalent to good old American nomenclature was learned. A materiel expert pointed out in principle the secret of the 75's recoil system; the exact construction of which is a carefully guarded secret even to French officers.

The men shortly began their gun drills and other artillery instruction under their very much over-worked battery officers, who at the same time were completing their own instruction in these subjects. The camp swarmed with industry. Wireless men put up portable field sets, seemingly under the parentage of the high camp set. Telephone men laid and wound up again miles of field telephone lines, and established dugout centrals, Teams of men with blinker lights got out opposite one mother and balefully winked out messages sometimes unprintable and of an eloquence not in keeping with the difficulties of learning.

Of all these specialists the panel men were most nimble. With big white panels similar to bed sheets they jigged a war dance, each trick of which ended with a low salaam disclosing a new white hieroglyphic marvelously spread out on the ground before them.

All this contagious energy affected the Coolies not one whit. The only time they moved faster than a shuffling walk was when aboard one of the many trucks that whizzed through camp. Then it was the delight of the driver not to let them off, but to speed up while a very much frightened Chinese flapped from the tail-gate like an old shirt blown by the wind. The Coolies showed greatest excitement when they fought and scratched and screamed for a place in a truck. They scrambled aboard from all directions like Malay pirates boarding a prize, all screaming and pushing for favored places.

Quite different from their Coolie neighbors were the suave little Anamites, French Territorials, who guarded the prisoners. These yellow men wore the Chasseurs' cap and carried their rifle with the ease of long practice.

The 306th was not as favored as the light regiments. No "155" howitzers were available for them. No horses had arrived for anyone. The officers spent long hours out on a miniature field in an exalted sort of terrain board exercise, computing the technical data required to land shots on the houses, woods and hills represented in miniature. The gun crews had drills, and developed into what they later dubbed "bed-post artillery." They found that by aligning two cots in proper relation to one another and placing a log across one, it was possible to conduct a gun drill.

The firing of the 75's commenced two weeks after the preliminary training. Officers had learned the firing methods of position warfare, and now knew in computing firing data that even barometric pressure and temperature of the powder must be considered. These and other computations were worked out in the lecture rooms. Officers were taught to sense shots and adjust fire indoors on terrain boards over which a dexterous instructor belabored with a little wire scale that, when held properly, displayed small black or white pills representing shell or shrapnel bursts.

The range was as flat as a tabletop. From one of the stilt like observatories that were located at intervals around half of its circumference it seemed to stretch for miles, a morass of swamp and underbrush broken by several raised roads. In the center of the range was an old stone building and a small clump of trees. The ruins of this gave up a yellow dust whenever a direct hit was registered on it. Beyond 1,500 meters were many trench parapets of diagonal, triangular and square pattern. A few trees in isolated loneliness stood out against the sky line. At 5,000 and 6,000 meters stood a few lone barns, practically intact.

Close up to the range grew a dense pine forest. On several hot dry days, brush caught fire from bursting shell, and twice the entire brigade fought the fire.

Daily from seven until noon the long line of batteries pounded out ammunition at a lavish rate. The gun crews gained in proficiency; the officers mastered the increasingly complex firing problems; and the Ammunition Train which had been drilling and learning about motor transport got practical work in supplying ammunition. The trench mortar battery had a separate range off to one side that was as desolate as No Man's Land. From a dug-in position in which the crews served the pieces like moles, these big mortars sent forth a projectile that when landing shook the earth.

The great day finally came when the 306th got their guns. The big lumbering howitzers bowled into camp behind trucks, Saturday afternoon, June 8th. Monday morning, a hot drill competition began. Wednesday morning, this regiment began its belated firing schedule, two days after they first handled the weapon. This achievement developed a spirit that later enabled the regiment to score a reputation for accurate firing at the front, hard to excel.

Horses did not begin to arrive until May 28th, and then began a vital part of the training of field artillerymen. The training of drivers is a slow process. Bright men may quickly learn the rudiments of gunnery, but the care and proper handling of horses comes only with time. The 304th and 306th had been organized as motor regiments and in consequence only a few Western replacements had any knowledge of horses. Taxi drivers must now become horsemen. Perhaps the French horses did not know New York English-perhaps New York men did not know cheyaux French; certainly at times the two did not co-ordinate. More than one man got kicked for his solicitations or, when mounted, slipped, clawing the air, to the sands of Souge.

Evidences were in the air of a rushed completion of the course. Other brigades were billeted in nearby towns. Troops had been coming to France more rapidly than training camps could accommodate them. Plans were under way for a big barrage in which every gun in the brigade would fire at once.

It happened at one-thirty, on a perfect afternoon. All 75's had taken position along the edge of the range. The howitzers were near a town in the rear. A trench line had been laid out in white strips of muslin. The barrage started in full force after twenty seconds, and evenly spaced bursts could be seen along the entire objective. Then overhead, sliding through the air with a sound like cloth being slowly ripped, came the 155's. The points that were designated as com-munication trenches were being reduced. The thing, the whole thing, was seen to be no longer playing on the same spot, but slowly becoming more distant. The fire of the heavies was lifted to more distant targets. Within a half-hour, the boiling had become a simmer and ceased. The brigade's first barrage was a success.

Later came the night firing. Batteries were placed in position at dusk, and as night came on, the gun crews slept, leaving only the guards over the guns. At an unknown hour, the enemy would attack. It was after midnight when the signal for the barrage came, a flash from a distant observatory. The sentry immediately placed the first round in the gun, which as in actual combat was laid, and pulled the lanyard. No further call was necessary. The crew jumped to their positions and the bar-rage was fired as charted on their gun shield.

On the Fourth of July, after the completion of the course (except for some belated firing by the howitzers), the brigade paraded in Bordeaux with guns and horses. En route to Bordeaux, the long rumbling, clanking column of guns and caissons extended from one town to the next. This was the greatest assemblage of artil-lery that most officers and men in it had seen, and they were proud of themselves. Two regiments of the 4tb Field Artillery Brigade also were to parade.

Bordeaux was in gala dress. It was celebrating a holiday, as only the French know how. The long column moved through the city, escorted by French infantry. The streets and balconies were thronged, and as the troops passed, they were showered with flowers. The column, led by General Rees, marched around the three sides of the beautiful Place des la Quinconces, and out the city to the bivouac of the preceding night. The selection of this square on the riverfront afforded a magnificent background for the impressive review. The line of French marines drawn up around the square, and the richly decorated reviewing stand where the Base Commander and French officers reviewed, all combined to make an impression of Bordeaux long to be remembered.

That afternoon the brigade got orders to proceed by rail to Baccarat, where they would enter the line for the first time.

 

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