“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”

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He spoke regretfully, in seeming disapproval. Soldier-wise, against a system that he didn’t understand.

Our guns were French. Their observer talked into his phone, flicking his eyes from a checkerboard of map to gauge across the little fertile valley.

A ranging shot came over, fell too wide. Another went too far beyond the hidden men. Shortly they were bracketed by searching shell bursts.

We watched this added act. One fellow clenched his nails into his palms. He looked as if he were in prayer as arcing shells swept down.

The two broke cover, running, fleeing desperately toward the looming hill.

We watched them separate, and tire against the first low rise of slope.

Snipers threw long searching shots; aimed carefully to try again.

The leading man went down, hit hard, falling in a headlong dive—twisting. His comrade jumped to cover in a hole. The snipers took it up, contentedly, a watching chore to kill the sunny day.

With borrowed glasses you could sometimes see the flick of dust from sun-baked earth.

He was a canny lad. He kept cover—planned to see another sunrise.

INCIDENT

Quick glimpses at the little unimportant things, the trivia of battle, helped to make us into soldiers of a sort. New to the front, more than half-scared through all those days, we pretended a show of toughness and competence and tried desperately to survive.

Ours was not a real hardness. We were too young to be truly hard so soon. We did age fast, and functioned more or less well; depending on the individual and the leadership of the moment. We became brittle, which differs from hardness by many degrees. We were not tempered as good lasting material is tempered, by slow fire and learned hands. We were brittle with a brittleness which was to mark all the days of our remaining lives. We were too damned young and under fire too soon.

Throughout the thirty-odd days required to clear the Germans from Belleau Wood, we replacements were fathered about through the mazes of underbrush and bits of fields by those old-timers who had survived the first two days of wild assault. Some of these were grizzled, greying men of many enlistments. A surprising number were fellows just a little older than ourselves, who had been in the outfit long enough to be soldiers. Instinctively, we looked to them, for even though they may not have always known what to do next, they at least seldom betrayed the fact to us. Their cocky bearing, their sneering self-confidence, and disregard for danger, coupled with a demanded and absolute discipline, allowed us to follow them anywhere under any circumstances.

On an afternoon when a platoon of our 17th Company jumped off with abrupt suddenness to take an enemy outpost, our small group was assigned to cover their left flank. We were not a squad—just a detail, led by a stony-faced old-timer. We were five rifles, and while scarcely enough to cover a two-squad job, we were what could be spared. Besides, if we got overrun in a counterattack, there were but the few of us—not too many to lose if things went wrong.

 

We left the firing line on our bellies, snaking away into the trampled wheat, to gain the partial shelter of a shallow drainage ditch which led out and away from our front. From time to time, the Sergeant would motion us down while he surveyed the terrain ahead and to our right, where things were getting hot. Finally, satisfied of our position, he scattered us along the ditch, charged us to be quiet and not show ourselves. Peering through the shrubbery, we were sometimes able to glimpse a running German or two, filtering back from the outpost. They were good at taking cover, offering poor targets at quite long range. Resistance stiffened. More and more Maxims came into play. The action to our right became a bedlam of sound and fury. The flank we guarded was not threatened so we maintained our cover.

Bullets came from most anywhere. A well-placed gun needs a field of fire of at least a thousand yards. Scattered shots and an occasional burst came our way—mostly wasted stuff overshooting the targets. We kept low and quiet. There was a chance we had not been seen. In less than half an hour, firing fell away in volume, and it was evident that the 17th had taken the place, were busy digging in for the counter attack which was sure to develop. We knew they held it when a barrage of drum fire began falling on the position. Heinie wanted that outpost and meant to get it back.

When watching, and not under direct fire, a fellow is inclined to inch upward for a view of things. It is always a show, no matter how terrifying. We may have been spotted. In any case, Heinie was feeling really peevish and generous with ammunition. A long burst of Maxim fire swept along our ditch, swung away; swung back again, dropping leaves and twigs onto our sprawling bodies. After that we were quiet for awhile. We could see that the Sergeant had not ducked; was keeping a good watch.

A man can stay quiet just so long; then has to move if only to relieve the tension. There were no more bursts directed at us so we regained a bit of confidence, taking turns at snatching quick glances towards where the firing was diminishing.