The transition from the Pannes-Flirey-Limey sector to the scene of the Meuse-Argonne offensive falls readily into three phases. The first phase concerns the relief from the old sector. Division Field Order Number 29, dated 4 a. m., October 6, 1918, stated:
"This division will move to and occupy area Bouconville-Bernecourt-Royaumeiz-Boucq (Exclusive)-Corneiville."
Billeting details had left the sector ahead of time for the new area. Their destination was unknown, but all indications pointed to replacements and a period of recuperation for the 89th Division.
Troops of the 37th Division were a day late in making the relief, and there was some uncertainty about transportation. The Second Battalion, however, was fortunate enough to secure truck transportation which carried the men in good shape to Jouy by 1 a. m., October 9th. The First and Third Battalions were left to make their way out on foot. The First Battalion arrived in Jouy about noon of October 9th. The Third Battalion landed in Corneiville on the same day.
Lieutenant Gallenkamp, the historian of the Third Battalion, gives a vivid account of the Third Battalion's march from St, Benoit to Corneiville.
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"At 8 p. m. October 8th, the Third Battalion began the most strenuous march ever experienced by its personnel. Company kitchens had been gone since October 6th. Reserve rations were running low. We started out with empty stomachs. Everyone carried heavy pack and full combat allowance of ammunition. It was raining; the darkness was intense. For twelve weary hours the battalion made its way from St. Benoit, past Mont Sec, to Corneiville, over the muddy, shell-torn roads of France.
"Major Blackinton led the march. The battalion followed silently in single file on either side of the road. Occasionally a man would fall to the ground as he slipped on the side of a shell hole. But always a buddy extended a helping hand, and a word of encouragement from another would give him renewed determination to continue the weary journey. At the end of every fifty minutes came a ten-minute rest period. During this little breathing spell, each man rested his heavy pack on the ground. At its close he was back again in the ranks. Every man was still plodding on when the column passed grim old Mont Sec at dawn.
"Mont Sec was of special interest to the men because of its place in the St. Mihiel salient. The Germans had held it for four years. We had heard, during our early days in the line, that the French lost thirty thousand men in repeated efforts to wrest it from the foe. With the aid of the Americans it had been taken during the first few hours of the St. Mihiel offensive. It was now in our possession and out of the danger zone. Its very appearance was some compensation for the hardships we were enduring.
"With daylight came hope for the end of the journey. Bouconville was in sight. We reached the town at 8 o'clock in the morning and halted for rest. To our bitter disappointment, however, march was resumed at 4 p. m.
"All the while the men were under the impression of the Division Memorandum regarding a "back area." So they continued ahead with determination until midnight when the battalion reached the town of Rangeval and sought refuge in an old monastery. This little town lay just to the east of Corneiville but the men were too tired and too sore to think of their location. Every man slept so soundly that it was almost impossible to arouse him the following morning. But we did not have much farther to go; the march soon ended abruptly in Corneiville."
The 353rd Infantry was out of the line at last. Rumors flourished that the 89th Division would go farther back to a training area around Bar-le-Duc. Trucks were waiting in Corneiville to transport the Third Battalion, and in the meantime other trucks had arrived at Jouy for the First and Second Battalions. This was the situation at the close of the first phase of the transition to the Argonne sector on October 9th.
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The second phase begins at about 2 p. m. the same day when the men loaded into the French trucks--eighteen men to a lorrie. A captured machine gun with ample supply of ammunition was installed in every fifth truck, presumably for anti-aircraft defense. At any rate the men caught the cue. There was no question now about our destination. By 3:30 in the afternoon the 353rd Infantry was on its way not to a training area, but to the bloody battle-field of the Meuse-Argonne.
Lieutenant Morgan, historian of the Second Battalion, tells the story:
"The French and Chinese drivers did not seem to care whether we came to an untimely end on the battle-field or against a tree along the roadside. A few trucks did go into the ditch, one ran through a stable, two had a head-on collision, and one caught on fire, but fortunately no one was hurt in all these mishaps. The trucks tore madly on. If one was not able to keep within a prescribed distance of the one ahead, a faster one was obligated to dash past and fill up the gap. Gradually all the speedy trucks took the lead, while slower ones were scattered for many kilometers back along the roadway. It was a race long to be remembered.
"In the early twilight we passed through Commercy, the first modern French town we had seen. The well kept gardens and lovely paths along the flower-bordered canal were a striking contrast to the desolate ruins and neglected fields we had known at the front. Then it was westward toward Bar le Duc, until it seemed that our dream of a stay there was to be realized. But instead we turned the corner at Erize and shot away northward over the famous Bar le Duc-Verdun highway, the road that had saved France during the terrible siege of 1915-16.
"We had been over the top once, we had lived under shell fire until the romance of battle was dead. If we were to get out of these trucks and rush into battle in the morning, we were prepared to do so, but we weren't going into the thing for the pure love of fighting. It was a cold proposition of so much to be done, of "carry on" until Fritz put one over with the right number on it. Far away to the north the sky flamed and flashed, and above the roar of the trucks could be heard the dull pounding of heavy artillery. From somewhere behind the horizon went up that accursed four-star rocket we had hated so at Limey. There was more work to be done. "Carry on."
"At one o'clock came a long halt in the shell-torn village of Recicourt. After nearly an hour a French officer came back along the column, shouting, "Debarquement, debarquement." So debark we did, but upon investigation it was found that we were still five kilometers from our destination. The "Frogs" refused to transport us further, so it was hike once more over a high hill to Brocourt into an old orchard on a hillside west of
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the village. Details sent forward days before to pick out good billets for the Second Battalion, informed us that this was to be the billeting area. In the early dawn of October 10th we dropped down on the wet grass and slept until the sun was high.
"Rolling kitchens were coming in a separate train, but had not yet arrived. Animal-drawn transportation was to make the entire trip from the St. Mihiel front by forced marches. So we had to content ourselves with a cold breakfast of corned willie and hard tack.
"In the forenoon we moved about three kilometers to another area, where shelter could be had for most of the men in abandoned French artillery shacks. Mess sergeants rustled stoves and a few cooking utensils, and we were able to have another hot meal. But just before dark it was found that we were bivouaced in an area assigned to another army corps, so it was "move again." In the gathering dusk we marched back through Brocourt and about two kilometers beyond, in the Brocourt Woods, where on the damp ground we made our beds under the stars, half expecting to have to roll out and move again before morning. We had changed stations four times in the last forty-eight hours, or an average of two moves a day.
"But we were not disturbed this time, and the next morning had an opportunity to improvise shelters. Part of the time was spent in drill, the first close order formations for many weeks. Kitchens arrived, and the regular routine of camp life was resumed.
"On October 12th the 353rd Infantry received replacements from the 86th Division. Approximately three hundred enlisted men were assigned to fill the depleted ranks of the Second Battalion. Again we were at "war strength," with nearly a thousand men to a battalion. A number of officers were assigned to us from Army Candidate Schools and replacement divisions, and joined us here at Brocourt.
"We did not have long to wait for the final phase of our journey. On Sunday, October 13th, we began the long forward march, whose destination we little realized was to be the very borders of the Rhine. Theoretically, we were merely moving up to position as Fifth Corps Reserves, for the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive; practically we were on a back-breaking march of almost twenty-eight kilometers, over muddy roads, across trenches, through wire; in fact, there was everything to hinder our progress but the actual resistance of an enemy.
"Shortly after noon we crossed the old front line near Avocourt. We were now on soil conquered by the American troops in the Argonne fighting. All day we plodded along. The new men "bucked up" to the march like the veterans. Just before dark we were ordered to bivouac for the night in the reeking, shell-torn Chehimin Wood, about three kilometers southwest of
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Montfaucon. We had eaten reserve rations for dinner. The kitchens were unable to keep up so we ate more reserve rations for supper. Even in this position, some long range shells came over to disturb our slumbers. It was a cheerless night.
"The next morning some of the kitchens were on the ground and after breakfast the regiment moved out of the woods in attack formation, with the First Battalion in assault, the Third Battalion in support, and the Second as Brigade Reserve. If necessary we were ready to keep on moving forward to leap-frog some other regiment and take up actual fighting. Everybody was in the mood. But we halted just south of Eclis Fontaine, pitched up tents and began to dig in. The second phase of our transition was complete."
The last phase was taken up in preparations for the relief of the 32nd Division, now actually engaged a few kilometers to the front. In fact, reconnoitering parties went forward as soon as the regiment arrived in this new area. But the relief did not take place for five days.
These five days were well spent in intensive preparations for the task ahead. A training bulletin had appeared on October 11th containing the following instruction:
1. Vigorous training in this command will continue as long as the division is in the rear area. Instruction to include five hours of intensive work daily, Sundays excepted.
2. Such disciplinary drill as is necessary to bring the command up to its standard to be given daily. The remainder of the time will be given to instruction in combat exercises.
3. Regimental and battalion commanders will hold conferences with their company and platoon leaders wherein the following points will be covered:
(a) Disposition in depth and staggered groups.
(b) Overcoming strong points and machine gun nests by holding fire in front and flanking the points of resistance by groups which keep up their fire as they advance around the flanks.
(c) Organization of position and digging in when compelled to halt.
(d) Position of commanders in battle normally at the head of rear echelon, etc., etc.
The new men were rapidly assimilated and took their places in platoon formations. Each night combat groups moved out over the hills on compass bearings. The entire Division was grouped around Eclis Fontaine and all were engaged in the same activity. If the enemy could have gained a view of our exercises, perhaps the struggle would have been called off before it began.
Except for occasional showers, the weather was better than it had been for several days; the morale of the men responded instant-
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110 Regimental History 353rd Infantry
ly. There was quite a bit of excitement over the persistent rumors of peace but President Wilson's famous answer, "No peace with the Hohenzollerns," broke up our dreams of civilian occupations, and we settled down to business without delay.
The day after we moved up to Eclis-Fontaine, all officers and non-commissioned officers of the regiment were assembled for a "straight from the shoulder" message from the Division Commander, Major-General Wright. He left no doubt about what we were to expect in the future.
"We are fighting," he said, "the final great battle of the war. We are privileged men to have a part in it. Everything depends upon the leaders, from corporal to the highest rank.
On the same afternoon, all officers of the 177th Brigade were assembled for a talk by the Corps Commander, Major-General Somerall. These open air conferences in the misty, October rain fore-shadowed grim business ahead.
"Don't permit yourselves to even think about relief," he said, "when your division gets into the line. When you are so exhausted, despondent, and depleted by casualties as to be without field action, without a complete reorganization, you will be withdrawn from the battle. But the enormous loss of time and effectiveness in making a relief during the vital stages of battle makes is impossible to relieve a division until it can fight no longer."
With such words as these, he steeled the men of his corps to their task.
In addition, special correspondence supported the stimulation of these conferences in the following terms:
"The Corps Commander has learned that many officers and men have been indulging in criticisms and derogatory comments of other organizations. Statements are used--"Outfit on our right didn't support us" or "Failed to come up" or "Did not protect our flank."
"Such comment as the above is improper and dangerous. It is the duty of every commander to protect his own flank by his formation in depth. The more fortunate units naturally advance and must exploit their success, thus aiding their neighbors to get forward. In this manner, and only in this manner, can strong resistance be overcome without great loss.
"The spirit of this Division demands that every individual and organization give the utmost strength to push forward and destroy the enemy. We recognize, therefore, the same determination and desire on the part of our brothers in arms.
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"There has been also a tendency to exaggerate losses and casualties by the use of some of the following expressions:
"All shot to pieces."
"Held up by machine guns or machine gun fire."
"Suffered enormous losses."
"Men all exhausted."
"All officers and soldiers are forbidden to use such expressions in official messages, reports, conversations, or discussions. They are generally misleading and always do harm. An exact statement of the facts will convey the necessary information."
Moreover, deadly action of hostile artillery helped to prepare the men for their mission. In the afternoon of October 18th, a big observation balloon was being pulled down to its nest in the ravine about two hundred yards from the positions of the Second Battalion when the Germans began to send over long range shrapnel in an effort to get the balloon. The first three or four were "duds" but the last two weren't. The final shot sprayed the kitchen of Company "E" with its wicked pellets. Two cooks, a K. P., and a couple of men in the mess line were wounded. To be sure, this was bad psychology on the part of the enemy. No other interference was ever resented so much by the American doughboy as disturbance of his "chow' line. This came on the very day that orders were received to relieve the 32nd Division. Fritz would have to pay double for this offense.
Reconnaissance had continued throughout the entire five days in this position. Relief orders, arriving October 19th, had been anticipated for several days. At dusk the movement began. The last phase of transition to the battlefield was complete.