“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”

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We had been hearing tales about the runners—the risks they dared—the prices they paid. Not without reason were they included among the elite details known as the “suicide squad. ” We understood that the work, except in an emergency, was voluntary and that no man need accept the job as regular assignment if he preferred otherwise. Of all the risks we had heard about along the front, we were of one mind concerning the job those fellows did. “No runner job for us—too dangerous.”

 

A wounded fellow, walking, came our way and was hailed with a shower of eager questions by us ‘boots.’ He didn’t even take the time to talk to us, just passed us by, stony-faced, looking holes through us in some contempt, as though he missed a quality we lacked and didn’t think us much.

We heard him call the runner Jack, saw him stop to chat awhile, and later, answer our Lieutenant civilly enough.

As he left us, drifting back to find an ambulance, he shouted, “Hey Jack, has the outfit got to hold the woods with them goddam replacements?”

SIGN POST

The path out of Lucy-Le-Bocage skirted a trampled garden, passed a dead cow, followed the road to a gap in the hedge and dropped into a drainage ditch. It cornered a bit of the field, and was covered by a copse of saplings across some open ground.

At the copse the path divided, one way going forward toward the ravine; the other turning half-left through the underbrush to Hill 142. In the fork of the path, a German soldier had died, grotesquely and in pain. One upflung arm, spread-fingered and beseeching, was caught among the branches of a scrubby bush.

For the guidance of travelers, some humorous soul had laced a cardboard sign between the dead man’s fingers. Rough lettering bore the legend “Battalion P.C.” above an arrow pointing west.

INITIATION

The garish flare of a star-shell, blasting the deep gloom, brought into relief a file of replacements cautiously groping their way along the front opposite Torcy, and gave to each his first view of No Man’s Land at night.

In the blinding light every man froze in his tracks. Rigid, their figures merged with the shadows of the wood that no enemy eye might detect movement among them. Since early dark these green troops had been making their way toward the firing line. Now, with night half gone, they were filtering through the trees along the crest of a ridge to take position in that thin line of shallow trenches and fox-holes which constituted the only barrier between Paris and the German drive.

“Come on, close up! Close up!” came the hoarse whisper of a guide. The ghastly light waned and suddenly went out. There was muted sound of movement from the head of the column. Men dared to breathe freely again. Stiffened fingers relaxed their startled grip on rifle stocks, and again they groped forward.

After a few hundred yards came a command: “Pass the word to halt!” Each received the whispered message as he bumped into the man ahead and soon the diminishing sound of rasping branches and stumbling feet ceased. Shortly there came a vague activity from the rear of the line and a gradual shuffling forward a few steps at a time, interspersed with undertone remarks to: “Step out a little!” “Hold it!”

Shadowy forms came working from man to man. A quiet voice of authority bade each: “Take a five pace interval, and lie down!”

One felt an oppressive loneliness at losing contact with the next in line, a feeling soon replaced by relief as tired bodies relaxed on cool earth. The occasional boom of a heavy gun gave background to the eerie, brooding gloom. Somewhere a machine gun rapped into the darkness. At times, the sharp crack of a rifle, in the hands of a nervous watcher, punctuated the stillness. The damned replacements had arrived. …

[At dawn] a distant gun barked and immediately after came a screaming roar followed by a flash—an explosion. There was a spatter of falling fragments among the trees, and somewhere near at hand, an anguished voice cried out in pain. As though by signal, entire batteries took up the chorus—the clatter of a machine gun—another—and the rising tide of sound merged into a crescendo that stifled thought and, for a moment, paralyzed all motion. Shrapnel rained upon the ridge. A running figure dashed along the line with a yell to take cover. Men sought shelter behind half-finished mounds of earth and hugged the ground. Whole trees crashed down as heavy shells shook and jarred the earth. The fumes of H. E. powder became a blanket which crept over the forest floor. There were cries for “First aid, First aid,” and other cries—wordless, terrible cries of men in agony.

Figures moved between the inexperienced men. Someone crouched at Slim’s side and the voice of Sergeant McCabe came yelling at his ear, “Fix bayonets- fix bayonets—an’ watch that goddam wheat!”

“Are they coming?” Slim managed to make himself heard1, from a throat which seemed to choke the words in his breast.

“Yeah, when this barrage lifts, they’ll come—and in numbers, Bud. Shoot low, and be ready to go meet them if they get too close.”