We spent part of the time, while we were "standing by", reorganizing the stretcher bearers. A better plan of carrying on our work was mapped out. I was put in charge of them this time. There were twelve from each company, with three stretchers. The Naval Hospital Apprentice assigned to our company was named McDermott.
One night a gas alarm came all the way back from the front to us. I put on my gas mask for a few minutes, but soon took it off. No shells were falling anyways near us, and I figured that we were far enough back from the front to be safe from gas from there. The next night another alarm came back, but this time did not even put my mask on. It was not a good policy, however, to wait and see if there was gas, before putting on mask, when an alarm was sounded. The safest thing to do, was to slip the mask on as quickly as possible, and then find out if there was any gas.
The ammunition details, who hauled ammunition to the front every night, said they were shelled with gas every night. Long range shells passed high over our heads during the night, and fell some distance in the rear. During the day we watched airplanes shoot at each other over head. One day a lone German plane came over, so high up that we could hardly see it. When directly over us, a lot of leaflets were scattered overboard and began to drift down to the earth. While we were eagerly awaiting for them to reach the ground, another German set fire to one of our observation balloons. Previous to this the two observers in another balloon had jumped and come down in their parachutes.
We finally got one of the leaflets. They were peace propaganda, printed in both English and French. The leaflet went on to say that there was now a new Germany that wanted peace, and that if the war continued, the responsibility would have to rest upon the Allies. The burning of one of our balloons while the plane was distributing this propaganda, convinced us that this was the same Old Germany, and that when there was peace, we would be on the giving end of the terms. Another balloon was burned the next day. Sold my little automatic for one hundred francs to a fellow named Pickett in battalion headquarters.
Just at dark on October 30th, we moved closer on towards the front. Crossing a deep ravine, we ascended a steep hill, which took about all our efforts to climb. We got disconnected and had some trouble in getting connected up again. The night was pretty cold and it was not very pleasant to have to stand around long at a time. A long range gun was sending over shells as we neared the front. The gun had a peculiar sound, sounding as if it was only just over the hill from us. Think the muzzle of the gun must have been elevated at a high angle. We did not go very far until we rolled up for the night in a small woods. We remained concealed during the next day, moving on into our assigned place in the front line on the night of October 31st.
Several batteries of 75's were firing away as we neared our destination. For several days we had heard reports of the enormous amount of artillery being massed on this front. Of course we could not see any of it, as we moved only when it was night. We were not shelled any until we came out on the main road running out of Sommerance, when our presence must have been surmised somehow, for shells began to drop right among us, and big ones too. There was some quick scattering, and some confusion for a few minutes. We sought shelter in some of the many shell holes around, but after a while the shelling ceased, and we assembled at our designated place and settled down for the remainder of the night, to wait the coming of "zero" hour. There was no doubt of what the coming of day would bring for us, only we knew nothing about the size of our job, nor the amount of preparation that had been made for it. Some of the boys "dug in", but somehow I didn't feel like spending most of the night digging a hole and then leave it at daylight. So combining my blanket roll with one of the other stretcher bearer's, we rolled up for the little rest allotted us.
Our artillery fire had now become general all along the front, but not of sufficient intensity to indicate a barrage. However at one o'clock, the barrage opened up, and continued so until about four thirty, when it increased in volume, aided by an indirect machine barrage from right behind our positions. The Germans returned with a counter barrage, though not near in proportion to ours. The noise was so great that I could only hear a few enemy shells which fell right near us. There was no tine trying to sleep under such conditions, so the most of us got ourselves ready, and waited. I watched the horizon, which was a continuous flash of fire from the hundreds of guns taking part in the barrage. The machine guns in our rear, being located on a slight rise, sounded as if they were up in the air.
Capt. Dunbeck was leading the Battalion and Capt. Massey our company. At 5:30 on the morning of Nov. 1st, after a weird Halloween night we were "up and at 'em" as the expression was so often used.
We followed in support of the First Battalion. To my surprise a battery of 75's had been concealed almost in the front line, and each gun now was firing away as fast as it could be worked. No doubt the guns had been placed in position during the night. The sight of them blazing away gave us all courage. We suffered quite a few casualties before we hardly got started.
We were crossing the two lines of trenches respectfully in a few minutes after starting. I noted that our line had been a series of small holes fairly close together, while the Germans had dug a shallow trench. There was a heavy fog, and we could not see very far. There were a number of wounded to carry back. I remained with McDermott, helping dress the wounded, and did not assist in carrying the wounded to the rear. We ran across a wounded German officer, who wanted us to carry him back, but we only dressed his wound, which was not bad, and told him to wait for some prisoners to take him back. A number of prisoners were being taken to the rear.
Walking was actually a difficulty, the ground had been so torn up by the barrage. It did not seem possible for anyone to have lived through such a bombardment, but there were not many dead to be seen.
The barrage continued, and kept pretty close up. Several pieces of artillery were captured, but not until our fellows were right up on them. Quite a few shells were fired point blank at us. Was amused at three prisoners, all rather young, chasing back to the rear, with no one guarding them. They were smiling, and seemed to think they did not need an escort. We passed a few words with them, but did not know what they said. The country, in the main, was open, and could see the advancing wave on both sides of us. Early in the forenoon, we leap-frogged the First Battalion and took up the attack. In an open field we were subject to heavy machine gun fire as well as some artillery fire. After this was eliminated, we had to wait for our own barrage to raise. Our shells were falling only a few yards in front of us, and of course we dared not proceed for a while. In front of us a short way, was a large farm house and several buildings, from which a Red Cross flag was flowing, also a large Red Cross sign was painted on the roof. It turned out to be a machine gun nest, for bullets raked the ground all around us. When our barrage had passed on and we neared the building, 12 or 15 Germans came running out, with their hands uplifted, and waving white handkerchiefs. That was the Red Cross Station.
The prisoners were soon on their way to the rear. I never learned just what was found in the supposed Red Cross station.
In a ravine just north of Bayonville, we were leap-frogged by the Third Battalion, and we followed in support of them. We cleaned out a dense woods, in which we captured several pieces of light artillery, which had been firing point-blank at our line. A number of machine guns were also captured in this woods, many of the operators having been killed or wounded while working the guns. The woods were so dense that we had a difficult time getting through them.
When we came out of the woods, we saw a few of the Germans only a short distance in front of us, retreating into another strip of woods. They had left a large caliber gun at this place, one mounted on caterpillar trucks. We lay alongside a hill side while the attack was proceeding. We soon moved on. At dark, we moved back about a hundred yards to get better protection for digging in for the night. We began at once to dig our holes, but just about the time we had all got settled, we had to move to another position. At first we thought we would have to go in the line and support the Third Battalion, but the order never came for us to do so. We later moved back to our former place. It was raining and rather cold. In addition, the place where I had dug my hole was low and wet.
Early the next morning, November 2nd, we moved a short ways and dug in anew on the slope. The town on our left was shelled heavily by the Germans, but no shells fell right near us. It continued raining all day, and water stood in my hole in spite of all I could do. Pulled grass and laid in the bottom to absorb part of the water. I had my shelter half stretched over top, which kept out the water from above, but there was nothing to keep it out from below.
A shell now and then came near us during the day. Our own artillery was silent, being moved up closer to the front. After noon, a German aviator passed directly over us, flying very low, and leaning out over the cockpit, evidently taking observation of our number. He got a record of our rifles and machine guns, for everybody fired away at him, but he kept going. I was included in the number that tried their marksmanship at him.
At night we received rations from our kitchen. Also received some mail, the first time we had ever gotten any mail at the front.
It was too dark to read my letters, and I did hate to have to wait until morning. Was sorely tempted to try a candle under my shelter half, but knew I could not camouflage it entirely.
There was a machine gun at the front, that kept up an almost constant rattle, both day and night. During the second night some German artillery horses were led back through our positions. We heard rumors the Germans were retreating very rapidly. We heard all kinds of rumors, one was that Austria had quit, but it was evident from some shells that dropped dangerously close during the second night, that the Germans had not.
At six o'clock on the morning of November 3rd, we were up and ready to go again. My blanket was soaked through and through. The rain had ceased, and it was not very cold. Entering the woods in front of us, we made our way through the dense underbrush, which at times was so thick that we could hardly keep together. Our troops held the further edge of these woods. We leap-frogged the Third Battalion, and followed in support of the 9th Infantry, which had now assumed the attack. I wondered how they had endured it. Their holes were noting but mud and water. They were truly mud holes.
Beyond the edge of the woods was open country. About two hundred yards from the edge, in a large shell hole, were two German machine guns, with two operators still at their post. They were truly "still". The company spread out in wave formation, as the 9th Infantry had passed along before daylight. There was the possibility that a machine gun nest had been overlooked in the early advance, and if we ran into one while in close formation, where would be few of us left. In front of us, sometimes we could see the front wave, and also could see shells hitting and throwing up a cloud of smoke.