Arthur McKeogh.

The victorious 77th division (New York's own) in the Argonne fight online

. (page 2 of 4)
Online LibraryArthur McKeoghThe victorious 77th division (New York's own) in the Argonne fight → online text (page 2 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

that comprised the 77th:


77th Division Headquarters and Headquarters Troop

153rd Infantry Brigade

Consisting of

305th Infantry Regiment
306th Infantry Regiment

154th Infantry Brigade

Consisting of

307th Infantry Regiment
308th Infantry Regiment

152nd Field Artillery Brigade

Consisting of
304th Field Artillery Regiment
305th Field Artillery Regiment
306th Field Artillery Regiment
304th Machine Gun Battalion
305th Machine Gun Battalion
306th Machine Gun Battalion
302nd Engineer Regiment
302nd Field Signal Battalion
302nd Trench Mortar Battery
302nd Ammunition Train
302nd Ambulance Company
302nd Military Police

Keeping in mind that four companies, each having 250 men, constitute a bat-
talion; that three battalions, in addition to a headquarters and a supply company,
make a regiment, and that two regiments form a brigade, the civilian will have no
difficulty in accounting for the 27,000 men that are needed to fill up a division. Yet,
despite all this array of numerical force in a combat division, the War Department
classified less than 50 per cent, of the 27,000, or exactly 12,250 men, as ''rifles,"
i. e., actual front line fighting men. This indicates how large a force is needed
behind the firing line to maintain supplies and support for the man with the rifle.


Nearly the whole month of April, 1918, was required to transport the 77th from
Upton to Calais, France. The infantry traveled by way of Halifax, Liverpool,
Dover and thence over the channel; the artillery sailed direct from New York to
Brest, entraining there for Bordeaux, where they spent a month mastering the
French "75's," a light three-inch field piece, and the "155's," known as the
"heavies." The "75's" threw a projectile weighing about 20 pounds; the shell of
the "155V weighed 96 pounds.

Photo Brown Bros.

A Trench Mortar Battery Ready to Fire


May was given over to training in Flanders with the British behind Ypres and
Mount Kemmel. American ordnance was changed for British. American dough-
boys attended British schools; all indications pointed to permanent service for the
77th on the British front.

The 154th Infantry Brigade was even assigned to duty as reserves for the British
behind Arras, having been shifted from the training area near St. Omer, southwest
to the Somme country, where a German drive was then anticipated.

After about six weeks of training with the British, plans were changed back at
G. H. Q. (General Headquarters) — where moving a red-topped pin a few inches
on a map means moving tens of thousands of men. In this case the movement
by train and on foot was to consume eleven days, in which time the 77th, not sure
whether they were sight-seers or scrappers, but, knowing that they were confirmed
souvenir-seekers, traveled virtually the whole length of the front to Lorraine.

From now on the 77th was to create and live history. Already it had the dis-
tinction of being the first National Army Division in France.

On the night of June 17, 191 8, the New Yorkers moved into the front line in the
Baccarat sector, relieving the 42d, or Rainbow Division. It was the first time an
organization composed of citizen-soldiers took over and held a sector of front line
trenches — the first time the victorious German was faced by the Selective Service
man, on whom the eyes of the Allies, indeed, of the world, were focussed. The war
was to be won by a preponderance of man-power. And it was the National Army
alone that could supply the requisite numbers for victory.

The division front extended from Badonviller, on the south, to Herbeviiler on the
north, the whole slightly east of Luneville.

The relief of the 420" was successfully effected without a casualty, the 61 st
French Division remaining in part of the line to lend their aid should the enemy
*'start anything" at this rather critical period of troop change.


The procedure of a relief is considerably more complex than the word itself
denotes. It is more than the mere replacing of one body of troops by another.

Officers of the 77th preceded their men into the trenches by twenty-four hours
to familiarize themselves with the territory, the dugouts, the peculiarities of the
trench system, and to learn from the outgoing officers of the 42d the local customs
of the enemy as to patrols, snipers, etc. Each company had allotted to it a certain
subsector, which in turn was split up into platoon fronts. In order that the various
platoons might be led without confusion to their respective positions, non-com-
missioned officers went forward with the officers to guide the units into their strange

Liaison, or the various methods of communication, by phone, runners, etc.,
between flanks and rear, had to be prearranged; trench stores, including bombs,
small arms ammunition, rifle grenades, fireworks, had to be turned over from the
outgoing to the incoming units, and receipts for the same given and taken in much
the manner of a commercial transaction.

And all this was done under cover of night, without even the flare of a match
or the flash of a torch to facilitate operations.

It must appear that on an active front the time of relief was an ideal moment
for attack, or, at least, heavy artillery activity.


The Baccarat sector had been quiet almost since the outbreak of the war, and
both French and Germans used it as a sort of rest area for troops worn out by
strenuous service elsewhere.

With the advent of the National Army in the line, the enemy's curiosity could
not bide the completion of the relief, which took about ten days. Before all the
New Yorkers had "gone in" the enemy sent over a crack raiding battalion of the
picked "Hindenburg circus" detachment.

The "Hindenburg circus" was composed of selected fighters who were shifted
from sector to sector for the sole purpose of raiding. Nearly every man of them
wore the Iron Cross, and because of their efficiency at killing and taking prisoners
for the purpose of identifying units opposing the Germans, they were accorded
special privileges and pay, at no time being called to the drudgery of merely holding
the line. They were the gentlemen road agents of Kultur, as it were.

The Germans attached considerable importance, it would seem, to the examina-
tion and appraisement of the fighting qualities of the 77th when they sent their
elite raiders down to the tranquil Baccarat front. That they knew the National
Army had safely evaded their vaunted submarine barrier, and were actually leaning
over the front counter of trench warfare, ready for business, is indubitable. For
toward the end of the relief one of their squat observation balloons floated a pennant
on which were painted the words:

Goodby 42nd— Welcome 77 th

The Germans had spies in Lorraine. Little wonder at that, since during so many
years they had dominated Alsace-Lorraine, whose border was just opposite the
77th's front. Civilians lived within range of the long distance artillery and even
came with passes into the front line villages to pluck vegetables from their truck
gardens. The raid of June 24th therefore was not without the collusion of inform-
ants inside the 77th's lines.

Three hours after the attack, almost before the wounded had been gathered
into the first aid posts, the people of New York glanced across their breakfast coffee
to this bulletin on the first page of their newspapers (this occurred in the hopeful
days when the German wireless was as prompt and communicative as a press

Berlin (via London) June 24 — German troops, in an attack on trenches in
the Badonviller region (southeast of Luneville), occupied by French and
Americans, inflicted heavy losses and brought back prisoners, according to the
official communication from headquarters today. The bulletin reads:

East of Badonviller shock troops penetrated the Franco-American trenches
and inflicted heavy losses. They brought back forty prisoners.

The raid, which occurred at 3:30 A. M., was preceded by an artillery preparation
unequalled by anything the French had ever known on that front.

Box barrages were put down at two points — Neuviller, where the 307th was
holding, and Badonviller, the 3o8th's front. A box barrage is a three-sided curtain
of artillery fire, each side to a depth of about 150 yards, and so dense as almost to
defy penetration. It aims at preventing reinforcements from the rear joining the
hemmed-in troops. The fourth side is the front line itself, which is being attacked.
Before the raiders enter the trench objective, they have timed their approach so
that a preliminary barrage, hammering upon the section of trench they are to pene-


trate, may have lifted. The whole operation is like an elaborate man-trap in which
the defenders, outnumbered and unaided, are beaten before it snaps its jaws upon


Some importance should be attached to this raid because it was the first hand-to-
hand clash of the National Army man and the Boche. With an enemy battalion
opposing it and a French platoon on its right wiped out, a single platoon of Yanks
at Badonviller showed the German Intelligence Office that Americans knew how
to take bitter medicine — and in the taking administer a little themselves. The
German communique omitted mention of their own losses. And they were not

The raided platoon, of Company C, 308th, was commanded by Lieut. John V.
Flood, a former New York lawyer and a graduate of the first Plattsburg training
camp. Only six men of the platoon of forty-eight came through unhurt.

Out of admiration for the stubborn, yet hopeless fight these men put up, the
French awarded the Croix de Guerre to the whole platoon. Their commander was
honored in addition with the D. S. C.

Here follows his description of the raid, in the simple, concise language of the

"My recollection of the C. Gs. (Combat Groups) on that sector is that C. G. 9
was held by a French platoon of about 28 men. I held C. G. 10 with 48 men and
C. G. 11 was garrisoned by about 15 Frenchmen. At 2.30 A. M. I ordered 'stand-
to' and went up and down the line once to see that every man was in position.
I finished with this inspection at about 2.55. I was sitting in my dugout, with my
hands lying listlessly on the table in front of me, when exactly at 3 o'clock there
was a terrific explosion, which shook the old dugout. My 'non-coms' immediately
gave the gas alarm. It seemed to me that for about ten minutes the Boche sent
over gas shells, when they changed to H. E. (high explosive) and shrapnel.

"Of course, all the men except the sentries took to the dugouts. I decided, how-
ever, that it was more dangerous in them than out of them, so I ordered all out to
their positions, and made them lie flat in the bottom of the trenches, with the
sentries standing watch.


"The barrage lasted about twenty minutes longer, when the shells suddenly
stopped dropping on us and we could hear them going over our heads. It was at
this point that the Hun appeared and the men started to greet him. One man,
especially, Corporal Patrick Hendricks, who was given the D. S. C, and after-
wards killed in action, did wonderful work with his automatic rifle and accounted
for a good many of the Germans.

"I think we would have been all right if they had attacked us only on the front,
but evidently the Frenchmen on my right were pretty well torn up. The Germans
must have gotten in on them first and then continued against my right flank. Of
course, I realized that we were done for, as I could see that they greatly outnum-
bered us. But we were there to hold the position to the last man. We did.

"Finally, they managed to get into the trenches with us, and then the thing had
become a hand-to-hand fight — kicking, biting, stabbing, scratching, anything to
get the other fellow first. I found myself in a turn in a trench with my sergeant,


Frank Wagner, and my runner, Private Dietrich, behind me. Six of the Boches
started down the trench towards us, waving their 'potato mashers.'

"I shot the first two, but the third one, in the meantime, threw his grenade.
As .he did, I jumped around the turn and yelled to the others,' Look out!' The
grenade hit the wall of the trench behind me and dropped between my feet. I
looked down, saw it and jumped, drawing both legs up under me. At that moment
it exploded and tore off the right foot about six inches below the knee, the leather
of my shoe holding the foot on. On both legs it cut me up pretty well.

"Fragments of the same grenade hit Wagner in the neck and knee, and Dietrich
in the arm and foot. The remaining four Germans rushed on us then, and as we
lay stretched out, went through our clothes, taking everything we had. While
they were at it a little Italian, Racco Rocco, came up the other end of the trench
and started after the four of them with his bayonet. One of them threw a grenade,
which exploded under him. He died a few days later.

"The fighting kept up a little while longer when the Huns evidently thought
help was coming up to us, because they suddenly became greatly excited and
started back with their booty and prisoners.

"As nearly as I can make out, we had 14 killed, 16 wounded, 4 of whom died, and
12 taken prisoners, one of whom died, and nearly all severely wounded. The men
who fought exceedingly well were Sergeant Wagner, Maroney (both D. S. C.
men) and Herold (died of wounds); Corporal McKee (died of wounds), Higgins,
Hendricks, (D. S. C.) and Privates Dietrich, John Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan and


Historical records in the office of the Chief of Staff at Washington state that dur-
ing the raid there was "great activity on the part of enemy artillery, 3,000 shells,
210 mm. size, split between high explosives, shrapnel, mustard and phosgene gas,
having been sent over between 3 and 7 A. M."

It was on that morning that the 77th had its first real taste of poison gas. False
alarms, inevitable among green troops, had been sounded time and again pre-
viously, but this time there was no doubting that the cry of "Wolf!" was genuine.
The New Yorkers evidenced the value of their gas discipline, for although phosgene
and mustard gas was poured in upon five or six villages only 180 casualties resulted.

The Germans used three kinds of gas in major quantity — green, blue and yellow
cross shells, taking their name from the color of the cross painted on their sides.

Green cross was an asphyxiant containing phosgene, and a single deep inhalation
of it in high concentrations could cause death. One of the cooks of Company B,
308th, died from phosgene gassing, because the elastic bands on the facepiece of
his mask became entangled over the mouthpiece, and he could not adjust it quickly
enough. It was only a difference of a second or two — the difference between
breath and death.

Blue cross, an arsenic compound, causing sneezing, headache and nausea, was
used mainly for harrassing. It rarely produced more than temporary discomfort,
although one of its advantages, from the enemy's point of view, lay in the fact that
it could be mixed with shrapnel or high explosive in the same shell. Its quick
detection was thus more difficult, for most gas shells, carrying only a small explosive
charge, could be identified by the muffled sound of their burst, or by a peculiar,
wabbling whistle, as they somersaulted through the air, due to the shifting of the
liquid inside.


And a word about mustard gas or yellow cross, perhaps more generally familiar
to and misunderstood by the civilian than any other. Mustard gas was Jerry's
chef d'oeuvre. It had a threefold sting. If you defeated its lachrymatory and
pulmonary "drives" by prompt adjustment and prolonged wear of the mask, it
still had a reserve barrage to put down through your clothing upon your skin,
especially moist parts.

Its action was more mechanical than chemical; it was corrosive, or blistering,
like a flame. And its persistence was a matter to inspire picturesque vocabularies
to matchless heights. Its vapors would cling in the atmosphere for periods ranging
from twenty-four hours to seventy-two hours after a "shoot," whereas chlorine or
phosgene would be dissipated in from one to four hours.

Not more than 5 or 6 per cent., however, of all mustard gas casualties became
fatalities. Perhaps 15 or 20 per cent, were severe, confining victims to the hospi-
tals for three weeks — or three months. Skin burns, against which the mask could
not protect, of course, were rarely fatal unless half or more of the body had been

Mustard's forte consisted in filling the hospitals rather than the cemeteries. It
was tactically effective because it took combatants out of the line. One day
sixty-seven Tommies made their inevitable tea with water, which was ever elusive
in the line, taken from a mustard gas shell crater. Sixty-six were gassed.
Before tea was served the sixty-seventh had been sent on a detail.


For the novice fighters of the 77th, the Lorraine front offered many practical
lessons other than defensive measures against gas. Almost nightly, patrols were
sent out into a spacious No Man's Land to examine the enemy's wire, to lie in
ambush for his patrols, or to inspect his front line trench, which showed disrepair in
numerous places and was manned only by small scattered groups.

With similar "petty posts," as they were called, each consisting of about a squad
of men, the New Yorkers held their own firing trench. Not infrequently, while a
patrol of Yanks, with automatics, trench-knives and bombs ready for action,
might be groping noiselessly under the indifferent stars along a stretch of deserted
enemy trench, a patrol of Boches would be paying return compliments in the Yankee
trench. The fact of their visit would be apparent the following morning from an
overturned bench, perhaps, in an unused observation post, or an unexploded
"potato masher" that had slipped its moorings from a German's belt.

And of a score of such mutual visits the total of casualties on both sides would
be — nil. Oh, it was beaucoup bon, or to translate freely, pretty soft — was the
"battle of Baccarat" by comparison with later experiences.

Graduated from trench warfare after a course lasting forty-five days — from June
17 to August 2 — the 77th was thereafter to engage, exclusively and continuously,
in open warfare right up to the armistice.


On the latter date, the 37th Division, of the Ohio National Guard, "took over"
from the Liberty Division. After three days on the hike, the New Yorkers en-
entrained for — they knew not where. With air bombers overhead at one time,
dropping their "iron rations" inaccurately, nearly a day and a night were spent
travelling toward Paris in foul-smelling French box-cars. In the vicinity of Coul-


ommiers, thirty-five miles east of the French capital, the division was transferred
from trains to French motor trucks, in an endless string of which the New Yorkers
headed north through Chateau Thierry for the Vesle.

The Chateau Thierry drive of mid-July had spent itself and fresh troops were
sorely needed to take up "the torch from failing hands." At the cost of complete
devastation to all the countryside, the Marne and Ourcq Rivers had been wrested
from the Boche. He was now making a stand — a grim one — on the Vesle river.

Observation baloons were being shot down by enemy avions almost overhead
as the men of the 77th ended, at Fere-en-Tardenois, an eight-hour ride through
crumbled villages over shell-marred roads. Fierce fighting had left its black,
malodorous imprint everywhere. In the Nesles Wood an officer of the 77th,
standing under a tree, heard a drip — drip — drip — on the leaves near his feet.
The weather, remarkably enough, had been dry. He looked aloft. Sprawled
across a fork of the branches was what had been a Boche sniper.

On the night of August 11, 191 8, the First and Third Battalions of the 305th
Infantry relieved the depleted 4th American Division and the 62d French on a front
of nearly four miles, extending from Mont Notre Dame to, but exclusive of, Fismes,
along the Vesle. And for four days, be it recorded to the credit of the 305th,
that regiment held unaided a position previously occupied by two divisions.

No conception of the fighting on the Vesle is adequate without an understanding
of the difficult nature of the ground. Dignified with the name of a river, the Vesle
was really a thirty-five foot sinuous stream, not much deeper than ten or twelve
feet, but with sheer banks, in places five feet high. Through a flat-bottomed
valley the stream's path kept company with a standard gauge railroad and the
main Rheims-Soissons road.

The Germans occupied dominating ground on the northern ridge at the foot of
which the 77th held an indefinite line along the river, north of it at two points,
and at two other points south of it. Such was the vantage ground of the Boches
that from their heights they actually depressed the muzzles of their light artillery
to fire into the American positions. The village of Bazoches was in the hands of
the enemy. St. Thibaut, south of the river, was Yankee territory. On the eastern
brigade sector — the I54th's — Ville Savoye served as the front-line battalion's P. C.
(post of command). In the rear, Chery Chartreuve, La Pres, La Tuillerie, and
Chartreuve Farms, Ferme des Dames and Mareuil-en-Dole were various regimental
and brigade headquarters, the division P. C. being the last-named place.


Over all these villages hostile artillery rained its high explosive, shrapnel and
gas from the heights opposite. Air bombers "laid eggs" on the villages. Aviator-
machine gunners flew along the lines of the 302d ammunition and ration limbers.
The enemy artillery even used Austrian high-velocity field pieces for sniping.
Most of the roads were under direct observation, and a single pedestrian or horse-
man would draw artillery fire.

In the hazy front line there were no trenches. No Man's Land — including, at
first, the Devil's Castle and the Tannery — was bounded vaguely by the varying
successes and failures of raids and counter-attacks. What was a Boche funkhole
one night was a Yank's the following night.

Funkholes are the trenches of open warfare — irregular lines of disconnected nooks
in the ground dug by the doughboy individually, or with his "buddy," and just big


enough, accordingly, to hold one or two of them. Everyone has read of "digging
in." Funkholes are the result of it. And their name has its origin in a favorite
British term — funk, or fear. Now, not to side with the polite war correspondents
who prefer the word "foxhole," there's no denying that the average intelligent
human being lacks some of the poise of the drawing room when the blithe machine
gun bullet, the humming bit of shrapnel or the swift shell fragment is zipping close
by. And it is at such times, ordinarily, that funkholes are dug.

In common, frankness, therefore, it is only right to call a spade — a funkhole;
for under stress of heavy fire, a spade plus a few hectic minutes of digging equals
a 2x3x3 foot funkhole.

A German spade is preferable, as its spoon is more commodious than the U. S. A.
regulation pack shovel. And many New Yorkers tossed away their "sea shore"
equipment for the abandoned Boche subway implement, going into the fight with
the alien shovel in one hand and a rifle in the other.

The northern bank of the Vesle railroad cut is still pock-marked, probably, with
scores of funkholes. It was along this track that many clashes occurred. When
the enemy was forced back bodies of Germans and Americans were found stretched
side by side in the only comradeship there could have been between them — that of
death. One lad in khaki had fallen in such wise that his head was pillowed on his
hands, with his forearms resting evenly along one of the rails, as if he were soul-
wearied of it all and waited a more merciful end from some phantom locomotive.

The most violent death, indeed, must have been grateful compared with the
awful torture of incineration in the flames of the liquid fire thrower. It was here
that the 77th had its first encounter with that refined contrivance of the bellicose
Teuton mind. A detachment from two companies of the 308th were assaulted with
fiammenwerfers on the night of August 22, 1918.

2 4

Online LibraryArthur McKeoghThe victorious 77th division (New York's own) in the Argonne fight → online text (page 2 of 4)