THE BATTLE OF POSTOVY
On March 6th, at nine o'clock in the morning, our artillery opened up a terrific fire on the German barbed wire, fire-line trenches, and such batteries as had been spotted by our aeroplanes.
I went down into our first-line trenches, which were half filled with icy snow and muddy water; coming up almost to my knees, and peered out through a loophole toward the German trenches. The black line of forest along which his first line ran was almost hidden by spurting clouds of smoke and dirt. A gray haze simply hid them from view where the high explosive shells tore up, barbed wire and trench parapets.
The crashing of our guns was incessant, producing the sound known as "drum-fire," and the shells screeched and hummed overhead in a steady procession. The German batteries were replying, firing principally on our batteries and the reserve positions, where the troops were lying in the forest unprotected by trenches.
Occasionally machine-guns and rifles would burst forth in a crackling volley as they became nervous, but most of the time the rifle fire amounted only to the isolated shots of snipers.
I went to one of our advance dressing stations where a few wounded men struck by shrapnel were coming in from the reserve positions and were being bandaged and sent to the main dressing station, the heavily wounded being carried by our orderlies on stretchers, where they met the ambulances and were conveyed to the division hospital six miles in the rear.
The work was being carried on here satisfactorily, and I started for the other dressing station a few hundred yards away in the forest. I was passing a huge pine-tree when I heard a voice from far overhead, faint above the roar of artillery, crying: "Meester! Meester!"
I looked up, and high up in the topmost branches, screened by the thick boughs, I made out an artillery officer perched on a little scaffolding nailed to the tree. He held a field telephone in his hand. The wires ran down the tree and ,off to the rear towards his battery. He was an observer, spotting the hits of the shells from his, battery and correcting the range of the guns from his lofty perch. It was the same young officer whom I had seen in the observation point in the trenches on my first visit to them---the one who was so anxious to get the Boches who were fleeing from the old building in No Man's Land.
He leaned far out from his dizzy perch, his face showing white against the dark foliage of the trees, and cupping his hands to his mouth, shouted down to me: "Will you send an orderly up to me with a pail of hot tea? I am very cold up--"
A strange, awful change came over his countenance. As though by magic, a tiny dark spot appeared on his forehead just above his right eye ---like the dark spot which appears on the white surface of a target in a shooting-gallery after the crack of a rifle. His lower jaw dropped, he grinned hideously down at me and then, very slowly, he began to sway forward. His arms dropped, the field telephone fell from his hands and hung dangling by its wire, and his body pitched forward off his seat and came crashing down through the branches, bouncing as it hit the thick limbs, inert and limp as a bag of meal, and fell with a sickening thud at my feet.
I lifted the head, turning it so that I could see the face. It was crimson with blood pouring from the small dark hole just above the eyebrow. A bullet, possibly a wild bullet or one from the rifle of a sniper who had seen him through binoculars, had killed him instantly. That evening they buried him in the forest near the dressing station.
The artillery kept up its fire and we expected it to continue until the next day. We decided that the Germans had been one day wrong in their prediction and we felt sure the artillery would spend at least eighteen hours in destroying the German barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements.
About mid-day, however, we were astonished to receive word that the troops would go over the top at three that afternoon. The Germans were correct after all! More amazing to us than the accuracy of the German prediction was the fact that the Russian general staff had not changed the date of the attack after these notices had been dropped by the Germans.
That only six hours' artillery preparation was ordered was also surprising to us, and many of the younger officers predicted that our troops would run their heads into a stone wall.
The German shrapnel was bursting over the trees and the H. E. shells were tearing things up as I made my way cautiously into the first line trenches about 2:30 p. m. The trenches were full of soldiers crouched down below the low parapets up to their knees in icy water and mud, waiting for the signal to go over the top.
I found Lieutenant Muhanoff with his company. He was smoking a cigarette and did not appear at all nervous at the impending action.
"We will just walk over and take the first couple of lines," he declared confidently. "Look at that artillery tearing them up. There won't be a man left in that trench," and through a loophole we could see that their first line was a welter of flying smoke and dirt.
"I have here in this packet some money and a ring which belonged to my father," he said, handing me a sealed and addressed paper package. "Will you see that it gets to my mother in Smolensk in case I don't come back?"
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed. "Of course you will come back! But I'll take the package and see that your mother receives it if you don't."
"Thank you, dear friend," he replied. "And now, good-bye! It is two minutes of three and I must get my men up, ready to go over."
He walked away and spoke quietly to his men, where they sat about in little groups on the firestep of the trench. He was beloved by all his soldiers and as they lined up along the trench wall I felt that they would follow him to hell if necessary.
A shrill whistle sounded up and down the trench and they swarmed up the little ladders and ran, stooping low, through the passages cut in the barbed wire. Lieutenant Muhanoff gaily waved his hand to me as he leaped on the parapet. Long brown lines of men advancing in successive waves went quickly across the snow-covered field with loud "Hurrahs!" their bayonets flashing in the setting sun.
They were hardly over the top when the German machine-guns and rifles turned a withering fire on them, the machine-guns hammering and the rifles crackling.
Across the flat, white field they went, and every here and there a man would go down sprawling in the snow. The German barrage fire appeared as a haze of whirling smoke and dirt, partly hiding them as they went through it, and the earth shook with the violence of the explosions. The sprawling forms were like the foam that a receding wave leaves on the sand as it sweeps back to its patent sea. Many came running or crawling back with all manner of wounds, as the advancing line became lost to sight in the tumbling, rolling fog of the barrage; but No Man's Land was covered with men who would never move again.
I hurried back to the dressing station, for I knew there would be much work to do. Rumors reached us there as we worked---wild stories told by the wounded. Some said we had broken through the German defense, others that we had captured four lines of their trenches, while still others insisted that we had not even taken the first line trench, our attack having broken down ,and our men having been forced to retreat.
The latter report proved to be the correct one, much to our sorrow.
The firing quieted down slightly and Lieutenant Muhanoff came to the tent where I was wading about in a sea of wrecked humanity---a groaning, writhing sea lying there on the snow---working hurriedly to patch them up for the stretcher-bearers to carry back to the main dressing station where the ambulances were.
The Lieutenant looked as if he had been in a prize fight. His face was swollen and discolored, his glasses were gone, one eye was nearly closed, a cut gaped on his forehead, and his clothing was torn and bloody.
"What's the matter? Have you been boxing?" 'I asked.
"Yes; that's just about what you would call it. When we got over to their first line, there was hardly a German in it---only machine-gun crews and a few rifle men, and what was left of my company quickly disposed of them with the bayonet. I started for the second line when I saw that we had easily won the first line, thinking that my men were following me. When I mounted the parapet of their support-trench, I saw it was full of Germans, but I jumped in, firing my revolver as I leaped, and then I realized for the first time that I was alone."
"There were about fifteen Germans in that particular sector of the trench and they jumped on me without any ceremony. One big fellow knocked me down with a blow from his rifle and the rest piled on me, pinning me to the ground and pummeling me with their fists, for the confusion was so great and the trench was so close-packed that they could not use their bayonets.
"I thought I was gone, when over the parapet leaped ten of my Siberians. They went at those Germans with their bayonets as well as they could, but the fighting was so close that it was more like an ordinary bar-room brawl, and after a great deal of hammer and tongs fighting, six of us finally broke loose and started back to the first line trench; but only four got back here, the other two being killed by machine-gun fire enroute."
"How about the four others that jumped into the trench?" I asked.
"They were killed right there!"
"And how many Germans did you fellows account for?"
"I don't know exactly. They lay around pretty thick, but some of them ran up the trench when my soldiers came over: they don't like our long bayonets."
"How did your men know you were in danger?"
"One of them had seen me disappear over the parapet and thought I had been taken prisoner. He got nine of his comrades together and they charged the trench to rescue me. It was a pretty brave thing to do, for they did not know how many Germans were there. The attack has been a failure, however. Of my company of two hundred men, only forty got back uninjured when we got the order to give up the captured line and retire. We were undoubtedly betrayed in this attack. The enemy had hundreds and hundreds of machine-guns in that first line all ready and waiting for us!"
He was greatly discouraged and downcast as I bound up the cut on his forehead.
All that evening our artillery kept pounding away and reserve troops were brought up to replace the shattered regiments who had been in the attack in the afternoon. They had suffered frightful losses. One regiment which had had four thousand men only a few hours before now had only about eight hundred!
I went back to the main dressing station, which was swamped with wounded. Our forty ambulances, which could carry only two wounded lying down or four sitting up, were inadequate for the task of carrying them all back to the division hospital. The roads were frightful and the drivers had to walk their horses the entire distance, for even when they went slowly and carefully the suffering of the wounded as they bounced about in those rough carts was terrible.
Fig. 12. Wounded men arriving in crude two-wheeled ambulance, the best conveyance known on the Russian front. The scarcity of even these was so great that often the wounded lay for from 16 to 24 hours in the snow before they could be moved.
Fig. 13. Surgeon Grow at the battle of Postovy, loading wounded into a little two-wheeled cart which served as ambulance.
Their route along the road was accompanied by heart-rending cries of agony which could be heard several hundred yards from the roadside. The cold was intense, and as our tent could not accommodate all the wounded, many had to lie in the snow wrapped in such poor blankets as we could supply. At times there were as many as a hundred lying in the snow outside the tent, many of them having only their wet overcoats to protect them against the cold!
During the evening, I had a great many emergency operations to do. I was operating on one poor fellow who had had a leg completely torn off by a shell fragment. Bright red streams of blood were spurting from several arteries in the torn stump and it was necessary to catch the bleeding vessels with delicate forceps and tie them up with strands of catgut. Great haste and a steady band were necessary to complete the work in time to save his life. He was lying on the. raised stretcher which served as an operating table and Nicholi was giving ether. Metia was in one of the advance dressing stations. I had no other trained assistants.
A new orderly, who had been in the army only a few days before this big fight and who had never been under shell fire, was holding a candle so that I could see to catch the elusive arteries with the forceps. We could use no other light for fear it would attract the attention of the enemy and bring a shower of shells from their artillery on the many wounded who lay about the tent.
Arteries are elastic and when cut recede into the tissues as if they were made of rubber. It was difficult to find them in the flickering light of the candle, and the life blood of the soldier, whose pulse I could scarcely feel, was fast ebbing away. Those bleeding points had to be stopped at once or he would die
I was trying desperately to catch one of the arteries which was throwing a bright red jet of blood into my face as I leaned over when I heard the screeching approach of a German shell. It seemed to be coming straight down on the tent---one of those big howitzer shells with a high trajectory coming from far up in the sky. I could hear it for a long time---at least it seemed a long time although in reality only a matter of seconds.
The new orderly heard it too and his hand began to shake. The nearer the shell came the worse it shook, and when the shell exploded close to the tent and great jagged pieces came humming and tearing their way through the canvas. above our heads, he gave a convulsive shudder and dropped the candle and we were in darkness.
I called sharply for a light and he fumbled around and found a match and got the candle going again. All the time the wounded man was bleeding furiously.
The orderly was a great hulking fellow, well over six feet in height, and he must have weighed two hundred and forty pounds.
I had found several of those large bleeders and tied them when I heard another of those infernal shells coming again. Once more the candle started to shake and once more we were in darkness when the shell burst. My nerves were now gone with the effort of controlling my own hands and keeping them from trembling, for the work was so fine that a tremor would have defeated my purpose. I was badly frightened myself and it was only by a great effort that I kept my hands steady. The second shell had hit so close that the tent rocked with the concussion and cold air was pouring in through numerous jagged rents.
I dismissed the orderly and shouted for Michael to come in. He was outside, helping to load wounded into the ambulances. Mike proved to be more hardened and when the next shell came in we at least had light to work by. We finally checked the bleeding and started the wounded man back for the divisional hospital, well wrapped in blankets, with enough of the precious life-blood in his body to keep him going till he reached the point where further restorative measures could be applied.
Chapter Fourteen: The dogs of war.