The Top of the Hill

LETTERS OF AN AMERICAN STAFF OFFICER

Sunday, July 21, 1918.
I WISH there were some way I could give you an account of all I have seen these past three days! In years to come I’ll still be telling you of the battle of the Aisne and the Marne, where our division received its baptism and found its soul. You have read and reread, I know, of these glorious days — the 18th, 19th, and 20th of July — and still we are advancing! On the afternoon of the 17th the division was carrying on its usual training and drill back of the lines, with no hope of seeing fighting for a month to come. At 4 o’clock we had orders to go to the line ready to attack at 4.30 the morning of the 18th. A busy night it was! A real test for all our departments, for our units were pretty well scattered with the French. On the night of the 17th General C— and I went to a town nearer the lines. We spent the short night in a farmhouse, with a beautiful garden full of roses. A fearful thunderstorm came before dawn, and left a rolling mist that served our troops well as a screen for their advance. At 4 o’clock we were in a little observation post on the edge of a wood, looking out over the ground where our troops were to advance.
Just before dawn every gun saluted the Germans. The barrage is like the Grand Canon — it can’t be described. It is a noise so much greater than any other that no words can do it justice. As our men advanced, the mist rolled ahead of them. When they captured the first German line the sun came up, and we could see clearly, on the crest ahead of us, a little shattered village — the first trophy of the—th Division. We remained there some time, listening to the regular reports that came in from our troops. They passed every point on time and performed every task given them, God bless them! How good it was to see the Boche run! He was completely surprised. I passed over the battlefield later. One German battery was quite interesting —the guns in place, ready to serve. I don’t believe the gunners had fired a shot. Their breakfast—black bread, raw corn, and a little pot of coffee — had not been touched. Most of the gunners were there on the ground, with their faces turned toward Germany.
Two of our men had given their lives to take it — and they faced Germany, too. Our dead are buried on the slope of a hill beside a little village. We brought them all together. They are so far from home, poor fellows! What a wonderful range of feeling war gives you! There was the great joy of our first success, then the pity for our dead and the sight of our wounded as they came back to us. They were so brave, they never whimpered, and often smiled and asked how it was going. They do enjoy beating the Hun!
It was a cheery sight to see long columns of German prisoners coming back along the roads. Our men are quite gentle with them. They treat them decently, in a very impersonal way that the Boche does not understand at all. Most of the prisoners admit they have had enough and are tired and sick of the war. These are such beautiful, cool sunny days — such a contrast to the pain and sweat of war! How I hate war! But I hate the Hun more, and I am so glad to be here doing my little part in it. We have moved on again, leaving a very beautiful, ruined, and sad chateau, that has just, managed to survive four years of war. It had a large park about, it, with beautiful lawns and a forest nearby for the hunt. It belonged to the Waddingtons, and seemed full of memories of very happy days. In my officeroom there was a beautiful portrait of a sweet-faced grandmother, who looked down upon me while I worked at my desk. I had grown very fond of her.
We cleaned up the château thoroughly and left it in better shape than we found it. But we could n’t. repair the chapel — it had a shell-hole in its roof and plaster all over the floor. We are now in a middle-class, ugly French villa, comfortable, but with no other attraction. As we move forward, we are going to have very small pickings for quarters. The French artillery has actually laid all the towns down flat on the ground. Beautiful little villages are just piles of stone and brick. It is terrible to see them destroy their own homes to drive out the filthy Boche. Just as a beautiful woman would cut off her hair were there vermin in it.

August 4, 1918.
I am writing under difficulties. As we advance through this country the shelter grows scarcer, for all the houses have received at least one shell; some so many that they are no longer houses.
Last night we slept in the remains of an old farmhouse. The Germans had left it hurriedly, and it was in a frightful state of disarray. To-night we are better off — we are in a little village bakery! I always have my own cot put up so I have thus far escaped the horror of the small, invisible enemies that live in German beds. A German general occupied this place two days ago — his sign is still on the door. What glorious days! We must not be too optimistic —this is not the end, but it is the top of the hill. The Boche made a fatal error when he started this show on July 15, and he is paying for it. And it will affect all his future operations, and also the morale of his men and women. The prisoners are all hungry and very tired of war. Many of them are just plain deserters, not prisoners. Last night in the rain and wind our troops were cheerful. I saw them marching to cross a river after the Hun. They joked and cheered each other as they splashed along. It is wonderful the way they stand this fighting all day and marching all night. To-day I had a good bath in a little stream nearby, and I am quite ready for a good night’s sleep between clean sheets in my little cot.
Between sentences in this letter I am ordering ammunition up to the front and arranging for wounded to go to the rear. We give them hot coffee at the dressing-stations. They are all very patient and very quiet.

August 7, 1918.
I have been so busy I could n’t write. Problems of supply are terribly exacting and never cease. The men must have food and munitions, else the thing cannot go on. They have both, but it is a scramble over wet roads, through a rough country. The panorama by my door to-day is quite varied. Our wounded, German prisoners, trucks full of good white bread and American beef going forward, and men coming in constantly to ask for anything, from a motor-cycle to a 3-inch gun.
Yesterday I had a wonderful hour. A surgeon at the front reported ninety refugees in a cave near our line. They had taken shelter there from the shelling and for three days had been without food. He asked me for transportation, and I sent three trucks, with Sergeant Baer in charge. He was delighted with the job and took them there and back safely, through shell-fire. There were old women, and old men, and young mothers with their babies. One little girl had her dog under her arm as she got out of the truck. I had had a hot dinner made ready for them at the Headquarters troop, and it was a joy to see them eat.
How gentle American soldiers are! If you had seen a brawny, muddy soldier helping an old French grandmother across the road to the kitchen, it would have delighted your soul. It made me very proud of our men. They stood about, smiling and helpful, and just stuffed the refugees with everything they had in camp. After dinner and the ceremony of thanks were over, I sent them on to the French refugee society. What a horrible thing war is! These poor people no longer have homes, the shells have destroyed everything that was theirs. The deliverance from that hell-hole must have been an unspeakable relief, but what can the future have for them? France is such a compactly settled country, that if one person is displaced, it is a problem where to put him.

August 12, 1918.
What wonderful news to the North of us these past few days! We are all rejoicing over the British thrust about A—. This morning we were relieved by another division and the dear old —th is now marching back to a wellearned rest. Since the 18th of July it has fought and marched, always under some kind of fire, but always going forward. They are tired — very tired — but happy to have been in such a joyous fight. I am tired, too. I got a good bath and to-night I am going to sleep in a nice clean tent in a little orchard, near the farmhouse that is our headquarters. How peaceful it all seems back here — the fields are all clean and tidy, and oh, so quiet! For three weeks now I have caught my sleep as best I could, and my cot was always shaking from the big guns. You can’t imagine the rest I have had in these few hours I’ve been away from it.
I am sending you the thanks we got in the French orders. Keep it for me. In years to come it will bring back to me these days. These wonderful days! No matter what the Boche does, he can never rob us of our joy at beating him in the second battle of the Marne. We don’t know where we are going now. I imagine we will have a rest, somewhere, fill up our losses, and get in again before long. Some people think that possibly the war may end this fall, but there are no real signs of it here. Just rumors that Austria is ready to quit. What a glorious thing the end will be — to know the Hun is beaten! For Hun he is! Everyone is entirely confident of a complete and final victory.

August 16, 1918.
As we get farther from the front, the country grows more beautiful. No Boche has ever been here to leave his hideous scar. Our headquarters is now partly occupying a beautiful châateau, that in peace times belongs to the Due de la R—. Do you remember in The Marble Faun, where Miriam had been for two days in the house without discovering the faun? It would be perfectly possible here — I never saw such a huge place. The château and chapel date from the twelfth century. We remain here a few days, then will move to a rest-camp till we are used again.