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

Chapter 13

After the Battle

The Battle of the Marne, or Chateau Thierry, of July 15, was unquestionably one of the decisive battles of the war. The 38th Regiment, during that engagement, held one of the gateways to Paris. If they had not held the lines the enemy would have got to Paris probably by Wednesday night, July 17, as the Kaiser had prophesied. The defeat they suffered at the Marne turned the tide which ultimately turned the whole current of the war, resulting in defeat and retreat all along the line, for the enemy and eventuating at Sedan, November 11th, with the signing of the Armistice.

Work in connection with this July 15th battle, together with the nerve-racking experiences I had gone through when on the eighth day going back in the lines where the shelling that afternoon was very heavy I got on a piece of road all alone when three shells — one, two, three, came right up the road, seemingly after me, it was the last kick. I felt my strength leaving me, — tumbled into a cellar and there waited till the shelling subsided.

I just had to give up and go out to the field hospital where three days lying in a comfortable cot, getting good nourishing food and good sleep I felt myself again. The Surgeon warned me as I was leaving that I had no business on the front lines because of my age. “Let the younger men go there,” said he, “and you work in the rear.” I did not take his advice ‘however. In a few days I was back again in the lines and had many things yet to suffer and endure.

* * *

Other Drives

After returning from the hospital I caught up again with my regiment at Crezancy. In a couple of days we were on the move again — where, we could not tell, but presumed on again toward the front. We moved out of Crezancy about 3 a. m. in the morning — this time in French trucks. I well remember how beautiful in the early morn it was to cross the Marne upon newly built bridges. We went on and on till we finally landed in a woods near where that big gun called the Bertha, which fired on Paris had been in position. The Germans, before leaving, tried to blow up the emplacements but failed because of their ponderous weight of iron. The woods bore many a mark of battle, here and there were French soldiers lying unburied — one poor fellow presented a never-to-be-forgotten expression. He was in a kneeling posture when the ball struck him in the head, he dropped upon his hands and there he was on hands and knees cold in death; his face was a striking one denoting, I thought, intellectuality and spirituality. Who knows but what he was one of France’s favorite sons, now to be buried as common clay.

We had orders to move again that afternoon and we entered upon one of the most horrible hikes I think I ever experienced. When we started the sun was shining and the country looked pretty. It seemed glorious to be traveling over such splendid territory so long in the hands of the enemy, now set free. We hiked on till evening, and then rain came on, and with the rain of course we had mud — slippery, sticky mud. Still we hiked on. As we neared the front lines the enemy seemed to have got wind of our coming and began to shell us heavily, but thanks to a merciful Providence, the Shells did not fall on the road but in the fields. As we got still nearer, shells came thick and fast and also some one-pounders. If these had fallen on the road where our Brigade was the casualties would have been awful that night. The rain continued to fall until many got drenched to the skin. I took a chill once during a hold-up that caused me to shake all over and it was some minutes before I got over it. It was a densely dark night making it difficult to keep formations when on the hike. At last the head of our Brigade reached the river to be crossed when alas! the bridge was blown up. What were we to do! We down in the center could not imagine what was holding us so long. At last I saw a bunch of men coming back. I called out, “What outfit are you?” They recognized my voice and said, “Co. M., we are ordered to the rear and you had better come along with us.” I did not hesitate what to do, but joined them instantly. We started back, we knew not where. Finally, Lieutenant White came along and took charge of us. We went on back perhaps two miles till we struck a woods. Tired, wet, worn, exhausted, I find my brain giving way to strange illusions. As I looked at the trees I thought the spaces between were the broken down walls of houses. I thought there were numerous cellars there, and never did an old cellar seem so good to my imagination as it did that night, but alas it was all an illusion. I was in a woods — nothing there but trees and bushes, and everything soaking wet. It was now about 2 a. m., Sunday morning, August 4th. I was so completely exhausted that I could have thrown myself down on the wet ground and gone to sleep but fortunately some of the boys had shelter tent. We rigged up a pup tent and I crept in with a couple of doughboys and slept soundly.

When morning broke it was raining a little but soon stopped. We were all wet but fortunately I had some dry socks in my pack. This helped my feet out. I got out first and then longed for a cup of coffee. I had some coffee and bacon and hard tack in my pack but the question was how to get a fire. It looked hopeless, but I persevered and, got together some pieces of wood an old German basket, (the Germans had been in these woods about forty-eight hours ago) and after many difficulties I got a fire started, got some water and soon had my cup of coffee, fried bacon and hard tack. I seldom had a breakfast that tasted so good. I encouraged the other fellows to start their breakfast, and soon we had everybody busy cooking their bacon and boiling their coffee. It was well on to noon before “breakfast” was over.

It was Sunday, and now that the sun was out and the boys were feeling better I started in to remind the boys that it was Sunday by reading a chapter from my Bible and having family prayers, but this was a case where it was in order, and the most common sense thing to do was to put the natural first and then the spiritual. During the afternoon a friendly kitchen hove in sight and the boys got some supper. The call to move came and we marched on toward Fismes that dreadful spot where so much American blood was spilled.

It was when in the Fismes region that I came nearest losing my life, and this led to my penning the following article:

* * *

Serving God Amid Shot And Shrapnel

The other day I was within a few miles of the firing line at a first aid station. The station was in a house very much battered by shell fire. I had reached the place after a walk from an adjoining encampment about two kilometers away. During my hike a lot of shells came shrieking through the air and hit away up on a high hill where artillery was placed. Some of those shells were gas Shells, the wind carried the fumes down the valley and across the road and I walked right into it but fortunately the fumes were not of the extremely dangerous kind. I very soon got my gas mask on, and sat down on the side of the road with some soldiers who were waiting till the firing was through.

Arriving at the first aid station I found things had been very busy there as the action up the road had been quite lively, and many of our American men had been wounded by machine-gun fire, also by shrapnel. The doctor had his hands full all night and all day, but now the casualties were diminishing, and during our first night there we slept on a stretcher and had a fair night’s sleep, but the morning brought some very painful and distressing experiences.

Some wounded men had been brought in and we had an ambulance ready to depart for the hospital when a shell came within six or eight feet in front of us, and the flying shrapnel damaged the ambulance so much that we had to remove the wounded and bring them back into the aid station.

No sooner had we done this than another shell struck right in front of the station and flung its iron fragments right into the midst of us all. For a few moments all was roar and confusion, and the cries and screams of the wounded men filled the air.

When things quieted down, and no other shells fell, we proceeded to pick ourselves up and attend to the suffering ones. That awful shell had killed two outright, and had wounded four. It threw the doctor to the ground, and a supply lieutenant likewise, but through the good mercy of God I was spared any serious injury, though I had a slight hit on the back and one on the right cheek.

The fellow that was badly wounded in the leg cried piteously. I gave him a drink, comforted him, and told him of God who comforts us in our sufferings. Another poor fellow had a most grievous wound. I held him while the doctor worked with him, but death got ahead of the doctor, and I had hardly laid his head down before he was gone.

I noticed that he had his breast-pocket filled with letters and a book and a piece of shrapnel had hit that pocket, had torn into the letters, thus saving his breast from a bad wound. I have frequently advised our men to wear the New Testament in the pocket on the heart side, and many a time this precious little book has saved a life as well as a soul.

One of those whose life was so suddenly taken away by that fatal shell was an ambulance man, the son of wealthy parents of Patterson, N. J. Those ambulance drivers are brave fellows. They run great risks in going almost up to the firing-line and bringing the wounded out. In some cases those drivers are young women. They drive their cars through roads that are riddled with shell-holes, and many a car bears the mark of shrapnel hits.

The Germans seem to make special marks of hospitals, aid stations and ambulances. They Shell and bomb these places at every opportunity. It is a thousand pities that our German enemy should do such an inhuman thing as this, but I know from personal observation that such is true.

During the week of the battle, July 15, I had occasion to go down with a load of wounded to a big hospital at Colummiers. This is a large town. For many days it had been bombed from the air, and at night a long-range gun was being fired into it. It must be confessed that it is anything but a comfortable experience to hospital patients to think that at any moment a bomb might come their way. One of those bombs, however, worked fearful vengeance on the Germans themselves. They bombed a prison hospital and killed 79 German prisoners.

We were at rest for a few days at Crezancy, when the Brigade was ordered on to the Saint Mihiel Drive. It was one dreadful night when we started. The rain poured. Fortunately I found a place in the Regimental Ambulance. We were on the road all night and witnessed the opening of this battle. The following is a good description of this offensive:

At 1 o’clock on the morning of September 12, the artillery preparation began with one terrific burst of flame from many hundreds of guns, French as well as American, ranging in size from the 75’s to the great seacoast guns, some as large as 400mm. in caliber, which, firing from railway mounts, carried harassing fire to rail and road junctions as far behind the German lines as St. Benoit, Mars-la-Tour, Gorze, Conflans and even Metz.

The stupendous bombardment shook the earth for hours, driving the enemy’s troops into their dugouts, tearing up their trenches and demoralizing their communications of every description. Meantime, the hundreds of thousands of Infantrymen, the hundreds of machine guns, the scores of American and French tanks, and the greatest assemblage of American, British and French aviation ever employed for a single operation on the Western front all waited, tense and eager, for the word to sweep forward over the shell-torn fields and roads and trenches which a heavy rain that had begun in the evening was rapidly turning to quagmire.

* * *

Rolling Barrage Starts

At 5 o’clock, which was still 20 minutes before daybreak of that wet and foggy morning, the bombardment of the German front lines in the sectors of the First and Fourth Corps suddenly changed to a roiling barrage, and behind it the Infantry jumped off, preceded by detachments with wire cutters and bangalore torpedoes to destroy the numerous successive belts of German entanglements.

Immediately occurred the first agreeable surprise. The enemy’s wire was in very poor condition, rusty or broken. Little difficulty was experienced in passing it, some of the troops even being able to go over or through it without cutting. It is well known that the Saint Mihiel was one of the most singularly successful campaigns of the Americans. Great gains were made at but little cost in casualties. I remember when we were about to move into action, we had only about started when word came from the front that the enemy had capitulated and that we had taken 13,000 prisoners. It was a time of great joy and exhilaration for the Americans. It was also the beginning of the end for the Germans.

After this came the Argonne. This proved to be one of the bloodiest battle grounds to the Americans because of the woods which abounded here and which the Germans were so well acquainted with and had invested so fully with machine guns. While my regiment was in action I stayed at First Aid Station at a point near Montfaucon, and just a couple of miles from Cierges. Here I had a series of unusual experiences. First was our baptism of fire ,the morning we arrived, first from avions and next from artillery. We had no sooner got our positions than a swoop of airplanes appeared in the distance. Our first thought was that they were our machines, but not so, they proved to be Germans. They came over us, turned their machine guns on us and threw out hand grenades. Our boys fired their rifles and also turned some machine guns on them and, brought down one. Some of our men were wounded during the attack, but the worst was to come. The avions gave away our position to the enemy and it was not long before the Germans poured on us many murderous shells. It was awful to witness shell after shell tearing right into the field where several companies were located. Fortunately our men had “dug in” and this saved many lives, but over one hundred were put out of commission by death, wounds and shell shock.

After the shelling was over, the wounded and shell-shocked were brought over to our dressing station, we had our hands full for sometime. I saw at this time many cases of genuine shell-shock. They shook all over; they reeled and staggered like drunken men; they startle and shook at the least sound, they cried, they stuttered and stammered. It was really pitiful to have to send most of them on foot to the ambulance station at Montfaucon about two miles away. We could not do anything else with them. Reaching there they were taken care of by the ambulance company which sent them into the field hospital.

When in the hospital myself after the Battle of the Marne, a lad was brought in suffering from shell-shock. In the morning he was walking around with no wounds or any signs of illness about him. I spoke to him. He stared at me and asked me: “When were you taken prisoner?” I said I wasn’t taken prisoner. He looked at me in amazement. He was under the delusion that he was a prisoner in German hands. When the surgeon came round the boy tumbled into his bed and cried, “Don’t kill me; don’t kill me.” He buried his head in the pillow and cried out again: “Don’t kill me till I write to my mother.” Shell shock did it!

* * *

In The Argonne

After the St. Mihiel was through with we wound our way along until eventually we landed in the Argonne. This brought us over the Hindenberg trenches, once thought so untakable. It also gave me a chance to see the awful havoc wrought by the Rattle of Verdun in 1916. Passing along one of the highways which the engineers were repairing, I talked with one of the officers, who pointing to a certain hill said, “There is where the Germans lost 500,000 men.” A terrible country was this, the fields were plowed into shell holes as far as the eye could see. We landed at evening in what was once no doubt a splendid forest. It was melancholy to see the ruins of those great trees. Nothing but their ghosts remained. Our troops could hardly find room between the shell holes to erect their pup tents.

The battle was on and our regiment moved to the front lines. We established our dressing station near Montfaucon in several dugouts left in good shape by the Germans. I served with Dr. Lutz, of Second Battalion some of the time; also, with the Regimental Medical Corps. These were busy days. I started making hot chocolate at first for the wounded and the stretcher-bearers that bore them in from the lines. This broadened out to a kitchen. I would rise early in the morning, make chocolate and coffee, and when I could get bread, bacon, rice, etc., I would serve it out to the hungry and wounded, the sick, the cold and the stragglers who came along. During the first few days the roads were so congested that it was impossible to get ambulances through, and for one day and night we had the ground literally spattered all over with the wounded. Among them were some German wounded, some of them young boys. One of them made me think so much of my own boy George B., that I did a whole lot for that German boy to make ‘him comfortable. It was quite an undertaking to keep them warm through that cold night, and I hunted around till I found blankets, old clothing, some of it bloody it’s true, and wrapped our boys up as well as the wounded of the enemy. During the night some of them died. Among them a German Sergeant and a German medical man, and one of our American boys.

It was in the Argonne that we had our heaviest casualties. Many of our companies went in in full strength and came out, some 80, some 70, some 60. All our Majors went to the hospital, nearly all our Captains also, and many lieutenants, and of the boys who came but most of them were sick due to getting gassed, and also due to having to eat so much canned stuff.

The German power was crumbling every day now and we felt sure of victory in the not distant future for the Allies. It looked to us as though the war might be over this fall and yet it might go on till spring.

After we had come out of action and were going to the rear I decided to go out to Chaumont and adjust my papers, take examination, etc., for the regular Chaplaincy. There was quite a demand for chaplains, so I made my application which was endorsed by the Colonel of the Regiment, the Major of the Battalion, and the Surgeon. I passed the examinations successfully and was practically accepted, but the commission had to come by wire from Washington, and while waiting this the Armistice was signed, which arrested all commissions for the time being.

Being now away from my regular troops I became temporarily attached to Chaumont Division and did lecture and preaching work among various units, but spent about six weeks with the 77th Division traversing their entire area, lecturing during the week and preaching three times on Sundays.

It was in the Argonne that I met with the Christian soldier boy who impressed me so much that it led to my writing the sketches, “The Story of Fletcher Benson,” which appears in the next chapter.