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Fall of giants, p.31
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       Fall of Giants, p.31

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 31

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE - May to September 1918

  Gus Dewar did not take easily to soldiering. He was a gangling, awkward figure, and he had trouble marching and saluting and stamping his feet the army way. As for exercise, he had not done physical jerks since his school days. His friends, who knew of his liking for flowers on the dining table and linen sheets on his bed, had felt the army would come as a terrible shock. Chuck Dixon, who went through officer training with him, said: "Gus, at home you don't even run your own bath. "

  But Gus survived. At the age of eleven he had been sent to boarding school, so it was nothing new to him to be persecuted by bullies and ordered about by stupid superiors. He suffered a certain amount of mockery because of his wealthy background and careful good manners, but he bore it patiently.

  In vigorous action, Chuck commented with surprise, Gus revealed a certain lanky grace, previously seen only on the tennis court. "You look like a goddamn giraffe," Chuck said, "but you run like one too. " Gus also did well at boxing, because of his long reach, although his sergeant instructor told him, regretfully, that he lacked the killer instinct.

  Unfortunately, he turned out to be a terrible shot.

  He wanted to do well in the army, partly because he knew people thought he could not hack it. He needed to prove to them, and perhaps to himself, that he was no wimp. But he had another reason. He believed in what he was fighting for.

  President Wilson had made a speech, to Congress and the Senate, that had rung like a clarion around the world. He had called for nothing less than a new world order. "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike. "

  A league of nations was a dream for Wilson, for Gus, and for many others-including, rather surprisingly, Sir Edward Grey, who had originated the idea while he was British foreign secretary.

  Wilson had set out his program in fourteen points. He had spoken of reductions in armaments; the right of colonial people to a say in their own future; and freedom for the Balkan states, Poland, and the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire. The speech had become known as Wilson's Fourteen Points. Gus envied the men who had helped the president write it. In the old days he would have had a hand in it himself.

  "An evident principle runs through the whole program," Wilson had said. "It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. " Tears had come to Gus's eyes when he had read these words. "The people of the United States could act upon no other principle," Wilson had said.

  Was it really possible that the nations could settle their arguments without war? Paradoxically, that was something worth fighting for.

  Gus and Chuck and their machine-gun battalion traveled from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the Corinna, once a luxury liner, now converted to troop transport. The trip took two weeks. As second lieutenants, they shared a cabin on an upper deck. Although they had once been rivals for the affection of Olga Vyalov, they had become friends.

  The ship was part of a convoy, with a navy escort, and the voyage was uneventful, except that several men died of Spanish flu, a new illness that was sweeping the world. The food was poor: the men said the Germans had given up submarine warfare and now aimed to win by poisoning them.

  The Corinna waited a day and a half off Brest, on the northwest tip of France. They disembarked onto a dock crowded with men, vehicles, and stores, noisy with shouted orders and revving engines, busy with impatient officers and sweating stevedores. Gus made the mistake of asking a sergeant on the dock what was the reason for the delay. "Delay, sir?" he said, managing to make the word "sir" sound like an insult. "Yesterday we disembarked five thousand men, with their cars, guns, tents, and field kitchens, and transferred them to rail and road transport. Today we will disembark another five thousand, and the same tomorrow. There is no delay, sir. This is fucking fast. "

  Chuck grinned at Gus and murmured: "That's told you. "

  The stevedores were colored soldiers. Wherever black and white soldiers had to share facilities, there was trouble, usually caused by white recruits from the Deep South; so the army had given in. Rather than mix the races on the front line, the army assigned colored regiments to menial tasks in the rear. Gus knew that Negro soldiers complained bitterly about this: they wanted to fight for their country like everyone else.

  Most of the regiment went on from Brest by train. They were not given passenger carriages, but crammed into a cattle truck. Gus amused the men by translating the sign on the side of a railcar: "Forty men or eight horses. " However, the machine-gun battalion had its own vehicles, so Gus and Chuck went by road to their camp south of Paris.

  In the States they had practised trench warfare with wooden rifles, but now they had real weapons and ammunition. Gus and Chuck, as officers, had each been issued with a Colt M1911 semiautomatic pistol with a seven-round magazine in the grip. Before leaving the States they had thrown away their Mountie-style hats and replaced them with more practical caps with a distinctive fore-and-aft ridge. They also had steel helmets the same soup-bowl shape as the British.

  Now blue-coated French instructors trained them to fight in cooperation with heavy artillery, a skill the United States Army had not previously needed. Gus could speak French, so inevitably he was assigned to liaison duties. Relations between the two nationalities were good, though the French complained that the price of brandy went up as soon as the doughboys arrived.

  The German offensive had continued successfully through April. Ludendorff had advanced so fast in Flanders that General Haig said the British had their backs to the wall-a phrase that sent shock waves through the Americans.

  Gus was in no hurry to see action, but Chuck became impatient in the training camp. What were they doing, he wanted to know, rehearsing mock battles when they ought to be fighting real ones? The nearest section of German front was at the champagne city of Rheims, northeast of Paris; but Gus's commanding officer, Colonel Wagner, told him that Allied intelligence was confident there would be no German offensive in that sector.

  In that prediction, however, Allied intelligence was dead wrong.


  Walter was jubilant. Casualties were high, but Ludendorff's strategy was working. The Germans were attacking where the enemy was weak, moving fast, leaving strong points behind to be mopped up later. Despite some clever defensive moves by General Foch, the new supreme commander of the Allied armies, the Germans were gaining territory faster than at any time since 1914.

  The biggest problem was that the advance was held up every time German troops overran stocks of food. They just stopped and ate, and Walter found it impossible to get them to move until they were full. It was the strangest thing to see men sitting on the ground, sucking raw eggs, stuffing their faces with cake and ham at the same time, or guzzling bottles of wine, while shells landed around them and bullets whistled over their heads. He knew that other officers had the same experience. Some tried threatening the men with handguns, but even that would not persuade them to leave the food and run on.

  That aside, the spring offensive was a triumph. Walter and his men were exhausted, after four years of war, but so were the French and British soldiers they encountered.

  After the Somme and Flanders, Ludendorff's third attack of 1918 was planned for the sector between Rheims and Soissons. Here the Allies held a ridge called the Chemin des Dames, the Ladies' Way-so named because the road along it had been built for the daughters of Louis XV to visit a friend.

  The final deployment took place on Sunday, May 26, a sunny day with a fresh northeasterly breeze. Once again, Walter felt proud as he watched the columns of men marching to the front line, the thousands of guns being maneuvered into position under harassing fire from French artillery, the telephone lines being
laid from the command dugouts to the battery positions.

  Ludendorff's tactics remained the same. That night at two A. M. thousands of guns opened up, firing gas, shrapnel, and explosives into the French lines on the summit of the ridge. Walter noticed with satisfaction that the French firing slackened off immediately, indicating that the German guns were hitting their targets. The barrage was short, in line with the new thinking, and at five forty A. M. it stopped.

  The storm troopers advanced.

  The Germans were attacking uphill, but despite that they met little resistance, and to Walter's surprise and delight he reached the road along the top of the ridge in less than an hour. It was now clear daylight, and he could see the French retreating all along the downhill slope.

  The storm troopers followed at a steady speed, keeping pace with the rolling barrage of the artillery, but all the same they reached the river Aisne, in the cleft of the valley, before midday. Some farmers had destroyed their reaping machines and burned the early crops in their barns, but most had left in too much of a hurry, and there were rich rewards for the requisition parties in the rear of the German forces. To Walter's astonishment, the retreating French had not even blown up the bridges over the Aisne. That suggested they were panicking.

  Walter's five hundred men advanced across the next ridge during the afternoon, and made camp on the far side of the river Vesle, having advanced twelve miles in a single day.

  Next day they paused, waiting for reinforcements, but on the third day they advanced again, and on the fourth day, Thursday, May 30, having gained an amazing thirty miles since Monday, they reached the north bank of the river Marne.

  Here, Walter recalled ominously, the German advance had been halted in 1914.

  He vowed it would not happen again.


  Gus was with the American Expeditionary Force at the Chateauvillain training area south of Paris on May 30 when the Third Division was ordered to help with the defense of the river Marne. Most of the division began to entrain, even though the battered French railway system might take several days to move them. However, Gus and Chuck and the machine guns set off by road immediately.

  Gus was excited and fearful. This was not like boxing, where there was a referee to enforce the rules and stop the fight if it got dangerous. How would he act when someone actually fired a weapon at him? Would he turn and run away? What would prevent him? He generally did the logical thing.

  Cars were as unreliable as trains, and numerous vehicles broke down or ran out of gas. In addition they were delayed by civilians traveling in the opposite direction, fleeing the battle, some driving herds of cows, others with their possessions in handcarts and wheelbarrows.

  Seventeen machine guns arrived at the leafy small town of Chateau-Thierry, fifty miles east of Paris, at six P. M. on Friday. It was a pretty little place in the evening sunshine. It straddled the Marne, with two bridges linking the southern suburb with the northern town center. The French held both banks, but the leading edge of the German advance had reached the northern city limits.

  Gus's battalion was ordered to set up its armament along the south bank, commanding the bridges. Their crews were equipped with M1914 Hotchkiss heavy machine guns, each mounted on a sturdy tripod, fed by articulated metal cartridge belts holding 250 rounds. They also had rifle grenades, fired at a forty-five-degree angle from a bipod, and a few trench mortars of the British "Stokes" pattern.

  As the sun set, Gus and Chuck were supervising the emplacement of their platoons between the two bridges. No training had prepared them to make these decisions: they just had to use their common sense. Gus picked a three-story building with a shuttered cafe on the ground floor. He broke in through the back door and climbed the stairs. There was a clear view from an attic window across the river and along a northward-leading street on the far side. He ordered a heavy machine-gun squad to set up there. He waited for the sergeant to tell him that was a stupid idea, but the man nodded approval and set about the task.

  Gus placed three more machine guns in similar locations.

  Looking for suitable cover for mortars, he found a brick boathouse on the riverbank, but was not sure whether it was in his sector or Chuck's, so he went looking for his friend to check. He spotted Chuck a hundred yards along the bank, near the east bridge, peering across the water through field glasses. He took two steps that way, then there was a terrific bang.

  He turned in the direction of the noise, and in the next second there were several more deafening crashes. He realized the German artillery had opened up when a shell burst in the river, sending up a plume of water.

  He looked again to where Chuck stood, just in time to see his friend disappear in an explosion of earth.

  "Jesus Christ!" he said, and he ran toward the spot.

  Shells and mortars burst all along the south bank. The men threw themselves flat. Gus reached the place where he had last seen Chuck and looked around in bewilderment. He saw nothing but piles of earth and stone. Then he spotted an arm poking out from the rubble. He moved a stone aside and found, to his horror, that the arm was not attached to a body.

  Was it Chuck's arm? There had to be a way to tell, but Gus was too shocked to think how. He used the toe of his boot to push some loose earth aside ineffectually. Then he went down on his knees and began to dig with his hands. He saw a tan collar with a metal disc marked "US" and he groaned: "Oh, God. " He quickly uncovered Chuck's face. There was no movement, no breath, no heartbeat.

  He tried to remember what he was supposed to do next. Whom should he contact about a death? Something had to be done with the body, but what? Normally you would summon an undertaker.

  He looked up to see a sergeant and two corporals staring at him. A mortar exploded on the street behind them, and they all ducked their heads reflexively, then looked at him again. They were waiting for his orders.

  He stood up abruptly, and some of the training came back. It was not his job to deal with dead comrades, or even wounded ones. He was alive and well, and his duty was to fight. He felt a surge of irrational anger against the Germans who had killed Chuck. Hell, he thought, I'm going to fight back. He remembered what he had been doing: deploying the guns. He should get on with that. He would now have to take charge of Chuck's platoon as well.

  He pointed at the sergeant in charge of the mortars. "Forget the boathouse, it's too exposed," he said. He pointed across the street to a narrow alleyway between a winery and livery stables. "Set up three mortars in that alley. "

  "Yes, sir. " The sergeant hurried off.

  Gus looked along the street. "See that flat roof, corporal? Put a machine gun there. "

  "Sir, pardon me, that's an automobile repair shop, there may be a fuel tank below. "

  "Damn, you're right. Well spotted, Corporal. The tower of that church, then. Nothing but hymnbooks under that. "

  "Yes, sir, much better, thank you, sir. "

  "The rest of you, follow me. We'll take cover while I figure out where to put everything else. "

  He led them across the road and down a side street. A narrow pathway or lane ran along the backs of the buildings. A shell landed in the yard of an establishment selling farm supplies, showering Gus with clouds of powdered fertilizer, as if to remind him that he was not out of range.

  He hurried along the lane, trying when he could to shelter from the barrage behind walls, barking orders at his NCOs, deploying his machine guns in the tallest and most solid-looking structures and his mortars in the gardens between houses. Occasionally his subordinates made suggestions or disagreed with him. He listened, then made quick decisions.

  In no time it was dark, making the job harder. The Germans sent a storm of ordnance across the town, much of it accurately aimed at the American position on the south bank. Several buildings were destroyed, making the waterfront street look like a mouthful of bad teeth. Gus lost three machine guns to shelling in the first few hours.
r />   It was midnight before he was able to return to battalion headquarters, in a sewing-machine factory a few streets south. Colonel Wagner was with his French opposite number, poring over a large-scale map of the town. Gus reported that all his guns and Chuck's were in position. "Good work, Dewar," the colonel said. "Are you all right?"

  "Of course, sir," Gus said, puzzled and a bit offended, thinking the colonel might believe he did not have the nerve for this work.

  "It's just that there's blood all over you. "

  "Is there?" Gus looked down and saw that there was indeed a good deal of congealed blood on the front of his uniform. "I wonder where that came from. "

  "From your face, by the look of it. You've got a nasty cut. "

  Gus felt his cheek, and winced as his fingers touched raw flesh. "I don't know when that happened," he said.

  "Go along to the dressing station and get it cleaned up. "

  "It's nothing much, sir. I'd rather-"

  "Do as you're told, Lieutenant. It will be serious if it gets infected. " The colonel gave a thin smile. "I don't want to lose you. You seem to have the makings of a useful officer. "


  At four o'clock the next morning the Germans launched a gas barrage. Walter and his storm troopers approached the northern edge of the town at sunrise, expecting the resistance from the French forces to be as weak as it had been for the past two months.

  They would have preferred to bypass Chateau-Thierry, but it was not possible. The railway line to Paris went through the town, and there were two key bridges. It had to be taken.

  Farmhouses and fields gave way to cottages and smallholdings, then to paved streets and gardens. As Walter came close to the first of the two-story houses, a burst of machine-gun fire came from an upper window, dotting the road at his feet like raindrops on a pond. He threw himself over a low fence into a vegetable patch and rolled until he found cover behind an apple tree. His men scattered likewise, all but two who fell in the road. One lay still, the other moaned in pain.

  Walter looked back and spotted Sergeant Schwab. "Take six men, find the back entrance to that house, and destroy that machine-gun emplacement," he said. He located his lieutenants. "Von Kessel, go west one block and enter the town from there. Von Braun, come east with me. "

  He kept off the streets and moved through alleys and backyards, but there were riflemen and machine gunners in about every tenth house. Something had happened to give the French back their fighting spirit, Walter realized with trepidation.

  All morning the storm troopers fought from house to house, taking heavy casualties. This was not how they were supposed to operate, bleeding for every yard. They were trained to follow the line of least resistance, penetrate deep behind enemy lines, and disrupt communications, so that the forces at the front would become demoralized and leaderless, and would quickly surrender to follow-up infantry. But that tactic had now failed, and they were slogging it out hand to hand with an enemy who seemed to have gained his second wind.

  But they made progress, and at midday Walter stood on the ruins of the medieval castle that gave its name to the town. The castle was at the top of a hill, and the town hall stood at its foot. From there the main street ran in a straight line two hundred and fifty yards to a double-arched road bridge across the Marne. To the east, five hundred yards upriver, was the only other crossing, a railway bridge.

  He could see all that with the naked eye. He took out his field glasses and focused on the enemy positions on the south bank. The men carelessly showed themselves, a sign that they were new to warfare: veterans stayed out of sight. They were young and energetic and well-fed and well-dressed, he noted. Their uniforms were not blue but tan, he saw with dismay.

  They were Americans.


  During the afternoon, the French fell back to the north bank of the river, and Gus was able to bring his armament to bear, directing mortar and machine-gun fire over the heads of the French at the advancing Germans. The American guns sent a torrent of ammunition along the straight north-south avenues of Chateau-Thierry, turning them into killing lanes. All the same he could see the Germans advance fearlessly from bank to cafe, alley to shop doorway, overwhelming the French by sheer weight of numbers.

  As afternoon turned to bloody evening, Gus watched from a high window and saw the tattered remnants of the blue-coated French falling back toward the west bridge. They made their last stand at the north end of the bridge and held it while the red sun went down behind the hills to the west. Then, in the dusk, they retreated across the bridge.

  A small group of Germans saw what was happening and gave chase. Gus saw them run onto the bridge, barely visible in the twilight, gray moving on gray. Then the bridge exploded. The French had previously wired it for demolition, Gus realized. Bodies flew through the air and the northern arch of the bridge collapsed into a heap of rubble in the water.

  Then it went quiet.

  Gus lay down on a palliasse at headquarters and got some sleep, his first for almost forty-eight hours. He was awakened by the Germans' dawn barrage. Bleary-eyed, he hurried from the sewing-machine factory to the waterfront. In the pearly light of a June morning he saw that the Germans had occupied the entire north bank of the river and were shelling the American positions on the south bank at hellishly close range.

  He arranged for the crews who had been up all night to be relieved by men who had got some rest. Then he went from position to position, always staying behind the waterfront buildings. He suggested ways of improving cover-moving a gun to a smaller window, using sheets of corrugated tin to protect crews from flying debris, or piling up rubble either side of the gun. But the best way for his men to protect themselves was to make life impossible for the enemy gunners. "Give the bastards hell," he said.

  The men responded eagerly. The Hotchkiss fired four hundred and fifty rounds per minute, and its range was four thousand yards, so it was highly effective across the river. The Stokes mortar was less useful: its up-and-over trajectory was intended for trench warfare, where line-of-sight fire was ineffective. But the rifle grenades were highly destructive at short range.

  The two sides pounded one another like bare-knuckle boxers fighting in a barrel. The noise of so much ammunition being fired was never less than deafening. Buildings collapsed, men screamed in the agony of wounds, bloodstained stretcher-bearers ran from the waterfront to the dressing station and back, and runners brought more ammunition and jugs of hot coffee to the weary soldiers manning the guns.

  As the day wore on Gus noticed, in a back-of-the-mind way, that he was not scared. He did not think about it often-there was too much to do. For a brief moment, in the middle of the day, as he stood in the canteen of the sewing-machine factory gulping down sweet milky coffee instead of lunch, he marveled at the strange person he had become. Could it really be Gus Dewar who ran from one building to the next through an artillery barrage, shouting at his men to give 'em hell? This man had been afraid he would lose his nerve and turn around and walk away from the battle. In the event, he hardly thought of his own safety, being too preoccupied with the danger to his men. How had that come about? Then a corporal came to tell him that his squad had lost the special wrench used to change overheated Hotchkiss barrels, and he swallowed the rest of his coffee and ran to deal with the problem.

  He did suffer a moment of sadness that evening. It was dusk, and he happened to look out of a smashed kitchen window to the spot on the bank where Chuck Dixon had died. He no longer felt shocked by the way Chuck had disappeared in an explosion of earth: he had seen much more death and destruction in the last three days. What struck him now, with a different kind of shock, was the realization that one day he would have to speak about that awful moment to Chuck's parents, Albert and Emmeline, owners of a Buffalo bank, and to his young wife, Doris, who had been so against America's joining the war-probably because she feared exactly what had happened. What was Gus going to say to them?
"Chuck fought bravely. " Chuck had not fought at all: he had died in the first minute of his first battle, without firing a shot. It would hardly have mattered if he had been a coward-the result would have been the same. His life had just been wasted.

  As Gus stared at the spot, lost in thought, his eye was caught by movement on the railway bridge.

  His heart missed a beat. There were men coming onto the far end of the bridge. Their field-gray uniforms were only just visible in the half-light. They ran awkwardly along the rails, stumbling on the sleepers and the gravel. Their helmets were of the coal scuttle shape, and they carried their rifles slung. They were German.

  Gus ran to the nearest machine-gun emplacement, behind a garden wall. The crew had not noticed the assault force. Gus tapped the gunner on the shoulder. "Fire at the bridge!" he shouted. "Look-Germans!" The gunner swung the barrel around to the new target.

  Gus pointed to a soldier at random. "Run to headquarters and report an enemy incursion across the east bridge," he shouted. "Quick, quick!"

  He found a sergeant. "Make sure everyone is firing at the bridge," he said. "Go!"

  He headed west. Heavy machine guns could not be moved quickly-the Hotchkiss weighed eighty-eight pounds with its tripod-but he told all the rifle grenadiers and mortar crews to move to new positions from which they could defend the bridge.

  The Germans began to be mown down, but they were determined, and kept coming. Through his glasses, Gus saw a tall man in the uniform of a major who looked familiar. He wondered if it was someone he had met before the war. As Gus looked, the major took a hit and fell to the ground.

  The Germans were supported by a terrific barrage from their own artillery. It seemed as if every gun on the north bank had trained its sights on the south end of the railway bridge where the defending Americans were clustered. Gus saw his men fall one after another, but he replaced every killed or wounded gunner with a fresh man, and there was hardly a pause in the firing.

  The Germans stopped running and began to take up positions, using the scant cover of dead comrades. The boldest of them advanced, but there was no place to hide, and they were swiftly brought down.

  Darkness fell, but it made no difference: firing continued at maximum on both sides. The enemy became vague shapes lit by flashes of gunfire and exploding shells. Gus moved some of the heavy machine guns to new positions, feeling almost certain this incursion was not a feint to cover a river crossing somewhere else.

  It was a stalemate, and at last the Germans began to retreat.

  Seeing stretcher parties on the bridge, Gus ordered his men to stop firing.

  In response, the German artillery went quiet.

  "Christ Almighty," Gus said to no one in particular. "I think we've beaten them off. "


  An American bullet had broken Walter's shinbone. He lay on the railway line in agony, but he felt worse when he saw the men retreating and heard the guns fall silent. He knew then that he had failed.

  He screamed when he was lifted onto the stretcher. It was bad for the men's morale to hear the wounded cry out, but he could not help it. They bumped him along the track and through the town to the dressing station, where someone gave him morphine and he passed out.

  He woke up with his leg in a splint. He questioned everyone who passed his cot on the progress of the battle, but he got no details until Gottfried von Kessel came by to gloat over his wound. The German army had given up trying to cross the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, Gottfried told him. Perhaps they would try elsewhere.

  Next day, just before he was put on a train home, he learned that the main body of the United States Third Division had arrived and taken up positions all along the south bank of the Marne.

  A wounded comrade told him of a bloody battle in a wood near the town called the Bois de Belleau. There had been terrible casualties on both sides, but the Americans had won.

  Back in Berlin, the papers continued to tell of German victories, but the lines on the maps got no nearer to Paris, and Walter came to the bitter conclusion that the spring offensive had failed. The Americans had arrived too soon.

  He was released from hospital to convalesce in his old room at his parents' house.

  On August 8 an Allied attack at Amiens used almost five hundred of the new "tanks. " These ironclad vehicles were plagued with problems but could be unstoppable, and the British gained eight miles in a single day.

  It was only eight miles, but Walter suspected the tide had turned, and he could tell by his father's face that the old man felt the same. No one in Berlin now spoke of winning the war.

  One night at the end of September, Otto came home looking as if someone had died. There was nothing left of his natural ebullience. Walter even wondered if he was going to cry.

  "The kaiser has returned to Berlin," he said.

  Walter knew that Kaiser Wilhelm had been at army headquarters in the Belgian hill resort called Spa. "Why has he come back?"

  Otto's voice dropped to a near-whisper, as if he could not bear to say what he had to say in a normal voice. "Ludendorff wants an armistice. "

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