James A Murrin.

With the 112th in France; a doughboys's story of the war online

. (page 14 of 29)
Online LibraryJames A MurrinWith the 112th in France; a doughboys's story of the war → online text (page 14 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

C. H. Wright, Harris Peters and Fay A. Holman, of
Company G. The last two did not arrive at Regimental
Headquarters until nightfall; the others reported and
told their story before their clothes had had time to dry
or they had anything to eat.

It was jMotley who paid tribute to the splendid cour-
age of Lieut. Turner, who was probably the last man
to leave Fismette ahve.

" We fellows stuck it out, and had to swim across
the river," Motley said. " The Lieutenant had told us
to stand and hold our position, and we did. Fellows from
another platoon came running across and said the Huns
were capturing our men. Then the Lieutenant said:
* You fellows beat it across the river and I will stay here
with the sergeants until you get across.* The Germans
were holding the bridge at that time, so we had to swim.
I don't know whether the Lieutenant succeeded in get-
ting across or not."

Two of the best stories told that day, and the ones
which appeared to be borne out later by the facts dis-
closed upon the return of the captured officers — four
months after the disaster — were those of Privates
AVright and Spellen. Private Wright's story was sub-
stantially as follows :-

It was the wickedest barrage I ever saw, starting about 4. SO, and
continuing for fifteen minutes, then advancing. We held our ground
until it took the roof off, and then we went downstairs and kept up
our observation there while in the building.


But we couldn't do much observation because of smoke and fog.
Then Jerry came down in big numbers — seemed to be a sort of mob
rule, with no organization. They seemed to be concentrating on this
one post. We pulled out of the rear of the building and dropped
down. Some of our fellows were still in dugouts on account of the
barrage^ and we told them to get out of there. One of the men ran
towards company headquarters to tell Lieut. Schmelzer, and each
man then made a fighting position for himself.

Private Goodyear came from the headquarters with the word that
Lieut. Schmelzer said: " Stand and fight." So we turned back, and
just as three of us were going out the door of the court, a bomb
dropped in front. It hit Corp. Lightner, who fell on me. We
bumped into two men from H Company. Then I saw another sol-
dier near us; I thought he might be an American. But his helmet
came do-wn over his ears, and he had a potato masher in his hand.
I pulled the lock on the rifle and pulled the trigger, but there was
nothing in the chamber, I managed to load somehow, and shot him.

The Germans came up in columns of twos, bombing all the way.
I took a bomb from the corporal and threw it; in the shuffle that fol-
lowed I lost my rifle; I reached for it, and it was gone. Then I
hurried back. I found myself in a courtyard; I went out one door
and saw Germans; went out another and saw more of them. I
ducked into a doorway and stood there; a bomb exploded not far
away. Then I saw one of our men ; he was calling for Lieut. Landry.
I saw Lieut. Schmelzer busy with a wounded man about that time.
The Boche had us pretty well surrounded. We got down near the
river and took up a position. One German came towards us and we
got him, then another, and so we picked them off" for awhile. We
started cross-firing then and got more. That is where we were
when the boys started surrendering. Then we beat it to the river
bank, and the only thing for us to do was to run the bridge then.
One man swam the river and was wounded. There were five of us
who ran for it, and we got out safely.

We ran up the street (in Fismes) until it turned. We knew E
and F were in support; we looked for them. We saw two H men,


but they knew nothing of E and F. All I can say is that there
wasn't much organization in that fight. There were men all around,
coming out of holes, doors and windows into the street. The Amer-
icans and Germans were mixed up. We had to look hard through
the fog to make out whether it was our o'wn man or a Boche.

Spellen, a hardly little fighter of Company H, told
how he had to swim the Vesle for his life, after his pla-
toon, occupying an exposed position to the east of the
bridge street in Fismette, had been subjected to hea\y
fire. He said:

We had two positions there; one was a kind of cellar-way, and
the otiier was at the top of the steps. We waited until the barrage
lifted, and then watched the road in front of us. The corporal on
the automatic rifle said, " There comes one now," and he fired, get-
ting him. Then the Boche grew thicker and thicker, they came
from everywhere — holes in the walls, doors, windows, alleyways, and
down the street, wherever there was a, chance for them to get in.
We stood there and fired.

An order came down the street which said: " They have all sur-
rendered." I couldn't understand that very well. Things^ were
pretty much mixed up. I had seen some of our men going across the
bridge; then I saw three of the Dutch go across, and then I saw a
number of our men in charge of German guards. I knew then that
it was our men, not the Germans, who were surrendering. There
had been a few of our fellows who swam the river before that. Then
the Corporal said: " We might as well try to get away." We ran into
Lieut. Turner, and he said he wanted men to go for reinforcements,
others to stay and fight with him. I went back and stayed there.
After awhile he said, " Some of you can try to get over, and see if
you can get help." \Mien he told us that, I ran do^vn to the river,
jumped in and swam across. I ran into Company E and told them
about it. They sent a runner from the platoon to company head-
quarters, and then I don't know what happened.


Spellen, asked how many Germans he thought were
in the attacking party, answered:

" About a thousand. We piled them up something
awful as they came. One little machine gunner laid
them down as fast as they advanced."

Both Peters and Holman, from Company G, also
declared the 112th boys " piled up the Germans " before
making a break, and Peters in his story told of the low-
flying Hun aeroplane that swept the Fismette streets
with machine gun fire.

" Sometimes it was flying about half the height of
a house over the fields and around the river," he added.

In studying the situation at Fismette and what hap-
pened that morning of August 27th, it is well to keep
in mind that the heavy part of the fighting took place
along the east-and-west thoroughfare and on the street
joining it at right angles several hundred yards west of
what is known as the ** bridge street," through which
troops entered the town in crossing from Fismes. Com-
pany H held the territory east of the bridge street, and
a small section on the other side; the remainder of the
town in American hands, west of the bridge street, was
held by Company G.

But the full story of what happened in Fismette was
really shrouded in mysteiy until Lieuts. Schmelzer,
Fredenburg and Young returned late in December from
German prison camps at Rastatt, Villingen and Karls-
ruhe, and told their story. They established the impor-
tant points that :


Lieut. Joseph A. Landry had died fighting at the
west end of the main thoroughfare, with German dead
strewn about him.

The attack on Fismette was made by a force of a
thousand picked shock troops from the Aisne River,
rushed by trucks overnight to positions behind Fismette,
there awaiting the hfting of the barrage to attack.

The exact extent to which Companies G and H

No one thought of surrendering until it was apparent
that no help was coming from the south bank of the river.

The 77th Division launched an attack, but failed
in the attempt to get across the Vesle.

These were the facts they presented to Colonel Rick-
ards and a group of officers, composing the Regimental
Staff, when they reached Buxieres more than a month
after the armistice signing. Though the story is not in
chronological order, it is presented here for the purpose
of giving a complete account of the Fismette affair.
Schmelzer returned to find himself promoted to a cap-
taincy and assigned to Company G ; Lieut. Fredenburg,
shortly afterward made a captain, was returned to Com-
pany H; and Second Lieut. Albert A. L. Young, of
Pittsburgh, was sent to Company G for duty.

All three made it plain that the 112th boys fought to
the last ditch, bowling over the attacking Germans until
they lay in groups about the street. There were 41< Ger-
mans about the area in which Lieut. Landry died.


Landry was firing away, a loaded pistol in each hand,
when he was cut down by a German sniper's fire.

And here in detail is the story as they told it that
night of December 22d. Captain Schmelzer stated:

It was about 4.15 that morning (August 27th) when they started
to shell us. Lieut. Landry had just left the company P. C. for the
platoon P. C. after giving me the disposition of his men — as he had
placed them after Captain Jenkins and Captain Leetch had departed
and the relief had been completed.

My left flank was absolutely imguarded. There was a gap be-
tween us and the 77th Division on our left, and also a gap from the
river to the automatic rifle group which was about 300 yards from
the nearest group on the right. I said to Lieut. Landry then,
" We've got to make a change at daylight, and take care of these
gaps." He agreed with me, and then left, saying he didn't think
there was much danger of the Germans doing anything that night.
I was just making out my morning report when they started to shell.

Just before daylight they made the first attack. The boys drove
them off, and went back into the buildings again. Then there was
another period of shelling for about thirty minutes. Then the Ger-
mans, instead of coming in from the front, attacked from the flank;
they drove a wedge between the company P. C. and the platoon P. C.
I couldn't get in touch with any group and I lost every runner I had
in the attempt. They simply surrounded one group of men after

They got me between 9 and 10 o'clock that morning. Lieutenant
Young was on the extreme left when the Germans started to work
in, and they got the first automatic rifle squad at 6.30. Then the
Germans surrounded one group after another imtil they had re-
gained the whole town. But meanwhile, our boys were doing plenty
of damage. I am positive we killed at least a hundred Dutchmen,
for I counted 44 myself in a corner of the street.

After the first attack had been made and the boys had driven the


Germans off, I sent up three flares for a barrage, but I never got it.
One battery of 75s sent a few shells over, about a half dozen, I guess,
but that was all the shelling we got. I expected help from the
Battalion Commander, but there was nothing coming from the other
side of the river. Then the Germans got in behind us; at the same
time they drove in a wedge, placed a machine gun on the main street
leading to the bridge, and we could not get anybody across. I had
14 men in my P. C. The last man I sent was Green; if any others
got across I do not know.

Captain Schmelzer did not know, of course, that
Captain (later Major) Lucius M. Phelps, in command
of the 2d Battalion, had been wounded in Fismes during
the heavy German barrage that morning and was on his
way to the rear. And in view of the circumstances and
the heavy shell screen between Fismes and Fismette, the
Commanders of E and F Companies, lying in trenches
south of the Vesle, had little if any idea of the tragedy
taking place in the suburb of Fismette, only a few hun-
dred yards to the north.

Outnumbered at least five to one by the force of Ger-
mans fresh from the Aisne, the men of Companies G
and H put up a brave but gradually losing fight. As the
minutes went by and the Hun barrage lifted, the battle
gave way to machine-gun fighting on the part of the
Germans, intermingled with sniping and automatic rifle
work on the part of the American fighters. Then as the
fight continued, and one group after another was en-
circled by forces that greatly outnumbered them, it was
the hand-to-hand stuff.


Captain Schmelzer continued :

A sergeant and two privates from H Company who were cap-
tured in a shellhole near the bridge, stood off the Germans as long
as they could and were taken prisoners, I know of one instance,
where one little group was surrounded. All the ammunition for the
Chauchat rifles was gone. The men were on the point of fighting
to the last ditch with their bare hands. Then a dark form appeared
at the window; a German machine gun was thrust in place — and
then one of the fellows took a good swing with his rifle and brought
the butt of it right down on the German's head. That finished him.
The ammunition that the Hun carried was used to good advantage,
and in a second the German machine gun was doing deadly work
in the street.

But as daylight came and no help arrived from the other side
of the river, the boys began to realize they were playing a losing
game. The toll had been pretty heavy. Runners sent for help did
not return; most of them, no doubt, were cut down under machine
gun fire as they tried to cross the river.

I didn't expect any men to get back, in fact. You couldn't go
into the street without being fired at. They had a machine gun on our
left which we could see in operation.

We were simply playing a waiting game, that was all. Every
man was fighting for himself — and he was fighting. Every squad
was fighting its battle and doing nobly. We had an automatic rifle
squad up the street and another firing down the street, thus pro-
tecting our P. C. as long as their ammunition lasted. Then we had
two or three riflemen in the rear.

Things continued to get warmer all the time. Then we posted
sharpshooters, one shooting up the street and another down. Both did
good work from the shelter of an old barn that was roofless. But
finally the Germans got to them. Lieutenant Fredenburg and I, a
sergeant and an orderly were the only ones left at 9 that morning.

" Did you hear anyone advising the men to surrender? " asked
Colonel Rickards.

" No ; the only time that I heard anything that might be consid-


ered in tliat line was when the Germans used a captured H Company
man as a shield. He came down the street/' Captain Schmelzer con-
tinued, " and when he got to our P. C. he stuck his head in the door:
' You'd better surrender, the town is full of Germans/ he said. I
was just pulling him into the building when a dozen Germans came
rushing in right after him. Our boxes of grenades were gone, our
Chauchat ammunition was long since exhausted. All we had left
was our pistols, and I don't believe even then, realizing we were sur-
rounded, that we would have given in had it not been for the fact
that the Germans took us by surprise,

" We played for time. I used my German to advantage [few offi-
cers in the regiment could speak the language as fluently as Captain
Schmelzer] and I stalled them oft'. They were nothing but young
fellows. I joined them, and under several pretexts made trips to the
dugout and back. I saw they were a pretty good buncli, but I didn't
want to surrender right off the bat. We monkeyed around there for
the better part of half an hour; I was hoping every minute for a
counter-attack. Then we became convinced that it was a losing game.
No help came from the other side of the river. Meanwhile, our
snipers who still lived were picking off members of this party; every
now and then one of the Germans would drop dead in his tracks.
Finally, we just had to give in; had we thought, however, that help
was coming Fredenburg and I would have put up a fight, even
against odds and even with our bare fists."

Captain Schmelzer related how four men whom he
had sent to occupy a protecting trench near the P. C.
were blown to pieces by one direct hit from a German
minnenwerfer. " I knew the four men were there," he
said, " but I can't recall who they were. Then the shell
lit, there was a cloud of dirt and dust and a horrible scene
followed. All that was left of those four fellows was
spattered on the walls of the courtyard."

The details as Captain Schmelzer, Lieutenant Fre-


denburg and Lieutenant Young recalled and outlined
them for the benefit of the officers proved conclusively
that any thought that " green soldiers " had been scared
into *' surrendering without a fight " was a slur on the
brave spirit of the men who fought to the last ditch.

Down in a corner of the street, with Lieutenant
Young, was Lieutenant Landry. Long after the attack
started, Landry was firing away at the Huns, bowling
them over as they came. One pistol wasn't enough and
at the last, with the street literally strewn with dead and
dying Germans, Landry — big of stature and full of
life — was still firing, not with one automatic, but with
two, blazing away. Then a German sniper picked him
off, and Landry fell to rise no more.

From both sides of the building came the Huns. Young and the
few men with him who still lived were caught; there was no chance
to get away. This was about 6.30 in the morning.

" Have you any idea how many prisoners were taken there ?"
queried Colonel Rickards.

" They got 22 wounded and 62 unwounded of my men, G Com-
pany," Captain Schmelzer said. "I had 124 men in the town; the
total strength of the company at the time was l65 or 166 men, but
there were some back at the kitchens, some as battalion runners and
others had been dropped off for liaison purposes."

" As for Company H," Lieutenant Fredenburg said, " we lost 24
men as prisoners who were not wounded, and 29 who were hit by
sihrapnel or machine guns were also taken. This made a total of 53.
We had a total of 106 men in the front line in Fismette when the
relief of Company I was completed that morning."

Neither officer knew the exact number kiUed, but
estimated it between 60 and 70.


Captain Schmelzer in his story confirmed the state-
ment made the morning of the attack by Lieutenant Ben
Turner, of Company H, who fought his way across the
Vesle and was wounded, that the Germans used flame-
throwers and hquid fire in the attack.

" These men made particularly good targets and our men cut
them down in short order," Schmelzer said.

Even after we were captured and the Germans were marching us
up the hill, one American continued to pick our guard off. I saw a
blue spot in one Hun's temple and he crumpled up ; then another one
on the other side of me dropped. Then I saw a piece of a head go
by and another German fell, and still another soldier gave a shriek
and fell a crumpling mass on the street. I'd like to meet that game
American sniper some day, believe me.

Capt. Ignatius J. Meenan, of Ridgway, Supply
Officer of the regiment, said that the man was Sergeant
Jimmy Moore, of Company H, whose name is now on
the roll of honored dead. Moore succeeded later in beat-
ing liis way to safety across the river, but he had bpen
badly gassed and when sent to a hospital in the rear, did
not live long afterward. Moore, however, told Captain
Meenan (then a lieutenant) how he had picked off the
Germans as they escorted the two officers. Captain
Schmelzer and Lieutenant Fredenburg, to the rear. He
killed seven Germans in seven minutes.

Stories of the heavy toll taken of the Germans were
also corroborated, not only by Captain Schmelzer and
Lieutenant Fredenburg, but by Lieutenant Young as
well. It was Lieutenant Young who distinguished him-



self in the attack on Hill 20^. He wiped up three Ger*
mans with a hand grenade when they surrounded him,
and then, when attacked again, fought his way out,
though his arm was crippled. It is a coincidence that he
was sent back to the regiment just four days before the
surprise attack on Fismette took place.

That the Germans had prepared four days in ad-
vance for the raid on Fismette was the information the
Huns themselves gave to the captured officers when they
were sent to Division Headquarters on the Aisne River.

" When they found out that Schmelzer and Fredenburg were our
German-sounding names, tlae Huns picked up their ears," Captain
Schmelzer said. " Then when they found I could speak German as
well as English, they opened their eyes wide. Meanwhile, I learned
a lot on our way back. The German commander told me he had
prepared for this raid for four days. ' It was the German supposi-
tion,' he said, ' that most of our men succeeded in getting out of
Fismette,' but that was a bluft'. He told me there were fully a
thousand Germans in the raiding party [this in itself was news to tlie
oflScers of the 112th Infantry, who had heard there were only 200
Germans in the rush] and that these had been brought in motor
trucks from the Aisne River that night.

" The Germans who held Fismette did not participate in the at-
tack on our troops; they did, however, repel the raid of the 77th
Division men to the west of us."

The news of the 77th's attack was something of a nov-
elty to the 112th's officers. Colonel Rickards let it be
known that he had asked for protection on the left flank ;
he had even asked permission to withdraw from Fismette
until such protection could be given.


We were taken to Division Headquarters on the Aisne (the
Captain said). "That was 9 to 1 1 kilometers from Fismette. We
stayed there until 7 that night. There were some men from the
77th there, including Captain Adams, and with Lieutenant Young
we were all taken to St. Erme. Captain Adams, Lieutenant Young,
Lieutenant Fredenburg and myself were put into an automobile and
sent on.

It was then that Captain Adams told me of the attack launched
by the 306th Infantry. It failed. The 77th crossed the river, but were
driven back. Captain Adams got his orders for the attack at 2
o'clock the morning of August 27th. The Germans had been ex-
pecting such a move, and gave them hell. The 77th attack was
launched about the time the Germans started their heavy barrage.
Only one or two platoons got across the river, and they were driven
back, while 1 8 or 20 men of the 306th were captured.

The German Adjutant at Division Headquarters told me that
the attack was repulsed by the German troops in Fismette, and that
the ones who participated in the two attacks on our men were brought
from the Aisne River in motor trucks especially for the purpose. It
was their aim to drive us back across the river. There were dugouts
already prepared for them, about the hill back of Fismette and near
the river bank. The first attack on the front failing, the second was
launched on the flank, and you know the rest of the story.

What surprised me most were the details that the Germans knew
regarding our organization. The Adjutant seemed to know more
about the disposition of our own troops than I did. He told me that
Colonel Rickards was in command of the 112th and that Colonel
Shannon was in charge of the 111th.

A German boy who could talk English also told me that he had
eaten in my mess line the night before, and to prove it he told me
just what we had for supper and all about it.

He had come over in an American uniform and, mingling with
the replacements which we had recently received, had secured a good
piece of white bread, all the information he could take with him and
got safely back.


As to Landry, Captain Schmelzer said:

The last communication I had from poor Landry was to the effect,
" WTiat shall I do?" I answered, "We can't do anything except
fight it out." The runner started back to Landry. Whether he made
it or not I don't know. That is the last word I had from him. We
fought to the last ditch, and were caught. Fredenburg was wounded
in the cheek, but the rest of us were all right. We didn't learn that
Landry was dead until we reached German Division Headquarters
and met Young, and he told us Landry had died a hero's death, fight-
ing to the end.

Thus was the mysten^ of Fismette cleared.

A thousand fresh German shock troops, the best the
Kaiser had, were rushed from the Aisne; the original
force in Fismette lay dormant, and 28th Division officers
were baffled and led to doubt stories of the few survivors
that " fully a thousand Germans swarmed down the hill-
side and from everywhere."

This was the story the officers themselves told, and

Online LibraryJames A MurrinWith the 112th in France; a doughboys's story of the war → online text (page 14 of 29)