First Hand Accounts of the 151e R.I.
Lance-Corporal Henri Laporte
The Trenches in the Argonne (cont.)
Tuesday May 4
We leave the bivouac at Croix-Gentin at 2:00 pm, We make for La Harazée. As soon as we arrive in the village, we move up to the first line trenches at Blanlil. It is 10:00 am by the time we're once again set up in our positions. A lively fusillade erupts and lasts for about twenty minutes, then some rifle shots. Both the end of the day and the night pass calmly...
[Thursday] May 6
At 5:00 am, the Germans shower us with bombs which, fortunately, make more noise than do harm. It lasts a while and so around 8:00 am, our trench artillery enters the game: our famous winged-bombs, so dangerous, which fly above our heads to sow death in the opposite trenches. The explosions are terrific, deafening, and we join this orchestra by throwing grenade after grenade upon our enemies. These last ones to enter the dance are called "stove-pipes;" they are in fact in their appearance pipes, though much more harmful. There's nothing like it when it comes to demolishing trenches made with sand-bags and gabions. They also throw at us their grenades in the shape of a bottle. These are nastier. An Austrian canon (the 88), which we have nick-named the "Zim-boum,"* inflicted some real damage. It took our trench from enfilade and we went through some real exercises to dodge the fire. It's a canon that fires very quickly and is extremely murderous.
*The equivalent of the British term for a light artillery shell, a "whiz-bang," so-called for the sound the incoming shell made.
Our 75s, those which are still there, end these elegant "prunes" to Fritz. They must not be festive any more. Finally, around 10:00 am, the racket stops on both sides, as if fallen under a spell. We hurriedly repair our trenches. There are deaths not far from us. Wounded men come down the communication trenches and head toward the first-aid posts. At 5:00 pm, the cooks bring up the soup. The morning skirmish hadn't taken away our appetite. At the very moment when the cook spooned out my ration into my mess-kit (I had taken the precaution of drinking my cup of wine beforehand), a Fritz, characteristically, shot into the loop-hole above me. A bullet arrived and smacked into the parapet, throwing up a little spurt of earth, which chose my mess-kit as its landing mark! I let out a curse (the word of the old general, [merde]) and fired off two or three rounds into his loop-hole. He remained quiet after that. I was really unlucky, and this Burgundian beef [soup] smelled so good! I took out the earth as best I could, and then reconciled myself to rest. I didn't examine it too closely. We were used to eating "peppery" food, but this time it was me who had been well served. The evening passed quietly, only troubled by a few gun-shots from the look-outs.
Friday May 7
I've been on guard at the listening post since yesterday evening at 7:00 pm. Nothing unusual has occurred up till now. At 12:30 pm, I'm relieved by my friend, Corporal Waban. For the whole two hours, we alternate sharing our imitation "gourbi" ["hovel"]. We've fixed a tent canvas above a shelter made with thick stakes, to protect us from the rain which has been falling for an hour. I've made a placard which I hung in front of the shelter entrance. It is inscribed:
Water on all floors
Meals on the quarter hour."
Saturday May 8
Bombs thrown by the Germans since 1:00 in the morning are the prelude for a "hot" day. Indeed, from 9:00 am until 7:00 pm, it's a non-stop deluge of bombs. Our side does the same thing. It's a little after 7:00 pm and the German bombs are so numerous that our section leader, Sergeant-Major Poulain, my comrades and myself are obliged to take shelter as best we can in a shelter located several meters away. Suddenly, a big bomb comes our way and bursts barely a meter from us on the parapet. A shower of stone fragments and all types of objects covers us from the force of the explosion. The cloud of dust had hardly cleared and we had still not recovered from our surprise when a second bomb burst just above our heads. We are thrown to the ground, a part of the parapet collapsing on top of us. I was hit by a big stone in the face, fragments struck against my helmet. It feels like the bottom of my face is ripped off. Our section leader fell on top of me and cries out: "I'm wounded." Fortunately, it's nothing. We're only badly bruised, along with three other comrades. Two others are sprawled out, lifeless, next to us. We pick ourselves up totally dazed from the shock. We feel pain all over the body. My mouth hurts especially, but this passes. We're happy to be left in such good shape...
The bombs continue to fall, but the 75s had the last say and this was a peculiar "dance." We can see the trenches across from us, thrown up in pieces, in a deluge of stones, wood, and dead bodies. This intervention of the 75s led shortly after to a calm. I was broken with fatigue, as well as emotion. We saw death close up. I was able to sleep three hours this night in the trench, despite a pouring rain. This involuntary shower and bath in stagnant water woke me up in the early morning hours, but I had already recovered. In the morning, the runner gives me a letter from my mother along with a little parcel. I was very happy, forgetting the bad hours that had passed.
Sunday May 9
During the day, some "stove-pipes," some bombs, nothing else. At 9:30 pm, we were once again relieved by the 328th [RI]. This departure from the trenches was carried out in silence and soon after we take the descending communication trench. At each step, we knock into the bodies of sleeping comrades (those in reserve, who are getting some rest. Some hushed words..."easy now" were exchanged, laughingly. At the bottom of the ravine, we arrived at an intersection of communication trenches and head in the direction of La Harazée, where we arrived around midnight. All these reliefs are carried out in silence, so that the attention of the enemy isn't aroused. After arriving, we go back to our respective "gourbis" ["hovels"], where we find again our inseparable "Totos" (lice). The fatigue makes us forget all about the bites from these little insects and we fall into a deep sleep.
Monday May 10
[...] The sun is very hot. I write a letter to my mother, sitting in a tree trunk covered with ivy. Other poilus play cards, read, mend things, wash up, etc.
Tuesday May 11
Second sunny day of rest. Along each side of a little Biesme River are shirts, under-drawers, towels set out on the grass and lattices, drying in the sun after being washed. Occasionally (probably an optical effect), it looks like this line moves around. The jokers think that this can be attributed to the "heroic march of the 'Totos' " underneath the line...All is calm in this happy valley. In the evening, in the company of two comrades, we sit and watch a marvelous sunset. In the green prairies, with shadow beginning to creep in, some red tiled roofs (still standing!) defined in this natural scenery. It must have been nice living here in this charming corner before the cataclysm.
The place, called Four de Paris, is bathed in the vivid, changing colors of the sunset. Further away is the hamlet of La Placardelle, where the woods are still tufted. What a bittersweet scene...Unfortunately, the charm is broken from time to time by the whistle of stray bullets crashing down not too far from us. And so, the days came to an end in this gorgeous countryside. After the evening meal, we go back to our "palaces" and stretch out on the straw. Our packs as pillows, a blanket over our bodies, always "inhabited" and "flea-bitten" (despite the utmost precautions). That's our bed, where despite everything we manage to sleep. Obviously, it's a change from white sheets. Yet even so, this is paradise: bedded down dry, without taking a dip into the mud of the trenches, without dealing with water everywhere, nor the occasional small or large pieces of iron [...].
Thursday May 13
At 4:00 am, an alert like the evening before, but at 8:00 am calm returns. We see two German prisoners come into the village, without escort. These are the first prisoners that we've seen close up. They have a dazed look. A semblance of a smile folds their lips. Despite this, they don't look to good: mud colored, gaunt faces. They're directed to the rear. For them, the war is over. Well for me, it's what I fear the most: to be taken prisoner.
Friday May 14
In the morning, reinforcements arrive to raise our effective strength. I have three more men, assigned to my squad: the 11th squad. In the evening, at 9:00 pm, we take up the trenches of Blanlil. The relief is carried out without incident. I take the guard at the listening post with my comrade, Neinlist, until 8:00 am the following day.
Saturday May 15
The day heralds itself as being calm. We are busy repairing the damages in our lines caused by the preceding skirmishes. Towards noon, the Germans throw over some bombs at us, to which we respond, shot for shot. Firing is of course taken up from one end to the other, following the objectives to be gained, as prescribed by the general-staffs. The bombardment lasts for two hours. Only two wounded in our lines. We get back to work. The Germans do the same. We hear their pick and shovel strikes. The same evening, the "dance" begins again but not too deadly.
Sunday May 16
I stood watch a good part of the night. I was a bit tired. Around 3:00 am, I make good of the calm to lie down at the bottom of the trench. I urge my comrade Gallais to wake me at the least bit of incident. I wasn't stretched out long when a German, who for two days had marked out our loop-hole, shot a bullet in the middle of a sand-bag which fell on my head from the top of the parapet. A little dizzy from the shock, I picked myself up with no harm done. But, seeing that I wouldn't be able to relax, I passed the rest of the night sitting on a stone. At 7:00 am, the engineers pass in front of us with crates of dynamite. A moment later, we're warned that a mine is going to be set off not too far away in our sector. Indeed, the earth trembled and and we witnessed very close by on our left a cloud of smoke, earth and various objects thrown up following a huge explosion.
The Germans use the occasion to spray us with "stove-pipes." One of these lands a meter from us in the bottom of the trench. I have just enough time to leap to the side with my two neighbors. More excitement than harm, as the trench takes the brunt of it. From all sides these "pipes" come down on us. Our poor trench is once again demolished. We're blinded by the dust and smoke. It takes a superhuman effort to not lose it entirely. Death is on the look-out for us at every moment. Very close to me, one of my comrades is hideously torn to pieces. The trench is so shattered that we can no longer see anything. We are living through some agonizing minutes. The bombs continue to rain down all along the line. Fortunately, our 75s enter into the game and less than a quarter hour later, the Germans are killed off.
It's our turn now. We don't use the munitions sparingly. Rifle shots from all the loop-holes, grenades, trench bombs. What racket! There must be "damage" done across the way! It's about 10:00 am, calm has returned. As quickly as possible, we set things back up in order in our trenches. Two of our men can be seen under the debris, horribly mutilated. They're no longer alive. The stretcher-bearers arrive and carry off these poor shapeless bodies, wrapped in tent canvases. These macabre collections are now routine sights for us, though each time our hearts ache. All faces are grave. What horror, this war.
Taking advantage of the lull, I head toward the second line trench located a few meters from ours to answer the call of nature. I return five minutes later in time to see two other comrades wounded at the same spot that I had just left. Hautecoeur had his chest punctured by a bullet and Gallois had his knee perforated by a projectile...Once again, I've escaped. Up to now, luck has been with me! It didn't take me long to realize that my squad's emplacement was taken by enfilade. We couldn't stand upright anymore. I immediately sent word warning the company commander in order to get the temporary evacuation from this end of the trench till night time, which would allow us to fix up the parapet. This proposition was immediately accepted. So far so good, I evacuated the eight men from this spot that's become untenable. There's no point in uselessly exposing oneself. I stay with Sergeant Simon in the corner of the communication trench linking up with the second line, near the listening post.
Around 11:00 am the soup is brought up. Hardly had I begun eating the meal than the Germans once again hurl some heavy Minemm [sic] at us. One of them, thrown high into the air, makes a great trajectory and heads straight toward me. I only have time to make a quick jump to the side. A shock, an explosion, a shower of stones, a thick cloud of black smoke..that is all. I had been thrown two meters away, with no harm done except for a simple concussion. My rifle and my pack were reduced to shreds. In the communication trench, two of my comrades were stretched out, lifeless. Our famous winged-bombs pass in our whirlwind above our heads, heading toward our neighbors opposite. This continued for close to an hour, giving us again a little respite, despite the frightening din of explosions.
At 1:30 pm, a light lull. But around 2:00, the bombardment starts back up. It seems that our trench artillerists have exhausted their stocks! It's a true hell of gunfire. The Germans start to respond and aim principally for our sector, for we're placed in the line of fire with our own artillery. Around 2:20 pm, another big Minemm speeds straight at us. With two comrades, we have just enough time to take cover in the entrance of a shelter to a mine gallery. I'm closest to the trench. I violent explosion is produced above our heads, the gallery gives way and we are partially buried in the earth. At the same moment, I experienced what felt like a hammer blow on my waist. I struggled as best as I could to free myself and not to suffocate. My other comrades in the trench are too busy sheltering themselves from the falling projectiles to notice that three of us are buried.
After a while, I managed to free myself completely. My face is bloodied (from the cuts produced by the falling stones). My two other comrades, who had entered the gallery first, were killed under the collapse. My body half-dislocated, I crawl on my stomach as best I could toward the second line. I felt a strong pain in my back and I couldn't stand upright. The bombs continued to fall. Our lieutenant commanding the company (Lieutenant Couplet) noticed me and advised me to make my way down the communication trench a little ways leading to the first-aid post. I went a dozen meters, feeling that my strength would abandon me. I sheltered myself as best as possible under a shelter and perceived immediately just above me the rumbling of a heavy bomb, which arrived in a thundering noise, exploding on my makeshift shelter.
Again everything collapsed on me and I remained under the rubble for about an hour. It's impossible to make any movement, only my right foot can move. I 'm lucky in that a calm settles back in and several engineers going down the communication trench, see my moving foot. They manage to free me and carry me to the first-aid post. There, after a brief cleaning-up to disinfect the wounds (especially on my head and face), I'm laid out on a stretcher and evacuated out of the first-aid post of La Harazée.
. . .
The trip was terrible for me. My whole body was in pain (though normally not oversensitive to pain). There were many wounded men at La Harazée. When my turn came to be examined, the doctor didn't note anything serious, except for a very strong concussion. Once again, I was cleared as being in good shape. I was treated (massaged and left to rest fully) at the first-aid post for three more days, and since my company was relieved on the third day, I asked the major to leave for rest with them. I wasn't very stable on my legs, but with the help of two comrades, on May 19 I made the trip walking, without my pack or rifle, to Florent, about 5 km away.
A calm rest in the following days did us well, so that by Sunday March 23, at 5:30 pm, when we are given the order "sac au dos" ["packs on"] we feel completely refreshed. As for me, I only felt a mild soreness in the waist. We set out marching once more to Blanlil, where we arrived at 8:00 pm. Our section is placed in reserve in the second line. Around 10:30 pm, on our left, starting off the fight with bombs, shooting erupted along the whole line. Around midnight, everything goes calm again . . .
Thursday May 27
Sometime in the evening, Minemm fall behind us but it doesn't last long. At 8:30 pm, we are relieved by the 328th [R.I.]. We had hardly made it through the descending communication trench that the Germans blew a mine in front of the trenches that we have just left. For about 12 minutes, there is intense shooting. We arrive at La Harazée without incident and immediately leave for our billets at Croix-Gentin, where we rest for four days. The rest, in the middle of a woods full of greenery and flowers, is very calm.
Monday May 31
Reveille at 3:30 am. The battalion leaves Croix-Gentin at 5:00 am. I stay behind for a little with Lieutenant Cavaion and two men in order to clean the billets. We leave at 6:00 am. We pass La Placardelle, a small village in ruins [adjacent to Four-de-Paris]. A few shells come down. We arrive safe and sound in the trenches around 7:00 pm . . .
Monday June 7
The company lance-corporal had been wounded, the company commander recommended me as a replacement. I accepted. I'm going to handle the replacements for the sections in line and act as the liaison between companies.
[Tuesday] June 8
After four days of rest at Florent, we go back to Blanlil.
Wednesday June 9
The sector is pretty calm. I'm posted in the second line. Here, I keep account of the explosives and I'm in charge of supplying. Some papers to generate from time to time. I'm placed a few meters away from the company commander and I have with me four liaison agents . . .
Trench warfare continues without much variation . . .
The Minemm rained down nonstop. I'm in reserve in the second line, at the entrance of the communication trench with the first line. Their ugly "stove-pipes" came down everywhere at the same time. Fortunately, not all of them strike. The macabre procession begins, the stretcher-bearers have a lot of work to do. It's a real racket, an indescribable scene. The 75s come into the mix and even our heavy artillery showers down on the German reserves. There are only flashes and explosions. We sense something is building. This artillery duel and rain of bombs lasts until midnight. In these moments, you have to sense conversation. Some comrades miss the roll call. Our trenches have suffered a lot. All are put to work in order to repair the damage.
I had forgotten to mention that the night before, gas masks were distributed to every man. All these preparations seems to be the prelude to more serious operations.