CHAPTER IX

HUNTING HUNS

During October the casualties in the Machine Gun Section were only three wounded, McNab, Redpath and Jack Lee all getting hit on the same day. They were sent back to England. At that time it was not considered the proper thing for a man to go back if he could, by any means, “carry on” and these three were all bitterly disappointed when they found that they would have to leave the section. There came a time, all too soon, when a “Blighty” was the finest present a man could get; the loss of a few fingers or even a hand or foot being considered not too high a price to pay to get out of hell for a few months.

When the weather was very bad there was but little sniping-going on, so we often went in and out of the lines “overland” in broad daylight. Sunday, November fourteenth, was one such occasion. We had not been relieved until noon by the Twentieth Battalion who had taken a very roundabout way to get in, so I put it up to all my crowd to choose whether we should spend several hours going around or take a chance down the open road. They unanimously decided on the road, so I started out ahead, with instructions for them to follow at about fifty-yard intervals, and in this fashion we walked down at least four hundred yards of open road, every foot of which was in plain sight of the German lines, and got under cover of a small hill without a single shot being fired. From this point it was necessary to cross another small open space but, as it was partly screened by bushes and trees, we did not consider it dangerous.

We had a redoubt concealed in the small hill mentioned and I stopped to arrange about the relief of the gun crew stationed there. The remainder of the party, except Charlie Wendt, continued on their way and soon disappeared in the woods. Charlie stayed a few minutes and then said: “I’ll go on ahead, Mac, and wait for you at the Eastern Redoubt.” He started out across the field and I continued my talk with Endersby, who was in charge of the local gun, when, all at once, I heard some one call out: “Oh, Mac,” and looked to see Wendt on the ground about one hundred yards away waving his hand to me. Endersby immediately ran to him and I followed as soon as I could drop part of the heavy load I was carrying. On reaching him I found that he had been shot through the abdomen. Just then another bullet snapped beside us, so I told Endersby to get back to the redoubt and telephone for stretcher-bearers, while I bandaged the wound. Charlie remarked: “Well, they got me, but I hope you get about ten of them for me.” I assured him that we would and told him to keep his nerve and he would come through all right. He was a very strong, clean-living young man and I really thought he had a chance. He did not think so, saying he was afraid the doctors would have some difficulty in patching up such a hole. He did not cry out nor make the slightest complaint but kept assuring me that “everything is all right.”

Meantime, the sniper was keeping up a continuous fire, hitting everything in the neighborhood but me, at whom he was shooting. It was such a miserable exhibition of marksmanship–only about five hundred yards distant and a bright clear day–that I told Charlie I would be ashamed to have such a poor shot in our outfit. Any American soldier who could qualify as a marksman would scarcely miss such a target and a sharpshooter or expert rifleman would be forever disgraced if he made less than the highest possible score. However, I forgave that fellow; being a German he could not be expected to know how to shoot straight at any range beyond three hundred meters. The shot that hit Charlie was just a “luck shot,” but that did not help much.

I tried to drag him along toward a slight depression, but it hurt him so I desisted and waited for the stretcher-bearers. When I saw them approaching I called a warning and had one of them crawl to us with the small trench stretcher, on which we managed to get Charlie into a sheltered place, where they shifted him to a long litter and started out with him. The last thing he said was: “It’s all right, Mac; everything is all right; don’t you worry.”

They did all they could for him while I had to go back and get the machine gun that he had dropped. The fellow across the way showed perseverance, at any rate, and kept up his “schutzenfest” as long as I was in sight but without result.

Next day we learned that Charlie had died and was buried at Bailleul. He was not only one of the most popular men in the section, but was the first we had had killed and we all felt very much depressed. I got a permit to go to Bailleul to see whether or not he had been properly buried and there made my first acquaintance with the G. R. C. We had often seen those letters, followed by a number, on the crosses, in trenches, in cemeteries or along the roads, but none knew what they meant. At Bailleul I found the head office of the “Graves Registration Commission” and, within five minutes, knew where Wendt was buried and the number of his grave. This wonderful organization undertakes to furnish a complete record of the burial place of every soldier. Where suitable crosses have not been provided, they furnish one, bearing an aluminum plate showing the name, number, regiment and date of death wherever this information is available. Now they have gone even further and are compiling a photographic record of all known graves so that relatives, writing to the Commission, can secure not only a verbal description but an actual photograph of the loved one’s grave.

I went back and began to plan ways and means of “getting” Charlie’s ten boches, but a day or two later something happened to alter my scheme to a certain extent.

At that time, our ration parties were going out just before daylight, as we had no communication trench and had to cross the open and exposed ground behind our line. The two, who went from one of the guns, however, Dupuis and Lanning, were a little bit late, so that it was light when they started out. About fifty yards down the road was a bend, afterward called the Devil’s Elbow. From this point, they were in plain sight from the enemy line and, no sooner had they reached the Elbow than a sniper fired and got Lanning through the lungs. As he fell, Dupuis knelt down to assist, when he received a bullet through the head, killing him instantly. One of our detachment of stretcher-bearers (composed of the members of our pipe band) was located but a few yards away and, without hesitation, one of the “Scotties” dashed out to help the fallen men. He was instantly shot down, as were three others in succession, who attempted to get to the spot. By this time an officer arrived and prevented more of the men from running out. This officer, by crawling carefully down a shallow ditch alongside the road, managed with the assistance of a sergeant to recover all the bodies. Four were dead and two wounded, one of whom died a few hours later. These stretcher-bearers were unarmed and wore the broad white brassard with the red cross conspicuously displayed on their sleeves. The sniper was only about one hundred yards distant and could not possibly have failed to see this mark.

Then and there I registered a silent vow that these men, to paraphrase Kipling:

“. . . should go to their God in state:   _With fifty file of Germans, to open them Heaven’s   gate._”

Later, I was to see other and worse happenings along that same road, but, at that time, I considered this as about the limit.

The officer who had done such splendid work in recovering the wounded men was himself killed about an hour later, together with one of his sergeants and two men, by a shrapnel shell. He was the first officer we had lost in the battalion, Lieutenant Wilgress, and had been very popular, with officers and men alike.

It was a sad day for us, that twenty-seventh of November, 1915, and yet it was one of those days when “there is nothing to report from the Ypres salient.”

Next day I asked and received permission to go back a few miles to a sniper’s school, where I got a specially targeted rifle, equipped with the finest kind of a telescopic sight. I only remained long enough to sight it in and get it “zeroed” and was back again in front that same night.

“Zeroing” a rifle is the process of testing it out on a range at known distances and setting the sights to suit one’s individual peculiarities of aiming. Having once established the “zero” the marksman can always figure the necessary alterations for other ranges or changed conditions of wind and light.

From that time on, I “lived” in Sniper’s Barn. It made no difference whether the battalion was in the front line or in billets, I was there for a purpose and I accomplished it. When the guns were in the front or in support, we had one mounted in the hedge and kept the rifle handy. Bouchard, with a large telescope, and I with my binoculars, scanned everything along the enemy’s front and behind his lines. We knew the ranges, to an inch. If one or two men showed, I used the rifle; if a larger number, the machine gun.

Prior to this time, during all the very bad weather, we had ample opportunities to shoot individual Germans from our Sniper’s Barn position but had refrained because our own men were also necessarily exposing themselves daily, and to have started a sniping campaign would have done us no particular good and would certainly have resulted in additional deaths on our side. It seems that the troops opposed to us up to this time had been Saxons who were quite well satisfied to leave us alone provided we would do the same by them. Of course we did shoot them occasionally when they became too careless and exposed themselves in groups, but that was perfectly legitimate machine-gun work and taught them a well-needed lesson. Now, however, a different breed of Huns had come in and they had started the dirty work. They were Bavarians alternating with Marines, and we soon learned that for genuine low-down cussedness the Marine had them all beaten, although the Bavarians and Prussians were pretty bad.

When we first began on them it was no unusual occurrence to have from ten to twenty good open shots a day. The ranges averaged about six hundred yards and as I was using a specially targeted Ross rifle, equipped with the latest Warner & Swazey sight, and as I had spent many years in learning the finer points of military rifle shooting, I am very much afraid that some of them got hurt. For about a month we kept it up, the “hunting” getting poorer every day until finally the few German snipers working along the front were safely ensconced in carefully prepared dug-outs. A boche cap above the parapet was a rare sight, but we had our hundred, all right; and then some; for, as Bouchard said: “We’d better get a little pay, in advance before they ‘bump _us_ off.'”

Several times in later days similar events occurred and in each case swift and terrible retribution was meted out to the criminal enemy. They shot down our stretcher-bearers, engaged in their noble work of trying to save the wounded, but we took bloody toll from them whenever this occurred, using unusual methods and taking desperate chances, sometimes, to drive the lesson home.

On one occasion our observers had reported a large gathering of the enemy at a place called Hiele Farm, about eight hundred yards from our position and I had laid two guns on them when, through our telescope, I discovered that it was a burial party assembled in a little cemetery just behind the farm buildings and telephoned to the officer in charge that I did not intend to shoot up any funeral. Within a few minutes came word than an enemy sniper had shot and killed one of our most popular stretcher-bearers and had also fired several shots into the wounded man whom he was bringing in, killing him also. Then, without hesitation, I ordered both guns to open up and we maintained an intermittent fire on that place until long after dark. We could see numbers of Germans lying about on the ground. I have never regretted it.

Then, the day before Christmas, 1915, while the Twentieth Battalion was occupying the front line and we were back in the redoubts of the supporting line, I was up in the gun position at “S-P-7,” the redoubt just in rear of the point where the slaughter of November twenty-seventh had taken place, when a boche shell dropped directly in the dug-out which was my home when in the front line. It killed two men, one I remember was named Galloway, and wounded several others. I was so close that I could see everything that happened. One of the wounded was in such bad shape that the only possible chance to save his life was to get him back to a dressing station without delay. The communication trenches were washed out and the only way was down that ill-fated Devil’s Elbow road. The officer in command called for volunteers to carry the man out, remarking that, as it was Christmas Eve, he did not think even a German would shoot at a wounded man or unarmed stretcher-bearers. All hands offered to go and two were chosen. The officer went with them and they started down the road. The minute they reached the fatal bend, where they came in sight of the German lines, a shot rang out and down went the first man. Another shot and the second was down, while a third dropped the officer, who was trying to assist the fallen. I could see each shot strike in the water alongside the road and could tell just about the spot from whence they came so, although we had absolute orders never to fire from that position unless attacked, I immediately swung the gun around and commenced to “fan” that particular spot, at the same time calling to our signaler to get the Sixteenth Battery on the wire and call for S. O. S. fire. (Each yard of enemy line is covered by the guns of some one of our batteries which, when not firing, are kept “laid” on their particular section of parapet.) Within a few moments the battery opened up but not before at least a half dozen machine guns in our front line had been hoisted upon the parapets and were ripping Heinie’s sand-bags across the way. During this proceeding the wounded men were recovered from the road, but, unfortunately, both the volunteer carriers and the man originally wounded had died. The officer, although painfully injured, recovered.

In retaliation for this trick, our heavy guns wiped out at least five hundred yards of German trench. It was the most artistic job of of work I have ever seen. From a point approximately two hundred and fifty yards on either side of this murderer’s nest we utterly destroyed every vestige of a parapet. How many of the assassins we killed will never be known, but our hearts were filled with unholy joy when we could distinguish bodies or parts of enemy’s bodies among the debris thrown up by one of the big 9.2 shells.

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