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Night Marches


HISTORY
of
THE 306th Field Artillery

Night Marches


REMEMBER how we learned all about war at Upton? The scout squinted out over the terrain and picking up a cloud of dust knew the enemy was coming. Carefully noting whether the cloud hung heavy or low, was thick or broken, he could tell the arm of the service; and by the use of the watch and a little mental arithmetic he was enabled to dash up to the general, render the proper salute and report: " Sir, two brigades of infantry, a brigade of artillery, sixteen mounted scouts and a lame medical sergeant are advancing along the main Gettysburg highway."

Well, Sergeant Hill talked so much about the science of intelligence that of course a German spy found out all about it and consequently, in order to fool them completely, we always marched at night. In that way the only possible opportunity they had of learning anything at all, was when we were coming into camp and pitching our tents in the morning. But that doesn't count.

So that last form of German frightfulness, the Night March, is now explained for the first time, and since the war is over, we may lift the story of our secret rambles through France out of the midnight mystery which cloaks it.

Our first experience was the advance from Baccarat. When night had come the brigade stole up toward the river. First as always, to pass the bridge were the "Lights." They should not have been burdened with equipment but you couldn't see the guns for the merchandise tied to them. Then came our own outfit. The G. S. carts in many cases had upper stories built upon them and overflowing from these were all manner of implements and supplies-like St. Nicholas's pack in the Christmas pictures. The fourgons were still more wonderful. The big bulge in the rear hung precariously upon the fourgon step, held suspended by ropes, or wire. Pails swung pendant and clanking between the wheels. At times a wagon passed with a bunch of lanterns bobbing from the bamboo radio poles. Pitchforks, rakes, saddles, tin hats, packs, rifles, jangled and banged from every available point of attachment. Behind one wagon trailed a telephone reel-cart to which was strapped a bass drum.

Colonel Smith marveled at the ingenuity of our packing. In his opinion it would have been splendid for a gypsy caravan or a convention of peddlers, but he was commanding a regiment of heavy field artillery. The " heavy, " he explained, referred to the calibre of the guns and had nothing to do with the weight-carrying capacity. So the next morning saw a revision downward. Men discarded five of the six sweaters they were carrying-books and miscellaneous keepsakes were left behind. Even though drilled in the almighty laws of accountability we began to learn the mighty rule of "Lost in Action."

We had experienced that first night, the bitter struggle with broken poles. We had more to learn, for an inconsiderate order was to make us march two nights in succession! If we had known then what was in store for us later! We started out on time, pulled to the first rise, and waited. This waiting was becoming too frequent to be pleasant. Why were we always pulled up to watch about eighty batteries of our brother regiments creak into the road ahead of us? But as it was only about ten kilometers to go, we calmed ourselves into better patience. Halts had been prescribed at given intervals. As a matter of fact we moved whenever they gave us a chance- a system that is bad enough in rapid transit, but on a night march doesn't even offer the satisfaction of getting off the car to see what is blocking the line. At last we cleared the column and began to roll merrily and regularly on. But so did the kilometers. Uphill, down dale, chilled by the passage through the icy gray mists of valleys, and sweating in the steam our animals generated in the stiff, slow struggle upgrade, we continued. Some one had evidently mixed up the calendar and thrown two nights into one. We learned how elastic a kilometer is.

Finally the familiar form of Captain Taylor gesticulated the turn-off into a wet wood road and with final heaving, carriages were pushed up the incline and each battery dragged up the particular wooded trail assigned to it. That is, those did that didn't find some one else already occupying their section. But it made no difference then-some men dismounted, the rest fell off, the marchers dropped. Some superhuman individuals put up a picket line but no horse needed hitching. Every one slept as he was and where he was-one man astride the gun, his head dropped half-way through the opening in the shield. The first night march taught us what it was to be tired. It was the first time mess call ever passed unheeded.

The next period of marching had an entirely different appearance. After Loromontzey, everyone had the firm conviction that just around the corner lay -war. The approach to it in the mystery of darkness was an unforgettable progress; each night advanced the scene one step. Each night added a new sensation of the varied sights and smells and sounds of combat.

At first the village heralded its approach with the warm, strong reek of stables. Occasionally a spear of light told that there was life within the black shape of the houses we passed. But the dim and silent hamlets had a somberness not entirely due to darkness; a grim prophecy that seemed epitomized in the gaunt, black crucifix with the shadowy form nailed upon it that occasionally loomed up above us in the night.

These villages were intact. But each succeeding night wrought a gradual change. From Chateau- Thierry on, our passage in the night was through villages deader than the empty countryside. In the dim light the shattered walls, the broken, tumbled mass of stones, told that we were in the wake of war. Each town was wired, turned crazy in its destruction. The wild twist of shell-struck iron fences, the ghastly look of the church, the gaping walls of which revealed the fearful disarray of rubbish and debris within gave the conviction that the peaceful countryside had gone mad, daft with the rage of battle. Soon even the terrible destruction ceased to be impressive. Buildings were almost beyond recognition as dwelling places. We began to pass over open areas where troops had fought. The unmistakable stench of the battlefield at night raised visions even more awful than the frank revelations of day. Yes, those first impressions are unforgettable, and in our later wisdom do not think that we were not sobered gravely thoughtful in our first grim passage to the front. The signs of desolation that we saw were only heightened when we came to where the first gun flashes lit the sky, and the distant, steady rumble indicated that the devastation we had witnessed was going on ahead of us and that soon we would share in it.

Our early road marches had found us cursing at the interminable delay that was occasioned by the passage of either of our brother organizations in the brigade. We would appear at the appointed time and then wait for them to clear. Later we came upon batteries and detachments sliding in from other roads. One never felt sure that he might not find the head of his column vanish and in its place some fragment of the 305th or 304th. The feeling of disgust was mutual, I know that our regiment still echoes to the mighty curses poured upon it by the others, but our own execrations must still tingle in their ears. For though roads may be wide apart at starting, their intersection is bound to cause contact. Then it's the loudest, most authoritative voice, which wins the right of way. " What outfit is this? " " What y' doing here? Wha' d' ya' mean cutting in? " " Hold up that column! " Usually one would swear that the whole battery had passed with the exception of a rolling kitchen and a water cart, and win the road long enough to hurry ten carriages forward and keep the line intact.

Perhaps it was the constant fear of pressure from behind that made every one struggle to keep up the lagging elements of the command. I recollect a lieutenant's barking out to an indistinct figure who was str1uggling to lead two mules and only succeeding in drifting back through the column:
" Why in blazes don't you lead those mules." The mild answer from the darkness was:

" Lootenant, you have no idea how obstinate a mule can be."


At any rate the officer learned, for when he tried to assist, the current of the advance swept by him and he soon had drifted through a whole battalion receiving uncomplimentary remarks all down the line until brought up by the deep and mighty voice of Major Moon. " Out of the way-lead those animals out of the way! "

Perhaps the world will never know the silent misery of those poor individuals who were commanded to lead the sick and halt animals and given positive instructions to keep up with the column. Pushed off the road-they dropped back farther and farther until alone and unassisted they coaxed and pulled a miserable skate slowly and painfully through a strange and lonely country. And after a night of these labors they would bring the animal into camp late in the afternoon only to have him drop dead at the picket line!

But it was work-and hard work-for everybody with the possible exception of the cooks and the blacksmiths, and they surely had their innings on reaching camp. They alone could rest undisturbed by the interfering officer who rode up and down the column. Lieutenant Stokes, when with Supply Company, was acting in that capacity, at the hills, bawling out to all the extra men to get off and walk. One six-mule prairie schooner was in particular difficulty because of its mammoth load. Finally the lieutenant himself, wearied at his exertions, turned his horse over to his orderly and climbed aboard the wagon. As he describes it: " I made my bed of a bicycle, a mail sack and a couple of tin hats and went to sleep, one leg hanging over the edge of the wagon. But my slumbers were rudely disturbed by someone tugging at my leg and the stern voice of a determined non-com calling, 'Hey you damned lazy, long-legged son-of-a-gun, get the hell down out of there!"'

Probably the most epic night marching was the famous nine-day hike from the Vesle to the Argonne. We started burdened by the ammunition that was ordered to be carried, and were in difficulties from the start. But all the horrors of a night move were concentrated when the regiment reached the bridge before Fismes. There were French and Italians both streaming the other way, an increasingly thickening gas concentration and above all, the steady whistle of Jerry's shells searching for the struggling mass of humanity in the valley. A pair of mules hitched to a G. S. cart bolted, banged against a fourgon hub and rebounded into the ditch only to fetch up in a hopeless tangle on the barbed wire in an orchard. Our carriages waited interminable hours, it seemed, while the relieving troops bumped by, blind in their gas masks. Wheels sank in the mud, hubs locked, drivers swore and still the M. P.'s held us. And all the while those searching shells raked the valley but mercifully spared that hopeless tangle and confusion at the bridge. At last we cleared and slowly worked through the town. Then came the long hill. To be stuck there where every little while a Boche shell burst-that thought seemed to stimulate even the horses to greater exertion. The cannoneers strained at the wheels, drivers cut loose wounded animals, men heaved shells from the stalled and laggard wagons. Every ounce of energy, every atom of will worked to get by, get clear, get over that place. And then when the hill was cleared and we began to breathe normally again, came the uneven brrr-brrm, brrr-brrm of Boche planes and the whizz and crashing explosion of the falling" ash cans." Oh, that was a night march with but a single pleasant recollection-the hot chocolate that the K. of C. had to stimulate the weary men to finish out the long journey to Coulonges Wood!

We struggled over more hills in those nine days than there are in the Rockies. The whole countryside must have echoed to the mournful wail-" Cannoneers at the wheels-Ready-Heave! " At times each wagon had to be coaxed patiently over the crest. Men struggled in the continuous downpour of rain, splashed through the mud and panted pushing on the slippery spokes. All along the column, officers and non-coms bawled to drivers: " Gather your horses, now, use your heels-Ready-Heave!" and nothing happened. Then up would come the dis-mounted men. (Those rifles were such useful weapons in our war, particularly when one tugged at a wheel and his gun barrel banged him in the jaw or kicked him in the knees when he slipped and fell!) The horses danced and plunged in place without moving an inch. At last the carriage moved and it seemed as if one were pushing animals and all uphill. This was the continuous performance. Sometimes it didn't rain-the scenery changed, but for all the rest it was the same thing over and over with increasing weariness.

For a few days when out of the danger zone, we moved in the light. This gave rise to extra ordinances for the care of our beloved animals, damn 'em. An officer had to be at the head of the column and at the foot, no one should be on the wagon, but the brake-man. When the long drawn out "Halt!" sounded down the line followed by: "Prepare to dismount, -dismount! "-a driver had to climb down from his stubborn colossus and feed him handfuls of grass plucked from the roadside. Might just as well give an elephant a currant from a bun as those voracious beasts a handful of grass! Then drivers were to hike for five minutes each hour. Usually the time selected for this walking was just before we struck a long hill and they had to run, breathless, alongside to keep up. One time when this order had come to dismount, a particularly wearied driver called out: "All men off wagons, horses aboard, drivers in the shafts, forward march!" We did do everything but carry the horses that trip. But whatever the heart-less, hopeless difficulties, the pelting, drenching rain, the broken shafts, the stubborn, worn-out horses, the mud and the hills, we got there, we made the grade, we won.

Our later period wasn't so difficult. We were veteran hikers then-and we had salvaged more junk. The troubles then were some of those impossible things such as when a horse slipped off the road, and when he was cut loose from the harness, disappeared from sight only to be discovered thirty feet below astride the ridge pole of a German shack. But until the Armistice, the night march was the nightmare of our service. There was always t e jam and confusion of the road-the interminable waits, and the fatigue. And yet, now the war is over, who would wish to wipe out his vision of those dusky columns on the march? We shall forget much of hardship and of pain but will forever remember that moving picture of the road at night. It's like a parade of ghosts; the hunched-up figures of the riders swaying to the monotonous bob-bobbing of the horses' heads, the strange shapes of wagons passing on in endless sequence, all men anonymous, one like the rest, except where among the tiny, red glows of cigarettes that dot the column, an inhaled puff faintly illumines for an instant a stern and strangely solemn face. It is a silent picture, for the most part, moving mechanically to the steady rumble of carts, the clanking of harness chains and the skludge-skludge of heavy hoofs. And at the end of each column are the trudging cannoneers. Silent too, their rifles slung over shoulder, marching irregularly along. Out of the darkness a far-away voice calls in a long sing-song " Ha-a-lt! " It is picked up like a chant and passed from carriage to carriage. The wagons slowly stop and the silent figures, with individual movements develop into men. But the little band on foot tumbles off the road and flops wearily into the ditch or sprawls alongside in the field. There is a flurry of conversation when the drivers have mounted up again, the line swings into motion but it soon turns into the speechless mechanical plod, plod onward interminably. That's the night march at its best. No one will ever be able to describe truth-fully the heart-breaking efforts to overcome the multitudinous accidents, struggles of a march. But somewhere in the legends of the Greeks is the mournful tale of Sisyphus damned by the gods to push a heavy wheel uphill through all eternity. Perhaps some 306th men will come across the sculptured likeness of that everlasting S. 0. L. and if he does it's two to one he'll say: " Heave, you son-of-a-gun, heave, you've got nothing on us in the job we've just left."

WILLIAM A. VOLLMER,
First Lieutenant, 306th F. A.
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