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

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Imagine a stream of blood-red flame, about five feet in diameter, spurting with
a roar for thirty yards from its nozzle; add to this the vicious chatter of machine
guns, the crash of grenades, the gleam of bayonets in the glare, and you have an
idea of the inferno in which the Yanks fought that night. Yet when the flame
throwers had burned themselves out shortly — for the portable shoulder tanks do
not hold much oil — men of the 308th counter-attacked and took some of the enemy
prisoners. At such moments it requires man-sized restraint not to kill in cold blood.

What more fitting name could have been chosen for this valley where Satan him-
self had his abode in the Chateau du Diable, than "The Hell Hole of the Vesle" ?
Witness how life was burnt out there in that furnace of withering fire:

Only two officers out of twenty-six in the Third Battalion of the 305th were
left for duty after that unit had been in the line for twenty-four hours.

In Ville Savoye the major of the Second Battalion, 308th, practically his entire
staff" and all of Company H, excepting two men, were severely gassed.

In the same village the first aid post was set on fire while crowded with wounded,
but the blaze was extinguished before gaining much headway by a medical officer
and a private of his detachment, both of whom tore off their gas masks to fight the
flames — and left off the masks the better to treat the accumulating sufferers. In
the end they were gassed, themselves, of course.

On the night of August 21, while preparations for a relief were under way, a
single shell killed four officers and two non-coms, and wounded others, at the
mouth of a natural cave that was being used as a dugout.

One day an officer was calling out final instructions to a runner about to set out


from a battalion P. C. when a "whizzbang" almost decapitated the runner, as they

Another shell landed squarely in a funkhole in which someone recollected having
seen an artillery liaison officer. Was the witness sure there had been but one officer
there? What of his comrade from the artillery who had come to relieve him?
The blackened ground was examined, jagged pieces of flesh were pushed aside and
it was found that both officers had been together. Three hands were unearthed.


Such was the Vesle — "the Hell Hole."

The instances cited could be thrice multiplied and still the story of individual
suffering and collective valor would have been left untold. And operations were
not confined to a small scale. A night raid, on August 27, was directed against
Bazoches, which, with its chateau, was a formidable barrier to an advance. -Com-
pany E, supported by Company G, of the 306th was to work its way into the town
from three points accompanied by men of the 302nd Engineers, who were to mine
and demolish the chateau machine-gun post.

Just as a whole platoon of Company B of the 308th had disappeared a few days
before in an advance on the Tannery, so two platoons, in this assault dropped
mysteriously out of existence upon entering Bazoches behind the artillery prepara-

The flame thrower had been brought into use again, and it may be that the ill-
starred platoons perished thus. Charred bodies were found later. They could
not be identified.

A third platoon made progress into the* town and dug in along the railroad
tracks, but after two hours was driven from its position by fire from three sides.
Only four men and the platoon commander reported back to battalion headquarters.
The fourth platoon accomplished its mission, passing through debris-cluttered
streets and hurling hand grenades into the houses and cellars, but, lacking liaison
with the other three platoons, finally withdrew.

The Boche, to sum it up, had been encountered in unexpected numbers. His
machine gun posts were as numerous as riveters in a shipyard. By the noon of his
flares (and the German flare was as much a thing of beauty as of execration) he
brought the support company into sharp relief and showered the illuminated target
with grenades.

The raid on Bazoches was a costly one.


It was at this point that the 77th acquired a commander who was to see it through
the loftiest achievements of its career to the armistice — Major-General Robert
Alexander. From the training days of Flanders, Major-General George B. Duncan
had been in command.

General Alexander was a veteran of many campaigns, having won his way through
all the ranks of the Regular Army, from that of private to colonel, before sailing
for France in November, 1917. Four weeks later, then a brigadier-general, he
commanded the 41st Division, from which he went to the 32nd, one of the 77th's
neighbors on the Vesle. On August 28th, with the rank of major-general, he came
to the 77th. His first official act was to dictate an order that put heart and en-
thusiasm into the sorely-tried New Yorkers. Having been an enlisted man, General


Alexander knew that a few words of commendation from high sources, that personal
contact with the man in ranks, that consideration for his welfare would contribute
toward building up that unified divisional soul which animates real fighters. And
it was alongside of his men in the front line, encouraging them with words of cheer,
that he won the D. S. C.

"Upon taking command of the 77th Division," he wrote, "the undersigned desires ■
to express to the troops of that organization his satisfaction in general terms with
the record made by the division in the face of an enemy at least equal in numbers
to ourselves, and who has, in addition, the inestimable advantage of four years of
war. The division has attacked with vigor and with the aggression requisite to
carry its undertakings to a successful conclusion. It has undoubtedly caused more
casualties in the ranks of the enemy than it has suffered, and finally it has so im-
pressed its personality upon the enemy as to render him extremely cautious in his
action in face of us. . . .

"It is impressed upon all that our actions so far have been most creditable and
that we have more than held our own against the veteran troops of our foe. We
are better men and we can become better soldiers than our enemies. . . .

"When the proper time comes, as determined by our chiefs, this division will
advance, and will do its part as well as the American division on our right, or the
division of our valiant allies on our left. We represent here our country and we
are embarked in a sacred cause, to which each and every man of us has pledged
his very best effort."

Today, in the chronological records of the Chief of Staff's Office in Washington,
there appears under date of September 4, six days after General Alexander's heart-
ening message, this entry:

"At 5.15 P.M. the 77th Division reports: Patrols along front cross Vesle and force
enemy back. One combat patrol as far as La Croix la Motte, between Vauxcere and
Bl&nzy. Three battalions across the Vesle."

Before the 77th Division could be stopped, J]4 miles were once more part of
France, and the Boche had been driven across the Aisne with Chemin des Dames at
at his back. And this after nearly a month of heartbreaking "holding" — "holding"
and nothing more, save death — on the unforgettable Vesle.


Of the exultation of their advance, and of their losses at the Vesle, a new spirit
had been born in the 77th — a spirit of high determination and cool courage that
was later to inspire the New Yorkers to their victory in the Argonne.

In the next twelve days — between September 4th and 15th inclusive — against
the strong rear guard actions of the Boches, the 77th occupied eleven French
villages between the Vesle and the Aisne rivers. Fismes and Fismette had been
included in the divisional front; the other shattered villages were Bazoches, Perles,
Blanzy, Vauxcere, Merval, Serval, Longueval, Barbonval, and — almost on the
Aisne, which paralleled the river — Villers-en-Prayeres.

New York's Own had begun "hurrying the Hun," as its share in the Oise-Aisne

Thrilling to the thought that this ground over which it moved was its own by
right of conquest, the 77th pushed forward under heavy artillery fire, sustaining
losses that further taxed its diminished numbers. As an average, few companies


had more than two officers, whereas they had started with six, and of men, company
ranks that had originally totalled 250 were now thinned out to 150 and even less.

The 307th and 308th Infantry on the right of the division sector were faced by
the Germans on two sides, north and east, for the adjoining division had been less
arduous in the advance, thus leaving the flank exposed. Glennes, La Petite Mon-
tagne and Revillon witnessed many local engagements of considerable seventy.
Once the French forced a way into Glennes, but were promptly driven out. After
one assault in front of Revillon, a youthful lieutenant of the 308th, the last of the
officers of his company, when ordered into another attack, sent back this message:

"Send me more men. Only 27 of company left."

In another combat near Revillon a captain who had once been a Princeton pro-
fessor was shot down by machine gun fire after his lieutenant had been killed. One
leg and one arm were useless. He ordered himself placed upon a stretcher and with
the bearers carrying him up and down the field, directed the attack reclining, until
the trench objective had been taken. Nor would he leave his men until ordered
back to the dressing station by his superior. Such insuperable courage well merits
the Congressional Medal of Honor. And gets it. His name is L. Wardlaw Miles.
Five additional similar awards, the highest Washington can give, were accorded
the 77th, a record that stands among the foremost of all divisions in the A. E. F.

A squad of men in Company B, 302nd Field Signal Battalion, were cited in orders
for a remarkable feat in liaison work when they relaid a telephone line while under
three barrages, from La Grotte, the 307th's advance P.C.,to Blanzy, advance
headquarters of the 154th Brigade. The original line had been cut by shell fire in
sixteen places. Patched up twice it "went dead" twice. The new line, covering
a distance of about three miles, was laid in an hour and three-quarters. Too often
the splendid service of the signalman, or "trouble shooter," as he is called, is com-
pletely overlooked.

The 152nd Brigade of Field Artillery made the consolidation of new positions
along the Aisne a hazardous job for the enemy. The bark of the "75V was so
persistent that one wondered when the poor gunners slept or ate. Frequently,
however, the artillerymen would suffer enforced silence — when hostile aviators
dropped low over their positions to peek through their camouflage.

The German fliers had been the bane of the 77th's career. While there was no
lack of "archies" — or anti-craft guns — there seemed to be no friendly aviators to
go out and repel the inquisitive boche. In the thickest of fire from the "archies"
whose explosions dot the sky with innumerable Mercury wands outlined in smoke,
the German airmen playfully dove, banked and tail-spinned to safety, as if they
were saying to the gunners: "Did you ever see me do this one before?"


Long since the doughboy had learned that the bugle call for "Attention," or a
blast on a platoon leader's whistle meant: "Enemy plane overhead — take cover —
all movement ceases!" And he had learned too, that having dug in, it was wise to
spread boughs over the fresh earth, if his modest home was to escape aerial observa-
tion. The German aviators had a prompt method of telling their artillery just
where a Yank position was. And a minute or two later Herr Whizz-Bang with the
famiiy would drop in on an unannounced call. A bugler who took pride in his lung
power boasted that in a single day he had blown a total of 62 airplane calls.

After nearly two weeks between the Vesle and the Aisne and just as an elaborate


attack had been planned upon the enemy, orders came sending the 8th Italian
Division into the line to relieve the New Yorkers.

The 77th had been in the front line for 92 days. It had been promised a well-
earned rest. The Vesle-Aisne fighting had meant 2,200 casualties. And the men
went out in the belief that the division was headed south for rest billets and leave
or perm, as the poilu abbreviated 'his precious permission.

Its biggest task, however, still awaited the 77th. In the eyes of authorities at
G. H. Q., Alexander's men had already fulfilled their leader's prophecy that being
"better men" they could "become better soldiers than our enemies."

To the former citizens of New York, first class troops now, was to be given the
post of honor in the famous Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the real determinant of
the war.

Six hundred and fifty-thousand strong, the Americans attacked on a 20-mile front
in this great drive. The Argonne forest, covering a quarter of the total frontage,
and constituting the western fortress of the renowned Kriemhilde Stellung Line was
assigned to the 77th. Incidentally, the "Liberty Division" was scheduled to pass
through the Hindenburg Line on the first day of the attack. Upon the reduction
of the Argonne Forest depended largely the success of the whole mammoth opera-
tion, for the wilderness was the extreme western pivot on which the other divisions
were to sweep north.


The assertion has been made that many divisions fought in the Argonne Forest.
This is altogether incorrect, as is clearly shown by General Pershing's official map
of the operation. The mistake arises from the fact that all the country thereabouts
was called, loosely, "the Argonne," just as the territory adjacent to the Somme
River is called "the Somme." Twenty-one divisions, as has been said, took part
in the Meuse-Argonne Drive, which was named from its boundaries — the Meuse
River on the east and the Argonne Forest on the west, as distinguished from "the
Argonne." For two days the 28th Division of Pennsylvanians fought through the
eastern edge of the forest to Apremont, which they captured. All credit is theirs for
their swift advance. But for twelve days after that, against the most tremendous
odds, the 77th pressed on, as it had from the outset, through the church-dark glades
of the forest itself. On the left of the 77th was the Fourth French Army.

Leaving the Aisne on September 15, 191 8, the New Yorkers had made forced
night marches half way south to the Marne, where once more they crowded into
French camions and raced southeast all night and half a day through Epernay,
through Chalons, through Vitry and up into the Argonne Forest to billets south of
Ste. Menehould. It seems incredible now that the exhausting trip, for men war-
worn from service, can be reviewed in a single sentence.

During nearly a week the division moved up cautiously at night to the No Man's
Land that fronted the Hindenburg Line. The concentration of troops and guns
was accomplished with greatest secrecy. Being confined strictly to their barns,
out of view of airplanes, the men slept by day and lunched at midnight, while
French troops in the reserve positions drew out singing their rollicking "Madelon."
These "crazy Americans" were going to attack the Argonne Forest! "Eh, bien!"
If it was the martial vogue among Americans to commit heroic, wholesale suicide
by hurling themselves frontally against a naturally defended position that had been
immovable for nearly four years, fortified lavishly the while, with the best grade


o Sedan




German wire and concrete — well, a couple of eh, biens!! It was no poilu funeral.
They would seek out "Madelon," who would bring them "something to drink."
For, despite her beauty, she was sane — was "Madelon."

So that the Boche might not be apprised of the relief did he catch a glimpse of
a uniform other than the horizon blue, the French remained in the firing trench
proper until the historic night of September 25-26. Before leading up their men,
American officers reconnoitred the line in French uniforms.


Thus it was another relief-attack from which the 77th set out on its vast venture
at 5 '.30 on the morning of September 26. And that sort of attack means that having
marched miles from the rear after dark the men reach the "jumping off" trench just
in time to be kept awake for the remainder of the night by the resounding banging
of the artillery. For three hours the 152nd Artillery Brigade, aided by heavy
French artillery and guns of the Army Corps, hammered sixteen paths through the
dense wire till it seemed that the whole surface of the globe must be quaking with
ague. But when the four regiments of infantry — all of which were in the front line
on account of the extent of front — clambered "over the top" to follow the leaping
barrage, so heavy a fog enshrouded the sea of shell craters that finding the prepared
passageways was no easy matter. Contact between advancing elements in that
white, clammy blanket was impossible.

Over ravine-traversed territory whose soil had been blackened by the hot lead
of four years the New Yorkers groped, stumbled and clawed their way. The first
trench system, testifying to the accurate register of the artillery, was passed with-
out opposition, but the jungle was such that at noon, when the earliest machine
guns opened up, one battalion commander for a time could account for only five
platoons out of his four companies.

The first prisoners belonged to the Second Landwehr Division, but, in all, the
77th was to encounter four additional enemy divisions. The casualties of the open-
ing day were comparatively small, and the line had been advanced about two

On the second day real resistance was met, especially from the inevitable ma-
chine guns. After repeated attacks the 305th and 306th took Four De Zube, the
Abri St. Louis and St. Hubert's and Barricade pavilions. The latter was an engi-
neer dump containing more than #2,000,000 worth of material. And the Yank's
line went forward about a mile and a half. Enemy artillery was searching for the
attackers, but its range was wild.

On the third day — it was "over the top" every morning now — the 305th took
Abri du Crochet, the 307th, Bagatelle Pavilion. These pavilions were even more
inviting than their name implied, being collections of luxurious dugouts and
soldatenheim, fitted with blue — tiled bath tubs (inconsiderately broken) and other
unbelievable comforts.

The fighting was increasing in stubbornness as the advance progressed. Ma-
chine gun Indian warfare, such as has been described, marked the whole extent of
the front. Bayonet and pistol clashes were common. Small parties of Boches
with light maxims frequently flanked small units, and every abandoned trench,
every innocent-looking clump of bushes might conceal nests that would wait for
the invaders to pass and then drop them from the rear.



On September 28th, the leading battalion of the 308th, commanded by Major
Whittlesey, was temporarily cut off by machine gun parties along its line of com-
munications. The division suffered no greater individual loss than it did in that
of Lt. Col. Fred E. Smith, second in command of the 308th, who gave his life in
an effort to reestablish the chain of runners and get ammunition and rations for-
ward. He attacked a machine gun party single-handed, first having compelled his
detachment to take cover. Badly wounded in the side, the fearless Colonel con-
tinued to advance alone upon the enemy, pouring a fire from his automatic at the
nest until he was hit again and fell dead. Col. Smith, beloved by every man who
know him, is one of the 77th's Medal of Honor heroes.

On the following day relief was sent forward, and the 308th struck north again.
Three companies of the First Battalion, under Major Whittlesey, and three com-
panies of the Second Battalion, under Capt. (now Major) George McMurtry, had
orders to take an objective along the Binarville-Viergette Road, a little east of
Charlevaux Mill. On October 2nd they had won the ground. But troops of
another division on their immediate left were several kilometres to their rear.
Company K of the 307th, on their right, joined up with them. And when the Ger-
mans simply moved in behind them from their exposed left flank the seven com-
panies of Yanks settled down to a siege of dauntless defense that will be known
through all the days of world history as the stand of the "Lost Battalion."

Of course that tenacious term is a misnomer. When no amount of "bucking"
could break the line confronting the 77th on October 1st orders went out that each
assaulting unit would try breaking through individually — regardless of flank sup-
port. Once an advance element, like a spearhead, could be flung out into hostile
territory, flanks could be swung up to connect with it. And it was really the ex-
ploit of the "Lost Battalion" that made possible the straightening out of the 77tfTs
line and the subsequent complete capture of the Forest.

So much for the tactics of it. Everyone knows that for five days, against daily
attacks from an enemy on all sides, the half-starved men of the 308th repulsed
every desperate onslaught. Everyone knows that when nearly half the 700 be-
sieged were casualties, an offer of "honorable surrender" was ignored. But it is
not as well known, probably, that as many casualties were suffered in reaching the
beleaguered as were sustained inside that rectangle of death.

One might think that at such a crisis the division reserve troops would be sent
to the rescue. But no.

"This is a family affair," said Brigadier-General Johnson to the officers of the
remainder of the 154th, "and, as such, we will handle it ourselves."


Although a hundred men of a single company went to earth in a few minutes
striving to reach their stricken comrades, although in one day five attacks were
made upon the Germans — two of them led in person by General Johnson; although
assaults followed every day until relief broke through, no outside aid was asked.
The 154th Brigade did its own rescuing when men of the 307th, from the right
flanks, joined their fellows on the night of October 7th.

What was happening in the "Lost Battalion's" blood-stained ground during
those interminable days is vividly narrated by Capt. William J. Cullen, one of the
company commanders, who was awarded the D. S. C. for exposing himself to fire


in order to signal from an open spot to aviators who were trying to drop food within
reach of the emaciated defenders.

"We had left along our march, of course, a line of communications," writes Capt.
Cullen, describing the situation on the night of October 2, after their objective
had been taken. "Patrols were sent out on our right and left, but found there
were no Americans within three kilometers of us. We knew then that our flanks
had failed to break through and settled down to wait for them.

"That night the Boches attacked. We heard them coming up, although we
could not see them. The forest was dense and observation difficult. They started
the attack'with a heavy concentration of machine gun fire and then, under cover
of more machine guns at our rear, they came in close and bombed us with 'potato
mashers/ A couple of nervous fingers pulled their triggers from our ranks, but I
steadied them until the Boche got sufficiently close to be annoying and then gave
the order: 'Commence firing!' The crack of those rifles was certainly music to me.
After about ten minutes the Boche retired.

"The next day they 'rolled up/ or chased in our runner posts, and then we knew
that we were completely surrounded. To make sure that he got us and to prevent
help from reaching us the enemy during the night wired the hill in our rear and
manned the position with a strong garrison of machine gunners. We had no ra-
tions now. In fact, on account of the rapidity of our progress, the men had had
only one ration for the four preceding days. There was very little of a pleasant
nature to look forward to. But there we were. And, our orders being 'to hold to
the last man/ there we would stay.

"Our troops came up from the rear the next day and battled their way to the
wire. Those damned machine guns got in their deadly work and the attack failed.
We knew, however, that they would keep at it until they reached us and so we sat

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Online LibraryArthur McKeoghThe victorious 77th division (New York's own) in the Argonne fight → online text (page 3 of 4)