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

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Attack at Blanc Mont, Champagne, 4 October 1918

Caught in Their Own Barrage

[Editor's Note:  This excerpt is from what what was published as a fictionalized memoir in 1929.  I don't believe any of it is fiction. MH]

By Sgt. William T. Scanlon, 6th Marines

AT SIX o'clock the next morning I  saw the company runner, Shorty Parker, stop at Lieutenant Marco's hole. Runners always meant movements of some sort so I went over to find out what was on for the day.

The dope was that our artillery would lay down a box barrage in the woods which were directly in front of us. The barrage would begin at six fifteen and end at six thirty. We were to be moving forward at six thirty and enter the woods at six thirty-two. There would be no rolling barrage following the regular barrage. The confidential stuff that Shorty gave me was that a strong force of picked German machine gunners had been concentrated at various places in the woods with positive orders to hold their positions at all costs. They were to stick to their posts in the face of their own barrage, which was to shell the woods. This sacrifice was to be made in order that the balance of a German brigade consisting of several thousand men could make good their escape from the western section of Mont Blanc which they now occupied. 

This information was brought to our lines by two Germans who gave themselves up early in the morning. They were a part of the detail that was to be sacrificed. Promptly at six fifteen our artillery opened up with one big bang. Before this time there had not been a shell falling on either side. The woods were less than two hundred feet ahead. We sat in our trench on the side nearest our own artillery to protect ourselves against our own shells that were falling short. At six twenty-nine we were out of the trench and at six thirty we were racing toward the woods. The barrage stopped as suddenly as it had begun. 

The dead silence that followed seemed unearthly. We entered the woods on a run and penetrated them to a depth of about ten feet. Then we stopped—and almost staggered back out again!

There, lined up in the woods as close to the edge as they could get and still be concealed, was the whole German brigade, officers and all, standing in close order formation like soldiers on parade. They surrendered to us in a body. So startling was the effect on us that we simply stood and looked with our mouths open. Had we been met with a hail of machine-gun bullets we would have stumbled on in some way, but to see a line of Germans dressed in their best soldier suits, wearing caps and cleaned shoes, was too much.

The second wave now came crashing through the woods in back of us and almost ran us through with their bayonets. We had to move on to get out of their way. We passed down along the long line of Germans. They watched us going by, dirty and crummy looking as we were, with a look on their faces as much as to say, "All right, clean up the mess we made. We're going on a vacation." Somebody in back of me said, "It looks as though the war was over now all right."

Entering a Deep Enemy Dugout

And I said, "Yes—for them it is." We pushed on through the woods, passing great piles of lumber, barb wire, tools, narrow-gauge railroad tracks, ammunition, some big guns, lots of smaller guns and dugouts of all descriptions. Reaching the western boundary of Mont Blanc we swung to the north. Not another German was found. Not a shot had been fired. And the fellows had all found their voices. It was the first time we had talked out loud since just before leaving Suippes.

We finally took up positions along a narrow-gauge railroad running near the  northern summit of Mont Blanc. Here we fried bacon and boiled coffee. It was the first cooked food we had had in four days. After the food came the sight-seeing parties. We were like a bunch of kids turned loose in an old attic full of junk.

The Germans had built squatty houses among the trees with wooden sidewalks between them. We ransacked these houses and rooted in piles of rubbish that had been thrown out in back of them. We found piles of books and papers. One type of book seemed very popular as we found a lot of them. They were paper-covered booklets about eight by six inches with pictures of Indians, log cabins and early American settlers on the covers. The Indians were shown trading with whites, offering furs in exchange for beads. The booklets may have been simply story books but some of the fellows that could read German said that they were a form of propaganda showing the crude, uncivilized conditions that existed in America.

The fellows were loading up on every form of junk they could find—tin whistles, old bayonets, helmets, papers, pipes, playing cards. I asked some of them what they were going to do with the junk. They said, "Going to take them home."

.  . . Then when everything seemed nice and peaceful and we were beginning to make ourselves believe that maybe the war really was over, the damn German artillery had to open up. 

It seemed most ungrateful on their part. Here we had just let a couple of thousand of their men march away in their best clothes and they were now probably away back some place eating the food we should have had. And then another bunch has to turn around and try to blow us up. We couldn't help but feel that our good nature had been imposed upon. It made us mad.

"All right, men—stand by to move out . . ." And it wasn't long before we were ducking across the road that runs between Suippes and St. Etienne-a-Arnes. After passing down a steep slope we took up positions in a ravine through which a railroad ran. We were now out in the open country.

It seemed like a new world. The land behind us from Suippes to Mont Blanc was one stretch of shell holes, broken barb wire, trenches, dugouts and dead men. Even the air was rotten. But out in this open country everything was fresh and the sun was shining. We advanced from our ravine position up a slope leading to the north. About a hundred feet out the Germans spotted us and opened up with a terrific machine-gun and artillery fire. It just swept the hill. I was about twentyfive feet in front of the platoon as I wanted to reach the top of the hill before they did but the fire was so hot that we just flopped and stayed down for a while.

I happened to lift my head and look toward the left. A shell landed about fifty feet away. It made a direct hit on a man. I couldn't draw my eyes away. I could pick out plainly the separate parts in the air—the legs, the arms, the body. They seemed to go up in perfect order. . . . Again I felt the sick, sinking feeling I had had in the field before Bouresches. The situation now was practically the same—an open field with machine-gun bullets pecking up the ground and shells crashing all around and that body sailing in the air. . .

Source: Excerpted from God Have Mercy on US! by William T. Scanlon, USMC


  1. William T AndersonAugust 5, 2022 at 2:06 AM

    A Hideous Price: