“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”

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The Germans came over a shoulder of grassy hill, a thousand or more yards away, walking slowly into a sunlit valley through all the glory of a June morning.

 

Sunbeams danced in vivid flecks of light from off their bayonet points.

A breathless Major panted up the slope behind our line, surveying preparations, shouted orders here and there.

A Hotchkiss crew trotted up and chose a clearing, slamming the tripod into the forest loam to brace it well.

Men stood about, nervously adjusting rifle slings, rising and falling along the ridge in quest of prone position, sighting, looking for an opening through the screen of brush below.

Some braced against the trees to shoot from standing positions, easing their pieces back to set the peep sights to a figured range.

Somewhere on the flank, a Hotchkiss chattered sharply several times and shortly silenced, suddenly.

A shot was tried by over-eager lads.

The Major shouted: “Damn you, hold your fire!”

The waves of men came on, closing in across a field of knee-deep grass.

 

We saw the flaming beds of poppies trampled underfoot, so far away.

They did not come directly to us, moving across the field diagonally leaving us high away along their leftward flank.

Almost at battle sight we realized the press would come no nearer, aimed as they were at outfits further west.

Men craned their necks to watch the officers, impatient, wanting but the word to open fire. Even our replacements felt the urge of it.

Killing at long range is such an impersonal thing; a sporty testing of the nerves, like practice on the training range. Here was fair game. The men were feeling cheated.

Ragged crashing shooting started, somewhat like a volley, fell away in volume, steadied to a pitched roar of sound. We watched death strike the looseknit ranks of walking men.

Leaders tried to charge; slowed, wavered, melted suddenly. Men dropped to cover in the grass, set about the business of a firing line in striking back.

Others rested quietly where they fell. The wounded? Ah those wounded, always optimists. Such as could walk stood up in hail to make a try for distant cover; turning their backs with seeming unconcern, to get away.

 

There were not so many dead, so far as we could see. Surprising that, in all that roar of sound.

Too far to charge on in with any chance against such firing power. Somehow we had known that too, when first they came across the hill.

Numbers do not matter much to men who aim each shot.

Queer where bullets go at such a time.

Do very many make sure to miss? You seldom hear the fellows mention that. Some fellows tell you things, in confidence.

Broken, the attack went rearward, starting suddenly. Running figures shouldered comrades from the grass. Some stumbled, staggered on, or lay quiet.

The scattered waves became a mob of infantry retreating.

Some had charmed lives and wove about the place from men to men, not rattled; being soldiers, splendidly.

Killers took their toll. There’s always some.

We watched the last of them, the wounded, lurch and fall.

Did we forget the shrapnel? Watching?

It came, the first just after the start of rifle fire and broke in spotty bursts quite viciously, with scream and flashes. There wasn’t much of it, it seemed. We didn’t have so very many guns at Belleau Wood.

Shell bursts tore the greenness of the meadow, ripping off the grass to leave a black loam scar, below a smear of smoke, or burrowed deep in mucky stuff to spout a flaming geyser, throwing blobs of muddy earth away. All were gone at last, it seemed.

Except some scattered figures in the grass.

A knowing voice said two had taken shelter in a shell hole and tried to point the place. It was quite far away. The fellows argued, “See those two dead together?” “Well, at three o’clock from there—in that big shell hole—”

“See now—a helmet showed.”

“Yeah, sure I got it—the damn bastards!”

A sniper; ours. Rifle with a telescopic sight. He slipped away to find a better place. You heard odd shots from time to time along the ridge.

There was discussion; excited talk.

Old-timers gazed across the field, with bleak, still eyes. They gruffly answered questions.

Replacements chattered—nervously.

“Hell, that was just a demonstration,” the skipper talking, “acted like it from the start. I wonder what the plan was anyhow?”

I heard the Major—to a tall first Louie—the adjutant, I guess—“The Boche don’t give a damn about conserving man power, do they?”