Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Three American Exploits

In July, 1918, an American division brigaded with the French was fighting along the Marne. A detachment of eleven men under Sergeant J. F. Brown was suddenly caught by a tremendous German artillery fire and had to take shelter. Along came the charging columns of Germans, too numerous to oppose, and the little band of Americans lay quiet and let them go on. Presently along came more Germans, and Brown saw that the German advance had left him and his detachment within the enemy lines. He ordered his men to scatter and take care of themselves as best they could. No idea of surrender ever entered their heads. They would get back to their own lines, each for himself. They proposed to walk straight through the battle, not only through the German lines but through their own fire!

Presently in the woods he met his own captain, also alone. Finding that the German artillery fire was too heavy for them to pass through, they lay down in a thicket and decided to kill as many Germans as possible before they were themselves killed. By them processioned company after company of Germans. Presently they heard behind them two machine guns. Brown had a rifle, the captain had a revolver, so the two of them crept out to attack the German army. They stalked the machine gun as if it was a grizzly bear and attempted to charge it. The captain was killed, but there was by this time only one man left of the machine gun crew and Brown picked him off with his rifle. He now met an American corporal, also alone, and the two of them started after the other German machine gun. With the rifle Brown killed the gun crew. Now, attracted by the shouting, appeared the eleven men of Brown's command, who were also looking for Germans. All of this, mind you, within the German lines, surrounded by thousands of Germans.

Presently these thirteen Americans discovered a trench filled with German soldiers, armed as usual with machine guns and rifles, waiting to repel a counter-attack in case their own troops should be forced to retreat. Brown posted his twelve men around that trench in twelve places; placed himself where he could rake the trench with his own rifle, and, when he gave the signal, they all opened fire. They fired until their guns became too hot to hold and killed they did not know how many Germans. But the major in command of the trench had had enough of it. He believed himself surrounded by a large force, thought, in fact, that he was within the enemy lines, so he put up his hands and yelled "Kamerad." The thirteen Americans disarmed the trench full of Germans; there were more than one hundred of them, although the Americans did not stop then to count them. With Brown and the corporal leading and the other eleven Americans in the rear, these thirteen doughboys started out to conduct one hundred prisoners back through the German and Allied lines! They met other parties of Germans, who, seeing this advancing column and believing that somehow or other the battle had gone against them, promptly surrendered. The file of prisoners grew, little by little, until it numbered one hundred fifty-five. By some kind of miraculous luck they came to a place where there was a gap in the German advance lines and in the Allied lines as well, and they did get through. Strange as this tale may sound, it has been vouched for on the authority of well-known correspondents.

Another tale of extraordinary self-possession is told of a single American in the fighting at Belleau Wood. Frank Lenert suddenly found himself surrounded by seventy-eight Germans and five officers. He was a German-American and spoke a language which the boches understood. They questioned him with extraordinary eagerness as to the details of the American attack, and he proceeded in genuine American fashion to "string" them, and did it with that largeness and convincing flow of language which so many Americans are able to attain but which seems to be an unknown quantity in Germany. He told them there were eight regiments around them at that minute and that plenty more were coming. There was an American barrage behind the Germans at that time and they believed that the doughboy told the truth. They therefore begged the honor of surrendering.

Anybody but an American would have betrayed himself, but the self-confidence of this private was entirely equal to the occasion. He accepted their surrender with a gravity which completely convinced them that everything he said was true. They threw their arms away, returned his rifle to him, and started to the rear as eighty-three prisoners. This is one of the largest totals of prisoners taken by a single man. His comment and explanation was that it was no wonder the boches believed the lies their own government told them when they swallowed such lies as his. The American practice of telling a long story with a perfectly straight face again and again accounts for the extraordinary tales which come back to us. The American joke was too much for the German mind.

Another extraordinary adventure was that of the Lost Battalion. During the fighting in the Argonne, a battalion of American soldiers worked itself forward during an offensive at the end of September, only to find itself when day dawned with Germans on four sides. The Americans were in possession of a sort of ravine and were entirely able to defend themselves, but it was a question of death or surrender unless help came. They could stay there but they could not get out, and, having of course no food and only a limited supply of ammunition, they could not hold out more than a short time. They declined however to surrender. The American division to which they belonged soon discovered their plight and an attack was made by the French and Americans to release them. While it failed, it probably saved their lives, because it kept the Germans too busy to attack them.

Three more attempts at relief were made on the next day, all of which failed. Fourteen trips were undertaken by aŽroplanes, however, which succeeded in dropping two tons of food and a good deal of ammunition in the ravine. On the third day it became clear that they must be rescued or they would be compelled to surrender. The Germans realized their plight and sent an American prisoner to them with a note. "Americans! you are surrounded on all sides. Surrender in the name of humanity; you will be well treated."

Major Whittlesey did not hesitate a second. "Go to hell," he shouted, and then read the note to those around him. A ringing cheer went up from those exhausted and hungry men, which the Germans heard and understood from their observation posts. But all goes well that ends well, for within a few hours the American division broke through the German cordon and rescued the battalion. Four hundred and sixty-three men had been cooped up in the ravine and had declined to surrender to nobody knows how many Germans.

It was this spirit of the American troops, this do-or-die tenacity, this unwillingness to surrender even before overwhelming odds, that dashed the hopes of the Germans as it raised those of the Allies. It must not be supposed that these exploits here told showed greater, braver, or better qualities than hundreds of others, but a few only could be told in a book like this and these seemed to be not merely remarkable but authentic.