VI CROSSING THE MEUSE
CROSSING THE MEUSE
IN spite of the continual and severe cannonading of the artillery we succeeded in fetching away the two dead soldiers and bringing them on land. The bridge had been much damaged so that we could do nothing but replace the ruined pontoons by new ones. When the firing of the artillery had died down somewhat we began the difficult task for the second time. But we had scarcely begun when another salvo found its mark and damaged the bridge severely; fortunately no losses were inflicted upon us that time. We were now ordered to retire, only to begin afresh after half an hour.
The enemy's searchlights had been extinguished, and we were able to take some ten pontoons into line without being molested. Then, suddenly, we were again overwhelmed by the fire of the artillery; the enemy's patrols had noticed us. Several batteries had opened fire on us at the same time, and in ten minutes' time all our work was nothing but a heap of sinking pontoons; twelve men were killed.
We now were ordered to march away. Only eight of our party were left behind to look after the dead and wounded. We set out to get out of the danger zone. After having marched up-stream for a distance of about a mile and a quarter we halted and observed that the bridge-building section of the army corps was present again. We were told that we should complete the individual links of the bridge on land. Those bridge-links, consisting each of two pontoons, were firmly tied together, provided with anchors and all accessories, completed on land, and then let down into the water. The site of the bridge, which had meanwhile been determined upon, was made known to us, and we rowed with all our might down the river towards that spot.
Our opponent, who had gained no knowledge of that ruse, did not molest us, and in quick succession all the bridge-links reached the determined place. The various links were rowed into their proper position with tremendous speed, and joined together. It did not take quite twenty minutes to get everything just. sufficiently in shape. The infantry, who had kept in readiness, then rushed across the bridge which had been thickly strewn with straw so as to deaden the noise.
At the same time we had begun to cross the river by pontoon at various points, and before the French were properly aware of what was going on, the other side of the river had been occupied by our troops and was soon firmly held by them.
The French artillery and infantry now began to pour a terrific fire on the pontoons. We, the sappers, who were occupying the pontoons of the bridge, were now for the greater part relieved and replaced by infantry, but were distributed among the rowing pontoons to serve as crews. I was placed at the helm of one of the pontoons. With four sappers at the oars and eighteen infantrymen as our passengers we began our first trip in an infernal rain of missiles. We were lucky enough to reach the other side of the river with only one slightly wounded sapper. I relieved that man, who then took the steering part. On the return trip our pontoon was hit by some rifle bullets, but happily only above the water-line. To our right and left the pontoons were crossing the river, some of them in a sinking condition.
The sappers, who are all able to swim, sought to reach the bank of the river and simply jumped into the water, whilst the infantrymen were drowned in crowds. Having landed and manned another pontoon we pushed off once more and, pulling the oars through the water with superhuman strength, we made the trip a second time. That time we reached the other side with two dead men and a wounded infantryman. We had not yet reached the other side when all the infantry jumped into the shallow water and waded ashore. We turned our boat to row back with the two dead men on board. Our hands began to hurt much from the continual rowing and were soon covered with blisters and blood blisters. Still, we had to row, however much our hands might swell and hurt; there was no resting on your oars then.
We were about twenty yards from shore when our pontoon was hit below the water-line by several rifle bullets at the same time. A shot entering a pontoon leaves a hole no bigger that the shot itself, but its exit on the other side of the pontoon may be as big as a fist or a plate. Our pontoon then began to sink rapidly so that we sappers had no choice but to jump into the icy water. Scarcely had we left the boat when it disappeared; but all of us reached the river-bank safely. We were saved---for the moment. In spite of our wet clothes we had to man another boat immediately, and without properly regaining breath we placed our torn hands again on the oars.
We had scarcely reached the middle of the river when we collided with another boat. That other boat, which had lost her helmsman, and two oarsmen, rammed us with such force that our pontoon turned turtle immediately and took down with her all the eighteen infantrymen besides one of the sappers. Four of us saved ourselves in another pontoon and, thoroughly wet, we steered her to the left bank. We had just landed when we were commanded to bring over a pontoon laden with ammunition, and the "joy-ride " was renewed. We crossed the Meuse about another five times after that.
Meanwhile day had come. On the left bank a terrible fight had begun between the German troops that had been landed, and the French. The Germans enjoyed the advantage that they were no longer exposed to the French artillery.
We got a short rest, and lay wet to the skin in an old trench shivering all over with cold. Our hands were swollen to more than double their ordinary size; they hurt us so much that we could not even lift our water-bottle to our mouths. It must have been a harrowing sight to watch us young, strong fellows lying on the ground helpless and broken.