XVIII FIGHTING IN THE ARGONNES
GERMAN DESERTER'S WAR EXPERIENCE
NEW YORK: HUEBSCH, 1917
FIGHTING IN THE ARGONNES
FINALLY, after two days, we landed at Apremont-en-Argonne. For the time being we were quartered in a large farm to the northeast of Apremont. We found ourselves quite close to the Argonnes. All the soldiers whom we met and who had been there for some time told us of uninterrupted daily fighting in those woods.
Our first task was to construct underground shelters that should serve as living rooms. We commenced work at about a mile and three quarters behind the front, but had to move on after some shells had destroyed our work again. We then constructed, about a mile and a quarter behind the front, a camp consisting of thirty-five underground shelters.
A hole is dug, some five yards square and two yards deep. Short tree trunks are laid across it, and about two yards of earth piled upon them. We had no straw, so we had to sleep on the bare ground for a while. Rifle bullets coming from the direction of the front kept flying above our heads and struck the trees. We were attached to the various companies of infantry; I myself was with the tenth company of the infantry regiment No. 67.
The soil had been completely ploughed up by continued use, and the paths and roads had been covered with sticks and tree trunks so that they could be used by men and wagons. After an arduous march we reached the foremost position. It was no easy task to find one's way in that maze of trenches. The water was more than a foot deep in those trenches. At last we arrived at the most advanced position and reported to the captain of the tenth company of the 67th regiment of infantry. Of course, the conditions obtaining there were quite unknown to us, but the men of the infantry soon explained things to us as far as they could. After two or three days we were already quite familiar with our surroundings, and our many-sided duty began.
The French lay only some ten yards away from us. The second day we were engaged in a fight with hand grenades. In that fight Sapper Beschtel from Saarbrucken was killed. He was our first casualty in the Argonnes, but many were to follow him in the time that followed. In the rear trenches we had established an engineering depot. There 25 men made nothing but hand grenades. Thus we soon had made ourselves at home, and were ready for all emergencies.
At the camp we were divided in various sections. That division in various sections gave us an idea of the endless ways and means employed in our new position. There were mining, sapping, hand grenade sections, sections for mine throwing and illuminating pistols. Others again constructed wire entanglements, chevaux-de-frise, or projectiles for the primitive mine throwers. At one time one worked in one section then again in another. The forest country was very difficult. The thick, tangled underwood formed by itself an almost insuperable obstacle. All the trees were shot down up to the firing level. Cut off clean by the machine-guns they lay in all directions on the ground, forming a natural barricade.
The infantrymen had told us about the difficulties under which fighting was carried on uninterruptedly. Not a day passed without casualties. Firing went on without a pause. The men had never experienced an interval in the firing. We soon were to get an idea of that mass murder, that systematic slaughter. The largest part of our company was turned into a mine laying section, and we began to mine our most advanced trench. For a distance of some 500 yards, a yard apart, we dug in boxes of dynamite, each weighing 50 pounds. Each of those mines was provided with a fuse and all were connected so that all the mines could be exploded at the same instant. The mines were then covered with soil again and the connecting wires taken some hundred yards to the rear.
At that time the French were making attacks every few days. We were told to abandon the foremost trench should an attack be made. The mines had been laid two days when the expected attack occurred, and without offering any great resistance we retreated to the second trench. The French occupied the captured trench without knowing that several thousands of pounds of explosives lay buried under their feet. So as to cause our opponents to bring as many troops as possible into the occupied trench we pretended to make counter attacks. As a matter of fact the French trench was soon closely manned by French soldiers who tried to retain it.
But that very moment our mines were exploded. There was a mighty bang, and several hundreds of Frenchmen were literally torn to pieces and blown up into the air. It all happened in a moment. Parts of human bodies spread over a large stretch of ground, and the arms, legs, and rags of uniforms hanging in the trees, were the only signs of a well planned mass murder. In view of that catastrophe all we had experienced before seemed to us to be child's play. That "heroic deed" was celebrated by a lusty hurrah.
For some days one had gained a little advantage, only to lose it again soon. In order to make advances the most diverse methods were used, as was said before. The mining section would cut a subterranean passage up to the enemy's position. The passage would branch out to the right and left a yard or so before the position of our opponent, and run parallel with it. The work takes of course weeks to accomplish, for the whole of the loosened soil must be taken to the rear on small mining wagons. Naturally, the soil taken out must not be heaped in one place, for if that were done the enemy would get wind of our intentions and would spoil everything by countermining. As soon as work is advanced far enough the whole passage running parallel with the enemy's trench is provided with explosives and dammed up. When the mine is exploded the whole of the enemy's trench is covered by the soil that is thrown up, burying many soldiers alive. Usually such an explosion is followed by an assault. The sapping section, on the other hand, have to dig open trenches running towards the enemy's position. These are connected by transversal trenches, the purpose being to get one's own position always closer to the enemy's. As soon as one's position has approached near enough to make it possible to throw hand grenades into the enemy's position the hand grenade sections have to take up their places and bombard the enemy's trenches continually with hand grenades, day and night.
Some few hundred yards to the rear are the heavy modern mine throwers firing a projectile weighing 140 pounds. Those projectiles, which look like sugar loaves, fly cumbrously over to the enemy where they do great damage. The trade of war must not stop at night; so the darkness is made bright by means of illuminating rockets. The illuminating cartridge is fired from a pistol, and for a second all is bright as day. As all that kind of work was done by sappers the French hated the sappers especially, and French prisoners often told us that German prisoners with white buttons and black ribbons on their caps (sappers) would be treated without any mercy. Warned by the statements of those prisoners nearly all provided themselves with infantry uniforms. We knew that we had gradually become some specialty in the trenches.
If the infantry were molested somewhere by the enemy's hand grenades they used to come running up to us and begged us to go and meet the attack. Each of us received a cigar to light the hand grenades, and then we were off. Ten or twenty of us rained hand grenades on the enemy's trench for hours until one's arm got too stiff with throwing.
Thus the slaughter continued, day after day, night after night. We had 48 hours in the trenches and 12 hours' sleep. It was found impossible to divide the time differently, for we were too few. The whole of the forest had been shot and torn to tatters. The artillery was everywhere and kept the villages behind the enemy's position under fire. Once one of the many batteries which we always passed on our way from camp to the front was just firing when we came by. I interrogated one of the sighting gunners what their target might be. "Some village or other," the gunner replied. The representative of the leader of the battery, a lieutenant-colonel, was present. One of my mates inquired whether women and children might not be in the villages.
"That's neither here nor there," said the lieutenant-colonel, "the women and children are French, too, so what's the harm done? Even their litter must be annihilated so as to knock out of that nation for a hundred years any idea of war."
If that "gentleman" thought to win applause he was mistaken. We went our way, leaving him to his "enjoyment."
On that day an assault on the enemy's position had been ordered, and we had to be in our places at seven o'clock in the morning. The 67th regiment was to attack punctually at half past eight, the sappers taking the lead. The latter had been provided with hand grenades for that purpose. We were only some twenty yards away from the enemy. Those attacks, which were repeated every week, were prepared by artillery fire half an hour before the assault began. The artillery had to calculate their fire very carefully, because the distance between the trench and that of the enemy was very small. That distance varied from three to a hundred yards, it was nowhere more than that. At our place it was twenty yards. Punctually at eight o'clock the artillery began to thunder forth. The first three shots struck our own trench, but those following squarely hit the mark, i.e., the French trench. The artillery had got the exact range and then the volleys of whole batteries began to scream above our heads. Every time the enemy's trench or the roads leading to it were hit with wonderful accuracy. One could hear the wounded cry, a sign that many a one had already been crippled. An artillery officer made observations in the first trench and directed the fire by telephone.
The artillery became silent exactly at half past eight, and we passed to the assault. But the 11th company of regiment No. 67, of which I spoke before, found itself in a such a violent machine-gun fire that eighteen men had been killed a few paces from our trench. The dead and wounded had got entangled in the wild jumble of the trees and branches encumbering the ground. Whoever could run tried to reach the enemy's trench as quickly as possible. Some of the enemy defended themselves desperately in their trench, which was filled with mud and water, and violent hand to hand fighting ensued. We stood in the water up to our knees, killing the rest of our opponents. Seriously wounded men were lying flat in the mud with only their mouths and noses showing above the water. But what did we care! They were stamped deeper in the mud, for we could not see where we were stepping; and so we rolled up the whole trench. Thereupon the conquered position was fortified as well as it could be done in all haste. Again we had won a few yards of the Argonnes at the price of many lives. That trench had changed its owners innumerable times before, a matter of course in the Argonnes, and we awaited the usual counter attack.
Presently the "mules" began to get active. "Mules" are the guns of the French mountain artillery. As those guns are drawn by mules, the soldier in the Argonnes calls them "mules" for short. They are very light guns with a flat trajectory, and are fired from a distance of only 50-100 yards behind the French front. The shells of those guns whistled above our heads. Cutting their way through the branches they fly along with lightning rapidity to explode in or above some trench. In consequence of the rapid flight and the short distance the noise of the firing and the explosion almost unite in a single bang. Those "mules" are much feared by the German soldiers, because those guns are active day and night. Thus day by day we lived through the same misery.