African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Chester Westfield, "The Experiences of Company L 368th Infantry" (1919)

[Editor's Note]

Of Company "L" 368th Infantry

Typical of a Soldier's Life in France 
[Hemphill Press, Nashville Tennessee] 

 Copyright, 1919 

This poem is based on facts gathered by the writer, who was a sergeant in Company "L" 368th Infantry. It was written to give some of  the life and spirit of the individual soldier; in narrating the events of the Argonne drive; the pronoun "we" refers to the regiment as a unit, and of course the supporting artillery is taken in consideration. 
The writer wishes to express his appreciation of the kindness of his friends in giving suggestions and helping correct the manuscript. 
Chester J. Westfield 

MAY 16 1919 

The Voyage to France 
The news came, "You'll go over," 
But we did not think it true 
Till mechanics marked our boxes 
With letters white and blue. 
Then we were certain of going 
Over there to tight; 
For they moved us from Camp Meade 
One cloudy Wednesday night. 
The boys began to say aloud: 
"Our Uncle Sam ain't jokin'." 
For we all went thru New Jersey, 
Pennsylvania, to Hoboken. 
They soon began to realize 
Their going far from home. 
Aboard the ship George Washington, 
As she plowed the rippling foam. 
After a voyage of thirteen days 
Over the broad and watery main. 
We entered the Bay of Biscay, 
Along the northern coast of Spain. 
We had gone more than five thousand miles, 
Sailing out from the peaceful West, 
When we sighted land one evening 
And anchored in tlve port of Brest. 
We disembarked from owr trusty ship. 
Then two or three miles went, 
And slept on the ground in sight of 
The Pontanezen cantonment. 
There were no cushions for our heads, 
No warmth indeed for our feet, 
But scant the water to quench our thirsty 
And scarce enough to eat. 
After a stay of a week or more, 
A-living 'mid dew and rain, 
We next marched to the station 
At Brest to board a train. 
The weary soldiers were seated, 
With their packs near to their feet; 
A three days' ration was issued 
For the hungry men to eat. 
These rations consisted of bread and jam, 
Many cans of pork and beans. 
This fare we enjoyed until we passed 
Thru the towns of Tours and Orleans, 
For full three days we rode southeast, 
And no sign of barracks found, 
But at Passavant we were glad to put 
Our feet once more on the ground. 
From Passavant over hills and valleys 
We marched on with a will; 
Our packs cut our shoulders severely 
Ere we stopped at Figneville. 
It was there two white lieutenants came,
And several weeks they stayed. 
They taught us to play "Old Grady" 
And to use the hand grenade. 
An order came for us to move 
Across the river Saone; 
We pitched our tents in a field near by 
The village called Lathone. 
At Lathone the drilling was hard 
And burdensome to onr backs, 
For our exercises were done 
With rifles and full packs. 

In trucks from there we moved 
About seventy miles away; 
And at eve we billeted in houses and barns. 
In the village, Le Rolier. 
 Soon an order came that read: 
"On to the front, you'll till a gap." 
And at night we were hauled from there 
To the city of Raon L'Etape. 
On the journey many were frightened 
And murmured a hurried prayer. 
For the Grerman airmen were trying 
To bomb us from the air. 
The thought then came to the men 
Of filling a dangerous front-line trench, 
For the automatic gunners were sent 
To the front along wilh the French. 
But the French and American soldiers 
Could not each understand, 
So the other part of the units 
Went forward, not leaving a man. 
All thru the day 'twas quiet. 
And we did not have to fight. 
But the Huns threw bombs on our trenches 
About nine o'clock each night. 
At night we patrolled No Man's Land 
Thru acres of close-laid wire; 
In danger of discovery by lighted flares, 
And of death by machine gun fire. 
After a stay of several days 
F'rom the front we were turned aloose 
And carried back for recreation 
To the station of La Juas. 
We Remained there some days more, 
A-drilling 'mid cold and rain, 
Ere our company was called together 
To go to the front again. 
We moved that day to a mountain, 
Which little shelter gave, 
But we made the best of it by using 
A protecting rock or cave. 
The captain said: "My boys, 
 Your days up here'll be few, 
For we go on trucks to-morrow 
To entrain at Corcieux." 
We thought of the front-line trench. 
But all of us kept cool 
Till we detrained along the Marne, 
Near the city of St. Manould. 
We were put off the road in a forest, 
Hun airmen our troops could not see; 
And happy, blithe, and hilarious. 
We knocked apples off a tree. 
From the forest early next morning, 
On rough roads we hiked on still, 
Till we leached some French artillery 
Hid behind a rocky hill. 
An order came to us that night 
Which tried each brave man's nerve: 
"Your regiment will go up to-morrow 
With Company L in reserve." 
We passed Vielle le Chateau, 
And good entrenchments found 
Oh a high and rugged hill 
Above a shell-torn town. 
On the hill we were determined,
And this was the officer's plan: 
To hold that hill from the Germans 
At the price of death to each man. 
On our advance the watchful airplanes 
Soared o'er us with many a bombing flier. 
On the ground were wire entanglements 
And heavy machine gun fire. 
At last, sometime that night. 
We took over a front-line trench. 
On our right were white Americann, 
And on our left the suave French. 
I looked around next morning
When machine gun shots I heard, 
And saw they had wounded severely 
My comrade, Corporal Baird. 
We pushed them back over tangled wire, 
Thru valley and over hill, 
And ended our part of the Argonne drive 
At the village of Binarville. 
After many Huns we'd captured. 
Wounded, or gassed and slain. 
We bombarded their bridges which offered retreat 
Across the River Aisne. 
Many brave deeds were done there 
By men who never knew fear. 
Till the French and Italians relieved us. 
Then triumphant we marched to the rear. 

The march from there was very severe, 
But each man did his best, 
For, being exposed to artillery fire. 
We could not stop to rest. 
Hungry and thirsty, we could not enjoy 
The beautiful mountain scenes, 
But Sergeant Brown helped save my life 
With an extra can of beans. 
We marched some days to a station. 
And a crowded train did catch; 
Following the Moselle River, 
We detrained near the town of Marbach. 
Our officers tried to get barracks, 
Doing the best they could; 
They found none, and the soldiers slept 
Exposed to rain, in the wood. 
There were few new supplies of food, 
Still fewer of the old were left; 
Rations were gotten here and there, 
Each warrior cooked for himself. 
After living there for several days 
We packed up and hiked away. 
And made our home on the River Moselle 
In a town by the name of Pompey. 
Though Pompey was an excellent town, 
'Twas not to all our boys fancy; 
Many slipped off in the gloom of night 
To visit the city of Nancy. 
Now, most of the boys thought Nancy 
Was the best little town in the world, 
For here their lives were brightened by wine 
Or a lively chat with a girl. 
After a period of seventeen days, 
Our tramping was kept up still; 
By wading thru much mud and water 
We reached the village Franchville. 
But Franchville was dull and solemn, 
And our boys cared not to stay, 
So the officers showed their sympathy 
By marching us back to Pompey. 
After waiting in Pompey for orders 
For about five days or more, 
Then a march was made to a dugout 
Near the village of Gezoncourt. 
Our superior officer said: "My boys. 
You're not thru fighting yet." 
And on the tenth of November we went 
To fight at bloody Metz. 
For each hour of fighting we thought 
We'd lose a thousand or more. 
For the number of hours we meant to attack 
Was three times twenty-four. 
After passing thru many dangers 
In combating our subtile foes, 
The message came at seven o'clock 
That the war would probably close. 
At eleven the big guns ceased roaring; 
The machine guns quit raising Cain; 
The Boche stopped firing along the line; 
God smiled on the earth again! 
We were glad when the message came 
That America would fight no more, 
And victorious we rolled our packs 
And marched for Gezoncourt. 

We endured water and mud for a month. 
Then began our movement home. 
And slung our packs and marched for miles 
To catch a train at Maron. 
The boys were hungry and tired, 
And their packs were heavy as lead, 
And some of our comrades who were gassed at the front. 
On the hike, fell unconscious or dead. 
Our superiors said: "Don't worry, boys, 
We'll go home as soon as we can." 
But, lousy and dirty, were compelled to stay 
Several weeks longer in St. Julien. 
Each man had a vision of sweetheart or wife 
And no doubt of his parental house; 
When at last we journeyed westward 
To Le Mans in order to delouse. 
We longed for our homes in America, 
In the far-off golden West, 
When we were moved 'side the foaming sea 
To the forwarding camp at Brest. 
We had helped to conquer the Iron Man, 
Who for glory and 'power did crave. 
And were ready to sail for home again. 
To the land of the true and the brave! 

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