Fleeing a German Attack: Machen at the Third Battle of the Aisne

J. Gresham Machen was a volunteer with the YMCA during World War I. When the United States joined the war in 1917, he wanted to serve in some noncombatant capacity. Thirty-five years old at the time of the declaration of war, he was somewhat old for military service in any case. He thought of serving as a chaplain, but eventually decided on the YMCA. During World War I, the YMCA provided material comforts to the troops, such as hot chocolate, tobacco, magazines, and paper for writing letters home. (In World War II, this function would be carried out by the USO.) Machen sought opportunities to preach and do Bible teaching with soldiers as well, but this was limited both officially and by the constraints of his schedule. Much of his time was spent working close to the front lines, and he was subjected to some of the same dangers and discomforts as the soldiers.

Western Front following the Third Battle of the Aisne, May 27–June 6, 1918
Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Battle_of_the_Aisne

On May 27, 1918, when Machen was located at Missy-sur-Aisne [about three or four miles east of Soissons on Aisne river—see the map above], the Germans launched a spring offensive which became known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. Machen found himself in personal danger from a gas attack and shelling, and fled with the troops to avoid capture. In the process he had to leave behind his YMCA “foyer” and many of his personal belongings. On the 29th he wrote his mother the following letter, recorded in Barry Waugh’s collection of Machen’s WW I letters, Letters from the Front (P&R, 2012).

My dearest Mother,

The impressions of the last few days have followed one another in such rapid succession that I despair of being able to produce anything like an adequate narrative.

On Sunday afternoon, all was peaceful at our little post. In the slack time at the Foyer I even took a little stroll with the “planton” [orderly] that I like so much, leaving another assistant, who helps me on Sundays, temporarily in sole charge. Little did we anticipate the convulsion that was to follow. At five o’clock there was “alert”—that is the order was given that everything should be packed up and the waggons made ready to depart at a moment’s notice. Sometimes such an “alert” proves to be a precautionary measure merely as it was on one occasion some time ago. Consequently I was not greatly disturbed. My planton being unable to come to the Foyer because of military orders, I was particularly busy during the evening serving chocolate and receiving the library books that were hastily returned. This was one thing that prevented me from making my own preparation for departure more carefully. How glad I should be now if I had packed a little bag of necessaries that could have been carried on my shoulder! Instead I depended on a suit case that would have to be put on a waggon. Also I expected to be able to carry my small army locker.

In the evening I descended into my “abri” [shelter] and got an hour or so of sleep. At one o’clock a violent bombardment began; a number of non-commissioned officers entered the abri and I sat up the rest of the night. The bombardment surpassed anything that we had experienced before. Shells hit right in the village as well as in the environs. One which struck a point a couple of hundred yards from our Foyer killed a man, who however was not one of the men of the “cantonnement” [troop quarters or camp] but a soldier who was passing along the road. At the beginning of the bombardment there was some gas—fortunately of the “lachrymogene” variety instead of one of the deadlier kinds. I thought I had merely a slight attack of “snuffles” until those who came from outside reported that things were worse there. We stopped up the chinks in our door and put on our masks, at least for a moment or two. One of the non-commissioned officers was kind enough to bring me a better mask than the little one which I keep always with me. Fortunately the gas was not continued, and the little that I experienced of it could scarcely be dignified even by the name of discomfort.

Early in the morning we were ordered to vacate our abri in order that wounded men might be put in it if necessary, but another abri near by was assigned to us. A non-commissioned officer took me to inspect a pleasanter cellar some distance off, but profundity and proximity appealed more to me. The noise of the bombardment was terrific; though shells were not actually falling in the centre of the village. While I was standing at the door of my abri near the centre of the village they brought in a man who had been killed near by.

Still I rather expected that we were to stay. Meanwhile I did not know exactly what to do. The Foyer evidently could not be kept open in the ordinary way. Perhaps I might have been there to receive library books, but for all I knew that might be accomplished at a more propitious time later on. Certainly I might also have gone to get my suit-case. But I anticipated time to do that and other necessary things after the order to depart should actually be given.

At about nine o’clock the troops began moving to the bridge. One of the men that I had known well at the Foyer called out to me something about the Boches being two kilometers away. This, if I understood it aright, was of course a great exaggeration. But everything began to move, and move quick. So in order not to miss the chance of putting my suit-case on a wagon I rushed to the Foyer and got it. The non-commissioned officer in charge of the waggons told me, since I was unattached, to get across the river at once and let the suit-case follow. I was glad to do so. The bridge was only a few hundred yards away, but, to adapt a remark of Mark Twain, the time required to get across it was one of the longest weeks that I ever spent. A solid train of waggons and men was moving across the bridge and along the road. A terrific cannonade was going on, and fresh shell holes could be seen along the road, but for some reason the Germans did not seem to be trying particularly just then to cut that bridge. Thus I got away from a place to which I had really become attached. I saved nothing, not even a clean shirt or a tooth-brush or a clean handkerchief. And I did hate to leave my Foyer. Perhaps I might have stayed a little longer. But you see I was on the wrong side of the river—the bridge might be cut at any minute—and I did not want to make hot chocolate for the Boches.

After getting across the bridge I decided not to wait for my suitcase, but to beat it at once to a place where I could get in touch with the authorities of the Foyer. A soldier informed me that the town where the Direction Régionale had been was under particularly heavy bombardment. He advised me to get away from the main roads. This I did, particularly since it enabled me to pass by a neighboring Foyer where I might get instructions. The village of that Foyer had been bombarded; the place had a very empty appearance. [Ciry-Salsogne, according to a marginal note in Machen’s letter] The Foyer was closed, but fortunately I met the directors. The French director is a man of years, has had military experience and possesses the “croix de guerre.” Thus he was a man whose advice was worth having. His advice was that we spend the rest of the day and the following night in a neighboring “carrière” [air raid shelter] and await developments. So we took a little chocolate, a can or so of sardines, some bread & some blankets about a half a mile up the hill to our abri. The carrière in question extended underground for a hundred feet or so, but rather too close to the surface for perfect safety. It served our purpose very well, especially since a few steps from the entrance there was a fine view of the valley & the heights beyond where great doings might be expected. There were three of us, the French director of the Foyer, the American director, the French director of a neighboring annex, and myself. [Waugh’s note indicates that the “and myself” was a late addition, and he failed to update the “three of us” to match.] The afternoon was full of interest. Huge clouds of smoke could be seen ascending here and there where buildings or materials were on fire. My Foyer, which I could plainly discern, still seemed to be untouched. The German air-planes added to the interest; they came close to the ground in order to mow down the troops on the roads with their machine guns. One German plane, I believe, was brought down by a French machine-gun close to the entrance of our “carrière.” But I did not witness the event. The rattle of a machine-gun, close at hand, is not an encouragement to staying out in the open.

About five or six o’clock the American director & I went down to get something to eat at his Foyer. I appreciated the dinner very much, since I had had almost nothing all day, but I did not see the use of lingering after dinner merely for the sake of lingering. As it turned out there was an opportunity of serving coffee to some men who had returned from the thick of the fight, so that my colleague may congratulate himself. But this was not anticipated, and at the time, the thing was put on the ground for the additional comfort of his own room. In general the gentleman in question was inclined to take an optimistic view of the situation, which was not based on knowledge. Deliver me from a Christian scientist at such times—entirely too cranky for me!

The ground in the carrière was hard and the night was cold. I had no overcoat, but the two blankets that my comrades were able to lend me from the stock of the Foyer enabled me to snatch a few minutes of sleep. During the night a medical officer dropped in and said that the might need the part of the carrière where we were sleeping for the wounded, and also if there were many of them he might need our help. Needless to say we placed ourselves at his disposal, but no wounded men arrived. I forgot to say that during a part of the afternoon & early evening the carrière was occupied by some five hundred men of French primary troops, & also by the men of a “saucisse” [barrage or observation balloon?] which was raised immediately over the carrière. But toward morning all had gone. I cannot say that the night was pleasant—much too chilly to suit my taste.

You can imagine the interest with which at early dawn I took my first look at the valley. The surprising thing was that the appearance of the scene was so little changed. There were the puffs of arriving shells here and there and the smoke of what I took to be more of the fires observed the evening before. As a matter of fact, the accordance with the communiqués that I read later on the Boches must have been at or across the river at a point within plain view. So far as I can make out they were only two or three miles away from us at the time when we left the carrière for the rear. But we had no idea at the time that they had advanced so far. However, I did not take the optimistic view of my Christian scientist friend, who returned to the Foyer for breakfast. The bombardment became exceedingly intense, and we finally decided that there was no chance of our being able to return to our respective posts & that our duty was to get in touch with the Foyer authorities.

The first mile and a half we walked. Then we got up on the plateau back of our carrière and the appearance of things was not encouraging. Great clouds of smoke were rising here and there in the rear, and all the reports that we could get indicated that the Boches had advanced in such a way as to risk cutting us off. Loaded down with the blankets and the hand-bags of my companions, we were glad when we reached the headquarters of the “Dames Anglaises,” who ran a concern somewhat like a Foyer du Soldat in the neighboring village. [a marginal note identifies the village as Serches.] There through the extreme kindness of the “Commandeur” who was attending the moving of the “Dames Anglaises,” we were able to load our belongings on a waggon—at least the belongings of my comrades, since I had none. On the road the rattle of the German aviators’ machine guns was not pleasant; passing troops on a road are pretty much at the mercy of an air-plane. But after something like a four or five mile trip we got to a little town [Chacrise] where there was a railroad station of a branch line. We just caught the last train that was to be run. It was filled with women and children leaving their homes & trying to carry some of their personal effects. Mighty pathetic that train was, I can tell you. But you from personal experience know what such scenes are like. [Note from Waugh: “Machen may be alluding here to his mother’s experiences in Macon, Georgia during the Civil War.”] After a trip of ten or fifteen miles we reached a station on a main line. [at Breny] Since we had all afternoon, or rather most of the whole day, to wait for the Paris train, I seized the opportunity of inquiring at the Foyer du Soldat of the town about the Direction Régionale. [Note from Waugh: “A marginal note names the town as ‘Oulchy-le-Château,’ which is about 1.5 miles N.E. of Breny.”] I was informed that it was established at a small city not very far from Paris. [Meaux] So instead of going at once to Paris I decided to get off at the city in question & report to the regional directors. Arriving at nearly midnight I was fortunate enough to get a room at a hotel. You may well imagine that after two such nights as I had spent, the bed looked mighty good to me.

The next morning the French regional director told me to go to Paris, report to the Direction Centrale, & wait until it was to be decided what should be done. So here I am at Paris, as the paper upon which I am continuing my Letter will show. Life has to begin over again. I have my skin, and the very dirty clothes with which it is covered. But that is all. My letters, my thousand little cherished knick-knacks, and my equipment are all gone. If I can locate that suit-case I shall recover some things of importance. As for what I left at the Foyer I suppose that is lost even if the Boches are not actually in possession. And from my interpretation of the official communication, I should judge that they are. It is interesting to read that the Boches were attacking the height upon which our carrière was situated in the course of the very day when we left.

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