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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Five: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On”


AFTER four days’ rest in the rear, the Battalion went to the front again in new country, about ten kilometers east of the trench they had relieved before. One morning Colonel Scott sent for Claude and Gerhardt and spread his maps out on the table.

“We are going to clean them out there in F 6 tonight, and straighten our line. The thing that bothers us is that little village stuck up on the hill, where the enemy machine guns have a strong position. I want to get them out of there before the Battalion goes over. We can’t spare too many men, and I don’t like to send out more officers than I can help; it won’t do to reduce the Battalion for the major operation. Do you think you two boys could manage it with a hundred men? The point is, you will have to be out and back before our artillery begins at three o’clock.”

Under the hill where the village stood, ran a deep ravine, and from this ravine a twisting water course wound up the hillside. By climbing this gully, the raiders should be able to fall on the machine gunners from the rear and surprise them. But first they must get across the open stretch, nearly one and a half kilometers wide, between the American line and the ravine, without attracting attention. It was raining now, and they could safely count on a dark night.

The night came on black enough. The Company crossed the open stretch without provoking fire, and slipped into the ravine to wait for the hour of attack, A young doctor, a Pennsylvanian, lately attached to the staff, had volunteered to come with them, and he arranged a dressing station at the bottom of the ravine, where the stretchers were left. They were to pick up their wounded on the way back. Anything left in that area would be exposed to the artillery fire later on.

At ten o’clock the men began to ascend the water-course, creeping through pools and little waterfalls, making a continuous spludgy sound, like pigs rubbing against the sty. Claude, with the head of the column, was just pulling out of the gully on the hillside above the village, when a flare went up, and a volley of fire broke from the brush on the up-hill side of the water-course; machine guns, opening on the exposed line crawling below. The Hun had been warned that the Americans were crossing the plain and had anticipated their way of approach. The men in the gully were trapped; they could not retaliate with effect, and the bullets from the Maxims bounded on the rocks about them like hail. Gerhardt ran along the edge of the line, urging the men not to fall back and double on themselves, but to break out of the gully on the downhill side and scatter.

Claude, with his group, started back. “Go into the brush and get ’em! Our fellows have got no chance down there. Grenades while they last, then bayonets. Pull your plugs and don’t hold on too long.”

They were already on the run, charging the brush. The Hun gunners knew the hill like a book, and when the bombs began bursting among them, they took to trails and burrows. “Don’t follow them off into the rocks,” Claude kept calling. “Straight ahead! Clear everything to the ravine.”

As the German gunners made for cover, the firing into the gully stopped, and the arrested column poured up the steep defile after Gerhardt.

Claude and his party found themselves back at the foot of the hill, at the edge of the ravine from which they had started. Heavy firing on the hill above told them the rest of the men had got through. The quickest way back to the scene of action was by the same water-course they had climbed before. They dropped into it and started up. Claude, at the rear, felt the ground rise under him, and he was swept with a mountain of earth and rock down into the ravine.

He never knew whether he lost consciousness or not. It seemed to him that he went on having continuous sensations. The first, was that of being blown to pieces; of swelling to an enormous size under intolerable pressure, and then bursting. Next he felt himself shrink and tingle, like a frost-bitten body thawing out. Then he swelled again, and burst. This was repeated, he didn’t know how often. He soon realized that he was lying under a great weight of earth;—his body, not his head. He felt rain falling on his face. His left hand was free, and still attached to his arm. He moved it cautiously to his face. He seemed to be bleeding from the nose and ears. Now he began to wonder where he was hurt; he felt as if he were full of shell splinters. Everything was buried but his head and left shoulder. A voice was calling from somewhere below.

“Are any of you fellows alive?”

Claude closed his eyes against the rain beating in his face. The same voice came again, with a note of patient despair.

“If there’s anybody left alive in this hole, won’t he speak up? I’m badly hurt myself.”

That must be the new doctor; wasn’t his dressing station somewhere down here? Hurt, he said. Claude tried to move his legs a little. Perhaps, if he could get out from under the dirt, he might hold together long enough to reach the doctor. He began to wriggle and pull. The wet earth sucked at him; it was painful business. He braced himself with his elbows, but kept slipping back.

“I’m the only one left, then?” said the mournful voice below.

At last Claude worked himself out of his burrow, but he was unable to stand. Every time he tried to stand, he got faint and seemed to burst again. Something was the matter with his right ankle, too—he couldn’t bear his weight on it. Perhaps he had been too near the shell to be hit; he had heard the boys tell of such cases. It had exploded under his feet and swept him down into the ravine, but hadn’t left any metal in his body. If it had put anything into him, it would have put so much that he wouldn’t be sitting here speculating. He began to crawl down the slope on all fours. “Is that the Doctor? Where are you?”

“Here, on a stretcher. They shelled us. Who are you? Our fellows got up, didn’t they?”

“I guess most of them did. What happened back here?”

“I’m afraid it’s my fault,” the voice said sadly. “I used my flash light, and that must have given them the range. They put three or four shells right on top of us. The fellows that got hurt in the gully kept stringing back here, and I couldn’t do anything in the dark. I had to have a light to do anything. I just finished putting on a Johnson splint when the first shell came. I guess they’re all done for now.”

“How many were there?”

“Fourteen, I think. Some of them weren’t much hurt. They’d all be alive, if I hadn’t come out with you.”

“Who were they? But you don’t know our names yet, do you? You didn’t see Lieutenant Gerhardt among them?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Nor Sergeant Hicks, the fat fellow?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Where are you hurt?”

“Abdominal. I can’t tell anything without a light. I lost my flash light. It never occurred to me that it could make trouble; it’s one I use at home, when the babies are sick,” the doctor murmured.

Claude tried to strike a match, with no success. “Wait a minute, where’s your helmet?” He took off his metal hat, held it over the doctor, and managed to strike a light underneath it. The wounded man had already loosened his trousers, and now he pulled up his bloody shirt. His groin and abdomen were torn on the left side. The wound, and the stretcher on which he lay, supported a mass of dark, coagulated blood that looked like a great cow’s liver.

“I guess I’ve got mine,” the Doctor murmured as the match went out.

Claude struck another. “Oh, that can’t be! Our fellows will be back pretty soon, and we can do something for you.”

“No use, Lieutenant. Do you suppose you could strip a coat off one of those poor fellows? I feel the cold terribly in my intestines. I had a bottle of French brandy, but I suppose it’s buried.”

Claude stripped off his own coat, which was warm on the inside, and began feeling about in the mud for the brandy. He wondered why the poor man wasn’t screaming with pain. The firing on the hill had ceased, except for the occasional click of a Maxim, off in the rocks somewhere. His watch said 12:10; could anything have miscarried up there?

Suddenly, voices above, a clatter of boots on the shale. He began shouting to them.

“Coming, coming!” He knew the voice. Gerhardt and his rifles ran down into the ravine with a bunch of prisoners. Claude called to them to be careful. “Don’t strike a light! They’ve been shelling down here.”

“All right are you, Wheeler? Where are the wounded?”

“There aren’t any but the Doctor and me. Get us out of here quick. I’m all right, but I can’t walk.”

They put Claude on a stretcher and sent him ahead. Four big Germans carried him, and they were prodded to a lope by Hicks and Dell Able. Four of their own men took up the doctor, and Gerhardt walked beside him. In spite of their care, the motion started the blood again and tore away the clots that had formed over his wounds. He began to vomit blood and to strangle. The men put the stretcher down. Gerhardt lifted the Doctor’s head. “It’s over,” he said presently. “Better make the best time you can.”

They picked up their load again. “Them that are carrying him now won’t jolt him,” said Oscar, the pious Swede.

B Company lost nineteen men in the raid. Two days later the Company went off on a ten-day leave. Claude’s sprained ankle was twice its natural size, but to avoid being sent to the hospital he had to march to the railhead. Sergeant Hicks got him a giant shoe he found stuck on the barbed wire entanglement. Claude and Gerhardt were going off on their leave together.