36th Division in World War I

CHAPTER FIVE
THE 71ST BRIGADE AT ST. ETIENNE

[123] The First American Army in the Meuse-Argonne had as its initial objective the penetration of the Kriemhilde Stellung in the vicinity of Romagne and Cunel, a German position about 10 miles north of the jump-off line. It. formed a part of the Hindenburg Line which extended westward from Bois de Foret, included the high ground north of Grandpre, and ran across the front of the French Fourth Army. The two armies would advance simultaneously along the east and west flanks of the Argonne Forest and junction at Grandpre. They would then push northward to an east-west line formed by Stenay, Le Chesne, and Attigny and from that point drive toward the Carignan-SedanMezieres railroad.1

While Pershing’s army advanced in the Meuse-Argonne as planned, the French, after ousting the Germans from the Hindenburg Line, were held up immediately north of Somme-Py at Blanc Mont (White Mountain), the last major enemy strongpoint south of the Aisne River. Hence, General Gouraud, the tall, erect, lame, one-armed, experienced commander of the French Fourth Army, sent the highly-rated, battle-hardened U.S. Army and Marine 2nd Division under Marine Major General John A. Lejeune to break the German grip.

The veteran 2nd Division consisted of the 3rd Brigade (9th and 23rd Regiments), the 4th Marine Brigade (5th and 6th Marine [124] Regiments), the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade (12th, 15th and 17th Regiments), the 2nd Engineer Regiment, and other separate units. It was in the vicinity of Toul on September 23, following its service in the St. Mihiel operation, when word came that it was to move. Like the 36th it was, with Pershing’s unenthusiastic approbation, assigned as a reserve division in the GAC. Lejeune was at Chalons awaiting the arrival of his command when the First American and French Fourth Armies launched their attacks in the Meuse-Argonne and the Champagne. Lejeune, described as "a short, dark French Creole," was an alumnus of Annapolis and the Army War College.

When the French attack at Blanc Mont faltered, Gouraud obtained permission from General Henri P. Petain, the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, who was at Chalons late in September, 1918, to employ Lejeune’s division as part of the French Fourth Army. If, Gouraud reasoned, the 2nd with the support of the French divisions on the right and left could take the sloping chalk-limestone ridge, which rose about 250 feet at its highest elevation and extended several miles east to west, advance to the vicinity of St. Etienne a Arnes, and then hold against enemy counterattacks, the Germans would be compelled to evacuate key points to the southwest; Rheims, which had been "strangling for four years," would be freed from assault; and the enemy would fall back to the Aisne.

The 2nd Division departed the Marne on September 29, its work cut out for it. Lejeune established his PC at Suippes almost 15 miles north-northeast of Chalons. The war-ravaged town had been "just inside the French lines ever since the first battle of the Maine, four years ago." The 2nd relieved the French 61st Division, 21st Corps, and a battalion of the French 21st Division, 11th Corps, north and northwest of Somme-Py on the night of October 1-2. The 2nd constituted the left division of the French 21st Corps under General Stanislas Naulin. To the right of the 21st Corps was the French 2nd Corps and to the left was the French 11th Corps.

Facing the Americans and French across No Man’s Land in the Blanc Mont sector of the Champagne during the next several days were the divisions of the German Third Army’s 12th Saxon Army Corps (Group Py) commanded by General Krug von Nidda. Among the divisions that saw action [125] at one time or another were the 3rd (Prussian) Guard, the 7th, the 15th Bavarian, the 51st Reserve, the 200th, and the 213th. Prominent against the American 2nd Division were the 51st Reserve, the 200th, and the 213th. The German divisions were moderately equipped and supplied, but woefully understrength, and the men were fatigued and discouraged. One battalion commander in the 200th reported on October 2 that men had, as the result of "physical and mental exertions," become "apathetic and indifferent to...an alarming extent..."

If the German troops were approaching the breaking point, it was not apparent to the assault battalions of the 2nd Division as they went "over the top" behind a rolling artillery barrage and in unison with the French 2nd and 3rd (Light) Tank Battalions on the morning of October 3. The 2nd carried the crest of the ridge without great difficulty, but the French had trouble staying abreast. Consequently, the Americans, especially the marines on the left, were subjected to a blistering machine gun fire. The 2nd suffered, too, from a well-directed German artillery bombardment. The Americans finally succeeded in dislodging the enemy from the western slope to the left and in repulsing the German counterattacks, but continued stiff resistance on the northern slope soon brought the advance to a virtual standstill.

The German high command had given up hope of winning the war even before the great drive beginning September 26 and had adopted a strategy of "systematic retreat." The German armies would give ground grudgingly and would inflict such heavy casualties upon the allies that, to avoid further bloodshed, they would offer Germany "an acceptable peace." This overall strategy is clearly evident in the Champagne. Successive "main lines of resistance" were established at which the Germans made determined stands. In about three days the 2nd Division drove the enemy from the second and third east-west main lines of resistance, which though some distance apart to the left almost joined at the termination of the second line just inside the American zone, to the fourth.

The new German position, located at the end of the northern slope and in front of the 2nd, extended roughly from St. Etienne eastward-southeastward to Orfeuil just inside the French zone on the right. The fortifications hardly compared to those along the old Hindenburg Line, but they were formidable enough. The St. [126] Etienne cemetery and the surrounding countryside were well fortified. "Cunningly situated machine gun nests were connected by tunnels with the cemetery and with each other, and the ravine through which the Arnes brook flowed was utilized to conceal the movement of troops to and from the cemetery." The French and Americans had been in and out of St. Etienne in the recent action. The area immediately behind the entire defense system had for years been the base for the troops occupying the Hindenburg Line.

The 2nd suffered heavy casualties in pushing across the ridge and down the northern slope and the continued hard fighting "physically exhausted" the troops. Lejeune did not relish the prospect of more of the same, and, on October 5, requested that his division be relieved. The necessity of relieving a portion of the 2nd having been anticipated by Gouraud, part of the 36th had been moved into position for the purpose. The rest of the 36th would be brought up to complete the relief.2

The French intended at the time the 36th was handed over to the GAC to use the Texans and Oklahomans with the French Third Army in reserve behind the French Fourth Army. The Third was to exploit any breakthrough of the Fourth east of Rheims. Although the Fourth drove the Germans several kilometers beyond the Hindenburg Line, it failed, as indicated above, to puncture the enemy’s defenses. As the result, the Third was utilized elsewhere and the 36th was assigned to the Fourth’s 21st Corps "for the purpose of re-inforcing the 2nd and of relieving a part of that division should occasion arise." Because the French considered the "immediate presence" of a reserve brigade in the Somme-Py sector as imperative owing to heavy casualties incurred by the 4th Marine Brigade, General Smith was instructed to send one brigade and the 111th Field Signal Battalion by French camions (trucks) to the Suippes-Somme-Suippes area during the night of October 4-5.

Smith selected the 71st Brigade to make the movement because it could be picked up quicker than the 72nd. The 71st (General Whitworth) consisted of the 141st Infantry (Colonel Jackson), the 142nd Infantry (Colonel Bloor), and the 132nd Machine Gun Battalion (Major Weatherred). It numbered 247 officers and 5,955 men. Each regiment contained 12 rifle companies divided into three battalions, a supply company, a machine gun company, [127] a regimental headquarters company, a medical detachment, the battalion and regimental staffs, and two or three chaplains. The 111th Field Signal Battalion (Major Robinson) was composed of 14 officers and 459 men.

The first troops were "embussed" late in the afternoon on October 4. From the loading points the convoys proceeded lights-off during the evening to Chalons and from there to Suippes. The men were deposited on the road east of town and marched to rest camps composed of dugouts, shacks, and tents bordering on Somme-Suippes. After transporting the 142nd Infantry and the 132nd Machine Gun Battalion, the trucks returned to the Maine and brought up the 141st Infantry and the 111th Field Signal Battalion. The operation was completed during the chilly, damp forenoon of October 5.3

Whitworth’s command was placed at Lejeune’s disposal on Saturday afternoon, October 5. At 10 P.M. Lejeune conferred with Whitworth, Bloor, and Jackson at his PC, now in a German dugout north of Souain on the Suippes-Somme-Py road. The 71st, Lejeune announced, would relieve the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 2nd Division in the line on the night of October 6. Lejeune’s announcement surprised the 36th officers who interpreted Naulin’s orders pertaining to the relief to mean, correctly as it was learned after it no longer mattered, that the 71st was to relieve only the 4th Marine Brigade. The 71st had brought inadequate supplies of .30 caliber ammunition, grenades, and pyrotechnics and Lejeune promised to make up the shortages. Because the 71st could not, owing to lack of draft animals, carry its own mortars and 37mm guns to the front, Lejeune agreed that the relieved units would leave theirs in place until the weapons could be transported. Other material would be brought up immediately in 25 trucks furnished by the 2nd Division.

After the conference, orders were issued for the 71st Brigade to move out early the next morning. "We always hike on Sunday anyhow!" chirped one soldier upon learning the news. From the Somme-Suippes vicinity the brigade, with the 142nd Infantry in the lead, retraced its route to Suippes where it turned and trudged northward "squarely...in the direction of the roaring cannon."

The column did not follow the main road, which was inundated with traffic flowing to and from the battle zone some 10 miles away, but took a less-traveled trail to the east. The 111th Field [128] Signal Battalion was assigned the task of "extending" the military "axis of liaison from Suippes to Somme-Py" and therefore did not accompany the 71st to the front.

The most unforgettable aspect of the march to Somme-Py for the infantrymen was the crossing of the defunct Hindenburg Line. The partially-obliterated trenches, dugouts, gun emplacements, and barbed wire entanglements; the unexploded shells, "smashed and broken equipment," abandoned guns, jagged tree stumps, hills without tops, battle-plowed earth, and graves; and the general desolation presented an incredible sight. The village of Souain "in the middle" of the huge system was in ruins and the ground around it was so totally devastated that it would be years before it could be farmed again. A little beyond the men saw the bodies of many men, not to mention horses, lying where they had fallen in recent fighting. Viewing these scenes, the Southwesterners "all formed the same opinion," so we are told by Captain Stephen D. Ridings of Amarillo, Machine Gun Company, 141st Infantry, "that the sun was sitting [sic] on our day of posing in one of Uncle Sam’s uniforms and it was up to us to make good in what we have told the folks at home we were going to do."

The long column halted before Somme-Py for rest and supper. To the north the Doughboys could see clouds of rising smoke, airplanes skimming the horizon, and observation balloons floating like "solemn sausages" in the sky. But worse, Chastaine noted, "the roar and crash of shell bursts had become an actuality instead of something to be heard." Some shells fell close enough to cause concern and one "took away" two infantrymen. The heaviest concentration of fire was in the vicinity of an old water well. Needless to say, water details wasted no time in drawing water.

During the halt, Whitworth, Bloor, Jackson, and Weatherred reported to Lejeune at the latter’s PC for detailed instructions related to the relief. The 142nd Infantry was to relieve the 4th Marine Brigade (Brigadier General Wendell C. Neville) on the left and the 141st was to relieve the 3rd Brigade (Brigadier General Hanson E. Ely) on the right. Several 2nd Division battalions were to be at Whitworth’s disposal for a short time after the 71st arrived at the front. Guides from the 2nd were to meet Whitworth’s column in Somme-Py at 5:30 P.M. and lead the several [129] organizations to their places in the line. Maps were handed the officers for their use and for distribution to subordinates. Much to the consternation of all who received them, the maps were not marked so as to show the exact location of the front and the information they contained was scant. Moreover, the sector where the 71st was to operate was encompassed on the corners of four different maps which made them difficult to read even when pasted together.

Bloor, Jackson, and Weatherred proceeded thence to their units and led them into Somme-Py while Whitworth motored on ahead to establish his PC. The shelling became heavier toward dusk and the guides, who arrived in town before the 71st, took shelter and did not come out again until after dark. When they finally appeared they reported to the wrong units and for this reason and because they were trucked the three or four miles from the front to Somme-Py and did not have precise knowledge of the area, the Texans and Oklahomans were led from one point to another in search of their spots in the line. Battalions became separated from one another and companies from their battalions. Some organizations returned to Somme-Py three times before finding where they belonged during the morning hours of October 7. At least one company did not arrive until that evening.

First Lieutenant Oscar F. Washam of Crawford, Texas, Company K, 141st Infantry, reported that his battalion was almost at the front when the guide became lost. "We [then] wandered around in the woods lost while the artillery was playing on us and machine gun snipers were very active." The shelling was severe on the roads and at one point caused "some little excitement." At daylight, "we found another guide" who led them to their position. Coming on the heels of the arduous daylight hike to Somme-Py, both officers and men were exhausted upon reaching the front. Even so, the troops remained in high spirits, if we may believe Washam, who was amazed at the "laughing and joking" among them as they approached their destination.4

Except for patrols there was little movement along the front on October 7. There was, however, considerable artillery, machine gun, sniper, and aerial activity which made it difficult for the newcomers to rest. Sixteen Panthers were killed or wounded mainly as the result of a fairly intensive bombardment in the evening. The men discovered that their entrenching tools, which [130] they had grumbled about having to carry, were as valuable to them as their weapons. Some occupied holes made by shells while others dug their own, referred to by some contemporaries as "foxholes." The village of St. Etienne was easily visible to many men of the 142nd Infantry, standing as it did only a few hundred yards away across a wide, open area. There was no rest for the officers who had to establish PCs and to deal with supply, sanitary, position, and tactical problems. Commanders at every level were hampered from want of information owing in part to the refusal of their relieved 2nd Division counterparts, who were afraid they would be called back into action, to turn over maps and other data in their possession. During the day the brigade trains (not to be confused with the separate trains of the 36th) however inadequate came up and the 37mm guns and mortars of the 142nd Infantry were trucked in.

The German artillery fire emanated from the hills north and northeast of St. Etienne. Although visibility was only fair due to fog and occasional drizzle, German planes were out in some force dropping bombs, strafing, collecting data, and spotting for the artillery. A few French planes were seen, but they were less than aggressive. The "superiority of the air," Washam declared, "was all on Jerry’s side" in the Champagne. Enemy dominance of the air and the efficiency of his aerial observers in planes and balloons were key factors in the effectiveness of his artillery. German planes would no sooner spot a target than German 155s, nicknamed "G. I. Cans," and Austrian 88s, known as "whizbangs," would begin raining on it.

The German and American lines, which on October 7-8 extended about two and one-half miles along the St. Etienne-Orfeuil road, with the Texans and Oklahomans on the south side except at the far left, were in places little more than 100 yards apart. The numerous growths of pines on the northern slope of Blanc Mont gradually dwindled to scattered woods and brush about St. Etienne. The German entrenchments were on ground slightly higher than that of the Americans. Machine gun nests were concealed in wooded spots and arranged "in depth" so that "when one was captured" the captors would come under the enfilade fire of another. Belts of barbed wire were strung in the woods and open spaces in easy range of the machine guns. The Arnes rivulet flowed from northeast to southwest, touching St. Etienne [131] on its south bank. Several small hills, observation posts, and deep dugouts further punctuated the landscape.

The American line from left to right consisted of one battalion of the 4th Marine Brigade, the 142nd Infantry, the 141st Infantry, and one battalion of the 3rd Brigade supported by at least one machine gun company. The 132nd Machine Gun Battalion was divided between the 142nd and 141st Infantries. The French 7th Division was on the left and the French 73rd Division was on the right. There were several gaps in the line, of which the most conspicuous was that between the 142nd and the 141st Infantries. The gaps, which made lateral communication difficult, were inherited from the 2nd Division.

Opposite the Americans were the veteran German 195th, 213th, and 17th Divisions commanded by Major Generals Weidner, Count von Hammerstein, and von Held, respectively. On the left fringe of the American combat zone, looking northward, but almost entirely in front of the French, was the German 242nd Division. The 17th was entrenched across the American-French front on the right. The 195th was rated as second class, the 213th as third class, and the 17th as "one of the best" German divisions.5

Although the 2nd Division and 71st units in the line probably contained no more than 7,500 men, they were in numbers as strong or stronger than the German forces facing them. According to Ernst Otto, a German lieutenant colonel who served at Blanc Mont in 1916 and later wrote a book about the action there from October 2 to October 10, 1918, the 213th, exclusive of artillery, contained less than 1,800 effectives. Otto attempts to put the entire German retreat in the most favorable light and conveys the impression that the Germans were winning victories against impossible odds while falling back. One therefore suspects that he chose to give the combat strength of the 213th as an example of German weakness in manpower because it was one of the more depleted German divisions. Certainly the 36th commanders adjudged the 213th as the weakest of the three divisions in their zone. If, however, the 195th and 17th divisions were as understrength as the 213th, then the Americans, allowing for the partial location of the 17th in front of the French and counting a portion of the German 14th Reserve Division rushed into the American zone on October 8, probably faced fewer than 5,000 defenders.

[132] Whatever the disparity in numbers, the Germans enjoyed the advantage of fighting defensively from fixed positions. Fighting on the offensive meant that the Americans in carrying the fight would be exposed to German firepower, notably artillery and machine guns. The 213th possessed 198 machine guns while the 195th presumably owned a much larger number. Jager battalions contained twice the number of machine gun companies as regular infantry battalions and there were nine Jager battalions in the 195th as compared to three in the 213th. The Germans were lacking in some supplies, such as gasoline for their motor vehicles, but they were not short on arms and ammunition.

While the 71st Brigade was digging in on the morning of October 7, Naulin was informing Lejeune at the latter’s dugout "that a general attack would take place at daylight on the 8th, and that he anticipated that the fresh brigade would achieve a success equal to that gained by the 2nd Division on October 3rd." Lejeune protested that Naulin "was expecting the impossible of untried troops" and urged that they be allowed "a few days’ training under fire" before using them in an all-out attack. Naulin was unmoved, however, and left saying, "Tomorrow will be another great day for the 21st Corps!"

Actually a postponement was not Naulin’s to make. General Gouraud had planned an attack by the 2nd, 21st, and 11th Corps on October 7 for the purpose of keeping the pressure on along the "Machault-Pauvres axis." The stubborn enemy resistance in this area was designed to cover the retreat of his forces further west. The 21st was to be the middle corps in the attack and the offensive-minded Americans were counted on to lead the way. The proven aggressiveness of the Americans was why the French had asked Pershing for the services of two American divisions for the Champagne drive in the first place. In order to give the 71st Brigade time to effect the partial relief of the battered 2nd Division, Gouraud rescheduled the attack for October 8. The failure of the French to give the Texans and Oklahomans two or three days to adjust to combat conditions before utilizing them in a major attack seems to justify Pershing’s concern that American troops fighting under foreign control might be maltreated. The burden on the 71st for carrying the assault on October 8 would not have been so great, however, if Lejeune had used it to relieve only the 4th Marine Brigade instead of both the 3rd and 4th Brigades.

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Panthers to Arrowheads: The 36th (Texas-Oklahoma) Division In World War I
by Lonnie J. White
Copyright 1984 1998 by Military History Associates, Inc.
All Rights Reserved - Reprinted by Permission
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