Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the Pages - War Stories of the Infantry

Overshadowed by the better-known exploits of the 2nd Infantry Division's 4th Marine Brigade, the soldiers of the division's 3rd Infantry Brigade served just as valiantly alongside the Marines in blunting and then counterattacking against the seemingly overwhelming Kaiserschlacht, or Spring Offensive, during World War I.

In the following excerpt from War Stories of the Infantry, Cpl. Frank L. Faulkner, U.S. Army, recounts his brigade's involvement during this months-long series of engagements along the Western Front.

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On the 12th of March, 1918, traveling in our usual manner we embarked for the front. We traveled to Dugny, a place about five kilometers from Verdun. From here we hiked about eight kilometers to a place called Genicourt, just back of the trenches. It was here that I saw my first view of shell-torn towns and also my first air battles. At that time, it was quite a novel sight, but it soon grew familiar, as they were a daily occurrence.

On March 17th we went in the trenches; of course, we had to travel in the dark. We had full packs, and much of the travel was over the hills and through the woods, so when we reached there, we were pretty well tired out.

We relieved the French, so we did not know much about what sort of a place we were in, but we were told the direction to look for the Germans. It was in a wood; most of the trees had been broken off by shell fire, and only the stumps were left. They looked much like the forms of men, so we spent the rest of the first night shooting up the stumps. That night sort of put us on our feet, and shell fire lost some of its terrors to us. In fact, we soon became able to enjoy a siesta in spite of heavy artillery fire. To say that it does not give you a queer feeling any time when the shells are landing close about you is stretching it a trifle. I went through some mighty heavy barrages afterwards, but I never felt so apprehensive as on that second night.

We were relieved in about twelve days. We came out to a little village just back of the front called Montharon. Here we drilled some days, but since there was considerable shelling there, it was necessary to be careful. From there we went back to Genicourt and stayed a few days, and then [we] went back in the lines near Rupt-em-woerve. This time the trenches were in bad shape, and it had rained. The water was sometimes quite deep, and one’s feet were wet at all times. The dugouts were in very bad shape: damp; dirty; full of cooties, rats, and other vermin. We were all mighty glad to get out of there.

It was in this sector that the first Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to a member of the regiment. It was given to a fellow by the name of Frank Alekno, who ran two hundred yards for help after receiving a fatal wound. [The story] was published in the papers. It went something like this: there was a patrol of seven Germans, including one officer, a sergeant, and a corporal. Alekno, with the assistance of the help he summoned, attacked them and killed the officer and fatally wounded the corporal. From the papers on the body of the officer and the statements of the wounded corporal, some very valuable information was obtained. The rest of the Germans escaped, but I think one was wounded. Both the corporal and the sergeant who went to Alekno’s assistance were wounded more or less seriously. I was about 250 yards from where the action occurred. I heard the shots but did not know what had happened afterwards. I knew Alekno well, as he was in our company. It was [in] this sector that we had our first shell gas attack. Several of the fellows were gassed, but fortunately I escaped.

When we came out from this sector, we went to Woimbly and stayed there several days—three I think. It was there that I spent my first and only time in the Brig; we had just come out of the trenches the night before, and our clothes were all wet and muddy, especially the leggings. Since the town was a shell-torn place and contained only a few French soldiers guarding some wine stores, I did not think it amiss if I allowed my leggings to dry while I went across the street to the kitchen for some grease for my shoes. On the way over, I met the Officer of the Day, and he requested the pleasure of my company. Not being accustomed to be so highly honored, and thinking perhaps I might be of service to him, I went along cheerfully. When we had progressed down the street a ways, he turned me over to the guard and told me I was a prisoner. I asked him what the idea was, and he told me that next time that I appeared on the street, perhaps I would have my leggings on. I just laughed and went in, because I could not feel very guilty.

From Woimbly we went into reserve again at a place opposite Fort Tryon toward the front. Here we did not do much during the days, but at night we dug trenches and put up barbed wire entanglements. The dugouts on this sector were quite different from those we had been in; they were bomb-proof (that is, if a bomb did not hit them). Inside they were quite dry and lighted with electric lights, but many of the fellows here were taken sick with trench fever and were a long time away from the company. One of our forms of diversion here was to go swimming in the Meuse Canal. The water was awfully cold, but it was wonderfully good to be able to keep clean again.

We left this place on the 9th of May, being relieved by the French. We hiked down along the canal to Montharon and stayed there that night and the next day; then we went on down to a place where we could take the train. (It was in Montharon that I received notice that I was made corporal. I was a little dubious about liking the job then and became more so.) The train took us as far as Robert Espaigne, where we disembarked. I was chosen as the goat to go as an assistant to the billeting officer. It was a job that I was not hankering for, and it fully came up to my expectations. The billets were miserable affairs, and the platoons seemed to think that I had picked them out. In assigning billets, I took them as they came, but each platoon took exception and seemed to think that I had a personal grudge against them, especially since they landed in the rain and there was considerable waiting to get them all inside. Here we drilled and maneuvered to get the new men initiated into the mysteries of extended-order drill. It was here also that we received our two-months’ delayed pay and the last one that I received until I received casual pay after I came out of the hospital.

Our exit from here was by a rather long hike to Ravigny, where we entrained for Chaumont-en-Vexin, north of Paris and back of the Somme front. We did not go direct to Chaumont by train but detrained at Meru at about 10 a.m. and hiked twenty-four kilometers through the boiling-hot sun at a forced-march time. The hike killed five mules but only three men. However, many were overcome by the heat, and we were all pretty well used up. Here we drilled and maneuvered some more. We were allowed to go to the village at night, and it was by far the nicest town that we were ever allowed in.

From here we received a hurry call to go to the front. The Germans were just making their drive from Paris through Chateau Thierry and the Paris-Metz road. We took motor lorries and arrived at the front on June 1st. We had to hike a long distance after we left the motor lorries, but on the 29th of June we arrived in a wood just [in] back of the front, and the next day we went up to the Coloumb front and stayed there three days.

Our kitchen did not reach us for some time, since they had to hike the 125 kilometers to get there. There were several days that . . . [were] pretty slim for food, but there was some farm stock that had been abandoned there, so we helped ourselves and had fresh veal, fresh pork, honey, and chicken. After we left that front, we came back to the previously mentioned woods and the following night went in the lines at Triangle Farm just at the right of Belleau Wood. This was the 4th of June. The next day was the attack of which so much is read, but only the marines are mentioned. Nevertheless, the 9th and 23rd were there, and they did just as deserving work, for they were sacrificed that the marines might win their objective.

I was on a point of a hill where I could see both the marines and the “doughboys,” and if there was any difference, the marines had the better protection, and they had an artillery barrage. We had neither; the 9th and 23rd advanced about three hundred yards across an absolutely open field and without a barrage, except the hot one that the Germans put over against them. They drove the Germans out of the woods before them, only to find that it was not the purpose of the command to hold the position so costly gained; it was merely so that the marines could gain theirs. The marines had boulders and stone fences to protect them, and their loss could not be any greater than the 9th and 23rd. In K Company of the 23rd, there were twenty-six men left for duty, and [there were] twenty-eight men in M Company. B and C Companies lost heavily also.

I did not see a single man hesitate in either brigade. They walked right up in the face of the heavy machine gun and artillery fire. And although you could see them falling fast, those that were left passed steadily on. When they found that they were not to hold the ground that they had taken at such cost, they felt pretty sore.

On this front, the artillery fire was intense until we were relieved on about July 12th. We stayed three days on that farm. Since we had taken up an advanced position during the attack that was in the open, we could only obtain food at night, and then we did not have much to obtain. We withdrew to be a support position and stayed there about three days, digging trenches. Then we went back up in the front line and stayed several days. When we came out . . . we went in reserve down in a wood where our kitchen was located. On the 19th of June, we returned to the position that we had held in support and continued there until we were relieved.

We spent our . . . nights digging trenches in front of the front line and going on patrol. I took the automatic rifle [BAR] on these patrols and also acted as covering party for the working parties. While here we used to go out in the woods and make coffee with a dry wood fire, for the dry wood did not smoke, and we could make it in the daytime. This coffee was a lifesaver. Days we used to also dig dugouts for the officers at battalion headquarters. In this position, we had numerous gas attacks, some of which were quite severe. On one occasion there . . . [were] only eight men left out of one platoon fit for duty. I was gassed somewhat myself, but not enough to go to the hospital. I got the gas while working all day in a patch of woods that had been gassed the night before.

From this position, we withdrew to a place opposite Monreal and stayed until the 16th, when we left for the Soissons front. By hiking and motor lorries, we reached the front the night of the 17th. I never saw so many men, guns, ambulances, and various kind[s] of equipment as there . . . [were] back of this front. We knew that something was coming off, but we did not know the importance of it until some time after. That night it rained, and it was pitch dark, and we hiked up to the front. The roads were congested with equipment and tanks, and only a flash of lightning would show us the way. The next morning, at 4:30 a.m,. the barrage opened, and we went over the top. It was the most wonderful barrage I had ever heard. And I have heard none like it since. It sure made us feel good.

By noon we had taken about five kilometers. That afternoon we started on our second attack and took the town of Vierzy. It was when I was going up the other side of this cut that [I arrived in the town where] I received my wound. A first-aid man was right there, and he dressed it, and a couple German prisoners that were taken just beyond helped me . . . [for] about three miles to the first-aid station. Here my wound was redressed, and I had to wait about a day and a half before the ambulance could get through to take me to the evacuation hospital at La Fontaine. From there I was sent to Pierrefont, and from there to Senlis, thence to the French hospital at Chantilly, where I was operated on by a French woman surgeon. Then I was shipped to the American base hospital at Angers, where I remained until I recovered.

After recovery, which was one day less than a month, I was sent to the classification camp at Saint Agninan. This was a miserable place. It was a dirty, dusty, hot sand heap, and the non-coms that were in charge were a frontline duty–dodging, hard-boiled lot. From here, we were sent back to the replacement camp for the IV Army Corps, to which the 2nd Division then belonged. Here we were picked out on experience and time over there, and as to whether we had been wounded or not, and also on our education. We were then sent to Toul as observers with the IV Army Corps. After a brief preparation, we took part in the Saint Mihiel drive. In that capacity it was new but awfully interesting work. The accurateness with which we could view the action made our work both interesting and valuable; reports were sent in from our post four hours ahead of any other source.

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