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“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”
A Marine Remembers the Bat for Belleau Wood
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
His words penetrated Slim’s consciousness like a sentence of doom. Further speech was beyond him. His pet horror—the prospect of using a bayonet, of facing enemy bayonets in action—appalled him. The very thought, the threat, left him weak.
“Don’t turn yellow and try to run, because if you do and the Germans don’t kill you, I will.” With that the Sergeant left him.
Fascinated, Slim watched the sergeant’s progress down the line. He marveled that anyone could walk through such a hail of steel. He expected to see the man go down with every step.
As McCabe passed from sight among the trees, the meaning of his last words suddenly came to Slim. A flush of shame relieved the scared whiteness of his face and for a moment he lay his head upon his arm. It robbed him of what little strength remained. To be thought a coward on his first day of battle, in his first hour of action, threatened to place him beyond the regard of these men he strove to copy.
The taunt had reached him and hurt his pride. At that moment, boyhood lay behind forever—a page of life’s story turned—and back of a small mound of earth, a disciplined, determined soldier faced the long slope ahead.
The shell fire slackened. There were bursts falling behind the ridge now, centered on support positions; sweeping favored paths and roads over which reserves might come. How well the old Boche knew this bit of front! Just two days back he had consolidated here and now his dead and the debris of battle lay about. This ridge had been a strong point of his stubborn defense, the main objective of the Marine attack of—“Was it only yesterday?”
It was time for the assault. Over to the right of the hill on which Slim lay arose the clatter and clash of a pitched battle. Officers hurried toward that part of the Battalion position, the better to observe the result of what was evidently a flanking attack. The first assault had been aimed at a hollow off there to the right out of sight among the trees, and its outcome might easily prove whether or not their hill was to be held.
Someone near at hand cried: “Here they come,” and Slim’s attention went to his immediate front. Out there beyond mid-field, figures took shape—a long double line of fighting men formed a wave of advancing infantry. Behind, at the far edge, another took shape, and even as he watched, a third wave debouched from a distant line of wood to join the advance. Three massed lines of bayonets reflected the first rays of a red sun peeping over the horizon.
Somehow the excitement which Slim had imagined would mark a battle scene was lacking. His own line was quiet now—too quiet; one could feel a mounting strain, a tension. The entire scene reminded him more of a maneuver, a sham battle, than the actual beginning of a fight. Word had passed: “Hold your fire!” The distant waves came nearer. Out in front, khaki clad figures emerged from a low thicket and fell back with unhurried steps, the men glancing over their shoulders. Someone shouted: “The outpost is in!”
Came a rapping burst of fire from a Hotchkiss gun close by. A gap opened in a gray-clad wave. Rifles began to crack, and, as the gap closed and the attack came on, the volume of fire increased to a pulsing roar.
Slim lay spellbound. His emotions were a mixture of fear, horror and appreciation of a spectacle undreamed of in all his little experience. The merging roar of rifle and machine gun fire gave rise to a feeling of elation—a thrill—a mounting hysteria, which drew him higher and higher from behind his protecting pile of earth to better see the panorama of courage and death depicted on that awful field before him.
Unheeded, shells burst nearby, their splinters keening round like angry hornets. Bits of bark spun off the trees and twigs and leaves came drifting down, but these were sensed, almost unnoticed. Rapt vision could not leave that scene in front.
Experimentally, his rifle raised to cover one of those forms. They were so like the silhouette targets of the rifle range at, say, six hundred yards. When glimpsed through the small aperture of a peep-sight they were nearly identical in outline, the breast-high figures of men, head and shoulders rising above the flood of waving grain through which they came. The difference was that these targets bobbed and swung along with the rise and fall of the terrain and were, or so it seemed, in never-ending numbers.
In fancy, all the German army was coming there. Here was a pageant of men at war, but with actors who did not behave like the story men of the older wars. Nothing was to be seen of the brave clash of bold spirits. No waving flags nor battle cries. Just a trudging mass of modern soldiery, closing in on another group of fellows who, for the most part, waited patiently to test in each the teaching of their trade—“Kill or be killed!”
Somehow the three enemy waves had merged into one and yet it was no stronger than the one had been before. Gaps opened in the surging rank and closed again but not so rapidly as at first. The line thinned, and thinned again, while the air was wild with sound of gunfire.
A fear that was almost panic gripped Slim’s throat. The range was shorter now—too short. With its lessening his panic fear fought for mastery over reason. The urge was to flee, to get away. This was impossible—unreal. That thin line must go back. “Damn it, why wouldn’t it go back?”