36th Division in World War I

Chapter VI:
Glory on the Aisne
Continued

A third regimental commander was relieved for inefficiency. On the initiative of General Hulen and with the complete concurrence of General Smith, Colonel Hoover was on October 18 replaced as commander of the 143rd Infantry by Lieutenant Colonel Phillipson. Although reported to be an energetic and forceful officer, Hoover "repeatedly failed to carry out orders" and during the advance to the Aisne was "unable to keep his regiment in hand" and neglected to inform Hulen and Smith "of his movements and plans."5 It may be appropriate to mention here that the officers of the three army components in the 36th seem, on the whole, to have worked well together at the front.

The 36th was, during its interlude on the Aisne, showered with accolades for its recent achievements. In a general order dated October 14, General Naulin paid high tribute to the 36th and 2nd Divisions for their roles in the capture of Blanc Mont and in forcing the Germans to retreat. If there were any doubters among the officers and men that their attacks had sent the Germans reeling to the Aisne, there were surely none after they read Naulin’s references to the 36th, which Smith reproduced for the edification of the entire command.

The 36th Division, U.S., recently organized, and still not fully equipped, received during the night of the 6th-7th October, the order to relieve under conditions particularly delicate, the Second Division, to drive out the enemy from the heights to the north of St. Etienne-a-Arnes, and to push him back to the Aisne.

Although being under fire for the first time, the young soldiers of General Smith, rivalling, in push and tenacity with the older and valiant regiments of General Lejeune, accomplished their mission fully. All can be proud of the work done. To all, the General commanding the Army Corps, is happy to express his cordial appreciation, gratitude, and best wishes for future successes. The past is an assurance of the future.

American news correspondents of the New York Times and the Associated Press (AP) quickly picked up on Naulin’s general order and wrote stories that made the 36th one of the most reputable divisions in the AEF. Under the headline, "Texans Heroic in First Battle," the Times correspondent reported that the 36th repulsed a "heavy counterattack" on October [158] 8 and "forced the Germans back" to the Aisne against stiff resistance on October 11-12. The AP reporter was equally as generous in his appraisal of the division’s efforts.

Perhaps the most glorious page of American military history in this war has just been concluded in the Champagne battle in which two divisions of United States troops—the Second and the Thirty-sixth—have done their inadequately heralded part of forcing back the German hordes facing the famous city of Rheims.

The work of the Americans was more notable because one of the American divisions—the Thirty-sixth—entered the terrific battle at an important point, although without ever having heard shell fire before. The division withstood the most bitter counter-attacks without flinching. The efforts of the two units were so noteworthy that they were praised publicly in an order issued by General Naulin . . .

The Texas and Oklahoma press, which received the AP story, was ecstatic at the news. The Star-Telegram labeled the division "the Fighting Thirty-sixth" and dubbed its commander "Hit-the-Line Smith." If the paper was unhappy over the relief of General Greble, it was now completely won over to Smith. A cablegram of congratulations signed by Governors Hobby and Williams was dispatched by the Star-Telegram on October 22. Upon its receipt in November, Smith responded with a message stating that it was much appreciated and that: "No braver men ever fought for liberty and right than those who so gloriously upheld the traditions of Texas and Oklahoma."6

While the 36th turned in a commendable performance during the six days October 8-13 inclusive, all the more so when one considers the handicaps under which it operated, its achievements were seemingly a little magnified by Naulin and the correspondents. The 36th pounded the German line on October 8, and afterwards kept the pressure on in a well-coordinated pursuit to the Aisne. It did not break the German line in the strictest sense of the word as one might infer from reading Naulin’s tribute and the press accounts; rather, the Germans withdrew of their own accord owning mainly to the continued punitive attacks of the Americans in the Champagne. Nor did the 36th drive the Germans to the Aisne. Instead, it made their retirement less than leisurely by keeping the pressure on their rear guards. This assessment of the praise heaped upon the 36th as perhaps having been a bit overdone is not intended to reflect negatively upon the actual contribution of the 36th, which was substantial enough.

[159] If the capture of Blanc Mont by the 2nd Division, which Gouraud reported enabled the French Fourth Army to advance, was "the greatest single achievement of the 1918 campaign," as General Petain is reputed to have said it was, then the 36th, since it completed the operation, deserves at least a small share of the credit.7

The "famous 36th," as the Statesman now called it, was destined to attain more renown in the Champagne. On October 18, the French withdrew the 21st Corps and reassigned the 36th as the right division of the 11th Corps under General Prax, headquarters at Villiers-sur-Retourne. Shortly afterwards, the French 7th Division was relieved. As the result of the changes, the left and right boundaries of the 36th were extended almost four miles. The left, however, was soon reestablished at its original location. The eastward extension, which encompassed the zone formerly held by the French 73rd Division, brought the 36th opposite the neck of the inverted U-shaped "loop" of the Aisne River about two miles east of Attigny. The Aisne originated far to the south, flowed slightly northwestward along the west side of the Argonne Forest, commenced its horseshoe bend near Voncq on the east bank, swung around the high ground at this point, and turned abruptly westward.

After an eastward leapfrogging of the 144th and 142nd over their respective sister regiments and considerable sideslipping to cover the broadened sector, the arrangement of the regiments was, from west to east, the 143rd, the 144th, the 141st, and the 142nd. The "fartherest advanced units" of the 71st Brigade, which faced the loop, were little more than 60 yards from "the enemy positions." Whitworth’s PC was moved from Pauvres, to which point it had recently been shifted owing to the constant shelling of Vaux-Champagne, to Leffincourt just southeast of Dricourt. The right boundary of the 71st was located across the river from Voncq and next to a "Czecho-Slovak brigade" with the French 53rd Division, 9th Corps.

The loop was occupied on both the inside and outside by the Germans. It and a small area south of Vouziers and west of Grandpre were the only points in front of the French Fourth Army below the Aisne still in German hands. "Riley’s Nose," as the troops tagged the bend, could be used by the Germans as a bridgehead from which to launch an attack on Gouraud’s army. [160] They could also interrupt the flow of men and supplies by means of hit-and-run raids. At least they could easily observe French activities behind the lines. One contemporary believed the Germans held the position because they considered their main line of resistance on the north bank of the Aisne as vulnerable "where the river bent around" Rilly-aux-Oies in the northeastern corner of the loop.

The German occupation of the small area on the west bank of the Aisne to the south posed no special threat because it was outflanked by Pershing’s forces to the east. That the Germans considered the bend as critical is indicated by the elaborate trench system and strongpoints constructed across its mouth. The strongest trench was "the Tranchee du Forest," which alone guarded nearly the entire one-and-one-half-mile entrance. The trench was protected by an abatis of felled trees and three belts of barbed wire, "each five posts deep." Three strongpoints teeming with machine guns and protected by wire, one on the left, one toward the right, and one to the rear, looking northeastward, together with scattered machine gun nests covered the whole line. In all 60 or more machine guns were pointed menacingly in the direction of the 71st Brigade. On a hill at Voncq and in the heights north of the Aisne overlooking the area were enough big guns to give any army pause before undertaking an attack. The position was referred to officially as Forest Farm after an abandoned farm just inside the mouth of the loop.

Gouraud planned on October 14 for the 21st Corps to attack northward across the river at Attigny in the direction of Charbogne. No assault was made, but plans for the 36th to participate in a similar operation north of Attigny were not scrapped until October 23 when Prax notified Smith that the 36th would attack Forest Farm. The change was prompted by the miserable failures of the French 73rd Division to clear the 1oop in two attempts on the nights of October 16-17 and 17-18. The Germans counterattacked after the second assault but were "thrown back" by machine gun fire. One suspects that it was the intention of the French from the moment of the 73rd’s last failure to employ the 36th at Forest Farm.8

Gouraud was at this time under pressure from Pershing to join the latter’s command in a major attack all along the front. Gouraud was to have joined Pershing in an all-forward  movement [161] on October 14, but, as indicated above, he did not do so. Against tremendous opposition, Pershing advanced until on October 16 the First American Army possessed the main objective of its late September offensive. Pershing’s troops gained the Romagne heights, occupied St. Juvin, and entered Grandpre at the northern tip of the Argonne Forest 13 miles southeast of Voncq.

After capturing the Kriemhilde Stellung, Pershing officially created the Second American Army under Major General Robert L. Bullard and assigned Major General Hunter Liggett to command the First. Pershing himself assumed command of his "Group of Armies." The Germans were clearly in retreat and Pershing believed their "complete defeat" could now be achieved "in one powerful stroke by a well organized offensive." October 28 was tentatively agreed upon as the date for the final thrust to begin, but Gouraud informed Pershing the day before that he was not ready, "so the attack of both armies was fixed for November 1st."9 Gouraud sought the delay on October 27 undoubtedly because that was the date set for the 36th to assault the Forest Farm position and the entire Fourth Army could not possibly be prepared for a major attack across the Aisne on the 28th.

An examination of the situation involving the 36th and the loop shows why the French could not be set to go at the earlier time. On October 24, Prax officially ordered the 36th to "take" Forest Farm "before October 27th," actually meaning before the end of the day. On the same date as Prax’s order Smith was notified that the 36th would be relieved by the French 61st and 22nd Divisions on the nights of October 26-27 and 27-28. Among the units scheduled for relief on the second night were the assault battalions designated to participate in the loop operation. Pershing had in lending the 36th and 2nd Divisions made it clear to Foch that he wanted them returned after the emergency in the Champagne. The Americans served their purpose; yet the 36th remained with the French for two weeks after reaching the Aisne. If nothing else, the 36th was due a break from front-line duty.

Smith protested the order for the 36th to assault Forest Farm in writing to Prax. Smith believed that complications would arise—he mentioned the possibility of a counterattack—as a consequence of making both an attack and a relief on the same date. Nor did he seem to like the idea of working with the French 22nd Division artillery which was to replace the 2nd Artillery on [162] the night of October 26-27 in order that the latter might rejoin the 2nd Division now in the Meuse-Argonne. Smith anticipated heavy casualties from the German artillery outside the bend and doubted that the objective was worth the cost. Depriving the Germans of "a re-entrant" could be achieved at less risk by the capture of Voncq which fronted the sector of the 9th Corps. With Voncq in French possession, the German position would be "untenable." Smith might have argued that the loop would soon be outflanked by Pershing who was coming up on the right.

From the tenor of Smith’s letter and the account of the matter by Captain Frank A. Loftus of El Paso, operations officer, 141st Infantry, in Spence’s official history, one judges that Smith and his staff did not agree with the French as to the importance of the German occupation of the Forest Farm position in the first place. In this regard, the French seem to have worried the 36th officers by offering diverse reasons for the necessity of clearing the loop at different times. Basically, however, Smith sensed that the French were taking advantage of the 36th and he resented it.

Smith implied doubt that the 36th could count on the French in a crunch. Smith himself asserted after the Armistice that "the American" was "a better soldier" than his ally who wore the sky-blue and that French divisions succeeded only against light opposition. And while the general reported that relations with the French were always cordial, Smith’s interpreter, First Lieutenant Jean P. J. Peutet of Dallas, who served as liaison officer in both Naulin’s and Prax’s headquarters, reported that "the friendliness of the 21st Army Corps" did "not exist" in the 11th. Naulin was energetic, affable, and "remarkably high in thought" in contrast to Prax who was stubborn, nervous, seemingly impulsive, and difficult to "understand." Similarly, Prax’s staff officers were "less energetic" and "sympathetic" than Naulin’s.

Prax replied to Smith that the battle-tested French 22nd Division, which would be waiting to relieve the assault battalions after the objective was secured, would "hold to their honor not to leave American comrades in trouble." Of the alternatives for dealing with the Forest Farm position, the projected attack by the 36th had "the greatest chances of success." Besides, it would give "the brave American troops . . . the occasion of a glorious victory!"

Although Prax overruled Smith’s objections, he sought to mitigate the American’s apprehensions by accommodating him [163] on three points. The relief of the 2nd Artillery would be delayed and French artillery and trench mortars of the 9th and 11th Corps would join in supporting the attack. The assault battalions would not be relieved until the night of October 28-29, one full day following the attack. And the Czechoslovakian brigade would maintain liaison with the 142nd Infantry and provide assistance. American liaison with the French in the Champagne was accomplished through the assignment of French officers to nearly every headquarters above company level. Working with the Czechoslovakians proved to be no more or less a problem for a number of its personnel spoke English.10

Just as the French rotated divisions, even corps, in and out of the line in the interest of keeping the troops as fresh as possible, the Germans also made changes for the same purpose. After the readjustment of sectors, the 36th faced the 195th and 3rd (Prussian) Guard Divisions. The latter division in late September and early October fought in the vicinities of Somme-Py and Orfeuil and later opposed the First American Army near Romagne "making perhaps the stiffest resistance encountered in the offensive." After a short rest, it was once more inserted into the line, this time about Rilly-aux-Oies. The 3rd Guard, rated as "one of the best German divisions," fronted the right of the 36th. One battalion of the 9th Grenadier Regiment manned the defense system in the loop.11

German machine gun, mortar, and artillery activity increased after the extension of the 36th. The 2nd Artillery responded in kind to the augmented shelling, but in one instance it was the other way around. In "obedience" to a French Fourth Army memorandum, Bowley’s artillery, employing captured guns and ammunition from the big dump at Mont St. Remy, commenced "throwing over a large amount of gas." Evidently angered by the perceived audaciousness of the Americans in giving them a dose of their own medicine, the Germans commenced a bombardment of Chufilly two miles southwest of Voncq on October 25 that lasted for hours and almost literally doused two companies of the 2nd Battalion and a portion of Headquarters Company, 142nd Infantry, elements of the 131st Machine Gun Battalion, and several artillery batteries stationed in the environs with mustard gas. Some 200 men were exposed; however, only 45 "became gas casualties."

[164] The German artillery was of much concern to General Smith who searched for a way to limit its effectiveness. Every troop movement seemed to be greeted by G.I. cans and whizbangs. Suspecting that the Germans were "listening in" to the 36th telephone conversations by means of lead wires left during their withdrawal, Smith gave "some false orders over the phone" in which he stated that "a contingent of troops would be on a certain hill." As a result, according to Major Robinson, the hill was almost obliterated. The buzzer phone could be used to send coded messages, but decoding consumed precious time. Messages could, of course, be conveyed by runners, but they took even more time. With the Forest Farm operation in the offing, Smith sought a foolproof means of instant communication.

The solution was found in the 142nd Infantry which contained representatives of numerous Indian tribes who spoke 26 different languages or dialects that not even their Caucasian comrades could decipher much less the Germans. Colonel Bloor tested the use of Indians on the phones during the "delicate withdrawal" of 142nd troops from Chufilly to the neighboring village of Chardeny on the night following the German gas attack. The movement was conducted "without mishap" and on D Day for the Forest Farm assault, Indians—mainly Choctaws—were stationed at the telephone terminals to transmit and receive messages.12

The specifics of the projected attack were planned by General Whitworth within the framework of a broad plan outlined by Smith. H hour for the infantry was set at 4:30 P.M. when "near approach of darkness" would deprive "the enemy of the full advantage of his observation posts." The 2nd Battalion (Captain Walter W. Caldwell of Lockhart), 141st Infantry, and the 3rd Battalion (Captain Steve A. Lillard, Jr., of Decatur), 142nd Infantry, were selected to make the assault. Both battalions were badly depleted owing largely to the heavy losses at St. Etienne and a recent flu epidemic in the 2nd, but as veterans of the October 8 battle, the personnel, with the possible exception of a few "skulkers" whom Corporal Hart regarded with utter contempt, could be counted on to stand against the most violent opposition. Companies B and D, 132nd Machine Gun Battalion, and the 142nd Regimental Machine Gun Company were designated to cover the attack. Company D, 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, was attached to the 2nd Battalion while the rest of the 1st (Burges) was [165]   assigned as support. The 2nd Battalion (Morrissey), 142nd Infantry, was placed in support of the 3rd. The support battalions were to follow 1,000 meters behind the assault battalions.

Sunday, October 27, opened "clear and sunny," but in the afternoon the Panthers were favored with mist and low visibility. The 143rd Infantry had been relieved the previous night by the French 61st Division, the assault battalions of the 141st and 142nd had been moved into place without attracting undue attention, and the 144th was "standing by" not far away. Advanced positions had been vacated and a line of departure established several hundred yards to their rear approximately along the northwest-southeast Attigny-Roche road which ran to Vouziers. The purpose of this tactic was to give the artillery and mortars room in which to hammer the German positions prior to the infantry advance without endangering the assault battalions in the event the shelling fell short. It was a technique that might have been used advantageously on October 8. Evidently General Lejeune learned by experience since the 2nd Division employed it later in the Meuse-Argonne.

Also in contrast to the "bumbling affair" at St. Etienne, all officers and men from Colonel Bloor and Lieutenant Colonel James on down were fully instructed for the attack. Corporal Hart, whose company was "in line on the north side of a quite large apple and plum orchard," remembered being briefed shortly before the zero hour at Lillard’s PC in a wine cellar containing "empty wine racks along the wall," a "rickety table," and a "flickering candle stuck in an empty bottle." The instructions were so thorough that a man was named to take Hart’s place in the event of his death.

Smith and his commanders went to some trouble to conceal their plans from the enemy. The build-up was made to appear as inconspicuous as possible and the assault troops, for security reasons, were not told when the attack was to be made until it was almost time to go. Even as final briefings were being held a flight of five German planes flew over the foxholes without detecting anything unusual. Not until 4:05 P.M. when the Americans failed to reel in their observation balloon "as on other days" did the Germans so much as suspect that something was amiss. By that time it was too late, for at 4:10 P.M. "a lone gun" of the 2nd Artillery signaled the beginning of a terrific 20-minute preliminary bombardment of the German positions. Promptly on [166] schedule the artillery commenced a rolling barrage and commanders up and down the departure line blew their whistles for the infantry to go over the top.

Caught by surprise, the German artillery dropped "a few shells promisciously [sic] along the front and in the rear apparently at a loss as to what was going on," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Hawley who observed the action from a point near the center of the line. About one minute "after the infantry attack started the Bosch [sic] laid down an artillery barrage but he dropped it on and in the rear of the line of departure and kept it there." Part of the confusion was caused by a "diversion fire" executed by the allied artillery against the enemy positions across the river east of Givry for the purpose of misleading the Germans into believing the allies were preparing to cross the Aisne.

Virtually untouched by the enemy shelling, the assault troops advanced in two waves, ten paces apart, a little over 100 yards behind the "creeping" barrage. The first wave was composed of automatic riflemen and hand grenadiers while the second consisted of automatic riflemen, "ordinary" riflemen, bombers, and rifle grenadiers. An otherwise perfect attack was marred only on the right where an artillery battery commenced firing two minutes late and dropped its shells largely on one company of 142nd Infantry. After the barrage passed on, the troops, who had scattered for protection, reassembled and continued the advance. Second Engineers with the first wave cut the enemy wires and the infantrymen poured through and into the trenches, dugouts, and strongpoints before the Prussians, who were still in their shelters as the result of the artillery barrage, "realized what had happened." Some resisted, but the majority surrendered on the spot. In less than one hour the assault battalions fired green star shells into the air as a signal of mission accomplished.

After storming the defense system, combat patrols, as planned, sallied forth to deal with pockets of machine gunners and snipers harassing the captured positions. The assault troops occupied the fortifications until the next night when they were relieved. Although the German artillery finally found its mark, the Panthers could take comfort in the fact they were not caught in the open on October 27.

German planes on Monday dropped leaflets for the dual purposes of propaganda and specifying targets for the artillery. The leaflets, printed in English and French, asked why both sides [167] continued to fight when the Germans had recently established a new government, had restricted submarine warfare, and had accepted President Wilson’s celebrated 14 points and were anxious for an honorable peace. The propaganda pieces were a source of great amusement to the Texans and Oklahomans whose morale remain undaunted.

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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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