15. Across the Marne to the Nesles Woods

Charles Wadsworth Camp



MORE detailed orders reached us the next day. We would take the road Saturday, the 10th, and march thirty odd kilometers before the next morning to Chezy-sur-Marne. The next night we would cover approximately twenty kilometers to a point to be chosen near Courpoil. The third night we would complete our journey to Nesles Woods, which had recently been cleared of the enemy.

We pored over our maps. The march would be a forced one. It would carry us through the heart of the salient. Chezy was only a few miles from Chateau Thierry. Courpoil probably smoked from the fierce fighting it had witnessed. Nesles Woods lay between Fere-en-Tardenois and Fismes.

We spent Friday getting ready. In our spare moments we wrote letters home.

That afternoon we were summoned to brigade headquarters in Doue to meet the new brigade commander. He intimated the serious nature of our next step. Afterwards Colonel Doyle gave the organization commanders an extended talk about aiming points and the identification of targets.

Since it was understood we couldn't safely start our march before four o'clock the next afternoon, everyone hoped for a good sleep Friday night. The men needed it, but they didn't get it. About 9 o'clock regimental headquarters stirred itself and began sending orders to the battalions by bicycle messengers. The first was to the effect that we would be prepared to take the road by eight o'clock the next morning. That meant reveille around four o'clock. Other orders came to send teams and G. S. carts to various points to change and wove equipment. It wasn't until 2 o'clock Saturday morning that the excitement subsided. Bicycle Messenger Montgomery came around then with a verbal order that we wouldn't move until the time we had been given originally, four o'clock in the afternoon. We took advantage then of what remained of the mutilated night.

The regiment was to rendezvous at Done. It would take its place in the brigade column on the national highway beyond. So at four o'clock each organization mounted and pulled out of its comfortable billets.

August smiled its best that afternoon. The cheerful countryside seemed reluctant to let us go. Natives watched us with emotionless faces. In their eyes we saw dull souvenirs of four years of departures.

In the old days of pitched battles men walked from their bivouac directly into the obliterating shock of a fight whose duration was a matter of hours. Maybe that was simpler than to move as we did for three nights into a battle apparently without end, with sights and sound of a new and peculiar brutality crowding each moment closer about US.

We did get tired.
During our wait at the rendezvous we drank hot coffee, and munched cold rations. When we turned into the straight national highway, flanked by huge lime trees, we could see the entire brigade stretching before and behind us. French and American trucks snorted past without end.

The pleasant, warm sun sank lower. By twilight, on the outskirts of a town, we watched youths of the French 1920 class, freshened after their day's training, walking in groups, and watching our dusty column out of curious eyes. Here and there one strolled by the side of a pretty girl, shyly silent because of this undesired publicity.
They waved hesitant farewells. In the village little children shrieked after us:
" Good, by I Good, by! Good-by!

The sun slipped away altogether. Night closed about us. By the last light we twisted through Epieds. The people gave us feeble cheers. But we paid little attention. We were already footsore. Even the mounted men, to save the animals, walked alternate hours. Our halts because of the length of the column, had become extremely sketchy. Sometimes you missed them altogether, closing up a gap. And there were innumerable unexpected stops when you dismounted and were up and off again almost before your feet had touched the ground.

Our feet weren't up to much. During the past month we had been either in the line or changing station. We were soft. But songs brightened our worm-like progress along the dark country roads.

The night brought the flashes back to the sky ahead of us. They were not quite so pallid. They spread farther. They soared higher. They were streaked by ominous lines of ruddier flame.

Always the traffic of supply ground past us, forcing us to the side of the road, struggling desperately forward to feed the fires.
A cheery voice flashed bravely back at the burning sky.
" Gonna be some little fight, boys! "

Another voice rose with a quavering, melancholy quality. Its song was something about a girl waiting at home, waiting patiently and unselfishly for a man to come back out of the fires-
The ranks fell silent. The voice died away.

Somewheres ahead a rolling kitchen commenced to drop a trail of sparks. It wound, as the road twisted, like an unbelievably long and phosphorescent serpent.

It kept pace with us. After a time the odor of coffee floated back along the trail. Between midnight and the dawn we would know there was a jewel of a cook up there. But was it safe, this red, serpentine trail? Are cooks ever safe near the front? Everybody saw the sparks. And everybody caught the aroma. The fires were still distant. Nobody disturbed the cook. The red serpent persisted until it was certain the coffee in the containers was hot and would stay so.

We drank it between one and two o'clock, when we were halted for some time on a high ridge. The flames seemed nearer and brighter than they had been. Or perhaps it was because the night was so dark up there. Then for the first time we distinguished star shells. They separated themselves from the flashes so slowly and disappeared so reluctantly that you couldn't be sure at first they weren't born of your imagination and your smarting eyes. You thought the first one, perhaps, was the Pleides, less distinct than usual. They all looked exactly like that, tiny constellations, blurred by the shifting glow ahead. But they were everywhere so you knew what they were.

As we munched a sandwich or a cracker and sipped the hot, fragrant coffee everything impressed us as abnormally still. We missed the rumbling of the wheels, just silenced, and the rap of the horses' shoes on the road. In the beginning there was only the slow shuffling of feet in the dirt as the forms, detached a trifle from the night, by the flickering in the sky, formed a line by the rolling kitchen- that, and occasional dull clashing of mess cups. Then a man spoke, and after a time another. It was usually only some banal remark, drowned and forgotten at once in this flickering stillness.

"You're spilling it on my wrist."
" God bless you for the chow, sergeant."
Or from the sergeant:
" Move on! Do you want to delouse yourself in it?
Such aimless accents of the silence were forgotten at once.
Out of the subsequent, pallid calm stole the voice of battle.
Men shifted their feet uneasily. It was the first of the cannon mutter to reach us from the flames. A quick activity thrust it back again.
"Prepare to mount!"
" Mount! "
"Forward yo-o-o-o-"

The orders came down the line, growing apparently out of nothing as the cannon mutter had done, reaching a climax in one's own mouth, dying away on the long drawn vowel of the last command.

We were moving forward again, drawing an odd and comfortable companionship from our rumbling, rapping progress.
At the scarcely perceptible birth of dawn we were winding sleepily on the shoulder of another ridge which looked down on what might have been a long lake or a deep and gigantic river flowing between the hills. It was possible to guess, and here and there a man raised his head and stared. Someone spoke in a harsh whisper.

"That's the valley of the Marne."
He whispered because we were somnolent and unalert. The name possessed no dynamic power for us then. One fellow did manage:
"Didn't know it was so blamed wide."
The other offered to instruct him.
"Oh, that's the mist."
"You don't say? Good-night!"

Shoulders drooped again.
" Ha-a-a-lt! "

The command sang down the line like a savage chant. The regiment dismounted. One by one men dropped over against the bank, and drifted into sleep, keeping a listless hand on bridles. The horses, weary too, for the most part stood with drooped heads, not even troubling to nibble the lush grass. Now and then one would wander indifferently from the feebly restraining grasp of his master. An officer would rebuke sleepily, consigning the careless one to walk the rest of that stage. At such a time the world seemed drunk with sleep.

A dim headlight pushed through the mist below-guiding one of the first trains, we guessed, to carry troops along the reopened Chateau Thierry line.

The dawn strengthened. It grasped the fringes of the mist and lifted it slowly from the valley. A stream, like a ribbon, narrow and decorative, was strung across the fields.

Tired eyes opened to gaze with an expression of discovery at the pleasant little river that twice had been wider than the ocean to Germany.
We resumed our crawling. There was no longer any reason in mounting and dismounting. We would go ahead for a few paces, then stop again. An anxiety grasped the command to get somewhere beneath green trees before the light should grow much stronger. Then we saw the head of the column moving to the left to be swallowed by a large grove of trees. A sigh went up. We were nearly there. Each halt seemed longer than it was. We glanced upwards. We listened for aeroplanes.

We, too, reached the fork. We turned and entered beneath the friendly shrubbery. The chill of the night had disappeared before the mounting sun.
As we parked an officer from headquarters ran about.
"Keep everything covered up, and don't let anybody stand in open places. The Huns are watching these woods for bivouacs.
Where carriages were parked in thinly roofed places we draped them with cut shrubbery. We started the animals down a path behind a guide who knew where water was to be had. We got our paper work out of the way. We hurried the war diary to regimental headquarters which had been established in the deserted town of Chezy.

The rolling kitchens smoked. Men forgot their weariness to form eager lines before them. Groups ate greedily among the trees. The forest was noisy with talk called from group to group. The Colonel arrived and approached a party of officers on a tarpaulin, making a stupendous breakfast in celebration of having brought men, animals, and carriages through a stage that had worried everyone.

"Keep your seats, gentlemen," the Colonel said. "I want to congratulate you on the way you handled your paper work this morning."
The group returned to its breakfast refreshed. A word of praise after such effort is a tonic.
The illusion of a picnic, however, was never very convincing. The sunlight searched the woods, exposing souvenirs of the recent fighting.
Half hidden by the underbrush were stained and eloquent garments. Here lay a Hun helmet, a neat round bole through the front. There was the stock of a rifle.

Men picked such objects up curiously. They gathered them in little heaps, convenient for transportation. They prepared for sleep. The sun seemed to laugh.

That is the curse of night marches. You can't get a satisfactory sleep by day. There is a great deal to be done, that robs many men even of the opportunity to sleep. Guards must be posted. Kitchens must go as hard as ever. Animals must be more carefully cared for than when in billets or at an echelon. Equipment must be cleaned, and the damage of the previous night's march repaired.

All these operations manufacture a noise that disturbs those who do get a chance to rest. But it is the sun that irritates the weary more than anything else. No matter how shady the place you choose, the sun will find it out sooner and later, will grin in your eyes, will inform you that it is no time to be sleeping.

Maybe you move. Then a man shakes your shoulder, demanding information which he foolishly imagines you alone can furnish.
If on such a march you can average three hours' sleep out of the twenty-four you are lucky and insensitive.

In Chezy woods there were other disturbing factors. The men's feet had suffered. It was necessary to treat them. You stood in line for long periods waiting to get to the doctor. When you had been treated it was probably dinner time.

After dinner nearly everyone that wasn't on duty strolled down the hill, through the grounds of a modern chateau, and so to the bank of the Marne. The water was dirty, and, if one stopped to think, sinister. The afternoon, on the other band, was warm, and we didn't forecast many more opportunities in the near future to bathe. We filled the murky water with active, noisy bodies. On the shore mature men reproduced the antics of school boys. From across the Marne frowned a landscape stifled beneath the pestilential haze of war-a condition scarcely palpable, reminiscent of a land whose inhabitants have been swept down by some black plague. For there weren't so many ruins. There pervaded everything, fields, farm houses, villages, only this sense of desertion and a morbid unhealth. It was like a picture from an artist whose melancholy and diseased brain has retained of the visible world no more than a sense of form.

All afternoon the activity about the banks mocked this oppressive landscape. From time to time strings of animals were led down and watered. The antics of the bathers continued until dusk.

A few of our horses did not respond that day. We were underhorsed anyway. A new fair started. Organizations swopped animals about so that no carriage should be left. That took time. Supper was a shadowy affair. We policed the bivouac. We lashed equipment to the carriages again. Souvenir hunters gazed at their stacks of trophies, shook their heads, and scattered the stuff about the woods.

One man picked up a Hun helmet and beat with it thoughtfully against a tree.
" Seems tough enough," he mused-" too darned tough."

He flung it on the ground, thrust his hands in his pockets, and leaned against a tree. His attitude was, roughly, typical of everyone else's. The teams were harnessed. Everything was ready. We waited for the word to move out.

The dusk had forced into the woods an unwelcome alteration. Instead of patches of sunlight, the grim souvenirs of battle scattered about determined the values of the picture. There was a chill in the air, too. One's sense of sleeplessness returned with the night. And the increasing darkness meant the resumption of those breathless pyrotechnics in the north.

A little fellow, crouched on a stump, his hands clasped about his knees, gazed straight ahead. His face was immobile. You didn't like to look at it, because it seemed an expression of many more carefully guarded minds. You moved about, trying to throw the feeling off, this difficult conviction that the forest was crowded with homesickness.
A man strolled up and put his arm about the little fellow's shoulders. His voice came with understanding.

"What's the matter, buddy?"
The little fellow sprang upright as an animal is startled by the appearance of a hunter. He answered fiercely:
"Matter! Nothing the matter."
He burst into odd oaths, as if they might justify him. The other gave him a cigarette.

Word came around that we were to be careful where we sat down tonight, for there would be always the danger of mustard gas. Other messengers appeared. We would cross the Marne on pontoon bridges at Chateau Thierry. Carriages would cross on one bridge with intervals of fifty meters. Individually mounted men would use another, dismounted men a third. An apprehension of shelling at the crossing from long range guns saturated these orders.

The word to mount came with the last light. Whips cracked and horses strained forward. The carriages reeled drunkenly over roots and depressions. There were swaying escapes while men shouted warnings, put their shoulders to the wheels, and struck at the horses. Where the woods trail turned into the main road an officer sat his horse, repeating over and over again, like one reciting a piece.

"Men may smoke, but must use automatic lighters. No matches will be struck tonight."
Brakes set, we slid down a long, curving hill into the valley. The column moved faster this evening. A soft moonlight gave an air of mystery to the few empty farm houses we passed. Several groups of these suggested that we were on the outskirts of Chateau Thierry. But the road was longer than we thought. It was nearly midnight when we entered the city at last. Through a dark silence we became aware of a multiple activity. The streets were full of half seen figures that passed us without words. The place might have been a rendezvous of criminals, furtively intent on avoiding discovery. There were no lights. We could scarcely distinguish the jagged remains of walls, and here and there in the building line a fissure that we knew was the grave of a home.

At the railroad the column was cut by the passing of a train, and the overanxiety of the military police, which closed the gates too soon. Beyond, teams tore through the dark to catch up, and men rode back and forth keeping in touch with divided units.

In a narrow street close to the river more military police were stationed. Their suppressed voices were scarcely audible above the rumbling of the wheels on cobble stones as they repeated our instructions for crossing. Certainly the Hun wasn't so near!

We entered a wide place through the center of which the Marne flowed. More military police stood on each bridge nervously hurrying the crossing. But no shells fell. Our own progress on the planking drowned the sound of guns and the hill ahead was a curtain against the northern sky.

We were over, but when we had climbed the hill above the town the voice and the gestures of battle became eloquent again. The passage of the river seemed to have brought us much, much closer. The sky was a wavering sheet of flame, no longer wan. It spread and contracted with a yellow intensity. Star shells stood out against it clearly enough now. As the rumblings increased and diminished one could almost guess the caliber of the guns engaged. An enormous mass of artillery was concentrated up there. It was folly to try to sing against that greater song. The column forged stolidly ahead.

We were in the heart of the salient now. Even by night the country was haggard. The Hun's departure had been a matter of a few days, and he had not neglected his reputation in leaving.

We rode silently through village after village. They all shared a dreadful similarity. They were clusters of homes, roofless and with gashed walls. They were filled with an odor which made the air reluctant in one's lungs. It was compounded of stale gas, of lime, of ancient plaster and woodwork, suddenly crumbled. It forced on one an impression of death, still warm. It suggested the proximity of departing souls. There seemed to be a connection between this sense and the ghastly light that flickered over everything.

Between these dead villages the open country stank, too.

At times we were sheltered by shell screens, raised by the Hun for his own safety.
Towards morning we munched sandwiches and crackers, but there was no hot coffee. The fires in all rolling kitchens had been ordered drawn.

Shortly after this meal we turned to the right at Cour-poil, another slaughtered, empty, stinking town, and on a rough road ascended a long hill. The halts, as always before the long halt, became numerous and irritating. The road seemed interminable. In spite of the brief stage, and our earlier speed, daylight would probably catch us again, and the risk was greater here. Yet a little daylight might be a safeguard against this road which degenerated with each meter. Fourgons and escort wagons lurched dangerously. Why the deuce were we struggling so far from the main road anyway? We'd have to come back by dark again over this risky trail. And our horses were tired. The only excuse that occurred to us was that we were going to a particularly safe and convenient bivouac.

As the east grew ruddy the flashes faded. We saw a fourgon on its side by the road. The horses stood by, gazing at it with rather a pleased air. Tired soldiers made unavailing efforts to get it up.
"No sleep for those guys," we said pityingly. "They'll have to unpack everything, jack her up, and pack again."
" Say, that must be a peach of a bivouac we're going to."
It wasn't.

Just ahead two large masses of forest barely detached themselves from the slow dawn. There was an open field between. Some of the batteries were already strung out along the edge of the woods. The rest of the column halted. A group of officers and men stood in the field, talking and gesticulating. One heard:

"Who made the reconnaissance for this blasted thing?"
There had been a reconnaissance the previous day, but something certainly had gone wrong. We asked eager questions. The woods in spite of their size were for the most part choked with underbrush, and the remainder was rough and honey-combed with infantry trenches. There wasn't room for the regiment under cover, and Hun planes might appear at any moment.
"And those woods," you heard, "are full of dead things."
Without calling attention to it we had all noticed the thickening of the nauseating odor of wholesale animal decay.
"It's bad for the men."
"The men have got to get used to it."
"But it's better to see those things in the heat of action."

That, however, wasn't the point. We had to get covered up before the light grew stronger.

The Headquarters Company, and Regimental Headquarters got sketchily concealed in one piece of woods. The larger part of the Second Battalion got in the other. The First parked its pieces on the edge and cut foliage with which it covered everything. Opposite, the Supply Company employed the same makeshift.
The picket lines had to be placed inside.

Those who entered the forest to locate these lines went softly. It was still night in there. You didn't want to stumble over unseen obstacles. You fancied that the woods were still inhabited by an army, which for the moment slept. The trenches made angular scars between the trees-shallow, makeshift defenses of the retreating Hun. Their floors were littered with gray blouses, helmets, round Hun caps, Mausers, grenades, belts of cartridges. Scattered between them were artillery - ammunition dumps, the shells in wicker containers, like wine baskets, or else in elaborate and expensive metal frames. As the light strengthened we saw quantities of rations which had been thrown away, gasolene tanks, pioneer tools. If there wasn't an army in the woods there was the equipment for one. That day if we wanted anything-gasoline, for example, for an automobile or a side-car,-we went through no formalities.

" Go in the woods and get it," we said.
And the seeker obeyed and got what he wanted.
But in there the odor was poisonous. Everyone was warned not to prowl in the underbrush.
As soon as the picket lines were established we went out, clinging to the edge of the woods, and almost at once the first Hun planes came over, but we were pretty well concealed, and they didn't trouble us.

The question of water obtruded itself. By taking the water carts all the way down the hill water for the men could be drawn from a well in Courpoil. For the animals the best that was offered was a pond a mile away. Its banks were steep, so that the animals were watered individually from buckets. The process was tedious. Instead of watering three times that day we were lucky to struggle into the mud and out again twice.

The lake wasn't any pleasanter than the woods. Scattered equipment littered its banks. Some of our men tried it for bathing. One or two of them cried out, and they all waded to shore, talking among themselves. When we asked what was the matter they looked sheepish.

"The lake is full of dead Bosche," they said.
There was a large farm house a few yards away. It had evidently been used for some kind of a headquarters. The garden had been trampled, and the fences broken down. In a corner was a new cemetery with rows of wooden crosses, made, we guessed, from packing cases. They marked American graves. We were glad they were so few.

One man said brutally:
"There are a lot of things they didn't bury around here."
We practiced making our lungs do with a minimum of air.
On the higher ground, among the deeper shell holes were many small and shallow ones. We knew they had been made by gas shells. Now and then you saw one whose bottom was yellow with the spewed mustard gas that had failed to volatilize.
Everywhere was telephone wire, laid on the ground from position to position. There had been no time to salvage it.

As we ate our late breakfast we noticed that the flies were worse than they had been anywhere else, even at Souge. And there was a strange variety-a big, blue nosed sort that fought to get at your food and, defeated, flew greedily back to the secrets of the underbrush.

We ate, though, and we managed to sleep even in that woods. We failed to find in Courpoil forest, however, even the relaxation Chezy had offered. There was more to be done. The animals required more attention. There were more aeroplane alarms, and there was more danger of men being caught in the open and not standing still.

That afternoon Captains Ravenel and Delanoy rejoined. They had left Souge some time before, but had been unable to locate the regiment. Captain Ravenel, because he was senior, took command of the First battalion in place of Captain Dana. Captain Delanoy assumed command of Battery F.

We had with us two lame men who had failed to respond to treatment. A passing ambulance picked them up and carried them back to Chateau Thierry. The surgeon in charge gave us some cheerful gossip.

"Some of your infantry went in yesterday," he said in an off-hand way, "and last night they sent out a lot of casualties. You won't want anything much hotter than you'll get up there."

We thanked him, but we didn't press him to stay for supper. His gossip gave the persistent grumbling in the north a sharper threat. Yet, whatever the next day might hold, I don't think anyone regretted escaping from Courpoil woods.

We didn't dare budge until the dusk was thick. Then we tore our improvised camouflage from the carriages and formed in the shell-ploughed field for the final stage of our march into the Oise-Aisne battle.

The last sunset glow fought for a time against the violent and unnatural dawn in the north.
As always the fighting intensified with the night. The gun chorus reached thicker, heavier notes. Once a sheet of violet flame, supernatural in its vast luminosity, sprang from the earth, and, while we watched, speechless, unbelieving, mounted to the very zenith and spread half the immeasureable circle of the horizon. During the several seconds it lasted details of the landscape leered at us through a mauve daylight.

The end of the world might come like that. You mocked your savage instinct to fall prostrate before a power greater than the power of man.
" Some flares those Huns have! " you said to your neighbor, but you weren't quite sure it was an ordinary flare. Was it some new device?
The violet sheet fell from the sky like a wind-swept curtain. The lesser fires resumed their flickering. Rockets and flares streaked always upwards, so that we lived in a chameleon twilight. It was as if a gigantic and undreamed of catastrophe had happened, could not be controlled, and threatened to sweep Europe. That men fought in its heart that we would fight there, too, was a fantastic imagining.
"Organizations ready?"
Everyone reported ready. So forward then into the midst of this mad disaster!

The moment had obliterating demands. Our carriages were overloaded. The fourgons were top heavy. Horse covers, packs, and various paraphernalia were lashed to the tops. Inside were our instruments of precision and communication. A picket line, perhaps, and heavy tools were slung from the axles in an attempt to lower the center of gravity. Sometimes a hand reel cart flopped drunkenly along behind. A sensitive child would have wept at sight of us. Of the attributes of vagabonds we lacked only one thing-a fortune teller.

That long, rough road down the hill was damned as perfectly as once in our remote youth stumps had been.

Horses were damned by drivers. Drivers were damned by non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers were damned by officers, officers were damned by other officers in order of rank from bottom to top. That is in a fashion of speaking. Probably the language was quite polite, and it was only the intention that swore. At any rate it got us on. We reached the foot of the hill at last and turned into the main road amidst the ruins of Cour-poil.

We halted at once in the shelter of broken walls. There was a block ahead. Pretty soon motor lorries detached themselves from it and stormed petulantly past. Others wormed a way from the other direction. These were heavily loaded. They demanded the right of way. Some of the trucks, we saw, belonged to our division ammunition train.

" What outfit, Buddy? " a chauffeur yelled at us.
"305th Field Artillery," a man answered thoughtlessly.
Angry voices rebuked his indiscretion. It was a spirit that had grown on us steadily. At the front no one knows what ears are about. The chauffeurs, however, recognizing us as of the same division, bandied words.
"Believe me, you're going to some summer resort."
"Where there's a will there's a way, but don't forget your will."
Hey! you look as if you were moving from the Bronx to Brooklyn."

We didn't have much repartee. We were too anxious for the obstructing lorries to get by. An hour must have slipped away before the jam was broken. As we lurched ahead a message came down the column, repeated from mouth to mouth.
"Follow the carriage in front closely to avoid shell holes."

That meant that the shells were falling on this road too fast for the pioneers. To dodge such holes, in spite of the advice, moreover, seemed an impossibility. We couldn't snake along from side to side in all that traffic. We couldn't stop until there was a chance to get past a hole. So we assigned dismounted men to walk ahead of the precious fourgons. We threatened dire penalties if they didn't give plenty of warning.

The forest of La Fere closed about us, shutting out the flames ahead and the wan light of the moon. We could see nothing. The man riding beside you was blurred by the heavy pall. You glanced to right and left, trying to imagine the form of the forest and the things it hid. Your only clear sensation was of the intolerable stench of death.

We halted. Would we never go on again?
A double column of foot soldiers shuffled past. They, too, halted. We couldn't make out what service they belonged to, but it became clear something was wrong with them. They didn't seem to know where they were. They had an idea they had got on the wrong road, but they weren't sure. They stood there beside us for a long time, growing more and more impatient.

So there we were hopelessly blocked, a rare target for a shell or an air bomb.
One of the scarcely seen men lamented.
"Ah'd rather take my chawnces in the line than be walked ta death."
"Not me," another objected. "Abeanheahol Mistah shell a singin' now. He says: gonta getcha, gonta getcha, gonta getcha. Bam! Done gotcha."'

What appeared to be a huge light flashed out ahead, and was immediately extinguished. It showed us that the foot soldiers near us were from a southern engineer outfit. Their lungs were good. They burst into a huge and angry chorus.

"Put that blank, blank match out."
Expressions of pity and disgust followed.
"Say, Bo! Put yo'sel on a plate an' hand yo'sel with a knife and fo'k to Mistah Jerry. But don't use me fo the gravy.~
" Hey, Captain, take me away from these city fellahs that strike matches in the dark."

We all shared the shame of that one culprit. We tried to spot him to teach him a lesson. But the thing had been too quick, and the night was too friendly a protection. We were from the city. Perhaps the game of concealment came harder to us than to some others, but we thought we had learned it better. We had, as we found out later. That particular crime wasn't repeated.

By this time the engineers had decided that they'd better try another road, so, without saying anything, they calmly counter marched, blocking the road more completely than before, and holding us up for another half hour, dividing our column at the same time.
We got out of the ruck at last, and upon a clear road.

We made fast progress, urged by the necessity of reaching Nesles Woods before daylight. The dead towns echoed to our hurrying hoofs and wheels. And the walls shook to the reverberations of heavy guns just ahead.

We entered the outskirts of R
Fere-en-Tardennois, still under shell fire. We slipped through unmolested. Scarcely anything remained of the town-the largest in the district. It was a heap of rubble with a few walls, like torn masks. It might have been the site of a prehistoric capital about which an archeologist has commenced to excavate.

Near by batteries pounded away. Our horses, weary as they were, grew nervous. They moved restlessly about at halts. The men, on the other hand, forgetting their surroundings, the warnings against gas, everything except their great weariness, sank on the banks of ditches and slept fitfully.

Daylight caught us again as we wound through the town of Nesles. It seemed impossible we should ever reach a bivouac at the time scheduled. Nesles was in ruins except for its storied mediaeval tower, which shells had only scarred.
Beyond the town was a steep road, recently laid by the pioneers, which climbed to the forest.
Even from there the forest was haggard and shell torn. The sloping fields between us and it were strewn with graves, dug where their occupants had fallen. Most of them had rough crosses, from which German helmets hung.
The horses were unequal to the hill. We manned the wheels, and forced our way up. We entered between the broken trees.
We felt we had arrived too late. There had been aeroplanes in the distant sky. We had no doubt that the Hun knew there would be that night an artillery bivouac in Nesles Forest.

The place had been policed after a fashion. The stench of death was less here than it had been at Courpoil. A regiment of pioneers was already in possession. They had removed such refuse of battle as they had been able to. Everywhere about the forest floor were, coffin-shaped holes. We guessed they were individual shelters from shell and bomb fragments. We learned to call them "funk holes," a term we later applied to far more ambitious refuges. Anti-air guns opened all around us.
Tsching! Tsching!
Two shell cases whistled down in our woods.
We put on our tin hats, but we knew they were no protection against shell cases.
We recalled all the aeroplanes that had bothered us at Doue. We asked the pioneers with a perfect confidence if we didn't have the control of the air up here. We felt that if the American air service was concentrated anywheres it would be on this front.

The pioneers looked at us with pity.
"The Huns, they answered, "own the air here and have a mortgage on the ether."

Usually they followed with accounts of American balloons brought down by Hun planes, and unrestricted bombing attacks. Our hearts sank. We knew we had been seen coming in that morning. Yet we felt the pioneers must be wrong. The money spent, the men enlisted in the air service, and all those fellows flying about Coulommiers!
Before many days we accused the pioneers of uttering conservative statements.
A messenger found Captain Ravenel and took him to the Colonel. The Colonel introduced him to an officer who had just reported as assigned to the regiment. His name was Major George W. Easterday. He would take command of the First Battalion. Captain Ravenel would return to the command of his battery.

Major Easterday, we learned, had come originally from the regular army coast artillery. He had entered the service from civil life. He had been removed by a telegram from a few days' dalliance in Paris after a lively share in the advance north from Chateau Thierry, and shot back into the show as a member of the 305th. He was destined to remain with the regiment until it sailed from France.

So the forced march ended, and we were in the woods which after disastrous experiments in other localities, was to become the regimental echelon. We breakfasted, unstrapped our packs, and stretched out to sleep. We were awakened almost immediately by the news that there would be a preliminary reconnaissance that afternoon. We studied our maps in preparation. The little party rode from the woods, and in an hour's time returned. There had been a blunder somewheres, for the rendezvous had not been made clear, and the various portions of the reconnaissance hadn't got together. So a real reconnaissance was set for early the next morning.

We dined to the mounting accompaniment of gun fire, and crawled gratefully into our shelter tents, believing that no amount of noise could keep us awake.

The old metaphor of the orchestra of the guns is justified. Batteries and individual guns seem to have their own tones. When a great many are firing perpetually, as on this front, the tones blend into crashing chords. We fell asleep to this gargantuan lullaby.

After a few minutes the hideous screech of the gas alarm had us up and snapping our respirators on. The screeching died away. After a time the gas officers went around singing out:
"Masks may be removed."

We went to sleep again. Again we were awakened by that unholy screeching. It happened three times. We told ourselves that the horns wouldn't awake us again, gas or no gas.

On the heels of the last alarm something else aroused us. We heard the throbbing whir of Hun aeroplanes. There were plenty of targets on the Vesle, heaven knows, but we remembered our fear that we had been seen coming into the bivouac that morning. And the throbbing grew.


As if the enaines missed fire rhythmically.

Then above the artillery we got the crunching detonations of large air bombs. Those aeroplanes were coming nearer. There was a squadron out, and if it wasn't after us it would pass very close.
Ba-room-ba-rcom-ba-room-Always nearer, and the detonations were louder now, and they came in salvos of four, each burst half drowned by the next.

Nearly overhead we heard the petulant rattle of a machine gun.
"That's the scout signalling to the bombers," someone said.
"Why," we asked irritably, "are our aeroplanes back in cheerful places while these fellows give us their droppings undisturbed? "
We thought of the other bivouacs, crowded with American soldiers, with the Hun birds merrily hopping from one to another.

The bombers responded to the scout, and their bombs fell on the edge of our woods with roars that made the artil-lery seem like childish fireworks. And you smiled grimly as you thought of those fellows making us blow our bugles all day long back near Coulommiers.

The Huns dropped several salvos, and throbbed away to other pastures.

Men were killed in Nesles Woods that night, but our check showed us that the 305th had escaped, and we crawled back to bed, and went to sleep, and didn't answer any more alarms until reveille dragged us out.

That was the first of many experiences on the Vesle with Hun aeroplanes, working nearly undisturbed. Most men will agree there is no form of attack less pleasant. You approximate the sensations of an insect above which a giant foot wavers, waiting to descend obliteratingly.
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