36th Division in World War I

Chapter V
The 71st Brigade At St. Etienne
Continued

[133] After Naulin departed, Lejeune called in his brigade commanders, including Whitworth, and gave them verbal orders for the attack. "H" hour, meaning the zero hour for the assault to commence, had not been set, but it would be contained in written confirmation orders to be issued later. Returning to his PC, Whitworth sent for his machine gun battalion and regimental commanders and issued verbal orders to them subject to documentary confirmation. The general also provided a limited number of maps for distribution down the chain of command to replace those lost during the confusion that had accompanied the night march from Somme-Py. Lejeune placed General Ely in charge of the front during the day and, consequently, Whitworth’s responsibility was solely to the 36th units in the line.

The 71st, supported by the French 2nd and 3rd Tank battalions, the 2nd Division battalions on the flanks, and the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade together with a French artillery detachment, was to advance about two kilometers in the direction of a line running northeastward from Cauroy to Machault above St. Etienne. The 142nd and 141st were each to advance in column of battalions behind a rolling barrage to begin upon the conclusion of a four-minute preliminary bombardment. The barrage would stand still at intervals during the morning while the second-line (support) battalions passed through the first and the third-line passed through the second. The third-line (reserve) battalions would thus eventually become the front-line (assault) battalions. The tanks, numbering about 50, would be divided between the two regiments. Their mission was to assist the infantry in wiping out machine gun nests.

After receiving their orders, Bloor, Jackson, and Weatherred hastened to their PCs and called in their immediate subordinates to give them theirs. The dissemination of orders downward to company commanders consumed nearly all afternoon, evening, and night. The roads were muddy—the wheels of Bloor’s motorcycle became clogged several times while the colonel was en route from his dugout to Whitworth’s—the shelling by the German artillery caused delays, the officers were unfamiliar with the roads, and runners for one reason or another could not locate several commanders. The orders at every level were verbal and subject to confirmation.

[134] Lejeune’s written orders, which set the time of the attack for 5:15 A.M., did not reach Whitworth’s PC until after midnight and it was 3 A. M. before he could get copies together with his own orders out to Bloor, Jackson, and Weatherred. It was then a race against time for commanders down the line to pass the word that the attack was on for 5:15 A.M. and to issue last-minute verbal instructions. The information could have been relayed as far down as the battalion level via field telephones, but to have done so would have been to inform the Germans since "the whole area was covered with lead wires which enabled the enemy to listen in. As it turned out, company commanders were not informed until a few minutes before or just at H hour and the rolling barrage was moving away before they could send their companies over the top. Several captains who were not contacted acted on their own. The commander of the 2nd (support) Battalion, 141st Infantry, was changing the order of battle of his companies unaware of the zero hour when the shelling began. The negligence of the division, corps, and/or army echelons in providing formal orders designating the zero hour in time for the officers in the line to be properly instructed and the companies fully set to go resulted in a poorly coordinated advance.6

The Americans might as well have transmitted orders by telephone because the Germans, according to Otto, concluded the day before, upon observing the "strong traffic along the enemy rear lines of communication moving chiefly in the direction of St. Etienne, and apparently also a number of tanks," that "a major hostile attack" was planned for October 8.7 Hence their forward units were alerted and their reserves placed "in readiness" well before the zero hour.

At almost the same moment as the Americans 75s and 155s opened up, the German artillery commenced a "literally appalling" counterbarrage. Many bursts emitted clouds of toxic gas. The vast majority of shells fell behind the assault battalions and inflicted "severe losses" on the support and reserve battalions. German planes and about six observation balloons directed artillery fire practically without molestation. Occasionally the planes swooped down for strafing runs on the infantry. The placement of the German artillery was consistently good while that of the Americans was poor throughout the day.

[135] The rolling barrage laid down by the 2nd Field Artillery fell beyond rather than on top of the German entrenchments. Virtually untouched by the shelling, the German gunners greeted the assault battalions with flaming sheets of excruciating machine gun fire. Casualties were heavy as the troops worked their way through the mass of wire entanglements. The Germans fought well at long range, but, no doubt owing to a lack of enthusiasm borne of war-weariness, usually had no stomach for fighting at close quarters. "Kamerad," or its English translation, "comrade," the words the Germans used to indicate surrender, became familiar cries as the Indians, Mexicans, and Caucasians enveloped one machine gun emplacement after another.

Taking the machine guns involved considerable casualties and some angry and excited soldiers, who survived their deadly fire and closed on them, evidently shot a number of gunners when they emerged to surrender. Captain Richard F. Burges of El Paso, Company A, 141st Infantry, in describing the October 8 action to a friend, stated that the Germans "fight under cover, firing from concealed machine guns until you close with them, then they rush out, throw up their hands, and cry—’comrade’—but it doesn’t look fair and they don’t get much mercy." Burges "saved" the prisoners, several of whom were boys, "almost children," when "the capture was made under my own eyes."8

The confusion that accompanied the attack worsened as the fighting progressed. Many officers were killed, wounded, or gassed shortly after going over the top and the men in the support and reserve battalions were, according to Lejeune and others, so eager to get into the fight that they closed up on the assault battalions. Liaison between the 141st and 142nd was poor from the start and became non-extant as the day wore on. In time, "the fighting resolved itself into a series of independent fights conducted by detachments of varying sizes, composed of men from different companies under the command of the ranking officer or non-commissioned officer present."

Both regiments were hurt severely by machine gun fire from their right flanks. The 142nd commenced its advance from a point on the St. Etienne-Orfeuil road ahead of the 141st on the right and was never in line with the latter regiment. The advance of the 141st was halted several hundred yards above the road. The 1st Battalion (Major Hutchings) served as the assault echelon [136] with the 2nd (Major John W. Hawkins of Austin) in support and the 3rd (Major Benjamin F. Wright of Waco) in reserve. Stymied by German fire power, the 1st Battalion was soon joined by the 2nd and 3rd. "The shell fire was heavy," declared Private O. C. Mitchell of Fort Worth, "and I don’t think any of the Boches were armed with anything but machine guns and hand grenades." Contrary to Whitworth’s wishes, the relatively few French tanks that showed up to assist the 141st did not lead but followed the infantry. Because they fired into the Americans, crawled about aimlessly, drew heavy fire, and suffered considerable damage, they were withdrawn. The 89th Grenadiers, 17th Division, were particularly effective against the tanks.

With the 141st under severe fire from the right owing to the inability of the French 73rd Division to advance, the 2nd Division Regulars, who were supposed to function largely in a liaison capacity between the 73rd and 141st, relieved some of the pressure by means of a flank attack on the German left. The 141st Infantry and 2nd Division Doughboys gave some ground during the day however grudgingly in part because they lost touch with artillery support and were badly disorganized. Colonel Jackson himself went to the front during the afternoon for an on-the-spot examination of the situation. At about 5:30 P.M. the Americans repulsed a counterattack from the northeast to complete the major action for the day on the brigade right.

The inability of the 141st to make greater progress was of consequence to the 142nd. The 2nd, 1st, and 3rd Battalions, commanded by Major William J. Morrissey of Pennsylvania, Captain Charles T. Kuhlman of Waco, and Captain A. M. Greer of Beaumont, respectively, went over the top in the order given. The murderous machine gun fire from the left front caused the assault battalion to bear eastward where a "wooded knoll," known as Hill 160 and Blodnitz Hill to the Americans and Germans, respectively, and standing about 1,000 yards slightly southeast of St. Etienne, afforded some protection. The devastating fire from the town—one effective machine gun was located in the steeple of a church—and the cemetery immediately to its northeast, was partially responsible for the support and reserve battalions moving forward to assist the assault battalion instead of waiting for "the scheduled passages of lines." The strong resistance from the hill was anticipated, but that from the [137] cemetery and town was much greater than expected. The marines on the left were supposed to have occupied St. Etienne during the night. The marines, however, after a patrol had found it empty, had not actually done so and the Germans had "filtered back" before the attack.

The tanks assigned to the 142nd were of no more assistance than those with the 141st. Only a few appeared and these after the battle began. They were a little more aggressive than those on the right owing to better liaison, but they became completely disorganized and were withdrawn after their commander was killed and his tank destroyed.

After breaking the German resistance on Hill 160, elements of the 142nd closed in on the strong enemy position at the cemetery. A weak battalion of the 368th Infantry, 213th Division, was captured. Evidently the Germans vacated the town, for when the marines finally entered it at about noon, they did so without opposition. The marines subsequently failed in an attempt to advance north of the town. After taking the cemetery, the 142nd drove the Germans to the northeast-southwest St. Etienne-Semide road. The right of the 142nd at this point almost touched the line marked on the map as the day’s objective; the possible objective, however, the Machault-Cauroy line, was still far away.

German resistance stiffened at the road and the 142nd, now badly disorganized, formed a line composed of provisional organizations. From the right, near where the 141st would have been had it kept up, and from the front, the 142nd was subjected to a galling, enfilade machine gun fire. While the American artillery failed "to register on the enemy positions from which the heaviest fire was coming," the German artillery was on target. There appears to have been no threat to the left flank because it was covered by the marines at St. Etienne and by the French 7th Division west of town. At 4:30 P.M. several battalions of the German 14th Reserve and 195th Infantry Divisions commenced preparations for a counterattack from the northeast for the purpose of "encircling the right flank." In this situation, with ammunition, food, and water running low, the 142nd pulled back. According to Chastaine, some of the troops objected to giving up "hard earned ground" without a fight, but retreat was the only sensible course.

[138] With machine guns and automatic rifles covering the retirement, the 142nd "swung back" in a crescent-shaped line and halted with the left "at the village" and the right on Hill 160. A number of Doughboys who did not get the word for "the change in front" were left behind and captured. On the northern slope of Hill 160 provisional organizations of the 142nd established a line of defense, and utilizing German machine guns and ammunition captured earlier, repulsed the counterattack with relative ease. Captain Thomas D. Barton of Amarillo, Company G, the commander of the several detachments, was subsequently cited for his "extraordinary heroism" and the troops themselves paid him tribute by calling the elevation on which the stand was made "Barton’s Hill." With nightfall approaching the fighting subsided and neither side attempted to make further headway.

The disorganization of platoons, companies, and battalions; the heavy officer losses; the many casualties among the runners, who made excellent targets as they carried messages between the regimental PCs and the forward positions; and the often exaggerated and inaccurate reports sent back presented tremendous command problems for Bloor, Jackson, and Whitworth. At first the messages were optimistic; later, they were the opposite. Casualties were grossly overestimated. Determining the exact locations of the various organizations was impossible presumably because many officers did not have maps and those who did found them inadequate. The uncertainty explains at least to some extent the poor placement of the artillery.

Conditions became "so uncertain" during the day that Lejeune himself motored to Whitworth’s dugout "to look into the situation personally." Lejeune arrived "just after the area about it had been heavily shelled, causing a number of casualties." After listening to Whitworth’s conversations "by telephone with his regimental commanders" and looking "at the line traced on the map showing the positions of the troops," Lejeune told Whitworth "to endeavor to reorganize his line," to establish liaison between the units, and to prepare for counterattacks. At Whitworth’s request Lejeune ordered the relieved battalions of the 3rd and 4th Brigades to reoccupy the jump-off line. The situation was not as desperate as the generals were afraid it might be, but the precaution of bringing up the relieved troops was appropriate.

[139] The 71st Brigade spent the night of October 8-9 attempting to reorganize its line and moving up food, water, and ammunition. Unable to obtain water, Bloor did the best he could by sending up canned tomatoes. The marines on the left and the 3rd Brigade troops on the right were nearly all relieved by the 2nd Engineers. "Off and on through the entire night," Chastaine reported, "the pup-pupping of the Maxims [machine guns] sounded at intervals" and occasionally "the bullets . . . would skirt the top of a parapet." Both sides kept up a harassing artillery fire and the Germans prevented the recovery of wounded men, whose cries could be heard between the lines, and hampered the efforts of Doughboy patrols seeking to locate and/or verify positions by constantly lighting the area with flares.

The precise location of the forward positions was not ascertained for some time. As finally determined, the right, center, and left of the 141st was about 900, 300, and 800 yards above the jump off. Although it was thought otherwise at first, the 141st was not as far advanced as the 142nd. The latter unit, however, was not as far ahead of its departure point as the 141st. The overall gain of the brigade was probably less than 600 yards.

The reorganization continued the next day, October 9, amid constant shelling and sporadic machine gun and sniper fire. Numerous platoons and companies were shifted about to plug gaps. No attempt was made to reconstitute battalions; instead, provisional battalions were reorganized per se. The 3rd Provisional Battalion, 142nd Infantry, advanced against "a terrific machine gun fire, the latter containing much gas," to connect with the 2nd Division troops thought to be further advanced than they actually were on the left. Other fairly similar operations designed to straighten lines, to strengthen positions, and to reconnoiter German defenses were conducted in the American and adjoining French zones. During the night and following morning the Panthers completed the relief of the 2nd Division troops on the left and right in preparation for the withdrawal of the 2nd Division and the insertion of the 72nd Brigade into the line.9

The 71st Brigade suffered over 1,600 casualties in the two days, October 8-9. Of this number, nearly 1,300 were incurred on the 8th. The losses for the two infantry regiments were 18 officers and 280 men killed; 37 officers and 694 men wounded, 6 officers and [140] 113 men gassed; and 74 men missing. Although the 141st lost more Panthers killed, its total casualties were slightly less than those of the 142nd. These figures do not include several officers and men who were evacuated for shell shock and exhaustion. It was difficult to obtain accurate casualty figures in part because many men were evacuated from the aid stations in the darkness of night "without tagging." As late as December, 1918, Whitworth complained that he had "at no time been able to procure an accurate [casualty] list."

Of the battalion commanders, Hutchings and Wright were killed, Kuhlman was wounded, and Hawkins was evacuated for shell shock.10 Hutchings went over the top with a company short on officers and was killed by an exploding shell about 300 yards from the departure line. Wright was shot while leading an attack on a machine gun nest. Captain Ridings, who was himself dazed by gas, thought Wright, as the battle began, "looked too busy to be scared, and you could hear that fog-horn voice of his plainly above the roar of bursting shells and the constant pat-pat of machine gun and rifle fire."

The fighting also took a heavy toll of company commanders. Captains Carter C. Hanner of Stillwater, Huge O. Kendrick of Fort Worth, and Willis E. Pearce of Ardmore were killed and about a dozen were wounded or gassed. Several in the latter category, however, remained with the brigade or were evacuated and subsequently returned to duty. Another captain killed in action was David T. Hanson of Amarillo, the 142nd surgeon in charge of the 3rd Battalion aid station.

There were some painfully touching moments. Mortally wounded by a machine gun bullet, Captain Hanner, who commanded the Indian company, 142nd Infantry, gave his personal belongings to a soldier and asked that he "Send these to my wife." Struck by shrapnel just after going into action and dying, Corporal Charles I. Teague of Knox City, Texas, told the medic and stretcher bearers who rushed to his side: "They got me the first time. Go ahead and get some one you can save, for I am going to die." And Private Sam P. Price, upon taking a machine gun bullet, called to an officer in his final breath, "I guess they have got me."11

"Sherman was right about war being hell," Private White wrote home a few days later. White was not "as scared as I expected [141] to be" and "came through without a scratch." But one of his old friends was killed and another was missing. The latter "may be in the hospital. I hope so anyway." Company K, 142nd Infantry, as a whole suffered over 40 percent casualties on October 8 alone, the highest in the 3rd Battalion, which was badly battered, as opposed to about 21 percent for the brigade. Every company in the 2nd Battalion lost more men, however, and Company C, 141st Infantry, took more losses than any other in the brigade.

Many soldiers frankly admitted to being "scared" at the outset. Whatever fears they experienced, the overwhelming majority sufficiently overcame them to turn in a fine performance. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Hawley, a West Pointer, class of 1904, who accompanied the 71st as an observer, jotted in his diary that "the Brigade behaved splendidly in action." General Smith and Captain Spence subsequently attributed the heavy casualties to the almost reckless abandon displayed by both officers and men while Hawley thought it was "due to the blundering of the 2nd Division." Just what Hawley had in mind has not been ascertained since he did not elaborate and the 2nd might be criticized on more than one point, but it is known that the 36th staff officer was quite distressed on October 7 when the 2nd refused to employ "some of their machine gun units" in addition to the "reserve company" covering the right flank. The faults of the 2nd aside, General Lejeune stated years later that he was proud to have commanded the 36th troops. And his officers and men, of whom some considered the massive German firepower in the Blanc Mont sector as the worst they had encountered, were impressed by the Panthers’ conduct in their baptism of fire.

Numerous 71st officers and men were singled out by the American and French high commands for medals. This subject will receive additional attention in the final chapter, but it seems appropriate to mention here that two Oklahomans in the 142nd Infantry were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their "conspicuous gallantry" on October 8. Corporal (later Sergeant) Samuel H. Sampler, Company H, from Mangum stormed a machine gun nest that had penned down his company and destroyed it with German hand grenades, killing two and capturing 28 enemy soldiers. Similarly, Corporal Harold I. Turner, Company F, from Seminole opened the way for his company to advance by singlehandedly capturing a "strongpoint" containing 50 Germans and four machine guns.

[142] Lieutenant Colonel Otto considers the attack of the 71st as unsuccessful and cites as his reasons, directly or indirectly, the heavy casualties, the poor execution, the use of faulty tactics, the perceived demoralization of the troops, and the inability of the brigade to continue on October 9. The success of the Germans in thwarting the drive of the Americans and the French on the flanks bought them time to prepare for an orderly retreat to the Aisne. The withdrawal, which began late on October 9, was not local; rather, it was a general retirement all along the front west of the Argonne Forest.

The execution of the daylight attack was indeed poor and the brigade was in no shape to renew its drive the next day. But only a veteran division in good condition might have overcome the adverse circumstances under which the assault was made and hurled the Germans back with ease. The attack was made essentially by one brigade whereas the famed 2nd Division, upon which Otto heaps generous praise, gained its nearly four miles in the Blanc Mont sector with two brigades in the forefront. As to the heavy losses, they were only slightly greater on a relative basis than those of the 2nd which lost nearly 5,000 officers and men mostly in four days of hard fighting. As a matter of fact, the Americans were everywhere taking considerable losses in their efforts to press forward and bring the war to a successful conclusion. The American willingness to take high casualties is said to have astonished the German high command.

The column-of-battalions tactic, which Otto believes contributed to the 71st’s "failure," was that of the U.S. Army. As to his assumption that the Texans and Oklahomans were demoralized due to the strong resistance, the large number of casualties, the intermingling of organizations, and the "powerful counterattacks," he was completely wrong. They knew the 2nd’s casualty rate was high and they found the units they replaced intermixed. The truth is they believed they proved themselves as soldiers and, in the words of Captain V. S. Hillock of Tulsa, "made good." They achieved their intermediate objective, captured over 600 enemy soldiers and more than 75 machine guns, and, while German losses were otherwise not known, believed they punished the Germans severely. If the 71st was in no condition to renew the attack on October 9, neither was it faced with counterattacks.

[143] While the 71st’s advance was unimpressive in point of ground gained, Otto’s negative assessment of the brigade’s performance, in a war in which success or failure was for years measured in terms of hundreds of yards won or lost, is a little surprising. Otto undoubtedly accepts the contentions of German commanders in their reports that St. Etienne was a German victory because their troops withstood the enemy onslaught and ignores the fact that such attacks were shattering their thinly-spread forces all along the front. One suspects, too, that Otto was simply unwilling as a proud German officer to concede that a single, green National Guard brigade could deliver, as it did, a hard blow to several entrenched, veteran, though undermanned, German divisions generously endowed with machine guns and excellently supported by heavy artillery.12

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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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