Chapter 5. Across the Vesle




ON the night of August twenty-eighth the Third Battalion relieved the Second Battalion on the front line, the latter drawing back to the Bois de la Pisotte and the next night to Sergy. The Third Battalion had by now spent ten days on the Red Line-the days spent largely in trench digging and many of the nights in carrying ammunition from Villesavoye to the forward battalions of the brigade. It was not a period of much physical exhaustion, but the strength of the men was sapped with dysentery, and the shell-fire on the two rear companies bad been very constant. In "M" Company, at least, every officer but one was already a casualty, and that remaining lieutenant was killed by a direct hit of a shell on their first day in the forward position. Happily two of the others were able at the same time to return to duty, but at this unfortunate juncture the companies were required to send selected officers and N. C. O.'s away to school.

The tenure of the line by the Third Battalion was not marked by any especial activity, though the losses from artillery and machine-gun fire were very constant, and the life-lying all day in the shallow rifle-pits, eating sparingly of such food as they had brought with them, and drinking the water of the polluted river-was wearing in the extreme. "M" held in the woods beyond the railroad, "L" on the right between the railroad and the river, "K" south of the river, and "I" at the Tannerie, in the narrow strip between river and highway, and, as battalion reserve, on the high ground to the south. Battalion Headquarters cave was a vast affair of flickering candles and dim recesses, paved with equipment and sleeping soldiers, over which one entering picked his tortuous way. A general attack similar to that made by the Second Battalion was ordered for the Third, but was countermanded at the time Lieutenant-Colonel Houghton assumed command of the regiment.

One short and uncontested advance was, however, made on the left, when, before dawn of the thirty-first, two platoons of "I" Company crept forward across the river and through the swamp and willow-scrub to the railroad-cut north of the Grand Savar. This advance, which was the cause of some newspaper comment at the time, while not complicated, was well handled; the men dug in very quickly on their new line, and no resistance was encountered. The only resultant losses, were from causes quite unexpected. The lieutenant in charge bad been directed, as soon as his objective had been reached, to send up a six-star rocket in order to bring up the machine guns on his left,-a signal which, at about 4 A. M., brought a very prompt response from the enemy artillery, though widely overshooting their position. But the return fire from the supporting artillery fell as much short, deluging the woods where "M" Company held across the railroad, and causing them four casualties. About 5 P. M. two enemy planes circled very low above the new position occupied by "I" Company; but the men lay close, and there seemed no immediate sequel except, after the departure of the planes, a brief bombardment by friendly artillery with overhead H. E. That night the Third Battalion was relieved by the First, some marching out to the Bois de la Pisotte and thence, after a brief rest, to Sergy, seven kilometers to the south, others being carried there by trucks from Chery-Chartreuve and arriving toward midnight of September first.

The First Battalion bad taken over the Blue Line on August twenty-second, and the Red Line on the night of the twenty-fifth, lying to the left of the Third Battalion on either side of the St. Thibaut-Chery-Chartreuve road. This position had been taken up under an interdiction fire from enemy artillery-a statement which inadequately describes the confusion of tired men stumbling about amidst drenching rain, through the thick darkness and underbrush of unfamiliar slopes, and groping under artillery fire for the uncertain protection of rifle-pits. Two were killed and four wounded at this time. On the front line "A" Company took over in the woods north of the railroad, "B" immediately south of the tracks, and "C" along the south bank of the river. A combat group between the Tannerie and Fismes maintained liaison with the 28th Division on the right, but in spite of the extension of the line for two hundred yards to the left along the railroad, effected by the Third Battalion, no liaison had been established with the 153rd Brigade, and the position had there been organized by Captain Hubbell of the Machine-Gun Company as a defensive flank. Against this flank an attack was launched early on the night of September first.

The afternoon and evening had been un-usually quiet until, at about 10 P. M., the enemy opened with 77's on the "B" Company positions along the railroad, the fire quickly in-creasing into a heavy barrage. This lasted for some twenty minutes, mixed with machine-gun fire; an American counter-barrage was laid down in front of the position for about fifteen minutes; then the enemy attacked from the northwest with light and heavy machine-guns, rifle- and hand-grenades. "B" Company and the machine-gun crews, holding their ground, fired out into the darkness with every weapon at hand. It seems improbable that targets were at any time visible on either side, and after a quarter of an hour the enemy fire slackened and finally ceased. As in almost all such affairs, no idea could be formed of the enemy loss owing to their very careful gathering of all casualties; none actually reached the American line, which remained intact through-out. "B" Company's loss was only of a single casualty from a rifle-grenade.

At dawn of the second the captain of "A" Company, who had been wandering dazedly about in the woods half the night after being knocked unconscious by a shell, sent out a patrol from the north of his position toward the Chateau du Diable; but it was met by immediate machine-gun fire from the woods strongly held to the south of the Chateau, and retired with the loss of one man. A platoon of "A," south of the tracks, was ordered to seize And occupy the point of woods between the north and south bend of the river and the railroad. Filtering in by groups, they succeeded in establishing themselves here for a while, and attempted to surround the first machine-gun position upon which they stumbled; but other guns echeloned to the rear, firing from concealment upon a position well known to them, together with rifle-fire from across the river, drove back the platoon to its original location with a loss of five casualties. This activity on the part of "A" Company seemed to persuade the enemy that a general attack was pending, for an intense artillery fire was laid down on that company's position, killing five and wounding a dozen, beside a few further casualties in "B" and "C."

The French attacks around Soissons, were by now bringing pressure on the enemy's right flank, so that he gave indications of a withdrawal on the regimental front. At dawn of September fourth, after a brief artillery preparation, "A" and "C" Companies, under command of Captain Blagden, struck southeast from the north of their position and northeast from the river, meeting along the railroad to the south of the château. There was no op-position; the woods where "H" and "E" had suffered so fearfully were empty save for their unburied dead, and a scattered few of the enemy outposts whose only thought was of escape. Pushing up the steep slope they found the Chateau du Diable, with broken windows and hanging doors, also deserted. It was a disappointing place, whose grim name and brooding presence, fortressed by trees, so long dominating the front, would have suggested some gloomy relic of ancient days; but it appeared as a modern and bizarre villa of brick and wood, surrounded by paths of oleander. The companies crossed the Rouen-Reims highroad, under a slight enfilading fire, and, still unopposed, climbed the slopes of the Montagne de Perles to the north, where they dug in below the crest.

The Second Battalion in the meantime, after six days in the rearward area at Sergy and the Blue Line, were now advancing to the right front along the Mont St. Martin-Fismes road, reaching the latter place about dusk, and tak-ing up a temporary position in the ruined cellars of that most desolate town. "E" and "H" Companies, coming in from the left, ran the gauntlet of some artillery fire, but without casualties. Captain Blagden here joined them with orders to take command of the battalion and push forward through Fismette to the north.

The troops were massed in the town, whose streets were blocked with tumbled debris and wire, and where every courtyard held its unburied dead. The bridge across the river was reported to have been restored by the Engineers. At 8 P. M. the column started, groping its way forward to the river; the ruins of the bridge were found unrestored, and at the same time enemy artillery opened fire on the road. In complete darkness and under shellfire a plank bridge was improvised among the remains of the former structure, and the battalion began crossing in single file. One shell struck the bridge directly; another, of large caliber, wiped out almost the entire headquarters personnel, together with two machine-gun officers, Captain Blagden practically alone remaining unhurt. Fourteen were killed and ten wounded by this single explosion, and four of the casualties were officers. Beyond the river the road to Fismette was blocked with piled coils of wire; and still the shells kept searching through the darkness over that desperately slow advance. At last, winning free of the town, the battalion dug in on the side of the sunken road to its north.

At 7 A. M. of September 5th, with a new battalion headquarters organized, the advance was resumed,-"G," which the night before had lost direction and advanced almost to Blanzy-les-Fismes before returning to the Battalion, and "H" on the left, "F" and "E" on the right. As the leading squad-columns reached the high ground by the east and west narrow-gauge line, they were met by machine-gun fire from either flank, and, deploying, attempted to advance by squad rushes. But the fire, increasing in intensity from the near brink of the Ravin Marion, was mixed now with that of heavy machine-guns from the Petite Montagne, a mile and a half to the north, and finally with an artillery barrage upon the skirmish line. The supporting platoons attempted to flank out the nearer positions, but could not advance the line, on which the 28th Division was also found to be held up on the right; every move brought a new burst of artillery fire, for the whole position was under direct observation from the north, and with already heavy losses the battalion dug in along the embankment of the narrow-gauge line. In this position at noon the battalion was advised that a rolling barrage would be laid down along their front behind which they were directed to advance; but as the afternoon waned, bringing no barrage, a runner was sent back for confirmation of the order. Then at 4:30 came word that the barrage bad passed at 10 A. M. and that the advance must begin at once. It was attempted, but at once hurled back by artillery fire.

Liaison was very faulty, and there appears at this time, and for some days thereafter, to have been a radical misconception as to the position of the 28th Division on the right. The Second Battalion was in touch with its left midway between Baslieux and Glennes, yet on the morning of this day a message was written stating that: "The 28th report their left at La Bossette (a kilometer north of Glennes) and desire your assistance in taking La Pe-tite Montagne. You will cooperate to the fullest extent. Push forward vigorously with troops you report near Merval." And again on the same day: "The 28th Division occupies the northern extremities of spurs on south bank of the Aisne with patrols in Maizy, Muscourt and Meurival. They report no liaison with the 154th Brigade. This is probably due to the more aggressive advance made by that division. You must at once push your patrols out to the Aisne and get G. C.'s across same to the heights on the north."

The conception seemed to the Second Battalion to be over-enthusiastic. The patrols in Maizy, Muscourt, and Meurival seemed to be exercising singularly little restraint on the Germans in and about Glennes; while the heights north of the Aisne appeared as distant as, though less sympathetic than, the shores of America. On the left the leading battalion of the 308th was dug in north of Blanzy in touch with "G" Company. Of the accuracy of other reports there seemed less question, as: "We are completely out of food and have not had any since yesterday morning, and very little then. Please rush the rations. C. 0. Company A." After dark the advance was again begun. "F" and "E" met fierce machine-gun fire from the bead of the Ravin Marion, and, leaving a mixed post in an old trench facing its westerly born, refused this flank. The battalion advanced in column up the road through Merval, its commander acting as point. Across the deep valley to the left Serval was burning furiously, sending up long columns of sparks into the night, and showing the black silhouettes of tree tops that scarcely rose to the brink of the crest on which the battalion moved. To the north was the glow of other fires along the Aisne. Near the road-fork southeast of St. Pierre farm a German sentry was surprised and captured, giving the information that the fork was strongly held by a picket, but that they would likely surrender if given opportunity. It seems probable that the information was given in good faith, and that the capture would have been effected but for the untimely arrival of a German officer who broke off negotiations and drove the patrol of "G" Company down the road with a burst of machine-gun fire.

Another patrol was sent to the left to regain the contact lost with the leading elements of the 308th; and after losing half its number in the dense blackness of forest and swamp in the Marais Minard, under a constant explosion of gas-shells, discovered the forward battalion of that regiment in a formation something like a hollow square on the conical Butte de Bourmont-a formation appearing a trifle selfish, and lending itself better to security than to liaison; but, in such warfare a commander learned to entrust his flanks to himself. The battalion huddled itself down for the night upon the northern end of the spur, and next day took position with "F," "E" and "H" stretching from the north, near the eastward bend of the road, to the sunken road and the cellars of Merval on the south, "G" outposting across the Marais Minard toward the 308th, and battalion headquarters, dressing station, and the reserve platoons, in two large eaves to the north of the church.

September sixth and seventh passed without notable event beyond a slow but steady drain of casualties from artillery and machine-gun fire, and a constant drenching of gas where "G" lay stretched across the swamp-land. A fair example of the danger of forwarding reports of Patrols is to be found in that of an efficient N. C. 0. who was sent with one man ill and careful instructions to attempt an entry into Revillon, and report on dispositions of the enemy. They returned in the course of the night to report that they passed through the town and found it quite empty. This statement, quite sincerely given, was, although remarkable, gaining credence with the battalion commander, when he added the detail that he had met Captain Hubbell of the machine-gun company also wandering about the streets of the place, who had assured him that there was nothing there of interest. In spite of the well -known enterprise of this officer, he was also known to belong on the left, and the thing seemed unlikely, receiving a more satisfactory explanation when Captain Hubbell sent word that he had been in Barbonval. One French name was often a good deal like another to the American enlisted man and direction was hard to keep at night.

There was a constant difficulty of ration supply, both in bringing up the transport at night over the shell-swept road, and in distributing to the outlying platoons. There could be little or no attempt at providing cooked food. A ration-dump had been established near the Merval church; and then one night it was changed to the Distillerie, nearly a kilometer to the south-but without warning of the change to the forward troops. After a night of fruitless waiting at the church they got word of the true state of affairs, and hurried down to the Distillerie in time to see the entire ration-dump obliterated by the direct bit of one six-inch shell. The latter catastrophe was of course unavoidable; but the lack of cooperation signalized in the first part was far from rare, and added a burden of hardship, which was more keenly felt than the privations which were known to be inevitable.

On the evening of September eighth, after arrangements had been completed for the relief of the Second Battalion by the Third, an order was received calling for an attack upon Revillon, La Roche, and Cuchery, reorganization upon that ground, and a further advance to the Bois de Senfontaine and Maizy. The line of departure from which the advance was to he made was indicated as approximately straight from Le Verdillon on the left to cross-roads 123.2 (at the "G" in "Glennes") on the right; and the rolling barrage behind which it was to move was scheduled for 6:45 P. M. "G" Company was deployed along its line of outposts, "E" across the north end of the Merval ridge, "H" facing east along the sunken road, and "F' behind it in support. "C" and "B" were also brought up to support the left and center. On the left, the line of departure was closely approximated, but on the right was looked upon as a first objective, its indication as a starting-point being a sort of corollary to the myth, still persistent, that the 28th was across the Aisne. At 6:45 all companies started forward. A passing shower blew in from the east, and as the troops deployed upon the open ground they saw the grassy heights of La Petite Montagne through a veil of glistening rain and spanned by a rainbow arch-but there was little of victory in that fair omen, and much of death.

"G" and "C" had no sooner come out upon the meadows beyond Le Verdillon than they were met by a hurricane of shells and machine-gun fire from the sunken road northwest of St. Pierre farm, from the houses of Revillon, and from the heights of La Petite Montagne. They staggered a short distance forward upon their hopeless way toward the wire lining the road in their front, and then reeled back to the shelter of the woods whence they had come.

The deployment of "E" and "H" had no soon-er begun than the whole plateau was swept by converging fire from La Petite Montagne, Glennes, and the Ravin Marion, while artillery searched the road from north to south. "F," attempting to deploy in support behind "H," was forced to withdraw to the shelter of the road till "H" should have gained distance; and "H," mistaking their withdrawal for an abandonment of the attack, began also to recoil from before that withering fire. Then "F," reforming, passed through it, and struggled on to the edge of the ravine. At the same time "B" was passing through the thinning ranks of "E" Company. The losses were bravely taken, but there was never a chance of success, and at dusk, when "B" Company had been drawn back through the smoke from a precarious foothold gained in the bottom of the eastern valley, the battalion returned to its original positions. About 8 P. M. a message was received stating that the supporting artillery for the attack would not open fire till 7:30; and whether or not it did then open fire no one noticed, nor was any further attack attempted that night. Before dawn the relief by the Third Battalion was effected, and the Second Battalion withdrew with an effective strength of 247 men, or 25 per cent of their original number.

The First Battalion, supposed during this time to be in support position five hundred yards to the rear, found itself in fact engaged upon the right, and so remained during much of the occupation of the front by the Third Battalion. The 153rd Brigade on the left, and the troops beyond them had gained considerable ground toward the Aisne, but the 28th Division, suffering a reverse on the right, had withdrawn under heavy artillery fire till their left reached almost to the crest of the southward slope; and the capture at night of an outpost of "D" Company, holding the right of the battalion, was the first indication that this flank was widely exposed. Then an enemy patrol of some fifteen men tumbled upon the company front. Neither side had warning of the coming collision, and at point-blank range the German boy-officer shouted the order to charge. It was probably not more than a reconnaissance in force, for it left its dead on the field, including its officer, and only the German artillery took revenge for its losses. Yet a soldier of "D," taken prisoner with the outpost and returning after the armistice, reported that he had seen what looked like two regiments of the enemy massed in and about the Ravin, each man armed with four grenades and apparently intending to drive through the First Battalion position and cut off the Second Battalion beyond Merval; but this attack was never delivered. "D" was withdrawn, forming a front to the flank across the grassy plateau, and the battalion here -remained, save for its subsequent attacks upon the Ravin, in a very constant drenching of gas.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2021 Manitowoc Public School District