Boys' Book of Battles - Chelsea Fraser
With her caterpillar tread,
With her armor-plated frown,
And her nose a-pointing down,
She keeps on wobbling right ahead!
See her rumbling,
Down a shell-hole, up a bank,
Bouncing shrapnel off her forehead,
Shedding bullets from her flank,
Prehistoric, modern, horrid,
Comes the Yankee's awful tank!
The Argonne-Meuse Battle, fought by the American First Army, was the largest battle in United States history. General Pershing's engaged forces were about ten times as large as those of General Lee at Gettysburg. It was a vital element in the subjugation of the German army, and America's main contribution to the war's decision.
The first great battle of the new British armies—the Somme—occurred twenty-three months after Great Britain entered the conflict. The American troops went into their first great struggle eighteen months after declaration of hostilities. At that, half or better of the troops and divisional staffs were green in the war game, the remainder having had but comparatively scanty battle experience which had been acquired in the Marne-Vesle campaign under the French and in their own brilliant operation at St. Mihiel. Their natural handicap in this respect was made more difficult by the fact that the terrain was extremely against them, and that General von der Marwitz and his German troops were seasoned veterans well supplied with every modern convenience of warfare.
On the morning of September 26th the Allied line from Switzerland to the sea was in contact with the main first lines of the elaborate and formidable Hindenburg system of defenses. Everywhere the Germans held these lines intact except in the old St. Mihiel salient. The Boche had the greatest confidence in the strength of these ingenious bulwarks to Allied advance, and it was entirely reasonable for them to feel that their defeats in the preceding months in a war of movement were no criterion by which to judge what they could do behind their much-touted and really praiseworthy defensive system.
Marshal Foch's plan was for the British army to break through these lines in the neighborhood of Cambrai, and push eastward; and for the French Fourth Army and the American First Army to drive northward on either side of the Argonne Forest. This would crowd the bulk of the German forces back on the Ardennes Forest where their transportation facilities were the poorest. If this scheme could be carried out rapidly enough to throw the German retreat into confusion, a large part of the enemy would be forced to surrender in the same general locality in which the French had capitulated to German arms in 1870—that of Sedan. And—to get a little ahead of my story—this is exactly what occurred. Foch, Pershing, Haig, Ludendorf, and Hindenburg are all agreed that the German army was beaten, and the armistice (which was virtually a surrender) was signed to avoid a complete debacle.
As one of the first steps in the carrying out of its plan, the Allied High Command, between September 13th and 20th, moved to the Verdun-Argonne sector more than three hundred thousand American soldiers and the war paraphernalia necessary to their operations. These men came both from the St. Mihiel district and the rest-areas farther back. From officer to private every one of them was wild and eager for the change, as it promised another chance to get in a telling blow at the enemy.
To move an army of this gigantic proportion is no small task. The transportation of the biggest circus is but a drop in the bucket compared to it. To add to the normal difficulties of moving so many soldiers going to battle, all traveling must be done at night, as the fighting zone is approached, and the greatest quiet and secrecy maintained throughout the operation.
In the present instance the troops went for the most part in trucks, with twenty-four men to the vehicle. When you stop for a moment and consider that it takes about one thousand trucks to carry the troops of one single American division of twelve thousand men, not counting their own baggage train; that one division takes up approximately four miles of road, and that there were fifteen divisions moving into this area between Verdun and the western edge of the Argonne Forest, the enormity of the cavalcade can be somewhat realized. The truth is, the movement embraced as much as sixty miles of troops, not including the artillery carts, supply wagons, ammunition trucks, motor kitchens, engineering supply vehicles, et cetera. There is neither the heroism nor the drama about moving troops that there is about actual fighting, but it is one of the most difficult and important features of the conduct of war, and this particular movement brought the American army more praise in Allied military circles than many a spectacular combat in which its units indulged while in Europe.
Quite a large proportion of the artillery, principally heavy, came from the French army, as America had not yet had time to get suitable big guns in any quantity across the seas. Besides the railroad artillery units there were thirty-five French artillery regiments. Not always were there plenty of guns at every point of the battle-line when needed, owing to the difficulties of transportation, but there was no lack in the aggregate.
In small arms, with the exception of one or two divisions which had the light Browning rifle, the American soldiers were using the Chauchat automatic which they did not like any too well. Of minor but useful weapons such as smoke-bombs and hand-grenades they had only small supplies. From their French brothers they had acquired one hundred and forty-two tanks—really more than the nature of the ground permitted them to use, in addition to which there were seventy-three tanks manned by and under the direct control of the French tank corps.
As for air service, when the battle began there were about five hundred airplanes attached to the First Army of which about forty were French. Many more could have been profitably used by the American contingent if they could have been secured. During the forty-seven days of battle the American air forces lost, in crashed and missing, three hundred twenty-four planes, and had nearly that many replacements. It is a mooted question as to which side had supremacy of the air, for many audacious and brave deeds were performed by airmen on both lines, and the opponents sent hurtling to the ground, wounded before they struck or trapped helplessly in their flaming death-chariots, were pretty well distributed, although statistics show that the Allies got a little the best of this type of fighting.
Physically the forty-kilometer front which the American Army was to attack was about the most difficult point on the western front. For four years the Argonne Forest—a thick growth of trees and shrubbery, sudden rises and deep hollows, intermixed with unexpected ravines and rough and rocky ground, much like the Wilderness of Virginia military fame—had been considered impregnable. The Americans accepted this popular verdict also, in a broad measure, for the plan of battle was for them and the French, from their separate sides, to outflank the position in making it untenable.
The artificial difficulties—the defensive lines of the Germans—were perhaps even more formidable. Their lines between Verdun and the Argonne were close together. Just in front of the Americans were three, and in places four, well-prepared defensive lines of the main German artery of defense known as the Hindenburg Line. First came the Hagen Stellung and the Volker Stellung branches. Behind these was the very strong Kriemhilde Stellung, and back of that the surveyed but not finished Freya Stellung, the former being the basis of the thirty-day German defense in the Meuse-Argonne soon to begin.
These various lines consisted of trenches of unusually sturdy and permanent character, reinforced heavily in places with concrete. Before them stretched miles and miles of barbed wire, woven in and out in a perfect labyrinth of steel threads and wicked little spines, in some instances more than a half-mile deep, through which a woodchuck could not crawl unscathed, much less a man. At advantageous positions were concrete pillboxes, shell-proof, concealing deadly machine-guns. The dugouts were deep, also often made of concrete, and in the long months that the Germans had occupied them unmolested had in many cases been sumptuously fitted out by their owners with fine furniture and household accessories taken from nearby occupied towns.
A large operation such as the Argonne-Meuse Battle is very seldom a complete surprise to the enemy, owing to the very immensity of the movements of troops and supplies that must govern it; but the elements of surprise may still remain with the offensive in a very useful and marked degree if the enemy can be kept in ignorance of the exact spot of attack until the moment arrives. It was so in this case. From confessions and documents taken from captured German prisoners in preliminary trench raids, it became patent that the Boche were expecting either a demonstration or a real attack somewhere between the Argonne and Meuse, and were also nervous about the front east of the Meuse. But just where this offensive would be precipitated, and how many and what troops were to make it, they were all at sea about and delightfully guessing.
With everything in readiness, with all the big guns squatting firmly in position, almost in tiers in some stretches of woods; with the completion of the spur track for the giant fifteen-inch barker, on a railroad mounting under a fringe of trees behind a certain bluff,—with these and many other equally important preparedness features of the attack all set, the big bombardment began at two-thirty on the morning of the 26th of September.
The timber also gave cover to all the American infantry which had been coming up to the front in the darkness. French infantry had been holding the line in a thin screen until the night before, but now they had retired while the nine American divisions slipped into their places, al-most automatically, without talking, without the least confusion.
Added to the thundering roar of the American guns was the noise made by the artillery of the French troops on the American left. Altogether the tumult was deafening. It was like a great electric storm suddenly let loose, only the flashes were closer and more frequent by far, and the reverberations and fulminations more continuous and jarring. There were darts of flame in the foreground from nearby batteries, while the leaping, constant flashes ran on in a great cycle as far as the eye could see, giving little time for the velvety black background of the night to swallow them up. Indeed, it seemed that all the world enclosed under the canopy of the shadowed heavens was aflame. Piercing tongues of lightning and broad flashes of lightning! Livid sheets! Little lightnings of the "75's" lost in the mighty lightnings of the big calibers!
It was the American challenge as an army to the big-bellied and sloping-shouldered enemy. The labors and sacrifices of the people at home were concentrated in this inferno of accumulated preparation. American guns were speaking the power of the States—of the Mississippi's flow, of the grandeur of the Rockies, of the salubrious climate of the coastline, of the richness of the prairies, of the strength of the cotton fields and wheat fields and orchards, of the great railroads and steel industry, the coal mines and granite quarries. And it was the thought of these men, handling these guns, the thought of the cause they espoused, which made you who shuddered at the sight of blood, ardently pray that the shells they sent screaming straight toward their tar-gets might accomplish their purpose!
The minutes pass as the lightnings continue their terrific witchery. It is five-thirty,—the "zero" hour. The signal is given. With a yell of fiercest joy, not entirely free of threat, the infantry is off and away.
Moist and slow-breaking dawn revealed dark patches ahead to be woods, and white streaks became roads in the developing outline of landscape.
The two battalions which comprised the attacking force of the Fourth Division were made up of two thousand infantry, two machine-gun companies, and a few wire-cutting teams of engineers. From their position in the battle-scarred French trenches on Hill 304, they shot forward with two more battalions as support. The battalions of the other eight divisions were of course also in the charge at other points, but we shall for convenience follow the fortunes of the Fourth.
MONTFAUCON—SHOWING GERMAN OBSERVATION POSITIONS CAPTURED BY THE AMERICAN ARMY.
Before the charging men lay the first obstacle—the Forges Brook. In the face of a heavy enemy machine-gun fire, the Americans reached the stream, which was narrow. At once foot-bridges, previously prepared and carried by the engineers, were thrown across the banks, and in a trice the men had surmounted the brook.
Along the opposite side of the stream was a lane of barbed wire, with other lanes immediately beyond. Through this maze of tangled steel, some of which had been previously severed by wire-men just before the attack, the Americans cut their way, and were upon the German first-line trenches. The German defense did not con-template attempting to hold at this point, and had retired, the field-gun emplacements proving empty. Even at the second-line the German defense was not serious. A few machine-guns tried to keep back the Americans for a brief time, then they were effectually silenced.
When the Fourth Division stopped on orders, the German infantry and artillery in its front was still retreating. But shortly afterward the Boche came back, straightened themselves out, and prepared for a better defense.
The American plan had been that the whole line should go forward after the manner of the Fourth, and after reaching its first objective, should keep right on and try to break the Kriemhilde Stellung line, where it was expected the enemy would fight its hardest. But Montfaucon was the stumbling block to carrying out this operation. It lay in the path of the Seventy-ninth Division, composed of drafted men from Maryland and Virginia whose sole training had been at Camp Meade in the United States and who were entering their first battle.
From the start this division encountered a good deal of difficulty. The wire in front of them was so thick that they did not get through it in the allotted twenty-five minutes. Working on schedule, the barrage moved, and they were accordingly left without its protection. This resulted in their having a harder time in subduing the machine-gun nests encountered, especially those firing at them from the Malancourt, Montfaucon, and Cuisy Wood ahead of them, and from the town of Malancourt on their right. The total result was that by dusk they were in front of Montfaucon, but some four kilometers (2.4 miles) behind the line which the Fourth Division on their right had reached at two-thirty.
This was the critical moment at which events were to decide whether the advance was to continue on with a rush, or whether the attack was to slow up to hard plodding.
Orders came to make one more effort to keep the push going. The Fourth, the Seventy-ninth, and the next two divisions on the left—the Thirty-seventh and Ninety-first—were all ordered to attack Montfaucon about dusk.
This town is perched on a hill and flanked by wooded ridges, with the remains of its church in broken columns against the sky-line—a very formidable position which the Germans had made theirs in 1914, when their initiative left them a choice in defenses. A year before, its taking would have been considered practicable only after a long artillery storming. Now, with the American engineers speedily completing a passable road through the sea of shell-craters in No-Man's Land, the troops were to include Montfaucon in the day's objective!
Wounded men and occasional prisoners were coming across the fields. Had you been there, young reader, you would not soon forget one of these wounded. In dressing the puncture from a bullet, the surgeon had removed his blouse which hung over one shoulder, showing the white flesh of the other shoulder and his chest in contrast with the circle of tan of his neck. Tall and spare, with his helmet on his arm, the afternoon sun turned his luxuriant hair to bronze and threw his definitely chiseled and really handsome features into a glowing silhouette. His back was a straight line, and his walk which had a great dignity, in keeping with the scene and the bare shoulder and breast, the languid blouse, and the heroic helmet on his broad forearm, suggested the very aristocracy of democracy as a perfectly fit and militant answer to the glitter in the eyes of the typical Prussian officer. If there were ever a picture of the crusader overseas it was this soldier, all unconscious of the symbolism.
With the help of two tanks, and screened by the darkness, the Seventy-ninth finally made its attack. They had gone perhaps two hundred yards when they were deluged with machine-gun fire, artillery, and even hand-grenades. They could not see the machine-gun positions, nor make any effective return fire. After a dauntless stand and suffering heavy casualties, they finally withdrew to the woods.
But it was not to give up. The next morning the Seventy-ninth attacked again. From seven to eleven o'clock they struggled to blot out the machine-guns ahead of them and take the town. Aided this time by the light of the day, and by heavy tanks which crawled slowly over the wire entanglements leveling them to the ground, making great gaps through which the infantry might follow, and by smaller tanks of swifter pace called "mosquitoes" and "whippets", which were bullet- and shrapnel-proof and which were invaluable in reducing pillboxes, the task of taking Montfaucon was at last accomplished.
At three-thirty the Seventy-ninth started north again from Montfaucon, and continued attacking until six o'clock. But the advance was not very fast, and by night the men were badly exhausted. They were still about a kilometer behind the first day's objective.
The American Army had now left the prepared positions from which it had started out, and was dependent for everything on poor roads and few of them—roads which had had to be rebuilt entirely across pockmarked No Man's Land, likewise repaired, where the Germans had mined them or blown up bridges. In addition to this a great obstacle to advance was constantly encountered in the duplicity of the enemy in leaving in his wake ingenious and deadly infernal machines. Captured ammunition dumps and dugouts were often found planted with explosives timed to go off when in possession of the conquerors. Innocent looking baggage left behind, frequently was found by the cautious Americans to contain a heavy powder charge calculated to destroy the life of the unsuspecting handler. Even the bodies of the German dead, sought by American stretcher-bearers upon a recently-contested field, often proved to be the abiding place for a deposit of powerful explosive that would be discharged when the body was moved.
On the 28th of September the two wings of the army made further progress, and on the 1st of October the center made a small gain. In the meantime every one was working feverishly to get ready for another general attack which was scheduled for the morning of October 4th. The Seventy-ninth and Thirty-seventh Divisions, which had thus far borne the brunt of the German resistance, were replaced by the veteran First and Thirty-second.
On the day set came the first general attack all along the line. It gained, though not largely, at every point. Particularly it pushed forward up the Aire Valley along the eastern edge of the Argonne. By night the American line was as far north as Fleville. In the meanwhile the French had been forging along on their side, following the plan of forcing the Germans out of the Forest by a pincer process rather than a direct attack.
But the Boche, although threatened with being cut off, as at Montfaucon, stuck to their exposed position and kept their artillery working savagely on the bared flank of the Americans. To cure this situation the Eighty-second Division, which had relieved the Twenty-eighth, attacked due west on the morning of the 7th.
What they did was one of the extraordinary feats of the whole battle. To pass over a flat valley under the fiercest of artillery and machine-gun fire, capture a strongly defended town (in this case Châtel Chehery), get across a river and up wooded heights on the other side, is a matter not to be lightly considered or undertaken. And yet these fellows of the Eighty-second did it—and said very little about the feat afterward! With entire justification they can, when they get home, discuss war on even terms with the vanishing remnant in blue who went up Lookout Mountain in 1863.
By the 8th the French had closed in on their side of the Forest also. The next day the Germans began to retreat, and by night on the 10th, the Seventy-seventh (New York City draft) Division had the satisfaction of emerging on the north end of the Argonne. While greatly helped in its task by the pressure from the sides brought to bear from its cooperating units, the Seventy-seventh deserves great credit for its share of the work, for it was consistently ahead of its stated objectives, having maintained an unexpected aggressiveness in that hitherto impossible country.
It was during this forward push of the Seventy-seventh that Major Whittlesey and his historic "Lost Battalion" made introduction to fame. Separated from its division in the depths of the rugged woods during a hot bit of skirmishing, and not immediately missed, this battalion had been finally cut off from its main force by the enemy.
For four days, surrounded by superior numbers and subsisting on roots, bark and leaves when their rations gave out, they fought like tigers at bay and held off the Germans who crowded in closer and closer. Many of the brave fellows were killed. Their numbers finally became so depleted that even the wounded had to take their turn at guard duty. One of the officers—a second-lieutenant—had eighteen bullet holes in his garments when later rescued, but had not been injured. At one time the same man had his gas-mask cut away from his face by a German machine-gun less than thirty feet away, yet he was unhurt. He seemed, truly, to bear a charmed life.
But the real hero of the occasion was a little blue messenger—Cher Ami. Cher Ami is the only pigeon on earth that has ever been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.
It all came about because Cher Ami happened to be one of the members of Major Whittlesey's lost force. When matters became very desperate with the battalion, and a canvass showed the officer that not a man of the troop would think of surrendering in lieu of death while fighting, and every few minutes some poor chap was falling from exhaustion and starvation, Major Whittlesey bethought himself of his little carrier-pigeon.
Fastening to it an appeal for help he released the bird, and all the beleaguered soldiers anxiously watched Cher Ami wing his way out of sight over the tree-tops. They prayed that the watchful Boche might fail to hit the bird if they saw him, and their wish was granted. It was just after midnight when an American airplane, hovering for an instant over the hemmed-in Americans in the woods, dropped down into their midst a capsuled assurance that Cher Ami had reached friends and help would speedily follow.
Soon came the rescuers. They rushed through the German cordon, breaking one defense after another, pocketed the weary members of the battalion, and then worked their way out again to the main force, with the rescued in their midst.
But this does not properly end the tale of Cher Ami. A little later it was this same feathered soldier who bore to General Pershing the tidings that the Yankees had crossed the Meuse in the great battle of the Argonne. This time unfortunately the German sharpshooters were on the lookout for carrier-pigeons, and a bullet cruelly ripped off Cher Ami's left leg as he rose in the air, but the dauntless little bird flew straight to headquarters, thirty-seven miles away, with the crease of another bullet across his breast!
ARGONNE FOREST—SHOWING THE CONCRETE DUGOUTS OF GERMAN HEADQUARTERS.
Both armies spent the next twenty days knocking holes in the Brunehilde and Kriemhilde lines preparatory to further advances.
It is very difficult to give a clear picture of the American fighting at this period, for it was neither like the fighting of previous wars nor of the earlier parts of this war. The American line, for example, was not a line at all, nor was the German, although as a last resort they had their trench and wire lines to hold. But the Germans had much more than this. In the first place they had their artillery maps worked out so that they knew exactly where the Americans could take shelter. These places they systematically shelled in the methodical Boche manner, at a certain time, with shots just so far apart. For this regularity the Americans came to be very grateful, as it usually gave them a chance, by anticipation, to better their protection.
Then, the enemy had their machine-guns planted in groups and well-sheltered. To hold a valley they mounted them in the woods or on the hills, or in any favoring position from which they could sweep the declivity. Until an attack was under way, no one could be certain from which direction the bullets which defended the valley would come. True, American airplanes spotted many of these nests for their compatriots, and bombed out others, but there were scores and scores they failed to either get or report.
Thus, to make any progress was a decidedly slow matter, involving usually the storming and capture of these pestiferous emplacements by frontal attacks. But this was only the first round in the game. The Germans had foreseen this and prepared from other positions a fire intended to be destructive enough to prevent the Americans from holding what they had taken. Their third and favorite trick, if the first two failed, was to counter-attack and snatch away the recently-won prize. If this also failed, their fourth procedure was to accept the advance, retire a little way to their next combination, and try all four moves over again. As may be surmised this was a pretty hard game to beat, especially when played by a superior force of the best troops in the German army.
Between the various attacks of the American troops, and the frequent counter-attacks of the enemy, the artillery on both sides kept searching for the guns of the opponents, and the masses of opponents themselves. In this contest of hide-and-seek, with its deadly penalty, the Germans had all of the advantage by reason of familiarity with the ground and long-established dugouts. Wherever possible the Americans used the captured dugouts, but mostly they made little fox-holes in the ground and crawled into them. All over the south side of every hill in this section, if you go to the Argonne, you will see these American burrows, most of which are just large enough for a man to lie down in. And all around them are the shell-holes made by the ammunition of the enemy in an effort to make them untenable. These places were bad enough. The shelter in the captured villages was worse, for villages have a particular fascination for artillerymen.
During all this time the American Aviation Corps was doing exceptionally good service. Not only were the bombing planes doing destructive work in German trenches and occupied towns out of immediate reach of land fire, but observation planes were bringing back valuable information and photographs of the enemy positions and movements. In addition, combat planes were numerous enough and energetic enough to make the foe aircraft very cautious about venturing over the American lines, and anti-aircraft guns did much to add to this fear by their accurate marksmanship.
Never had confidence in the winning quality of its air service been so strong as now. Early in the spring of 1918 the first Liberty motor had been received from America. This, an experiment, had not come up to expectations, and the Expeditionary forces had been greatly disappointed. But now, thanks to the hardest kind of work by the home country's foremost motor engineers and mechanics, a new Liberty had been produced which, in the most grueling tests of the battlefield, was proving its superiority over anything of like nature the Germans could pit against it. So swift were the planes equipped with it that Boche airmen took pains to keep out of reach except when their preponderance of numbers promised a pretty certain victory. Equipped with the latest American warfare device—a wireless telephone, by which the flying airman could at all times keep in verbal communication with his ground officers—these airplanes were a constant source of wonder and dread to the enemy.
As a better insight of the character of the American aviation work in this battle than can be given in generalisms, let me insert here the story of a morning sortie over the Argonne Forest made by a member of the Aviation Corps.
Our daily routine goes on with little change—but the things that happen in between are never alike, and stirring enough at times to make you marvel when you get back to your base that you are still in the land of the eating and living.
Whenever the weather permits—that is, when it isn't raining, or foggy, and the clouds aren't too low, we fly over the Argonne battlefield and the German trench system at the hours indicated by General Headquarters. As a rule the most successful sorties are those in the early morning. Sometimes we go out alone, but usually we have company, and it's a lot safer, too.
We are called while it is still dark. Sleepily I try to reconcile the orderly's muttered "C'est l'heure, monsieur" (John is a full-blooded Yank, but sometimes goes too far, I think, in his efforts to master French), that arouses me from slumber, with the strictly American words and music of "When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam," warbled by a particularly wide-awake pilot in the next room.
A few minutes later, having swallowed some coffee, we motor to the field. The east is just turning gray as the hangar curtains are drawn apart and our machines trundled out by the mechanicians. All the pilots whose busses—that's what we Yanks usually call our planes—are in commission for this trip prepare to leave. A few are to remain behind on guard. We average from four to six busses on a sortie, unless numerous flights are in prospect for the day, in which case only two or three go out at a time.
Now the east is pink, and overhead the sky that was gray has changed into a pale steel-blue. It is light enough to fly, and promises a fine day for the work in hand. We don our fur-lined shoes and combinations, and adjust the leather flying-hoods and goggles. A good deal of conversation occurs—perhaps because, once aloft, there is nobody to talk to. And it is usually of a jesting kind—perhaps because we are going on a grim sort of business.
"Hey, Bob!" one pilot cries to another, "I hope some Boche clips your memory short this morning, so I won't have to pay you that thirty francs I owe you for that souvenir ring!"
"Oh, do you?" retorts Bob, who is next on my right, as he swings into his machine. "Well, all I've got to say is just watch out, Gil, old top, that the Boche don't get you! If it hadn't been for me yesterday, saving you from that Fokker over the Kriemhilde so I could get that thirty francs later on sometime, you'd now be in a German prison-camp or worse. Fine sight you'd be in that Eskimo garb walking along the street of some Boche town, with a sauerkraut and wienerwurst lunch sticking out of your pockets, a beer-swigging military guard about you, and German women and children throwing sticks and stones at you, and dachshunds barking—"
The raillery is silenced by a deafening roar as the motors are tested. Quiet is briefly restored, only to be broken by a series of rapid explosions incidental to the trying-out of the machine-guns. You loudly inquire at what altitude we are to meet above the field.
"Fifteen hundred meters—go ahead!" comes the answering yell of the squad commander.
"Oil and gas!" you call to your mechanician, adjusting your gasoline- and air-throttles while he grips the propeller.
"Contact!" he shrieks, and—
"Contact!" you reply.
You snap on the switch; he spins the propeller; the motor takes. Drawing forward out of line, you put on full power, race across the ground and take the air. Swiftly the field drops away as the hood slants up before you, but as you rise you seem to be going more and more slowly. (At a great height you hardly realize you are moving.) You glance at the clock to note the time of your departure, and at the oil-gauge to observe its throb. The altimeter registers six hundred and fifty feet. You turn and look back at the field. Others of your squadron are just taking off.
In three minutes you are at about four thousand feet. You make wide circles over the field, waiting for your comrades, and slowly mounting. Five hundred feet higher you throttle down and keep on that level till the last of the fellows come up to join you.
With them all caught up and well bunched, in V-shaped flying formation off you go toward the enemy lines. Again you begin climbing, and from time to time calmly survey the other busses accompanying you. You instantly recognize the pilot of each by the marks on the sides of his machine—or by the way he flies, for aviators have their peculiarities of "gait" just the same as pedestrians, I'll let you know. Of course all American planes are marked on the wings with concentric circles of red, white and blue, the red being the "bull's-eye," and with bars of the same colors on the tail, but most of the boys had whimsically decorated the fuselage of their busses with some pet individual design, often calculated to represent national characteristics of the people back home, or to instill a healthy terror in the hearts of the foe, and we soon came to know these as we knew faces below.
By now the country beneath us has changed into a flat surface of vari-colored figures. The woods of the Argonne are irregular blocks of dark green, like daubs of paint on an artist's palette. Fields are geometrical designs of different shades of green and brown, forming in composite an ultra-cubist production on canvas. Roads have taken on the look of thin white lines of string, each with its distinctive windings and crossings—from which you determine your location in many instances. The higher you are the easier it is to read the distant map far below you.
Down there, to the right, you can plainly make out the Meuse River. It is sparkling in the sun-light like a never-ending snake with a diamond-studded back, crinkling, crawling, but never going anywhere. On either side you see a long line of sausage-shaped observation balloons, anchored and protected by obscure emplacements of anti-aircraft guns. Some of these air elephants are the enemy's, some are our own. How you ache to make the enemy's count shorter! But that isn't your business just now.
Immediately west and south there lies a broad brown band. It stretches away to the "S" bend in the Meuse and into the Woevre plain, winding up near Verdun. From this height it is all plain. Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago—before there was any Battle of Verdun. Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. It seems to belong to Hades instead of the Earth. Every sign of humanity has been swept away by ruthless hands. The woods, the roads, have been obliterated into shapeless, meaningless things, as chalk outlines are semi-erased from a blackboard by the hand of a child. The great forts of Douaumont and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. You cannot distinguish any one shell-crater, for at this distance they merge into a terrain whose surface seems only troubled with a rash. Of the villages, here and there, nothing remains but gray jumbles of stone.
Columns of muddy smoke spurt up as high explosives tear deeper into the ulcerated area within your range of vision. The countless towers of smoke remind you of Gustave Doré's picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante's "Inferno." A pungent pall covers the sector under fire, rising so high that at the height of a thousand feet, were you down there, you would be enveloped. At that lower level, too, airmen have had their planes cut in two by the monster shells, and have been rocked so violently by the disturbed air currents when such shells came close, as to scarcely be able to control their busses.
But there is no roar of cannon up here. For you the battle passes in silence, the only noise being the constant roar of your motor which out-sounds everything else. In the green patches behind the brown belt, myriads of tiny flashes, and the spouts of smoke from bursting shells, are all you see of the deadly duel going on beneath. It is a weird combination of stillness and havoc, this Argonne conflict viewed from the sky.
Far below you the observation and range-finding planes of both friend and foe circle over the contested territory like gliding gulls. At a feeble altitude, the target for scores of bullets, one can now be seen—one of your very own!—dashing back after downing a German Fokker. Involuntarily you thrill, and give a cheer unheard, as you see the daring American airman regain his own lines. Sometimes it falls to your lot to guard these machines from Germans eager to swoop down on their backs. Sailing about high above a busy flock of them, you know, makes you feel like an old mother hen protecting her chicks.
At times the clouds pass between you and the earth, shutting out everything below. Again you become involved in the midst of one. But that doesn't worry a man in the least. The fact is, many a time you and your mates seek such a refuge to escape a superior force of enemy planes out looking for you, or to screen yourselves so that you can swoop down unexpectedly on what seems promising prey.
Ah! here you go now behind a big gray cloud. your friends with you. Once there, you throttle down and linger along in a huddled flock. The reason is quickly apparent: From back of the German lines you have seen three German planes headed this way—mere specks—just your equal in numbers to a dot.
Closer and closer come the enemy, wary but unsuspecting. You maneuver to keep concealed, working behind an overlapping cloud, but watching the foe like a hawk. Now he is almost directly underneath you, his black Maltese crosses plainly showing through rifts in your screen. By dipping your wings to one another signals have passed, and each aviator in your squadron knows his part.
Now! Like veritable birds of prey you suddenly tip up your tails and pounce down upon your astonished foemen. In irregular curves and circles you shoot groundward, at such an acute angle your upper body is almost horizontal. Your own German—the one just a bit ahead of the rest—you do not hate, but nevertheless you have an obsessing conviction that you must crush him, just as you would place your foot on a bug. That he may have the same feeling toward you never occurs to you; you have no fear, absolutely none.
He attempts to wheel around and use his machine-gun on you. Even though caught at a disadvantage, if he can get in the first shots—But you are too quick for him. Already your own, machine-gun begins to staccato as you press the release. But hardly has it begun its chatter when, to your consternation, it jams and will not work. You are at his mercy! He seems to know it. You fancy you can see the sardonic grin on his face as he drops suddenly to get under your tail where he can rake you to better advantage.
Of all things you know you must prevent that. Instantly you come up and go into a tail-spin. As you drop erratically you are a most uncertain mark. He is puzzled to get your range, but takes a chance and begins firing anyhow. All the while you work frantically to get the kink out of your gun. Once well below him, you recover and slip off towards his rear. Several bullets have pierced the upper wing a few feet from your head, and one has plowed across your left shoulder, but you are not worrying about little matters of that kind. No, not a bit! For you are now the happiest fellow in France—Joy of joys! your machine-gun is out of jam and ready for business.
You note that your adversary, in his confidence of your helplessness, is now careless. After you he comes, avariciously, recklessly, apparently not caring what position you get into as long as he can get you in front of his nose once more.
A little more maneuvering, nicely done, and you are under his tail for a brief moment, although more holes have been put through your buss in the meantime and one bullet has zipped off a fragment from your sleeve. Put-put-put put! goes your little pet, no longer refractory. You cannot catch the sounds, but you feel the vibrations in your controlling arm with a wonderful satisfaction.
You cannot see your foe from your position, but his petrol tank—that is enough! Surely one of that fusillade of tracer-bullets you are firing must reach the tank of that Maltese-crossed raven!
It does! All at once there is a burst of flames from the fuselage of the German plane. It quivers for a moment, and then begins to drop earthward, a regular flaming torch. As it goes past you, you train your gun on the terror-stricken pilot, doomed to a death more frightful than that of crushed bones or bullet. There is another chatter from your weapon, and with a sigh of relief you see his head drop limply forward on his chest. Mercy!
Now, for the first time, you think of your comrades. Presently you are all together again, with two Boche planes subtracted from the sum total of German aircraft. One, badly crippled, has managed to get back over his own lines.
Back you go to your base, after unsuccessful efforts to coax more enemy planes into combat—back a good bath and a nice warm meal.
To return to the general description of the Battle of the Argonne-Meuse, it may be said that the fighting was of the most stubborn kind in the efforts of the American Army to penetrate the staunch Kriemhilde defenses. The daily avances were small, the losses heavy on both sides, but particularly so to the German. The thing to do was to give him no rest in his sufferings, push him as hard as possible, and allow him no time to recuperate.
When the 30th of October arrived the American troops were through the Kriemhilde defenses in places. In others the Germans still clung desperately to the fringes, but Von der Marwitz must have known, despite the fact that he was backed up by forty-four German and two Austro-Hungarian divisions, that it would be only a matter of a short time when he must fall back and lose his precious railroad. The truth is, it was at this very time that Hindenburg sent his dispatch to his government telling them to make the best terms they could with the Allies as soon as possible, as his armies were beaten.
However, while the German government tried to arrange most unreasonable terms, the German commanders did the best they could to save as much as conditions would warrant from the approaching wreck. And Foch, having the enemy well within his grasp, stimulated every Allied effort to hasten and enlarge the great consummation of four years of terrific warfare.
The task of the American Army in this last phase was two-fold. First, its aim was to send part of its forces in a drive to the north to gather the fruits of the previous thirty-five days' effort, and cut the railroad in the neighborhood of Sedan. Second, the other contingent was to turn east and north in a drive on the eastern side of the Meuse toward Longwy.
The race for the railroad began on November 1st. The German resistance of the previous thirty days had disappeared, thanks to the steady hammering blows of the troops from across the seas. By evening the Second and Eighty-ninth Divisions, in the center, had gone five or six kilo-meters. The next day the same thing happened, and for five days following that, until the American leading troops were overlooking historic Sedan.
Unable to stop these operations, the Germans could do naught but retreat, which they managed to do in a fairly orderly manner, and when the armistice was finally signed, on November 11th, 1918, they were along the heights on the east bank of the river from Stenay to Mezieres. South of Stenay, American troops had crossed the Meuse in the drive toward Longwy. The enemy had lost practically every commanding position north-east of Verdun, and moreover had been backed out into the Woëvre plain, with no natural defenses to rely on and no such artificial defense lines as those they had lost.
Of the four hundred thousand Germans against the American First Army, about sixteen thousand officers and privates were made prisoners, or one in every twenty-five. In addition, one thousand four hundred and twenty-one large guns were taken, and six thousand five hundred and fifty-five machine-guns. The total enemy casualties are estimated at about one hundred thousand, or about one-fourth of their forces. On the American side (including about seven thousand French casualties) the total was one hundred twenty-two thousand.
The decisiveness and the significance of America's great battle in France will continue to grow as time goes on and people continue to study the war. During the forty-seven days' fighting in the Argonne-Meuse, although mistakes were made and graves dug because of them, the marvel is that untrained men and short-trained officers could ever have accomplished what they did against the world-dominant military power that had been tutoring all its young men and preparing for this very struggle as much as forty long years.