A BLIND ARMY
The bridges were destroyed every day by the German artillery and repaired every night by our engineer battalions while our troops were attacking and the Germans could not devote much attention to the roads in the rear of our lines. It was a case of building three bridges a day and as we remained in this position for ten days our engineers practically rebuilt thirty bridges!
One night I started to ride back toward our main dressing station, but on arriving at the first bridge I found my progress arrested by a long, tightly massed column of artillery limbers, transport wagons, ambulances loaded with wounded, and field kitchens which were crossing to the other side. Their way was blocked by a damaged bridge which the engineers were repairing.
I could hear the sound of dozens of hammers, the low commands of the officers, and the splashing of hundreds of men who were working in the cold water which came up to their arm-pits. A German searchlight came creeping down the road, and as we sat there waiting impatiently for the completion of the bridge, unable to go either forward or backward because of the congestion, we realized that if the German observers spotted us they would make a nasty mess of the closely packed transport.
A shell came moaning up the marsh. The drivers heard it and sudden panic broke out as they leaped from their wagons and flattened themselves on the ground underneath. It was one of those high angle shells that you can hear for a long time as it comes, but there was nothing to do but wait until it landed. It wailed over our heads and burst in back of us in some reserve-trenches. A second shell landed near the first one, and I was certain that the Germans were firing at the trenches two hundred yards away and not at us at all. I called to the drivers and told them to get back on their wagons, and after another short wait the word was given that the bridge was ready and we all crossed safely to the other side without further incident.
Toward the end of the battle of the Stockhod it became necessary for us to dislodge several companies of German troops from some high ground in a field where they had dug themselves in shallow pits. They had erected machine-guns and commanded a considerable sweep of territory. The field was half a mile across and it was decided to use Cossack cavalry in the attack instead of infantry, as it was believed the cavalry would sustain fewer losses.
A regiment of Cossacks was accordingly brought up under the cover of the forest which faced the field. Our men had dug in along the edge of this woods but had not erected barbed wire, so that the Cossacks could pass directly over our trenches as they charged.
A shrill whistle sounded and the Cossacks burst out from under the trees with loud yells, their horses leaping our narrow trenches and galloping across the field for the German positions on the hillside.
Each man was armed with a fourteen-foot lance with a knife-like steel point, a great curved sabre at his side with a blade like that of a razor, a short dagger with a nasty two-edge blade in the belt, and a carbine on a leather strap slung across the shoulder.
They made a wonderful picture as they galloped across that field. They had scarcely covered half the distance when the German artillery put up a heavy barrage of shrapnel over them, and the machine-guns and rifles were also taking a heavy toll. Every here and there I could see a horse and rider go down and roll over in a confused tangle on the ground.
Despite their losses, however, the regiment got to the Austrian positions. After running the Austrians through with their long lances, the Cossacks would ride by and disengage their weapons by a strong pull. Occasionally, however, the lance would be torn from their grasp, and then out would flash their long keen sabres. I attended a number of Germans after this fight, which showed the deadly power of the Cossack cutting stroke. They use a free-arm swing quite different from the lunge which the American, German, English, and Swedish cavalrymen use.
One man I attended had his entire arm and shoulder carried away by a single blow from a sabre. Another poor devil had been struck in the top of the head and he was split through to his breast-bone, the skull cut as clean as though the work had been done with a saw.
I did not believe that a sabre could do such deadly work until I saw the Cossacks practising their cutting stroke. They erected about ten birch stakes in the ground, one being placed about every ten feet. The stakes were about five feet high and four or five inches in diameter. The Cossack started his horse at a gallop, rode down on the right or left side of the line of stakes, and with every leap of the horse as he passed a stake there was a lightning move of the arm, a sound of steel cleaving the air, a sharp metallic clink, and the top of the post flew off in the shape of a neatly severed block about two inches thick-cut from the entire thickness of the post.
When the Cossacks had effectually disposed of the occupants of the German trenches they sent their horses back in groups of ten, each group being urged on by a Cossack on horseback. They came flying riderless back across the field, the Austrian shrapnel bursting above them. Many were struck but the majority reached the shelter of the forest. The Cossacks turned their light machine-guns, which they had taken with them strapped to the backs of some of the horses, upon the German trenches to the right I and left and rendered them almost untenantable. In the confusion caused by this rapid move our infantry was able to advance across the field, reinforcing the Cossacks, with very few losses.
After the action was over I found that my horse was gone. He had apparently been hit by a piece of shell, had torn loose and run off, carrying with him a new camera and a greatly prized poncho which had served me well on many occasions. I afterward learned from some soldiers who had seen my horse galloping wildly along that he had run directly into the German trenches, carrying with him my two most valued possessions.
Our tired regiments were finally withdrawn when it was found impossible to advance the flanks across the river, and fresh divisions were put in their place.
We packed up our equipment and proceeded back to Rovno, where we boarded trains and started for the same positions we had vacated in late July---just south of Lake --------. Here, in September, 1916, our sadly depleted corps took up a quiet sector about twenty kilometers long and waited for something to turn up.
The great drive of Brusiloff was halted only by the terrible character of the marshy ground over which our brave troops had had to attack and by the lack of artillery and shells, for near the end of the fighting we were running very short of everything.
On several occasions after having taken German trenches our troops had found themselves without even rifle cartridges or grenades. We had no aeroplanes worth mentioning for observation. During the entire Russian offensive I saw only one Russian aeroplane, an old type of Farnum. biplane, so slow that it seemed merely to crawl across the sky on the one occasion that I saw it up. It had barely got under way when twelve German planes, all of the newest and swiftest type of fighting machines, began to close in upon it, and the Russian flier had to descend immediately. to tell what the
Ours was a blind army unable to tell what the enemy was doing while they were aware of every move we made.
Despite these enormous handicaps, however, our troops, in the space of three months, captured 400,000 prisoners and took many hundreds of miles of territory from the enemy. By their bravery they released the pressure on the Italians early in the summer and preserved them from inevitable disaster.
Chapter Twenty-Three: The gas attack.