September 1918

An older Raymond Earl Hill, still known to my family as Cap, with his second wife, Sybil Wardwell Hill (d. June 29, 1988).

September 2/18

Yesterday Capt. S—, the French artillery officer and myself took a walk up to the French artillery battery just outside of town on the hill. The big guns were wonderfully concealed from aeroplane observation and the dugouts were immense. Those French 75’s are a beautiful gun and when they lay down a barrage it is almost perfect.

A French 75mm anti-aircraft gun—not to be confused with the cocktail.

A French 75mm anti-aircraft gun—not to be confused with the cocktail.

Saw several women, old men and young children working close by in the fields. There’s no beating this breed. There they were harvesting their crops and the Boche shells falling not 500 yards away. They just realize the absolute necessity of carrying on their work and go about their duties cool and indifferent. Went to St. Die today and drew the money for the entire Regiment, some 400,000 francs. Will be some job paying the men off in the trenches, and for the next week I expect to have my hands full.

September 5/18

Weather has been rainy and cold for day or two. This money has kept me on the jump all the time. Have been running all over our sector trying to get the different companies paid off. Yesterday paid off Supply Co. Today took the Colonel’s car and went to the 2nd and 1st Battalions. Going to the first Bn P.C., the road took me up over a high hill. Most of the way we were under direct observation by the German O.P., although the road was heavily camouflaged all the way. It was necessary to stop some distance behind the P.C.’s and go into trenches. Mud ankle deep and trenches in bad shape but dugouts were perfectly constructed.

We got five Boche prisoners last night and I had my first look at prisoners just captured. Coming over from Brest we saw thousands working in the different cities, but these were fresh from the other side. Was present when we put them through the questioning. They sure did seem glad to get on this side. They were apparently sick of the whole thing. Got some valuable information about Boche troops opposite us.

A typical WWI trench (Somme, 1916).

A typical WWI trench (Somme, 1916).

September 7/18

Finished paying off yesterday and luckily checked out a little ahead—good hard job done. I threatened to take a bath this afternoon but Heinie opened up with his big ones. As they were dropping all around the village I saw it was no time to be caught with your clothes off—so had to put my bath off another month. Great life—if you don’t weaken—but not having chance to bathe I know I am getting stronger each day.* Spent today in St. Die buying dishes, supplies and other things for our mess. Getting plenty of experience with household stuff—maybe useful to some girl later.

I wonder.

*This is the Hill brand of sarcasm I recognize from my family.

September 10/18

Last night they said that Heinie threw over a few gas shells. All our alarms were given but as I was so dog gone tired I never heard any of them. Lucky it was not a heavy bombardment or would have had my name in the papers. Sunday, Bender, Forteau, the French Lieut. Dachary took a long walk up to the artillery P.C. It is located on the highest mountain around here, and some climb believe me.

But some wonderful view, the equal I have never seen. Far to the East you could faintly see the Alps, numerous cities and little villages were nestled in the beautiful valleys. The mountains are unusually high in this section of the Vosges. We also got a good view of the Boche trenches and the country beyond which they are temporarily holding. We got back about 5 p.m. when we learned that our artillery was to open up about 7 p.m. on the German O.P.’s and batteries. They opened up at the prescribed time and what a duel it was. Our billet quivered at every shot. The sky was ablaze with zigzagging flashes. It was a horribly beautiful sight.

One of the most horrifying details of WWI was the rampant use of chemical weapons—particularly lethal gases like phosgene and sulfur mustard, the latter of which would ultimately cause Cap's injury on the final day of fighting.

One of the most horrifying details of WWI was the rampant use of chemical weapons—particularly lethal gases like phosgene and sulfur mustard, the latter of which would ultimately cause Cap’s debilitating injury on the final day of fighting.

September 12/18

Well Heinie was out for revenge for the terrific bombardment we gave him yesterday. At 5.45 this morning he opened up on our front line trenches with 77’s, 105’s, 150’s, trench mortars, and everything. It lasted until eight without a letup, just one rain of shells. We expected a big attack. At ten the Report of Casualties started coming in, which I have to handle personally. We had about 25 in all but the attack was repulsed. The Boche left some machine guns and other junk and only got two prisoners. Our trenches in that particular sector were leveled flat and it sure was a good fight. Some excitement around here for a while. In afternoon went to Raon-l’Étape for supplies. Rained hard all day and weather mighty cold.

“Our trenches in that particular sector were leveled flat.”

September 15/18

During the last couple of days there has been considerable reprisal fire between our artillery and the Boche. Heinie has been throwing some big stuff into our sector, shelling the roads and artillery positions. On Friday and Saturday the weather was rainy and cold but today it cleared up beautifully. The aeroplanes took advantage of the clear weather. They were as busy as the cooties today making observations. Several Boche machines flew very low over the village and opened up with machine guns. The Archie’s were barking all day long and we were able to witness several interesting battles. Have been expecting them to open up right on this town at any time, have got my dugout all picked out.

sept-15Heard rumors that we would move soon, considerable speculation as to where it will be. Have been hearing great news of the new American offensive,* 15,000 prisoners on the first day. It is being carried on in the sector just north of us. Apparently not much chance of a big offensive here in the Vosges. The country is too mountainous. A couple of days ago I realized it was time to attempt another bath (hardest thing in France to do), so got an old lady to heat me some water and bring it to my billet in a fair sized pail. This bathing in a pint of water is some job, but I know I can at least associate with other people now. Went to the office this morning and there found fifteen letters awaiting me. Maybe I didn’t spend a couple of mighty pleasant hours. They made me think I was back in the States. Letters are sure appreciated over here and no one can realize how much we all look forward to them. Learned of Doug Urquhardt’s† death from wounds received in action, terrible thing.

*Have to assume this was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.

†Likely a resident of Cap’s hometown of Athol, MA.

September 18/1918

For the past three days the Boche have been unusually quiet in this sector. Can’t imagine what’s the matter, for when they want to open up they certainly have a beautiful range on everything in the place. The weather has been wonderful and exceptionally fine for aeroplanes. The moon is big, round and full and the nights as light as the day. Each night about 9.30 p.m. we can hear the Boche planes going over on their way to bomb some city in the rear zones, to kill the innocent women and children and do what other damage possible—and they call that war.

American engineers returning from the St. Mihiel front.

American engineers returning from the St. Mihiel front.

We got one of them today up around Raon-l’Étape, there were three of them in it, making three less that we will have to get. Also got a Boche O.B. which had been making observations on our sector. Expect we will leave in about two days. Part of a French Regiment has already arrived to take over sector. The 81st Division is also in the rear ready to relieve them. Some of their officers were out today making a reconnaissance. A couple of the Lieuts. looked pretty scared. Had the opportunity of seeing how I must have acted when I first heard the old shells go whining past*. Went to St. Die on a rush trip today in the machine. Shells had torn the road up in places but men were repairing it.

Major M— and Major R— have both been appointed Lieut Col. and relieved. Capt. R— is commanding 2nd Bn. The Colonel and others at mess have been kidding me about my home town. They say the man that named it had a hair-lip. Can’t get back at the Colonel but I will the others.

*And alas we arrive at the line that inspired the name of this blog. The decision here was two-fold: Cap used this phrase several times in his journal to describe the action of shells passing overhead—it had a poetic quality to it that I liked. But, out of context, the phrase takes on an alternate meaning, sort of like a double entendre: the idea of history (the past) whining to those in the present, beseeching them to recall its existence. In a way, that call was the impetus for this whole project.

†Athol, Massachusetts, is unfortunately pronounced just like you’d expect. But there’s a silver lining. My grandfather relayed a story to me about this that is just the perfect example of Cap’s brilliant, dry sense of humor. Honestly, it could work as a standalone joke: When Cap was discharged from the Army in March 1919 he was actually still in France—specifically, the port city of Brest. So his return to the States issued as a direct return to his hometown. Thus, he would tell Puppa with a wry grin…

“I’m the only man in the history of the United States Army who went directly from Brest to Athol.”

September 25/18

The last week has certainly been a nightmare. Have not had an opportunity of writing a line in this book. We have been rushed first one place, then another to get to our destination in time to take part in the big offensive.* Many of the details which I should like to elaborate on will necessarily have to be left out. We received our definite orders to be relieved in the sector on the 19th and then began the wild scramble to prepare for the relieve. That night the relieve took place—our troops were relieved by the French and by the 89th American Division. The regiment marched to La Voivre where it embussed for the rail head where we would entrain. How it rained. Fairly came down in buckets and not a semblance of shelter for the men.

A map of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918.

A map of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918.

We were to entrain at Lavoline. The Colonel, Capt F— Capt S— and myself drove over in the car, arriving ahead of the troops. The next day orders came that we would entrain by battalions at 3 hours interval, starting at 3 a.m. All wagons, horses, etc. were loaded on the train, reminding one of a huge circus. After the regiment had entirely entrained we started overland on the car, a distance of some 125 miles. No one knew the destination but all realized that we were bound for the big show, an offensive. The trip in the car was wonderful, thru a beautiful part of France and going to cities that were very familiar. As we neared the end and received final instructions it began to be apparent that Verdun was our destination. The troops had detrained and arrived at [Chamontrois?] when we arrived. Here also occurred the most regrettable thing I have experienced since being in the Army—our Colonel, one of the whitest men that ever lived, received orders to leave being a promoted B.G. (Brigadier General). He was a wonder, a man easily approached and wonderfully efficient. Everyone bade him good bye almost with tears in their eyes. We did not stay at [Chamontrois?], only overnight. The regiment moved by marching to Camp [Italion?], a point n.w. of Verdun in the d’Argonne forest. Marching every night, no sleep, not much to eat and everyone “tres fatigue.” The next night we moved up to a point immediately behind the lines in a reserve position at Camp Bruen, still in the d’Argonne forrest.

And what a movement it was, hundreds of trucks going to the lines, loaded with ammunition and supplies. Then we learned of the big offensive, and that we were the fifth American division located in the immediate vicinity. One can never realize nor can it be described that wild scene of preparation for the drive. It was dangerous for one to attempt to cross the road. I found a vacant loft in a barn and laid down to rest. Haven’t had my clothes off in fives nights.

*The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would turn out to be the bloodiest battle in American history.

†Not sure what was meant by this, but I suspect his use of the term had more to do with honor and purity, rather than skin tone—some out-of-use diction.

September 26/18

sept-26The big drive is on. Started at 11:10 p.m. last night and such a shelling. The heavens were ablaze with zigzag flashes and our boys were then going over. The Boche C.B.P. was weak but not so weak. The old 155’s were falling all around our shell of a barn. We are in reserve but expect to be called up at any minute.

September 27/18

Great news—we have advanced six kilo’s. Heinie can’t get away fast enough in some places—but at what a cost. The roads were crammed with rushing ambulances coming from the lines with the seriously wounded. German prisoners are being rushed through in auto trucks by the hundreds. Aeroplanes and O.B.’s are as plentiful as the birds. The Boche artillery is still on the job, we can vouch for that.

“The heavens were ablaze with zigzag flashes.”

September 29/18

We are still going and to help our morale we learned of Bulgaria’s peace proposal. Things are coming our way slowly. Our Supply Officer, Capt. M’C— was relieved today. I was appointed S.O. but didn’t like the job a bit so worked it up so there was another man sent in to relieve me so I could go back to my old job.

Have been up into no-man land all afternoon, or rather what was no-man’s land before our boys went over the top. The sight can’t well be described on paper.

I’m all in, “Je suis fatigue.” It’s wonderful how much a man can stand under such circumstances. In the last week I’ve had so little sleep and eaten so much canned ‘Bully beef’ I’m beginning to feel Bully myself. On both sides of the roads leading to the front one could see any number of horses lying dead from over-work. I myself shot one poor creature that was pitiful in his sufferings. Motor trucks were turned over or smashed to pieces by the roadside. Our one main ambition has been to get guns, ammunition & supplies up there for the drive.

No Man's Land (Flander's Field, Belgium).

No Man’s Land (“Flanders Field”), France

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2 Comments

  1. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I do think that you should write more about this subject matter, it
    might not be a taboo matter but usually folks
    don’t speak about such topics. To the next! Cheers!!

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