Weary with the fight of weeks and weeks,
On wobbling legs back of the gate
The battered Frenchmen, defying fate,
Strive with a frenzy, maddened, great,
To keep the enemy from what he seeks
"O, for new blood!" Despairing the cry
That goes up from the feeble French guns
Quick comes the answer. Brave, stalwart sons
From across the seas now face the Huns,
And drive them back, though many die,
On the great rugged face of the world the Bois de Belleau—Wood of Belleau—is but an insignificant little smudge of trees, a mere jumble of foliage and shrubbery, rocky ridges, steep slopes, and deep ravines. Topographically it is too small to place upon any but the largest of the maps of France. But sentimentally and historically it assumed mammoth proportions of importance to the peoples of the world in the month of June, 1918.
To those whose hearts thrill at the strains of the Marseillaise, to those who revere the billowing folds of the Stars and Stripes, to those whose blood quickens with the recital of brave and heroic deeds and unbounded self-sacrifice, Belleau Wood, blackened and stricken though it now be from shot, fire and shell, is a shrine that will ever live strong in the memory. In Belleau Wood the United States Marines earned from the fear-stricken foe the sobriquet bestowed upon them—"Devil Dogs." In Belleau Wood the Marines more than sustained the fighting reputation gained by their brother Americans in the first American fight on European soil a few days before—Cantigny. In Belleau Wood the Marines summarily stopped the blood-smeared march of the triumphant Hun on Paris.
Is it any wonder, then, that because of these facts the French government has issued an order that all maps of France shall designate the old Bois de Belleau as the "Boise de la Brigade de Marines"? Surely it might have been expected. Yet we Americans are very proud and grateful to the French for the honor conferred.
While perhaps not as picturesque, the parts played by other American units at Château-Thierry, in what is very properly termed the Second Battle of the Marne, form a no less remarkable chapter in the history of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Altogether eight American divisions participated at Château-Thierry. Of these only four had seen any real fighting, and only one had taken part in an offensive operation. The other four had either seen no fighting at all, or so little during their training in calm sectors that they had not yet received the classification of fighting units. But they gave so clear a demonstration of the combative quality of American troops, even though incompletely trained, that they completely restored the morale of the Allied battle-line in a very short time after being put to the test.
As stated, Cantigny tried out the Americans, and found them not wanting. The German High Command was astonished that comparatively green soldiers could fight as these men in brown khaki from across the great seas had done upon that occasion. They began to realize that if they were to take Paris and overwhelm the French army, they must do so without further delay, else the United States would have sent over altogether too many of these terrible "green" soldiers to make the operation successful.
With this idea in mind, in the latter days of May the Germans launched a terrific drive against the French along the Chemin des Dames. Outnumbered three to one, temporarily overwhelmed by a dense concentration of artillery, the French line broke and gave way on almost the entire front from Soissons to Craonne. Over the heights north of the Aisne, over the Aisne River itself and the heights to the south, the Huns poured. At the Vesle they did not hesitate, but continued an uninterrupted march southward toward the Marne. As they forged ahead, the French center gave way to the pressure, but the French flanks held.
Nearing the Marne, the Germans made an effort to spread out toward the west. But in this effort, which resulted in the battle of Château-Thierry, the Central Powers met with a determined resistance from Field-Marshal Foch, as we shall presently see.
At this time—the last week of May—matters looked desperate for the Allies. All the big industrial concerns near Paris engaged in the manufacture of ammunition and war material were moving their plants to points south of Paris, where greater safety lay, as fast as available transportation could be had. All government bureaus and all banks labored with records and books, securities and cash, to get them packed and ready for flight at a moment's notice. With the enemy only thirty-eight miles away, the situation seemed hopeless to many, serious to all. For the British dare not leave their positions farther north, and the Americans were not yet arrived in sufficient numbers to seem to be able to bolster up the weary Poilu at the Marne and stem the on-rushing tide of Imperialism.
Moreover, on May 26th, on the eve of the German drive at Château-Thierry, we find the American divisions then in France widely scattered, with more than half outside of the geographical—and even the supply—limits of the intended American sector, so that French and British regulating stations and railheads had largely to be used by the American Service of Supply, a procedure which increased the problems and perplexities of the American general staff.
But by May 27th it was no longer a question as to which division had completed training according to adopted schedule; rather it was an emergency so dire as to call for all troops within ready reach. The two American units nearest were the Second and Third Divisions. These were rushed without delay to the point of danger.
It was on the 30th when word came from General Pershing for the first American division to take its place at the front lines. The Hun was getting ready to plunge forward again, to drive on in the final smash for that goal of the world-hungry barbarians—Paris. The greedy eyes of the Boche generals were looking far into the distance, to that place of spires and gaiety and beauty that had been unceasingly coveted for more than four years. Opposing them were the French, tired out from countless battles, wearied from months and months of continual, unceasing life-and-death strain, weak near to the breaking point, yet upheld by a spirit that seemed miraculously unquenchable. Like a frail straw, lodged and bending before the fierce onslaught of the mighty current, they stood, ready to meet the last rush of the enemy with the very last ounce their waning strength before crumpling up upon their threshold and giving him access to their long-guarded, precious homes.
New blood! New strength! Pitifully, but silently, France cried for relief from those at her back. But from the gray hordes she faced she asked no mercy. And to them, ahead, she even showed a smile—a grim, unmirthful, challenging smile that would stay there until either she were victorious or her last countryman had breathed his last.
The cry of France was answered at once. Truckload upon truckload of brown-garbed men—tall, lithe, clean-cut fellows, still on the edge of their boyhood—journeyed along the white roads toward the Château-Thierry sector. From primitive little villages that had formed their rest billets they streamed, along this highway and that, welding the dusty byways of their coming into veritable living, straining sinews of war. Wild with the joy of a chance to assist their French comrades-in-arms, brimful of overflowing vitality and a serene confidence that come from healthy surroundings and healthy habits, they rolled on past their own great streams of slower-going supply wagons and ordnance, past tired, shoulder-bent French soldiers who were filtering back from the front, past plodding horses and high-loaded carts of refugees from the occupied and near-occupied districts.
Little children saw them, and threw them flowers; but in spite of their childish pleasure there was fear in the heart of more than one that those flowers would live only to be crushed under the ruthless heel of a German conqueror. Old men waved, and shouted a blessing in quavering voice. Old ladies, tottering upon tragically sad thrones of hastily-loaded household goods, blew their kisses, while others, not so fortunate, did likewise as they hobbled aside upon the road to let the long, winding snake of brown writhe by, a little later fingering their rosaries and mumbling heartfelt prayers. "Les Americains! Les Americains!" was the cry that went up from these poor people all along the way. And the very joy in it made these rapidly moving brown-garbed men look ahead with a sterner look, and the chauffeurs press the accelerator pedal of their human-laden trucks a bit harder.
The Americans were going forward to the relief!—the Americans, as a whole untried, yet unmeasured. In his heart every mother's son of them was praying that the French line might only hold until he and his comrades could arrive upon the scene!
Late that night some of them took their positions. Their wish was fulfilled. And by night of the 1st of June the whole Second Division was in position behind the French troops on a twelve-mile front, covering the Paris road at Le Thiolet.
The confidence born of the appearance of this help stiffened the resistance of the French soldiery sufficiently for them to hold this part of the line, with the aid of small American reinforcements, until the afternoon of the 2nd. Then the French began to drop back. Between the lines of the Fifth and Sixth Regiments of Marines they began to filter, so weary they could scarcely support their arms, yet still bravely smiling as they passed through the long-strung lines of bronzed-faced Americans. Often they tried to call a greeting, some word of encouragement, but those words as often died on their pallid lips and in parched throats.
It is five o'clock of the 4th of June. Still strong in the mellowing light of the waning afternoon, contrasting sharply in its extensive green expanse of comparatively small patches of timber against the lighter-hued cultivated fields rolling about it, stands Belleau Wood, a few miles to the north-west of Château-Thierry. The French peasants have found it difficult to till the sides of the hills, numerous here, so the slopes have been given over to trees; but on the flats between and on the summits themselves are crops of oats and wheat.
Now the hearts of the waiting Marines flutter wildly, but not with fear. At last they are gazing at the anticipated. For out of the woods, advancing across the green fields of wheat, come the winding, plodding columns of Imperial Germany, their helmets bobbing, arms held in threatening readiness. Drunk from the victorious marches of the week, confidently goose-stepping forward to throw down the last bar of the barrier that stands in their way to Paris, these picked units of the great gray horde come on, unhesitatingly, arrogantly.
From the lines of the Marines comes the sudden crackling of rifle fire. Accompanying is the rattling, telegraphic stutter of machine-guns. These guns have been aimed by youngsters who are practically all sharpshooters, whose target records seldom fall below a hundred and eighty hits out of a possible two hundred! The gray lines quiver, as men go down and they become as porous as a sieve.
But still the Germans come on. Recovered, they advance in perfect order, but now in heavy waves, driving on through the wheat toward their goal, counting on their masses to overwhelm the opposition, whoever they may be.
Back of the Allied lines the telephones buzz. Marine officers, bending over their maps, snap orders. The little "75's" begin to spatter flame, and thunder out their defiance. And out there in the standing grain, where the gray-clad columns are moving doggedly forward, the shrapnel be-gins to break closer and closer with every shot.
Suddenly the whole great expanse of terrain just at the rear of the Marines seems to leap into puffs of creamy-white smoke, like some strange bulbous field of gigantic flowers simultaneously bursting into bloom. It is the Flower of Death. From the midst of the snowy petals and fiery-red stamen a metallic pollen is scattered broadcast into the oncoming ranks of the Boche. Here—there—everywhere—great patches of vacancy appear. Along the lines of the Marines, the repeaters, the automatics, the machine-guns, rattle forth their message of deadly import in ever-increasing rapidity. The gray waves falter. A moment more and they seek to stagger on again; pouring into the terrible Devil Dogs a fire more voluminous but far less deadly than their own. But the breaking point has come. As scores of Marines go down, in retaliation five times the number of Germans fall, and the latter suddenly turn and make for the friendly cover of the woods at their back!
So much for that defense. After two days of constant reconnoitering, word passes along the Marine lines to go ahead and mop up Belleau Wood, also take Bouresches and Torcy.
Although Captain Tribot Laspieres, the French military adviser, has been shell-shocked and gassed, and Colonel Albertus Catlin has been drilled through the lung with a sniper's bullet—although in the timbered recesses of ravine and rock and ridge, the enemy has every advantage with snugly ensconsed machine-gun nests and fortified position, the Devil Dogs spring to the chase as eagerly as ever hunting canine bounded after game when unleashed by the controlling hand of his master. Some one else leaps into the place of Captain Laspieres, some other officer takes the work of Colonel Catlin—and the fight sweeps on, but in reversed manner.
It seemed that every tree clump was infested with a Boche machine-gun crew; that every tree-top of any thickness concealed a gray-backed sniper watching his chance to pick off the officers of the Marines with his heavy rifle. As heedless of the death that lurked on all sides of them as if they were at play, these men from across the seas completely upset the German theory that to advance in the face of a machine-gun barrage and take the position from the front, is beyond the realm of the possible for a foe. On few occasions do the Devil Dogs bother to work around to the rear of these nests. Usually they face them, squirming over the ground on their bellies and picking off the astounded gunners one by one with their unerring rifles, else boldly charging and carrying the position by sheer impetuous bravery. Thus from copse to copse they go, leaving behind clusters of German dead at every spot where Boche machine-guns have recently snarled at them, or the limp bodies of enemy snipers hanging in the forks of trees where their careers have ended with Colt pistol balls through their heads.
As they gain new positions, the Marines consolidate them. They re-gather their scattered forces; they press forward to the edges of the wooded areas. There they are confronted with flat fields, many of which are fully two hundred yards across, with timber again on the farther side. Across these, with a wild hurrah, they dash. The distant greenery fairly pulsates with the barrages of machine-gun and rifle bullets that rain out upon them. Great gaps are torn in their columns. Men drop, stifle their cries of pain, stagger to their feet and go on again with the rest! The word passes along for Sergeant "Johnny" Fuller. There is no answer for a moment. Then comes a sudden stirring in the grass; a gray faced lad, his teeth clenched, his eyes bleeding with agony, struggles to his feet and runs forward limpingly with the others. "Johnny" is in the fight again with his mates—in again in spite of the bullet that felled him!
Sprays and streams and showers of lead sweep across the field. It seems miraculous that any living being can live five minutes in that deluge of shrieking, zipping pellets. But living, undaunted beings do. On, on go the Devil Dogs. What care they for this weird music? It is a goad to go on, rather than back. Time enough to pause when they are hit, hit hard, else attain their objective. "First to fight"—that is the Marine identification phrase. "Last to quit" fits him equally well. On, on go the Devil Dogs.
And so the mortal combat continues. Company G has been literally torn to pieces. Strung along the rear, in field, wood and ravine, are officers and men in forest-green uniform, dead, dying and maimed. Of the command only Corporal Roy W. Chase is left to direct the movements of the few men remaining in Company G. Loudly his call rings out for an attack on the machine-guns that are ripping them to pieces. Gladly the men respond. A charge, a brief moment of hand-to-hand bayonet thrusting, and two enemy emplacements have been obliterated forever. Then onward once more—not to stop until every man of Company G has been killed or wounded!
Columns might be written of the individual deeds of heroism performed in that battle of Belleau Wood by the Marines. Suffice it to say that in the eight long days of their continuous fighting, they never once faltered. They captured all of the villages in the forest, and advanced their line to the extreme northern limits of the woods. Men so torn with wounds that their clothes dripped blood, men so riddled with machine-gun bullets that it seemed one could almost look through them; men so lacerated by shrapnel, so seared by snipers' bullets, so reeling from shell-shock that they continued to pull trigger and press on with their last ounce of strength till they dropped unconscious in their tracks in many instances,—they, the "unknown quantity" to the veteran European belligerents a few days before, had now galvanized the name "United States Marine" so deeply upon the marble page of History that it can never be effaced.
And as it is etched with an undying love into the heart of the French people, the name "Devil Dog" is graven with an unforgetable, almost supernatural fear, in the heart of the German soldier who survived that defeat at Belleau Wood. With a shudder he recalls that, in spite of their terrible punishment, these bronzed giants from America had never failed to go forward. He recalls that time after time, the German gunners killed until they went mad—only to see, still coming forward, more and more of the Devil Dogs. He recalls that, like uncanny beings of the spiritual world, they took bullet after bullet, and still came grimly on; that, with their very legs shot from under them, they writhed to a sitting posture and, unable to go on themselves, sent on the last rounds of their deadly leaden talismen!
Baptized in fire, christened in blood, consecrated in superhuman valor, these mothers' boys of the famous Marine Corps had reproved to all contestants and the word at large the true caliber of the American soldier fighting for Democracy, Humanity and Justice.
At Château-Thierry we are in the very heart of the Ile de France. This field of terrific battles and tragic death, bristling with ruins still permeated with the smell of burned wood and scorched stone, was not long ago, and soon will be again, a gracious, charming countryside, typical of French landscape. With its undulating plateaux, pleasant vales, broad green valleys, shady forests, luxuriant grasses, fragrant wild flowers, quaint châteaux and villas, small towns, and dear old villages thronged with precious works of art, the district between the Aisne and the Marne was peculiarly representative of France—the France of the Merovingians and Capets, as well as of the twentieth century.
The bright green ribbon of the Marne winds along the valley bottom. The placid stream, about a hundred meters wide and broken here and there by bewitching little islets, wanders along pretty banks that are lined by poplars and willows. On either side of its limpid waters are broad fields under rich cultivation, and interspersed here and there one could have seen the most magnificent orchards and vineyards where cherry tree blended with grape cluster, imparting to the slopes an aspect of decided rustic opulence. Huddled white villages, with tawny-hued pointed roofs, follow one another in almost regular succession on the rolling ground. Their names—Binson, Vandieres, Vincelles, Tréloup,—have lately won a terrible celebrity.
The valley widens as it enters the broad basin of Château-Thierry. It has long been a beautiful spot, and at the same time one of great military value. It has almost forgotten its role of fortress, but very soon will it be recalled in the most vicious but proudful manner.
In the foreground is the wide expanse of fields in the valley bottom. Scaling the slopes of a hill crowned by the ruins of an old castle, the town rises, terrace-like, at the mouth of a narrow valley. The position can only be carried by frontal attack on the heels of a defeated foe, as Napoleon carried it in 1814. But in 1918 the Americans had to take Château-Thierry in flank, and in order to gain egress to the town at all, had to first fight the bloody battles of Vaux, Bouresches, and Étrepilly. In the immediate neighborhood the ravines of Vaux, Brasles, Charteves, Julgonne, and Tréloup, and the valley of the Surmelin, slash the plateau on either side of the Marne into fragments—into forest-topped hillocks which are genuine fortresses, which provided the Germans with Hill 204, the forest of Fèze, and the wooded bastions of Saint-Agnan and La Chapelle-Monthodon, where the Allies were able to advance only a step at a time despite their fierce onslaughts, from the 15th to the 20th of July.
With this little introduction to the physical nature of the country about Château-Thierry it will be well now to return to military procedure.
Notwithstanding the early fighting of the U.S. Marines, the very first American unit to meet the German offensive was the Seventh Machine-Gun Battalion of the Third Division. It was a motorized unit, and rolled off to Condé-en-Brie to join the French, and then on to Château-Thierry. The men rode up practically to the battle-line, and immediately went into action, although they had just come a distance of a hundred and ten miles in thirty hours. This was May 31st. Stationing themselves beside the French Colonials on the south bank of the river, for seventy-two hours this battalion of expert machine-gunners, gradually reinforced by other units of the Third Division, contested the crossing of the enemy. The brave conduct of this Division is particularly interesting because it had not had its trench training, had never been under any kind of fire, and had not even been together as a unit since it left America until some days after it went into action, when its artillery came up.
The Second Division came into the battle area in much the same hurried way, but had had time to get together before it was actually engaged. Motor transport to Meaux, and an all-night march, brought its leading troops, early on the 1st of June, into a support position covering the Paris road at Le Thiolet. By midnight the whole division had come up.
From the 2nd of June until the end of the month, the Marine Corps, combating two of Germany's picked divisions, and given only minor reliefs, had worked its way through Belleau Wood and ridded it of the enemy and his terrible machine-gun nests. As a compliment to this brilliant success, the regulars of the Second Division topped off the proceedings by taking the village of Vaux, with five hundred prisoners.
The necessity for a quick decision now more than ever pressed upon the German High Command. If they suspected before that there was need of breaking through to Paris before the steadily-coming American expeditionary forces should become numerous enough to forever prevent such an action, they now knew for a certainty that this situation actually existed. With amazing rapidity, reckless of their own losses, almost in a frenzy to attain their goal, the Boche officers attacked, retreated, counter-attacked, re-retreated.
Gradually the truth was forced upon them: The coveted road to Paris via Château-Thierry was firmly barred to them. Made desperate, they then planned a great offensive to widen their Marne salient on the western side. It was thought that by joining the Montdidier and Marne salients, Paris could not only be reached by another avenue, but the communications between the French and British could be nicely cut as well.
On the 9th of June the attack began. It made some progress, and heavy fighting continued for several weeks. But constantly the French were being bolstered by new-arriving American units, while the Germans were experiencing awful losses of life. Strategically, the attack was a failure. The Marne salient was still dangerously narrow; the Germans had derived no marked advantage from their costly operations.
Having failed on this side of the salient, they determined upon a similar movement on the other side. As planned, this would cut the lines at Châlons and Epernay and threaten the French communications. The main part of this attack was to be against General Gouraud's French army in the Champagne. The Germans counted upon massing both men and artillery in secret, and launching their infantry upon the point where they would have a great preponderance of both. The advantage of surprise and great numbers, it was thought, would give them a decisive victory.
But they reckoned without their host. Knowledge of the exact time and place of attack had come to Gouraud through orders and proclamations taken from German prisoners brought in by French and American trench-raiders. Quietly but swiftly making every effort to conceal the fact from the Boche that his plans were known, units and divisions of French and Americans were shifted, and positions strengthened, to meet the onslaught when it should come.
From Vaux to Fossoy, opposite the German salient which had Château-Thierry as its apex, were the divisions of the American Third Army Corps which included troops from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Field artillery of the One Hundred and Thirty-second, One Hundred and Thirty-sixth, One Hundred and Forty-first, and One Hundred and Forty-ninth, was also engaged. On the right of the Americans was a wing of the French Third Army under Meurthier. On the left, part of Petain's Fifth Army held the line northward to Soissons. At Ablois, nineteen miles from Château-Thierry, eight thousand husky Marines were held in reserve.
At midnight on the 14th the German bombardment opened up. It was immediately answered by the cannon of the Allies, and the effect of the surprise was all against the plotters themselves. To add to this, when in the early gray of the morning, the attacking waves of the Prussians came on, poorly protected by their artillery, they were terribly lacerated by the French and Americans. In addition to the ordinary kinds of shelling, they were even subjected to the point-blank fire of batteries of terrible French "75's" which had been especially set up for the attack. These guns were with the French infantry, which had been withdrawn from the front lines so that the Germans would have to pass through a wide and withering zone of fire before reaching any one to fight.
And when they did finally reach the French lines, they were met first with all kinds of small-arms fire, and then with the deadly bayonet. July 15th, 1918, was probably the worst single day the Germans ever had. This last desperate attack in the Champagne was a terrible catastrophe for them. It took their last "offensive" reserve. They never attacked again, but were content to confine their fighting to purely defensive operations.
The Forty-second (Rainbow) Division had the honor of holding a small part of Gouraud's front line on that momentous day. Two battalions of the One Hundred and Sixty-fifth Infantry (the old "Fighting Sixty-ninth," New York) were also in the line near Somme-Py, and the rest of the division were disposed in the rear so as to handle any of the enemy that might break through. There was no break through, but the two battalions conducted themselves in a way to receive the praise and congratulations of General Gouraud.
While this was going on the Germans started their corollary attack across the Marne, intending to push south and east. South of Dormans, the onslaught caught some companies of the Pennsylvania Guard of the Twenty-eighth Division. They were not enough in numbers to hold, but made an heroic effort. As it was, they managed to stop the advance until most of them were killed or wounded. Only a few trickled back on their own legs.
A little farther west the German attack ran up against the same indomitable spirit, but backed by larger numbers. Here the Third Division held the south bank of the Marne from Château-Thierry to Mezy, five miles (eight kilometers) eastward. East of Mezy the Germans were across the river, so that the right flank of the Third, consisting of the Thirty-eighth Regiment, was already under fire when the battle commenced.
The German artillery poured a stream of shells on Mezy to drive the Thirty-eighth into its dug-outs, and then, under cover of a smoke-screen, the troops of the enemy started to cross the river in boats. As shown elsewhere the stream is not wide, and if the German fire could have accomplished its purpose of keeping the Americans underground, the chances are the passage would have been quickly achieved.
The Thirty-eighth recognized their danger. Taking the barrage as it came, they remained unflinchingly in the open, and with rifle and machine-gun fired as best they could through the smoke-screen at the dimly-defined enemy. Then the American artillery got the range and the big guns began to thunder and add their huge missiles to the lesser ones cast toward the crossing Germans.
In a few minutes broken boats and dead Germans were floating down the stream. One boat got across, but there was a sergeant hiding in the bushes waiting for it. As it touched the shore he threw a hand-grenade into the craft—and the Marne once more claimed its victims.
But east of the village, where a point of land jutted out, the German cross-fire was so hot that the defenders were kept from preventing a landing. In boat, and on pontoon bridge hastily thrown across, the gray hordes of the Kaiser came in such numbers that it seemed impossible to stop them all. Allied machine-gun bullets raked them off into the crimsoning river by the score; other machine-gun bullets from swooping Allied airplanes poured into their close-packed ranks with as deadly a visitation; rifle-fire and artillery-fire protested every inch of way toward that southern bank; grenades were hurled into the boats by stalwart young arms used to throwing a baseball over a small plate at sixty feet; bombs from huge mechanical birds of the air fell into the seething area and sent spouts of water, spouts of blood, parts of human bodies, and bits of wrecked boats and bridge high into the murky air.
In this sanguinary defense, one entire platoon of the Thirty-eighth was annihilated. A second platoon was nearly so. But the third came in, and continued the fight.
Across at last, the Germans were in a turmoil even more distracting. Now they found automatic pistols and deftly-handled bayonets added to the weapons turned against them. With veritable devils in front of them, and above them, and with the river behind, there was but one thing to do in the eyes of these four hundred Grenadiers who had managed to get across. "Kamerad! Kamerad!" was their cry—and the surrender was accepted.
With the Boche on two sides of them, always under a heavy fire, the conduct of the Thirty-eighth Infantry, under Colonel McAlexander, resisting the enemy pressure for more than fourteen hours, is altogether admirable. If to this splendid performance is added the action of this regiment when, without having left its field of battle for rest or refit, it later crossed the Marne on the night of July 21st in the face of the Germans and advanced directly to the Jaulgonne Gorge, and the fact that in the ten days from July 15th to July 25th it captured prisoners from nine different German regiments, we may well appreciate the record in General Pershing's report where he refers to the Thirty-eighth as having written one of the finest chapters in the history of the American Expeditionary Forces.
A continuous attack upon the American and French positions began at four o'clock in the afternoon of the 15th. While daylight lasted the Germans were repulsed with great slaughter, but with the night they crossed in hordes. During the conflict which took place on the south bank of the Marne, thirty-three Bavarian and Saxon divisions, and eight Prussian divisions, were identified, making a total of over five hundred and fifty thousand German troops who actually crossed the Marne!
Outnumbered six to one, the Americans were gradually pressed back from their lines. The morning of the 16th found the enemy in possession of the fire-trench all along the Marne from Vaux to Gannat and fighting in the support-trenches.
First American pontoon bridge across the Marne on Chateau Thierry front.
The Allied line was bending slowly, steadily, but it had not broken. Conscious that the eyes of the civilized world were focused on them that morning, the Yankees fought on, even while messages were being brought from Marshal Foch's headquarters advising a retreat.
By noon the Germans had gained a substantial foothold across the river from Ville Tourbe, in Champagne, to Torcy, on the Clignon branch of the Marne. Despite French and American reserves rushed to the scene, the advance of the gray continued. Fossoy, Crezancy, Azy, Etampes—all successively fell. The slaughter was sickening, but in pursuance of the German plan of gaining success regardless of cost, they gave no sign of halting.
Then, with the last of the American reserves, came the Marines from Ablois. These men, who had been chafing under the restraint which held them back from a fight in which their comrades were being shot down, attacked like famished wolves. Within thirty minutes they had put an entire Saxon regiment into wild rout. They had no machine-guns, no hand-grenades; the rifle and the bayonet sufficed them.
Pouring like madmen into Etampes and Fossoy, they recaptured the two towns by the sheer impetuosity of their rush. Leaving these trophies to be taken care of by advancing lines of their own infantry, the Marines dashed for the German bridges. In less than two hours they had driven the Boche out of a swath close to three miles wide, had crossed the Marne and thrown themselves flat in the mud of the outskirts of Château-Thierry!
Then ensued what was the most remarkable fight of the whole battle. To understand this combat it is necessary to look again at the conditions.
The steep hill, sloping up from the river, confronted the Marines. On this hill was Château-Thierry, in the hands of the Germans. In the town of five thousand inhabitants, every street crossing, every basement, every tower, concealed an enemy machine-gun emplacement. In all, subsequent events showed, there were over six hundred of these vipers' nests waiting to spit out their venomous hate as soon as an intruder appeared.
And here lay the intruders—eight thousand of them in forest-green uniform—plastered with Marne mud. As flashes of fire leapt from town basement and tower up there on the hill above, and the "coffee-grinders" of the Germans sent a hell-fire of hot lead into the terrain about the turtled forms of the Marines, each man began squirming along the oozy ground. As they moved forward like slimy Saurians, just emerged from the waters nearby, their short rifles began to talk. At ranges varying from fifty to five hundred yards—it made no difference to these wonderfully expert marksmen—they looked for the slit of a pillbox, the stolid face that peered around a corner of a street, the eyes that leered down at them from the barricaded window of a church steeple, the unguarded elbow or shoulder that showed behind the ridge of a roof—and at these ranges they seldom missed the small objects at which they had aimed!
When the first cover was reached—a line of sheds running parallel with the river—hundreds of the gallant division that had recently crossed the Marne lay wounded behind. There was no time to attend to them, no place to take them. On went the Marines, those who had not been hit, and those who were still able to crawl. Taking advantage of every little shelter, they worked themselves into the town limits as a Sioux warrior would approach an enemy in the wilds of his domain.
A Marine would crawl cautiously around a corner. Put-put-put-put-put! would go a Boche machine-gun from an unexpected point, and the poor fellow would fall without knowing what had struck him, perhaps. His comrades, making a detour, would locate the emplacement. While one of their number decoyed the gunner by holding out a helmet on a stick, the others would wait with leveled rifles. The second his face showed, a half-dozen bullets would hit him, and the gun would be out of action temporarily. Before another of his crew could command the weapon, a short charge and quick work with the bayonet would end matters for that particular nest at least.
At noon on the 17th, infantry moved forward to relieve the Marines. The detachment found Château-Thierry fully occupied by the remnant of the gallant forest-green division. As word of their sore straits was flashed back to headquarters scores of stretcher-bearers started for the town. The wonder of the tremendous achievement was in the mind of every one. The sad part of it was yet to be counted. In dead and wounded in this engagement the Devil Dogs had lost more than half of their eight thousand men!
It is necessary to look only at the events of the next few days to see how far-reaching were the results of this fight. Marshal Foch, finding that, after all, his final reserves would not be needed to block the old road to Paris, threw them on the line from Vaux to Soissons. With the German army badly demoralized, it was now time for the Allies to force the fighting, and time for the Boche to strive his hardest to get himself out of the net without being hopelessly crushed.