- Historic Sites
“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”
A Marine Remembers the Bat for Belleau Wood
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
We who were best located to act as witnesses of the affair occupied an outpost trench where sloping meadowland came up like an arm of the sea to penetrate the woodland. There were about fifteen of us, and we were very much on our toes and watchful of the result. It was interesting to watch a battle of that sort, seeing the other fellows do the fighting. I believe we were enjoying a measure of selfish security without thinking of what might be expected of us should the situation turn against our men.
As the attack reached the climax, the enemy stragglers began showing through the trees at our right front as they filtered away to the rear. But our rapt attention to the show before us was rudely interrupted by authority in the person of Gunnery Sergeant John Ailiers, who said flatly, “Fix your bayonets!”
The order was to us a complete surprise, startling and appalling in its potentiality; and when we questioned with our eyes his meaning at giving that order at such a time, he said, “When the main body of the Bosche are driven out of that neck of woods, we’ll go down with the bayonets, and try to capture some!”
The outpost had a feeling of its own. It was a spooky, threatening sort of place and full of smells. It smelled of powder, and of smoke, and the putrid tang one gets around a slaughter-house, and raw, fresh soil. It smelled of mystery and rolling farmland mist.
Most trenches offer sanctuary of a sort and let a fellow feel protected, some snuggled down against the breast of Mother Earth, half hid from harm.
In all our little time in it we never felt secure. We lived instead, on nerves; beneath a weight we hadn’t known before in other places.
Bushy headlands reached at us from either side, across the wheat, and both were held by German infantry. Our little trench was dug below a loom of hill, in front of, and outside the firing line. Though there were fellows scattered thinly through the trees along our flanks, we had a sense of being pocketed between the jaws of giant pincers; of something watching us, poised to strike.
We were, in fact, a listening post of sorts and somewhat of a strong point in advance. But then a listening post, when there is time, may fall back to a battle line to fight. A strong point stays. Our job was just to hold the gloomy place, which meant staying there, in any circumstance.
We held it with a squad of men at night and left it empty during daylight hours. By day it would have been a harvest ground for snipers, working from the headlands out in front.
We had a captured Maxim on the parapet, for company. Its use was questionable in such a range-choked place, but then it gave us confidence of sorts.
The wiser men among us laid their rifles back along the parados from under foot and fingered hand grenades, instead, while keeping watch.
In all of nature, is there any spot so dark as that black band where meadow merges into woods against a hill? Where half-seen shapes of trees at forest edge in seeming movement, never move away; and peering eyes grow tired, and conjure things?
It’s good to feel a comrade’s shoulder then, to know that men like him don’t run away. It’s then you get the feel of soldiering.
One night, the Skipper came down quietly among the trees and spent a time at looking over things, and whispering among us. man to man. He sensed the feel about the place, I guess. He must have known our quiet, stifled fear, because he sent an old-time sergeant down—to father us and ease us with his voice. Old campaigner that the sergeant was, he gave us confidence to face the dark. A soldier does a thing like that—for amateurs.
Leaving the trench at dawn was ticklish business—hardest on the fellows who came last. Sometimes the night mist thinned a bit before the push of morning breeze and let the flooding light of day come rapidly. It left a fellow feeling naked as he climbed the slope to reach the shelter of the firing line. Your shoulder muscles bunch in tight-pulled knots, held taut against the blow of an expected bullet; it leaves you breathing gustily and deep with inner tremblings.
It’s good at such a time, to slip away among the trees behind the line; to sprawl in restful comfort on old leaves; to watch the little summer clouds; to smoke a cigarette and dream.
We had come back the day before from Belleau Wood where we lived eleven days of Hell. We rested, taking belly wrinkles out with plenty of rations, enjoying as we could the job of being in reserve.
It had been our first time in the lines. We had learned many things; the courage of the enemy coming at us over open ground; his generosity with shells in greeting any movement; the spiteful viciousness of what we called his whiz-bangs.
It was pleasant, peaceful among the trees, around the little grave-like pits that we had dug for shelter from the long range stuff. All of us were older by a dozen years than we had been a dozen days before.
Some of the fellows slept away the drowsy June-time afternoon.
Some sat about in little groups and swapped experiences or tried to engage our old-timers in talk, hoping they would tell about the first attacks which we recruits had missed.