9. The Battle of Blanc Mont
My dear Mother, Father and Sisters,
Rec'd two belated letters of June 30 and July 8th day before yesterday after coming out of the lines. I guess and I hope I am not wrong that when this letter reaches you the peace proposals and banterings which now have the press and mind of this country quite excited will have consolidated into some sort of an outcome and that the big guns which I can still hear rumbling 25 Kilometers north will have ceased and peace which will be past the understanding of you dear folks will have settled on this continent and Germany's forces, crushed, will be disbanding.
Oh God! What a relief it will be. Dear ones you will never understand-never, never. If Hell is on earth, and there must be a lot of it let loose over here, I've been through my share of it. My nerves are almost gone. The sector just east of Reims where our division was thrown in as Foch's hammer and tong outfit was contested inch by inch by the Hun. It was just a matter of eating steel but we did it. God! What a fight. The French on our left and right absolutely could not make headway. We went over early at dawn on the 1st day of October [actually the 3rd day]. We weren't fresh. We had just been out of the lines about 9 days and a lot of new men with us. But the absolute confidence that the men had in themselves their officers and their cause, our Marines went over the top were held up, pushed on, through the heaviest shelling and flank fire from machine guns and through the most complicated system of trenches and barbed wire I ever hope to experience, pushed on and on past their first days objective and then dug in. Next morning we went over again on until 4 in the afternoon fighting for every step of the ground. About 12 we got 'em running across an open valley massed together. Our artillery and machine guns opened on them and they fell by the score. At 4 o'clock we met terrible resistance though. We had been gaining ground steadily, methodically cleaning up as we moved forward. At 4 however they threw 3 regiments to each of ours and caught us on the slope of a hill, What a fight. Bayonets--it's too horrible to write about. We organized a position with what men we had left and sent back word we needed help but that we were going to hold. And hold we did. They sent up no help except ammunition. That sure saved us. The Germans attacked 3 times before dark and we just slaughtered them before they could get at us.
Our battalion was on the left flank and had three sides to protect for our left rear was all exposed. The boys held through and many a dead German will tell you so. You see we had gone so fast our supporting troops had not been able to keep pace. Heinie was keeping a heavy barrage on the area right behind us and thus kept us boxed off. However by our holding, Heinie had draw on his troops to our left. And late that night the word came that the French were only 4 miles behind us on the left and would catch us by noon the next day. So we held.
The Battle of Blanc Mont
Another counterattack in the morning [came] preceded by the most terrific barrage I hope I shall ever have to live through. This was his last attempt to move us out of our position. We held and surprised him by following him back and over his own trenches, the last trenches he had for 20 kilometers and then just ripped him up with machine guns as he fled across the open country in front of us. We were so absolutely all in we couldn't follow him and it would have been foolish to do so until the French got him on the left and they did. About 11 o'clock they caught us up and we established a line just on the edge of the woods with him in the open country speeding for the rear. That night [we] were relieved, from the front line and went into reserve. We were certainly greeted as heroes. The commanding general wrote to our regiment personally and thanked (he said with tears in his eyes) the American Marines who had held on Blanc Mont ridge. He said that it was by our sacrifice courage and sheer bravery and that sort of piffle, that the operation of his whole Army from the Argonne to Reims was made possible. It was some consolation. But I never want to go thru with that little tea party again for that.
John's company commander said he did the finest possible kind of work. There we only ten men left in his platoon of 50 and he automatically took command when his lieutenant and sergeants were killed and carried on in the most efficient and cool-headed fashion. The Major told me today that he wished to thank me for what I had done and said he had mentioned me to the Colonel for my conspicuous services and also that he had recommended me for the Distinguished Service Cross which is usually given like the V.C. for valour. To all of which I sincerely pleaded not guilty.
And really to tell the truth I can't remember anything I did which was extraordinary or out of the line of duty. There are so few decorations given out, and I knew many a man who really deserves recognition of that kind. And as for being valorous, courageous or being darned fool enough to be brave or anything of that kind--why my darling parents, there never was a "skeereder" [scared] human on the whole western front than the writer of this "bloodshedy" epistle. I get so darned quivery and shaky sometimes that I'd die if I couldn't smile.
Fear is a man's biggest individual enemy. Not in the battle when there is action and movement and sport and excitement But in the recesses of his little pit which he dug by dint of scratching maybe with his jackknife and mess pan using them as pick and shovel, when the damp misting whistling wind is blowing through the shattered trees around, and groaning of the wounded becomes unbearable and hunger and thirst seem to drag vitality from you inch by inch, and the shells big and little are pulling one more from among the few men you have left, and you shiver-from cold and the thoughts of some horrible death you've seen some fellow die that day, his one game hand trying to stuff his entrails back into his belly maybe some of his brains in his helmet and the pain from a shinbone bent double toe touching knee, spasmodically making his last breath a gurgled curse of pent up hatred! God in heaven knows my dear ones that if it doesn't cast a spell of fear over you I don't know what will. Not knowing when an 88 without a whistling warning will blow you to smithereens Gee! I hope sometime I shall have done with all these nightmares-waking realizations of Hell....
. . .The big question is how did John and I come out of that scrap alive. I have 5 dents in my helmet from Machine Gun bullets and 4 holes in my raincoat and not a scratch on my skin except flea and "cootie" bites. It's worrying my furtive brainless mind. Only 243 of us came back here out of the 1057 who went over the top on the morning of the [3rd] of October. What can it mean [?] Is some more cruel and terrible end to be ours, or--oh. I've just thought of it. A gypsy fortuneteller in America once told me I was going to have a remarkable, interesting and variegated life until I was 31. I asked her I now recall how I would meet my end. She said it was not in her power to tell "for the paths are slippery that lead to the grave." So I've got it all figured out at thirty-one I slip on a banana peel and break my neck-and naturally die.
I hope you will not think I am sacrilegious concerning the great passing. I realize what it means. But it is certainly the most popular diversion in France just now. Believe me dear ones, you can't appreciate how much the humor of war, funny incidents which if not laughed at would blacken a man's memory for life. I saw, actually took part in, a funny horrible incident in this last battle. I had just rousted out two Germans out of a dugout with their hands up and put them to work on a stretcher nearby. There was a man with a bullet through his knee on it and they picked it up and started to the rear. They hadn't gone 25 yds from me when--Pst-Boom--I had ducked to avoid the fragments and when I looked up there was Lawler with his elbow blown off yelling "Hey Lieutenant West, for God's sake give me a couple of stretcher bearers who can stand up under shell fire." I burst right out laughing like a fool; the shell had burst about four yds from the stretcher and had killed both Heinies--poor souls, some mothers boys--and only blown off the boy's elbow. Some joke, but still one is on such tension and strain that his risabilities are aroused by the slightest show of even the grimmest humor.
Oh bye the bye before I close, I must let you congratulate me upon being received from the MCR Class and into the Regular Marine Corps thus putting me in line for first lieutenant, when vacancies down to my number occur. So now I sign my title as 2M Lt. USMC instead of MC Reserve.
Well, I must really close this little chitty. We all sure love you