The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 10

Moving Toward the Battle Lines

After leaving Chezy we were marched into Courban where we tarried for over a week. It was here we had our first gas alarm. The enemy was shelling us with his long range guns, and every day his airplanes would fly over us and not infrequently did we witness a fight in the air between the Allies and the Germans. Several times also, did we see our observation balloons go up in flames from the bullets of enemy air craft sent out to destroy them. The observer in the basket, when he saw his balloon was doomed, would cut the ropes of his basket and his parachute arrangement would land him eventually on the ground.

One day I saw a poor fellow about to descend from his burning balloon when alas! his parachute caught an fire. Of course he descended to his death. Referring to the gas alarm at Cobourn, we had been warned that gas might come our way any day. On this particular night I was sleeping on the ground beside the Captain and was fast asleep when about midnight the dreadful cry “gas” was raised — the gas songs rang out. I awoke immediately and proceeded to put on my gas mask. Fortunately this alarm was not an attack. In a few minutes orders were given, “remove gas masks.” I shall never forget that gas cry however! Many a time soldiers have been caught napping when the gas attack came on and they died before getting their gas masks adjusted. Some gas is more dangerous than others. Some will injure you but not kill. Some will work on you gradually — you take it in unawares. Its effects appear hours after when your lungs feel as though they would burn and burst. I have seen gas infected soldiers. They were unable to walk, they gasped for breath, they acted as ,though they were choking. Their sufferings rendered them unconscious of their surroundings. I can recall one of our own men who got gassed heavy at the Battle of the Marne. They brought him down to the dressing stations. He was crying like a ‘baby and calling out for his Captain; crying plaintively, “Captain Smith, Captain Smith!”

While at Courbon one day the German guns broke loose on us and gave us another exhibition of the kind of regard the Hun has for the churches, for his gun evidently was trained on the church, and the shell struck the edge of the tower, but did not damage the building. A remark made by an officer set me to thinking: “When under shell fire keep away from the church because the Buns get their range on the town from the church.” This was a very sensible remark, because generally in the French towns the church is located right in the center of things. It led me to think away from immediate things and to think of the Church of God. And true it is that when evil is raging, the church comes in for the heaviest shelling from hell’s artillery, and particularly is this true when it is purposed to make the church the center of things and to put “Jesus in the midst.”

From the days of Pentecost down to the present day, the Church of Christ has had to stand the heaviest artillery onslaughts of the Wicked One when she has been most devout, most prayerful, most zealous for righteousness and holiness. Hell tried to destroy the church in the days of the apostles, tried again in the dark ages, tried again in the age of Luther and Cranmer and Bunyan, in the days of the Inquisition and the Armada; but despite it all the church lives on and the words of the Master come back to us with enforced meaning: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” One day we got orders to move on closer to the lines. I remember the Captain saying to me” “We are going to a quiet place. It is in a fine woods which has not been shelled, I think, we are going to have a nice time there and you will like it.” Little did any of us think that we were going up to the hottest place we struck during the war, and where we shall receive our first bloody baptism in this war. We moved always at night. In actual live warfare there is not much poetry. It is dreadful prose. I saw a picture in the “‘Literary Digest” last fall showing troops being led up front headed by a brass ‘band! Such a thing would be absurd and the man who put that thing together must have dreamed things, not witnessed them on battle fronts. Oh no, we are not led into front lines and into battles by bands of music. We march at night, and in the dead of night. This was a dark night when we moved into and up that hill between St. Eugene and Crezancy on the Marne. When we reached the woods it was so densely black that we could hardly see where we were going. Occasionally we caught sight of a French soldier — we were relieving the French that night.

When we got in the woods orders were given to lie down just where we were and make the best of it till morning. This was July, and fortunately the nights were not very long and the morning broke early. Numerous dugouts were in these woods and some of the stopping places of the French officers anti men who held this place prior to our coming into it were artistically fixed up. The French are artistic even when it comes to war. They had all manners of rustic seats, tables, etc., located in pretty bowers. I had my canteen located in one of those bowers anti slept on the ground. The days were delightfully summer like, the nights were short but noisy. Our hill was lined with artillery, and it was always particularly active at night. Some nights the guns did overtime and time and again the vibration from the guns would shake the ground upon which I was sleeping and I would be roused from sleep. One gun, a naval gun, was particularly noisy. One night the noise became so suddenly terrific that I jumped up and ran over to inquire of the Lieutenant what was happening.

Days wore on till things began to assume a serious aspect. Orders went all over the camp to “dig in.” The men were set to work at dugouts. Every man had to be provided for sleeping in a dugout. This was a very fortunate order as events proved. If we had not “dug in” our casualties the night of July 14 would have been immense. If I had slept that night on the ground instead of in a dugout I would not have been alive next day to tell the story. The place where my canteen was and where had been my former sleeping place had been hit by several shells and my goods were scattered pell-mell.

An attack was expected, Sunday, July 7th. There were many signs of activity among the Germans, and both French and Americans looked for the offensive en Sunday night, July 7th, but that night passed by, but in another week the battle raged in all its fury.