A DEMONSTRATION ATTACK
As we reached the entrance of the White Sea, we received reports of the Austrian concentration on the Italian front, how they had advanced to the edge of the plains and how Brusiloff's smashing drive into Austria through Galicia and the Carpathians, with the capture of large numbers of prisoners, had caused such pressure on Austria that she had been obliged to withdraw her divisions from the Italian front and send them north against the Russians. This released the pressure in Italy and gave her time to bring up troops and stem the Austrian advance.
I felt sure that my corps would get into this action, and I was anxious to rejoin it. I lost no time in getting to Petrograd, therefore, and after interviewing the commandant of the railroad station there I was able to secure a place-card for a berth on the train going to the front with very little delay
At the little station ten miles back of the line where our troops were in the trenches south of Lake --------. I was met by the old victoria driven by Michael, my orderly.
He was overjoyed at seeing me back and inquired if my hearing had been completely restored after the shell shock.
"I think we'll have a big fight in a few days," he said.
I could hear the artillery booming in steady drum-fire in the positions twenty miles away to the west.
The roads, now dry and in good condition, were filled with transport wagons hauling supplies to the troops, I was struck by the number of little colts which trotted along on their stilt-like legs beside their mothers who pulled at the shafts of the heavy carts. They were nearly all the same size and age---born in the spring of the year. Some of the very youngest were so weak that the kindly drivers, seeing they had grown tired, had lifted them up in the carts and they were riding along, gazing out over the side with their great dark eyes, apparently quite content.
Nearly every cart had one of these youngsters either riding in the box or running alongside.
When they reach a sufficient age they are sent to great breeding stations, where they are reared and broken to harness or used for cavalry horses. The Russians had ten million horses at the outbreak of the war, but at the end of two years of warfare this number had been sadly depleted and every effort was being made to increase it.
Our base was in a little village four miles back of the lines, in a house belonging to the village priest. As soon as I arrived we dined out of doors beneath a great vine which climbed over a lattice work.
While we were seated at dinner a German plane flew over. Our anti-aircraft guns were firing at it and their tiny white puffs of shrapnel dotted the sky overhead, eight thousand feet in the air. Suddenly we heard a whir-r-r-r-r from above, which became louder as it approached. We thought the German had dropped a bomb and we waited tensely for the explosion.
The priest sat directly opposite me and as I glanced at him I was struck at the set expression of his face and the deathly pallor. He held a fork poised in his hand, half-way to his mouth.
The missile landed with a loud thud not four feet back of my chair, knocking leaves from the branches overhead on to our tablecloth. The priest's fork clattered to the table, he bowed his head and crossed himself three times. A long-drawn sigh of relief escaped my lips and I got up to examine the object which had so narrowly missed me.
I found a neat circular hole in the earth about three and a half inches in diameter.
"Be careful!" Colonel Kalpaschnecoff warned, as I cautiously reached down. "If it is a defective bomb, the slightest jar may cause it to explode!"
I reached down until my arm was in above the elbow, when I felt a metallic disk which I recognized to be the rear end of a shrapnel casing. After some difficulty I managed to lift it out and found that it was an empty casing, one which had been fired by our own guns, had discharged its pellets at the Boche when its time fuse ignited the powder charge, and had then fallen to the earth.
The dropping of these shrapnel cases is the cause of many casualties. They drop from a height of five or six thousand feet and naturally attain tremendous velocity. I attended a soldier who had been struck on the foot by one of them, completely amputating that member at the instep. Another poor fellow was hit directly on the head and killed outright, his skull being crushed like an eggshell.
"The Germans are sending their greeting to you on your arrival from America," remarked the Colonel, as we resumed our meal, and I kept the empty shell-casing as a souvenir of my return to the Russian army. It weighs about ten pounds and serves as a receptacle for flowers.
"We will have a demonstration attack in a few days," the Colonel enlightened me, when the tea was served and we had lighted our cigarettes. "The object of the action will be to prevent the Germans from sending troops to the south to reinforce the hard-pressed Austrians where Brusiloff is driving them steadily back, taking large numbers of prisoners.
"At the same time that we attack, there will be a great offensive about a hundred miles south of us at Baranovitchi. Our corps will not attempt to pierce the German line. In fact, if we capture their first and second lines we shall occupy them only a short time and then return to our own lines."
The next morning I rode out to our main dressing station, which was located in a peasant's cottage about one verst (five-eighths of a mile) back of the trenches. The house belonged to a man about seventy years of age, and despite the shelling the place had received, the old fellow wouldn't leave.
He was the only peasant remaining in the locality, all the inhabitants of the neighboring village having fled when the Germans approached. As he tended to his bees, of which he had about twenty hives, he reminded me very much of Tolstoi, whom he strongly resembled.
We used the large room of the house for our dressing station, and we fixed up an old barn to serve as an annex where the wounded might be placed while waiting for the ambulances to remove them to the division hospital.
There was not sufficient time to make a bombproof, so I pitched a little tent under an appletree in the garden where it was well screened from German observers by the foliage. About fifty feet from the tent a line of well-constructed reserve-trenches cut diagonally across the garden, and they could be used as a refuge in case of heavy shelling.
I ate my meals in the open on a box placed under the apple-tree, as my tent was thickly infested with flies. By closing the flap of the tent during meals I was able to pen them in and could eat my food in comparative peace.
The German positions were on a ridge about a verst away from my tent and in plain view as I sat at my meals.
Our artillery, which was back of me firing over my head, was pouring a steady rain of projectiles on the ridge, and fifteen or twenty shells could be seen bursting at one time on the skyline. The constant stream of shells striking the ridge at various points along the crest threw up fountains of black smoke and dirt to a height of a hundred feet and more, looking' like strange trees which developed as you watched.
Lieutenant Muhanoff dropped in for dinner the afternoon that I arrived and we were sitting watching the shelling while Michael served dinner.
Several German shells came moaning toward our batteries, which were situated in the woods back of us about five hundred yards from the garden.
We had finished dinner and were sitting enjoying the fine warm sunshine when Michael, who was standing nearby, held up his hand and cried, "Listen!"
Whoo! We heard the shell coming and all three dived for the shelter of the reserve-trench, which was only a few steps from where we sat. We had barely jumped in before the shell exploded with a frightful crash just back of the tent in the middle of the garden.
We crouched down in the bottom of the trench waiting for the next one, which came over presently and burst near the house.
Just as it exploded, Michael, who was sitting on the fire-step of the trench, clapped his hand to his forehead with a loud cry, I decided that he had been struck by a piece of shell and stepped over to him. He was holding his hand to his forehead and his face was ghastly.
No blood appeared between his fingers.
"Do you think I am done for?" he whispered, as I removed his hands.
All I could see was a I little red spot just above the eyebrow, in the center of which was stuck a black spine like a small thorn.
He was terribly frightened and I was just about to assure him that whatever it was it would not prove fatal, when something hit me in back of the neck with such force that my head rocked.
A terrible burning followed, and immediately afterward I received a second blow on the left cheek, followed by a similar smarting burn.
There was a startled cry from the Lieutenant, and he started running up the trench, wildly beating the air with his hands.
When a third shell came whistling in and exploded, Michael gave vent to a howl and jumped up, shouting: "The bees! The bees!"
The air was now full of an angry humming, and as I started off in full flight after Michael, who was now following the Lieutenant, I received another lightning stab on the back of the neck.
The shells landing among the dozen or more hives had by the force of their explosion knocked them over, and the little owners, furious at this disturbance, had gone forth to give battle. We were the innocent victims of their attack.
A perfect swarm of the angry insects buzzed about my head as I ran, fanning the air with both hands. The Lieutenant, unable to make sufficient headway in the narrow crooked trench, threw discretion to the winds, leaped the parapet, and ran madly across the field, away from the garden. Michael, his head surrounded by a cloud of convoys, followed suit, but not being so agile as the Lieutenant, stumbled and fell rolling down the parapet into the field.
Another shell came screeching in and hit on the edge of the garden, and the air was full of the buzzing of a more destructive agent than our tormentors, the bees.
Michael, alarmed at the proximity of the shellburst, leaped to his feet and dashed off, fear and pain giving added speed to his flight.
I decided the bees were preferable to the shells, and seeing the door of the bomb-proof open I ran into the sheltering gloom of the interior, where I brushed off two or three bees who were clinging to my clothes. I stayed in the bomb-proof until the Germans had ceased shelling, and then went in search of the other victims.
I had completely lost the vision of one eye from an enormous swelling which closed it tight, but I succeeded in finding the Lieutenant and Michael. They were seated on the grass at the farther end of the field and presented a wonderful spectacle with their swollen features.
As the Lieutenant rose to go he told me that his company was not going over in the attack scheduled for the following night.
"I know of an observation point from which we can see the beginning of the fight," he said, "and if you care to, come to my regiment to-morrow afternoon and we'll watch it together."
I promised to do so provided I could get back to the dressing station in time to attend the wounded when they came in.
"Very well," he said; "you can leave right after the first wave goes over."
Our artillery kept up a steady systematic fire all night and the next day. In the afternoon I rode to where the Lieutenant's regiment was billeted in dug-outs in the forest in reserve. I left my horse there and we walked a mile to the positions where they ran along on the top of some high sand ridges.
We went through an approach-trench which zigzagged up one of these hills, the highest of the series. At the very top was built a strong bombproof which was used as an observation point.
Just over the brow of the hill were our firstline trenches which faced the Germans on a series of lower ridges about three hundred yards away, a shallow ravine lying between.
Far off on the right flank, stretching away for miles to the horizon, were the blue waters of Lake-----------, part of which was in German hands and part in ours.
The right flank of our corps rested on the edge of the lake; and across six miles of intervening water I could see, through the periscope in the observation point, the yellow lines of the trenches begin on its farther shore, which was held by another corps.
As it grew dusky and our artillery increased its fire, the Germans kept their rockets flying in the air in expectation of an attack. By 12:30 A.M., when our troops went over the top, the German line simply spouted rockets until it looked like a fireworks exhibition at Coney Island. There were white ones by the thousand and dozens of red ones ---the latter being used where our troops were pressing the Germans hard and they wanted a more intense artillery barrage.
During early July in this part of Russia the nights are never entirely dark, but the field was covered by a pall of smoke through which could be seen the angry red bursts of shrapnel like lightning through a cloud mass on a summer night. By the light of these shrapnel explosions and the white, red, and green flares of the enemy's rockets, we could see the entire line of attack, which was over a front of one kilometer.
The crackle of the machine-guns and rifles was intense at first but gradually quieted down. That was a good sign, for it indicated that our men had taken the first two lines and had silenced the German gunners.
I was loath to leave the wonderful sight, but I knew the wounded were starting to pour back through the communication-trenches and I had to hurry back to my dressing station.
As I hurried through a communication-trench I passed dozens of wounded, who were slowly wending their way back, many sitting down to rest for a few moments to recover from the pain and shock of their wounds.
At our advanced dressing station, which was in a strong dug-out under the lea of a sand-hill, I stopped a moment to see how the students Metia and Nicholi were coming on with the work.
The dug-out was packed with wounded and dozens were lying on the ground outside patiently waiting their turn. The students, whose white gowns were splattered with blood, were working like mad in the dull light of a couple of candles.
Fig. 17. Seriously wounded soldier being carried in by stretcher bearers during the demonstration attack.
Fig. 18. "Streams of wounded soldiers barely able to walk, reeled along like drunken men through the semi-darkness, headed for our dressing station."
I hurried on across some low-lying ground studded with little pine-trees, toward the main dressing room in the old peasant's house. On a narrow trail were dozens of parties of stretcher-bearers, four to a stretcher, stumbling along through the semi-darkness bearing their moaning, pain-stricken burdens, while other wounded soldiers, barely able to walk, reeled along like drunken men, headed for our dressing station.
In the stress of battle we had to make men walk who were hideously wounded. I have seen them reel in with their jaws shot off, with both arms shot through, or with a gaping hole through the thigh. Sometimes a terribly wounded man would come in leading another who had been blinded in both eyes.
I soon outdistanced these crawling wretches and had a free path to the dressing station, where I found everything in readiness. The orderlies had sterilized my instruments, gauze and bandages were at hand, and the ambulances were drawn up in a long line waiting for their passengers.
Working steadily till ten o'clock the next morning, we handled two hundred and eighty wounded men that night in the little dressing station.
As we were finishing the bandaging of the last soldier, Lieutenant Muhanoff came into the bandage-strewn room and I asked him if the demonstration attack had been a success.
"Yes, yes, a great success," he replied. "As you know, our men only stayed a few minutes in the German trenches after taking the first two lines. They didn't intend to. It was not a serious attempt to pierce the lines. We lost about three thousand men in killed and wounded out of the three regiments which attacked."
"Three thousand men lost in a mere demonstration!" I exclaimed. "Wasn't that pretty costly work just to keep the Germans from shifting troops ?"
"That is war," commented the Lieutenant, shrugging his shoulders. "I have seen in your America---what do you call it---ah, yes-the prizefight. In these contests I have seen one man pretend to strike his opponent and yet have no intention of doing so. It is what you call a feint, isn't it? Now that man may be very tired and the movement may cause him to use up some much needed energy, yet he must do it to deceive his opponent. It's general results which count. So it is with us---the real blow comes in the south but we must make a pretense of attacking here farther north in order to deceive the enemy. It costs some men, of course,---in other words, it uses up some of our energy---but the general staff have counted the cost and they decided that three thousand men was not too much to pay."
It was quite logical, of course, but none the less horrifying.
We walked out of the dingy little room into the warm morning sunshine where the birds were singing. The last of the ambulances was rattling off over the road in a cloud of dust. The artillery on both sides was silent and not a machine-gun or rifle could be heard on our sector of the front; but far off to the south could be heard a low muttering rumble.
"That's the battle of Baranovitchi," said the Lieutenant. "You can hear the guns although it is hundreds of miles away!"
I inhaled deep breaths of the sweet-scented air. The sunshine acted like a tonic after the long night's work, which seemed like the memory of a terrible dream.
We sat down to a cup of coffee under the spreading apple-tree and we could see the ridge on which the German trenches lay. Yesterday it had been a spouting mass of sand and smoke, but now it shimmered yellow, silent and deserted under the dancing heat rays.
The old peasant limped about in his bare feet, his loose white rooboshka (shirt) flapping in the morning breeze, as he repaired the damage done by the German shells to his beehives.
Another scene of the great drama had finished, and except for a few more gaps in our brown-clad ranks and a few more crosses in a little cemetery, the world went on as before.
Chapter Nineteen: We join Brusiloff's big drive.