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The Attack is Launched


OUR SONS AT WAR

by,
Lee McCollum
1940


ACROSS THE RED HORIZON

SLOWLY the damp, grey fog drifted down the valleys in the war-desolated forest of the Argonne, hanging like a misty bridal veil, on the face of the barren hillside. The shell-blasted trees, stripped of branches and leaves, stood there in their shattered majesty as spectral guards at the portals of the Immortals.

For months the dull red ball of fire now sinking beyond the hazy horizon had run red with blood of humanity's youth. It had once been the sun, had shown in all its glory and splendor on men whose lives had been unspotted with the grim business of killing. Men who had laughed, had been gay. Men who had once dared to plan this thing we know as life. Steadily they had grown into relentless, murderous, moving robots of destruction, whose daily task was to lay at the feet of the God of Mars their contribution of the lifeless spoils of war.

Here the stark drama of life and death was as inevitable as the beginning and ending of day. Kingdoms had fallen. Democracies had turned from peaceful pursuits to war-maddened autocracies, feeding their men into the maw of death with the callousness of the butchering room in a packing house.

Under the guise of patriotism, playing bands, blaring press, spouting orators and the beat of the drums, half-grown boys had been hysterically urged to "Join the colors," "Do their bit," to "Fight the war to end wars," and "Make the world safe for democracy."

They followed the ballyhoo of war as readily as though they were led by the legendary Pied Piper of Hamlin. By early October 1918, an endless stream of American doughboys had moved into the forest of the Argonne, deep in the heart of war-stricken France.

The dapper city-bred clerk, the crook, the hard-boiled soldier of the regular army, together with the bland, half-sophisticated college graduate lieutenants, adventure seeking high school boys, and National Guardsmen, all looked as one as they met in that forest of the Argonne for the last big push before the armistice took place. They were a composite picture of the soldier at work, dull-faced, with set jaws and grim lips; eyes staring like half-burned coals from their emaciated, beard-matted, war-weary faces. Only the eyes spoke. What volumes a glance exchanged between them could tell. Sights indelibly stamped in their minds that would live with them throughout the balance of their lives.

Slowly and tensely these men pushed into the heart of the forest; khaki clad bodies became a part of the earth as the last wreaths of the grey mist settled over the Argonne and night fell.

In this group were two men who had been inseparable from their first days together in the training camps back home. They had ridden the crest of many battles together, and there was a love between them as that of blood brothers. Chosen for outpost duty that night, they had made- a small foxhole deep in the side of the steeply wooded ravine, which was the objective gained by their company on that day of fighting. Huddled there together for the warmth their bodies would give to one another, they alternated their watch while one dozed fitfully through a few of the night's rain-filled hours.

An enemy star-shell flamed in the sky with a glow of pale, sickly yellow. This was followed by another that hung as though festooned to the end of an invisible pole. The flares faded and died, but not before one of the doughboys on guard had caught the movement of figures creeping stealthily down the hillside toward them. Arousing his companion, he said "Harris . . . Harris . . . wake up, here they come!" Then he let loose with a volley of shots into the darkness where he had last seen the blurred figures moving toward him.

Harris came to with a start; reaching for his gun he started as though to leave the foxhole, when his companion pulled him sharply down. Harris slouched down beside him; he was white as a ghost, and trembling as though with the ague. "Shell-shock," thought Bill Hanlon, his comrade. Shaking him slowly but roughly, he started talking to him:

"Harris . . . what in God's name is the matter, man?"

Harris mumbled something unintelligible. Hanlon knew he would have to talk, and talk fast.

"Here, Harris, take a sip of this water."
Then he handed Harris his canteen. Harris pushed it back with unseeing eyes, rising again as though to leave the fox-hole, and Hanlon heard the sharp "Zing" of a sniper's bullet. It was too close for comfort, so grabbing Harris by the shoulder, he again pulled him back to safety.

"Here, Harris, buck up, buck up, man . . . you're too long in the outfit to let down like this."

Harris again started mumbling.

"Here, drink this water . . . Hell, man, you'll be breaking the moral of the new recruits if this gets out."

Hanlon continued to shake him, and forced some water between his half-opened lips.

Harris shook his head from side to side, and for a moment his eyes again took on a light of understanding. Then the look of sanity left and he started shouting.

"Stop . . . for God's sake stop! Bill . . . Bill
I can't stand it any longer . . . I'm afraid, I tell you ... Jerry's got my number ... I feel it."

His voice rose and cracked in a high-pitched scream: "Don't leave me, Bill ... for God's sake don't leave me .

Once again Hanlon quieted him, but Harris hung steadily onto him until Hanlon could feel his nails cutting deep into his arms. The wild look returned to Harris's eyes as he started bawling again.

"Yes ... I'm afraid . afraid do you hear me, Bill?"

"I've been afraid ever since the day I first joined this damn army ... now it's driving me nuts ... driving me nuts ... do you hear, Bill?"

Hanlon clung tightly to Harris, trying to calm him, but Harris continued shouting.

"I'm losing my mind . . . Bill . . . all I can hear is the voices of the wounded and dead . . . and they keep saying to me . 'You're next, Harris ... You're next.' "

Then he fell on Hanlon's shoulders and his racking sobs told too well the story of broken nerves.

"Come, Harris . . . buck up, man . . . here, take some water."

Again Hanlon tried to force water to his lips, but Harris pushed him back. He dropped the canteen, and Hanlon clutched for it to save its precious contents. As he did so Harris drew back as though to strike him; then Hanlon lashed out with his open hand, slapping Harris full in the face. With the blow reason returned to Harris, his eyes cleared, and he looked at Hanlon again in his old familiar bantering way. "Thank God," thought Hanlon. "He's all right again."

Harris reached over and half threw his arm around Hanlon's shoulders and said, "I'm sorry as hell . . . Bill ... what kind of a louse do you think I am to drink up all your water on you."

"I am glad you're okay again, Harris . . . that was a close one."

"Why Bill . . . you damn grinning Irishman, you ... if you were working with a full stomach I'd punch hell out of you here and now for talking about close ones."

Bill breathed a sigh of relief; he was sure now that Harris would be all right. Silently he gripped Harris's hand, for it is hell to see an old campaigner whom you love as a brother crack up.

Harris returned the handgrip, telling his gratefulness by the pressure of his hand. At Hanlon's orders he shoveled out a larger space in the foxhole so he could extend his body in it to obtain the rest he so badly needed.

It was quiet again, but the sound of Harris's shouting was bound to bring the enemy in again. Bill lay in the upper half of the foxhole with eyes straining through the wet darkness of the forest, as though by his eyes alone he would pull the enemy within range of his high powered rifle. It started a steady downpour of rain. Bill breathed a prayer of thanks, as it meant less chance, of enemy night raiding.

He crouched there soaked to the skin, the long minutes clicked off tediously. He would not call Harris for fear that he might crack up again. He felt that if they could live the night through, Harris would either be all right in the morning, or he could get him started to a field hospital.

The night was endless, and despite his dozing Hanlon thought he heard the low, guttural talking of his enemy coming from above where he lay. Just then a small Very flare-light ascended, and as he raised his head above the edge of the foxhole he was greeted with a burst of sniper gun-fire. Quickly he jerked his bead down, then all things quieted down again. Feeling that it would be but a matter of minutes until his position was attacked, he tried to arouse Harris.

He slouched down in the shell hole, and began whispering in a low tone to Harris. But receiving no answer he started to shake him slowly. When he did not respond he reached over to Harris's head, putting his hand over his mouth to make sure of his silence. It came away warm and sticky . . . the face was cold.

"Harris . . . Harris . . . My God, Harris you, too . . ."

Harris's body turned as though to answer Bill's call ... then it slumped further in the foxhole.

By the dim light of the flare Hanlon could see the stark, staring eyes of his comrade looking heavenward through the beating rain.

Harris was dead. A shot through the head in that last burst of firing had come out through his mouth.

Hanlon felt his hand ... then started slowly rubbing it in the mud ... as though to erase forever the stain of the life blood of his best buddy.

His own nerves cracked under the strain. He started mumbling and sobbing . . . "Harris gone . . . Harris gone ... only Jack and Chet and me left of our gang ... My God! ... when will it end?"

GLORY OF WAR

You can see men die on the battlefields,
go through hell time again and still grin,
But there's something that gets you beneath the belt
when you see green troops "come in."
Laughing and gay they march into the lines,
thinking that war is a lark,
Then after the fight they're grim-lipped and white,
as if they were stricken stark.

The sparkle of youth has gone from their eyes,
and the smile is gone from their face,
They are marked with that hardness on lip and brow,
that only a war can trace.
If they laugh again, as perhaps they will,
it is only a hollow mask,
Hiding the truth of the "glory of war,"
and their part in its murderous task.

Hardened and calloused-the creatures of war,
their minds with a single thought,
To cling to their preciously short span of life,
in each murderous battle that's fought.
They blast everything that lies in their path,
by means of a bomb or a gun,
Their passports to heaven or maybe to hell,
as they battle a race called "Hun."

Stand for a spell in this man-made hell,
that is known as no-man's-land,
Watch comrade and enemy fall one by one,
and then try to understand,
Why fools like us who have lives to live,
could so like puppets be,
That down through the ages we bleed out our lives,
on the altars of jealousy.

AN OBJECT LESSON

THE SETTING


IT was the last year of the war, on the Argonne Front. Little more than a month of fighting remained, but none of the men of the 77th Division knew that, or would have believed you had you told them. Of late there had been more and more victories, but each had been won by stubborn fighting and at a terrible cost of lives.

Back of the lines, in headquarters, where officers traced the ebb and flow of battle with pins on a huge map, a different story was being unfolded. There it had become evident, in the past few months, that the slow inevitable weakening of the entire German front had been taking place. Daily the line of pins that represented the Allied line had crept a little farther to the eastward. The movement was not steady, the line did not advance with each segment abreast of the others, but the general trend was unmistakable. One row of pins - an inch or two - would creep forward, waver momentarily, and then entrench itself in a new and unfamiliar section of the map. Farther down the map, another row of pins would hitch forward to come abreast with the first set.

On the map it was simple and fascinating. The pins moved forward, wavered, sometimes fell back, but always rallied and recovered their gains. But at the front, miles ahead over war-torn ground, it was no game at all. Here the pins became men, muddy, weary, war-worn men who died that pins might move. For hours guns roared, the barrage would creep forward, and beneath it men would run stumblingly across shell-pocked ground, raked by machine-gun fire, then dig themselves in. Night would come and with it Death's weird fireworks of shrapnel shells and flares; again the stumbling advance, past recently emptied trenches, through entanglements of barbed wire. Days of this living hell and the pins would move an inch -a quarter of an inch, on the map miles behind the lines.

There was one set of pins that did not move forward. Only at one point on the map had the pins remained stationary month after month, year after year, even through the recent drive, when elsewhere along the line, the pins had all crept to the East and to the North, toward the German border. This point was the Argonne Forest, known as the Champaign Front. The forest had been seized by the German forces in the opening months of the war. Later on the French had made a brief, desperate attempt to dislodge them, and had failed, losing many thousand men. No other attempt had been made during four years.

The German forces had been able by use of prisoners to convert the Argonne into a veritable wooded fortress, vast and impregnable natural stronghold. Their system of defense honeycombed the woods in all directions. Secret roads had been built so that German troops could move swiftly and unseen to any part of the forest that was threatened with attack. A clever and intricate system of barbed wire entanglements ran like a maze, a cruel labyrinth, through the entire extent of the forest. Hidden nests of machine guns and light artillery commanded all roads and paths, while a series of secret observation posts kept the German command informed of any movement of the Allied forces, should they attempt to enter this wooded for-tress.

It had been learned that the German troops occupying this section were the Landwehr Reserves - the "Old Fellows," as they were called -and it was thought they had been softened by a long period of easy life. Unaccustomed to the rigors of battle, they were expected to put up only a half-hearted resistance before a determined attack. Unknown to the allied command, the Landwehr Reserves had been reinforced by seasoned troops of the 76th German Division. The combination of battlewise veterans and fresh rested troops garrisoned in the Forest formed a formidable fighting unit that awaited the invasion of their enemies.

THE PROBLEM
THIS was the problem, to move those stubborn pins, that the entire Allied lines might advance to the German borders. The American 77th Division and portions of the Fourth French Army Corps were picked to accomplish this difficult task.

The 77th Division, originally composed of men from New York's East Side, had been reinforced with fresh troops from the 40th Division, made up of Westerners from the mountain and Pacific Coast States. This was a cross-section of America, from the raw-boned cowhand, sunburned farmers, uprooted clerks and bank--tellers, to garment workers of the Bronx and skilled factory mechanics, who could handle a lathe as well as they could a rifle. These were the men who were to try and solve that problem, that pins might again move. There remained only the plan of attack.

THE PLAN OF ATTACK
IT was decided to assault the rectangular Ravine d' Argonne, which was the heart of the Argonne Forest, from the south. The French were to close in from the west and the Americans from the east. The forces were to sweep together, like the closing blades of a huge pair of shears, and to squeeze the enemy out before them as they closed. It was assumed by the Allied high command that the Germans would retreat to the north to avoid capture, when they learned of this attack with its encircling action on both their flanks. If all went well, the blades of those human shears would come together at the northeastern edge of the forest and the Argonne would be cleared.

Between the two forces, and serving as a connecting link, a liaison group, composed of American colored troops, was to keep open the lines of communication in order that each blade of the giant shears could be informed of the other's movements. This was a highly important function, but a task made doubly difficult because of the tangled underbrush and the density of the forest.

THE ATTACK IS LAUNCHED

AT daybreak, September 26th, 1918, simultaneously from the east and west, troops poured into the forest. Behind them, heavy artillery belched and thundered, its continuous roars echoing over the wooded hills and the ravines of the Argonne. Far ahead, the shells were dropping unseen, and with unknown effect, as the rough terrain made it impossible to establish observation stations. Beneath this blind barrage the troops advanced.

For six days the battle raged. From the start it became apparent that superhuman effort would be required to carry out the attack as originally planned. The Allied troops had no more than entered the shadows of the forest when the full fury of the German defense was turned loose on them. From unseen nests machine guns poured torrents of their lead into the oncoming Allied ranks. Every foot of every twisting, turning path that German prisoners had long before cut through the dense forest, became a certain death trap. At times one would see the grey-clad Huns, or stumble over their dead bodies. For the most part it was like fighting an enemy cloaked in the terrifying armor of invisibility.

At the end of two days' fighting, the Americans on the west had fared much better than the French on the east. Purchasing their gains by great losses of men, they had hacked their way deep into the forest, while the French bad encountered terrific resistance and had fallen back. Despite their valiant, persistent efforts, they had made but little headway. Meantime the 92nd Division of colored American troops, which were to have kept open the line of communication between the French and the American Division, had been entirely routed from their position by strong German counterattacks. This left the two invading forces operating as separate units, without knowledge of each others' position. In the dense Argonne forest the military designations of battalion, company, platoon and squad had become meaningless. Men pushed on blindly, knowing only that the enemy was ahead of them, that their job was to advance and drive them from the woods.

On October 2, the seventh day of the advance, there came a breathing spell. Communication was reestablished between the two forces, and a survey made of the results of the drive. The partial collapse of the plan of attack immediately became evident. Only one blade of the shears had moved. While the Americans had moved steadily forward, the French blade of the shears had remained stationary, and the squeezing action had not been affected, with the result that failure of the whole drive was threatened.

Prompt and drastic action was imperative. An immediate renewal of the attack was ordered. A common objective for the French and American forces was chosen. They were again to advance, making no attempt to maintain lines of communication with each other. It was hoped that as the two forces advanced at an angle, the disjointed blade of the shear would join with the other, and thus the exposed flank of the American forces would be protected. Shortly before noon, on October 2, the second attack was under way.
At this point the attention was then focused for the first time on the so-called Lost Battalion.

A TRAGEDY IN THE MAKING

THE exposed left flank, the point where the blades of the shears would normally come together, was under command of Major Charles W. Whittlesey with Captain George G. McMurtry as second in command. Both were competent, level-headed officers, thoroughly experienced and seasoned and commanding the respect and confidence of their men.

The force consisted of six companies of the 308th Infantry, one company of the 307th Infantry, and two platoons of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion with nine machine guns - a total of approximately seven hundred men.
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