It is freely admitted that the outcome of a modern military offensive is largely dependent upon the physical condition, intelligence, and morale of the individual soldiers engaged. And yet the magnitude and complexity of movement and forces is such that there is little left for him but to "do and die" or perhaps as the Americans put it, "do or die."
For more than a month the 353rd Infantry had been at the front in the Lucey sector on the southern leg of the St. Mihiel salient. Each battalion had taken its turn in the outguard, support and reserve positions. September 11, 1918, found the First Battalion for the second time on the outguard line. The Second Battalion had been redoubling its efforts to get ready for the assault and was now in the support positions. The Third Battalion was in reserve in the De Merve Woods. Each day had brought increasing signs of "something doin'" in the near future. The Second Division had established headquarters in Manonville and were taking positions on the right. Big guns were being pulled into place day and night; reconnaissance parties of other organizations were carefully moving about the sector. From the jumpiness and activity of his artillery and the searching expeditions of his aircraft, Fritz must also have sensed something unusual on the American side, but "D" Day found the officers and men of the 353rd Infantry almost unaware of the specific part they were to play in the great offensive of September 12.
Four long years the enemy had held the ground in the St. Mihiel salient which the Crown Prince had won in his futile effort to take Verdun. During these years, the German High Command had done its best to make the positions secure by improving the natural advantages of the terrain with many strands of barbed wire entanglements of every description and various types of field fortifications. For, by holding this salient whose line extended approximately forty miles with its apex at the town of St. Mihiel on the Meuse, the Germans could still threaten Verdun and prevent traffic over the railroad from Verdun to Nancy--a main line of lateral communication with the French forces on the left. To reduce St. Mihiel salient was the immediate objective of the first all-American offensive under the personal command of General Pershing. It must be remembered in this connection that General Pershing had insisted from the first upon a distinctive American army. But up to this time emergencies in the allied operations made it necessary to throw American divisions into the line to check what the Germans had been pleased to call their great "Victory Drive." Cantigny and Chateau Thierry were, therefore, the forerunners of this first independent American operation which had been planned a year before.
In order to prevent any possible "leak" to the enemy, all information as to the plans of the drive was kept secret to the last moment. It was rumored that the Germans already had listened in on telephone communications within the sector, so caution was perhaps over-emphasized. Not until the evening of September 11th was Colonel Reeves able to give final directions to his battalion commanders, who then gave instructions to company commanders, and company commanders in turn gave instructions to platoon commanders.
In the plan of battle, the 353rd Infantry was to drive through the enemy positions to the right of Mort Mare Woods. The Second Battalion formed in two echelons with Companies "E" and "F" in advance, supported by Companies "G" and "H" at a distance of five hundred meters made the assault. The Third Battalion similarly deployed in depth was in support. Companies "B," "C," and "D" of the First Battalion were to guard the left flank of leading waves and to mop up Mort Mare Woods as the advance continued, while Company "A" was to form combat liaison with the Second Division on the right. The Regimental M. G. Company accompanied the assault battalion. When the objectives of the first day had been reached, the Third Battalion was to leap-frog the Second Battalion and carry on to the final objective of the big offensive, with the first in support and the second in reserve.
The plan itself was very simple in its conception. But it must be remembered that no man in the 353rd Infantry was familiar with the ground. To make matters even worse, maps and compasses
were scarce. At dusk the different outfits began to move to their jumping off places. The roads were crowded with men. In the darkness some groups lost contact with their own outfits and were delayed in reaching their positions. Reliefs which were to have been made by the Second Division troops were only partially carried out. It was a dark night; a cold rain was falling--now a drizzle, now a downpour; the bottom of the trenches held water ankle deep. This was the situation during the night of September 11th.
The Second Battalion, scheduled to make the assault on the following morning, moved during the night from the support positions along St. Jean-Noviant road to the jump-off line out in "No Man's Land." There crouched down in the mud-filled trenches with thousands of fellow Americans, we waited for the Zero hour. All surplus clothing except raincoats had been stored and it seemed that Zero was upon us while we shivered and waited for the hour. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and runners continued to be busy. In fact, there seemed to be plenty for everyone to do. It was impossible to remember all the instructions. One warning, however, stuck fast--" No one goes to the rear." Final orders read:
So we waited for the time to go "Over the Top."
At exactly one o'clock the preparatory bombardment began. More than a million rounds of ammunition were consumed in the artillery preparation which lasted from 1 a. m. to 5 a. m. All along the line the sky was lit up with flashes of heavy-caliber guns, distributed in depth for almost ten kilometers to the rear. In the intermissions between deafening explosions could be heard the puttering of machine guns. Very-lights and rockets of many colors went up from the enemy lines, then came into view a new kind of fireworks a big ball of fire that seemed to explode in midair, fell to the ground, and glided along as if on wheels. It was a sight that fascinated the eyes. At first the sensibilities seemed to be numbed and then electrified. Thus, after four years of comparative inactivity, our "quiet" sector had come into its own with a vengeance.
There was practically no counter-bombardment of our positions. This unexpected good fortune permitted us to continue final preparations for the jump-off. Small detachments from the 314th Engineers assisted us in cutting our way through the wire, and clearing trenches of obstacles. As early as 4 a. m. groups began to steal forward until the entire battalion had formed up only a hundred yards
or so from the first German trench. Units were closed up as much as possible, to escape the expected counter-barrage. At 5 o'clock an almost solid wall of fire swooped down upon the enemy front line trench--our barrage had begun. After twenty minutes it began to roll back, as it swept slowly across the German trench system, combat units of the Second Battalion, with wide intervals and distances, began to advance, following the barrage almost too closely. At this critical moment word came that Major Wood was disabled and Captain Peatross assumed command of the battalion.
The enemy's elaborate bands of wire in front of his position had been little cut by the preliminary bombardment, and only by energetically trampling and tearing our way through it could the battalion advance. The enemy had made the mistake of matting it so closely in some places that the determined, big-footed doughboys were able to run over the top. In other places it had to be cut or blown up with benglor torpedoes. The men lost no time but threw off raincoats and drove ahead.
Our barrage had completely demoralized the scattering outposts and practically no resistance was met in crossing the Ansoncourt line of trenches. But as the advance companies approached Robert Menil trench, they met deadly machine gun fire from the Euvezin Wood. The next half kilometer, from this trench to within the woods was one of bitter fighting. German machine gunners claimed a heavy toll. Check in Company "F" totaled nine killed and twenty-seven wounded. In Company "G" Lieutenant Wray had fallen, mortally wounded at a hundred yards beyond the jump-off line. Stretcher Bearers Holmes and Lamson of his company had given up their lives in an effort to reach him. Captain Adkins, so severely wounded that he had to be helped along, kept forward in command of his company for almost six kilometers until he was carried from the field near Thiacourt. First Sergeant West was found with his rifle to his shoulder, his head dropped forward. A bullet-hole through his helmet told the story. Without regard to losses the men fought on until the last German gunners were killed. "He's done everything he could do, now it's up to him to pay the price," reasoned the men as they mopped up the trenches to the last man.
Some losses occurred, too, from our own artillery. "Follow the barrage," were the orders. As soon as the barrage had lifted from an objective ahead the men moved up, not realizing that the artillery would roll back almost to their own position before moving forward again to the next objective. As a result, Lieutenant Shaw was the victim of one of our own shells a minute after he had led his platoon out but his example carried the men forward without their commander and in spite of many losses. While Lieutenant Wickersham was advancing with his platoon a shell burst at his feet and threw him into the air with four mortal wounds. He dressed the wounds of his orderly, improvised a tourniquet for his own thigh and then ordered the advance to continue. Although weakened by the loss of blood he moved on with his pistol in his left hand until he fell and
died before aid could be administered to him. Everywhere action was heroic. Resistance and difficulties only brought it into the sublime.
Eagerness of the men to get forward in spite of the delay due to the machine gun resistance led to the serious error of telescoping on the part of the supporting units. Company "H" had pushed up to the right of Company "F" and Company "G" to the left of Company "E" and the Third Battalion had come to within a few meters of our assaulting line. The Divisional Airmen swept low over the advancing troops, waving and shouting at them to scatter. However, the aggressiveness of the assault had had its effect upon the enemy. Resistance weakened at the edge of the woods. A few snipers up in the trees continued to cause casualties, but American marksmanship was proof against such tactics. As soon as a treeman revealed his position, the crack of a rifle brought him tumbling like a squirrel to the ground. In the woods, the men fell irresistibly into skirmish line and dashed on through the thick underbrush. When Colonel Reeves asked a small party of stranded marines what they were doing in the rear of our men, they replied, "Tryin' to keep up with them d---- corn huskers."
Out into the triangular open space between the Euvezin Wood and the Beau Vallon Wood, combat units began to reform. Some machine gun resistance developed on the left flank, but was quickly overcome. The right was held up for a few moments by a heavy machine gun implacement, until Sergeant Moore of Company "F"
succeeded in gaining possession of one of the guns and turning it on the rest of the nest. The Vallon trench was not organized and the enemy was in rapid retreat throughout the sector. The Third Battalion was to pass the lines of the Second and take up the assault beyond the Vallon trench, which was designated as the third objective. Some of the units had already entered the Beau Vallon Wood. Colonel Reeves was on the ground. Realizing the confusion incident to a passage of the lines in the timber, and fearing that in some cases the third objective had not been fully developed, he promptly ordered the Second Battalion to continue the assault until the fourth objective, just beyond the Wood. Here the passages of lines was made.
For five kilometers through the elaborate trench system and the intricate wire entanglements of the enemy, through the densely intertwined undergrowth of the woods, the men of the Second Battalion had carried the assault. They had overcome desperate machine gun defenses, and braved the explosion of shells in their midst. Four hours and forty-five minutes the advance continued. Three officers and nearly two hundred men were wounded. Four officers and thirty-five enlisted men had made the supreme sacrifice.
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