Our first battle


Lee McCollum


Ever since I landed here, Things have looked so dull and drear, Wonder if this war's in vain, Wonder why there's so much rain?

My face and hands are badly peeled, Drilling in a sodden field, My body aches from chills and pains, Still it rains and rains and rains.

Tomorrow we'll be on our way, To the front I hear them say, Tonight they load us on the trains, Wonder why it always rains?

The guy who wrote of "Sunny France," Must have been in an awful trance, If that old sun would just break through, Perhaps I wouldn't feel so blue.

Clouds a-scooting overhead, I've hiked and hiked 'till I'm damn near dead, I am wet and cold clear to the skin, Wonder when we're "Going In?"

Earth seems all a-quiver with fright, Gosh, I'd like to be home tonight, Never thought I would be "Over Here," Lord . . . but rain makes a fellow feel queer.

Have been in the lines now thirty days, Know that I am changed in plenty of ways, Now I know why I had that training, Wonder if it ever will stop raining?

We were relieved from the lines last night, Gee . . . but this beard of mine is a fright, Must have hiked a thousand kilos or more, Damn this rain ... it's making me sore.

I've been soaking wet since early fall, Now in November I'm getting it all, Now that old Heinie is on the run, I wonder if this rain is raining for fun?

The gang is not talking much today, What they are thinking none can say, We just got the news . . . "The war is done," That must be right! Because there's the sun!


AT last we were ready to "go over the top." Endless months of drill were at an end. Here in the heart of the Argonne Forest, completely hidden from ever searching enemy planes, we prepared for the grim business of war.

The dull "boom-boom" of heavy artillery had kept us awake through the night. The screeching shells overhead brought us full realization that at last we were on the ground of the fight.

As each shell exploded far to our rear, I felt little tremors and chills running up and down my spine. A feeling of unrest came over me. Was it fear? We had not been there long enough to know.

It was a serious group of youngsters who peered at one another through the haze of early morning. Gone were the merry making and quips of bravado. Instead, we spoke low-voiced, then silently went about gathering together our equipment preparatory to going
into the trenches.

Throughout the night it had rained steadily. We were damp and chilled to the bone. No warming fires were made. Soon the sun came up. We ventured into small patches of cleared land to absorb the warmth of its rays.

Suddenly we heard the faint double-whirred sound of an enemy plane overhead. The bugler quickly sounded "alarm." We beat a hasty retreat to the protection of the dense underbrush and trees of the forest.

Our officers were grim-lipped and nervous. In hushed voices they told us to "keep under cover." The sharp, staccato note of our anti-aircraft gun was a com-forting sound to our apprehensive ears.

An old timer, who had been through several campaigns, said, "Dat's nuttin' buddy. Wait 'til yuz gets a load dumped on yuh." He spoke the jargon of New York's East Side, but even the dumbest recruit among us knew what he meant.

Night has come again. The rain has stopped. Through the drifting clouds overhead the moon shows through in pale white streaks. We wait expectantly in the forest. We are all quiet with our own thoughts. The order comes to move up to our position. We start for the "lines."


On a moonlit turnpike with comrades I hiked, On my way up to No-Man's-Land, While artillerymen rode a-top of their load, Our heels kicked up the sand.

The squeak of the packs on our weary backs, Kept time to the clanking of steel, While helmets gleamed in an endless stream We marched through Iss-sur-Tille.

French troops on our right, kept pace through the night, While the moon looked pale and sad, It seemed a mission of madmen and fools, With all of the world gone mad.

When our shadows would fall on forested wall, A ghostly specter they'd make, Our hopes dangled there, like a half-uttered prayer, As we marched along toward our wake.

We felt all a-chill as topping a hill, We saw in the valley below, Where the enemy lay in wait of his prey, Then the "gods of war" let go.

Men moaned in pain, but shrieked in vain, The air was a blanket of lead, Through that hell roaring din, our souls shrunk within, As death took the toll from our dead.

We would have given our soul to get out of that hole But the devil was calling the air, In this grim rigadoon we danced to his tune On the war fields of France over there.

The fight kept on til come the bleak -dawn, Then we started to bury our dead, Who taught us to kill . . . surely it wasn't God's will, Some dictator blundered instead.


AFTER leaving the safety of our lines and the protection of the forest we marched steadily forward to the front. Everywhere was evidence of a vast movement to the front. The road we traveled was crowded with light artillery which rumbled along toward the front and half the time we found ourselves crowded off the road to make way for them, while we marched in single file. It seemed as though we had marched through half the night before we came to the ruins of a village that had once been La Harazee.

Here we entered the Ravine D'Argonne, the heart of the forest of the Argonne. We met the French troops who had held this position for four years and they came out of the trenches in single file as our men passed in. They would shake their heads and say something in French. Our interpreter told us they said that the Argonne could not be taken, that the French had tried it in the early part of the war and lost thousands of men. Nice encouragement for us who were about to make our first attack.

All along the line of march, we had been heavily loaded down with bandoliers containing ammunition. Some of us had as many as four of them slung over our shoulders and many were carrying two and three musette bags, containing the different kinds of hand grenades. These delicate and destructive hand shells were dangerous to carry as they were time bombs, requiring only the release of a small metal pin from the top of the bomb to cause its explosion.

So as we walked steadily forward in the old trench which we had taken over from the French, the possibility of premature explosions of the bombs in the musette bags was a source of real fear to all of us. By now we had seen far in front of us the dull red horizon that was caused by artillery bombardment, and we had been hearing the whistling of large shells as they passed overhead ever since we took over the trench.

At first we were jittery and nervous, but as time passed and we pushed forward toward our objective this wore off and we got so that we even lost fear of the musette bags and their contents.

Possibly an hour had passed since we started our slow trip when a short ways ahead of us there was the sound of a loud explosion and the flash of exploding shells. We thought that we had been fired on by the enemy and one of their shells had landed squarely in the trench. As we heard the moaning of wounded we cautiously went to them, fearing that other shells would soon land among us. We need not have feared that then. What had taken place was a premature explosion of the hand grenades that we had feared earlier in the night. There were several men badly wounded and one or two dead. As near as anyone could figure the musette bag had bumped into a rocky turn in the trench, releasing one bomb that in turn caused a general explosion of all the bombs in the bag.

Calls were sent out for stretcher bearers and as they came up, another man and I were assigned to load one of the wounded soldiers on the stretcher and carry him back to La Harazee. All the while the poor devil was moaning for someone to put him out of his misery. The sergeant told us to hurry because the man was losing blood rapidly. We would have hurried anyway for by now fear was taking hold of us as we had for the first time seen the dead and wounded of war. All the way back to La Harazee the poor devil on the stretcher begged us to shoot him. In the darkness we did not recognize him and I did not learn until after the Armistice that he was one of our original squad from Camp Lewis.

Finally we reached headquarters at La Harazee where we turned over our heavy burden to the doctor in charge of the first aid station there. While there we were questioned about the accident by officers at headquarters, but there was little we could tell. Our arms and backs ached from the strain of the heavy load and we were wet with sweat from the effect of the hurried trip. After a short rest we started back up the trench and now we found what a lonesome trip it could be. Going up before had not been so bad as we had been with the gang, but now with just the two of us, we felt the full force of loneliness and hurried forward as fast as possible to overtake our companions.

A short distance from where the accident had happened, we were met by a runner stationed there who told us to follow him. Within a few minutes we found ourselves being led down the clay steps of a dugout deep under the surface. There in the dim-lit candlelight we found our platoon resting, waiting for orders that would take them over the top in the early morning.

Gathered in the dugout were both recruit and veteran. Most of the recruits were just bewildered kids who were now beginning to realize what they were in for. The effects of the accident were still visible among them for their faces had a wax-white appearance in the flickering candle light. The veterans whom we had joined were hardened to death and apparently paid little if any attention to what had happened.

Under the running stream of bantering talk which the veterans kept rolling we could sense deeper meanings to the words than appeared on the surface. Most of the veterans were New Yorkers and had been through a campaign on the Aisne River that had badly depleted their numbers. Our division of Westerners now made up the forty per cent of the 77th Division who had either been killed or were now in the hospitals.

In spite of the fear I held of what lay ahead, I began to take an interest in following the talk and in watching the reactions of different men. I felt that the whole purpose of it was to keep up the morale of the green troops gathered there. The greatest kidder of the lot was a hard-boiled Irish-American corporal named Gallagher and he was sounding off about what a picnic the Argonne would be after what they had gone through in the Aisne sector. According to him we were lucky to be here instead of there. Then he would tell impossible tales of what bad taken place and make them so fantastic everyone there knew he was ribbing us.

A swarthy faced Jewish boy who was a sergeant, kept trying to stop Gallagher and there was some amusing conversation between the two in rich Irish brogue and Jewish dialect. It broke the tension of the men gathered there and seemed to be what Gallagher was aiming at for he ended his long discourse by saying, "You see fellows, war is as simple as that."

A young boy still in his teens looked at Gallagher and said "No, it isn't as simple as that, Gallagher."

"What do you mean by that?" said Gallagher.

"Oh, I don't know exactly," replied the boy. "I wonder why there has to be wars."

"There'll always be wars for suckers like you and me," replied Gallagher.

"But why, Gallagher, why? When I was in high school, just before I joined the army, I was the honor student in my history class. I thought I knew all about war just from reading it. Now I f eel like all I ever read in any of the pages was the romance of the soldier and particularly the American soldier. All their heroic deeds. But since what happened tonight . . . I never realized what it must have been like until I saw those men die."

"That's nothin' kid, forget it. Say but you said something about history. I never went none to school but since I been in this war racket here, I often wondered how many times we Americans was at war? Maybe you know, huh kid?" He motioned the rest of us to keep quiet and stay out of the talk.

The high school lad's interest was aroused as he replied, "Well, I never thought it out before . . . let me see . . . Outside of the Indian fighting, our first war was for Independence in our war with England in 1776." Gallagher broke in, "How long did that last kid?" "Oh, about eight years," said the kid, "and then we had the war of 1812 with the English . . ." "Gee," interrupted Gallagher, "just like that . . . out of one war and into another. When was the next one kid?"

By now the boy had forgotten his recent fear of death and was showing great interest in his discussion as he was turning over in his mind the chronological arrangements of events. Gallagher too was thoroughly interested in the information he was receiving. The rest of the gang in the dugout had began to draw around the two in a semi-circle and were all ears as the boy continued.

"Then there was the Mexican war and the battle of the Alamo in Texas in 1842, and the civil war in 1864 between the North and the South and that lasted for four years . - . until 1868."

Gallagher broke in again. "Yeah I remember that war. I always heard me old man talking about how his father got killed on the last day of that war . . ."

"Gee," said the Jewish sergeant, "but dat wuz tough, Gallagher."

"Yeah," said Gallagher, "but go on, kid, tell us some more.-

"Well, there isn't much more to tell," answered the kid. "After that came the Spanish-American war, when our country fought Spain to free the Cubans and the Phillipines, then came this world war that we are in now."

"You tell 'em" said the sergeant, "the vun ve vere sucked into."

Just then the lieutenant in charge of our platoon broke in and said, "Come on fellows, break it up and get some sleep. You're going to need it and there are only a few hours left to get it."

The men went back to their places in the dugout and the candles were blown out one by one, but not before one lad over in the deep comer of the dugout had broken out in a series of chuckles. The lieutenant went over to him, quieted him down and asked what was so funny. The lad finally said, "I was thinking of something I read in a letter I got from my uncle just before we started up here."

"What was that," said the lieutenant.

"Oh nothing except what war does to everyone. It was a letter from a deeply religious uncle of mine. He wrote me that he knew I would come through all right, to have faith in God, and that I should give those damn Germans hell. Now there is a complicity of emotions for you, lieutenant . . . God . . . Hell….War and love all in one line."

The last candle was extinguished and most of us lay there wide awake staring into the darkness of the dugout, nervously waiting for zero hour of five a.m., when we were to jump off and go over the top.


THROUGHOUT the night as we lay in the dugout our artillery had been hammering at the enemy line to make as great a wedge as possible for the advance which was to follow. Long before dawn we crawled out of the dugout and advanced a considerable distance in the trenches before we were ordered to halt.

The early morning chill bit into the very marrow of our bones and the heavy morning mist was as thick as a San Francisco fog. We could see but a few feet ahead of us. We scattered out in formation along the trench and waited there with fixed bayonets. Whenever possible a green recruit was teamed up with a seasoned veteran. When we spoke at all it was in whispers, which was pointless because our heavy guns were now beating out a roaring barrage. Finally the sergeant said "Get ready fellows, we're about to go over." The order was given and we scrambled up over the top of the trenches.
As we reached the ground above we fully expected to be met by enemy fire. We followed the veteran alongside of us and did as he did. He advanced cautiously in a half crouched position. The mist which hung low to the ground protected our movement but could also have been our doom, were we to come suddenly against enemy opposition. Nothing happened, though, and we advanced considerably before we halted and spread out over the cold wet ground.

The sergeant in command had sent runners back to bring up our supporting position to form a second line behind ours. A runner finally put in an appearance and told the sergeant be could not find the sup-porting company, that he had lost his bearings in the thick fog and bad been fortunate to find his way back to his command. The sergeant let loose with a barrage of choice curse words and wanted to know if there was anybody in the blankity blank outfit that could go two feet without getting lost. I told him that I thought I could follow any ground that two hundred men had just passed over. "Okay," said the sergeant, "if you're so damn smart go to it." He gave me a written order to be delivered to the captain of our supporting line.

I started out alone, and had no trouble following the ground we had just come over. But before I had gone far we began to receive a counter-barrage from the Germans. Bewildered at first and badly afraid, I took shelter in one of the many old shell holes in the land I was crossing.

After laying there for a few minutes I noticed that the firing was intermittent and that there were few shells landing anywhere near me. Ahead I could hear the steady firing of American rifles and knew that our gang was in action. That steadied me for some reason and my first case of goose pimples began to disappear and I ventured forth again, intent on showing the sergeant that the message could be delivered. His caustic comments had got under my skin and I kept tracing the trail of our recent footsteps and went steadily toward where we had just jumped off.

I was surprised that we had advanced so far in such a short time, but finally I reached the trench where we had waited for our first zero hour. Not finding our supporting company there I continued on for a short distance to the rear, finding no trace of them there. I moved over to the left and swung back again far to the right, where I found the captain of this waiting company. He had missed us the first time and had been sending out his own runners to establish liaison with our company. His runners had been unable to locate us because of intense fog and two were just returning as I arrived. He instructed me to take back a message to my sergeant and tell him he was in line of support now and advancing directly behind us.

As I started back for my company, the enemy barrage again began falling into the American lines. This time it was heavier and several shells broke close by. What would happen to me if one of them landed I tried not to think.

I must have been about halfway back when I heard a low moaning and a soldier calling feebly "First aid, first aid . . ." Approaching the place where the sounds were coming from I saw one of the men of our company. The shock of the scene stopped me cold and I just stood there staring at him. His face was covered with blood and his coat was spattered with guts and the flesh of a human. He looked at me with wide unseeing-eyes and kept moaning "First aid, first aid . ."

I asked him if he was wounded and he said "Yes, badly." I asked him where and be pointed to his head.

No blood was flowing nor could I see anything that looked like a wound. I asked where the company was and he said that they were fighting way up ahead. I didn't know what to do. Should I pack him on my shoulder back to the supporting company, which was closer than ours, or leave him and go on and deliver the message to the sergeant?

I decided to take him back to first aid. When he heard that the look of relief came into his eyes and he said he could get back if be could lean on me. In a short while he was walking by himself, holding onto my arm. Soon we met the captain I had just left and I learned that the boy was shell-shocked. What I thought was his wounds were part of the remains of a buddy of his on which a shell had made a direct hit ... this soldier had been close enough to be spattered and he was suffering from the shock of the explosion. With a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach I went forward to my company and delivered the message to the sergeant.

The company was advancing rapidly and meeting only scattered resistance. Before noon we had captured an old but well-kept trench which was occupied by a small rear-guard of German soldiers, left there to retard our advance as long as possible. Their resistance was half-hearted and we jumped into the trench at will- A few Germans raised their hands and yelled at the top of their voices "Kamerad, kamerad. Don't shoot. We are the Landwehrs (the old ones). We have families. Don't shoot." None were hurt. We gazed at them curiously for a moment as a guard was placed over them. Then we continued our advance, and within an hour we got into our first real fighting.

Advancing up the trench we had just captured, we came to a break in the line and started to leave the trench. As we were crawling over the top we were met with a burst of gunfire that took a quick toll of those who were first out of the trench. There we met well -organized resistance and as we shot into the dense shrubbery at enemies we could not see, we were getting our first real baptism of fire. It is strange how quickly you learn all of war's sounds and what they mean. The chatter of the machine guns and the sharp whining zing of bullets were within a few hours as familiar a sound as street cars to city dwellers. Instinctively you learned how best to protect yourself by utilizing the terrain of the ground over which you were fighting.

In spite of this resistance our men left the trench and advanced through the dense underbrush of the forest. We were at the beginning of the ravine of the Argonne and knew now that what we bad just come through was play to what faced us. Here the underbrush was so dense that our only means of advance was by paths that had been cut through the forest by the Germans or their prisoners. As we fought up these paths our losses became increasingly heavy. Just before nightfall we were coming down the hillside through a small open space in the woods and were approaching another hill. Suddenly our advance was stopped and we suffered the heaviest losses of the day.

From concealed positions at the top of the hill which we were approaching came a sweeping cross fire of machine guns that took heavy toll of the men in our company. Within the space of a few minutes all around us lay the killed and wounded. We were no longer recruits-we were now seasoned veterans. We had had our baptism of fire and as we dug ourselves in that night, there was none among us who would not have given his soul to be out of war.


In a candle-lit dugout up in the lines,
(a place I'll never forget),
Lieutenant Walsh slowly lit his pipe,
Captain Whiting a cigarette;
The command sprawled out on the cold wet ground,
dead-weary from the fight,
And gave a silent prayer of thanks,
to be safe on this war-mad night.

The dugout was shaped like a giant bowl,
deep in the bowels of the earth,
While the men that huddled within its walls,
were far from their home and hearth;
There was "Dixie Kid" from Georgia,
and "Montana Slim" from Butte,
An Indian guide we called "Silent Stride,"
and a clerk from New York named "Ciite."

For a moment or two there was bantering talk,
and many a jesting crack,
With never a word about those not there,
the men who never came back;
Whiting, our leader, spoke in tones low,
telling his plans for tomorrow,
When a soldier who'd lost his twin brother that day,
sobbed aloud in heart-broken sorrow.

it is hell to see men break down and cry
when something cracks within,
And a silence fell on his sobbing sounds
as loud as an unearthly din;
Walsh reached over and slapped the lad
for his sobbing was sad to see,
The slap spun the boy halfway around
but returned him to sanity.

The sobbing ceased, we looked at the ground,
none had a word to say,
Each one among us knew too well,
that some would "go west" next day;
Whiting and Walsh talked in whispers
until Whiting shouted "Hell no!"
"I have a hunch its me not you
who will be the next to go."

Dawn came again, we went over the top,
with Whiting in the lead,
And we ran into a counter attack
that came with terrific speed;
We were out-numbered two to one,
when the desperate fight begun,
Until that night, 'neath stark moonlight,
we fought until the battle was won.

Then in that night, in the dim candle light,
we counted our numbers so few;
Among those missing were Whiting and Walsh,
their hunches last night proved true;
The command sprawled around on the dugout ground,
waiting once more for the dawn,
Where in God's sight, whether wrong or right,
they would serve as a War Lord's pawn.
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