AT DAWN on the morning of September 26, 1918,nine American divisions were in battle line ready to attack on a twenty-four milefront extending from a point on the Meuse river above Verdun westward to the faredge of the Argonne forest. They had moved in under cover of darkness.
The infantry had got into position aboutmidnight. After loading and locking their rifles, the doughboys lay down on theground and tried to sleep. But at 2:30 a. m. the artillery opened up. By 3o'clock 2,600 guns were firing.
Shortly after 5 o'clock the platoon leadersbegan to assemble their men. The soldiers slung their packs, examined theirrifles, and fell into line to await "H" hour. There was no breakfast.
At 5:30, without heroics and with littleceremony, the infantry went "over the top" all along the line. "Come on, let'sgo," said the platoon leader at "H" hour. Then, leading the way, he set his faceto the north, walking forward into a murk of smoke and fog, his menfollowing.
Among the attacking divisions was theThirty-fifth-a consolidation of the Kansas and Missouri National Guards. In lessthan five days it lost 960 killed and 6,894 wounded. Its first battle was abaptism in blood.
One of the original units of thatdivision-Company A, Third Kansas infantry-holds an annual reunion at Coffeyvilleon the Sunday nearest September 26. On September 24, 1944, the veterans met forthe twenty-fifth time. It is one of the few companies of the first A. E. F.-itmay be the only one-that have maintained a veterans' organization continuouslysince the close of World War I.
The boys who came back from France in the latespring of 1919 are now middle-aged men-too large of girth, too scant of breath,or too old for active service in the present war. Most of them are married, andmany have sons in the armed forces of the nation.
The veterans are organized as a Last Man's Club,an association common among Civil War veterans. A few years ago the press carrieda story about one in Indiana, with a picture of the last
Reprinted with minor changes from the CoffeyvilleDaily Journal, September 22, 1944.
survivor. The aged Civil War veteran was seated at a table, surrounded byempty chairs. Before him was a bottle of wine, which he was to drink to thememory of his departed comrades.
A similar bottle is the center piece on thebanquet table at the Company A reunions. It originally contained cognac-a potentdrink well known to many A. E. F. veterans. A year or two ago the seal wasaccidentally broken, and much, if not all, of the liquid has evaporated. It willbe replaced by a bottle of California wine. Sometime in the eighties or ninetiesthis bottle will be opened by the "Last Man" of Company A.
The original members of the company came fromCoffeyville or vicinity, and many of them continue to make their home there. Theothers are scattered from coast to coast. The mortality of the veterans has beensurprisingly low. More than 85 percent are living today.
The Third Kansas infantry, of which the companybecame a part, was classed as a National Guard regiment. In reality, it was oneof the last volunteer regiments taken into the Army of the United States.Recruited entirely after war was declared in April, 1917, it had a National Guardexistence of less than three months.
During the early spring of 1917 six or sevenyoung men who had received military training in National Guard units in Kansas orMissouri met of evenings at irregular intervals in Lape's furniture store inCoffeyville. They went through the manual of arms with a broom and turned somefancy right and left faces. Most of their time, however, was spent in discussingways and means of raising a volunteer company if war came, as then seemedlikely.
That there would be a call for volunteers theytook for granted. Such had been the practice in all previous wars. They weremistaken, but their object was achieved indirectly.
After war was declared, the War Departmentsubmitted to congress a new and revolutionary plan for the organization of thearmy. It called for an expansion of the regulars by recruitment and by theabsorption of the National Guard. A "second line" was to be formed by draft uponthe nation's manpower and officered by regulars and graduates of officer trainingschools.
This proposed change in military policy ran thegauntlet of a furious debate in congress and emerged in somewhat altered form.Under the legislation, the regulars would be the first to fight, as in theoriginal plan. The National Guard, however, would not be broken up, but would bereorganized and made the second line.
Last would come a national army, obtained byselective draft. This policy has also been followed in the present war. Thegovernment has abandoned the volunteer system for keeps.
When the United States entered the war in April,Kansas had two infantry regiments. Later in the month, a third regiment wasauthorized.
Col. Charles McCrum, a citizen of Coffeyvilleand at one time a major general in the Kansas National Guard, got wind of the newregiment and obtained authority to raise one of the companies. Too old himselffor active service, he seized this opportunity to "do his bit" for hiscountry.
As a preliminary step, he posted a sheet ofpaper in his son's bookstore on West Ninth street for the signatures ofvolunteers. William H. Vermehren, who now commands the Coffeyville company in thenew Kansas State Guard, was the first to sign. Within a day or two a score ofvolunteers added their names. Among them were the young men who met in thefurniture store earlier in the spring. From this small group of former guardsmen,the first and second lieutenants, first sergeant, and supply sergeant of thecompany were chosen.
An empty store building on West Ninth waspressed into service as a recruiting office. When the company was mustered intostate service a few weeks later, it was given the letter "A" designation,although it was not the first company of the regiment to be sworn in. Somewherebehind the scenes, Colonel McCrum had pulled the right wires.
Edgar H. Dale, who was employed as an engineeron the Welland canal in Canada, returned to Coffeyville to become captain of thecompany. He had formerly been a lieutenant under McCrum in the Kansas NationalGuard. A gallant and accomplished soldier, Captain Dale was the most beloved ofthe four commanders under whom the company served during the war. He was killedin action in the Argonne in September, 1918.
His son, Edgar H. Dale II, about four years oldat that time, was graduated from West Point in the class of 1938. Assigned to thePhilippines, he was a captain of infantry under MacArthur when the Japaneseattacked. He was cited for bravery on Bataan, where he was wounded and takenprisoner. Word was received in the fall of 1943 that he had died in a prison campin Japan.
During the early summer the company wasrecruited to war strength. Once a week the volunteers drilled on the Plaza,across
which on a memorable morning in October, 1892, an enraged citizenry had pouredlead into the Dalton gang, which tried to rob two banks at the same time.Drilling was limited to facings and marching. Rifles were not issued until afterthe company arrived at Camp Doniphan, where it trained, and where for severalweeks the boys walked guard with sticks across their shoulders.
At that time few of the volunteers knew anythingabout the ways of the army. When it was announced one evening that the next drillwould be held at a park a. mile or two from the Plaza, a new recruit asked, "Howare we going to get there?" Like many youths raised in a city, he had forgottenwhat legs are for.
The company was mustered into federal service onAugust 5. Shortly afterward, an issue of clothing was received. The assortment ofsizes, however, was inadequate, and many of the members failed to get their fullallowance. The shortage was general throughout the army and was not whollyrelieved until the following spring. Some members of the company went through therecord cold winter of 1917-1918 without an overcoat.
There is a marked difference in style betweenthe uniform of 1917 and that worn in the army today. The high choke collar of theblouse has given way to the comfortable lapel collar, and the close-fittingjodhpur type of breeches has been superseded by roomy long trousers. The stand-upcollar is said to have been devised by the British to conceal the dirt on TommyAtkins' shirt-if, by any chance, he happened to be wearing one. But theyabandoned the preposterous fashion long before we did.
The smart garrison cap, so popular in the earlydays of the present war, was rarely seen at Camp Doniphan. The Kansans andMissourians wore broad-brimmed Stetsons, of which they were proud. It is aWestern hat, worn on the frontier for years and still not uncommon in theSouthwest. At the port of debarkation in France, the members of Company Areluctantly turned in their Stetsons, and accepted the dinky overseas cap withmisgiving. In time, however, they developed a quiet pride in the diminutiveheadgear, which became the badge of the first A. E. F.
Laced canvas leggings were worn in the summerand fall of 1917. Later on, wrap spirals were issued. They, too, were of Englishorigin. Before the spirals became government issue, they were wornsurreptitiously by the Beau Brummels of the company, who bought them at armystores. The boys quickly mastered the trick of handling the long roll of clothand became so adept they could wrap a neat spiral in their sleep, which, in fact,they often did-at reveille. A good shoe is absolutely essential to infantry. Of anumber of styles issued to the company, the hobnails were the best. They seemedheavy and clumsy at first, but proved an excellent marching shoe. In France,after the Armistice, the company received an issue of English army shoes. Blackleather, too. But the straight last put so many of the boys on sick call that thearmy doctors ordered the issue turned in.
Company A left Coffeyville on August 25 for CampDoniphan, in southwesternOklahoma. Tacked alongside the coaches of the special train was a cloth bannerbearing a legend in block letters: "144 STRONG AND EVERY MAN A VOLUNTEER."The members were proud of their status. The volunteer system had grave defects,no doubt, but it fostered an esprit de corps among the young and adventurouscivilians who joined the colors of their own free will.
Months later their pride suffered a rude shock.While in camp on Long Island,just prior to going overseas, the company received an increment of draftees. Oneday some of the boys were ragging them with the favorite wheezes of that time,such as "Who left the door open?" or "When did you blow in?" One of the drafteesstood as much as he could, then exploded. "The only reason you fellows enlisted,"he shouted, "was to keep from being drafted!" The ragging dissolved in a gale oflaughter and was never resumed.
Oddly enough, the original members of thecompany had been compelled to registerfor the draft on June 5, 1917, although they were then in the National Guard,though not in Federal service. For months this unjust treatment rankled. Whendraft questionnaires were received at Doniphan late in the fall, many of themembers refused to make them out and threw them away. Later on, a rumor floatedaround that the recalcitrants had been posted as draft dodgers by their boards,but nothing came of it.
When Company A arrived at Doniphan, the camp wasfar from complete. The companyhad been sent on a month in advance of the regiment to prepare for its coming. Atfirst, this was considered an,honor. But after a week or two at day laborers'tasks of digging ditches, unloading hay, and the like, the boys had another namefor it.
The comfortable barracks in the new army campsbuilt during the present war haveamazed the veterans of Company A. They
have a feeling that they were "born twenty years too soon." At Doniphan theylived in tents--floored tents, it is true, but tents, nevertheless, with alltheir discomfort.
During the fall, the Thirty-fifth division wasorganized by combining the Kansasand Missouri National Guards. The Fourth Missouri infantry was consolidated withthe Third Kansas to form the 139th regiment. Nearly half the officers lost theircommands. Among them was Captain Dale. He was later assigned to a company in theSecond battalion of the regiment.
The companies were increased in size to about250 men. The Missourians who joinedthe Kansans of Company A were from Tarkio. They already were seasoned soldiers,having been on the Mexican border the previous year with the National Guard.
The training in the infantry camps today is morepractical and efficient thanthat which the company underwent at Camp Doniphan. During the first four monthsthe training program was based on trench warfare as practiced on the WesternFront. The boys spent weeks digging trenches to make an artilleryman's holiday.When finished, the carefully shaped traverses and smooth parapetswere pulverized by high explosives. On the bayonet course-at the sharp commandsof "In! Out! On guard!"-the boys lunged savagely at dummy Boches, but it isdoubtful if any member of the division ever stuck a bayonet into a German.Trained from youth to throw baseball fashion, they wrenched their shouldersmastering the windmill style of lobbing hand grenades. Dummies, of course. Theynever handled live ones in this country.
In midwinter the army junked the trench-warfareprogram and reverted to thetraditional American system of training for open warfare. The trench fightersunhooked their bayonets and tried out their Springfields on the rifle range.During the remaining months of their stay at Camp Doniphan they maneuvered to thecommands of "Keep your intervals. Watch your distance. Don't close up."In the second week of April, 1918, Company A entrained with its regiment for CampMills, near Hempstead, Long Island, where it remained about two weeks.
One night in the latter part of April thecompany ferried around the lower end ofManhattan and boarded the transport Caronia. Early in the morning the Caroniadropped slowly down the Hudson. Through open portholes the boys waved good-by tothe Statue of
Liberty. The Great Adventure had begun. A day later the transport joined aconvoyin the open Atlantic.
Before the war the Caronia was a Cunardliner on the Liverpool-Boston andNew York run. After four years of war service it was refitted and converted tooil burning and later transferred to the London-New York run. In January, 1932,it was sold for scrapping to a British shipbreaking company, which in thefollowing November resold it to Japanese shipbreakers-an ignoble fate for a nobleship.
The Atlantic crossing was cold and windy, withhigh seas running. To avoidsubmarines, the convoy was routed far to the north, reaching at one time thelatitude of the southern tip of Greenland. Near the Scottish coast it turnedsouthward into the Irish Sea. The Caronia docked at Liverpool on themorning of May 7. The Liverpool morning papers were commemorating the thirdanniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.
Late in the afternoon the company entrained forsouthern England, where it wentinto quarantine. Thousands of Britons lined the streets of Liverpool throughwhich the regiment marched to the railway station. Their rousing cheers were thelast the regiment received until it returned to the United States a year later.In France the people were apathetic. They had suffered three years and a half ofdevastating war and had seen many soldiers.
After a short stay in quarantine, the companycrossed the Channel-from Portsmouthto Le Havre-on the Northwestern Miller, a cattle boat. It was a nightcrossing, prolonged until the afternoon of the following day by a zig-zag coursetaken to avoid submarines. The boys bunked in the cattle stalls, pillowing theirheads on their packs.
At Le Havre the company was billeted in aBritish camp on the high bluffoverlooking the port. A day or two later the members were issued steel helmetsand fitted with gas masks. Here they lost their Stetsons and, what hurt evenmore, their Springfields, which they exchanged for British Enfields. The divisionwas being sent north to bolster a hard-pressed British line.
It was a time of great anxiety for the Allies.In halting two German attacks, theBritish army had been badly mauled. There was danger of a general debacle. TheBritish casualties had been over 300,000. Facing the crisis, General Pershingwent to General Foch, the Allied commander, and said: "All that we have areyours. Use
them as you wish." Nine American divisions were sent to the British area.
Late on a May afternoon, after a grueling hikefrom a way station in Picardy,where it detrained, Company A entered a small village in northern France. Theboys pitched their pup tents in an orchard on the outskirts. After chow, they layaround, dog-tired. It was very quiet. As dusk approached, conversation lagged,and the boys became aware of a low rumbling sound. Instinctively, they looked atthe sky. Not a cloud was in sight. What could it be? The answer came byintuition. It was the guns on the Western Front. Thirty or forty miles away wasthe war they had sought through twelve months of time and 4,000 miles of space.The Kansans and Missourians did not get along very well with the British. "Theydid not like the British noncoms, or the British soldiers, or the Britishofficers," said a division historian bluntly. "They conspicuously (sic) dislikedthe British rations, and they loathed tea for breakfast."
Their stay with the British, however, was short.When the Germans made theirthird great attack of the spring of 1918 on May 27, they struck in the directionof Paris, instead of the Channel. The British no longer needed the Americans, andthe Thirty-fifth was transferred to a training area in eastern France.
It is not the purpose here to detail the humblepart that Company A played in thewar. Its contribution is inseparably bound up with that of the regiment anddivision. An itinerary must suffice.
During June and July the company trained in thepeaceful valley of the upperMoselle. August was spent in the trenches in the Vosges mountains. It was a quietsector, although the company came under fire for the first time on its wayin.
The night of September 11-12 has not yet beenforgotten by the veterans ofCompany A. In a drizzling rain, over muddy roads choked with artillery andammunition wagons, the boys marched all night, only to be kept in reserve duringthe St. Mihiel offensive, which began at dawn.
A week later the company was moved to theMeuse-Argonne region. The boys rode inlorries, driven at breakneck speed by grinning Annamese, whose teeth were blackfrom betel-nut chewing.
After the company came out of the Argonne, inwhich the division suffered such astaggering loss, the boys spent a short time in a rest camp. Then they went intothe trenches south of Verdun, a
fairly quiet sector. Their most troublesome enemy was the rats, which, insearchof food, would gnaw through a pack in no time. The company was relieved four orfive days before the Armistice. After several weeks of aimless wandering, it wasbilleted in Vignot, a village across the Meuse river from Commercy, wheredivision headquarters was established.
There the company spent the winter of1918-1919-drilling and maneuvering in therain and snow. What for? No one knew. That is, no one but Til Bucher, the companycook. He came back from the rifle range one day covered with mud and hopping mad."It's them damned Du Ponts," he raged. "They're the cause of this. We've got toshoot up all the powder they sold the government."
The veterans of Company A have a warm affectionfor the totally insignificant buttypically French village of Vignot. It was there that the veterans' associationwas organized in the early spring of 1919. Hugh W. "Flash" Clark, who was electedsecretary, has served through the greater part of the intervening years.Christmas of 1918 was celebrated in all the villages of the Meuse valley whereKansans and Missourians were billeted. It was a great treat for the Frenchchildren. They have no Christmas, no Santa Claus, no gifts. On Christmas Eve theboys of Company A hung up their army socks in the Y. M. C. A. hut. The childrenwere puzzled and amused at the queer ways of the Americans. But on Christmas Daythey crowded around, and the boys filled their outstretched . hands with candyand nuts.
Nearly a decade later, W. Y. Morgan, a Kansaseditor, who had been a Y. M. C. A.man with the division, traveled through the Meuse valley. He still commanded asmattering of war-time French, and talked with a group of French people whogathered about him at Sampigny, where he had been stationed. Their recollectionsof the American occupation were hazy until he asked them if they remembered theAmerican Christmas-Noel Amerique, he translated. "That hit the bell," he wrote ina letter home, "for they broke into enthusiastic expressions and I was afraid themayor was going to kiss me. I dodged in time." Several women in the group saidthey remembered the celebration, and a girl of seventeen said she and some otherchildren had sung songs for the soldiers and received presents.
American soldiers were in France again lastChristmas. There was a second NoelAmerique, and a new generation of French children were puzzled at the queer waysof the Americans. Puzzled and delighted.