Friday, August 10, 2018

A Yank at the Battle of Amiens: The Chipilly Ridge Sonnets of John Allan Wyeth

Unknown to most Americans, there was one A.E.F. unit which participated in the decisive Battle of Amiens, which began one hundred years ago on this date. The 131st Infantry Regiment of the American 33rd Division was detached to the British 58th Division in the reserve of the British III Corps-- which launched the attack on German positions north of the Somme in the pre-dawn hours of August 8, 1918.

The otherwise rapid Allied advance ran into one serious impediment: a bare seventy-five-foot-high ridge in an oxbow bend on the north bank of the Somme, near Chipilly, which was still in German hands. From this eminence, German machine gunners poured a devastating enfilade fire onto the flank of the Australian corps across the river at Hamel. The job of clearing this ridge was given to the American 131st Regiment. Far from being in position to launch the attack at the designated zero hour of dawn on the ninth, the 131st was dispersed over a wide area, with the 1st and 2nd Battalions spread throughout an area of trenches northwest of Heilly, and the 3rd Battalion at Pierrogot, some twenty miles to the northwest. Throughout the day and night of the eighth and most of the ninth, the three units struggled to cover the distance, locate one another, and get into position at the jumping-off line.

For the the men of the 131st, the night of August 8-9 was one of danger, fatigue, and utter disorientation. They had no information as to the nature of the terrain, and during the night of August 8-9, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were subject to both gas and artillery fire and able to locate one another only with the greatest difficulty. The 2nd Battalion marched without transports or Lewis machine guns and with one hundred pieces of small-arms ammunition per man; the 3rd Battalion had to cover the greatest distance without rations or water. After their night-long march, the men of the 3rd Battalion were to cover the final four miles at a run while carrying fully-loaded packs.

Their attack took place at 5:30 p.m., and despite the heavy machine-gun and artillery fire pouring down on them from Chipilly Ridge, the Americans could not be driven back. They repeatedly pressed the assault until the northern half of the ridge and southern end of nearby Gressair Wood were taken. Continuing the assault the following day, they took the remainder of Gressair Wood and by day's end were in possession of seven hundred German prisoners, thirty artillery pieces, one aircraft, and more than one hundred machine guns. A corporal of the 131st received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly capturing a machine-gun nest, killing five of the enemy, and taking fifteen prisoners.

A staff officer of the 33rd Division, 1st Lieutenant John Allan Wyeth, was on the periphery of all this. His mission, during the night of August 8-9, was to hand-deliver sealed messages from Divisional Headquarters at Molliens-au-Bois to the field headquarters of each of the three battlions of the 131st. Their exact locations, somewhere along the northern bank of the Somme in the vicinity of Sailly-le-Sec, were unknown. It was the mission of Lt. Wyeth and his companion, 1st Lieutenant Thomas J. Cochrane, to find them. The night was pitch-black, full of the racket of machine-gun and shell-fire, and laced with mustard gas.

Lt Wyeth, as it happened, was a cultured man, a recent Princeton graduate in languages and literature, and he rendered his experiences of that night into an accomplished, highly original cycle of six linked sonnets-- part of a much longer cycle of over fifty sonnets which covered the entirety of his service in the war. But it is this self-contained six-sonnet sequence in particular-- describing one soldier's stumblings through the metaphoric valley of death-- which delves most memorably into the nature of war.

Roe, Fred, 1864-1947; 4th Suffolks at Neuve Chapelle, France

~~~ The Road to Corbie ~~~

Our staff car flies and trails a long-spun haze 

over the looping road and the surge and fall 

of the heaving plains ~~ quick dusty tree trunks throw 

their flickering bars of shadow in our eyes. 

A wood~~ men leading horses out to graze~~ 

a misty bridge, and past the lumbering crawl 

of crowded lorries~~ low hills all aglow 

with tufts of trees against the evening skies 

and long blond hill slopes catching level rays 

along their quilted flanks~~ and under all, 

the deep earth breathing like a thing asleep. 

And there, Corbie~~ her brittle walls brought low~~ 

a brick-choked wreck, in which her ruins rise 

like gravestones planted in a rubbish heap.


Late afternoon to early evening, August 8. By the time they set out late in the day, Wyeth and Cochrane, speeding along in an open staff car, find the roads choked with "lumbering . . . crowded lorries" (British trucks), and columns of marching, pack-laden troops. There is only one outfit on the road from Molliens-au-Bois to the front on August 8, and this is the 3rd Battalion of the 131st. Both battalion and staff car are bound for the same general destination, the north bank of the Somme, where the rest of the 131st is scheduled to rendezvous. The destination specified in the original orders was the village of Heilly, where headquarters of the 58th British Division is located, but by 10 p.m. the 131st has been ordered to an assembly point on the Bray-Corbie road some three thousand yards to the south of Heilly, in readiness to attack an hour after midnight. Subsequently, however, given the exhausted state of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, and the fact that the terrain is not yet reconnoitered and the troops without supplies, and given that the 3rd Battalion is still in transit, the commanding general of the 58th decides to postpone the attack until evening of the 9th. The 131st is sent onward to the north bank of the Somme east of Corbie, to a "position in readiness" in the valleys between Vaux-sur-Somme and Sailly-le-Sec. Corbie, the ruined village through which Wyeth and Cochrane pass, is located some fifteen kilometers east of Amiens, on the north bank of the Somme, at the confluence of the Somme and the Ancre.


~~~ Corbie to Sailly-le-Sec ~~~

High staggering walls, and plank-spiked piles of brick 

and plaster~~ jagged gables wrenched apart, 

and tall dolls' houses cleanly split in two~~ 

Rooms gaping wide on every cloven floor, 

pictures askew that made your throat go thick, 

and humble furniture that tore your heart. 

"By God let's get out of here!"

                                                      We motored through 

to the poplar marsh along the river's shore. 

Sailly-le-Sec~~ her church one candlestick 

on a broken altar, and beyond it, part 

of a rounded apse~~ a dusty village husk 

of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, 

all blue, and twinkling with the phosphorescent soar 

of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk.


Dusk, August 8. The distance from Corbie, eastward along the north bank of the Somme, following a large north-curving arc of the river, and passing through Vaux-sur-Somme (where a gunner from the nearby 4th Australian Division brought down von Richthofen the previous April), to the village of Sailly-le-Sec is about five kilometers. At this point they are only a few kilometers from the front, and the skyline before them flashes with the storm of war.


~~~ Regimental Headquarters ~~~

Steep prickly slopes in shadow from the moon 

sagging behind us down the strident sky. 

Guns blaze and slam. The stars burn fever bright. 

A low white ridge ahead, and the crumpled sound 

of shelling.

                    "Jerry's out ~~"

                                                 A snarling croon 

wheels over us ~~ quick glittering tracers fly 

down a pale searchlight, and along the ground 

bombs blast into smoky yellow shot with light.

"Those runners will get you up there pretty soon. 

~~ Take them up to the Second Battalion."

                                                                   My tongue goes dry 

and scrapy, and my lips begin to jerk ~~

~"Look out for the gas ~they been pumping it in all night."

"Let's go, Tommy."

                                       "O God wait a minute ~~ 

I've found somthng wrong w' my mask, the damn thing doesnt work


After nightfall, August 8. The headquarters of the 131st Regiment is located about a thousand yard northwest of Sailly-le-Sec, in a small wood. Here they are so close to the front that the guns "blaze and slam" and Wyeth can feel vestiges of gas on his lips and throat. As they stand in headquarters, receiving directions, a bomber flies overhead, firing tracers, and soon they hear the explosion of bombs. From here, guided by runners, they will set out on foot to locate 2nd Battalion headquarters. But first, Cochrane must get his gas mask to work.


~~~ Through the Valley ~~~

"All right Tom?"

                               "Yup ~~ I got it fixed ~~ let's start."

A slipping crumbly path through scratching brush

down to the river road. Along the shore 

a clanging leap of fire behind black trees 

and a streak of shrillness slit the sky apart. 

A sand road~~ horses, guns in a cloudy rush, 

and men, teeth clenched on tubes, who lashed and tore 

through silence. Black still slopes~~ a distant sneeze. 

"Hear that? I tell you~~ my eyes are beginning to smart." 

A vague black gulch ahead, and the secret hush 

of evil creeping in the dark~~ We passed 

two soldiers, pain-white, and a man they bore 

between, blind twisting head and drunken knees,~~ 

like Christ.

                        "Come on, Bud ~~There ~~You just been gassed."


The night of August 8-9. Gas masks on, and led by runners, lieutenants Wyeth and Cochrane set out on foot, in search of 2nd Battalion headquarters, situated roughly six hundred yards to the south, close to the river. Everywhere there are ominous signs of "evil creeping in the dark." With steel helmets for laurel, Virgil and Dante unholster their sidearms and wend their way through the Inferno of the Somme. Horse-drawn artillery crashes by, and columns of rushing soldiers, with both man and beast wearing alien masks in a futuristic nightmare, or a scene out of Bosch. A distant sneeze and their own burning eyes tell them that they are venturing into an area of lethal gas, and then they cross paths with their first gas victim, "... blind twisting head and drunken knees, ~ like Christ." ~~ and with that final image of Golgotha, the apocalyptic scene is complete.


~~~ Second Battalion Headquarters ~~~

"Where's the First Battalion? We haven't got any more 

idea than you have~~ they might be anywhere. 

There's no front line. You'll just get caught in a raid." 

Cool darkness after the foggy slobbering mask. 

The long sky slashed with trundling swift uproar, 

rumbling and husky in the whistling air, 

and gas shells hustling into the valley made 

a wobbling whisper like a hurtling flask. 

We turned along the ridge to the river's shore. 

"By God what's the matter with all those men?"

                                                                               "Hey there~~ 

excuse me, sir ~~ you going by any chance 

to the dressing station? I got twenty men~~ I'm afraid 

they're gassed pretty bad~~"

                                               "What were you going to ask?"

"For God sake tell 'em to hurry up the ambulance."


The late hours of the night of August 8-9. Wyeth and Cochrane have reached 2nd Battalion headquarters, located some six hundred yards south of Regimental headquarters, roughly eight hundred yards west of Sailly-le-Sec and a little north, and some six or seven hundred yards north of the river Somme. They immediately inquire after the location of 2nd Battalion headquarters, only to be told that no one knows. And so they strike out again on foot, but this time without guides or directions, once more heading south towards the river. Once again, a scene from the Inferno, this time a line of twenty gas victims in need of a savior, and by this chance meeting in the pathless night, their mission is altered from military to merciful, and they find themselves keeping a shepherd's watch over the victims until the ambulance arrives.


~~~ Regimental Dressing Station ~~~

Squat walls of sandbags~~ and above, a sky 

all thin and cool with dawn and very far. 

Black empty stretchers. On the parapet, 

light out before the clangor of the gun. 

The bliss of strong fatigue~~ and where I lie 

the canvas breathes between me and that star 

a bitter steam of blood. The air feels wet, 

and the stars go, forgotten one by one. 

Time to start back~~ and watch those towns go by! 

"You ready to go?~~ we got a lift in a car."


                              "Yeh, let's start, we got a long way 

to go."


             O God the ruins of Sailly-Laurette! 

~~like dying men that wake and find the sun 

and shut their eyes against another day.


Dawn, August 9. Exact location unknown, but somewhere in the vicinity of Sailly-Laurette, a kilometer or two to the east of Sailly-le-Sec, also on the Somme. They are now in territory which only the day before had been in German hands. In this makeshift dressing station, built of sandbags, and already full of wounded and dying men, Wyeth and Cochrane find themselves on the very edge of the combat zone, within three or four kilometers of where the Australians are pinned down by German machine-gun and artillery fire from Chipilly Ridge. At last their long, purgatorial night is over and a car is waiting to whisk them away from the front, back to the safety of Division Headquarters, but the dawn, nonetheless, is full of foreboding, and the ruins of Sailly-Laurette, the last thing they see as they drive away, become for Wyeth an image of profound hopelessness, of men who would rather die than face another day. And the men they are leaving behind, American, Australian, British and German, before this day is out, in the assault of Chipilly Ridge, will die by the hundreds.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


~~~ Documents pertaining to the action at Gressaire Wood and Chipilly Ridge, August 8-10, 1918, in Huidekoper, Frederic Louis, History of the 33rd Division, Volume II, pp 410-24.

~~~ Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Volume I, p 45.
~~~ Map of Operations, 131st Infantry, 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8. Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #20.
~~~ Situation Map. 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8, 1918 (covering the stretch of the Somme, Amiens to Chipilly). Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #22.
~~~ The War Diary of the 33rd Division, in Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol II, pp 319-22.

1 comment:

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