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42ème Division américaine - Février/juin 1918 Texte en langue anglaise

Récit de la compagnie de Reading, siège du comté de Berk en Pennsylvanie, appartenant à la 42ème division d'infanterie américaine.

The Reading militia in the great war
J. Bennett Nolan
Published under the auspices of the Historical Society of Berks County

The Baccarat Sector

It was now apparent to the dullest mind that the hour of the great trial could not be far distant. All the grim panoply of modern warfare, gas masks, steel helmets and hand grenades had been issued and the men were trained as well as troops could be trained, outside of the shock of actual warfare.
It may be well, at this time, in order to understand the movements of the Company towards the front, to undertake a short resume of the general operations in which the Company formed a small but necessary link.
When it became apparent to the Allied High Command that the American troops were to appear in France in much greater numbers and at a far earlier period than our friends had supposed, or, the foe had expected, the selection of their place in the line became a problem of vital importance. Certain important elements in the English and French General Staff were against an independent American army, holding that it would be better to incorporate the American troops as reserves with the French and English armies as they existed. General Pershing steadily opposed this proposed policy. With an acute farsightedness, which events have since justified, he contended that the American army must and would fight as a unit. Happily, for the future of Democracy he won his point. It was then determined that the existing operations and arrangements would be least disturbed if the Americans took their place in the right of the Allied line. The American front formed a liason with the French, at a point a few kilometers west of Toul, and at this time extended to the east of Luneville, where it joined the Eighth French Army under General Gerard.
This arrangement of the First American Sector enabled our troops to develop their great bases of Bordeaux, Brest and St. Nazaire, and to perfect their lines of communication directly through Touraine and Burgundy without interfering with the lines of communication of either the French or English. The great depots, store houses and training camps which were to feed the mighty army which we eventually put on the front, were scattered along these lines of communication.
The brunt of the first fighting fell upon four sorely tried divisions, the First, Second, Twenty-sixth and the Forty-second. The Reading Company, as has been stated, belonged to the Forty-second Division, commanded by Major General Charles T. Menoher. It had not been expected that the Americans would engage so early in such large numbers. However, when the Germans broke through between Soissons and Noyon, in their frantic drive in March, 1918, they crumpled Gough and the Fifth English Army like an old glove and threatened Paris itself. It was well for the Allied Cause that the Americans were there, brave, devoted and welltrained, to act as reserves for theharrasssed French and English. Each of the four divisions alluded to had a normal strength of about twenty-six thousand men, but usually mustered far below that number. Each had a nucleus of regular troops with which were incorporated certain elements of militia, such as the Company whose fortunes we now follow.
It was on February 20th, at 2:15, of a bitterly cold morning, that the Company started for the lines. They hiked to Langres, where they entrained in box cars at 5 :30 in the morning. The men were nearly frozen. With the improvidence of youth, they started a fire on the floor of one of the cars. It was soon put out, because, as one of the boys naively explains, "We couldn't stand the smoke." In all their distress and anxiety of mind, they found time for the inevitable crap game. This, however, had a tragical ending when Sergeant Ludwig's twenty franc note flew out of the door and vanished down the track. That day they rolled slowly to the north, to the sound of heavy cannonading, and at five o'clock in the morning of February 21st they arrived at the little town of Moyen and began their hike up to the lines. All day they passed through a ravaged countryside, from which the civil population had long since fled. The villages were in ruins and occupied only by troops who were waiting to go up into the trenches. The roads were in frightful shape from the constant passing and repassing of artillery and transport. The Company finally arrived at the half-demolished town of Giriviller, where they found some French troops, also the One Hundred and Forty-ninth, One Hundred and Fiftieth and One Hundred and Fifty-first Machine Gun Battalions, all in a state of hopeless confusion.
The Company rested over Washington's Birthday and February 24th, and left on the morning of February 25th for what was to be an eighteen-mile hike to the village of Benamenil. This latter place was only five kilometers from the trenches. Aeroplanes, friendly and hostile, hovered constantly overhead. The roar of the artillery was continuous and deafening. At night the glow of the north horizon reminded the boys of the blast furnaces in their native county. Ambulances were constantly passing with their pitiful loads. Fearless youth, however, grows callous to the most disturbing conditions. In the midst of all this clamor and misery, the most important entry which Sergeant Smith can conceive of for the diary, is that he has a real white bed spread and that Sergeant Gring is enjoying a cot. These comforts, however, were to be short-lived. The boys were forbidden to congregate in groups, as these might be marked by the watchful Boche, who hovered constantly overhead. They stood about through the whole of the nerve-racking day and watched the high explosives bursting about them. The Captain went up to the front line upon an inspection trip. In the afternoon they saw their first aeroplane battle.
On February 27th, Captain Kestner, who had so well and devotedly led the Company from its departure from Reading, was relieved of command and Lieutenant Joseph W. Brooks was appointed as Company Commander. Lieutenant Brooks was a New Yorker and a graduate of Williams College. He had been a notable football player and was well qualified to lead men, as the event will show. He was twenty-seven years of age and came from the One Hundred and Fiftieth Machine Gun Battalion. The officer directly over him, at that time, was Major William Hall.
That afternoon the officers, platoon sergeants and leaders went up to the second line trenches and at six o'clock the first platoon started after them, the others following in ten-minute intervals. It was an intensely dark and dreary night, with a steady downpour of rain. The Company remained in the support trenches for three hours and then returned to their billets.
On March 1st, Lieutenants Carman, Trapnell, MacKall and Reidnor were relieved of command and transferred to other units. They were succeeded by Lieutenants Hamlin, Shelledy and Rowse.
On March 2d came the Company's real baptism of fire. They left Benamenil at nine o'clock and had scarcely reached the third line trenches when the wary Boche opened up a lively barrage fire, followed by a gas attack. The Berks boys remained in the trenches for ten eventful days, from March 3d to March 12th inclusive. They grew accustomed to life in the trenches and experienced the usual vicissitudes of barrage, both light and heavy, gas attacks and alarm of actual conflict. They were supported by the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Artillery and also by a French Battery. On the second day, however, the Boche got the range of the American guns and scored two direct hits upon the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Artillery with ghastly results. The Germans were employing twelve-inch shells, which exploded with terrific noise, leaving a hole six feet across. Lieutenant Arseneau and Sergeant Smith made an exciting trip back to the base for supplies, walking hand in hand with death the entire distance.
On March 6th Private Sharp was wounded by a bursting shell and Bugler Folk was hit on the left hand. Private Sharp had a message for the Company Commander. He devotedly refused any dressing for the wound until he had delivered his message. The casualties were soon forgotten in the joyful advent of eleven bags of Reading mail.
On March 8th, at 10:30 in the morning, Private Kotouche was struck and instantly killed by a fragment of a bursting shell. The bombardment was continuous and appalling. The Germans were masters of the air and directed the fire of their own artillery without any apparent disturbance. The One Hundred and Forty-ninth Artillery, maddened by the losses of their comrades, were firing at the rate of twelve shots per minute and the French were not far behind them. In the midst of this inferno came the news from the right sector of the Reading line that Sergeant Ludwig and Corporal Gehring had been killed. No member of the Company but had a hair-breadth escape during this appalling period. Each wondered whose turn would come next. The old Berks County pluck asserted itself and the boys fired until their machine gun barrels were red-hot. At last, when it seemed that flesh and blood could stand the strain no longer, the Company was relieved and ordered back to Benamenil, where they assembled in the field Y.M.C.A., drank hot chocolate and greeted each other as men returned from the grave.
The next day they retraced their steps to Moyen, where the Company was inspected and reformed. They remained here en repos until March 20th, when they again returned to Giriviller. It was at this place, on March 26th, that the Company was formally transferred from Company A, One Hundred and Forty-ninth Machine Gun Battalion, to Company D, One Hundred and Fiftieth Machine Gun Battalion. The Company was then moved to the ruined village of Domptail and the next day passed through the populous town of Baccarat. Here, in contrast to the utter ruin in the villages in which they had lately been quartered, there was some measure of civilian life. The shops were open and men and women crowded about the boys and made them welcome.
The Company spent a muddy Easter at the French Cantonment at Voire and left for Reherry early next morning, where the second platoon, under command of Lieutenant Shelledy, went into the second line trenches. The rest of the Company remained in support for ten days, where they were instructed in what the French called Defense contre Avion, or antiaircraft defense. They installed two anti-aircraft guns and watched with interest the emplacement of a huge nine-inch naval monster, the first of the gigantic American guns, which were later to blaze a way to Sedan and victory.
On April 11th, Lieutenant Brooks and the platoon leaders went upon a reconnaissance to the front line trenches, preparatory to relieving the One Hundred and Sixty-sixth Machine Gun Company. That evening the entire Company hiked up to Ancerviller, directly on the front, where they were to remain for ten days. All the letters which the writer has been able to peruse complain of the filthy conditions in which the trenches were left by their predecessors and of the utter waste which seemed to have obtained in their kitchen. The French Artillery, which was in support, threw over a continuous and lively barrage. The boys were lulled to sleep by the whistling of the shells, while the Germans maintained a sulky silence. The men were quartered as comfortably as possible in the damp, dark cellars and debris of what had once been a smiling village. Meals were served twice a day. Latrines were dug after the army regulation. The usual watch observed was two hours on and four hours in repose. The officers placed their machine guns to best advantage and then all settled down to the monotony of trench life and watched the aerial battles which went on overhead. They cheered towards evening when a German plane came floating down apparently fatally struck, but in the end, the aviator righted himself and made off in the direction of the Rhine.
The tedium was broken on April 14th by the appearance of a German scout who was discovered and fired upon at a distance of only a few hundred feet and who returned the fire, shooting through the stock of Corporal Jarrette's machine gun. On the same day, Acting Sergeant Hostetter was wounded and sent to the Base Hospital at Baccarat. Detachments of the men went out into "No-Man's Land" for nightly reconnaissances in the hope of potting the Boche sharpshooters. They saw several, but were unable to reach them. The first section of the second platoon was located a little to the right of the main body in a grove. It was a critical position enough, being bombed all day and gassed at night, but the humor of the boys was not to be denied and they dubbed the place "Carsonia Park."
On April 20th, in a light fall of snow, the Company started to move out of the trenches and marched to Merviller. The weather had been steadily bad and the plastic Lorraine mud became more and moreharrasssing. The morale of the boys was at low ebb after their irksome stay in the trenches. It required all the efforts and resources of the officers to keep up the standard of discipline. The Company was now quartered in another of the ruined villages which they had come to know so well. The cellars had been converted into damp, dark dugouts, only tolerable in the reflection of how much worse the quarters had recently been. At this critical juncture the boys were cheered by the arrival of the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Field Artillery Band. The men wept for joy at the sound of American tunes.
On the 24th the Company was moved still further back to Neufmaisons, where they were billeted. The surroundings here were pleasanter than they had been for some time and the Company was cheered by the presence of a Y.M.C.A. station with a real American girl to pour the chocolate.
On the 27th Lieutenants Brooks and Hamlin took the first platoon of fifty-one men who had been ordered to Baccarat, to undergo a course of instructions in trench raiding.
On May 2d the artillery fire was of an unprecedented intensity and the Company knew that some unusual offensive was in preparation. Later in the day came orders to have the men ready to move up to the lines that same evening. Accordingly, at nine in the evening, in a steady drizzle, the Company moved over the muddy roads to the Ancerviller sector of the front, which they reached at midnight. The sky was aglow with the continual explosions of the heavy pieces. The first platoon had gone on ahead into the inferno, and the rest of the men unloaded the machine guns and made ready for whatever the fates should send them. Callous as the boys had grown, they all remarked on the violence of the barrage. The earth seemed to quiver after the discharge of the heavy railroad pieces. "They were shooting a blue streak," records the imperturbable Smith, "and they sure did raise hell." At about 5:30 in the morning the missing platoon appeared with clothing torn and smeared with blood. They were covered with mud from head to foot and only to be compared with a bunch of football players coming from a muddy field. The Reading heroes had been as far as the Boche third line trenches, had set up their machine guns there and held their position with cool daring, until the raiding party was ready to withdraw. It is worthy of note that this was the first time that a machine gun had been taken over the top by an American raiding party. Several of the raiders had been severely wounded, but there had been no mortalities. Sergeant Jarrette, who had been at the fore-front in the raid, received the congratulations of the Company Commander. As soon as the wounds had been bound up and the paraphernalia collected, the Company left the field, just as the sun was arising over the Lorraine hills, and arrived again at their barracks at 9:45, where all hands promptly went to sleep.
On May 8th came a very welcome and merited promotion to Lieutenant Brooks, who was made a Captain. He was given an ovation by the Company. The Company stayed at Neufmaisons for three weeks, until May 14th. It was a dreary period on the whole, punctuated only by drills on the rifle-range and games of baseball between the showers. All the letters written at this period bear testimony to the vileness of the weather. The excitement of the actual fighting in the trenches had subsided and the boys became again discouraged and homesick. The days were passed in the succession of cloudy skies overhead and under foot the continuous clinging of the Lorraine mud. Small wonder that the note of homesickness is the predominant one in the records of this period.
The Company moved on to Montigny, where they remained from the 14th to the 21st of May. Here, while not engaged in actual fighting, they were subject to frequent gas attacks and became proficient in the use of their masks, of the English model, which had been furnished to them. They were under continual bombardment and had grim evidence of the accuracy of the enemy's aim, when a complete hit was registered on one of their machine guns, smashing it to fragments. All their comrades who had been wounded in the trench raids were well cared for in the Base Hospital at Baccarat.
On May 14th Corporal Ludwig was promoted to a Sergeancy and Privates Belong, Fry and Behm to Corporals. The spring was now far advanced on the Lorraine hills. The beautiful verdure of the early French summer was beginning to make itself apparent. The same birds came back from the south land, which the boys were accustomed to seeing at home; the same flowers that bloomed in Berks County were beginning to be seen in this devastated land. The boys knew that their hours of respite were drawing to a close and that they must soon again take their place on the battle line.
On May 21st they turned in their extra blankets and heavy overcoats and made ready for the return trip to the trenches. It was late in the evening when they moved out from Montigny and made for their old station in the Ancerviller sector. A German aeroplane had been brought down that same afternoon and its outlines were dimly seen in "No-Man's Land," directly in front of the Reading sector.
Their first days in the trenches were uneventful, except for the periodical appearance of enemy aeroplanes. These must have located their position with more or less accuracy, for on May 26th the enemy began shelling the American position with gas shells. The day passed in the succession of gas attacks and amidst tremendous artillery fire. The whole country side, as far back as Montigny, was literally drenched with gas. The full horror of this form of attack soon became apparent. Those of the boys whose bodies were in any way moist with perspiration had their skins eaten into by the insidious gas. They lay writhing in agony and the more serious cases had to be carried to the Base Hospital. The enemy were using their heaviest pieces and dropped two one hundred and five millimeter shells within two hundred feet of the post command. It was a close call. The Alabama Militia, who held the sector to the right of the Reading boys, were less fortunate or less skillful in the use of their gas masks. They suffered sixty casualties. This frightful experience continued until five o'clock in the morning, when the firing gradually died down. Shortly afterwards the boys were puzzled to see what was apparently an American aeroplane being brought down by their own guns. It turned out to be a machine which had been captured by the Boche and sent back by them for a reconnaissance.
The long course of vigorous training which the Company had undergone now began to bear fruit. Their positions were well taken and skillfully conceived. Their guns were planted in a way which earned the commendation of the Regimental Commander.
On May 27th the Captain laconically records, "Now have sixteen guns on the line, having utilized our four reserve guns. Ready for any emergency." The emergency nearly came that same evening when the Alabama troops and the French repulsed a particularly vicious attack, coupled with a heavy barrage and gas. With the coming of the dawn, the Berks lads could count forty German dead, hanging on the barbed wire to the right of their position. All that day the Company was kept on the alert as the firing was incessant. The expected attack, however, did not materialize. Sergeant Smith, who had been sent back to Baccarat with dispatches, was caught in a gas bombardment and had an exciting time getting the gas mask upon his refractory horse.
May 30th was Memorial Day and all their thoughts went back to the happy anniversary of a year before, when they had marched out to the Charles Evans Cemetery. The contrast to their present position was marked indeed. The boys were worn andharrasssed by loss of sleep, continual bombardment and the strain of watchfulness. "Will it ever end?" writes one of the lads to his sweetheart at home. "It is like a raging furnace." Many of the letters written at this period express the hope that if death comes it will be a clean hit, and that they will not suffer the tortures of their gassed companions.
On May 31st came a more than welcome relief. The Company hiked back to Reherry in a state bordering on collapse. Their respite, however, was short. The Allied line was so thinly held that seasoned troops were continually needed.
At nine o'clock on the evening of June 4th, the platoon moved out at fifteen minute intervals to the Montigny sector, where they again took up front line positions. The enemy seemed to have an intuition that the trench garrison was being changed and welcomed them with a particularly heavy barrage. Forty of the boys who were in a dug-out had a miraculous escape when a nineinch shell struck close by. Only two of them were wounded. Our artillery retaliated the next morning by bringing down a German observation balloon with inflammable shells.
The history of the Company's career in the Lorraine trenches is almost monotonous in its unvarying experiences. The long days passed in a succession of gas attacks, alarm and heavy barrage. The harrassed Reading boys, who a year before had been on the farm or in the workshop, were now cool intrepid veterans. They realized that they held the forefront of the battle line of civilization. But for them and their comrades, the Germans would probably have attempted a mighty stroke against Dijon and again have threatened Paris from the rear.
June 10th saw the Company in its old station on the Ancerviller front. The indomitable Captain Brooks was sorely smitten with fever, but led his platoon the entire distance.
On the 14th of June the monotony was broken by the appearance of a particularly venturesome German, who recklessly flew low over the gun positions, bombarding them with his machine gun. Although pursued by a continuous fire, he made his escape. One of the boys writes, "I believe he was low enough to hit with a rock. He sure was a nervy cuss."
The fine weather abruptly ceased and the heavy rains again set in, turning the trenches into rivers of mud and adding inexpressibly to the misery of conditions. A particularly insidious gas attack on June 18th caused the Reading Company several casualties and killed nine of their mules. The devoted village of Reherry, which the boys had so lately left, received a terrible bombardment, killing seventy-three of the Forty-second Division who were quartered there.
On June 19th the enemy registered three direct hits on the stable where the Company had forty-seven head of horses and mules, causing a ghastly havoc.
On June 20th the Company were relieved by a French detachment and marveled how few men our war-worn allies were compelled to send to man the sector which they were just abandoning. The mortality among the horses and mules handicapped the transportation severely. Each man was compelled to bear a double burden. Even then it was with difficulty that they were able to drag their guns, ammunition, field kitchen and paraphernalia. The boys hiked the entire night in a heavy rain, repassing through Baccarat and arriving at Domptail early in the morning. They had covered a distance of twenty-five kilometers, a notable achievement, considering the heavy burdens which they bore.
The Company was now temporarily under the command of Lieutenant Rowse, Captain Brooks, according to the army regulations, remaining on the front twelve hours after the relief. The rain was incessant, and the boys utterly worn after their sleepless nights in the trenches. Nevertheless, they were compelled to meet another forced march of twenty-eight kilometers to Morriville. Seven of the boys collapsed and were left behind in a barn on the way. It was two o'clock in the morning when the tired soldiers marched through the narrow street of Morriville. Breakfast was served and the men dispersed to neighboring hay-lofts. They were awakened by the church bells pealing on a beautiful Sunday morning, marched to their rail-head at Chatel and entrained the same evening. Their few remaining mules were so upset by the experiences at the front that it was with the greatest difficulty that they could be forced into the cars. The soldiers sat about and waited for the train to start. Some of them visited a German prison camp in the village and talked Pennsylvania Dutch with the prisoners.
The train consisted of fifty wagons. It made its slow way across the breadth of the ancient province of Burgundy ; through Nancy, Toul and Bar-le-Duc. They passed within a few kilometers of the headquarters of one of the greatest soldiers whom the city of Reading has ever furnished to a grateful country - Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett, a Berks County lad; the Commander of the First American Army, who was at this time lodged at Neuf chateau on the Meuse. The Company arrived at noon on the 24th of June, at the detrainment yard at Coolus. Here they were cheered by coffee served by the American Red Cross women and detrained their equipment. After a three-hours' hike they reached the beautiful town of Togny, which delighted them with its cleanliness and picturesqueness. The next few days were devoted to a general clean-up. The Company were again almost on a peace schedule and were delighted at the indulgence accorded them after the horrors of the trenches.


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