Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Wounded at Blanc Mont


by C.A. Brannen, 6th Marines USMC


Carl Brannen, USMC
The American attack in the Argonne would begin on 26 September, a scant ten days after the 2nd Division had been relieved in the St. Mihiel sector. In order to bolster the battered French Army, Pershing offered P├ętain the use of the U.S. 2nd and 36th Divisions. As the Franco-American offensive commenced on 26 September, these two formations were in the general reserve of the French Army. There was little doubt that the American 2nd would move up to a tight spot soon, once again under French...General Gourand, the commander of the Fourth French Army....His own army [in the Champagne] had stalled a scant dozen miles to the west in front of a series of high areas known as "Les Monts." The key to the German defense hinged on Blanc Mont; if it fell into French hands, the Germans would have no choice but to fall back on the next natural defensive barrier 30 kilometers to the north. The capture of Blanc Mont Ridge would rejuvenate the French offensive and relieve pressure on the Americans in the Argonne.

...Two or three hours before daylight [on 3 October], the word was passed along to get ready for the attack. Everyone checked his bayonet to see that it was fastened on good with the latch. Ammunition was inspected, and the flaps of the belt unhooked so that a fresh clip could be gotten into the rifle quickly. Each man had two extra bandoleers of ammunition around his shoulders. I made sure the bandoleers of ammunition were in front of my chest. The issued razor was in the right-hand pocket of my blouse and the YMCA-issued Bible was in the left-hand pocket. I was using all of the protection that I could think of.

Just as it was breaking day (zero hour), we came out of our trench and began the ascent in combat formation. The rows of men moved forward unhesitatingly but fell like ten pins before the deadly machine-gun fire. I was a runner to carry messages from flank to flank of my company and the one adjoining, trying to keep the units in contact with each other as the now thin lines swept over the crest.

I was with a lieutenant of the 78th company when we entered the forest of small pines which were along the crest and down the slopes on the other side. We were firing on the retreating enemy as we advanced, sometimes dropping to a knee for better aim. A bullet hit my bayonet about an inch from the muzzle of the rifle while I was carrying it at Port Arms position, shattering the bayonet and leaving me only a stub.

Depiction of the Fighting on Blanc Mont by George Harding

A Marine near me rushed at three Germans who were also near. I speeded up and rushed at them, too, with my rifle lowered to use my bayonet. They surrendered, and then I noticed them looking at my bayonet. I tried to read their minds. They must have thought that I had broken off my bayonet in a man. Later a man in my company saw me with my stub of a bayonet and said, "Old Brannen stuck his bayonet in one and broke it off."

...A machine-gun nest was now holding up the advance. Instead of trying a direct assault, we decided to flank it. The lieutenant asked for some men to go around each flank. Three of us went tot he left. When we were in close proximity to the nest, we were a little too exposed, and the fellow on my right fell, killed. As I jumped for protection into a ditch nearby, a fusillade of bullets caught me below the heart on the left side, through one lens of the field glasses, and against my bandoleer of ammunition. The best I remember, ten bullets in my own belt exploded, but they had deflected the enemy bullets, saving my life. My own bullets ripped my coat to shreds as they exploded and went out over my left shoulder by the side of my face. My cloth bandoleer and the field glasses caught on fire. I got them off me and then replaced the field glasses around my neck again as they quit burning.

I collected myself together and, with the other companion in the ditch, looked for our machine gunner but saw the Americans were now in possession. I suppose we had helped by drawing fire while the others rushed, for on going up there I found three dead Germans stretched out by two guns. One must have gotten away, as it took two for each gun. Machine gunners were never taken prisoners by either side. A machine gunner's only chance was to be taken while he was away from the gun and his captors did not know he had any connection with it. The reason is obvious, for when a man sat behind a gun and mowed down a bunch of men, his life was automatically forfeited.

We stopped and began forming a line along a road. Just ahead, three Germans showed themselves in a trench. Sherwood and I dashed over, and they came out surrendering. They were shaking like a leaf and saying "Telephonique." They were telling us that they worked on keeping up the telephone lines to the front and had no connection with the machine-gun nest which gave me such a raking over and had just been captured.

I had bled over my coat from a bullet striking a brad in the rifle sling and ricocheting the brad into my upper lip. I also thought the scratches in my side should be iodined. The prisoners afforded an excuse for leaving the lines, so I started back with them. As I passed some of my company, they stretched their eyes at the number of bullet holes in my clothes while I grinned at them.

As I got away from any other American soldiers, the prisoners began to stretch out an make too much space between them, so I just prodded the back one with the stub of my bayonet and made him keep up. Back a little ways, I ran into a French officer who in broken English asked me to bring my prisoners to help him with some wounded. They seemed to resent this Frenchman more than they did me, but I made them go and went with them. Shells had almost wiped out a battery of artillery, and the bodies of the men were terribly mangled. We helped bring two of the wounded away. Continuing, I ran into some MPs and turned over my prisoners. Returning toward the line, I went by a first-aid station which had been hurriedly thrown up beside the road, expecting to get painted with iodine. The doctor who was a major looked over me, asked how long I had been with the outfit, and then to my surprise tagged me for the hospital. An ambulance carried a bunch of us back to a field hospital that night. A group of Americans back there when we unloaded for the ambulance ganged around and asked a thousand questions. They marveled at my miraculous escape.

I was placed on my back on a table in a little room with a doctor on each side. They placed some kind of machine over my wound and were looking through it apparently. They seemed to have discovered a bullet inside of me when one of them found that they were looking at a button on the back of my pants. I felt quite relieved when the examination showed that no bullets had penetrated, but had only ragged the flesh a little. A German prisoner was near me with his right arm almost shattered in two at the elbow.

Wounded Men Being Loaded on a Hospital Train

I was so inexperienced at sleeping off the ground and on springs that sleep did not come as readily as I expected. A day here and I was placed on a hospital train with many more to go to Base Hospital #27 at Angers, across France near Bordeaux. I unloaded at night, discarded the muddy, bloody clothes, took a good bath, put on clean pajamas, and crawled between two clean white sheets.

My ward was filled with men with all kinds of wounds. In the morning a nurse came along and took temperatures, which judged what a fellow would get to eat. Next came the doctor and "agony wagon" and so through the days until you were pronounced fit to leave.

Postscript:

When Carl Brannen was terminally ill with prostate cancer 59 years later, x-rays revealed a bullet in his side which had been missed at the field hospital in France.

Sources:  The Doughboy Center

2 comments:

  1. Interesting article. My great grandfather, Private Jerome Marks was killed at Blanc Mont. He served in 'B' (75th) Company of the 100 Battalion, the same unit as Thomas Boyd author of "Through The Wheat" and "Points of Honor", well-regarded World War I novels and stories.

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  2. What a great read. Carl deserved to live to 100. Too bad the Prostate cancer got him. Loved finding the bullet.

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