36th Division in World War I

CHAPTER SIX
GLORY ON THE AISNE

[147] While the 71st Brigade was locked in combat at St. Etienne, that portion of the 36th Division left along the Maine was moving up. On October 6, in accordance with French Fourth Army orders, the 72nd Brigade and the separate 131st Machine Gun Battalion proceeded to Vadenay 14 miles north-northwest of Chalons. The strength of the 72nd Brigade (General Hulen) was 263 officers and 6,683 men. It consisted of the 143rd Infantry (Colonel Hoover), the 144th Infantry (Colonel Parker), and the 133rd Machine Gun Battalion (Major Davidson). The 131st Machine Gun Battalion (Major Stephenson) reported 17 officers and 358 men. Already short on equipment, the command was forced to leave some of what it had owing to the insufficient number of draft animals and the poor condition of those it possessed. After a night in and about Vadenay the units were ordered to the Suippes area. By nightfall, October 7, following a grueling march over dirt roads and part way in "a slow, drizzling rain," they were bivouacked outside Suippes.

Behind the 72nd and 131st came the supply and sanitary trains and small miscellaneous units. The 111th Supply Train (Captain Homer C. Ransom of California) numbered 16 officers and 433 men while the 111th Sanitary Train (Lieutenant Colonel O’Reilly) comprised 47 officers and 890 men. Departing the Marne on October 7, the 77 trucks of the supply train pulled into La Cheppe, the railhead of the 36th Division, six miles below Suippes, the next day. The sanitary train, with the exception of one unit and a number of ambulances sent on to Somme-Py, camped at Somme-Suippes. The 44 trucks of Captain King’s 111th Ammunition Train detachment were dispatched to Melette to pick up [148] ammunition for transport to the 2nd Division ammunition dump located almost two miles north of Somme-Py on the St. Etienne road. On October 8, command of the dump passed to the Panther Division ordnance officer in anticipation of the 36th completing the relief of the 2nd.

The same day, General Smith and his staff waited at Suippes for further orders. A telephone call in the evening sent General Smith and Colonel Williams to General Naulin’s PC in "a railroad cut a few kilometers southeast of Somme-Py." The 36th, Naulin told them, would "complete the relief of the 2nd Division on the night of the 9th." The 2nd would, however, leave its artillery, engineers, and such units that "cannot be replaced" for use of the 36th. Lejeune would remain with Smith in an advisory capacity for 24 hours after the latter assumed command of the sector at 10 A.M. on October 10. Naulin wanted the 71st and 72nd Brigades "placed into line side by side" as soon as it could be done. After the conference Smith and Williams drove to Lejeune’s PC at SommePy to discuss the details of the relief.

Returning to Suippes early in the morning of October 9, Smith issued orders for the various 36th units to begin moving out at 9 A. M. The Suippes-Somme-Py highway was off-limits except to motor vehicles and, consequently, the march was mainly over unimproved roads to the east and west. That night the 72nd Brigade "relieved the 2nd Division in its support and reserve positions on the northern slope of Blanc Mont ridge." The 143rd Infantry took over the 3rd Brigade positions on the right while the 144th relieved the 4th Marine Brigade on the left. At 10 P.M. Hulen established his PC near Somme-Py, in the dugout formerly occupied by General Neville.

During the night and following morning, October 10, "the other units" relieved "the corresponding units of the 2nd Division," except the 2nd Artillery (Brigadier General Albert J. Bowley), the 2nd Engineers (Colonel W. A. Mitchell), and certain sanitary and supply detachments, which remained with the 36th. The 111th Field Signal Battalion "assumed control of the Somme-Py and all axis centrals, and of the two radio sets" at the divisional PC, which Smith located at Somme-Py.

Congested roads and a desultory artillery fire beyond Somme-Py complicated the relief. It seemed to Private Charles Stroup, Company C, 144th Infantry, that "the whole world was lighted [149] up" by the nighttime bombardment. The shelling cost the 143rd Infantry 16 casualties and "proved quite an incentive" for the men to dig in upon the completion of the relief. Although the 72nd troops soon learned that it was possible to leave their holes and hear a shell coming in time to "duck" into them for protection, many found it expedient to remain put on account of German snipers who "filtered through the front lines."

In the meantime, Naulin was prodding the 71st Brigade to continue the advance for the purpose of "cleaning up the enemy isles of resistance north of St. Etienne," which were holding up the advance of the 11th Corps. He was most anxious to have the 71st overcome a trench system about one-half mile north of town. Whitworth failed to comply with an order to assault the trenches on October 9 because his troops were not in a position from which to do so at the time specified. Upon receiving another order to attack at 9 A. M. on October 10, Whitworth went to see Lejeune to explain to him that his brigade was exhausted, disorganized, and still not positioned to move against the designated fortifications. Lejeune responded by ordering abandonment of "the contemplated attack."

The 71st, or at least a part of it, was not to remain idle for long, however, for General Smith, who was conferring with Lejeune about the transfer of command to occur that morning when Whitworth came in, concluded that an advance toward the north-northwest, in the same direction as that of October 8, should indeed be made at "the earliest practicable time." Information gathered from prisoners indicated that the Germans were preparing to retire all along the Champagne front. As a matter of fact, they were already retiring from the front of the French divisions to the east. That they were about to withdraw in the American zone was evident from the many fires seen and explosions heard during the nights of October 8-9 and 9-10. The Germans were destroying facilities and such war material as they were unable to carry with them. Moreover, their artillery fire was "coming from further back."

Since the 71st Brigade was in no condition to execute quickly a "delicate side-slipping maneuver" for the purpose of putting the 72nd into the line by its side and Smith wished not only to press the apparently retreating Germans, but also to keep abreast of the French divisions on the flanks—the French 73rd was already [150] easing forward—Smith decided to pass the 72nd Brigade through the 71st and take up the pursuit. But planning the "leapfrog" operation and positioning the units of the 72nd for the purpose would take several hours. Consequently, at 1:35 P.M., October 10, Smith instructed Whitworth to maintain close contact with the enemy until the pass-through could be accomplished.

Patrols sent out by Colonel Bloor met such fierce machine gun fire from the positions north of St. Etienne and Hill 160 as to cause doubt that the Germans were as yet withdrawing from the front of the 142nd. For this reason, the regiment remained generally in place. Patrols of the 141st found, however, only a rear guard of machine gunners and snipers. Therefore an attack was ordered with the St. Etienne-Scay Farm road, about 500 yards beyond the departure line, as the objective. Although the shelling was intense and much gas was encountered, the machine gun and rifle fire was so light that the 141st had little difficulty in advancing to the road. The only officer casualty was the commander of the assault wave, Captain Ira C. Ogden of San Antonio.

During the afternoon, General Smith planned the pass-through in conference with Hulen, Hoover, Parker, Davidson, and Stephenson. The 143rd would relieve the 141st and the 144th the 142nd. The 72nd regiments would advance abreast with, roughly, the 2nd, 3rd, and 1st Battalions in each serving as the assault, support, and reserve echelons, respectively. Two companies of the 133rd Machine Gun Battalion would be placed on the brigade flanks. After a preparatory bombardment by Bowley’s artillery, the regimental commanders would call for support fire as desired. The 131st Machine Gun Battalion would remain with the 71st Brigade in division reserve.

General Naulin paid Smith a visit after the conference and approved the latter’s plans with the stipulation that the 71st and 72nd be placed alongside one another as soon as practicable. Later, Smith received word that the "general axis" of the entire advance in the Champagne would shift slightly northeastward, in the case of the 36th, toward Machault and Dricourt. The pressure against Rheims was removed by the general German withdrawal and the pursuit would now take "the most direct route."

At about 5:30 P.M. the 72nd Brigade started forward to relieve the 71st. Commanding the 2nd, 3rd and 1st Battalions in the 144th were Major Clark M. Mullican of Dallas, Captain Henry H. [151] Craig, and Major Hill. The assault, support, and reserve battalions in the 143rd were commanded by Majors Horace B. Siebe of Dallas, Joe T. Goodman of Orange, and William E. Lake of Marshall. The shell fire on the left was so devastating that the 144th halted southeast of St. Etienne and took a position from which to cover a gap in the 142nd lines. Despite some disorganization caused by the "serious artillery fire" and the approach of darkness, the 143rd advanced until stopped by machine gun fire. Several organizations passed through gaps in the 141st lines and encountered the Germans head-on. In one instance, Headquarters Detachment, 2nd Battalion, suddenly found itself inside German lines and within point-blank range of machine guns. Hitting the dirt, the detachment, except First Lieutenant Martin E. Walters, battalion adjutant, who was captured, escaped under cover of night. At about 5:30 A. M., October 11, the Germans withdrew from the "immediate front" of the 36th and during the morning the 143rd and 144th completed the pass-through. The 36th casualties for October 10 and the early morning of the 11th were 213 Panthers killed or wounded.1

After establishing liaison with the French on both flanks and between the two regiments, the 72nd plunged ahead. Engineers accompanied the front-line battalions to search for land mines. The only opposition along the two-mile front was a light bombardment until the 144th crossed a ridge about one mile north of St. Etienne. There the assault troops of the 2nd Battalion on the regiment’s right came under heavy machine gun fire. A severe shelling followed the appearance of a German plane. Support troops of the 3rd Battalion entered the fray and a lively skirmish continued for over an hour until the Germans withdrew. On the right, the morning advance of the 143rd met occasional machine gun and scattered artillery fire. Its initial progress was impeded only by several machine guns at the St. Etienne-Semide road.

Coming to Machault three miles north of St. Etienne in the afternoon, the 144th was sprayed by machine guns from the upper stories and roofs of houses and from nests in the outskirts. To the east, the left flank of the 143rd came under the same fire while the right flank was punished by machine guns located in the wooded elevations in front of the French 73rd Division, which had fallen behind. Following a flyover by a German plane, an artillery fire fell not only on the Americans and French, but also on the [152] Germans in Machault. The misplaced shelling silenced the German gunners in the town and after the bombardment ceased, the enemy rear guard to the east withdrew. Casualties for the day were 102 Panthers killed, wounded, or gassed.

The advance resumed early the next morning, October 12, behind a friendly artillery barrage, in the direction of Attigny about 10 miles north-northeast of Machault. Majors Mullican and Siebe’s battalions continued in the lead. The brigade’s opposition consisted of artillery fire and gas, which accounted for 67 casualties. The left flank of the 144th passed through the railroad yard at Mont St. Remy. About the only Germans seen were those departing Dricourt, three miles north of Machault, as the Panthers trooped in.

The main problems of the day were routine for rapidly advancing troops. General Hulen himself went to the front to make sure the brigade stayed in the sector assigned to it. The various trains and miscellaneous units were pressed to keep up with the infantry. An occasional light rain and congested, unimproved roads hindered mobility. The battered Machault-Dricourt road was jammed for hours with guns, ambulances, field trains, motorcycles, and "other impedimenta." Many soldiers went without water for a time because the Germans were suspected, evidently wrongly, of poisoning the water wells at Machault. Having outrun their rolling kitchens, the men of the advanced organizations feasted on either bacon and hardtack or canned beef. The latter treat was known variously as "corn willie," "bully beef," or "Maud," the last-mentioned designation in honor of the famous Missouri mule.

Both friendly and enemy observation planes constantly traversed the area. Three French planes attacked and destroyed a German balloon. One allied balloon was flamed by a German aircraft that appeared suddenly from behind a cloud. The allied balloons were brought forward, each anchored and towed by a heavy truck.

If the German retreat was deliberate and easy as Otto implies, it was not apparent to the Doughboys, who viewed it as "rapid and unplanned." The vigorous pursuit prevented the complete destruction of huge heaps of "stores" seen in nearly every "grove of pines." Numerous railroad cars laden with heavy artillery shells were left standing "on the tramways."

[153] The brigade halted late in the day, October 12, on or near Hill 167 north-northwest of Vaux-Champagne overlooking the Aisne Valley. Patrols sent on to the Ardennes Canal, which paralleled the Aisne on its south bank, found all bridges destroyed. On the north bank of the stream, in the Ardennes region, the Germans had established a formidable line of resistance. An elaborate trench system had been prepared at the rise of the plateau just north of the river. It was protected by belts of barbed wire and steel and concrete pillboxes. Trees on the south side of the Aisne and the canal had been cut down and piled on the north bank of the former to protect their machine gunners and to give them a clear field of fire.2

Vaux-Champagne was located nearly three miles south of the Aisne and about three miles north-northeast of Dricourt. Smith and Bowley established their PCs at Dricourt while Hulen, Parker, and Hoover set up theirs at or near Vaux-Champagne. The latter village had played an important role in the German operation in the Champagne. Electricity brought in from the north radiated from the town to all parts of the area. Numerous German dugouts sported electric lights, which together with hardwood floors, baths, pianos, and even billiard tables, made them more comfortable than the homes of many French civilians. The region’s telephone and telegraph networks were also centered at Vaux-Champagne and an airfield was located immediately to the west. Although the Germans cut all lines before leaving, Major Robinson’s signal battalion managed to use many of them in establishing wire communications from the rear to Dricourt and thence to the forward areas.

On the Aisne River and Ardennes Canal was the relatively large town of Attigny. French patrols entered it and the village of Givry about one and one-half miles to the west on the night of October 12-13. Givry was in the American zone while Attigny was just inside the French sector on the right. The towns were deserted and in flames, but the vicinity was bustling with machine gunners and snipers. Located on the canal and a major east-west railroad, not to mention a highway, Attigny had been the region’s main supply center. Two narrow-gauge railroads ran from the town generally southward to connect with an extensive railway system paralleling the old Hindenburg Line. One of the lines passed near Saulces-Champenoises and became two at Pauvres. One of the two [154] branches from the latter village ran thence southward through Mont St. Remy, Machault, St. Etienne, and Somme-Py. A huge ammunition dump was located at Mont St. Remy about two miles northwest of Machault. There were 136 kilometers of narrow-gauge tracks in the 36th zone alone. The Germans destroyed many tracks, but they did not totally incapacitate the system because it was utilized to bring at least a small portion of the artillery forward.

There had been no civilians in the Somme-Py and St. Etienne sectors, but, owing to the swift advance of the French Fourth Army following the German withdrawal, such was not the case further north. Lieutenant Colonel Hawley, while acting in a liaison capacity between Smith and his unit commanders, reported seeing "the Bosch [sic] shell a column of civilians that were coming [south] from Attigny." First Lieutenant Raymond M. Tucker, Company H, 144th Infantry, years later remembered freeing French citizens at Dricourt, Pauvres, and VauxChampagne. Also, about 1,200 "old men, women, and children" remained at St. Vaubourg inside the French zone on the right. Following a shelling of the town by the Germans during the night of October 12-13, notwithstanding a display of white flags, the inhabitants "were removed ... to the rear" evidently by the French, though one account has it they were trucked out by the 36th. That the Germans were less than gentlemen warriors is further indicated by their shelling of a clearly-marked aid station after its location by a plane.

On October 13 the 72nd Brigade swept "the southern edge of the Aisne" for the purpose of cleaning out the remaining Germans. Artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire from across the river was severe in the open area at Moscou Farm where the 144th Infantry lost 207 officers and men killed or wounded while advancing toward Givry. The division sector was divided into outpost, support, and reserve zones and a line of resistance "to be held in case of attack" was established on the northern slope of Hill 167. The right boundary of the division was moved about three quarters of a mile to include a brick factory called "the Briqueterie" east of Attigny. During the night of October 13-14 the 71st Brigade, which had reorganized on the 11th and had started forward the next day, was inserted into the line to the right of the 72nd. The dividing line between the 142nd Infantry, the left [155] regiment of the 71st, and the 143rd Infantry, the right regiment of the 72nd, was located some 100 yards west of Attigny. Whitworth established his PC at Vaux-Champagne and Hulen moved his southwestward to Pauvres.3

Gouraud decided to delay attacking across the Aisne because his army had outrun its supply bases and crossing the river against strong enemy defenses required considerable preparation. Furthermore, Pershing’s First Army on the right was now behind the French Fourth Army, which would not have been particularly significant had not there remained, as will be seen below, a strategically-located pocket of Germans south of the Aisne upstream. The offensive halted, the 36th spent the ensuing several days completing the establishment of its positions, patrolling the canal and river for suitable crossing places, building bridges and pontoons, burying the dead, salvaging discarded American and captured German war materials, resupplying the troops with individual field gear, and planning for the resumption of the advance. The German divisions opposite the 36th were the 213th and 17th. Occasional machine gun and sniper fire from north of the river and the almost interminable shelling were responsible for a number of casualties. The outpost zone, located as it was in the fairly open country next to the Aisne, was the hot spot and the infantry battalions, each supported by a machine gun company, took turns occupying it four at a time. Patrols sent to gather information and or to take prisoners were sometimes discovered and sent scampering back across the river. The prompt response of the 36th to an order calling for prisoners from which to extract information, brought, on October 16, a telephone message of congratulations from Naulin to Smith and "the members of his command." Although it rained intermittently, the weather was not so bad that flights of enemy planes sometimes numbering as many as 15 could not observe the activity along the river. Several aerial dogfights between German and French aircraft resulted in "no less than three," identity unknown, crashing behind the German lines. The French planes were presumably from the 55th Squadron which was attached to the 36th.

The German shelling caused the 2nd Artillery to make an "almost daily change of positions for the guns." The time spent in doing so perhaps explains to some extent why the 2nd was less active than its German counterpart. Among the high explosives [156] sent over by the enemy was the inevitable gas called "Yellow Cross" by the troops. Of the several types used, mustard gas was the most common. Gas was less a terror to the Texans and Oklahomans in combat, especially in the open country, than they imagined it would be while in training. Nevertheless, there is no record of anyone discarding his gas mask, alias "monkey face," and many "purported gas cases reported" at the aid stations. Undoubtedly a few of the complainants were malingerers, but the majority were genuinely concerned that they had, as was indeed only too true in many instances, been subjected to the harmful effects of gas. Medical officers in the 142nd Infantry believed the problem stemmed in part from "over-emphasis of certain phasis [sic] of training in gas-defense which were causative of fear-impelling anticipation . . ."4

Numerous promotions and changes in command were made due largely to casualties. Among those promoted and / or elevated to new posts while the division was in the Champagne were Chastaine, Washam, Ransom, Burges, Phillipson, Roberts, James, Ridings, and Culberson. The evacuation of Colonel Sills with pneumonia, from which he shortly died, left a critical vacancy on Smith’s staff until Major Culberson was assigned as G- 1 the day the 36th left the front. Ridings replaced Major Weatherred who suffered from physical exhaustion. Other victims of the strain of command were Colonels Jackson and Parker. Jackson was almost overcome by fatigue late on October 8 and evidently leaned on Lieutenant Colonel James until James succeeded him as commander of the 141st Infantry on the 19th. Although Jackson was hard of hearing and was criticized by Hawley at St. Etienne for not providing sufficient transportation for his machine gun company, he seems to have been a good officer. Incidentally, Jackson was so angry at Hawley that Jackson had him barred temporarily from the front. Parker also had words with Hawley, who raised "hob" with him because the 144th was not moving rapidly enough at one point in the advance to the Aisne. Parker, a West Pointer, later commenced behaving erratically until at the time of his relief on October 14 he could not, according to Major Mullican, walk, stand, or talk. Lieutenant Colonel Phillipson of the 142nd commanded the 144th for one day until the return to duty of Lieutenant Colonel Roberts, who had been slightly gassed. Two weeks after Roberts assumed [157] command, he was promoted to colonel.

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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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