I had a hard time getting someone to relieve me, as no arrangements had been made for the next watch. Didn't sleep much when it came my turn to sleep. A hot meal was served during the afternoon.
We changed our positions just before dark, about a half mile farther in another woods. There were a line of reserve trenches here, and we spent the night working on them. The ground was very hard, and we had nothing with which to work, except our small entrenching tools, which were too small for this kind of work. We had to put the time in anyway, whether we got anything done or not.
Guess it was to keep us reminded that a war was going on. The timber was thick and it was a difficult matter to find your allotted sleeping place at night. If you got in without stepping on half a dozen or so, you were lucky.
Chow was very rotten just at this time, not enough, and what we did get was not prepared decently. Complaint was made to Major Keyser, battalion commander, and we noted a slight improvement, both in quantity and quality.
For three or four nights we fooled away time trying to improve these trenches with our small entrenching tools. During the day we camouflaged the fresh dirt with branches. We moved down into the little village of Villiers, about seven or eight hundred yards from where we were. This village was almost wholly deserted, only a few families being brave enough to remain. We were billeted in the houses and barns. There wasn't much difference between a house and a barn, usually being built together. Our squad had the upstairs of a small house. This was better than we had had in several days. The house was an old stone structure, and the tiny backyard was enclosed with a stone wall. Here we did our washing and had our French fries, when we could get the spuds.
Battalion and Company headquarters were located in an old chateau, which of course was deserted now. The building was well suited for such as this.
Had some sores to break out on my face and neck, that kept me from shaving, for several days. I was indeed handsome? Secured some salve from the "sick bay" and soon healed them up.
We were always doing things in the Army, that to us seemed to be the height of foolishness, yet many times we did not stop to reason why such and such a thing was done. But if there was any good reason for what we did at this place, it was never made known to us. We drilled some during the day, out in the open, and then at night, details were sent up on the hill to work on those trenches. It struck us that if we could drill during the day, we surely could have worked at those trenches during the day instead of at night. But the end of all reason came when we were relieved from night work, and worked all day, camouflaging the trenches during the night. Truly this was a queer "man's army."
Rumors still persisted in going around that we were going back to a rest camp. Lt. Jackson of our company assured us that we were. But we didn't. On July 12th we had athletic games including a baseball game.
We ceased our work on trenches, and went out or patrols at night upon the side of the hill. While there was no need of these patrols as fat back as we were, they were primarily for training purposes. The patrols consisted of two corporals with three men each. We stood two watches of about two hours each. One morning, when there was a heavy fog, several long range shells came directly over us, falling some distance in the rear. We could only faintly hear the report of the gun that fired the shells, but we sure could hear the whine of the shells as they passed overhead. There seemed to be no explosion when the shells landed, and some thought they might be gas shells. Someone down in the village started the gas siren and of course the signal spread. We went on down to our billets rather excited. We did not put our gas mask on, and it turned out to be a false alarm.
A battery of our heavy guns moved up just in rear of us and fired, mostly at night. They did not fire much during the day. They kept me awake at night when they fired. The roof shook so that it seemed as if it would cave in.
An observation balloon and crew were stationed on the opposite side of the village. The observers would go up and direct the artillery fire and see what Heinie was doing. The balloon was attacked one day and the observers came down in their parachutes. The next day three planes with the French insignia on their wings flew around over the town and all around the balloon. Suddenly one of them made a dive for the balloon and set it on fire. The other two planes seemingly gave chase to this one and machine guns fairly roared up in the air. We did not know what to make of the matter and the anti-aircraft batteries must have been of the same mind for they did not fire a shot for some time. In a few minutes all three planes headed for the German lines and passed from view. Then it was that the anti-aircraft guns woke up, but it was too late then. It hurts to be fooled, and that was what had happened to us. The three planes were evidently captured French planes, manned by German aviators. The two observers reached ground safely. However, in about a half hour another balloon was up in the air in defiance. No more balloons were shot down while we remained there.
Some very- confidential rumors floated around that we were going to a rest camp on the 14th sure. The 14th came and it also went, but we didn't. For some reason we still tarried.
During this time I had written several letters to folks at home. This was the first opportunity we had had to mail letters since June 18th. At that time I had written that I would write every few days.
On the afternoon of July 16th, we received orders to pack up, which we did with a will, for surely this meant that we were going to a "rest camp." We were given some emergency rations, and then served some mashed "spuds," two slices of bread and a piece of unsalted boiled beef (our salt supply was exhausted) for our next meal. All of this we packed in our mess pan to carry. About five o'clock, we took the road toward what we thought to be the rear. The sun was still pretty high and boiling hot. There was much joking and laughing as we hiked along in the hot sun.
Just as it began to grow dusk, we suddenly came around a turn in the road, and there before us on the river was an endless train of camions, as far as we could see. The first effect was one of silence and then the storm broke forth. We didn't have to be told what the presence of camions meant. We knew that they did not haul soldiers to the rear in camions. By way of explanation, camions were French trucks. Without much delay and confusion, we were sorted out and loaded sixteen to a truck and in a very short time were on the move. Such a thing as sleep during the night was unthinkable. With but few stops, we rode all night. When the train would stop for a while we would wonder what caused the delay. Before morning we could hear the booming of large guns. After riding all night and still be within the sound of guns of course eliminated any further idea of a rest camp. It was now only a question of how long before we were to get into action again.
I broke out my mess pan soon after daylight to eat the meat and potatoes and bread I had brought along. It was a sore disappointment to find that the meat had spoiled and ruined the other stuff too. Had to throw all of it away and do without.
About ten o'clock we left the camions and had an hour and a half's rest before proceeding farther. Water was scarce, and we had a hard time getting our canteens filled. More emergency rations were issued, and it began to look like hard times ahead. We were ordered not to eat any of our emergency rations, but in time of action there were ways if getting more, and it was late in the afternoon two days later before I tasted a cooked meal.
We continued on in the hot sun, suffering somewhat with thirst, on account of the lack of water. Soon we became aware of the presence of other troops moving in parallel with us. In France you can nearly always see two or three other highways from the one you are traveling, and we were therefore able to see that this was a general movement of troops towards the front and not towards the rear. About four o'clock in the afternoon, we rested a short while at the edge of an enormous forest known officially as the Villers-Cotterets woods or Bois de la Retz. We pitched our pup tents with the hope that we would get a night's rest. The "Y" gave us a few cakes and two or three pieces of candy apiece shortly after we stopped. Some tanks came rumbling along before dark. It was very evident to all of us that we were to see some real action in a few days.
We did not get to rest very long, for soon we were ordered to pack up again. We marched in two columns, single file one on each side of the road. It soon grew dark and, as it had been growing cloudier all afternoon, now began to rain. There were three columns of traffic on the road -- two going towards the front and one coming from the front. On account of the thickness of the woods, the night was utter darkness, so dark that it was impossible to see the man in front of you. The only way to keep the column connected, was to hold to the man in front. Part of the time we were down in the ditch and part of the time up in the road. If you did not have hold of the man in front, when he stopped without telling you, you ran your face into his pick or shovel on the back of his pack or into the muzzle of his rifle. Regardless or which it was the sensation was anything but pleasant. It seemed that we had to halt and stand longer than the time we consumed in moving. When we were up in the road, we were dodging mules pulling machine gun carts. We could not fall out for a rest when we stopped, but had to remain standing all the time. The traffic seemed to grow thicker as we proceeded, the road muddier and sticker, making it very difficult to stand up. Some didn't. One fellow fell into the ditch and we lost him.
Packs were getting heavier on account of the rain. Mine was heavy enough to begin with, as I had a wet shirt and change of underwear, which I had washed the day before, but wasn't dry when we packed up the afternoon before. Along towards midnight the fellows began to drop out exhausted The strain was nerve racking. One by one they continued to fall by the wayside unable to keep up the pace. No word had been passed around us as just when we were to attack, but it was assumed by us that it would probably be the second day following. Those that dropped out would therefore have a chance to catch up the next day. With this in view, and after about half of the platoon had fallen by the roadside, two other fellows and myself notified our sergeant that we could go no farther. Not since I had been with the company, had we had anything to compare with what we endured that night. The conversation that flowed from the lips of that struggling column of humanity, would have made Satan himself ashamed.
Fritz, a young lad from Lanchester, Pa. and Tinterier, a rather fat Bohemian from New York, and I fell out on the side of the road. Tinterier fell alongside the road, feet in the ditch, and head dangerously protruding out into the road. He was asleep in an instant, so exhausted was he. Machine gun carts barely missed his head. With much difficulty we succeeded in getting him awake long enough to get out of the road and up on the bank, where he continued his sleep undisturbed,
The rain was still falling slightly. I do not know what prompted me to do it, but I stripped, threw away the underwear I had on and put on the wet suit in my pack. Fritz and I were asleep in a minute, while the remnant of our outfit struggled on through the mud and darkness. We were so dead to the world that none of us heard the terrific barrage that our artillery laid down after five o'clock in the morning. They said that the barrage made the earth shake and tremble.
The morning of the 18th was fair, the rain having ceased. When we found out that the others had gone over the top at daybreak, I felt very much ashamed of having fallen by the wayside, when possibly I could have gone on to the end. But it was too late now. We three continued on shortly after daylight in an effort to regain our company. The road was still filled with traffic all going towards the front with ammunition and supplies. One large gun was off in the ditch unable to get out. As we made inquiries along the way, we found others of our company who had fallen out during the forced march. We came to the salvage pile where the battalion had discarded everything except a light combat pack. From those left in charge, we learned that our platoon had lost all but fourteen when they stopped to form combat packs. We proceeded on hoping to find our company. Several others of our platoon joined us, and we almost had a platoon of our own. Finding a ration dump at a crossroads we managed to get some dry bread to eat. No one seemed to know anything of the whereabouts of-our outfit. We kept on towards the front, and met a large bunch of prisoners being brought back. We came across two fellows from our company, who had reached the front lines, but had gotten separated when the attack started. From them we learned that they had had to double time in order to get to their positions before the attack was launched. Prisoners continued to be brought back, showing that the attack was proving successful.
We soon reached the place from where the attack had started. The road had run right on through both lines, but was heavily barricaded with barb wire. The forest was almost literally blown to pieces, large trees being torn to splinters by large shells. It did not look as if anyone could live through such a bombardment. Between the two lines, or "No Man's Land" was a mass of barb wire. The bombardment had torn the wire up to a great extent, but it was no easy matter to get through it.
We reached the edge of the forest, but still could not find any trace of our outfit. At the edge of the forest was a farm house that our artillery had blown to bits. Holding a conference among ourselves, we decided to return to the salvage pile for the night, which we did. In scouting around for some extra blankets, I found a blanket roll containing two German Pistols, a large one and a smaller one.