Excerpt from “Battle of Booby’s Bluffs,” a satire on officer incompetence and lessons learned in the Great War. Written in the style of Defence of Duffer’s Drift, it was originally published in installments in the Infantry Journal, (May through October) 1921 and republished by Dale Street Books in 2017.
[…] At 4:25 Lieutenant Swift called the battalion to attention, faced about and reported, “Sir, the battalion is formed.” I told him to take his post, and commanded, “Rest,” as I wished the companies to rest even to the last minute before going forward for the struggle which might last all day. I looked at my watch and marked the second hand as it slowly counted off the seconds until 4:30. The eyes of all my soldiers were on me, and I felt that no one could criticize me for lack of coolness and courage. I calmly stood there, making a few commonplace remarks to Lieutenants Swift and Bright, who seemed anxious to suggest something, but they had learned that I was the commander of this battalion, so they kept quiet. At 4:29 I faced about, and everyone could see from my stern attitude that the time had arrived. I then watched the second hand, which was spelling time for us and eternity for thousands of Reds and for some of us.
Just at 4:30 I lowered my left hand (which carried my wrist watch) and started to command, “Form for attack.” The most infernal racket burst forth. Shells by the thousand burst on the north and south road just west of me, and my command could not he heard more than ten feet.
I was dumfounded. Such a racket had never been heard in any boiler-shop or iron-foundry that I had ever visited. I could not think what had happened. How had the enemy known that we were to attack at this moment? I began to suspect treachery; but I knew that there could be no treachery in my battalion. Possibly some Red spies had slipped over in the early dawn and had heard Lieutenant Swift’s statement that the attack began at 4:30. At any rate we were lucky in that the Reds did not have our range, and as long as we remained where we were there need be no casualties.
I waited a few seconds, and was a little amused at the facial expressions of Lieutenants Swift and Bright. Being young men, they naturally were a little more prone to surprise than I was. I smiled to reassure them, and said, “It is all right, my boys; the enemy has not our range, and we seem to be perfectly safe. In fact it is evident that they are aiming less and less accurately; the shots seem to be falling shorter and farther from us.”
Then Lieutenant Swift yelled in a most disrespectful manner: “The barrage! It’s our barrage, and it travels at the rate of 100 yards in four minutes. Of course, it is missing us more and more. We must catch it. If we don’t take advantage of it our artillery will be of no assistance to us.”
At once it came back to me. Colonel R had said in the conference of his field and staff officers that the barrage would start at 4:30 and move forward at once. Immediately I rose to the occasion. My voice could not be heard, so I opened my mouth several times and waved my hand. It made my heart bound to see how quickly the intelligent American soldier can adapt himself to circumstances. The majority of my men were volunteers and they understood at once what was wanted. Promptly B and C Companies moved out in extended order, and A and D Companies prepared to follow. At a double time B and C Companies spread over the center of our sector, guiding center, one man per yard. This covered about 500 yards, leaving some 250 yards on either flank, which was to be covered by A and D Companies as they advanced later at the prescribed distance of about 300 yards.
I took my position about 150 yards behind the center of the front line. The whole battalion moved forward in perfect order, guiding center, the front line some sixty yards behind our barrage.
My heart swelled with pride. Everything was working smoothly. It is true that some of the boys were falling, and my heart bled in sympathy but I gritted my teeth like a soldier, and marched proudly forward, calm and collected.
When we reached the crest, some four minutes after our advance had started, I halted for a moment and gazed upon the scene with my field glasses. The morning sun showed a perfect picture. One hundred and fifty yards ahead of me were B and C Companies in a magnificent line, marching straight to the front as if on parade. Some sixty yards in front of them was our barrage, still going forward at the rate of l00 yards in four minutes. Behind me, 150 yards, and off to the right and left flanks, respectively, were the A and D Companies, now in platoon columns. I felt that my weary days of work in the training camp were producing their reward. With a smile I placed my field glasses in the case and hurried forward to regain my position back of the center, midway between the two lines.
I heard Lieutenant Bright say to Lieutenant Swift, “Look at the shells bursting just this side of the creek. Either we have an extra wide barrage or it is their protective barrage in front of their line. My best information says that their line is west of the creek. If that is their protective barrage they will switch it as soon as they locate us, and then we will have an awful time.” I saw nothing to justify Lieutenant Bright in this dismal prediction. I did not care to administer any further admonitions to him, so I calmly marched forward.
After about twenty minutes the left of my front line arrived opposite the trees, already mentioned, on the south side of the bend in Booby’s Creek at 344.6-729.3, the barrage having passed this point. I saw a few men break from the left and start for the creek only some forty yards away, but a sharp command from a lieutenant or a sergeant called them back into line and they continued forward.
Evidently some of the Reds were in that creek bottom, but the platoon commander knew that I would send up some men from the support to clear them out. It was his duty to march straight ahead just as I had taught them day after day on the parade ground. I quickly turned to the left and waved forward a platoon from D Company, pointing to the creek bend. Not a second did they hesitate. Bravely they started forward, but luck was against me. I heard a rat-tat-tat from the creek bottom, then a continuous roll of rat-tat-tats. The left of my front line just crumpled up and lay down. It vanished.
The right, true to its training, immediately began to advance by rushes, straight to the front. Probably they had seen an enemy or something to their front. Steadily and surely they rose, rushed forward and fell, firing to the front. Each time fewer rose and rushed forward. Always some fell. But relief was at hand; the platoon from D Company was only some 100 yards away. I signaled “double time,” and they rushed forward and silenced the machine gun.
For a few minutes I breathed freely. But not for long. Suddenly, 100 yards back of me, there was again an unearthly racket, shells exploding and iron splinters Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-ing in all directions. Lieutenant Bright yelled “There it is! They have us located!” and truly it seemed so. One platoon of D Company simply disappeared. Half of another was blown into the air. Captain D, with rare presence of mind, commanded, “Scatter, boys, SCATTER!” and the rest of the company abandoned all formation and rushed pell-mell for the creek bottom. On the right the enemy’s counter-barrage seemed less effective. Possibly they did not have enough guns, and they made it thicker on my left.
I moved over to my right and placed myself between the two lines, and we continued to move forward. Personally I felt that this showed great fortitude on my part. Practically half of my battalion had been killed or wounded, and yet I had not sounded the retreat.
At Bull Run the Federal troops retired with much less than that. In fact in no one of our great battles had the losses been 50 per cent. Yet here was I, Major List, still pushing forward after over 50 per cent of my men had been killed or wounded.
For some four more minutes we followed the barrage without accident. Then again we had hard luck. The barrage passed some more Red machine guns concealed in the woods south of the bend, and my line began to crumple up on the left. Still we struggled forward, and I noted with pleasure that a small party gained the top of Hill 407 and disappeared. My joy was short-lived, for just then the Red counter-barrage switched from D Company and fell upon A Company, My last supports vanished, and no first line existed except a few men on Hill 407.
My battalion was ruined. We had captured Hill 407, but at what a price! On all sides my brave boys were wounded and dying. Time after time my name was called, and I stopped to comfort old and personal friends. Finally, to my great grief, I came across young Frank Hale mortally wounded. I stopped and bent over him. “My boy, my boy, what can I do?” “Major,” he said, “can’t you call us anything but boys? Don’t you think some of us have behaved like grown-up men today?” And he smiled and died.
My cup was full, but it overflowed when a messenger rushed up from Captain B to say that he had captured Hill 407, but he had not been issued extra ammunition and would have to retire if I could not send him some. I had none to send him. I did not even know where to find it.
Though overcome with bitterness at Colonel R for having given me the hardest job of any of the battalions, I determined to be a soldier to my dying breath. My brave boys were streaming back over the field in wild confusion. No human flesh could stand against that hail of lead from the woods across the creek on our left. I sent Lieutenant Bright back to Colonel R to ask for help—that we were utterly beaten. Meanwhile I determined that I would sell my life as dearly as possible. No one at home should ever say that I, Single List, had fled from the foe. We had seen no enemy, but it was evident that many Red machine guns were in the woods south of the creek. I called for volunteers, and some forty brave lads gathered around me.
Remembering my grandfather’s story of how he rallied his men in the deadly Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, I seized a gun and began to exhort them to do their duty by their fellow-countrymen. The tyrannical Reds must not triumph. Our freedom was in danger. The country’s honor was at stake. Remember the glorious democracy for which they were fighting. I would lead them and be one of them. All became fired with my enthusiasm. They clamored for immediate action. They cried, “Lead on, List, we’re with you!” I turned to lead them, but just then three shells burst in our group and machine guns swept us like a hose. I was unhurt, but when the dust cleared not a man of my volunteers was with me—all were dead, wounded, or missing. I looked around the field, but could see no men. All of my battalion had disappeared.
Suddenly, Lieutenant Swift grabbed my arm and said, “Look!” I looked to the rear and saw a thin line of Blue skirmishers coming over the ridge. The 2nd Battalion was coming, but it was too late. My battalion had been fighting the whole battle alone, and it was demolished. No amount of reinforcements could reestablish the battle or bring my brave boys (men) back to me. As the line passed by me I saw that the Major of the 2nd Battalion, was in command and that he was accompanied by the lieutenant colonel. The latter spoke to me curtly and said, “Colonel R orders that you report to him immediately. I shall take command of your battalion—what is left of it.”
As I walked back to Colonel R, I was very much crestfallen. It was evident that I was to be relieved. Well, I was willing. My battalion was gone and my heart was broken. I cared no more for wars, and I wanted a peaceful time in the Service of Supply. But I did think that Colonel R should at least thank me for the gallant work done by my battalion. In his dispatches he should mention that the First Battalion, under Major Single List, had bravely breasted the leaden hail and captured Hill 407, but was unable to advance farther because of severe losses.
I did not expect him to mention that my battalion had fought the whole battle alone and unsupported, and had been stopped through lack of support after it had captured the Red fort on Hill 407, but I did hope that he would acknowledge that it had been specially selected for the most difficult task. Also I felt that he should specially mention my gallantry in rallying forty volunteers and advancing to clinch the victory by capturing the Red machine gun nest. He should have left me with my battalion now that the victory was won, and at night the 2nd Battalion could have safely taken over the position so gallantly won by us.
I reported to Colonel R. He told me that I was relieved; that he had recommended me for reclassification; that I was not fit to command the battalion; and that I would at once go back to division headquarters and report to General A.
I need not give a long discussion here of the explanations given by Colonel R. It seems that he blamed me for not taking the machine guns before they enfiladed my line, but gave no idea as to how I was to do it. He blamed me for letting my men run out of ammunition, but said nothing about the fact that no ammunition carts had reported to me. He blamed me for allowing my men to be caught in close formation by the Reds’ counter-barrage, but offered no suggestions as to how it could be avoided. In short, he blamed me for and not himself for the loss of the battle. He offered no satisfactory explanation of why he had made my battalion fight the battle alone. He belittled my capture of the Red fort on Hill 407; said it was no victory; that there was not a single Red on Hill 407. He made many heartless remarks about the lack of fighting qualities in my battalion; said it was run like a political club. This last I did not discuss with him, as I saw he was moved by jealousy, and I said nothing more to him. I determined to appeal to General A.
At division headquarters General A was too busy to see me, and the adjutant handed me an order to go to Bluey for reclassification. As no one would give me justice, I sat down and wrote to my old friend Senator Sorghum, and told him all about the battle and my victory and about Colonel R’s robbing me and my brave battalion of the credit. I knew that Senator Sorghum would understand me and see that I received justice from the War Department in Washington. […]
 Author’s side note—A command actually given in an American machine gun battalion in France.