Fight for Auberive
By A Bohemian Legionary
[The Bohemian Review, September 1917]
Bohemian volunteers in the French army, few though they are, have made quite a name for themselves. They came forward in the first days of the war and enrolled in the Foreign Legion. After three years of fighting their number has dwindled down, and as many have been assigned to special details, they are now scattered through the two regiments of the Legion. The story given below, written by one of them for the Cesko-slovenská Samostatnost," tells of their part in this year's offensive. A fitting introduction to it is an incident related in the Chicago Daily News, July 7, 1917, by Capt. Charles Sweeney, American member of the French Foreign Legion. In describing the Legion in repose, the captain says: "It is at such times, too, that the men of the front get a chance to see their generals. Sometimes Nivelle or Pétain or Lyautey flash through the village in which they are spending their little leisure. Sometimes a gray car with a white haired man sitting erect on the right of the passenger's seat would go by, and the men touched their caps to Grandpa Joffre. Now and then there is a ceremony, as when the colors of the first regiment of the legion were decorated for the charge it made at Carency in the battle of Neuville St. Vaast. It was in this fight that our Czech battalion broke the German line. "Go as far as you can," our regiment had been told.
"Not even a Frenchman hates a German more bitterly than does a Czech, The Slavs beat their way into the first German line and through it, and I doubt if many living Germans were left to tell the tale. They swept through the second German line like a storm. They drove past the third German line. And so one whole battalion of the Czechs kept on until they were stopped eight kilometers behind the German front. They had literally broken the German line.
"They were forced back that afternoon. Reinforcements did not arrive and even a battalion of the foreign legion could not hold such a position. It would have been sheer suicide. But they took their toll before they returned."
We were in Picardy, We marched in the best of spirits because the Boches were retreating before us. There was a lot of hard work, for we had been employed in organizing the captured positions, but we labored with a zest. Only a few of the older and weaker men could not stand it, and old "Cadek was invalided, We got as far as Roy, when new orders came. We turned right around and marched to the depot at M………..
When we saw the train, we looked upon it as covered with glory, though it was not exactly sumptuous. The "coupes" in which we were placed forty to a car smelled of stables. We did not imagine for a moment that the great men were sending us to Paris to help celebrate victory; on the contrary we had a premonition that we shall land somewhere where there will be a lively little fight. Our guess was right.
It was the first of April, early in the morning, when we saw before us the Eiffel Tower and back of it the Sacre Coeur on Montmartre. Our hearts jumped with joy and we forgot the discomfort of the night journey, though we still had souvenirs of it on our clothes and faces. Chunks of mud from our boots got behind our necks and into our hair, which was already decorated by wisps of straw. Slowly we were taken all around Paris and felt better for looking at it and thinking of those whom we hope to see there next time we get leave.
Soon it appeared that our train was running east. Paris disappeared and we went on to Champagne. As we tramped to the camp, it drizzled for awhile, then the sun came out and again a snow squall caught us. The real April weather.
We were stationed near to our Russian brothers, we heard the big guns thundering, we saw the earnestness and hurry with which our artillery and transport were working so that we might at the. right moment jump at the throat of the enemy that had got away from us so cleverly in Picardy. For some time we rested, waiting for orders, and examined with the eye of experts of long standing the slopes facing us, where the Germans were dug in deep in the ground. We were amazed at their completeness and strength, when we finally got there, for the trenches were cemented and into some of them one had to descend by sixty steep steps. The underground shelters were vaulted and some of them were capable of accommodating an entire division. The Boches could wait here in peace, until our bombardment was over, unless we managed to smash their exits, of which they had several to each shelter.
For two weeks we waited for the order to attack. When it came, we felt quite certain that victory would be ours. From the beginning of the war we had watched the improvement of our artillery, and knowledge of their ability to handle any situation, together with the psychological effect of Nivelle's appointment, the German retreat and the Russian revolution gave us supreme confidence.
The night before the attack the second battalion crept into the trenches where the first battalion had spent the preceding six days. Only a few hours of rest, and then once more we shall step across the parapet. But the nervousness we used to feel on former occasions was absent. Duty and victory were beckoning, and when at 5:00 o'clock in the morning, April 17, the order came: "En avant, la Legion", our boys climbed out of the trenches with commendable speed. In a few moments we got to the German wire entanglements. Here and there it was necessary to cut them or climb over them, and some unsilenced machine guns did a little damage. But that did not cool the enthusiasm of the troops who occupied rapidly positions that for two years had seemed impregnable.
This day was for the Legion another "May 9th." It received the fifth palm of victory with which the cross on its flag was decorated. General Nivelle cited us in the general army order, emphasizing our special bitterness against the Germans and our tremendous elan. And the "Matin" on May 30th informs France that it was the Foreign Legion that won the day at Auberive and rendered inestimable services to the country.
Our boys in particular proved again their bravery and coolness, their hatred of the Boches and love of fighting. We are scattered today all over the regiment and I cannot describe the deeds of us all. Stories of a few of the boys will show how the Czechs fought, what good judgment, sang froid, bravery, and devotion they manifested.
The boys sprang out, heard the whirr of a few machine guns and felt a few bullets whistle by; but when we got to the trenches, one after the other they were silenced. Our grenadiers threw some of their hard nuts in their direction, and the Boches soon stopped bothering us. We cleared out the trenches with bombs. The first company proceeded without much interruption to their allotted place and were the first of the regiment to reach their destination. When they sized up their position, they perceived that no support was to be had either on the flanks, or in the rear. Anxious looks and anxious words were the result, until Sergeant M……….. climbs down from the observation post and says: "Oui, we flew like a mob of crazy men, and until the others get here, we have the Boches on all sides. But that does not matter; we shall stay here, until our comrades come." He set out sentinels armed with grenades and we waited confidently for the others.
Finally they came, and the next day we received orders to advance still further. Sergeant M……….. with several of his bombardiers, kept on capturing new positions. At one-time they were stopped by a lanky, death-pale German who, hiding in his trench, threw bombs that burst with great noise, but fortunately did no damage. Our boys sent their steel nuts in his direction, but also without success, and the Boche pitched with redoubled zeal. M……….. got his rifle ready, and the next time the slave of the Prussian King straightened himself out to throw one in our direction, back he fell with a hole through his skull.
We occupied the captured positions, and soon the night came. After two days of uninterrupted fighting we felt pretty tired and fell asleep in the more sheltered nooks; the sergeant, who realised our exhaustion, our hunger and thirst, said he would himself keep watch. We fell asleep to the music of big guns which made deep craters a short distance ahead of us. The German marmits pop over somewhat higher, but shrapnel bursts right over our heads and the leaden bullets-dig themselves into the wet soil. Our seventy-fives answer; their sharp barks seem to come right from the rear of us, for, our light artillery is now located in the front lines captured yesterday. After hours of this noise comparative quiet ensues and only the sharpshooter disturbs the night now and then.
Morning comes and the Boches are counter-attacking. Sergeant M……….. calls to his men, but they are sound asleep and do not hear him, while the enemy is coming at a run. For a time he alone is defending our position and then he hears his comrade Kratma sing his favorite song, "The Czech soldiers are the best"; and Kratma with the gas mask thrown back, looking like a hermit with two weeks' growth of beard, fondles several bombs, and then casts the first one true to aim as the cries of wounded Germans testify. The noise wakes the other boys, they pick up rifles and grenades and the fun is on again. The Boches soon give up and there is a chance to rest.
The second machine gun company, among them a number of good Czech hustlers, got as far as the edge of a small wood, or rather what was left of it; for only smashed stumps were left of the big oaks and birches. A German battery was concealed here. The boys found it out and made sure that the enemy would make an attempt to drag it away, as soon as it was dark. Vasek S. arranged his mitrailleuse so as to cover the spot and sat down beside it watchful like a cat in front of the mouse-hole. Darkness came and with it the sound of clinking horseshoes. He stood up and could make out the Boches, as they hurriedly harnessed the horses to the guns. With a smile of pleasure, he put in a belt of ammunition. Now the Germans whip up the horses, confident that the worst is over, probably looking forward to iron crosses from their Prussian king. At that moment the machine gun starts to growl, and, the entire battery, men, horses-and guns, are in the dust. Not one piece got away. Vasek's face glowed with joy, as he told us about it. "I earned my five sous to day" was the way he looked at his accomplishment. He was cited in the orders of the day.
We remained here eight days, and a tough experience it was. Rations that we took with us lasted just two days, and "ravitaillement" did not function at all. The last couple of days the boys in the first line got something good once in awhile, as opportunity offered, a quarter liter of wine, or a bit of canned meat, or some cold rice, but very little of everything. The hunger and thirst was awful.Why, the men fought for drops of rain water that was gathered in the broken pieces of big shells. The losses of our regiment were great. What wonder, since we had to attack one position four times in the same day; the tirailleurs who were assigned to hold the position retreated every time the Germans counter-attacked. We Bohemians got off fairly well, but our ever dwindling ranks were once more thinned out. The boys that were lost to us will be long remembered.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald