When We Made Good
By Herbert Corey
[Everybody's Magazine, November 1918]
As these pages were going to press a letter arrived from Mr. Corey, in which, among other encouraging things about our boys, he says:
"I have seen half a dozen or more armies fight in this war, and I have never seen such a dangerous one as this of Uncle Sam's. There have been and will continue to be heavy casualties, but the savagery and speed of the American attack will pay in the end. The tired German simply can not stand up against such a battering.
"And I am not one of those who believe that German morale is or ever was bad, or that he is or ever was starved—though he has been underfed—or that he has ever been badly led. This is the tenth inning—that's all. The old pitcher has been knocked out of the box, and the Hun team is leg weary and slow; and we have put a young whirlwind in the points, with every curve there is and more speed than any one ever had. The Hun can't hit him."
It was "H hour" and in front of Cantigny. The gently rolling land in advance of the American trenches had for an hour been bubbling and steaming with bursting shells. Their dust-filled craters looked in the mist of dawn for all the world the little pot geysers that bubble and steam on a volcanic flat. Around a halfcircle four hundred guns were concentrating their fire upon the German batteries. The gun crews worked single-mindedly, dripping with sweat through which black powder fumes were smeared. They had ceased to think of anything but speed. They tore the breech-blocks open, jammed in a shell and hurled the steel gates shut. Sometimes, they bawled to each other, at the top of their voices. The roar of the guns had reached a high level which was quite unbroken by any peaks of sound.
Twelve tanks left their hiding-places behind the line and began to waddle and slip and clank down the hill. A tank would be absurd except in war. The absurdity of war normalizes it. They reared at obstacles and crossed or crushed them and nosed blindly into ditches. A curtain of dust and smoke was drawn across the volcanic flat ahead. The rolling barrage of the seventy-fives had begun. Somewhere back of the American line sixty-four machine guns began to tat-tat-tat. The thin, air of their bullets passing over the trenches was precisely that of the wind in the lighter cordage of a ship at sea.
American soldiers climbed unemotionally out of the jumping-off trenches and began to plod across the flat behind the tanks, under the protection of the curtain of dust and black smoke, which from time to time made fifty-yard leaps ahead, in time with their progress. They walked stiffly, with a peculiar, flat-footed, laborious cadence, for they were heavily laden. They walked in little groups, each man behind his leader. As they moved on the groups began to thicken up. Second lieutenants shepherded their platoons. In such a charge, officers do not run and wave their hands, in spite of the war artists. Each had crooked his left arm before his face and eyed his wrist-watch intently. Now and then they waved their men to a slower pace or inoperatively beckoned them to hurry. The men watched them from the corners of their eyes.
Overhead an air-plane methodically signaled the progress of the advance to the regimental post of command. It flew very low, sometimes not more than fifty feet above the ground. In this way the observer could locate the German machine gunners who had been nested in this field across which the Americans were moving. Now and then one would pop up, deafened and shaken by the shells, blinded by the dust, to sprinkle that advancing curtain with bullets. They knew that behind it the Americans were coming. Sometimes the advancing men stumbled on them and there would be a little fight with two or three on the one side and the stuttering machine on the other. Always the line moved on.
A second and then a third wave of Americans left the trench behind and began to plod heavily and unhurriedly across the flat. Each in its turn had been brought to the jumping-off trench when its occupants started across the volcanic flat. Behind them at intervals came groups of others. There were angry carriers strung about with canteens and other angry carriers with bundles of wire and screw-end stakes, and still other angry carriers with ammunition and grenades. Carriers are habitually angry because they are forbidden to get into the fight except in case of necessity. Yet their risk is as great as the others. Stretcher-bearers came, too, and hospital orderlies with first-aid packets, and the military police.
At headquarters they say the affair at Cantigny was a mere straightening of the line, it would not do to brag before the French—the heroes at Verdun and the Aisne and the Marne—of such a pinprick to the Boche! No doubt headquarters is right. There are—there were—only a chateau and twenty-odd houses at Cantigny. The careful documents of the French war office specify them in the schedule which was prepared for the taking of the place. One reads that Machart's house was built upon a vault and the Fontain's cellar was thirty feet deep and-—that—-Hennique's home was underlaid by a chain of caves in which the Boche would shelter himself.
But if one considers the attack at Cantigny from other than a purely military angle, the story is worth the telling. It was here that the American Army made its first gain of ground in the war against the German in France. It was the first offensive planned and carried out by the Americans alone. It is true that French tanks and French guns helped. It is also true that there had been much American fighting in the Vosges and Lorraine, but this affair at Cantigny was something more than mere fighting. Small it may have been, but such as it was, it was a battle.
Most of all, the taking of Cantigny was the touchstone that proved the worth of the American soldier. The French onlookers declared he was magnificent. A week later an American division was thrown into the breach made in the French lines before Château-Thierry in the fight on the Marne. The German advance was stopped short when it ran into the Yankees who helped hold the road to Peric. They would hardly have been given the chance if their mates had failed at Cantigny the week before,
While it is true that Cantigny was a little place, it was a most irritating little place. First the French held it and then the Germans took it and the French regained it and the Germans got it again. It had been mauled about and pawed over until it had ceased to be a village and became only a dangerous point on the military maps. In front of the little place the Germans had thrust an obtuse V—a salient, in military language—right into the Allied front. Headquarters recognized that as a good jumping-off place for a German offensive. The town was held by the 271st and 272d German Reserve Regiments. They were not the best German troops, but they were very good.
The men in the observation posts on the hill used to watch Cantigny as scientists might examine under the microscope a nest of bugs. The little town glistened in the yellow light of the French spring against its background of green hills. Sometimes a gray figure hurried from one pile of white chalk ruins which had been a house to another pile of white chalk ruins which had been a house. If the figure loitered, some one sniped at it with a piece of artillery. There was one gunner who had an allowance of fifty shells of six-inch caliber each day for sniping only. Sometimes he sniped the crossroads, where the ammunition wagons passed, but he preferred to snipe at singles in Cantigny. The game required more skill.
Between times other gunners would drop shells into Cantigny, and columns of white chalk-dust would spurt into the air. The gray cloud would hang about for half an hour afterward, so thoroughly had Cantigny been pulverized. The shells were mere evidences of dislike on the gunner's part, for every one knew the gray figures lived underground and were safe as safety goes in war. Tunnels crossed and recrossed from the cellars of the houses. A tunnel seventy yards long led from the cellar of the chateau. Some of the ruins which had once been houses had been starred on the secret maps as doubtful.
The Underground Village
"A prisoner," the notations ran, "says that a machine gun is hidden here. The post of command is believed to be under the château. Look out for Robillard's house. A prisoner thinks there is a new observation post hidden there."
When the Germans looked out from Cantigny toward the American line the view must have been about the same. There was a no man's land of rolling green, bounded at one end by a swamp and at the other cut across by a ravine. On the hills behind were other piles of sparkling white chalk which had once been houses and more muddled blotches which had been villages. Patches of wood had been frazzled into stubby brushes. There were shell-holes which had been made into strong points and here and there a puny bit of trench. Neither side bothers to dig trenches in open fighting.
An American division had been sent to the Montdidier sector. Its men say proudly that they are "old regulars." They are not, of course. There is no American regular army any more. But the regimental numbers in this division were those of "old regular" regiments and here and there is an old regular officer, and there are leather-faced old non-coms who are its regimental souls. There are no traditions in such a regiment as these. One hears of fights, at Mindanao and China and where-not, and forgotten names crop up in the talk at mess.
"Take Cantigny!" was the order that came to the division. "Straighten out that kink in the line! Get rid of that salient."
One day three regiments suffered heartbreak when they heard the fourth had been given the assignment to take Cantigny. The lucky regiment became unbearably chesty. Its men talked vaguely of incidents in its past which had led to its selection for this honor. The other regiments hinted darkly that there was favoritism somewhere and that if Black Jack knew of this outrage he would fix somebody all right, and there were dissensions and shoulder-hitting. Some one brought the news that the Germans knew the Americans were opposite Cantigny and had laughed about it!
"What do we care?" the Boche had asked. "The Americans are no good. Soft, you know!"
Every time the division heard that the steam rose in the divisional gage. The officers of the three regiments invited the officers of the fourth to dinner and told them, in the kindest and most insulting fashion in the world, of little dodges they had picked up which might be of use and offered to ride over some day and show 'em. And the officers of the lucky fourth regiment told in a superior way how they were giving their men a special training for the fight. They thought the general planned to have the other three regiments look on some day. It would do 'em no end of good.
Rehearsing a Battle
When there is time to spare such affairs are rehearsed as carefully as any other great modern spectacle. Not a "Queen of Sheba" herself, with her fireworks and adjuncts, could be given more minute drill. Miles in the rear and area had been found which duplicated that of Cantigny as nearly as possible, and on it the stage-managers did themselves proud. Both enemy positions were marked off, and the enemy gun emplacements indicated by stakes and flags. The town itself, or what remains of the town, and its streets and houses and tunnel exits and dugouts were carefully plotted out.
A sand-table was even built, twenty by thirty feet in size, on which every house was built to scale. Then the regimental and then the battalion and later the platoon officers were rehearsed in the parts they were to have in the new play. They were kept at it until they were letter perfect on every detail. They knew where they were to jump off from and where they were to go to. They knew the compass bearings of their prospective routes, and each had marked down a landmark to follow. At last, on "J three" day, the whole regiment was rehearsed.
"J three" is three days before "J" day, which is the day on which a planned fight is to happen. On "J three" the regiment as a body moved forward behind men waving tree branches, which represented the protective barrage behind which they were to make the assault. It was a most distressing performance. Officers and men got tangled and forgot and were frankly bored and lost their way. They were stupid and slow and careless. Yet when "J" day came, that dull regiment went through on its toes like so many ballet-dancers. There was not a single mistake.
When "J" day came twenty thousand Americans sustained the sort of painful excitement one used to feel about the climacteric game of a World's Series. It is true that only thirty-four hundred were to be engaged in the fight, if all went well, but the rest of the division was ordered to stand by. Cantigny was to be taken, for the commander-in-chief himself ordered it. If the lucky regiment failed the three others were to put their men in the attack. "H hour" was 6:45 A.M. and for four hours before it sounded there were groups of men before every divisional telephone. One found them in dugouts and first-aid stations and posts of command. They might have been waiting for the election returns or a flash from the ringside at Reno. Between times they kidded each other:
"They've detrucked," was the first of the messages to come in.
That is one of war's new words. The men who were to fight had been brought up to a point near the jumping-off trench in camions. It was a warm, starry night in the last quarter of the moon. As they marched forward there was a sentimental reaction. Some of the platoons sang, one repeated over and over and over—that its "Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Another sang "Madelon," this season's French march song, with great feeling and an atrocious accent. Others harmoniously scattered themselves among other songs, but almost every platoon sang the "Marseillaise." Not one- sang a hymn, although every village-reared private in the regiment knows a hymn or two.
The telephones were silent for a long time. By and by reports began to come in. Companies C and G and I had found their places and settled down for the wait. At half past three o'clock only one company was still straying about in the darkness that had begun to grow gray and wan before the advancing sun. The men at the telephones worried. They discussed the character of the company commander and the company's past history. At 4:57 A.M. the bells shrilled again along the divisional line.
"Fifty-four-forty," came the report from the regimental post of command. That meant 'that every company was in place and ready. The men at the telephones began to ask each other for the makings and to twist cigarets busily. Waiting became a nervous business. Yet only three casualties had been reported on the march up. The company officers had avoided the areas which the methodical German was in the habit of shelling. Down in the jumping-off trench the men propped themselves up against their packs and began to smoke. Noise was discouraged, but they were permitted to talk in low tones. They might even smoke cigarets if they kept their heads below the trench parapets. Many of them went to sleep, for they were tired.
There had been little shelling during the night. From time to time an American heavy had registered on the battery it was to smash later on. When the gunners had found their target they stopped firing. It was not the intention to alarm the German, and induce him to start active counter-battery work. A little play—a little camouflage—was put on instead. The night before the Germans had raided the American lines with some slight success. They might have had more luck except that Captain Frey, wounded to death by the fragments from a high explosive shell, had leaped on the lip of the trench.
"Come on, boys!" he had cried when he saw the round-topped helmets of the enemy through the morning light. ''Come on; give 'em hell!"
That is a good American war-cry, Frey's men broke that German charge inside our wires and Frey knew that they had broken it before he died. It was but natural that we should try for a little revenge for such a raid, and the Germans no doubt expected it. The American guns fired just enough that night to make it seem like a reply to the, previous night's affair, and not enough to alarm an enemy who reads signs as well as an Indian tracker reads a twisted leaf. As morning came on, the firing thickened up a little, but not much. The German batteries replied from time to time. Down in the dugouts and chalk caverns the telephone-bells began to whir. A voice at regimental headquarters said over the wire: "Five o'clock forty-two minutes—three—five forty-four——"
No one heard it say "five—forty-five." That was the hour at which the bombardment was to begin. The guns went off with a crash. There was to be an hour's work on the German batteries before the charge was ordered, in order that the charge might be accomplished in comparative safety. There are heavies and superheavies, and mediums and lights. All blazed away at the top of their voices. The sky above had paled before the morning, but it glowed above this jerking fire. Over on the German side a tangle of flashes showed where the shells were bursting. They made one think of the signal lights of a fleet at sea. The Germans replied feebly at first. Then they became almost silent.
Timing the Attack
The confronting positions followed the configuration of the land. Neither side had much in the way of trenches, but had built strong points to be defended in an attack. At places the lines waved toward each other so that they were hardly more than one hundred yards apart. Elsewhere four hundred yards separated them. If the attacking troops had "hopped over" from the front line, the distances to be traveled would have been unequal. Some must have stuck their noses in the barrage, as the French say, while others must have run breathlessly to catch up with that moving curtain of fire and smoke.
Therefore a jumping-off trench had been built, a kilometer and a half long, in the rear of the American positions and roughly parallel to the German line. Each American would in this way have approximately the same distance to march that each other had. The watches of the platoon leaders had been synchronized, so that they might march with the march of the barrage. They must put their men just one hundred yards from the jumping-off trench within two minutes from the jump in order to get under cover of the friendly curtain. Every man of the three waves must be out of the trench and grouped two hundred yards away within ten-minutes of the jump-off. An exhaustive inquiry into the Boche's mental processes and battery speed had led to the conclusion that it takes him just ten minutes to lay his barrage down from the time of alarm.
An intelligent enemy hides himself when he is being vigorously shelled and does not come out until his watchers tell him that the attack has started. At 6:43 A.M. the officers in the jump-off trenches nodded to their men. "On your toes," said they. At 6:44 A.M. the leaders put their hands on the trench lip and prepared to climb out. At 6:45 the men at the telephones along the line nodded at each other. Their synchronized watches told them the move had started, but their ears would have done them the same service. The tanks were clattering on like so many threshing-machines in travail. The note of the bombardment had changed. The seventy-fives were tack-tacking the barrage down.
"I want you to show me that new three-inch machine gun," said a serious-minded German prisoner after the fight. "That is very new. We did not know a three-inch gun could be fired so fast before."
The men plodded ahead under their sixty-pound loads rather slowly. Each had two canteens of water, two hand grenades and one rifle, grenade, some empty sand bags, a pick or shovel, two hundred and twenty rounds of ammunition, two days' iron rations and a shelter half. Each kept his eyes on the ground on the lookout for stray Germans in ambush, much as quail-shooters watch for birds. Now and then they took snap-shots at those they saw. The photographs taken by the air-plane observers at this time show groups of bodies, spouting out of unsuspected hiding-places and running away. Only here and there a pair or trio stayed to fight.
"There were three machine guns we overlooked on the Advance," said an officer who went through it. "The Germans hid themselves. It was not until we passed them by that they pulled their guns out of the holes and turned them on us."
The line went on calmly, in spite of this itch of bullets at its back. Maybe the men did not know that the gunners were there. The noise of passing shells had become that of a great siren, of which the inflections varied but in which the ear could not detect a separate note. A lieutenant who eight months before had been an undergraduate at Harvard detached a few of his men and ordered them to clean up the gunners. The line went on. By and by the-men caught up to it, panting and wet with sweat. The gunners were piled in odd heaps over the saddles of their guns. From a little distance they looked like piles of old, gray clothes.
One thinks of a charge as a peculiarly deadly affair, and yet this at Cantigny was safe as churches—at least as churches are in a German war. Not more than a dozen casualties were later reported, and some of these were occasioned by fragments from the friendly barrage. There are always casualties of that sort to report, but it is always better for the men to keep close to their curtain. When the edge of Cantigny was reached a few more men fell from the bullets of the Germans who had –learned what was going on. They were beginning to clamber out of their holes and begin their defense. They are not to be blamed, even by the All-Highest War Lord, for their tardiness. The Americans had covered in twenty-five minutes ground which, by a German schedule should, have taken them forty-five minutes to march over. It is always interesting to know the enemy's method of thought.
"What came next?" I heard a colonel ask one of the men who went through the fight.
"Well," he said vaguely, "we ran around—I don't know."
No man tells the same story of what happened after the Americans entered Cantigny. Our guns stopped playing on the village, once our men were in it, and began on the batteries behind. Having kept the Germans underground during the charge, it was their part to reduce the activity of the German batteries upon a town that in twenty-five minutes had become actively hostile. The men of in which one man or two or three would combat as many enemies. There is none of the parade and show of war in such a fight as this. The duty of each man is to kill.
"We never saw men fight so angrily," the German prisoners said after the affair ended. "They seemed to hate us. They hit us with the butts of their guns."
It is rather incomprehensible, but that inherited trait of a nation of woodsmen seems particularly to fret the German soldier. To be shot or stabbed with a bayonet or to have the butt of a gun thrust in his face may be unpleasant, but it follows the rules laid down in the text-books. These thin-hipped Americans, their ridiculous iron hats lopping over one ear and then another, their eyes flaming, leaped at the Boche and swung the gun by the muzzle. Wherever a butt landed one of the Kaiser's unsafe folk went out of business.
Hand to Hand
The tanks slipped and slathered about in the dense obscurity of the dust and smoke. Outside of Cantigny the day was a bright one. The hills were gilded by the sun. The air-plane photographs show that over the town itself a heavy cloud hovered, as though the funnel end of a cyclone were twisting there. At the forward end of each tank a man peered through the tiny slits and swung his gun pointblank on the German groups. From either side machine guns clacked away. In the rear walked the men of the tank liaison. Their duty is to keep the men inside in touch with the events of the insane world without and only to fight if forced. Each carried a grenade in his right hand.
The most vivid description of hand-to-hand fighting I have ever heard came from a man who was there, and yet could recall no incidents at all. He painted a scene of utter, mad confusion, through which men ran and yelled and shot aimlessly, as it seemed. A German and an American, running madly, heads down, met each other full on, breast to breast. They reeled from the shock, glared at each other for a moment, and each ran on. A German ran howling through the fetid mist. His trench knife in his right hand was red and his arm was red to the shoulder. He tripped and fell.
"Then he sang," said the observer. "Just sat there in the middle of that madness and sang. Some one killed him.''
Other Germans ran away. He reported a curious optical illusion. "The Germans seemed about knee high," said he, "and their legs seemed to pump up and down very rapidly, as in an old 'chase' film, and yet they did not make speed. Do you understand me? Their effort was prodigious but unavailing. Their clothes looked floppy, somehow. The Americans seemed about fifteen feet tall and advanced by huge leaps, I stood there and laughed like hell."
Once again a German sergeant-major at the head of a group put up his hands in token of surrender. He smiled as he did so. "He was rather a handsome man," said the man who saw it, "blond with big blue eyes and an open, candid expression." An American lieutenant advanced to accept his surrender when the blond man hurled a grenade. It struck the lieutenant fair in the breast and he died.
"I'll say this for the blond man," said the American. "He knew what was coming when he threw the grenade and he died game. But the other men of his group whimpered."
A wounded German was being led to the rear by a wounded American. They were leaning upon each other, amicably enough, it seemed. They whirled apart, and, bleeding as they were, thrust at each other with the bayonets they had drawn from their belts. The American killed his man and then sat down and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. A captain came by:
"Gee, I'm tired," said the wounded man simply.
Once a group of Germans tried to surrender. They walked about with their hands up, crying "Kamerad." No one paid the least attention to them, busily hunting other Germans out of the underground hiding-places with bombs and flame-throwers, and shooting at those who appeared. In despair the weak-hearted crowd ran toward their own lines. They were on the outskirts of the little town, without guns or canteens or any of the other impedimenta, lacking which a soldier seems stripped and bare, when a tank saw them. One after another, as they ran, the machine gun dropped them.
Time drew on. The tanks swung around and started for the safety to be found miles back of the line. A tank is helpless in the open against artillery. There was an effect of duck-like agitation as they squattered down the road. The surface of Cantigny was being cleared. Stretcher-bearers had carried the wounded to the rear or into the caverns in which the odor of blood and death mingled with the heavy stench of burned petroleum. Dead were everywhere, their blank faces turned up to the sun that was now appearing through the clearing clouds of smoke and dust.
Squads of prisoners were being trotted to the rear by the same military police with the green bands on the left arm that one sees now at so many roads in France. The mopping-up parties were clearing the tunnels of the bodies of those they had mopped up, for Americans must live in those tunnels now. A minute—hours—had passed. No one can say.
Men did not stop even to wipe the perspiration from their foreheads. There was too much to do. The men of the first wave were frantically turning the shell-holes in the edge of what had been a town into a "line of surveillance." Those of the second wave were digging trenches. Those of the third were building three tiny-strong, points for defense against the anticipated counter-attacks. Carrying parties staggered up from the rear with screw-poles and wire—and the odds and ends of organization. The American artillery fire upon the German batteries was slackening, for the guns were getting too hot to work. A stream of walking wounded was reaching the first-aid posts where the surgeons waited. They were chattering anew, like magpies;
"You'd oughta seen me mop up that big Heinie, Doc," one said.
"Lie still," said the surgeon.
"Yes, Doc, but listen," said the soldier, sitting up on the stretcher. "He was coming at me, and I said to myself——."
So it went on. Every man had his story to tell. The litter-bearers not only worked like heroes—a man must be a hero to be a litter-bearer—-but like the giants in an iron-furnace. Their khaki clothes were black with perspiration. Not one of them slept for forty-eight hours and during those forty-eight hours they worked constantly. It is impossible to understand how men could do what they did, for flesh has its limitations of strength and a soldier is extraordinarily heavy when carried in a litter.
The wounded clamored to get away from the hospitals and back to the fight:
"I'll come back to-morrow, Doc," man after man promised. "Honest to God, I will. But the boys need me over there to-day."
The spectacular event was over. The men at the distant telephones hung up the receivers with thankfulness and went about their work or sought sleep. Then the real tragedy of Cantigny began, for the German batteries, relieved of the steel pressure of the American guns, began to shell the little town. The single trench which had been dug was only three feet deep. The tiny strong-points were mere targets for the Boche gunners. The Yankees held the trenches under a concentrated fire that time after time filled it, or uprooted it, or turned its shallow lengths into bowl-like depressions. They might have sought safety in the tunnels, as the Germans had done; but if they had done so they would have lost the town to the first counter-attack.
For two hours the Boche guns dumped shell into the town unopposed, for during that time the American guns could not fire. The one really worth-while counterattack of the battle was launched at this period. The Germans were beaten off by rifle-fire. Some unidentified officer had told them to be calm. "Go easy, boys," he ordered. "Don't fire until you are sure of your man." Four other counter-attacks were sent to Cantigny in the four days during which the men of the "lucky regiment" held it. Not one reached our lines. The Americans went without food and water, because neither food nor water could be brought up under the German fire. They lived on raw bacon and sweet chocolate and grit. After four days they were relieved.
They came out—those who did come out—tired; impossibly, incredibly tired. They stumbled along dully. They were just able to carry their rifles. Lines were cut deep in their faces and sweat had run in them and dirt had dried black in them. They were thin and tattered. They only looked at one if they were addressed and they did not speak if the effort could be avoided. But they were happy.
"Do you know what the Germans call us now?" asked man after man, smiling with stiff lips: "The Blacksnake Division. And I guess Heinie knows why."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald