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The Vesle-Aisne Campaign


HISTORY
of
THE 306th Field Artillery

THE VESLE- AISNE CAMPAIGN


BY August first the regiment was again in motion. One starlit night, with the ever-present danger of air bombing, the regiment passed over the Meurthe Bridge at Baccarat, and hiked over the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside to the entraining point,-Bayon. The route ran through country villages that bore the grim marks of 1870 and 1914,-always it had been the Boche who was the invader. Followed a few days rest in a wood near the village of Loromontzey,-where on one occasion a regimental entertainment was given f or the villagers only a short distance from the fighting front.

Entrainment at Bayon was by night, on August 8th. The first part of that journey was a mystery shrouded by dark night, and sleepy rumors ran ram-pant through the slowly rumbling boxcars. But day-light dispelled doubt,-the regimental trains were running through one of the great iron channels that fed the battlefields. Military trains, Red Cross cars, supply trains, and munition-carrying trains passed in both directions, sometimes to switch off to the north. The sandbag-protected and cave-honeycombed station at Bar-le-Duc showed it too plainly to be the prey of Boche fliers by night. Then, as the train glided through the Marne Valley it passed by mammoth railway guns on sidings, huge hangars, and the squat barracks of the French troops. On a flat-car of each train, anti-aircraft machine guns tilted their sharp snouts skyward-on the alert. The road led towards the battlefields of the Marne and beyond, that was clear.

A little more than thirty-six hours of ride, and the train was abandoned at St. Simeon. Then began that memorable series of cold night hikes, and hot daylight rests which rushed the regiment close on the heels of the troops who had pushed the Boche from Chateau-Thierry to the Vesle.

Passing through shattered though still magnificent Chateau-Thierry and beyond, the roar of the heavy guns at the Vesle echoed ever nearer and nearer, and on the road, and in the fields and woods that slid mysteriously by at night,-war and its specter began to be evident. Unpleasant odors of the battlefield filled that noisome area, and the rutted roads were full of ugly craters into which the horses slipped and stumbled. By day one could see that on both sides of the road the fields were strewn with the mute evidence of the great struggles that had taken place there,-broken rifles, bits of khaki cloth, piles of ammunition, pack carriers, helmets, and even a child's doll lay among the shell holes and the rough wooden crosses, the latter the most eloquent testimony of all to the price paid by the Yankees for Chateau-Thierry. Those were tragic fields surrounding Comport Woods.

The morning of August 14th saw the tents of the entire regiment pitched in the Foret de Nesles, close to the sounds of battle from the Vesle. With knowledge almost uncanny, that night the Boche planes circled and buzzed and hummed over those woods while the air was rent with the crash-crash-crash of exploding bombs. But the men of the regiment, fresh from the air raids of Lorraine, were accustomed to this sort of terrorization by now. Attacks from above were varied that night by the sounding of gas alarms,-the whirring of hundreds of horns, and the cymbal-like clinking of shell cases hung from trees. The sound was born as a barely audible, tiny tinkle from somewhere north, and swelled to an ever -increasing roaring and ringing, until all the trees seemed to bellow forth the danger. The alarms in every case were discovered to have been relayed from the front line,-they were false alarms, but they had the unpleasant result of keeping awake a regiment of gas-ignorant artillerymen. Later, a veteran sniff was enough warning for all.

The Vesle

The sector that awaited the 306th Field Artillery was one of the most active artillery sectors of the latter days of the war. It was at the Vesle that the Boche turned and held his shattered line after the July-August counter offensive. It was here, aided by the natural protection of the snake-like, sluggish narrow and deep little stream, and by the dominating heights to its north, that he barked forth his defiance and spit his steel hail for a few brief weeks. In the valley of Perles and Vauxcere he concentrated his light artillery, and his more ponderous pieces he hid in the draws near Barbonval. From the southern banks of the Aisne he sent his long-distance greetings. Such were our targets, some visible, some not,

Around the village of Chery-Chartreuve, with its record of 1, 6oo incoming gas and high-explosive shells a day, centered most of the regiment's activities on this sector. To its north lay the Vesle and the front lines, and to its south, west, and north the rolling wooded hills and copses into which the howitzers were tucked.

Then, from the middle of August on, came busy days and dreadful nights. The First Battalion moved into La Tuilerie Ferme, and placed its pieces west of Chery. The Second Battalion located in the much shelled village itself, with the guns on both flanks of the village. At La Pres Ferme, the Third Battalion installed itself, with E and F Batteries further forward to the north of the town, behind Hill 210, upon which some of the Observation Posts were later established.

Day and night, except during occasional lulls, the air whined, wailed, and whistled with the miscellany of shell sent over by the Boche, and droned with the hum of his airplanes. Men moved about furtively during duty and while getting their meals, for the Boche was a wily kitchen-destroyer. They lived in cellars and under battered houses, and at the guns themselves, in hastily improvised dugouts and funk-holes. Dig in! was the slogan of the day. A little hole, about two feet deep and large enough to hold a man prone, saved many a life at the Vesle. Under these conditions the men of the 3o6th pulled their guns into position, dug their gun-emplacement, dug in, and established their horse echelons in the woods. By day, the sun shone his hottest, and the cannoneers sweated as they toiled at the guns, while millions of flies swarmed over everything, alive and dead. The nights were often damp, cold, and foggy.

New to war, for Lorraine proved a gentleman's battle for the artillery, the regiment came to know by many nicknames its fast friends of the opposition. There were the much-hated "whizzbangs," whose explosions shattered the air so close on the heels of the warning wail that the two were almost simultaneous. German 77's, 88's, 105's, and 150's, rifle and howitzer, held revel on almost every square inch of that ground at all hours. "Jack Johnsons, " "Whimpering Willies," "Tons of Coal," and "G. I. Cans" were favorite names for the iron bouquets whirled over from behind the Vesle.

The Regimental Post of Command was at first established in Chartreuve Ferme, about a kilometer southwest of Chery-Chartreuve, with the horse echelon in the woods still farther south, and the rear echelon in Nesles Wood. The old chateau had been left partly in ruins by the fleeing Germans, who had blown up not only the main building, but also a beautiful chapel, which had contained a deep and safe vault that the Boche feared would afford shelter to the Americans. American artillery, also, fired heavily upon it during the drive just over. There remained a complete library of French classics and modern works, with a sprinkling of English volumes, which for some unknown reasons the Boche had neglected to destroy. To the rear of the library, the flowers still bloomed in a garden that had once been laid out with great care. It was no uncommon sight to see Lieutenant-Colonel Smith or his men, during an odd hour, walking apparently unconcernedly in that garden, gathering the superb roses, dahlias, sweet peas, and asters that grew there. Throughout the hell of gas and explosives, those flowers continued to luxuriate, and to furnish posies for the Colonel's mess. It was one of these touches of sentiment and beauty,-sometimes found amid the general ghastliness of war.
August 23d, the Regimental Post of Command was moved to the woods near Dole, for it was found impracticable to carry on the work of regimental direction with the concert of explosives prevalent at the chateau, several direct hits having been registered in its courtyard and upon surrounding buildings. The Boche ceased shelling the chateau soon after it was evacuated. This caused the 306th to sneak back into the old building one dark night and to reopen business at the old stand. Shells fell less frequently during this second occupation.

The enemy was plainly master of the air. The United States had not yet set into operation the program that was to send majestic fleets of planes in hundreds across the German lines, and the French and English spared us what planes they could. The ominous hornet-like hum of the wily Boche was continually over the Post Commands and the pieces day and night. During sunny days he would circle over the position, regardless of the heavy anti-aircraft shrapnel of the " archies " or of the rattling machine guns directed against him from below. The radio details would shortly catch him sending data to his guns. Then a bombardment would begin, and still the daredevil Boche would hover above, directing and correcting the shots from the very finest vantage points possible. " Why don't we have more planes? " was the impatient query of many men at this time. Frequent was the blast of the shrill "under-cover" whistle,-when every man stopped in his tracks, and the pieces ceased fire until the intruder had passed.

Almost every nook behind Chery was under ceaseless observation from eight Boche "drachen" or observation sausage balloons that floated in a long, lazy line several kilometers north of the Vesle. Wiring parties, 0. P. details, or even one lone man crossing an exposed field, were observed by these monster eyes of the German army, and were fired upon with shrapnel and high explosive by sniper guns.

The American balloons hung above the woods to the north of Mareuil-en-Dole. A continuous game of hide-and-seek was on between them and the German planes. On August 12th, German artillery fired upon them point-blank, and punctured the gas-bag of one, sending the balloon up in flames, and the observer down in a parachute. Enemy 'planes, bent on observation or destruction, often attacked the balloons, as they did that same day, when the Ger-mans seemed to have made up their minds to " strafe " the air. Shortly before noon, the balloon patrol of three 'planes about our balloon warned the winchmen who controlled the whale-like monster that an enemy flier was approaching. Before the winch could haul the sausage down to a safer altitude, where our "archies " could attend to the Boche, he was circling high above it, dodging the high-explosive and ma-chine-gun charges that were sent at him. Then he maneuvered the most beautiful series of spiral dives, and with a final dip, launched a phosphorus bomb at the bulging bag, and set it aflame. Tilting his nose skyward, he disappeared in a cloud.

Although the roads, woods, and points south of Chery, including Dole and Mareuil-en-Dole, were regularly shelled Chery-Chartreuve was chosen by the Boche as a playground for his shells. Battery F had forty men badly gassed on the night of the 2oth of August, and during the nights of August 22d, 23d and 24th, the enemy bombardment of the village was especially vigorous. During the day, shells whistled into the village at a harassing fire rate, but, beginning at dusk, volleys and salvos followed each other in rapid succession. At times Chery became an inferno of exploding shells, its streets alive with flying bricks and mortar, and soaked with deadly gasses, while the tumbling walls echoed and reechoed weirdly with shell-shriekings. It was interesting to watch the reaction of the men to the hell of Chery-Chartreuve. Some moved with an excess of caution, some with the bravado of' carelessness, but all soon became accustomed to it; walked, shaved, laughed, ate, read, and wrote cheerful letters home for all the world as if the village were a training camp in America. Day after day our batteries returned the German fire two to one, manning the guns despite the continuous counter-battery work of the Boche.

Two days after the gassing of Battery F, Battery A received a touch of the same punishment. The night following, the brave little church tower of Chery disappeared, shot away by a Boche hit in the very center of the town. Another shot that night wrecked the Second Battalion Headquarters kitchen, and gas shells close following made all the food stores there unfit for consumption. Early the next morning, during a bombardment of the First Battalion Headquarters, shells landed so thickly around the building, that two drivers were killed in the road that led past it. The courtyard of the Ferme was filled with stones and debris scattered by exploding shells. Down in the telephone dugout, by candlelight, the roll of the First Battalion was being called, to insure that all of the men were safe. The Battalion Headquarters was moved to a clump of woods farther south.

During all of this activity, the Supply Company had the task of keeping the battalions and the batteries supplied with rations, with material for gun emplacements, and with the odds and ends of ordnance. Never did one of the units go without hot meals. In the dead black of night, Supply Company's men drove their trucks from the supply echelons to the dump in the woods where the ration carts collected their daily portion. For these men there was no hope of shelter from bombardment; doggedly, quietly, they performed their dangerous work each night. They got little glory and did much sweating. There was nothing spectacular about it, only the springless truck bumping over the holes in the road, while shells burst about, and guns spat back from every copse.

But if the Boche was hammering from his side, the 306th was administering a terrible drubbing in return. In addition, the "Traveling Salesmen" of the Corps Artillery, would move about from spot to spot on the sector, giving away samples of their " iron cigars " indiscriminately, and popping away from the most unexpected corners. In fact, scarcely a bush or tree was there that did not have poking from it, the steel muzzle of some sort of gun.

Though the regiment was part of a divisional artillery brigade, placed in position to support its own divisional infantry, on more than one occasion the gun squads were called upon to fire in aid of the French on the left. The Tannerie, where machine-gun emplacements made it uncomfortably hot for our infantry, was so completely demolished by our guns that the accomplishment won for the regiment the hearty commendation of the infantry colonel whose regiment had been suffering.

The village of Bazoches, a few hundred meters within the Boche lines,-a railroad and. supply center, was the continual bone of contention between the opposing infantries. On the night of August 27th, and the morning of the 28th, an infantry movement on the village was planned. The regiment participated in a terrific box-barrage, which was placed about the town to cut off escaping Germans. The Germans were successful, by skillful placing of machine-gun nests, and by means of a counter- barrage, in holding the northern part of the village, so it was decided to blow them out of it with artillery. Harassing fire had been thrown into the town each day, but from August 30th to September 4th the regiment delivered a bombardment which reduced the town to powder, at an expenditure Of 3000 shells, a cost Of $105,000 and gallons of sweat.

The Observation Posts, from which battery commanders were able to obtain a panoramic view of the German strongholds, were on the ridges to the north and west of Chery-Chartreuve. The towns of Paars, Perles, Haute-Maisons, Blanzy and Bazoches were visible or partly visible from these vantage points, which in some cases were constructed in trees, and in others, in funk-holes roofed with corrugated iron. The Observation Posts were continually shelled, and the entire ridge was swept with zone fire at least twice a day, with intermittent fire at other times. To sit in one of these Observation Posts peeping at the inmost secrets of the Boche, was a thrilling occupation. Before the observer spread the vista of battle. Sometimes our shells bursting in towns on the Boche's side would cause figures that appeared like tiny specks to scramble hurriedly out of danger. Again, a lone German would cross a field, and the observer would duly record the place of his appearance and disappearance, and wonder, between bites of cold corned willie, and swallows of cold raw tomato, where " that dutch-man could be going." An occasional transport wagon would risk the road by day, but, as a rule, the Boche kept discreetly under cover from sunup to sundown. By night, the vision spread before the observer became a grim sort of fairyland of lights and noises. Behind, the big guns of the regiment boomed, coughed, and bellowed, and drifting back from the infantry lines, the sputter of machine-guns and rifles tingled on the ear. Rainbow rockets sizzed up into the bestarred midsummer sky, and hung there. Flares transformed the landscape for miles about to midday. Again, a red-light barrage rocket would call forth a still greater chorus of barks from the artillery behind.

Under the unremitting hail of shells communication was subject to constant interruption. The telephone formed the main type of liaison but runners, mounted and foot, were used to transmit firing orders from the Regimental Post of Command to the Battalion and Battery Headquarters, while the radio also played its part, more especially with the planes that directed artillery firing. Radio transmission was practical from the plane to the ground, but in reversing the sender and receiver, the only means of communication was by white linen panels exposed in an open field, where the plane observer could see it clearly. Panelmen, as they were called, worked in dangerous positions at times. Battalion agents had many a wild ride over the much-shelled roads, which by day were empty but under vigilant observation, and by night were as crowded with the traffic of ammunition trucks, supply wagons, and ambulances as any busy city street. It was a difficult matter to thread one's way through this tangle, without lights -for to show even the gleam of a cigarette-tip meant betrayal to the Boche above.

But most thrilling and dangerous of liaison jobs was that of the telephone linemen. Within his telephone dugout, which houses the switchboard and the operators, and is usually the deepest and safest, he is well-protected while off duty. But let the ominous call come from the operator-" Blue line is out!" and your lineman is up and out, with helmet and gas mask, telephone, wire, tape, and pincers to look for the break. He must crawl through ditches in the dead of the dark night; he must feel along the wire where it is hitched to trees in the pitchy-black woods-and, the break found, he must mend it under gas and high-explosive fire. Most often the break occurs where there is a continuous shelling. Repairing lines in peace times is not a sinecure. Add to this work exploding shells, darkness, the ever-present danger of death, and you have the wartime telephone man.

The regiment's own linemen laid and kept in repair the entire " artillery net" of wires. Its starting point is the brigade, where it hooks into the main arteries laid by the Signal Corps. From Regimental Headquarters to Battalion Headquarters, and from there to the batteries, with auxiliary lines to the Observation Posts, the lines spread out fanlike. As many as six lines were often laid between the same points by different routes in order to insure constant communication. Hill 210, where several Observation Posts were located, was pockmarked with shell-craters from base to crest, necessitating the use of steel cables in places. Linemen found it impossible to work on the hill by day without being spotted by a Boche airplane observer, and by night shells flew in such profusion that it was a heroic task to accomplish anything there. La Pres Ferme, too, the Third Battalion Headquarters, was a constant target, and lines running there were bound to be "out" many times.

THE ADVANCE

There came a day, September 2d, when the men in the Observation Posts saw the Vesle-Aisne plateau clouded by heavy smoke. Fires and explosions occurred at Paars, Perles, Vauxcere, and Blanzy. The Boche, pounded out by our own merciless fire, was laying waste as he prepared to retire. His planes, more than usually inquisitive, peeped about back of our lines to see what we were going to do. Fleeting glimpses were caught of transport wagons and troops bound north for the fastnesses of the Aisne. September A fewer shells fell about Chery-Chartreuve, and the following day that entire area, only a short time before noisy with explosions, lay peaceful under the hot summer sun. French cavalry passed by the pieces at a trot, in pursuit.

September 5th and 6th, the regiment advanced. Camouflage was taken down, guns were placed in the march order, and wagons were packed. Never, except in the advances of the Argonne, was there such a spirit of exultation and satisfaction in the regiment as during that first advance. Each man felt within himself that he had helped to hammer out the Boche, and that at last he was to tread that gruesome ground over which so much blood had been shed in the past few weeks. Over the ridge and down into the valley of the Vesle the pieces rumbled and clanked. For a day or so, while the Boche ceased shelling the river area, the engineers were able to get a good start on the artillery bridges, but, placed in a new position behind the Aisne, the Boche again sent over his shells, especially at the bridges. The bodies of our doughboys lay about as they had fallen on the field of honor, and Boche lying near them testified that hand to hand struggles had been fought. Burial details were engaged in the grim task of interring American and Boche.

Bazoches was a ruin, utterly destroyed and un-fit for habitation; building after building tumbled queerly upon its foundations. One of the members of the regimental reconnaissance detail, the morning of September 4th, in an effort to find a table upon which to spread some maps, was poking about the ruins of the old chateau in the town, when, not twenty-five feet from him, a resounding explosion threw dirt and stones high into air. The man was unhurt, but two Frenchmen on the opposite side of the battered walls were instantly killed. The Frenchmen had evidently stumbled, either on a trap, or on a pile of fused minnenwerfer ammunition that lay there. The men were warned to be especially careful regarding mines and traps, and all springs and wells were carefully investigated by the Regiment's Medical Department, for fear of poisoning. If the wells were unpoisoned by the enemy, the seepage from d6bris, refuse, and bodies of men and animals often found its way into them. It was here that the regiment suffered severely from dysentery, despite the precautions that were taken.

Regimental Headquarters remained in Bazoches one night, was shelled severely, and moved the next day to the heights of Haute-Maisons, behind a steep ridge which was thought to offer adequate defilade protection. But the Boche enfiladed from the left, and made many direct hits upon the buildings and in the courtyard. The men of the detail were forced to move into the abandoned German dugouts close to the crest of the hill.

While Colonel Smith, Regimental Headquarters, the First and Second Battalions crossed the river below Villesavoye, the guns of the Third Battalion were stalled temporarily at Fismes, where the engineers were working beaver-like upon another bridge, which, because of the heavy shelling, had not yet been made passable. During this wait, a call came from the Division Commander for artillery support for the advancing infantry. The immediate services of F Battery were offered by Colonel Smith; the pieces were unlimbered and seventy-nine rounds were fired at the Boche from the street corners. One has only to imagine a 155 howitzer firing from a busy cross-ing in New York to picture the weird scene. Shortly after, it was reported that the enemy fire had ceased.

Viumes is a town of considerable size, and before the war, was a thriving railroad center and summer resort, with many stores and hotels. The streets had once been lined with magnificent shade-trees, and neatly paved. Now, in striking similarity to Chateau-Thierry, the beauty of its edifices was marred by ugly gaping holes where shells had struck, and the trees stood as mutilated stumps, their foliage torn by shell and shrapnel splinters. Some were cut and cast across the streets as barricades to retard our advance.

The First Battalion pulled into position west of Haute-Maisons on the Rouen Reims Road, behind a ridge. The Second Battalion established headquarters in a large natural cave at Vauxcere, once our target, and now a mark for the Boche. C Battery took position in a narrow-gauge railway cut south of Vauxcere, and D Battery was emplaced on the northern outskirts of the town. The Third Battalion was to the east and north of Fismes, with F Battery only five hundred meters behind the advancing infantry. Vauxcere, Blanzy, Fismes, and Bazoches now became the targets of the Boche, and beside his harrassing fire upon these points, he swept the entire Vesle-Aisne plateau.

The Boche grew still more active in air, and sent over his planes in droves, bombing Bazoches and vicinity the night of September 10th. On the exposed table-land, covered with standing wheat and with not a tree for miles which could afford camouflage, enemy planes grazed the ground and turned their machine guns on our men crossing it. Again the Boche had excellent observation, and on our side, from the reserve infantry trenches, artillery observation took in a large part of the terrain across the Aisne,-the formidable fortifications of the Chemin-des-Dames,-cut into the soft sandstone of the cliffs across the river. The towns of Bourg-et -Comin, Pont-Arcy, Euilly, Beuarieux, Pargnan, Moulins, Vendresse-et-Tyron and the roads leading out of them were in our view, and no movement that took place there escaped the observers' eyes. One road, clearly visible, which ran out of the last named town, was observed to be alive during the day with men and wagons, and farther behind, a wagon-park was visible. They were beyond the range of the howitzers, and the Boche seemed to know it, for he moved about there with impunity. The long-range rifles of the Corps Artillery had been withdrawn, and officers and men could only sit and fume at their impotence. But upon the other and nearer targets, the batteries fired profusely. La Petite Montagne, south of the Aisne, a German strong point of machine-gun nests, and a suspected sniper-battery position, received a good share of our fire.

On September 13th, orders came for a supporting barrage to assist our infantry. For forty hours, Vauxcere, Bazoches, and Fismes rocked with the tumult of the howling howitzers. The air was in a turmoil so that it was impossible to hear anything but a shout. Forward observation details saw spread before them as pretty and dramatic a sight as modern war affords. There in the valley grew a magic garden of shell-bursts, two parallel lines like the hedgerows of some garden plot. As fast as the slight wind dissolved the cloud of a burst, a new burst grew in its place. Behind this protecting shield infantry crept forward and before this hell's hedge-row the Boche withdrew and began the last stage of the retreat from the Soissons-Reims line.

That day, a division of Italians marched into the battle area and took the places of the Americans in the line. Our regiment fired all through the relief up to within an hour of its departure from position the morning of September 15th. The Boche must have been a bit dumbfounded on his retreat from Chateau-Thierry to the Aisne, for during that drive, he met French, Americans, and Italians in close succession.

It was the Garibaldi Division which relieved us its commander said to be a grandson of the Italian liberator. As our columns passed them on the road, the good-natured badinage of the ever-cheery Ameri-can artilleryman flew from outgoing to incoming. " Hey Wop! Shine? " would ring out from the ranks. The tanned sons of sunny Italy, thinking that the Americans meant " Howdo " would return flowery and courteous salutations. But occasionally a touch
of home would evidence itself, as an Italian would greet an American with " Oh you subway," or "Me worka Grand Central!" while another told him that the price of shaves in New York was then fifty cents.

The boys of the regiment knew that their Italian Allies were now to make the Aisne their " Grand Central," and if there was haircutting to be done, the Boche would be the victim.

Through the narrow Vesle valley once more the columns rumbled and clattered while gas and heavy caliber high-explosive shells fell in that low saucer. The streets of Fismes reverberated with terrible explosions. It was dark, pitch-black, as the columns of the regiment pulled through the crowded streets.

The relieving columns of Italians were still coming in, and there were exasperating blockades and delays.

Gas alarms passed from rear to front and back again, and with the encumbering masks upon their faces, the men groped to keep the road, breasting as best they could the opposing stream of traffic. It was nerve-racking, this farewell salute of gas and shell, with safety just beyond. Wheel scraped on wheel and splinters sprayed the long train as explosions occurred often only twenty-five or fifty feet away by the side of the road, but, the river reached, the men dismounted and stood quietly by their horses until the block at the narrow bridge should resolve itself. It was not until the Vesle was several miles behind, the ridge to its south had been cleared and a stop was made to give out hot chocolate and cakes, that the strain was released and "rest" actually accomplished. The regiment, its work on the first active sector of its history well done, was collected in a wood near Coulonges, ready to sleep away the night hours in perfect peace-peace in comparison to the noisy battle area. But they were prepared for any tasks that might come. They had learned the lessons of battle.
EDGAR G. HERRMANN,
Corporal, Hq. Co.
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