From the first day on the front line in the Lucey sector, men of the 353rd Infantry had faced Mort Mare Woods. For two and one-half kilometers its ragged edge extended beyond our advanced positions. On the map its boundaries were well defined, but as it actually stretched out before our eyes, it showed uncertain limits lost in the brush that had grown up since the beginning of the war. Many of the old trees were scarred and disfigured by the fragments of high explosive shells. Intelligence reports contained information as follows:
"Area eight square kilometers, wire has been put all through Mort Mare Woods and is about one meter high and varies in depth. This wire is strung from tree to tree and does not follow any regular line. In addition to the communicating trenches which lead to the rear, there is evidence that the edges of the fort openings through Mort Mare Woods have been prepared for flank defense. It is probable that anti-tank guns are in position to defend these passages. Batteries are scattered through the
The First Battalion Mops Up Mort Mare Woods 77
woods and also in the opening cut between the woods and the second position. Machine gunners are known to be located--" (Here followed a long table of co-ordinates.).
But to the doughboys, Mort Mare remained a patch of green woods covering a mystery, until September 12. Of one thing we were sure, it was occupied by the enemy. Men on duty in listening posts had heard the Germans at their work. Captain Dahmke's one-pounder had knocked some observers out of a tree. Patrols had already drawn the fire of its machine gunners, and there was no question but that its foliage made up the camouflage for many big guns.
But just what was there no one knew until the morning of the big offensive, when Companies "B" and "D" of the First Battalion advancing on the left flank of the assaulting waves until well within the enemy positions, turned to the left to mop up Mort Mare Woods. (Company "C" continued on with the assaulting battalion to mop up Euvezin Woods, while Company "A" formed combat liaison with the Second Division.). It was what Colonel Reeves characterized in his report on the St. Mihiel offensive, "A very delicate mission, one difficult to execute." In fact, the commander of the Second Division anticipated serious difficulty from this quarter and placed an extra battalion on his left flank for any emergency.
The First Battalion was holding the outguard line at the time of the offensive. Only five days before, Company "D" had repulsed the determined raid of the Germans at the cost of three dead and seven wounded. Our companies had not been relieved and on the morning of the 12th were still widely scattered. Under these conditions Mort Mare Woods was easily translated "Sea of Death" for the First Battalion.
Captain Wood (commanding Company "D"), in a personal account gives some details of the circumstances under which the duty had to be performed:
"I received a message September 11 to report to Battalion Headquarters. Arriving there I found the other company commanders already assembled. The battalion commander, Captain Crump, was at Regimental Headquarters for final instructions. When he returned at about five o'clock in the afternoon, we held a conference in which we went over our orders for the drive to take place the following morning.
"With the platoons widely separated, the short time left, with the continuous shelling, the problem of holding a conference with platoon commanders when I returned to my own P. C. was rather difficult. Finally, at eight o'clock, the four platoon commanders with Lieutenant Hunter and myself assembled to discuss the plans of the attack. Our mission was, after reaching the second objective, to turn to the left and mop up Mort Mare Woods.
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"I gave the platoon commanders their final orders and then prepared to move with my headquarters and reserve platoon up to Lieutenant Metzger's position. Just as we were prepared to leave a man came running up to me and reported that Sergeant Hammond, commanding the First Battalion, had accidentally shot himself. I was almost upset. One platoon must go into action under the command of a sergeant who knew very little or nothing about the plan of action. Time did not permit me to give him the information. The command went to Sergeant Taylor. I felt that he would give a good account of himself and his platoon.
"At one o'clock sharp, the artillery preparation began. It seemed that all hell had broken loose. There was a continuous roar so loud that ordinary conversation was impossible. The trenches were jammed with infantry men and machine gunners. After making a hasty survey, I decided that it would be impossible to get the company together for the jump-off. We must assemble on the other side of "No Man's Land." * * * * * I had had very little sleep during the week. My feet had been wet all of the time. I was tired and knowing the next few days would be a test of endurance, I lay down to rest at 2 a. m., and soon went to sleep. My orderly awakened me at 4 :30. The guns were still pounding away with increased fury. I gave the order for everybody to get into position.
The First Battalion Mops Up Mort Mare Woods 79
"At 4 :45 it seemed that we were doomed to failure. Every bit of the trench was jammed, making lateral movements very difficult, so I crawled on top and tried to collect my men. It soon became apparent that if we went on time I would have to go with one platoon and trust to getting the company together later. I had great confidence in Lieutenant Jones and the other platoon leaders. At five o'clock the whole mass jumped out of the trench and started through the wire. The first man to be killed in my vicinity was Private Reyelts of "D" Company. He was hit by a rifle bullet just as he jumped out of the trench. I became entangled in the wire and had my leggins completely torn off. On the way across we came in contact with Lieutenant Jones's platoon. I now had half of my company together. At the foot of the hill I looked back and saw the most inspiring sight of my life. Streaks of light were breaking over the hill tops, leaving a silver background for the thousands of advancing American soldiers silhouetted on the horizon. Each stern face showed determination to mix it up with the enemy.
"For the first hundred yards we met with little resistance, then the line was held up. I went forward and saw one man lying in the trench shot through the leg. Another was lying behind a bush receiving first aid. I started to cross to where they were when machine gun bullets tore up the ground near my feet. In the timber to the left, a path was cut through the brush to a big tree where the gunners were located. I started a squad to flank them out but they reported back that they could not get through. Lieutenant Metzger then took a few men around to the left and drove them out, but they got away. About the same time, Mechanic Hanlin spottcd a sniper in the same tree. With one well-placed shot he brought him down dead. Hanlin, poor fellow, was killed later in the day.
"We took advantage of the cover afforded by a ridge which we had now reached to re-organize the company, and then started to advance through the timber, but the company had split again. I lost contact with the platoon on the right and did not see them again until the next morning. While they were not with us they did their part in an excellent manner. The mix-up was quite general. I gained an entire platoon from Company "C" when Lieutenant Lewis reported to me that he was lost.
"No sooner had the men entered the woods when there were cries of "Kamerad" and the Boche began coming out with hands in the air. They seemed rather stupefied as a result of the terrific bombardment of our artillery. We lined them up in column of two's and sent them back with a very small guard. The prisoners carried the wounded, both Americans and Germans. A German officer refused to help carry a litter, but after receiving
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about an inch of a bayonet he decided to obey. These are only small incidents of the work in hand."
After the first determined resistance of the enemy had been overcome, the men of the Second Battalion found their most serious difficulty in getting through the underbrush. There were plenty of narrow lanes, and in some places these were covered with corduroy walks, but all of these were carefully avoided as machine gun traps. The main business on hand was to rout the Germans out of their dugouts where they had sought protection from the bombardment, and start them to the rear. A shout down the entrance usually brought forth a bunch with their hands over their heads. If answer failed, down went a grenade to make sure that we were leaving no enemies to the rear. When the grenade had done its work the doughboy with his bayonet at "guard" made his way down the narrow passage. He must make assurance doubly sure, but above all he must satisfy his curiosity.
It was interesting to look into the home life of the enemy. His dugouts deep down in the ground were comfortably and orderly arranged. Some of them even had rough sketches on the walls. However, these were only places of safety. His summer houses had all the touches of rustic beauty. During his four-year stay Fritz had given his spare time to making life livable even out here in the zone of action. The men of the 3535rd Infantry, who never expected to
The First Battalion Mops Up Mort Mare Woods 81
stay long enough in any one position to make it worth while to fix up, learned a lesson in field comfort from the enemy. In the future everything available, from elephant iron to featherbeds, was used to the very limit to make even the fox holes habitable.
Special instructions had been issued to safeguard the lives of prisoners in the following memorandum:
"The Commander-in-Chief has called the attention of the Division Commander to reports being circulated in Germany that Americans kill those who attempt to surrender and has directed an investigation to see if there is any foundation for such reports. He has further directed that all officers and soldiers be informed that an enemy who has not been guilty of treacherous conduct and who offers to surrender shall be treated in accordance with the laws and customs of war on land.
"The object of the German propaganda is undoubtedly to make soldiers fight more bitterly and kill more Americans before they are finally killed themselves, rather than surrender when the situation is hopeless.
"Officers and men should use discretion in accepting surrender, and in judging as to treacherous conduct. Firing into the rear of our troops after they have passed a point may be considered as an example of treacherous conduct."
So thick were the doughboys in the woods and so careful were they in their task of mopping up that practically every one of the enemy was accounted for when the first wave had passed. Every prisoner had to be searched. At first Luger pistols were in great demand as souvenirs, but as the number of prisoners multiplied, the supply soon exceeded the demand. Compasses and field glasses then came into preference.
Quite a few of the men were able to talk with the Germans, whom they surprised beyond measure with the information that millions of Americans were already at the front, and millions more were on their way to France. According to German reports submarines had made transportation absolutely impossible. Many could scarcely believe their eyes as the countless men in khaki sprang up out of the brush and pounced upon them. Some of the prisoners were young and boyish looking, others were well along in years. Except for the frightened look in their faces, most of them seemed to be in good physical condition, and their clothing, too, was in good repair. Evidently the Germans still had plenty of food and supplies, and as for machine guns, the woods were full of them. But all day long groups of men in gray-green uniforms were marched to the rear, carrying their own and American wounded as they went. By evening, more than sixteen hundred prisoners were credited to the 353rd Infantry.
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As soon as the strain of battle was over, appetites claimed attention. With no other thought than to satisfy their stomachs, the men waded in on their reserve rations. They had missed a couple of meals, so the pound of hard bread and two pounds of corned beef did not seem to be an unreasonable allowance for a meal. As for the 3.4 ounces of sugar, 1.12 ounces of coffee, and .12 ounces of salt in the condiment cans, it was not considered worth carrying along, so they supplemented the hard bread and corned beef with such fresh vegetables as the German gardens afforded and feasted as they moved along, leaving a trail of empty cans and cardboard boxes behind them. Little did they realize the wisdom of the army regulation which measured this reserve ration to keep body and soul together for two whole days.
By eleven o'clock, six hours after going over the top, the First Battalion had performed its mission of mopping up Mort Mare Woods and had joined the Regiment as regimental reserve on the 177th Infantry Brigade objective of the first phase. Much hardship had been endured and comrades were missing, but the men of the First Battalion were ready to " carry on."