Dec. 25th, 1917
From: First Sergeant Edward A. Griffith
To: 42nd Division HQ, C.O. Maj. Gen. Garland
Regarding: Action of Dec. 10th, 1917, events immediately preceding and following, and consequences thereof.
I received orders to join and lead a contingent of a specialized flanking force ordered to engage in a surprise assault during the Action of Dec. 10th on Dec. 3rd. I received these orders while en route to the front, and made my way to my designated platoon I was to lead.
Members of 3rd Platoon, D Company, that were reassigned to 2nd Platoon, E Company, alongside me included Sgt. Jameson, Cpl. Danvers, and Pvt. Bradford.
I called a meeting as soon as I arrived to discuss the upcoming planned offensive.
"Second Platoon! On me!"
These were my first words upon returning to trenches. They felt right. I was in command, like I should be. It was all as it should be. I didn't do anything wrong. Everything was fine.
An amalgam of ragged men began filing around me after I shouted, most of whom were looking at me, rather confused. They didn't realize that I'd just intimidated a Major General so completely that he reassigned me to an entirely new company, just so that I could take over a platoon whose lieutenant bit it. This was ostensibly due to my 'combat experience' and a 'need to reinforce the platoon', but, well, you know the score already.
I saw a couple familiar faces mixed in with the new ones, and apparently those familiar faces were surprised to see me. "Oh, shit, Sergeant Griff's here too? Hey, Sarge! What are we doin' here?!" I heard from amongst the assemblage. I don't know why, but it always irked me that my nickname was just a shortening of my name. Seemed lazy.
"You go to a lot of meetings where they don't tell you what the fuck's going on, Bradford?" I called out with something of a dopey smile on my face, knowing the voice of that particular baby-faced Private from memory. I was happy to hear at least some people I knew. It was good to get a sense of comfort.
"Only your's, Sergeant Griff!" The voice shouted again, this time to the response of scattered chuckles among the roughly fifteen men gathered.
I suppressed a laugh myself before continuing. "All right, here's what we got! I've been assigned to lead and prepare this platoon for an offensive coming in one week's time." This drew the immediate and vocal ire from the surrounding men. "Now look, I know it's short notice, but this is a good plan, trust me. I think it'll work. And if it does, well," I scanned the gathering with what could charitably be called a shit-eating-grin. "Then war's over by Christmas."
That got a lot more appreciation. The whole platoon began exchanging a mix of hopeful and jaded looks. Somebody managed to whine, "Well shit, I just got here!" That seemed to get everyone's morale up even higher. Time to fix that.
"Allright!" I called out, taking a knee. "Now there's a little too much to explain all at once, but here's the brass tacks. Ours will be a nighttime assault, and our portion of that assault is a delayed assault to take place a little over half an hour after everyone else charges in. Broadly speaking, our goal is to catch the Jerrys off guard on their flank. That means nothing rattles, nothing shines. No helmets." I slipped off my broadie. "No dog tags." I tossed my tags in. "No machine gun support." The platoon was starting to get shifty again, though unfortunately I didn't have much more good news for them. "Now our mission will take us directly into the enemy trench network, so expect hand to hand fighting. We're the spear tip gentlemen. If we fuck this up then the whole offensive is for naught."
I got back up to my feet and began collecting dog-tags in my helmet. "We'll be drilling nonstop for the next week until you all can get the finer points of this plan down pat, and draw a map of our part of the operation from memory. I can only promise one thing." I brought up my finger for emphasis, "If you do manage to take our objectives, I will personally march into Berlin and bring you back the Kaiser's mustache."
I managed to crack a smile as it seemed my subordinates were all managing to do the same.
"War over by Christmas, guys. Any questions?"
There were no questions.
Private Bradford ran up to me after I adjourned the meeting. "Sarge! I, uh… I got a question." His eyes darted between me and the other men leaving for their preparations, and only spoke once they were all out of earshot. "You got a second?"
I smiled as the last men shuffled away, "Well, seeing as you just used several, I'm running out, but I'll see what I can scrounge up. What's the deal, Jumpy?" 'Jumpy', for the record, was Bradford's nickname, stemming from the fact that he skewered a german who once wandered into our trench, then also skewered one of our guys (he's fine now) by accident after some shell-shock induced night terrors about the first incident. I actually have no clue how he felt about the name.
Bradford let a confident grin on his face fade to nervous frown. "So, uh… Are we gonna be ok?"
The question caught me off guard, especially from someone who'd been witness to combat before. "How old are you?" I asked.
"Eighteen!" He almost called out that response, as though he was speaking to a recruiter.
I cocked an eyebrow, "How old are you, really?"
Jumpy faltered. With his eyes cast down he gave his reply, "Sixteen, Sergeant Griff."
Well shit. I managed to not say that aloud. "Sixteen? Well, shit." Ok, so I lied. "Well you know I can't guarantee anything, Jumpy."
"I know, I know." He said, somewhat degected. "It's just… You'll look out for us, right? For me?" I'd never seen Bradford scared before. He was good at putting up a mask.
"That's my job." I tried to be as reassuring as possible. "What'd you think they payed me for? It certainly isn't to listen to Danver's droning about fucking Texas."
That seemed to get the desired effect. He lifted his head and managed to put back on his war face, which for Private Jumpy Bradford happened to be a cocky grin that at once conveyed that he knew exactly what he was doing and also had no clue at all what he was doing. To each his own, I guess. "Thanks, Griff!"
"Come on, sappy. The platoon's running suicides. 2nd Platoon! On me!"
I still wish that I told somebody.
The men took to the plan quickly. The week passed by with good progress. The training week in the reserve trench also kept up morale amongst the men.
From Dec. 3rd to Dec. 9th nothing else of note happened. We awoke on Dec. 10th to light training and review, a good meal, and every man preparing himself as best he could. All preparation went smoothly.
From 6:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. the trench lines were in quiet preparation for the assault scheduled for 11:20 P.M. After hours of productive preparation, all units waited in silence for the go order. Sometime between 11:10 P.M. and 11:19 P.M., that changed.
I spent the time leading up to the assault staring at my watch. I wasn't nervous, but I was anxious. All the preparation was over. We'd run our last drill and studied our last sand table. We'd also resupplied, eaten, relieved ourselves, checked our position, double checked our position, radioed in to ensure we checked our position correctly, checked the radio, inspected (or rather, checked) our small arms, checked our supplies, double, triple, and quadruple checked our supplies, and checked to make sure we check everything.
At least once it started pouring rain we got to cover everything and do double through quadruple checks that we got that sorted.
There was nothing else to do, and twenty minutes between being absolutely finished with everything and the start of the main attack. I stared at my watch for twelve of those minutes, oblivious to the world at large.
"Griff!" I heard a harsh whisper come from behind me. I spun around to see Bradford's figure approaching me, rifle in hand. "Sergeant Griff! What's that noise?"
"What is it, Jumpy?" I replied in a low tone.
"Can't you hear that?" Up close now it was easy
"Hear what?" I looked about, trying to hear whatever the hell it was Bradford wanted me to hear.
"That! It's been going on for a few minutes, but we haven't been…"
As soon as he trailed off I began to hear it myself. It was strange. The noise came from a couple trenches over, seemed to be following sort of rhythm. It was definitely, "Singing." I patted Jumpy's shoulder, "I think they're singing, Private."
We both sat there, listening to the song of hundreds of men, all of whom were, somewhat miraculously, singing off key.
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over
Johnnie, get your gun
Get your gun, get your-
All singing stopped on a dime at the sound of dozens of trench whistles being blown in unison. Tens of thousands of men who had just been singing, listening, sleeping, or just waiting now charged over the top of their trenches to the greeting of barbed wire and machine gun fire. I tried my best not to focus on the fact that I sent them there.
For the next forty minutes all I could do was wait for our delayed attack and listen to them being gunned down en mass. Thousands of men who had just been singing were now screaming to press the attack, in pleas not to die, and for their mothers in equal measure, their only reply an oncoming thunderstorm, and the indifference of the battlefield
After a half hour of listening to the hellscape that was forming just yards away, I grabbed my rifle and made my way across the trench, going from soldier to soldier to issue final orders. "Affix bayonets. We move in ten."
At precisely midnight 2nd Platoon began it's attack by crawling on our stomachs for nearly an hour to the small wood that was to provide us cover. After thoroughly checking for enemy presence and ensuring our designated point of entry into the enemy trench was still viable the platoon convened one final time before entering combat.
"Alright, listen up." I took a knee and saw everybody surrounding me. Perfect. "Bradford, map!" Jumpy obliged and I unfurled the map to go over our jobs a final time. "So the Jerry's got their artillery too close to their front lines. We're to clear the enemy trench from here to the guns, then destroy those 77's. The rest of the flanking force is looping behind the Krauts, but this is our job. The whole offensive is at risk if we don't knock out the artillery pounding our frontal assault boys."
I looked around to the sight of nervous expressions, a few mumbles. Nothing too audible. I think some of them were actually making their peace with the almighty. Not Jumpy though. Jumpy looked scared shitless.
"Come on!" I urged, "If we do this, we go down as legends! Honor! Glory! We return home heroes and tonight is only spoken of in story and song! The bloody bastards of the 42nd never go away! We never fade! What do you say? Do you want to live forever?!"
Now I'll be damned if the platoon didn't do the hushed, stealthy version of a collective cheer. They actually looked inspired. I inspired them. I'll be damned a second time if that wasn't the greatest feeling in the world. One more time Jumpy looked like he wanted to say something, but I started up before he could.
"Now I'll take up the front of the assault. Danvers, de Bois, you're with me. I want Jameson and the rest of 1st squad in the middle. Bradford, you're with 3rd as rear guard. Let's go!"
I could have sworn Jumpy spoke up, called out to wait, or to stop, maybe. I don't know. I guess it was too late. I was already up, over, and in.
The first few minutes of the trench action was rather uneventful. 2nd Platoon managed to run through an unoccupied section of trench for about 10 minutes. The unoccupied trench area was due to select units fleeing from the unexpected attack, though at the time it was inexplicable.
After weaving through frontal and support trench networks for about 10 minutes, we came upon our first enemy. It was as big a surprise to us as to them.
You can try to be stealthy in mud all you want, but if it wasn't for the hail of rain, thunder, distant gunfire, and artillery, twenty men in combat gear sloshing through the mud would have been the loudest thing in east France. Honestly, even so, it was a miracle that the boys in grey didn't hear us. It was a shock to both them and us, I guess.
I mean we're crouched over, run-sneaking to the best of our ability, then I stop on a dime, realizing that machine-gun fire was a lot closer then I thought it was. Realizing that those sandbags were a greyer in parts then I thought they were. Realizing that I was hearing a hell of a lot more German than I normally do.
A squeak and a shout came from the rear of our platoon. "Sergeant there's a-!"
But I was already running at full tilt. "CHARGE!"
The battle action of in the enemy trench was chaotic and costly. Upon my order to charge the night became a maelstrom. I possessed no clear view of the ensuing combat, but it was clear from my limited awareness that at least one German machine gun crew turned their position around to fire into the trench. We had to have wandered into twenty, maybe thirty of the enemy, all gathered around us, in something of an impromptu ambush. Everybody descended into rapid pace chaotic duels and firefights.
To the best of my recollection, the German machine gunners were eliminated promptly, though this is only based on my hearing at the time, they very well could have abandoned their position and joined in the melee.
I myself was able to shoot two Germans while charging before entering into a bayonet duel with an enemy soldier.
My boots sloshed in the thick, wet mud as I came to a halt before a bearded man clad in German grey, from combat boot to stahlhelm, and equipped with a serrated, fifteen-inch bayonet that seemed intent on doing me in. We began to circle each other in something of a slow, morbid dance set to the music of men screaming as metal tore out of rifle bores and into them. Cries of the helplessly immobile sinking slowly into the mud, drowning in the goopy French terrain, played the accompanying role in our orchestra of despair. High explosives raining from the sky kept time.
The being before me was at once a monstrous great beast of a man bent on my fatal defeat and victory in the name of the Kaiser, yet at the same time he seemed a kindly, aging creature, old enough to father me or any man in my platoon. In all my sleepless nights, sketching draft after draft after draft of the plan we were now executing, I'd be lying if I said I'd ever thought of skewering someone that I'm sure could have been a neighbor, or good family friend in another time.
I wondered if he had the same compunctions as I did, as we continued facing off in our macabre waltz. His eyes, set both below clearly set wrinkles on his brow and above a full salt and pepper mustache, remained fixed on mine. His face softened for a moment. I know not of what he was thinking in that lapsing moment. I guess it really doesn't matter. He merely allowed himself a moment's humanity in all of the exploding, blood soaked, senseless nightmare fodder we called a reality.
Seizing on the man's lapsed concentration, I rushed forth with my weapon in hand, hoping to end the man. The grey soldier caught on almost immediately, and attempted to knock my rifle aside. To his chagrin, however, the edge of my bayonet had just began digging into his side as he batted down my weapon, causing it to cut across his side and leave a deep gash in its wake.
He fought on valiantly for a little longer, but the momentum had turned. Upon parrying a weak thrust of his, I feigned an attack on the right of his head that he dedicated the entirety of his remaining energy to deflecting. With his rifle skyward, torso exposed, I came in for the final thrust, piercing the man fully through in tandem with a flash of lightning and thunderous boom filling the sky.
My foe's eyes went wide in shock. I imagine he would have screamed, but seeing as how he was coughing up blood at that moment, I don't think the option was present. His rifle fell to the mud below as he went limp at the end of my gun.
"Feldwebel! Ich-!" Came a small, excited voice from a couple paces beyond the corpse. I managed to look around the body to see a young man, a boy really, in a grey uniform, holding a Mauser. The barrel of his weapon was smoking, as it seemed he'd just finished firing to find the sight of the end of a blade jammed through the back of his superior. "Feldwebel?!"
I don't know if it was by choice or by instinct, but I managed to summon the last of my adrenaline and charge forth at the young soldier, corpse in tow, and impale them both at the end of my bayonet. Sixteen inches of steel laid now in two bodies; in two men just trying to serve their country.
With the adrenaline wearing off, I began to feel the weight of two fully grown men at the end of my rifle, so I shoved them over to the trench wall for leverage as I began the arduous task of working my bayonet out of the two men.
It never struck me as odd that the men were so easily stood up on the trench wall, or that I never heard the second German's rifle hit the mud. All things considered I guess I deserved what followed.
A searing pain erupted in my left side. I looked down to the sight of the tip of a blade sticking into me, causing what I'm very comfortable calling the most pain I've ever experienced in my life. Following the blade down to it's base, then in turn the firearm it was attached to, lead to the right hand of the nervous boy that I impaled not twenty seconds prior. The fact that the German's hand was still shaking slightly meant that he was effectively twisting the knife in my midsection, which made everything explode in pain even more.
Without thinking I began operating the bolt of my Springfield, emptying the magazine into the first man I skewered, and promptly into the second. There were only three rounds left, but by the time I was out the second man was limp I was covered in both my own and enemy blood.
With great reluctance I removed the bayonet from my side. To say I gritted my teeth would be an understatement. I think I wore them down a few millimeters.
I proceeded once more with the process of removing my bayonet from the pair. It took ages but it finally came loose as I used my boot against the wall as leverage. Leverage which sent me flying onto my ass a solid two feet back I might add.
As I landed, however, something struck me. Something beside the mud, that is.
I managed to get to my feet and listen. It was quiet. I mean there was gunfire, artillery, and screaming far off, but it was quiet here.
I turned around to get a look behind me. There were bodies. Only bodies. Bodies draped over machine guns, corpses propped up on the very bayoneted rifles that were impaling them, lifeless ragdolls thrown in grotesque positions, limp carcasses slowly sinking into the wet earth, but not a single soul standing in the entire vicinity.
I mean I was standing there, but I guess I repeat myself.
You'll look out for us, right? Bradford's voice rang in my ears. For me?
I looked on the scene with dead, cold, soulless eyes.
It was a few minutes after the battle finished that, after patching myself up the the best of my ability, I thought it best to continue on alone.
I made my way a few dozen yards and nearly rounded a corner when a voice called out.
"Over here, you bloody fool!"
My head whipped around to a small dugout entrance a few yards from where I was standing. I crouched low and approached to hear more than one voice call out in appreciation.
"Yeah- That's, YES! Over here! You beautiful man, you!" Called the loudest of them.
I crouched down to look down into the dugout to see a large grouping of men in khaki. Their uniforms were a fair bit different from my own. They were British, far as I could tell.
"Never thought I'd be so glad to see a damned Yank!"
Yeah, definately British.
In between them and I was a barred iron door. A door that the four occupants of the dugout were now all grabbing at.
I tried my very best to force a smile, "So what are you in for, lads?"
"Cheeky." Spoke up a man with distinctive red tabs on his lapels. He was an older man, with the beginnings of greying hair and a well trimmed mustache, all things considered. He had a certain, I don't know, air to him that I couldn't quite explain. "Jerrys took us prisoner a month back. Think you can get us out of this bind we're in?"
"Give me a second." I gave the man a nod then reluctantly made my way back to the Feldwebel. I managed to grab a key off his corpse and pocket a Luger.
Before I made my way back to the Brits I took one more look at the section of trench I just fought through. I shook my head, and made my way back
As soon as I unlocked the door the four men came pouring out. They all made their thanks in various, equally unintelligible ways. I guess being stuck in a dugout for a month will do that.
The man with red tabs clasped me on the shoulder, "We saw your skirmish there, you were brilliant!"
I stole another sidelong glance at the section of trench. "Yeah, thanks."
Undeterred, the red tabbed man, I believe an officer, continued, "I'm Brigadier Harold Thompson. You have my thanks." He outstretched his hand.
I shook his hand, "Sergeant Edward Griffith." I replied. "Now I hate to cut this short, but Allied Trench is that way," I pointed off to the our trenches. "I hate not to be joining you, but I've got to finish my mission."
The four ex-captives fell silent, "You mean you aren't coming back with us?" One in the back spoke up.
"Your whole unit just…" Trailed off another.
I nodded, "That all being said, I still have a job to do." I imagine that they'd be significantly less impressed if they knew that the reason I had to complete the mission was because I designed the mission, but I didn't need to tell them that. I don't think I could even if I wanted to.
The Brigadier stroked his mustache a moment, "You're a damn fine man, Sergeant. I'll see you're commended for this. I… I know some people. Alright men, let's move out!"
The quartet all began scrambling to get a ladder up to get out of the trench with. Once they were done, the general nodded to me and the rest made their way up.
The shortest one among them, upon getting to the top and kicking away the ladder looked from over the trench, smiled, and said, "Thanks for looking out for us!"
I think I was too shattered to reply.
After patching up my wounds to the best of my ability I made my way to 2nd Platoon's objective alone.
Upon my arrival the 77mm guns we were sent to destroy were abandoned, and it appeared as though the enemy - at least in this section - was in the middle of a rout. I managed to scavenge some enemy German grenades and drop them down the barrels of the enemy guns to destroy them.
In the end I was able to complete 2nd Platoon's mission objective.
I sat in silence on the wheel of one of the Kraut guns. I sat there a long time. With my high up view I could see what seemed to be the whole of the battlefield. Flashes of the far off battle, our little part of a much larger war, were taken in, but not really processed. It was all just blurry movement to me. I couldn't comprehend much of anything.
Well that's not entirely true. I guess I could comprehend some of it.
On those fields that lay stretched out I could comprehend that about twenty-thousand American men would be rendered casualties of this battle. About ten thousand of those men would die.
I don't think I ever bothered to render a mock up of the enemy casualty expectation.
But it was all worth it. As I sat alone on that wheel for what felt like centuries, that's the conclusion I came to. It was all worth it. This would be the breakthrough Allied command had been waiting on for going on four years now. War over by christmas. Tens, no, hundreds of thousands of lives saved on both sides.
The Griffith name back in distinction.
Silver bars on my helmet.
What's a few thousand lives if it solves my family's fucking honor problem?
It came as something of a shock when the sun broke over the horizon, shining through the rainstorm that was just about breaking up. Upon further reflection there hadn't been thunder in hours, and the rain was beginning to lighten up. It was kind of peaceful. Nice, even.
On the edge of my view a man in olive drab appeared on the edge of my view. He began getting closer, and closer, until it was apparent he was coming to me.
The man was adorned with corporal chevrons and a messenger bag, and wore only a pistol for self-defence. As he came to me he stopped and placed his hands on his knees, panting.
"I'm looking for Sergeant Griffith." He managed between breaths in a thick New York accent, "Can you point me to him?"
I looked to the man, trying to snap myself out of my self-reflective stuper. "That's me." I said, quietly, slowly getting to my feet.
The man stood up fully before continuing. "You're to bring 2nd Platoon… Where is second Platoon?" He asked looking all around.
My only reply was slowly shaking my head.
"Ah." He replied quietly before clearing his throat. "Well then you're to fall back to our trench lines. We're falling back."
Something snapped in my brain. "What?"
"We're falling back. General Pershing's ordered-"
"Just why the hell has the damned fool done that?!" The man before me looked damned uncomfortable. Poor bastard. Wasn't his fault.
"Look, Sergeant." The runner took a step back, "I'm just relaying the orders. We're falling back to the original-"
I was having none of it. "Just why in the fuck would we do that?! Don't give me any of that 'don't shoot the messenger' shit! You must have been told something! Heard something! Why the hell are we falling back?!"
The runner kicked the dirt nervously, "I don't-"
I grabbed by the shirt and raised my fist.
"Woah! Woah! Take it easy, buddy!" As he spoke I let go of him and took a step back. He dusted himself off before continuing. "I heard someone at command say that a scouting party says that the next German lines are pretty shittily spaced from these ones. We aren't close enough to press our luck and go for another attack, and we're too far for us to shell them from where our artillery is right now. We'd have to move the guns up to support this trench, but there's no suitable ground for it. So we're falling back."
I fell back onto the Kraut gun wheel. And sat in silence for a moment. The runner shrugged and ran off, saying something to the effect of, "I got other people to relay this to. Fall back."
Of all the things. Fucking figures.
"Yeah." I replied to absolutely no one, sitting alone. "I'll head back."
I proceeded to return to my position, where my unit was promptly replaced, and I sent back to rest and recover in a hospital. It was there I was informed of my consideration for a battlefield promotion to the rank of Captain.
I was further informed that my actions in saving the British prisoners and destroying the 77mm guns have earned me considerations and awards for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and a Knighthood in the Victorian Order.
I'm to be Knighted as a Knight Commander next month. The Army me gave special leave to attend the ceremony.
According to every objective measurement for my involvement in the Action of December 10th, the mission was a complete success.