- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Then came a new kind of hell. Their own artillery, groping for the range to silence the German machine guns, began falling among the prone Americans. A captain from Company D tried to reach the men who were being hit, to order them to fall back. Machine guns cvit him down, and two twin brothers, Victor and Bertrand Herrmann, crawled out to help him where he lay in the open. But the captain was dead, and Bertrand Herrmann was hit. Hours later, he and the four men who tried to evacuate him on a stretcher were hit by a shell and killed instantly.
Meanwhile, members of my father’s C Company somehow worked their way to the top of that shellripped hill and drove the Germans off it. Reinforcements from the 3iith Infantry were rushed to their support. The next day, what was left of my father’s company pushed into the southern edge of the Bois de Bourgogne. There, exhausted, their ranks too thin to go farther, they dug in while a battalion of the 3iith Infantry drove past them.
On the night of October 27, the 312th Regiment was withdrawn and reorganized into two (instead of three) battalions. Many sergeants, including my father, were made acting lieutenants without commissions, to beef up the all but annihilated officer cadre. Around Grandpré, the rest of the 78th Division continued to extend the gains already made. Bellejoyeuse Farm was finally captured, the penetration into the Bois de Bourgogne was deepened and held against renewed German counterattacks. But the Bois des Loges remained in German hands. Ironically, my father received his only “wound” of the war coming out of the Bois de Bourgogne. The trail was blocked by a large tree branch, which each man was supposed to hold for the man behind him. Maybe a private had a grudge against the Sergeant; more probably they were all too exhausted, after nine days of almost continuous fighting, to remember the simplest order. The man ahead of my father let the branch go, and in the darkness it smashed him in the face, breaking his nose.
An officer told him to consider himself wounded and go to the rear. He refused. “I think I’m needed around here,” he said. No one argued with him. The ist Battalion had only four officers left. The regiment had lost twenty-one officers and 800 men to bullets and shellfire—and seven other officers and 150 men had been gassed and evacuated. Wiping away the blood and shrugging off the pain, Sergeant Fleming stayed with his men.
That night, back in the forest near Senuc, they found that the rear area of the Argonne was almost as dangerous as the front lines. German long-range guns, perhaps alerted by an aerial observer who had spotted a careless light or a fire, poured a terrible bombardment into the 312th’s camp. That surprise attack was one of the few painful memories of the Argonne that my father shared with me. They dove under wagons and into ditches while the big shells screamed in, one after another, like berserk express trains. Suddenly one of his closest friends cried out, “Teddy, I’m hit. I’m hit.” My father crawled over to him through the shellfire and asked him where he was hurt. “My legs,” he said. “My legs.” My father groped for his legs in the darkness, but there was nothing there. Minutes later the man was dead. My father never told me his friend’s name, but the sorrow in his voice made me understand for the first time why the song “My Buddy” meant so much to him.
I prowled into the Bois de Bourgogne and the Bois des Loges. I walked around Talma and Talma Farm. I stared down the forbidding slope from Bellejoyeuse Farm toward the Aire River and the bare fields beyond it. Every foot of the ground was amazingly unchanged from the descriptions in the regimental and divisional histories. A blink of the eye, a flick of a time-machine switch, and these same fields and woods were torn by shellfire and littered with the bodies of my father’s friends once more.
In the Bois de Bourgogne, André Godart’s hunter’s eyes spotted a rusted, grisly relic of the battle, a German helmet. He gave it to me as a souvenir. Standing in silence on Talma Hill, the helmet in my hands, I struggled to assess what I was learning. There was a gulf between this experience and the old soldiers’ reunion stories, the tales told by my father and his friends. They did not begin to approach the reality that these tan, naked fields and shrouded woods evoked. More significant, the tellers had not really tried. Most of the time they only hinted at what they had seen and heard. Suddenly I was remembering my father’s refusal to talk about killing Germans, and I was hearing a sentence someone spoke at the 78th’s reunion: “Five minutes in combat made a man out of anybody—if he came out of it standing up.”
Now I know what you have left out, I thought. The horror. But I also understood, far more deeply, the pride. Pride that required no boasting, no verbiage, not even testimony. For those who had been through the Argonne, it was enough to say: “I was there.”
The men of the 78th had accomplished the dirty job assigned to them. The task recalls the harsh larger reality of the Argonne as described by Laurence Stallings, author of The Doughboys : “No one, corps or army commander, expected the y8th to capture the German positions before them. Their assignment was to exert flank pressure by exposing themselves in a series of attacks to contain an enemy seeking to sideslip toward the center where … the 42nd and 32nd Divisions were ripping into his heart.”