The rain, by then a standard feature of the battle, came down in relentless sheets, and darkness was total. No one had the slightest notion where he was going. Guides who supposedly knew the way were as lost as everyone else. The confusion was par for the Argonne course. As they had moved up through the forest, the commanders of the 78th Division had been told that they would relieve the Sand Division. Then, without so much as a whisper of explanation, they were told to relieve the 77th, along a front about which they knew no more than they could read on their maps.
The 78th division was split into two brigades of two regiments each. Except for battalions held in reserve, both brigades were supposed to be in line at A. Because of the total confusion in which they marched, both wings of the division arrived late. The second battalion of the gioth Regiment, for example, marched all night in the rain and got nowhere. At A. The Germans had tunnels running from the cellar of the family farmhouse to the forward trenches and blockhouses.
Godart took me out in the pasture behind his house, and to my amazement the eye could still trace the snaking line of the German trenches, while in the distance several of the concrete blockhouses were still visible, sunk deep in the earth, with only a slit, like a baleful mouth, for machine-gun fire. Here, as everywhere in the Argonne, the deceptive contours of the rolling earth were startling.
In those fields, Godart said, were thick with barbed wire, huge belts of it every hundred feet. In the north, the British were using 4, tanks to open paths through the wire for their infantry. In the Argonne, the Americans had only tanks, and most of these had been knocked out the first day.
All Pershing could offer his infantry were artillery barrages to blast holes in the wire. More than one soldier died trying to find holes that were not there. About halfway, he stopped the car and pointed across another naked field toward a clump of woods—the Bois des Loges.
Charles Carleton Coffin (Coffin, Charles Carleton, ) | The Online Books Page
This was the primary objective of the right brigade of the 78th Division. It was a series of ravines, like a giant corrugated iron roof, thick enough to conceal machine guns and to protect the defenders from detection by artillery, yet thin enough to give them murderous fields of fire. The men of the 3ogth and gioth Infantry reached the edge of the woods, but that was only Act One in a terrible two-week drama. There were machine guns every forty yards firing down the ravines. When Company F of the gioth attempted to penetrate the woods from another angle on the eighteenth of October, the Germans let them advance two hundred yards and then blasted them with machine-gun fire from both flanks.
In four searing days, the gioth took casualties in the Bois des Loges, and the sogth suffered proportionately. The shells plopped almost soundlessly around the fighting men day and night and the deadly swirls of phosgene and mustard settled in the ravines and even in the foxholes, forcing the men to wear their uncomfortable masks almost constantly. They had the same driving orders that had sent their comrades smashing into the Loges woods—attack, attack. A detailed exploration of the town chills the blood.
The Germans controlled the northsouth streets, and could infiltrate men over roofs and through back doors into the east-west houses. This was bad enough. Much worse was another German-controlled piece of local real estate which the soldiers dubbed the Citadel. This was a tongue of rock that jutted into the center of the town and ended in a perpendicular thirty-foot cliff.
Comte Bellejoyeuse, a minor figure in sixteenthcentury French politics, had built his chateau on this commanding perch. The Germans had burrowed into its shattered ruins like determined moles. I climbed the hill and persuaded a lady caretaker to let me enter the grounds of the chateau, which has been restored as a national monument.
My Days and Nights On the Battle-Field
The chateau was situated in a park that stretched yards behind it along the St. Just beyond that was Bellejoyeuse Farm. The farm is still there, the same cluster of red-roofed buildings rebuilt, of course where the Germans had emplaced dozens of machine guns. The day before the y8th relieved them, the 77th had filtered some men across the Aire, and in a fierce houseto-house brawl had temporarily cleared the east-west main street.
It was obvious that an assault would have to be made in force, and the entire 3iath Regiment crossed the Aire River later in the day.
The rains had raised the normally rather narrow, tepid stream, and in some places the men had to wade through water up to their necks. The water ruined almost every gas mask. They had barely reached the northern bank when the Germans laid down a gas barrage. The Americans could do nothing but watch in horror as the poisonous cloud boiled up less than fifty yards away. Then what seemed to them a miracle happened. A breeze sprang up, and the deadly vapor moved down the river valley instead of enveloping them.
The Citadel could not be taken by frontal assault.
But assailing it from the east was equally impossible. Bellejoyeuse Farm protected that flank, and the Loges woods in turn protected Bellejoyeuse Farm. The only hope seemed to be an assault that swung west of the town, up a narrow valley to a village called Talma. According to division headquarters, the French were in possession of this little town. Machine guns were rushed to this flank, and instead of an attack, the Americans found themselves fighting a desperate defense.
It was probably here that my father almost got himself court-martialled.
They were dug in beside the main road, which the Germans periodically sprayed with machine-gun and shell fire. They had it zeroed in, and nothing human could live on it. But the racket drowned him out. Another ten steps and German machine guns would cut the fool in half.
With a curse my father dove out of his foxhole and went sprinting across the road to hit the stroller with a flying tackle that sent them both somersaulting off the road into a shell hole half full of rain water. An instant later the German machine guns laced the road with bullets. In the shell hole the stroller surfaced, spluttering with rage, and my father blanched to discover that he had tackled a major from division headquarters, sent out to check on the liaison with the French. The major roared about courts-martial and executions for a moment, and then looked out at the swarm of bullets tearing up the road where he had been standing a moment before.
At Talma, as elsewhere in the Argonne, it is not so much the stories as the ground itself that makes the most eloquent history. I walked up the valley, staring at the dark mass of the Bois de Bourgogne ahead on the left, and the steep angle of Talma Hill on the right, thinking of the morning when, their hopes raised by the capture of Talma Farm, two companies tried a surprise assault on Talma village. Shrouded by heavy fog, they moved forward and were within yards of their goal when the winds of chance, which had rescued them from the gas attack, betrayed them.
The fog suddenly lifted and the Germans poured in fire from the front and both flanks. Almost every man in the advance platoons was killed or wounded; the few that survived did so by playing dead through the agonizing day.
At nightfall, this handful crawled back to the foot of Talma Hill. Often men cracked in the face of such carnage. My father was not by nature a bitter man, but he never forgot or forgave another captain who panicked as they moved out to an assault. The guys saw him later in Paris wearing a wound stripe. They walked right by him without saluting or speaking. He looked the other way. The Germans were pouring shells into the narrow valley at regular intervals, and between barrages the smallest sound, a cough or the chink of a helmet against barbed wire, brought storms of machine-gun fire.
But he admitted thinking, as the men crawled into the darkness, that it would be a miracle if they returned. Not one came back.
Sergeant Fleming returned to the grim task of keeping himself and the rest of his men alive. Five years later, he was walking down Thirty-third Street in New York. There, strolling toward him, was the corporal. When you sent us out that night, we went the other way.
Then we found some aid men and said we were gassed. We put on a good act and that was all there was to it. I thought about doing the same thing a couple of times up there myself. But he kept going.
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So did most of the others. Part of it was ethnic pride. In the Argonne, he was proving his right to be an American. My father loved to tell about the small, skinny Jewish private who came to him after St. After the war, he saw the private in Paris wearing two wound stripes. I ducked more shells than anybody in the whole damn division. For the idealistic, the war was a genuine crusade. Another Elizabeth man proudly told his parents of shooting Germans who had surrendered. I never heard my father, tough Mick though he was, speak a harsh word against the Germans.