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

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Father Duffy on the Wait Before the Big Fight

It's the middle of July, 1918.  The 165th Infantry (AKA the "Fighting Sixty-Ninth") is in the line east of Reims. The Germans are expected to launch their fifth major offensive of the year shortly. The unit's chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, is making the rounds with the boys:

At present we are not in the front line trenches, but in what are called the intermediate ones.The General's idea is to hold the front line with a few French troops who will make themselves as safe as possible against the vigorous shelling expected and withdraw behind our lines when the German Infantry make their attack.Then our fellows are to have the task of keeping goal. It's Going to bring the battle right down to our doors, as the battalion and company headquarters are only one or two city blocks from where the hand to hand fighting will have to take place.

I spend most of my time amongst the men and am very much interested in finding out how their minds react at the prospects of their first big battle. The other German drives against the British and the French have been so overwhelmingly successful that I was afraid the soldiers might think that whenever the Germans get started they were just naturally bound to walk over everything. I am delighted to find that these bits of recent history have not affected our fellows in the slightest. Jim Fitzpatrick of E Company expressed the feeling of everybody when he said : "Why would I be afraid ov thim? They're just Dootchmen, a'int they? and I never in me loife seen any four Dootchmin that I couldn't lick." 

I have often read statements by reporters about men being anxious to get into a battle, I never believed it. But I find now at first hand that here at least are a lot of men who are anxious to see Heinie start something. I tell them that I am desirous of getting into our first mix-up right here. This Division has started out hunting trouble and if we don't find it here they will keep us sloshing all over France until we run into it somewhere. 

They will have need of all their courage, for if this general attack is made it's going to be a tremendous one. The opinion of the French General staff seems to be that  this line will not be able to hold. At any rate they have been making preparations with that contingency in view. The whole plain behind us is organized for defense with our other two battalions in rough trenches and the Engineers in reserve. I hear they are bringing up also a Polish Legion to take part in the support. They have Seventy-fives in position for direct fire on German tanks, and machine guns stuck everywhere with beautiful fields of fire across the sloping plain. Everything is so charmingly arranged, that I have a feeling that some of the people behind us have a sneaking hope that the Germans will sweep across the first lines so that they can be met by the pleasant little reception which is being prepared for them further back.

Men of the 165th with French Advisors

However, I think that our friends back there are going to be disappointed unless the Germans can spare a Division Or two to smother this battalion. Their orders are "Fight it out where you are," which is Anderson's translation of Gouraud's phrase, "No man shall look back ; no man shall retreat a step."

Last night Major Anderson  and I made the rounds of all the trenches.General Gouraud had picked it as a probable night for the big attack, so we started around to get the men in right spirits for it. The Major's method was characteristic.As the bright moonlight revealed the men in their little groups of two or threes, the Major would ask, "What are your orders here?" The answer always came, quick as a flash, though in varying words, "To fight it out where we are, sir." "To let nothing make me leave my post, sir," and one, in a rich Munster brogue,  "To stay here until we're all dead, sir." "Then, will you do it?" "Yes, sir." Soldiers are not allowed to make speeches, but there's the  most wonderful eloquence in all the world in the way a good man carries his shoulders and looks at you out of his eyes. We knew they would stick.

I had my own few words to say to each of them, whether they were of the old faith or the new or no faith at all. We were two satisfied men coming back for we knew that the old regiment would give a good account of itself if the assault were made.

The night  passed uneventfully and this morning I was happy to have another Sunday for my own work. A French priest, a soldier in uniform (a brancardier) , said Mass for Company F in the picturesque little soldier's chapel that gives the woods its name, and gave General Absolution and Communion, while I did the same in successive Masses for Company G and Company H, and the Wisconsin fellows. [After mess]  I ran into Major Donovan, who as usual walked me off my feet. I had to visit every foot of his position on both sides of the Jonchery road and I was glad when Major Grayson Murphy came along in a staff car and offered me a lift any place I wanted to go.

On our way back to P. C. Anderson, the Corps Officer who was with him, gave his opinion that judging by past performances the Germans should be able to advance at least one kilometer in the massed attack that was threatened. I didn't say anything but it gave me a shivery feel-ing, especially when I measured out a kilometer on one of Anderson's maps and wondered just what would have happened to poor me by the time the gray mass of Germans would reach the point that the gentleman from the Staffhad conceded them in his off-hand way. I needed the trip around the trenches for my own reassurance and I stretched myself out last night for a sleep with the comfortable feel-ing that the decision in this matter was in the hands of an aggregation of Irish stalwarts who care little for past performances or Staff theories. We are going to celebrate tonight. Lieutenant Reratisto bring over a few of the French Officers and the admirable John Pleune is off scouring the countryside and theFrench canteens for something to celebrate with. . . 

July 14th, 1918 11:00 p.m.

We are here in Kelly's iron shack. Lieutenant TomYoung, a thorough soldier and a good friend of mine, and old boy Finnerty and Harry McLean are waiting for the bombardment. Everything that can be done for the men has been done. There remains the simplest task in the world, though often the hardest—waiting. We are going to celebrate tonight. Lieutenant Rerat is to bring over a few of the French Officers and the admirable John Pleune is off scouring the countryside and the French canteens for something to celebrate with. . .

Our little Hands Across the Seas dinner was a jolly affair [but] just then the Adjutant of Colonel Arnoux stepped in to give us the news that the attack was certain and midnight the hour. So we toasted France and America and departed for a final inspection of positions. Everybody is as well fixed as he can be made and I have picked this as the handiest central place to await developments.

Waiting Out the Artillery Barrage in a
Deep Dugout


July 15th, 1918

It was 12:04 midnight by my watch when it began. No crescendo business about it. Just one sudden crash like an avalanche; but an avalanche that was to keep crashing forfive hours. The whole sky seemed to be torn apart with sound—the roaring B-o-o-o-m-p of the discharge and the gradual menacing W-h-e-e-E-E-Z of traveling projectiles and the nerve racking W-h-a-n-g-g of bursts. Not that we could tell them apart. They were all mingled in one deafening combination of screech and roar, and they all seemed to be bursting just outside. . .

Over the next few days the regiment would help halt the last German offensive of World War I. Total casualties of the regiment during World War I amounted to 644 killed and 2,587 wounded. Sixty members of the 165th earned the Distinguished Service Cross. Three more were awarded the Medal of Honor.  The story of their fighting in this action can be found HERE and an account of a later action HERE.

From Father Duffy's Story


  1. I presume it was the middle of July, 1918, not 1915.

  2. Yep. Thanks for pointing this out, Jim.