By Major Single List
In order to be sure that I did not miss anything, and also to meet my old friend, Captain Strong, who was an old college mate of mine and who was now at Colonel R.'s headquarters, I started out about 5:00 p.m. on my way to the conference scheduled for 6.00 p.m. When about half way to headquarters, I ran across Billy Flight, another old college mate of mine, now in the aviation corps. Billy was just going up to take a view of the Red lines, and he invited me to go along. He assured me that he would return in time for me to reach headquarters by 6:OO p.m. I seized this opportunity to take a ride over the Red lines in an aeroplane, and incidentally to learn something about the Red positions. We made the flight all right, but we did not see any trenches, because we spied a Red aeroplane which Billy and I chased for several miles until it ran us into a lot of other Red planes. Billy did some expert diving, and I had the thrill of my life while we were getting, away from their neighborhood.
This little encounter delayed us more than we had expected. I was some 15 minutes late when I reached Colonel R’s headquarters. I told the colonel the cause of the delay, and he said very little to me except that it was foolish to risk my life in such a manner. The Old Man was pretty serious. He did not say much to me about the delay, but two or three times he called me down as I was telling one of the other majors a joke about one of my lieutenants who had misunderstood my signals on a march and had turned his platoon off on the wrong road, making it necessary to hike some six extra miles in order to reach our position. The Colonel told me that I must remember that this was a matter of life and death, and that I must go after it with al my force, and win out. I told him that he could rely on me; that I would be right there from Kick-off to the Touch-down; that I had a team that couldn’t be beaten by any bunch of Reds that were ever gotten together. This seemed to pacify him a little.
The Old man certainly was serious. Time and again, he called our attention to some special points in the order. I began to see that he felt that it was up to us. I noted everything down just as he wished. He has always been fair with me, and I certainly intended that nothing should go wrong because of any omission on my part
I realised that this war game was a little new and that there were some points in it which required careful attention. I did not feel sure that I knew it all. I had been every minute on the job, and had recently been made a major because I had been so much on the job. At college, I had started in as a green man, and had made the Varsity team in some six weeks. Finally, in the last game, I had made the touch-down which won the game.
Now, after all our practice, we were in for a real game. Even so, I did not intend to let my conceit lead me into errors’ so every time Colonel R. mentioned anything with emphasis, I noted it down so that I would be sure to attend to it. He specially told me not to let my line be enfiladed by machine guns; not to think that I could do it all; not to use all of the special troops that were assigned to help me. This was all old stuff that I had learned during the period of intensive training, but I noted it down just the same. If anything struck me as being in the least doubtful, I asked lots of questions until it was cleared up. Colonel R. always went into these points with me in great detail, and I finally felt that I had it all straight. At last we were dismissed and I returned to my headquarters in the farmhouse cellar.
It was a jolly bunch that I found at my headquarters. Lieutenant Swift was playing on a mouth organ and Lieutenant Bright was accompanying him with a guitar which he had found under some rubbish in the farmer’s cellar. I told Lieutenant Swift to send for all of the bunch to meet me at 10.00 p.m., at which time I expected the representatives of the signal troops, machine guns, Stokes mortars, etc., to arrive and report to me. In fact, to be sure they would come promptly, I telephoned to Captain Strong at Colonel R.’s headquarters to hurry them up, as I wanted to get my orders all settled as soon as possible.
While we were waiting for them to come, I asked Lieutenant Bright what he could tell me about the enemy’s machine guns. Lieutenant Bright said that he has talked with the Intelligence Officer and many other officers of the regiment that we had relieved and had received reports from several of our own patrols, but that we were not positive of the Red position. He felt positive that there were no Reds east of Booby’s Creek, but he felt sure of nothing on the other side. They might be anywhere.
It appeared to me that it was now some three hours before the meeting at 10.00 p.m., and I told Lieutenant Bright that there was just time for us to go out on a patrol, and see what we could learn. Lieutenant Swift said that he would also like to go, but that no one would be left to take care of reports that might come in. I told him to let the old office run itself for once. So we three went out on a little patrol of our own, taking two of the headquarters orderlies with us.
It was quite an adventure, and we were especially successful. We went to the bend in the creek, and followed along the north bank for about 300 yards. At several places we heard Reds talking, and felt sure they were placing machine guns in the woods on the south bank. Finally, just as a lark, we slipped across to the south side and captured two Reds who were by themselves. However, one of them was quite brave, and he kept yelling out something which aroused the others and they came after us. We did not have the heart to shoot this Red soldier in order to keep him quiet, so we had to just tie them both and run away as fast as we could in order to save ourselves. We got away safely, the Lieutenant Smith was wounded in the arm and had to go back to the hospital, thus leaving me with no adjutant.
At 10.00 p.m. all of the various officers of the special troops and also the captains of my companies were with me at the farmhouse, and we set ourselves to work to see what we should do. First, we had a little gabfest in order to get acquainted, and I found two old friends among the special officers. Truly, it was a pleasure to see them. Then, I made a little speech, in which I said I knew all about my own team—the battalion—but that these new members of our team were beyond me and I wanted to ask each of them what he could do.
I then told Captain B and C that they would cover the front, north of the creek, at the usual distance apart of the of the skirmishers. I directed Captain D to take his whole company just back of the left flank, follow the barrage closely, and jump across Booby’s Creek as fast as possible, and when the barrage passed the clump of woods, to capture those machine guns before they had time to open up on our line. Next, I told the captain of Company A and the engineers that they would be the reserve, and would follow behind the center, being careful to deploy as skirmishers and lie down in order to minimize the losses from the enemy’s counter-barrage.
All of us then carefully studied the map for an objective. Always, during training, we had been given an objective, and it had been impressed upon us that all of the experience of the English and French in Europe showed that an objective must not be overrun. The disaster to the British at Cambrai had been more or less indefinitely charged to their failure to stop when their objective had been reached. In the trench fighting which we had practices in our training our objective had in no case been more than 1,200 yards away, and generally it had been about 800 yards. So we all searched the map for an objective about 800 yards away. We could find none nearer than the line of Booby’s Creek, some 1,500 yards distant, so, to my great regret, I had to designate Booby’s Creek as the objective. I started to ring up Colonel R. and ask him if this was too far an objective. We noticed in the order that the artillery barrage would halt for 20 minutes on the slope behind Booby’s Creek, so it was decided that this was the best place for the objective. All were then told to carry lots of hand grenades, as my training experience showed we always needed lots of them to capture an objective.
After our work had been completed we all felt satisfied, and sat around for some two hours reminiscing about the old times at our various alma maters. Finally, about 11.00 p.m., we gathered around the council table, and sang a few songs: "It’s Always Fair Weather," "Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield," "Adaline." It was 1.00 a.m. before the party broke up.
At 3.30 a.m. Lieutenant Bright woke me, and I went out on the field. Everything looked encouraging. The fog was lifting, and it promised to be a bright sunshiny day. Nothing could be better. It is true that the Reds could see better on a clear day, but our spirits were so greatly improved by the fair weather and our morale was excellent on a bright sunshiny day. It mad me think of the beautiful day when my college swamped its rival in baseball by the score of 16 to 1, and we almost had a real fight because the called us Free Silverites.
At 4.30, the barrage started, and we followed it as in the last solution, with Companies B and C in skirmish line and the tanks waddling along with them. However, this time the line went forward without any deadly enfilade fire from the woods on our left. The men of Company D were right on the heels of the barrage, jumped across the creek the moment that the barrage passed and smothered the machine guns. This was deadly work and many of my men were killed. The enemy machine guns were often some distance back from the creek and fired through lanes made in the trees. As a result, if they raised their heads after the barrage, they managed to get in some shots before the men from Company D could cross the creek and get them. Four machine guns were captured, but the rest got away. It was deadly work. But Company D, with fearful loss, cleaned them up so fast or kept them so busy that they could not disturb the rest of the line. As a result, the line moved forward with precision, just behind the barrage, and reached the objective. Company D, or what was left of it, came up and extended the line just on the east slope of hill 443, and we proceeded to dig in and consolidate. I sent forward the engineers to consolidate the position. I had always heard the engineers should be on hand to consolidate a position, but I never knew just what this meant, and it appears that engineers themselves do not know. Obediently, they went forward and spread through the lines and gave a lot of advice, but in reality they joined in as infantry, and helped to hold the position. As this was what the engineer captain said he wanted I felt I had done just right. The tanks reported that they were stuck in the creek. I thought it was a good place to be stuck, so it was all right.
Meanwhile, I told my signalman to send a message to Colonel R. to the effect that we had taken our objective, Booby’s Creek, and were now consolidating the position. As this had to be signaled, and then telephoned, it took some time. In fact, I did not expect any answer. I only wished to show the Old Man that I had succeeded, just as I had told him I would. I rather expected that he would send forward another battalion to relieve me at dark and I could then return to the reserve and reorganize my force, now somewhat cut up, though not at all seriously injured, as their losses had been only some 20 per cent.
I directed A Company to dig squad trenches with large intervals in its reserve position east of the small ridge through hill 407. Then I went forward to the front line to see what could be seen. Our barrage started again, the 20 minutes being up, and went on over the bluffs and valleys to the west of Booby’s Creek. My accompanying guns had ceased firing, and the Stokes mortars and machine guns either had ceased firing or were firing on targets not in my immediate vicinity. As the enemy seemed fairly quiet, I congratulated myself that I had won a hard fight, and that tomorrow would be another day, and possibly tomorrow another battalion would do the attacking. Meanwhile we had won enough glory for a while at least.
My satisfaction was not lasting. My signalman handed me a message from Colonel R., some 20 minutes after our barrage had started on its jaunt over the hills and valleys to the westward. This message was stern and to the point. It said:
"You were given no objective period. You should not have stopped until the barrage stopped and not even then. Keep going. Hurry!"
It thus appeared that I should now be following the barrage on its scenic tour; and it was now 500 yards away and going strong. I gave commands and messages to hurry forward, but it was at least half an hour before we could get started, as everybody was busy digging in, some of them did not want to go, and some did not believe that I had given such an order as I had been so careful to have it explained to the last private that the creek bottom was our objective, and that we would stop there. Incidentally, they had laid aside their hand grenades and had to find them again. At last I got them started, and they hurried forward to catch the barrage before it had lost itself in the Pacific Ocean. My machine guns and Stokes mortars did not help at all. I tried to send a message back to them, but was told by the signalman that, although the signalmen were on the job, yet they did not have any orderlies and could send messages only by telephone or by visual signals. However, they did catch the accompanying guns and told them to help. In fact, these two accompanying guns did the best they could, but with all due credit to them I must say that the barrage made by them was about as effective as nothing at all. Once or twice I thought I saw the burst of one of their shells, but I am not sure that it was not an enemy shell falling short.
At any rate, off we started and progressed beautifully until we reached the top of hills 442. My men passed over, and I reached the top of the hill in time to see the last flick of dust from our barrage disappear over the ridge some 900 yards to the west. This was a little comfort; at least the barrage was not lost altogether, and by quick running we might catch it. I remembered that I had once run 100 yards in 10 seconds; therefore, my men should cover ground in twice that time, which would make them catch the barrage in a little over 9x10x2 seconds—180 seconds or 3 minutes.
Altogether I calculated that in 5 more minutes we would be as well off as ever, and my error would be compensated.
But it was nor to be. I saw my line of men some 200 yards ahead of me going at a run (as fast as they could run when loaded down with hand grenades); and then I saw the most awful destruction that I ever witnessed. Machine guns, artillery, mortars, everything seemed to open up on that poor thin line, and it just naturally went out of business. Some few of the men reached the ravine at the foot of the hill and hid in the trees. Most of them fell. A very few ran back by me on the hilltop. It even seemed as if the enemy was vindictive, and they pursued the few who ran past me. Shells and bullets followed them and soon I was in the midst of the awful carnage. It was evident to me that the battle was over as far as I was concerned. I looked to the east and saw the Second Battalion coming at a double time, but it would take more than a battalion to capture that hilltop. Being a true sport to the last, I stuck to my post and with my glasses looked at the enemy position, so that I could tell the commander of the Second Battalion of what the position consisted. I saw wire along the whole front; I saw a few Reds standing on the hill making signals to the rear; I saw a few more trenches here and there; and I thought I could locate a few concrete machine gun emplacements. It was evident to me that even if we had been right along with the barrage, we could never have struggled through that belt of wire and demolished those machine guns without the help of wire cutters, smoke and tanks. Yet, I had organized no wire cutters; the Stokes mortars were not close enough to help with smoke, and the tanks were stuck in the creek bottom. It is true that there were some engineers scattered through my fighting line like infantry; but they were using their rifles, and they do not carry wire cutters except on special occasions.
I saw that I had still much to learn about this war game.
After my men had all streamed by me, I still stuck to my position on the hill. I determined that I would not leave, but would wait until the major of Second Battalion came up. Meanwhile, I would learn all I could, and tell him on his arrival. But even this was not to be. Very soon I heard the scream of a shell coming directly toward me, but I stood and did not flinch. It struck me, and tore away part of my shoulder and then buried itself in the ground behind me. It did not even explode. I was killed by a "Dud." It flashed over my mind what my old college friends would say: "Yes, List, the man who made the winning touch-down in 1910 was killed in the Battle of Booby’s Bluffs; but he was killed by a ‘Dud’." My life was ebbing away, and everything was becoming dark. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was alone, that no one would ever know that I was killed by a "Dud"; so I felt comforted and actually smiled as I lapsed into unconsciousness—and woke up.
My subconscious mind had done well. I knew several more lessons:
16. The business of war is not a game. It is a science, and there are always new ideas in the business. It cannot be partially learned in six weeks, and can never be entirely learned; always one can learn something new about it.
17. There should be no limited objective in an attack; the barrage must be followed to its end, and then the captured objective must be exploited as far as is possible with the troops remaining in the attacking force.
18. There should always be a battalion headquarters, even if the major is nor with it. This headquarters is preferably at the head of the telephone line, and orderlies and messengers should be there to connect up with places not otherwise accessible.
19. Engineers can fight, but are to be used for that purpose only when necessary. Front line engineers are to help forward the rest of the troops, especially tanks and artillery.
20. Such jaunts as night patrols, aeroplane rides, must not be taken by commanding officers. No commanding officer is justified in unnecessary bravery, as he may be killed, and many more will be killed because of his death. First: he should never risk himself; second: he should never risk his staff, unnecessarily.
(To be continued.)