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

Chapter 11

My Baptism of Fire

Since writing my last I have had an experience that will be engraven upon my memory as long as that faculty continues to exist. I have often read of battles and have imagined what they are like. I have thought at times that I should like to be a distant spectator of one, but I hardly thought so soon that I would be right into the heart of one, and endure shell-fire and all other things that go with it, and then through the good providence of God come out of it safely.

Yes, I came out of it whole, but considerably broken in strength and nerve, so much so that as a result of keeping on my feet in service during the first week of battle, I finally, on the second Sunday afternoon after being under heavy shellfire again, .had to give up and go to the rear and spend a few days in the hospital resting up.

The battle which may be known as “The Battle of Chateau Thierry,” or otherwise spoken of as the “The Second Battle of the Marne,” began Sunday midnight, July 14. This was the great French holiday — their Fourth of July. Possibly the Germans took advantage of that event, thinking that they might find the French off guard, but the fact was the French were looking daily, almost hourly, for the attack. We all expected it July 12, our troops were ready and waiting for it. On the previous Sunday, July 7, we all felt it was close at hand, and preaching on that day to our men I used the text in Samuel, “Be of good courage and play the man,” etc. Sunday evening of the battle I preached on “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants,” etc. That was my last message to many Americans. Many died, many were wounded, a few were made prisoners.

I went to my dug-out about eleven o’clock Sunday night and laid down to sleep. I was all alone as the soldiers were busy at night in preparation for the impending attack. At midnight, all of a sudden, there was the roar of cannon on all sides. Cannon answering to cannon, and Germany put across on our territory and troops one of the most terrific bombardments known since Verdun — indeed some of the French officers who had been at Verdun declared that it was equally as ferocious as Verdun. For several days we had poured into the German ranks thousands of shells — one night 10,000 shells, and it was a matter of surprise to many of us that they had made no reply, but evidently the Germans saved everything for their one grand offensive of July 14 and 15. When they opened their batteries on the American .and French positions that night it was something almost indescribably furious.

The Third Battalion, 38th Regiment with which I was connected were up on a hill. The Germans evidently left no spot within a dozen or fifteen kilometers from their lines untouched, but the particular zone in which the troops and artillery were located was the place to which they paid special attention. They sent over little shells, big shells, gas shells, and all other kinds of things, while their airplanes bombed us from the sky.

What is a bombardment or barrage like, do you ask? Well, it is somewhat hard to describe it. This one was like a hail of iron. The shells came thick and fast. As I sat there in my dug-out all alone and for hours keeping my gas mask on because many shells were the horrible gas shells, I could hear the shells as they came with thunderous force and broke all around me. I could discern also from the sound that they were approaching my dug-out and soon they would be exploding all around me. That wonderful old hymn of Wesley’s came to me with special emphasis and blessing — with little changes in the words.

“Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly.
While the nearer (terrors) roll
While the tempest still is high
Hide me O my Saviour, hide,
Till this storm (of shell) is past;
Safe into the (morning) guide,
O (protect) my soul at last.”
Then, as the thud of the shells fell close to me and I felt them coming closer to me, my prayer was,

“Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.”
At length some shrapnel hit the roof of my dug-out and the dirt began to tumble down. I drew nearer the entrance when another hit struck it on the edge. I then thought it was time to get out and seek some safer refuge if possible. So I climbed out and made the most rapid flight to the captain’s dug-out, which was more solidly constructed. When I arrived there it was full and there were several wounded men in it. It was now morning and the shelling was subsiding just a little. As I sat there I saw and heard things which showed up wonderfully the American spirit in this war. I saw runners (dispatch carriers from one point to the other) come in and go out in the midst of this hail of fire in fulfillment of their duty. Some were wounded, some were killed and some escaped unhurt. An officer came in and reported to our Captain that the enemy had crossed the river and were coming up our hill. What did the Captain say, think you? This is what he said, “We are here to hold this hill to the last man. Lieutenants, call out your men and get them to take up their positions.” Instantly the Lieutenants went out and blew their Whistles and their men came from their dug-outs — those that escaped from being wounded — and I saw those American soldiers go forth to their trenches and positions in the teeth of one of the heaviest artillery barrages the Germans ever put across. These men were a part of the 38th Regiment which did the heaviest fighting and contributed more to the undoing of the Huns in this offensive than any other troops on the battlefield. It is already said that the 38th Regiment is going to be awarded one of the highest war decorations of France for their brilliant services in this engagement.

With the Germans close at hand and I being no combatant and carrying no arms Lieut. said to me, “Mr. Ridout, you have no means of defending yourself, so I think you had better go down to Battalion headquarters.”

I at once proceeded to the Chateau where headquarters were, and in getting there it was almost a, race for life through the roads and fields with shells whistling through the air and breaking all around. Every now and then as I would hear a shell coming I would prostrate myself flat upon the ground. At length I reached the stone wall of the Chateau, climbed over hastily and was soon under its shelter, but I was not there long before a sight met my eyes which was reassuring to our American side of the situation. There passed along a big procession of German prisoners. All of them had cast away their arms, some their helmets, and some were wounded. Many were very young boys and they were glad, most of them said, to be captured, as they were tired of war, and knew now they would not have to be killed.

The next thing that confronted me were the wounded being brought in to the first aid station at the old Chateau in charge of the doctors and medical corps. Here was plenty of work for all, and that day and the next were days of unceasing activity among the wounded and suffering. I assisted in dressing wounded Americans, French and Germans, and after their wounds were dressed we took them to big cellars underneath the Chateau and provided beds and mattresses for all.

One American, I remember, had a shot wound that pierced his back and evidently passed through his lungs. I gave him drink and tried to quiet him as he cried out, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” I put my arm beneath his head and tried to soothe him, and when I was called to attend to another wounded he would cry, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me.” It was not long before he slept the sleep of death, sealing with his blood his consecration to liberty’s cause.

As for the German wounded I felt a great pity for some of them. They were mere boys, and were in the war as the victims’ of a horrible machine. They were glad, though wounded, to be in American hands. They told us they were surprised at our treatment of them — they had been told that the Americans would kill them if they made them prisoners, but how different they found things. I saw our American boys share their rations with those German prisoners. They opened their “bully beef” and passed it around among the German boys. They shared out their coffee, and when night came on and several of the wounded were suffering considerably, we searched till we found bedding and made them as comfortable as we could.

The next day we saw them off in the ambulances taking them to ,a rear hospital. It is really remarkable the dispatch with which the wounded upon the battlefield are handled. Within a very few hours they are taken away back to the hospitals, and perhaps the same day or the next are on the train for some great base hospital, where everything is at hand from the most eminently skilled surgeon to the merest little detail.

Speaking of hospitals what a horrible commentary upon the unspeakable cruelty of the Germans is this constant habit of theirs to bomb the hospitals. Just close to where I now write — near the Marne River — a field hospital was bombed two nights ago, and five fellows were killed,and at a larger hospital farther back, where I went one day with a YMCA truck with a load of wounded, they told me that for many successive nights the Hun bombarding airplanes had been at work there, as well as shelling from a long-range gun. Of course the daily press has been giving the details of this latest battle. It was unquestionably one of the most distinct victories of the war. I have suggested that this may be known as the Battle of Chateau Thierry, but to the Crown Prince, with his contemptuous notions of the American soldier, it may be best known as the Battle of Shattered Theory, because it was here that the Crown Prince and his big Generals got all their theories knocked into a thousand pieces, and to save themselves they have had to put up one of the heaviest pieces of the retreating business in the history of the war.

I visited, some months ago, the spot where in 1914, at the first Battle of the Marne, General Foch, in a superb piece of strategy, broke the backbone of the German invasion of that time. Again, the Marne has led to Germany’s undoing, and given her a humiliating defeat. General Joffre at Verdun uttered those notable words, “Ils ne passeront pas.” (They shall not pass). Again we seem to hear those words voiced by the Marne, “They shall not pass.” We hear it as it is echoed and re-echoed by over a million American soldiers in France, “They shall not pass.” We hear it as. the Allies take it up and utter it in many languages, “They shall not pass,” and we seem to hear it coming forth from the bleeding heart of an oppressed and sorrowing and crushed Europe, “They shall not pass.” And yet again, all that is good and pure, righteous and just in nations, in civilization, and in religion, cries out in thunderous tones, “They shall not pass.”