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

Chapter 8

Under Fire

While on our way to the front the German’s were putting across another great offensive and Paris was once again put in great danger. Once our train was diverted and word came to us that we had to go to the defense of Paris. Once while the train was held for further orders word was passed on to the troops that we may have to go into action at once. War was coming very close to us now. But the enemy was held, and instead of going to Paris we were ordered on toward Chateau Thierry.We derailed at Conde, and that evening the distant hills were covered with the smoke of bursting shells and burning villages, and towns. Just think, France lost 240,000 houses during the war. Conde was now ,being emptied of its inhabitants because of shell fire. Evidences were on every hand visible of the awfulness of war, bombers had done some deadly work here.

That night I slept under fire for the first time. Our battalion was located in the woods of a fine old Chateau. We slept on the ground, but though we could hear the roar of distant artillery that night, no harm befell us and I had my first night’s rest under fire without any mishap or losing any sleep. The next morning all was hurry and congestion. The roads were lined with all kinds of traffic. The French and American troops were together. I ate my breakfast with a “merchant” YMCA from St. Louis. Our “table” was a fence railing, but we ate our bacon and hard tack and drank our coffee with a relish.

We hiked that day towards Chezy, just over from Chateau Thierry, and I remember so well my first sight of the enemy observation balloon. Away over about five miles distant perhaps, there it was. Lieutenant Cramer said to us, “Men, you must keep out of sight. See over there is the enemy. You must not be walking about where you can be observed or we will have some shelling.”

I recall several things about this day’s hike. It was a warm day and the boys had heavy pack’s to carry. We halted at a certain point where was a farm house by the side of the road. The boys went in quest of water to fill their canteens, when an old lady with a sweet, motherly face came out with a big pail of water and two glasses and she took such delight in giving those thirsty boys drink.

When night came on and it was a question as to where we should sleep, the officers went into the town and were given beds in the houses now vacated by their owners. I was given possession of a whole house. I was expecting some of the officers to put up with me but they got fixed up elsewhere, so I was given this elegant house as mine. I thought much of the melancholy aspects of war as I viewed this beautiful house left by its aged owner in the care of a French Major and of his turning it over to us of the American army for the officers’ use. Here is a home having all the evidences of wealth, refinement, education and religion. Upon the door is a religious emblem bearing the words: “Car Jesu sacratissimum misere nobis.” The furniture and furnishings are the very finest, room after room is just filled with the gatherings of years evidently and photographs upon the walls tell of grandparents, parents and children, and no doubt in this elegant home there were many delightful gatherings of children and grandchildren. The court is a thing of beauty planted with fruit trees and profuse with flowers of many varieties here are poppies and primroses and daisies and blue bells and lilies and the white rose and carnations. And scattered beneath the cozy arbors are numerous seats and resting places.

Here, as I write, instead of the laughter of merry children and the young folks and old folks conversing ‘mid happy scenes and surroundings, all is desolation. The piano in the parlor is unopened, the only music now to be beard is the roar and whiz and burst of the guns. Just a couple of hours ago, the enemy got the range on us and threw a few bombs near the church — it tore away the roof of yonder house, but more will be coming. Last night I went to sleep to the thunderous roar of the guns. I was tired, as the French would put it, “tres fatigue.” We had marched quite a stretch and one of the boys with bursting headache fell out and I took his pack (weighing only about 75 pounds) and carried it for him a distance of perhaps five miles and therefore it did not take long for sleep to come to me when I lay me down in a soft feather bed. And though the guns roared and the concussion shook the windows and doors yet I slept the sleep of the just and the unafraid and rose in early morn rested and refreshed.

That evening we had orders to move. We moved under cover of darkness, of course. None of us could tell where we were going. We went on and on till we were halted by a message from the front that we must proceed no further but return. For the first time I saw those night flares which the Germans threw up with such lightening effect. It seemed as though none of the allies had anything that could equal those German flares. They illuminated the country all around about and tend to give the enemy the location of their enemies.

We were hiked back to Chezy, and I went back to find my house occupied by officers and’ men of another outfit. A number of officers went in search of quarters and at length, we came to a house that we had to gain access to through the windows. It was another splendid home with everything left in the most perfect condition. Evidently it was the home of a French officer who had spent much time in Africa with the French army. We found delightful beds and had a good night’s sleep. It may seem strange to the civilian in America that we should take possession of homes this way but let it be remembered that in the war zone everything is in the hands of the army and they may do with it as they deem necessary. Then again, we never can tell when a town or city in the “zone” might be completely destroyed by shell fire, and all those delightful rooms, ,beds, furnishings, etc., ruined. When passing through those deserted areas the laws of warfare permit the army to make use of things necessary. I have thought often of Chezy since that night. I imagine the frightful ,bombardment of that Saturday night, July 14th, which was kept up for ten hours must have wrought irreparable devastation to that town which was just across the river from Chateau Thierry.