The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 10, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

They had their wish. In the last days of July, the 37th American Division took their places in the Baccarat Sector, and the 77th departed. Whither? Chateau-Thierry? Siberia? Italy? Philippine Islands? The rank and file had no more idea of their destination than the man in the moon; but the were quite optimistic. They felt that they were hastening on their way to the German's main "place in the sun." there to "abruptly butt in" and unceremoniously appropriate all of the sun's dazzle. As Mr. Buck Private, who might have had his pre-preliminary training in the Grand Central Information Bureau, said: "this division is in for a lot of action. It has political influence behind it. It contains a host of men prominent in the business, political and social circles of the Nation's greatest city. They are all anxious to make names for themselves, and to get tons of glory. We are going to a hot sector, you bet!" Of course, there is always a pessimist present, even in a crowd of incurable optimists. One bugler averred that the division's host of prominent men was sufficient cause why the division should be transferred to the Mexican Border, instead of the Marne. Those great men would be needed after the war, and should not be permitted to get within reach of German guns that could blast them into very inconsequential little bits. No, siree!

However, time gave them the real answer--and quickly. On August 4, the last of the 77th Division had left the Baccarat Sector. On the 6th, they began a railway journey of two days, to an unknown destination, from Bayonne. Soon it was evident that were they not on the way to the Rio Grande. Chateau-Thierry loomed large in American vision just then, and it was to become even clearer to the New Yorkers from Baccarat.

It began to dawn on the men in the trains when they passed Bar-le-Duc, with sandbags on its station platform and with places on the road marked "Abri-60 Personnes." Or Cave--50 personnes" and the like. The Seventy-seventh was on its way to real war. It became more evident when all along the line the train passed great hangers, elephantine railway guns on sidings, and French camps of all kinds. Hospital trains, trains with French soldiers coming and going, were passed at frequent intervals, and a hurried work shouted from on to the other showed the Seventy-seventh that these men were battle-bound too, for some of then were veterans of many fights.

During the night the division detrained, bound for what they came to speak of as "the Hell-hole Valley of the Vesle," which perhaps is more informative to the average layman then General Pershing's report, which reads, in this connection: "The 77th took up a position on the Vesle." The detrainment was at Coulommieres, where busses awaited them. They "were carried through the ruin and wreckage of the Marne battlefield, over which American troops had just drive the retreating Huns. Death stared at them from every ditch. Snipers, dead in their lofty treetop posts swung in the wind; destroyed buildings, the scattered bodies of animals torn by shells, all gave them a never-to-be-forgotten introduction to a real battle-area. The camions passed through Chateau-Thierry, from which point, states the 77th Division History, "the hundred and one odors of the battlefield, forewarned the men from New York that this promised to be no gentleman's war." They pass rapidly on. "Toward the Vesle; to the ears of the infantry, rushing from Fere-en-Tardenois, and to those of the artillery rattling and clanking along from Chateau-Thierry through the white dust of the rutted roads, came the full, distant, thunderous 'boom-boom-boom' of the heavies. And ever nearer grew the sound until, mingling with the roar of the General Mangin's army farther north, it became a terrible drumming." In the Hello-hole Valley of the Vesle, on August 11, the 77th Division took the place of the war-battered 4th Americans and 62d French divisions, or at least took up part of the line that they had held.

With the French Division on their left, and the men from Pennsylvania--the National Guardsmen of the 28th Division--on their right, the 77th Division was in place for the supreme test of the Great Experiment. The National Army of America, the citizen-soldiers of the great republic across the seas, the product of the great melting-pot, into which crucible men of all Nations might drop and come through fired with the American spirit, was about to be known at its real value. It was a hard test. Confronting the 77th, this "fresh American Division of young men hardly yet removed from the amateur class as soldiers," were some of the best divisions that the German Army contained. Before the Melting-Pot Division at this time and in the subsequent advance were the 4th Prussian Guards and three regular German division, the 17th, 2d and 216th.

Those were the dog-days of summer, but the sun was not the only heating element that came into the Hell-hole Valley of the Vesle. The men of the 77th soon began to realize that Baccarat had been "only a boxing match," by comparison with Vesle, which "was a sure-enough fight." Guns of all sizes and origins seemed to be eager to contribute to the "house-warming' of the American divisions. There was the "Whizz-bang," which did not permit the time necessary to put a hyphen between the whizz and the bang; there was the "Iron Mermaid," the "Minnie Werfer," which filled the air with a "wailing, sob-like whistle: so distracting that one never knew where she would land, and which some never where she landed; there were the other more substantial visitors, who alighted with more emphasis from longer distances, and did not object to be given nick-names, such as "Tons-of-Coal," "Jack Johnson," "G. I. Can," or "Whimpering Willie." They all brought especial greeting to the men from New York, and made somewhat louder noise then rivetters could get out o a steel structure at home. As one boy described the hail that came into the valley of the Vesle, "the smaller guns were sending over quart cans of dynamite, and the larger ones cook stoves."

Of course, Americans were returning the greetings. One doughboy, a he watched French and American batteries moving into position, exclaimed: "There'll be something doing for Fritz when these babies get going." He was right, for soon "the massed French and American batteries turned loose with a racket that seemed to rend the universe." Tit brought Tat to life and Tat in time out grew his elder brother.

The headquarters of the 77th Division were in the Chateau Bruyere; and the front line taken by the division on the 11th was destined to be their station for the next few weeks. The Vesle River is only about thirty feet wide and only eight or ten feet deep at that point. The Germans were on the north bank, and the 77th held the southern bank, on a line extending eastward from Mont Notre Dame in the direction of Fismes, where the 28th division were being stubbornly checked, on the railway embankment, by the sullen but not yet demoralized Germans. The artillery of the New York Division was behind Hill 210.

The guns said most that was said at that time. As Lieutenant Edward F. Graham, of the 305th Field artillery, wrote to his mother, on August 10: "this is a cowering war--pigmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying t escape the blows of the giant who pounds the earth with blind hammers." The giant found him next day and took his life. One might escape the giant--the big guns and the field artillery--but Sudden Death, in the guise of airplane bombs, hand grenades, sharpshooter's deadly missiles, machine gun rat-tat-tatter, and the insidious gas, which seemed to linger in shell-holes, was ever searching for victims. The first relief of the 153d Brigade, trying to reach the lines in single file ten feet apart, had to give up the attempt and each man, in self-protection, had to big himself into a "funk-hole"--a hastily-scraped hole barely deep enough to put the prone body below the surface of the ground, and there remain until the intensity of the bombardment has passed. During one relief, when the 306th were leaving Mont Notre Dame, the Germans were pouring gas into that village at the rate of thirty shells a minute. It was in this emergency that a typical soldier of the Melting-Pot Division proved his worth, also that there is as good Americanizing material among Asiatics as among Europeans. Sing Kee in civil life probably wrote laundry slips in Chines characters in New York City, but now he as creditably wearing Uncle Sam's uniform, and was proud to have the Statute of Liberty design as should insignia. He belonged to a message-center unit, and the operation now depended solely upon himself, for all of his comrades had been wounded. He himself had been gassed, but a break in the line of communication might bring disaster to his regiment, perhaps to the division. So sing kee stayed at his post and operated the message-center until relieved twenty-four hours later. Upon his breast was later pinned the Distinguished Service Cross.

Death stalked everywhere. "Hell-hole Valley" was a appropriate name for the depression through which this rivulet ran. For three weeks, the 77th found themselves :buried in the hottest kind of a hole." In desperate endeavors to repair the bridge over the Vesle, the 302nd Engineer worked heroically under shell-fire. In addition, they risked machine gun rain and sharpshooter darts, and he poisonous gas that clung to the watercourse. Their efforts were certainly heroic. If the bridge-builders survived the perils of the night, they could not be sure that Death would not find them in their sleep next day. Read the testimony of one of the boys:

It was breakfast time and some of those who had been out on detail the night before had not yet got up. I w as just going down with my mess-kit when I heard a shell coming. I flopped flat one the ground, for I could tell by the sound that it was going to land pretty close. . . . . it landed, and threw dirt all over us. The second landed right in front of my comrade's bunk. Then I heard the cry for first aid.

The shell had killed three and wounded four; but the bridge building went on might after might, to completion. If one of the raiding patrols should fall in No Man's Land slightly wounded, he had only a remote chance of being able to crawl back to safety. The following, which happened to a patrol of the 28th Division, whose front adjoined that of the 77th, well describes the danger: "A sergeant of Company C, 111th Infantry, was shot on August 10 and lay in an exposed position. Sergeant Alfred Stevenson, of Chester . . . volunteered to go to the rescue. He successfully made his way through the enemy fire to the side of the wounded comrade. As he leaned over the man to get a grip on him so that he could carry the burden, a sharpshooter's bullet struck him. Stevenson partially raised himself and said to the wounded man: 'Gee! They got me that time.' As he spoke the words, the sniper shot him again, and he fell dead." Four or five nights later, a patrol of three men of the 77th "stumbled over a perfectly innocent shell-hole. . . . and found in it two Germans with automatic rifles, hand grenades, and two other rifles stacked against the side of the hole. It was a sniper's post." "Kill or get Killed" was the controlling purpose of both sides at that time, it seemed.

It was somewhat annoying to American divisions to be watched by such daring and prying eyes of those that reconnoitered their positions from the sky daily. The American air forces at that time were not fully organized, and the German aviators were especially active over the American sectors, in consequence. The 152d Brigade, the artillerymen of the division, were espied from the sky, on August 15, as they were preparing to get into gun positions. They had to endure two raids during that night. In addition, their position was made known, and the long-range and field guns of the enemy became busy. One of the big guns, a "G. I. Can," sent a messenger which demonstrated marked powers of excavation. Its visit left a crater sixty feet across and fifteen feet deep. Fortunately, not many of that type came over. Indeed, the nerves of the men of the 77th were jarred more by the air bombers then by artillery. "There were men in the 77th who would rather dodge machine gun bullets and shells mixed up in pleasing proportions than listen to the ominous galloping hum of a Boche bomber in the air over a bright moonlight night." The reconnoitering planes that flew over the infantry positions daily were irritatingly audacious. They would fly so low that they could rake the trenches with the machine gun. It was especially annoying to the men aimed at to realize that they could not hit back; but a visit by a squadron of air bombers was more serious event. Quoting the History of the 77th Division:

One can hear him coming from afar until that "hum-hum-hum" seems as though it must be directly over one. Then comes a resounding crash, with no previous sound or warning whistle at all-then another, and two or three more, all in a string, rocking the ground for miles. The delicate silver-white fingers of searchlights grope the heavens for the monster while machine guns and anti-aircraft pieces shatter the air. Tiny balls of fire, shrapnel bursting thousands of yards from the earth, mock the moon and stars.

Undoubtedly, even the greatest man in the 77th Division now knew what war really was. As the veteran war correspondent, Frederick Palmer, wrote, "the 77th division, National Army, from New York City," was finding that his experience "in a violent sector" was quite different from that entertaining period of schooling spent in Lorraine. He wrote:

Very different this from the languid shelling and the occasional trench raid and routine patrols in Alsace. The melting-pot was put to the test of the fire that crucibles require--the old, old test of facing sudden death, of suffering pain from wounds and of submitting self to superior orders and to the will of destiny.

Indeed, these men of all races and religions, who had known only city lodgings ands city streets, were having hardships quite as stiff as any of the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed on the poet's rock-bound coast, down there below the heights, in that hell's kitchen of the Chateau Diable, fair mark for all kinds of projectiles, and in their little outposts across the river and along the railroad tracks, and in the woods and ravines where they had to wear their gas masks for ten or twelve hours on end, the approach by day to the valley, where they held their ground, required dodging from shell crater to shell crater against sniping rifle-fire . . . .

You could not expect a little man who had worked in a factory and lived in a tenement on the East Side, when his mother and father had been narrow-chested before him, to have the physique of a Michigan lumber-jack or an Iowa farmer born of generations that had blown their lungs in fresh air. A National Army company from the villages and the ranches if bound to have more strength fro carry up trench mortars to the front line than one from mean streets, although, under the physical regime of the army, some of the East Siders had developed from puniness to robustness in a year's time.

The spirit! Did they have that? This was the right ingredient for the melting-pot under machine gun-fire. They were proving that they had, under merciless fire.

They were also demonstrating that the surest leveler of human classes is association in the face of death. Palmer, referring further to the cosmopolitan 77th, wrote:

The stores about the comradeship formed between men who knew their morning baths and the clubs with men from the tenements was true. It was "Buddy" back and forth between bunkies, whatever their origin; they had learned to appreciate the man-quality in each other.

The man-quality in all of them at that time of comparative checkmate was crying out for a chance to try their strength in attack. In defence, they had been steady, strong, vigilant, and courageous; but were they never to be allowed to attempt to struggle out of that "Hell-hole"? if they had not had such confidence in their commander their lot might have been hard to bear. Major-General Duncan "was a proper leader for such men, with his white hair and ruddy face, his poise, his sound professional ability, his comprehensive interest in all who served him and his singular talent for developing the best that was in subordinates." It is said that "all the army was fond of Duncan, who had a knightliness of character which we all like to associate with soldiers for a good cause." In that current stage of its experience, it was perhaps fortunate for the New Yorkers that the 77th was commanded by a man of such pronounced human understanding, one who could instill in men such confidence in himself. General Duncan was as eager as they to find the way to break the well-nigh unbearable strain. His men understood him, and knew that he understood them. This mutual bond made the waiting easier, for they felt that at the first opportunity, their commander would find the way out. He found it in the last days of August, when he decided to attempt to capture the village of Bazoches.

The offensive was to be entrusted to only one regiment, the 306th Infantry, but it was at least a rift in the terribly dark cloud that had hung over them for so long. Maybe, this offensive by one regiment would prove to be the preliminary of a general attack. So, on the night of August 27, the division as a whole followed the reports ht came, or imagined the success that was coming, to the 306th across the Vesle River. The raid was successful, the objective being reached before daybreak; and, although retirement soon followed, owing to the fact that the Germans were able to bomb the attackers on both flanks as well as in front, from concealed positions on the hills, it indicated positively that, with greater force, the Vesle might be crossed, and "Hell-hole Valley" left behind.

Soon after this episode, Major-General Duncan was relieved of the command, Major-General Robert Alexander taking his place. It does not seem likely that there was any relation between the raid and the change of command, for Duncan had amply proved himself as a general officer. His career had been a distinguished one. He had shown good leadership in the Spanish-American War, had come to France with the First Division, had gone over the top with a regiment of French Infantry at Verdun, in August, 1917, then winning the Croix de Guerre. He had commanded a brigade of the First Division in the Toul battle sector in the winter of 1191718, this being the first battle-sector command exercised by an American general officer in France. He had taken his division to Picardy, in April, 1918, and his ability as a brigadier in the battle near Montdidier had brought him promotion to division rank. In May, Major-General Duncan had been assigned to the command of the 77th division. Therefore, it seems hardly possible that the fact that he had given his restless men their "head" to carry through the raid, instead of holding them in tight rein in the unbearable trenches, can have been the reason for the change in divisional command. As a matter of fact, Major-General Duncan later served with such distinction, as the commander of the 82d division, that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

It seems almost that General Duncan's slipping of the leash from his men of the Melting-Pot Division proved the one element about which military experts had formerly been in doubt. Certainly, movement forward followed quickly after the 77th Division, in the raid, had demonstrated that the citizen soldiery of the United States, the National Army made up of draftees, was capable of offensive operations against even the most experienced German combat troops. It was seen, as it was fondly hoped it would be, that the men of New York, the motley aggregation that represented the mean of cosmopolitan city life, was able to endure such an unnerving trial as had been the lot of the 77th during those weeks in Hell-hole Valley, and still possess "an offensive spirit and a suppleness which justified the faith of a nation in the melting-pot." Here, on this line, where the German had temporarily check the counter-offensive of the allies in July so stubbornly as to make the stabilization of such a front a most severe test of soldiery qualities, the inexperienced 77th had proved itself. The men had lived for weeks under a strain that would have shattered weak nerves, had made this line strong, and had shown an offensive spirit strong enough for any combat need. Whether it was "according to plan" or because of American divisions along the Vesle front were worrying them too much, the Germans on September 1 began to retire to their next line of defense--the River Aisne.

It seems quite possible that the German High command was not altogether ignorant of the great development that had happened in American military affairs during the last few weeks. An important mark in American military history had been made on August 10, 1918, when the organization of the American First Army was completed. With this greater freedom of operations, the Germans might logically expect to find the American commander-in-chief, General Pershing, suddenly beginning operation of greater magnitude than any he, with French or British curb, had hitherto tried. As august passed into September, it became clearer to the Germans that Pershing was preparing for a great movement somewhere. He had been gathering his "wandering soldiers" from all points of the front--from Flanders from Artois, from Champagne, from Picardy. Just as soon as the French or the British could release or relieve, novitiate or graduate American divisions, the latter were wending their way to Lorraine--the "United State in France." There, they were being rapidly reorganized for service. Where? Well, somewhere! Somewhere was the element of doubt that brought uneasy moments to the German High Command, and perhaps caused them to draw in their lines to safer bases. They would have had to draw them in anyway, for their Vesle front had become untenable.

So, while Pershing was organizing his great all-American effort to reduce the St. Mihiel salient, the men of the Melting-Pot Division were following the Germans as closely as possible to their next natural line of defence, the Aisne. At the side of the New York division was the iron division, the men from Pennsylvania who had struggled so valiantly for possession of Fismes. By the time Pershing has bitten off the St. mihiel salient and shown that Americans ordinarily find the big way of doing things, a great chance had occurred along the Allied front. The Allied liens were advancing everywhere. There was hardly one trench system along the whole Western Front that the Germans had been able to hold, when attacked. They lost the power of the offensive, or even an offensive-defensive. American troops had been contributing to this. The 28th and 77th divisions had continued t make the Germans "step lively," in covering the distance from the Vesle to the Aisne.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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