It was a hot, sunny day, the tenth of June, the year Nineteen Eighteen, that I voluntarily answered the call of my country, which was then plunged into the greatest and most terrific war mankind has ever known. I enlisted at Camp Beauregard, and through the kindness and assistance of a friend of my sister's, Sergeant Whitmel Reed, was assigned to the Intelligence Section, Headquarters Company, 156th Infantry Regiment, 39th Division. A few days after my arrival I was equipped in olive drab, and soon made a full fledged soldier of "Uncle Sam".
Camp Beauregard was a hot, dry, dusty place, lying on the outskirts of Alexandria, Louisiana, with a beautiful road winding back through the hills to the city. I remember, all hospitality and pleasures which in any way could be tendered the soldier boys lavishly poured forth from the ever generous-hearted people of Alexandria. Truly their names shall ever live in the bright pages of our memory.
We worked hard every day from Reveille at 5:00 a.m. to Retreat at 5:00 p.m.; the work consisting mostly of military sketching, map drawing, visual signalling and military lectures. We also had drilling and a three-weeks' course of throwing "live" grenades and bayonet practice, at times getting so hot that we could wring water from our clothes and leggings. Twice a week we had military problems, and for hours at a time crawled over the pine hills, across stumps and rocks, dragging ourselves into muddy trenches, fashioned somewhat like those in the war regions of France. We were issued regular overalls for this work.
I learned to like camp life very well, and as I was tenting with Reed, who was then 1st Sergeant of our Intelligence School, we soon had things going pretty much our way. I liked Reed from the beginning, and as days went by, our friendship grew stronger.
Every other week we received a pass and would go up to my home at Derry, often accompanied by Lieut. Farget of the French Army. It was on one of these home trips that I accidentally shot myself in the eye while handling my old 38 pistol. This misfortune caused my immediate return to Camp where I landed in the Base Hospital and remained under treatment for three weeks. I remember mother, my sister and brother, July and Lamy, coming down to see me and how disheartened I felt when they drove off in the car, leaving me alone with my head all bandaged up, in front of that old Base Hospital.
Our work of hiking, drilling, wig-wag and semaphore signalling, together with gas-mask drills steadily continued. On one occasion, during a sham battle of "going over the top", with the firing of machine guns, rifles and one-pound cannons and grenades thrown in, we were honored by a large crowd of Alexandrians, who drove out to see the military display. As days went by the boys grew anxious to leave for France, little realizing then what hardships and dangers were awaiting us "over there".
On August 6th an official bulletin gave notice that we move on the morning of the ninth. I immediately telegraphed mother to send "Jack' at once, so that I might arrange all my business before leaving, as we were under a strict military quarantine and could leave camp only with a 12-hour pass to Alexandria.
How I longed to see mother and home once more! Everything was in excitement. Rumors of all kinds floated around that farewell passes would be issued to some of the boys. I applied for a pass, hoping against hope, when to my great surprise my name was called, which meant, of course, that "Jack" and I were soon boarding "old 23" for Derry. It was some surprise for mother. The next day, Sunday, was quietly spent, my uncle and aunt, and a Jesuit Priest, Rev. Father Barland, dining with us. That evening, as I told all of the folks good-bye, the good Father, with his blessing placed a little gold chain and medal around my neck. I remember, too, it was the first time I saw my mother break down when she realized I was really leaving for over-sea service. Jack drove me up as far as Natchitoches in a roadster which belonged to a friend of mine, the Parish Priest, Rev. Father Brett.
Here again, after bidding farewell to relatives and friends, thoughts of "one", coupled with devotion to family and flag, and with dictates of honor proudly prompting me to follow the colors across the seas, I soon left Jack standing upon the platform waving me his last farewell! How I hated to part from him! Ours had always been a strong brotherly love. It was a bright, moonlight night and everything looked so peaceful and quiet as I passed back by the old home, the garden, the orchard, fully realizing it might be the last time I would ever see the old familiar places again.
As we pulled out of the depot, I could hear some of the boys yell out: "Good-bye Mat - Give 'em hell!"
The last two days at camp we were very busy packing and cleaning up everything. I had just come in from a field inspection when Sergeant Reed informed me that I was wanted in Lieut. McCarthy's tent. Somewhat surprised I walked over to find to my great joy mother and July had come down to say a last farewell. After chatting awhile in the tent I bid them good-bye. Never shall I forget the look of distress on my mother's face, for no one knew but that it would be our last good-bye on earth. As the car drove off, I saluted them as a soldier should, and though my heart was full, I tried hard not to show it for my mother's sake.
On the following morning, the 9th of August the shrill sound of the bugle awoke us at dawn. Through the cloudy sky a pale yellow glow of the moon still shone over Beauregard. Dimly outlined like a ghostly camp were hundreds of tents on the hillsides. From these, fully equipped, and ready for roll-call, we fell in line, marching out in unison to the sharp tat-tat-tat of the drum beats, stern in that determination so characteristic of the gallant yanks. We soon entrained in sixteen coaches, and as luck had it I boarded a tourist sleeper, the "Lucerne", and we pulled at 6:15 from old Camp Beauregard, bound for some unknown destination.
On the morning of August 15th we arrived just outside of the city of New York and marched up to the ferry boats, which took us up the Hudson. We passed the great city, then under the three massive bridges, then the Statue of Liberty. Steaming for two miles up the river we landed at the Terminal Pier and boarded the subway trains for Camp Mills, Long Island. I shall never forget what first attracted my attention on detraining at Camp Mills. Circling overhead were sixteen battle-planes, some sight to behold!
We remained at Camp Mills six days and almost froze, for quite different from that of Camp Beauregard, the climate was very damp and cold. Here again we had inspections, drilling and detail work every day. It was here we were issued our overseas equipment, which it may be interesting to know, consisted of the following articles: one uniform; one overcoat; cap; pair of wrap leggings; two pair of heavy, coarse hob-nail shoes; four pair woolen socks; two olive drab woolen shirts; two suits of heavy underclothes; one rifle; bayonet; Cartridge belt; two 0. D. blankets; canteen; first-aid pouch and packet; mess kit, knife, fork and spoon; one comb, brush and tooth-paste; one condiment can; pack carrier; one haversack; one shelterhalf; a tent pole; six tent pins; one razor; soap; trench mirror; four boxes of hard-tack (reserved rations). Can you imagine what it means to carry such a load on one's back, sometimes with an additional weight of grenades, 30-pound trench mortar bombs and 200 rounds of extra ammunition? Everybody talked about leaving for France.
On the morning of August 20th, with full packs on our backs, we took the subway train, then boarded the ferry boats which once again steered up the Hudson, this time to land us at the big U. S. S. Transportation Pier No. 5. Here we were treated to hot chocolate and sweet bread by the Red Cross. We were also given our oversea cards to fill out, and an additional one on which were printed numbers assigning to each soldier his bunk, life preserver, detail of life drill instructions. As we marched towards our transport, "The President Grant", the band played as the troops swung into attention.
I shall never forget my thoughts and feelings as I took my last lingering step on American soil onto the great boat. I soon located my bunk, No. 60, a stifling hot hole, with only fresh air blown down through a tube running through the top decks. We were about 7,500 men aboard, so packed and jammed together that I soon realized the trip would be a very rough and tiresome one. All that day I watched the sailors cleaning and loading the 4 and 6 inch guns of the transport, and lowering freight into her huge hold. Late in the evening, just at sunset, tug boats, lashed to the sides of the great ship, towed us up the river. As we passed the Statue of Liberty our band played the "Star Spangled Banner." I stood on the top deck facing the great West, in which direction I knew home lay and my thoughts went back to those I left behind. With a proud satisfaction of doing one's duty, I saluted that old sun just as his last rays were sinking on the horizon, adorning in gorgeous hues the Statue of Liberty.
There were thirteen transports and 9 torpedo boat destroyers in our convoy. Over our ships, flying in circles, were two hydroplanes and in front of the convoy, on watch, floated a large observation balloon. The pale moon showing between the moving clouds reflected a semi-yellow glow on the phosphorus-coated waters below. It was a wonderful sight to lay on the spars and rigging above the upper deck and watch the massive ships plunging against the huge, rough, angry waves of the Atlantic! I did some deep thinking before I turned in to my bunk. Visions of a pale sweet face, drawn with circles of sorrow from a mother's suffering heart; a pair of soft brown eyes, slowly faded into oblivion as the waves of the Atlantic rocked me to sleep!
The following day we began our lifeboat drills with instructions in case of a submarine attack. We had two daily drills, one being held at a certain known hour, while the other was a surprise called at any time. At the sound of a ship's siren we were signaled to assemble in certain groups at designated stations. From these stations we march to our liferafts.
Military law is stern. All things are done in cadence, silence and perfect order. Even though a ship be sinking, no man can rush to his raft without an order. Watches and guards are stationed at all points on board.
The throwing of cigars, papers and such like overboard was strictly forbidden, as "subs" can easily trace a path. The third day out I was appointed orderly by my Captain and allowed a pass to any part of the transport. I immediately took advantage of the opportunity and was soon looking over and examining the electrical and mechanical powers of the massive vessel, along which lines I always took great interest. It was some boat, one of the three largest in the world. Up in the wireless room the operators were listening to the voices of the air. On Sundays our Catholic priests in army uniforms offered up the Holy sacrifice of Mass! How wonderful it all was!
Of course, we expected a submarine attack at any moment. I remember being on a lower deck one afternoon, when suddenly I was startled by the shrill shriek of the ship's siren, followed instanlty by the quivering of her massive structure as her heavy guns boomed forth. Orders were given in loud commands to rush to our life stations then march to our liferafts! As if answering our signals of distress, at once came similar sounds from the other ships followed by firing of guns in rapid succession. It was a moment of great excitement, great anxiety, as well as wonderful sights. The flashes between the firing guns, the continual signals of distress, the explosion of shells sending columns of water a hundred feet into the air, were moments of rare sublimity. Just ahead of us had been sighted a "short round tube". Evidently a sub had been lying in wait.
Continuing our journey, on September 2nd, at midnight, could be seen the lighthouses scattered along the distant shores of France and at dawn the following morning I had my first view of the land for which I left my home and country to fight for - "Noble France".
As we approached, dimly outlined in the mist were rugged peaks and rocks, surrounded by small inlets of water. In places large waves dashed against tall cliffs of solid rock. The background formed a picture of hills on which appeared a few scattered farm houses, fields of grain and grazing lands.
We soon arrived at Brest, a western seaport of France, which is a wonderful natural harbor. Everybody was enthusiastic and felt good, having made the trip without a mishap. Hundreds of bright colored flags from our ship hung streaming in the sea breeze celebrating, as it were, the safe arrival of another contingent of brave Yanks, America's pride! We crowded on a small boat and steamed towards the large American pier still under construction. Our band was playing the French and American anthems and as we passed fishermens' boats, old men and little boys waved their hats in joy.
We landed and as I stepped for the first time on the reddish-brown soil of France, I felt that our task had been half-way filled in the winning of the war. Yes, France had called and the sons of America had answered. It was a national debt we owed, for in the grim days of the Revolution, when our own proud America was gripped in the chaos of a war for freedom, she sent a call to France for help and Lafayette bravely answered: "America, we are here." Such glorious words will forever bind France to the heart of the American nation.
At the wharf we were met by a detachment of Military Police who conducted our march through Brest out to the camp grounds. As we passed through Brest everything looked so queer and odd in contrast to our American cities. The streets were narrow. Stone houses and shops were covered with queer, undiscernible French signs. Little children ran around waving and yelling to us. Grey-headed fathers took off their hats in deep respect, while women in wooden shoes and long black gowns, which they wore for some dear one they lost in war, profoundly saluted us. We soon arrived at camp near the same grounds on which Napoleon the Great had mobilized and trained his vast army for the Franco-Prussian war. Here too, at the Pontanzean Barracks he had established his army headquarters. The French government now use these as military barracks in the training of their troops.
As the work of construction at the camp was not sufficiently advanced to furnish large tents or barracks, we soon pitched our pup tents for the first time, realizing more fully what hardships were in store for us. As General Sherman once said, 'War is hell", and we were beginning to feel we had the hell before us, but like true American boys, born of noble ancestry, when duty calls we responded to the last man. It rained every day of the week we remained here. As a result we had to crawl into our little pup tents through mud and water. French peasant girls came around the camp selling us grapes, fresh ripe fruit, nuts and wine.
On the night of September 1Oth orders were issued to march back into Brest to load box cars with provisions for our regiment.
With heavy packs on our backs we hiked all the way in, scarcely stopping until some of the men fainted and fell out. Our Lieutenant halted a number of trucks and we proceeded on with them to Brest. All through the night, in a cold drizzling rain, we unloaded hundreds of loaves of dry bread and boxes of corn beef from the big government warehouses into funny little French box cars. After completing our work we were shown places in which to rest awhile and possibly get in two hours of sleep before morning. This I managed to do in a half reclining position up against a wall, while every moment I could feel the water dripping all over me from holes in the scanty roof of our shed. It was freezing cold and I was all wet and dead tired. At dawn we were up again and marched a mile in pouring rain to the train. Here again we were put on duty, all through the day distributing rations to the troops on board 35 box cars. We boarded one.
There were forty men to each car, jammed in like sardines, with rifles, packs, coats and rations for a three days trip. Worn out, completely exhausted, soaked to the skin and half frozen, I sat on my pack and with water dripping all over me from a leaking roof, I fell fast asleep while the old box car went rattling and bumping on through France to our next stop. It was a miserable trip lasting almost three days, with the old box cars continually knocking and bumping together.
On the third day we reached our destination. After eating our dinner consisting of corn beef, cold coffee and hardtack in the open freezing north wind we formed out in a field for a two-hour hike. Part of our men, however, were again sent back to the depot to watch the baggage and to load the rations on the trucks. Thus it was a constant job of load and unload.
There were rolls of bedding that weighed four hundred pounds and boxes as heavy as lead. We worked hard and steady until nightfall, then marched back to join our company. We reached them at dusk after plowing for miles through fields of mud.
We found our Company quartered in an old hunting house that had been used by some rich French nobleman while on his hunting trips. It brought back to me memories of a similar rustic ranch-house my father had built many years ago in the pine hills of old Louisiana. Here we remained for ten days receiving individual instructions which are given to all soldiers without exception, and final training before being sent to the trenches.
Here, through lectures and study, we were taught the principles of military education, from which springs bravery, fortitude, self-reliance, discipline and true devotion to one's duty. And, there was military law with its stern penalities, for those who did nothbey. Our drills which continued daily were made up of diversified exercises as tend to develop agility, accuracy and personal bravery of the soldier, such as crossing barbed wire entanglements, shell holes and obstacles of all kinds. Each day we had a full rehearsal on the tactical employment of various weapons, such as the automatic rifle, hand grenade, trench defense weapons and bayonet practice in every possible position.
Our study of conventional signals also occupied a part of our time. We had rock walls to build, hikes with full packs on a fifteen mile stretch, while detail work took up almost every spare moment we had.
Our food was scant, oftentimes a full meal consisted of just a spoonfull of beans, a piece of dry bread and coffee without sugar barely sufficient to keep a man alive under such conditions.
On September 22nd new orders came regarding replacement men for another Division on the front. Immediately a selection of four hundred from our 39th Division was made and ordered to move at once. I was one of the four hundred chosen. We were given a careful examination and had a complete field inspection under the most trying weather conditions to test our physical endurance. I still remember how soaking wet and shivering cold we were, and my feelings when I realized that we would soon be at the front. The next morning at four o'clock we bade farewell to our company and solemnly marched out under the pale moonlight, our old comrades yelling farewell and wishing us good luck. We were the first contingent out of the old 39th Division to go to the front and were mostly Southern boys. Whit was to be sent to a training camp, and how we hated to part from each other. To remain with me a little longer, he got permission to join us in our fourteen mile hike. After a long and tiresome tramp we reached the French town of Saint Florence, which was our destination. I shall never forget our parting words. "Matt," he said, "if you come back and I don't, will you 'bring back' a message for me?" "And Whit," I said "if you come back and I don't, tell 'her' that her soldier boy was true to her - and, Whit, once more, tell mother in consoling words the sacrifice was one of honor and duty bound." Thus we parted; Whit going back his way, and I, I knew not where - somewhere to the front, into the 'Valley of Death'. We remained on the field three days, having pitched our pup tents on the open ground of mud and water. I was placed on guard duty four hours on a stretch, working night and day, in pouring rains and bitter north winds. It was here that we were issued our gas masks and steel helmets, thus completing our fighting equipment for the front. We were also given our final instructions as to the use of the mask, by means of a gas chamber provided for this purpose and were fully impressed that one minute too late in adjusting the mask meant instant death to the soldier.
In the early evening of September 23rd, leaving St. Florence we entrained again in box cars, some of us riding second class, some third class, some in cars marked Chevaux 8-Hommes 40- which means the box car carries eight horses or forty men. We traveled along for three days and nights. The third day at a station where we had stopped, we were told to go no further as the Germans were shelling the country ahead of us. For the first time we could hear in the distance the roar of the enemy's guns indicating we were soon to be in the midst of the world's greatest battle – the war of all nations.
My brother Jack's birthday had been on the day previous, the 25th, just a boy of 18, two years my junior. How I longed to be with him on that day! I had written him a letter and wondered if he had ever received it!
After a bite of salmon, bread and coffee we prepared for our hike to the front. We were given strict orders to carry our masks and wear our steel helmets at all times from now on, as we were entering the danger zone leading to the front line. We loaded our packs on trucks and started on our first long hike of eighteen miles - some distance to propel one's self on foot. It was on this hike that we came face to face with the real horror and destruction of modern warfare as it is carried on by the latest inventions. All along the roadside lay hundreds and hundreds of cannon shells of all sizes and kinds, some were piled in camouflage along the road, others scattered in the brush and fields. Then we passed miles and miles of barbed wire and spike entanglements, fastened to sharp pointed rods driven in the ground, which were used to halt the invading Huns in the event they should break through the front lines. Farther up the road, where a few weeks before the fight had been raging, were hundreds of old rifles, bayonets, parts of cannon and a number of German guns. Here also were dug-outs the doughboys had constructed in the ground. Bordering the roadside were curtains, as high as 25 feet, made of brush and bushes worked and lashed together and fastened upright to poles in the ground as a protection from the enemy during the movement of troops and guns.
As we continued on our march there were telephone poles and wires which had been cut and torn by German shells. Here and there trees bore evidence of being struck heavily by shrapnel, while many of them were cut in half. What was once a beautiful and peaceful French town now appeared a ruin of crumbling walls and shell-torn roofs. As I passed through the silent streets of Chateau Thierry - a land of my noble ancestry - now a "land of ruins - a land of memories" - l thought of my father, whose boyish feet had trodden many times the very ground on which I stood! As we marched on, scattered here and there were hundreds and hundreds of graves, each marked with a red, white and blue circle, graves of our boys who had fallen in the defense of France! I gazed at the names of the heroes and wondered if such was destined to be my fate, to occupy just a few feet of France's soil! They were heroes - yes, every one of them, but the world would never hear of them individually. Their glory would only sleep the sleep of the dead! I thought of their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers - of a dear one, perhaps, still waiting their return!
Here there was no sign of animal life, all was death, destruction, desolation -- the deplorable price of war! Here again where once stood a grand castle now loomed up before us a mass of ghastly ruins! Nay, the Huns had carried their hideousness even further. Grand edifices of worship, costly cathedrals, the abode of God Himself, were masses of shell-torn ruins! Windows were smashed to pieces, Crucifixes and priestly robes lay buried in the dirt while the sacred Tabernacle itself lay open to public gaze! This was the price of war – so grim, so terrible, so inhuman, so dearly paid. 'Tis the memory of such, of the sinking of the Lusitania, of the bitter anguish and sufferings throughout the almost impenetrable forest of Argonne, of the outraged French and Belgians that cry out for reparation - a reparation that no man may pay.
At sundown, tired, hungry and thirsty, we reached the troops of the 89th Division on the St. Mihiel sector, whither we had been sent to join as a replacement. We were assigned in small units to different companies. I was sent to the Pioneer Platoon of Headquarters Company, 356 Infantry Regiment. After eating a cold bite, thoroughly exhausted, I soon fell asleep. Our little pup tents were pitched on a hillside only a few miles from where the great guns were belching forth their hail of destruction. The following morning at dawn we began work on a dugout for ourselves and a large one for the whole platoon. We had to dig in ground composed of almost solid rock. We wielded picks and shovels until our hands were red with blisters. These dugouts answered their purposes until it began to rain. I remember one night we awoke to find ourselves lying in a regular running stream with water aslo dripping from above us.
It was here that I saw my first German shell burst as the Huns were putting a few over us way up in the air. I still remember how those first shells sounded: a low whistling, moaning sound, increasing to that of the rumbling roar of a train, followed by a heavy dull explosion.
On the eventful night of the 29th of September the roll call was given. We were again inspected, fully equipped and ready for fighting. I wrote mother a few farewell lines and again I read the little scraps of her letter I carried in an old match case - "Be brave," she said, "and everything will come out allright." I always felt that she knew best, and was strengthened by those little words of comfort.
We had seen German shells bursting above us, but now, soon, soon, we were to be in the midst of that chaos of terror.
With packs, rifles and full equipment including picks and shovels we fell in line of two abreast and began our march to the front. I wondered how many of us, now strong, virile and healthy, would return from this "Valley of Death."
We marched up the road, thickly congested with traffic, in darkness and perfect silence, least Boche aviators would locate us and use aerial bombs and machine guns. Large, heavily loaded motor trucks, ammunition trains, wagons, cannon, machine guns, carts, ambulances and hundreds and hundreds of tired troops moved in a solid never ending mass, silently and as quickly as possible. It was indeed a wonderful control of traffic carried out successfully. In such movements to have disobeyed orders would possibly have meant death.
Steadily advancing with our gas masks in alert positions we soon came upon the first of our big guns, almost blinding us with its flash and deafening us with its roar. One after another of these monsters we passed cleverly camouflaged with brush and foliage.
We were soon forced to halt and fall out to rest on each side of the road. Half a mile ahead of us the Huns were shelling the French town of Beney, through which we had to pass. Every few seconds we heard the awful whizzing and moaning sound of the enemy's huge shells followed by the heavy dull explosion that shook the very ground over which we passed! It was a sight that night calculated to weaken the heart and courage of the strongest. As I lay there, near my pack in the darkness of the night, my thoughts drifted back to home and mother. Soon again we continued the hike over fields covered with shell holes of greenish liquid, across the open country, through woods and swamps of sticky black mud, slipping and sliding, almost losing our balance under the heavy weight of our packs that seemed to increase the further we went.
Gas alarms were continually given and with our gas masks adjusted we could scarcely see ahead of us, consequently lost the column breaking through the gas zone. It was hell, every inch of it, as we advanced into the "Valley of Death." I carried a little French card and handkerchief in my gas mask that eve to be mailed to mother. These little tokens of love were lost on that battlefield in the darkness of that night while hurrying to adjust my mask. Onward we plodded, through mud and drizzling rain, carrying over a hundred pounds on our backs. Thoroughly exhausted, our feet were swollen and blistered, our bones all stiff and aching. Finally commands were given to halt and rest a while. There, in the woods, wrapped in my shelterhalf and with one hand on my "30-30" close by my side, I dozed off while the roar and explosion of the giant shells continued around us. It was my first night on the front. I woke the next morning with food for thought, but no time for thinking. We remained in this sector of St. Mihiel for a few days, digging and fixing up dugouts and weaving brush mats for the support of the trench walls. Often we found ourselves rushing to these places of protection to escape the shrapnel scattering in all directions. On the night of October 6th we were given orders to move at once. Soon we were returning on the road to our rest place on the hillside and while marching along, passed other troops on their way to replace us. We were in better spirits in anticipation of a change.
Instead of continuing on the main road, as we had expected, our leading column was turned off abruptly in another direction. Over to our left we could see, in the heavy darkness, a number of our boys putting over a hell of a barrage on the German lines. Above us the very heavens were ablaze with thousands of flares and lights, hundreds of guns were firing, while great flashlights flashed and played across the sky in search of hostile aircraft. It was a wonderful and fascinating sight, yet deep down in our hearts it all meant death and destruction! For miles we marched steadily on through ravines and over roads winding in every direction. Still the sky was wonderfully illuminated, and yet we heard the sound of the enemy's guns roaring in the distance! On the road ahead of us, driven by our boys, a big gasoline tractor was popping away with an awful racket. To guide it, a soldier was marching ahead, flashing an electric torch. As we followed it around a curve in the road, "The Dead Man's Curve," suddenly came the whizzing sound of a shell, bursting just a few yards from us. Falling flat to the ground we dug and clawed into the dirt with hands, heads and helmets. We could not tell where the next would hit. Three more followed instantly on a line with us, wounding four of our boys. These were moments of great anxiety when one is put to the test of being made a target - not for shot or bullets, but for instantaneous high explosive cannon shell. We soon fell in line again and continued our hike through the darkest regions, traveling the best we could through almost impenetrable woods and jammed up against a continuous stream of heavy traffic of motor trucks, gun carts and horses. About midnight we arrived at a small bunch of shack buildings and dugouts, which a short time before, had been occupied by German troops. Here we managed to crawl each into a small dugout for a few hours of rest. Suddenly the gas alarm was given by the clanging of two metals - a steel bayonet and an empty shell. Great excitement prevailed, followed by a feeling of uneasiness, as we scrambled in the dark for our masks. It got me for a few seconds while six of our men were carried off. On the following day we were put to work on dugouts. In some places we had to work through solid rock with hammers and chisels. We worked steadily, our hands getting almost raw from blisters. At evening, completely exhausted from a hard day's work, wet and chilled from the drizzling rains, we partook of our ration of bread and salmon, unrolled our packs, and, scattering in bunches on the hillside soon fell fast asleep. It was scarcely dawn when the report of an exploding shell that had been sent across the hillside awoke us! Half stupefied, stunned, filled with amazement, I was greatly horrified to find it had burst but a short distance from the spot on which I slept. A bunch of our boys, who had bunked together to keep warm, had "gone West". It was a supreme sacrifice of eight of our heroes and the gassing and wounding of forty. I gazed on those poor, lifeless young forms, with masses of their limbs, flesh and blood scattered in every direction, it was a sight that called madly for vengeance - a crime for which we should notch thrice on our guns for that valiant blood spilled by the Huns. One by one, we carefully bore our heroes away and laid them in one big common grave.
On the following night orders were given for a twenty-mile hike which almost took our breath away. But surprises are not unusual, so we soon rolled our packs, and, with full equipment, fell in line. We marched for hours at a time in chilling rains and north winds over roads of rock and rubbish which blistered our aching feet, through woods, muddy swamps, over hills, until, completely worn out, we stopped at daybreak in the ghostly, shell torn town of Beaumont. Here in a half reclining position I managed to get a little rest. We remained here a day, spending the time in cleaning up our guns, equipment and also ourselves, as we were a pitiful looking lot, exhausted, caked with mud and full of fleas and cooties. It was a tough life, but we had no other way to live. The following morning, half frozen and aching in every bone, we got orders to continue our hike. During these times we suffered for want of water. We carried such heavy loads, as our packs, rifles, ammunition, steel helmet, gas mask, reserved rations, etc., that our one-pint canteen gave out long before we reached our next supply. This we often got from shell holes of greenish hue, around which many of the dead lay buried. Arriving near a small town on the Verdun front we continued our march through shell-torn series of rocks, entanglements of barbed wire, through brush and mud, for hours without food. We had days of near-starvation and begged for just anything to eat from passing trucks. Many times we picked up from the ground around the camp bits of bread and cold potatoes. Sometimes we almost fought over these scraps. I remember on one occasion how good turnips and raw cabbage tasted, that we picked up from shell swept gardens. We soon left the hillside, hiking again many miles into a thick woody region. It was a veritable danger zone for Boche aeroplanes, as sixteen horses had been killed by aerial bombs the night previous. Here I was put on gas guard and walked around all through nights in cold drizzling rains, the big guns firing away just ahead of me, while shells occasionally dropped around our camp wounding a few of our men. It was here a piece of shrapnel flew by scratching my shoe; another close call that made me apprehensive.
As I had been transferred from the Pioneer Platoon to the Stoke's Mortar Platoon on our last stop, it meant that besides my own full equipment, I had to carry an additional weight of two bombs, weighing about 32 pounds, in a sack with a box of pistol heads and some percussion caps. As I swung the old sack across my shoulder and marched on, I felt it was a heavy load to carry over shell swept regions, through mud and swamps. As we passed along, here and there lay decomposed bodies of German soldiers, lying as they had fallen near their machine guns. Halting on a hillside that had been badly plowed into a sticky, spongy mass of mud by heavy shells, we found a few dugouts in which we at once took refuge, spending a part of the night, jammed up three into a hole, almost lying on each other. It was a bitter cold night. All around was mud and water, with blustering winds whipping in chilly rains! We could see the flashes of machine guns from our hole - we could hear the roar of the continuous rain of German shells! Hours seemed ages. At daylight we crawled out of our holes, tired, hungry and aching, our shoulders cut and bruised from carrying those heavy bombs. Everything was being hurried and after a small bite we fell in line and continued into the Argonne for the drive we were soon to push through. The night was dismal. Just ahead could be heard the sharp "tat-tat-tat" of many Boche machine guns! Immediate orders were given to load, ***** and lock rifles as we would probably have to take over some parts of the line, which would require fighting for. We cut to the left and advanced, gaining steady headway in the almost impenetrable forest, through ravines, up and down slopes, stumbling and staggering over rocks and brush, while overhead, like a swarm of bees, shells were darting in every direction. As we continued through the damp, chilly night we could hardly pull any further under the heavy load that was constantly stinging and bruising our aching shoulders the further we went. Finally, at dawn, we had reached the limit of all physical endurance. Further efforts to continue proving useless, our platoon men were forced to drop out. Our Sergeant finally gave us orders to halt, the rest of our company continuing onward. Utterly exhausted we lay down on the chilled wet ground that dark night with visions of weariness overshadowing us in those few moments of silent rest.
Cold, wet and hungry and with gloomy prospects ahead, we again took up the march to join the rest of our company. After going a short distance we found we had entirely lost track of their path. Turning abruptly to our right, we continued onward in another direction only to meet with further disappointments. Realizing we were lost, with no idea in what direction our lines lay, and that to advance at midnight in the dark of the forest would perhaps mean death, we took the chances of remaining and soon bunked up together. Lying with our hands on our rifles we silently kept guard until dawn.
Cold, stiff, wet and hungry we proceeded further up, soon locating part of our company. Here we found we had in some manner gotten far ahead of our own front lines and we were about six hundred strong, cut off entirely from the rest of the American army and surrounded by a large force of Germans.
Machine guns were barking in the dark forest on all sides, lending their echoing sounds to Argonne's forest hills! All around us the gaunt, grey sky was dense with smoke, while hanging mists grew thick beneath the forest's boughs. Nearer and nearer came the sound of the sharp cracks of the Boche sniper's rifles sending their thrills through our very bones! There was no time to lose and we were soon busy filling sandbags and piling them up in a large square to form a barricade. I had just unbuckled my belt from my pack when our boys on the barricade opened fire! I dropped on my knees with my "30-30" and emptied it as fast as I could! Again and again bullets hummed and whizzed around my head. I saw my partner drop, getting it in the forehead, while another turned over moaning with blood pouring from above his heart. I didn't know where I was going to get mine! I lay flat on the ground, using a Stoke's Mortar base-plate for protection. All around the automatics were cracking and popping as fast as they could blaze away. To add to the terror and discomfort of the situation, German bullets were clipping the leaves and branches of the forest trees, while shells, through dense clouds of smoke and gas burst all around us. I lived an age in ten minutes and began to have a sickly, nervous feeling of uneasiness whether I would ever live through all of this hell! There are moments of grave anxiety requiring nerves of steel when our soldierly qualities of brave endurance are put to their utmost test. These moments were ours. Here, lost in the depth of Argonne's darkest forest, cut off entirely from our Division and surrounded by a force of Huns, I, being a Catholic with deep respect for the Blessed Mother of God and with implicit trust in Her power, called upon Her for protection. Like Tennyson's version: "More things are wrought by prayers than the world dreams of" - is my firm conviction that it was "She" who watched over me through it all. The firing on both sides continued at intervals, the Huns in between times "putting over gas", forcing gas adjustments that prevented our watch from charge attacks. Taking refuge in shell holes, our "30-30s" were kept pointed over the top. All through the night the flashing and flaring of guns continued amid display of crimson bayonets that laid low the foe.
Thrice did I have a close call with those bullets whizzing by my helmet. Exhausted, hungry and thirsty, we kept up the fight for four days and nights, without rest or food and drinking only seeping water from shell holes to quench our feverish thirst. Our incessant efforts to endure fatigue and hunger were on the wane.
All hopes of getting help seemed in vain. Tired in mind and body and with a strain on heart and nerve, we continued to fell the Hun! We sent out three runners on the third day. None of them ever returned. Doomed to either surrender or fight to a bitter end was ours! But no man faltered - none hesitated - and when challenged by our foe we shouted: "Fight it out to the last man." Adding to the anguish, our own artillery began to put over a "Creeping Barrage," advancing directly towards us - almost freezing the very blood in our veins. We knew what it meant; per- haps in a little while there would be a few of us, if any, left to tell the tale.
We did not know what to do. To advance meant running into the German lines; to retreat was to go into that infernal mass of flying steel - the barrage. Boche aeroplanes circling and flying overhead made it impossible to send up signals of flares or rockets. We lying flat in our shell holes, slowly and steadily the hellish barrage was creeping nearer and nearer, while one after another the giant shells were falling through clouds of smoke, crushing and tearing up trees and rocks. It all seemed to spell but the one word - Death, and we had to face it like men!
Suddenly overhead appeared an aeroplane. It was headed directly for us and we could discern an allied insignia. Like a flash we signalled with a flare and instantly from the plane two golden stars shot out - the signal we were located. It turned around and was gone in a minute and scarcely had we lost sight of the machine, when, lo, the barrage was shifted and those giant shells which in a few moments would have been bursting on us, were now exploding to our right. It's a wonderful feeling, when a man is meeting death face to face on all sides and is suddenly saved by what is almost a miracle! This happened on the fourth day, and at two o'clock our relief came and we were soon given our ration of a bit of bread and salmon, which, to us, seemed a grand feast after having gone four days and nights without food or sleep. How any of us came out of this hell I don't know, for we had gone through about all that a human being could possibly stand.
Back through mud and water, over seas of shell craters, across hills and swamps, we hiked. All along the way, here and there, strewed bodies of our dead heroes, all stiff and smeared with blood! Other loathsome sights were bodies of German officers, with their heads cut off entirely from their bodies and lying upward in a decomposed condition. As we passed a truck, I begged a soldier in it to give me just anything to eat. , He pulled out a piece of dry bread which I ate like a starved dog and filling my pockets with the remaining, crumbs. We soon halted on a hillside and were told to rest up a day. Too tired to unroll my pack, I sank to the ground, falling fast asleep. The next morning five of the men and myself were formed into an automatic rifle squad and given colts, revolvers and automatics in place of our 30-30s. Our platoon was at once called out to move and join another bunch of men and carry Stoke's mortar bombs up to the front lines for a barrage which was to be put over when the new "drive" started on the Verdun front, where again, twice I came near being "bumped" off by the explosion of a shell a few yards from where I stood.
We had to make the trip to the front under shell fire, and it was about a five mile hike which I never will forget. We each carried three bombs, in addition to one rifle, one cartridge belt, one hundred and twenty-five rounds of ammunition, a gas mask, and a helmet. The weather was zero, almost chilling us to the very bone. The Huns were shelling heavily ahead as we marched onward. There were men with ashen, sombre faces realizing what was ahead.
We knew the bitterness of attacks that failed - the anticipation of the uncertain - but with the strong determination "to push," so characteristic of the old 89th Division, not a man hesitated. It was a dangerous hike through mud and water and forest hills saturated with gas; continually dodging shells and steel and enemy aeroplanes that were driving, backing and circling in every conceivable manner about us. Yet our division kept pushing ahead, pushing and driving against every resistance; pushing ahead further and further, gaining ground and blasting the enemy's counter attacks. Finally, at dusk, we reached the front to join in the barrage and advance "over the top" the following morning. The night was dark; chill winds swept bitterly against us; we could not see our way and lost our sergeant. Halting up near a hillside I was put on gas guard a few moments, when suddenly Hell itself seemed to have broken loose!
The Huns started in shelling us heavily while our own barrage of cannons, trench mortars and machine guns cut loose! The air was dense with smoke and gas, the woods aglow with myriads of flares and flashes across the Heavens. There was terror in the very atmosphere itself. All orders were yelled in loud commands.
I shall never forget the deafening roar and vibrations of the thunder of that barrage as thousands and thousands were firing at the same moment! It was the grandest sight I ever expect to see again in a lifetime.
I shall never forget the dead and wounded on that battlefield. Mangled bodies lay strewn in piles, the wounded moaning and asking for help!
The air grew denser and denser, and louder and louder came the roar of the enemy’s guns. Adding to all this hellish noise the Huns opened up on us with a heavy counter barrage, their great shells dropping all around us near a little hole in which we had taken shelter and exploding with a reddish flash sending up dirt, rocks, trees and steel in every direction. I could hear mournful cries from some of our boys who got hit, I could see form after form drop helpless to the ground. How any of us came out alive I cannot tell.
I did some deep thinking and wondered how many of us would travel homeward to the land of our birth; how many of us would sleep upon this ground we won?
None but they who have gone through this hell of lying under a counter barrage, completely powerless, can truly realize the anguish and terror. Closer and closer the great barrage advanced, throwing dirt and branches up on the very top of our hole, while inside men gritted their teeth facing this apparent inevitable death! Here again I called upon the Virgin of Heaven with every assurance of Her all-powerful intercession, and, like a ray of sunshine penetrating the darkest cloud, the barrage lifted up a little and we started to join the rest.
At early dawn we continued advancing "over the top" through clouds of gas and smoke-under rain of machine gun bullets, shrapnel and steel. The Huns were shelling heavily the edge of the roadside. It was freezing cold; we were out of water and had just a small ration of salmon and hard-tack. Completely exhausted and thirsting for a drink, I remember grabbing a canteen from a passing artillery caison to soothe my parched lips, when the explosion of a shell sent over deadly gas, getting four of our men. We got down in a valley for awhile during a machine gun barrage and then up again, firing away at the enemy as fast as our automatics could work. For hours the fight continued, for hours the veterans of the 89th pushed forward.
A little farther ahead, in a ditch, my partner and I took turn about to rest, but our work had just begun. So many of our men were getting wounded and as the litter-bearer was killed while going out under fire for wounded, my sergeant sent me with another man to replace him. It was a dangerous situation going over grounds of Hell, as we had to go up and get them under machine gun and rifle fire. Now and then our men were hit while changing reliefs, our dead and wounded lay everywhere. We picked up our first man with a bullet in his stomach and started back one-third of a mile to the horse-drawn ambulance as fast as we could when an enemy shell exploded, throwing dirt all over us and sending shrapnel between the stretcher and me. I felt a cold chill run down my back, as it was a wonder it didn't get all three of us; yet I was not going to put down that stretcher with the poor fellow on it for the world! They followed us up a second time but could not get the exact range on us. The next day we moved up to Beauclair, another town which the Germans were shelling. We started back again to get other wounded continuing our first aid and litter-bearer work. Our next trip was for two of our own boys. As I carried their wounded forms from off the battlefield of carnage and misery, I thought of their mothers, who were keeping the home fires burning, waiting for the return of these boys! On our way back again to the lines we turned off abruptly dodging two German "snipers' who gave us hell for a few moments before we got the best of them. We began picking up the wounded as fast as they came and bandaging those in need of first aid. It was a heart rending sight that weakened the strongest, for everywhere were wounded and lifeless forms - some all torn to pieces, their limbs and heads entirely severed from their bodies! I remember making a trip about a mile under heavy gun fire to get a wounded stretcher-bearer whose partner had been killed. He was a game little Yank, yet a pitiful sight, with his side all ripped open by shrapnel. As I laid him gently on the stretcher, I still remember his last uttered words, "Oh God, if I could only live to die at home!"
Carrying wounded up to a station at Beaufort I saw another awful sight. Again the grim and terrible price ofwar. In a room lay the bodies of nine of our boys - blown to pieces. A shot had come in through a small window, exploding in their midst. The legs and arms of two lay dangling on a shelf and nearby lay their heads, one practically cut in half and covered with debris.
It was living amid blood and death - sufficient to move the coldest heart, to baffle the bravest spirits.
We soon moved up close by the old French prison camp Treme de Petite Candron. On these moves we were under shell fire, where no place is safe; in fact, we were under shell fire continually on the front.
Orders were received to fall back near a trench close by, while our Engineers were trying to put a bridge across a stream. The Huns were making a terrible resistance, having blown up the original and were now shelling us heavily. Daylight was fading into dusk when orders came to advance.
Through a cold drizzling rain we reached the river front where over three thousand had lost their lives. Shells were dropping all around us. The Huns had the exact range and location of our crossing and it was hell to move under this rain of enemy machine gun and artillery fire. I remember falling flat as a shell fell close, its stinging steel getting three of our men. Yet, he who had shown bravery in the beginning could not now yield one inch of ground. Half soaked, hungry and exhausted we piled into a couple of large steel pontoon boats, fastened side by side, and were quickly pulled over the narrow river while shells were exploding all around us. Our wounded were left behind, our dead lying as they fell! Landing on the opposite side we marched along with loaded rifles, stepping here and there over dimly outlined forms of hundreds of our dead boys. I wondered why some were the most fortunate! Rich and poor alike, lay side by side, regardless of rank. We were now in complete enemy territory, separated from our own men and other reinforcements by the river Meuse behind us. We were, in reality, a patrolling party out for an all-night drive. Our only hope of success in the drive lay in the absolute darkness ahead of us. In the cold rains of the night lining up on both sides of a narrow stream, in single file, we proceeded further up when just ahead of us could be heard the voices of several Germans advancing our way, little thinking Americans were near. In perfect silence we fell back, every man with his hand on his gun. As soon as they crossed our lines a few shots from our 45's pierced the silent night and with cries of "Kamerad" and a jumble of German words, they were our first prisoners. We continued along through mud and swamps, half soaked up to our knees, marching the prisoners ahead of us; we soon halted along the side of a deep valley in which a bunch of Huns were hidden. Losing no time, we called to them to surrender! Prepared for a desperate resistance, they "let loose", but soon finding we were equal to the task, threw up their hands and surrendered.
Never once realizing the extreme danger we were in, onward we advanced, the four hundred of us, through darkest night, boldly driving into enemy territory. All around were hostile Germans, while the country was swarming with machine gun nests. Soon we struck up against one of these, which instantly opened fire on us in the dark. Bullets flew in every direction as we fell flat, none of us, however, getting hurt. When the machine gun let up a little we pushed on further. It was freezing cold and with water squeaking in our shoes, we marched on further. There was no time to rest, for again, suddenly through the darkness came that dismal, sharp, tat-tat-tat of a Boche machine gun challenging us! Receiving no reply the wild yells of "Andeho - Andeho" (hands up) rang out from the enemy. Our automatics blazed away, while they again opened fire on us! It was Hell as we fell on the ground while bullet after bullet whizzed above our heads. We had no protection whatever and just lay there perfectly quiet on the open ground with only the absolute darkness for safety. Suddenly we were illuminated by flares sent up by the Germans in their efforts to locate us. Almost instantly could be heard a dull heavy boom, followed by a rushing roar of something close above our heads! They were shooting at us with cannons - we could hear them open and close the guns at each shot! With part of our men crawling around to our left, we advanced, entering a fight confined to a rifle and gun duel, wounding the enemy and capturing his guns. It was a close call for our little bunch. At dawn, through chilly blasts of autumn winds, sweeping over the grounds of heavy frost, we continued onward. Another hour and daylight came.
Commands were given to halt, for to advance in open daylight meant almost instant death. All around in this enemy territory could be heard at intervals the dull explosion of their giant guns. Digging shallow holes on the edge of a hillside we got in for protection. Above our heads German aviators were passing. There was nothing to do. As we waited, the minutes seemed hours of great anxiety. Suddenly the German machine gun fire increased in intensity, while from around a bend on the roadside a German squad was advancing toward us. A shot from the enemy whizzed between my sergeant and I. Instantly our automatics let loose with a "killing stream" of bullets, keeping up such a murderous fire into that bunch, that surprised me and captured them after a short resistance. All told, we had captured during the night, eighty-three prisoners, while but four of our men were wounded. There were about ten machine guns in a line, with long belts of ammunition ready to be fed into them, which we found later on. Evidently we had surprised the enemy before they could make use of them. After bandaging some of our wounded we started back to our shelter holes, cold, hungry and thoroughly exhausted.
Again stern orders were given to roll our packs for a final drive. It was now twenty minutes to eleven, November 11th, 1918. We fell in line and marched onward.
We had had no official word yet that the armistice was to be signed. In fact we had heard so often about Germany's peace talk that we paid no attention to wild rumors.
Exactly at eleven o'clock, came the message from Marshal Foch's headquarters, the "Armistice was Signed." Instantaneously wild shrieks, shouts and yells of thousands and thousands of voices could be heard. The night had been a thing of horror! Daylight brought her joyful tidings to thousands of wearied fighters! Visions of home and dear ones, of transports homeward bound, waiting for the boys who answered the call of their country - the boys in khaki - the Yanks!
It was a moment of wonderful happiness when the great guns ceased their roarings; a glorious day of sunshine for the poor tired souls of the fighters who would ever celebrate the Eleventh of November - the signing of the Armistice.
All glory, honor and respect to those brave Heroes who made the supreme sacrifice! A sacrifice receiving its reward; a sacrifice which will ever live, cherished in immortal fame, through the ages of time, preserved by the everlasting uniform peace of a nation, for which they fought and died. They fought under the Stars and Stripes, bathed in the blood of our forefathers, the symbol of the greatest country in the world. A country born in freedom - a country whose flag will forever be unfurled in the one great cause of humanity, justice and freedom of all mankind. They gave their young lives that freedom and peace may reign - that our world should be made a decent spot to live in.
We honor them; we respect them; we cherish their memories. They have carved their names in the bosom of a nation of freedom; a nation of national justice; a nation of God fearing people - our own United States of America! May the banner of Freedom, Justice and Peace forever wave proudly over the graves of her dead!
Trier, Germany, January 24, 1919.
Note: by Pvt. Mathew Chopin, 356th Inf., 89th Div.