The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 11, Part 4

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

As a result, after carrying out their almost hopeless task with superb ardor and fortitude, these exhausted men of the 78th in the gas-saturated Bois des Loges were, on the night of October 19, told they were to fall back to Grand Pre-St. Juvin Road, abreast of the line of the 82d Division, and they complained. They might be staggering with fatigue and nearly suffocated with gas, but they had been fighting in hot blood at close quarters for that portion of the woods. They did not want to yield this dearly bought ground. They were critical of the order which compelled them to retrace this step in the darkness--which was done in good order--across the levels that had been spattered with the blood of their comrades.

The efforts of the officer and men engaged in this frontal attack on an admirably organized enemy position, which could not be flanked because the units on the right and left had been unable to advance, were as brave and persistent as any in the stubborn fighting on the Argonne front. No better illustration of the excellent spirit these men showed could be found than the fact that their main criticism of the four days' fighting was that they were ordered to withdraw. The work of Major Segarra and Captain Jones of the 309th Infantry, as battalion commanders, was particularly praiseworthy.

While the attacks against the Bois de Loges were taking place, persistent attempts by the 156th Brigade were being made to gain possession of the whole town of Grand Pre and to push the American lines to the heights at the north of the town and into the southern edge of the Bois de Bourgogne. Attacks were made by the 213th Infantry, acting with

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the 311th on their right. The 311th gained possession of the Fermes des Loges and the ridge to its west, but the 312th, on their left,. was held up in Grand Pre and the Fermes had to be given up. After two hours' artillery preparation, beginning at midnight on the 18th, an assault was made against the citadel in Grand Pre and against Talma Hill to the west by the 312th, under colonel A. V. P. Anderson. Two parties attacked the citadel; one was unable to scale the cliff because of the machine gun fire from the Bois de Bougogne, and a storm of hand grenades from the top of the cliff. The other party succeeded in reaching the top, only to be driven off by machine guns and grenades.

The 1st Battalion, 311th Infantry, under Major Odom, made a successful attempt and gained the ridge to the west of Ferme de Loges by 8:30 in the morning. Its left was stopped at the foot of the slope a few hundred yards east of Bellejoyeuse Ferme. This position was held all day, but the night of the 19th, when the withdrawal from the Bois des Loges of the 155th Brigade was ordered, the 311th Infantry was ordered to conform to the movement and l back to the general line through Ferme des Graves.

There was a pause in the operations around Grand Pre from October 20 to 23, to permit a careful reconnaissance. A new attack was planned for the 23d. The plan called for a heavy destructive fire and concentration of non-persistent gas on the points to be attacked. A smoke screen was to be laid down to cover two converging attacks from Grand Pre and Talma Hill.

The attack began as scheduled and was partially successful. Troops of the 312th in Grand pre met with terrific machine gun and artillery fire, so that their advance was badly broken up. Lieutenant M. H. Harris, with three or four men, were the only ones to scale the wall of the citadel in time to accompany the rolling barrage. This small group reached Bellejoyeuse Ferme and indulged in a wild struggle with the garrison there, but because of their insignificant number, could not take the place and were obliged to fall back to the American lines in the park north of the citadel. The line there had been stopped by machine guns about half a mile from their jump-off and later fell back 325 yards to get better shelter from the severe artillery fire. the attack on Talma Hill was successful. The battalion objective was gained and patrols sent out along the southern edge of the Bois des Bourgogne. Seventy-eight prisoners were taken on the citadel, one man in company K, 312th, taking forty-seven of them out of one dugout. About as many were taken by the 1st Battalion on its attack on Talma Hill. While the full objective set for this attack was not reached, two of the three points which make up the stronghold of Grand Pre were taken--Talma Hill and the Citadel in Grand Pre, and the way opened for the success that followed. It was during this attack that Supply Sergeant Sawelson of Company M, 312th

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Infantry, won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sergeant Sawelson went to the aid of a badly wounded comrade who was lying exposed to terrific machine gun fire far in advance of his company's line. Finding that he could not carry the man to shelter, Sawelson returned to get water for him, and on his second trip out he was killed just as he handed his comrade the canteen.

The day of the 24th witnessed a continuation of the offensive on the whole divisions front. The next morning the 3d Battalion, 311th, under Captain flint, passed through the forces of the 312th on top of Talma Hill and attacked. This attack was preceded by a brief artillery diversion to the east and a ten minute preparation by artillery and machine guns, the latter being especially effective. They easily gained the edge of the Bois des Bourgogne, and then fought their way along to a line running along the edge of the woods to a point about a quarter mile west of Talma Hill. This left a gap of almost a mile between the force in the part north of Grand pre and the battalion of the 311th coming in from the west.

Reinforcements of two companies from the 2d Battalion, 311th, were sent up during the night of October 25-26, to strengthen the rather thinly-held line and to assist in "mopping up" the woods and gaining touch with Grand Pre. A severe enemy barrage and a counter-attack by infantry supported with machine guns along the ridge north of Hill 204 delayed the finishing touches on these operations until the early morning of the 27th, when company E, with the assistance of one pounders, drove the last remaining enemy machine guns from the heights north of Grand Pre, thus putting an end to this enemy stronghold that had figured so conspicuously in holding up the extreme left of the American line. On the 26th the remainder of the 2d Battalion was ordered into close support of the line; at the same time relieving the companies of the 312th Infantry in Grand Pre.

On the night of this day the 1st Battalion, 311th, was relieved from the front line in the vicinity of Ferme des Greves, and placed in reserve at La Noue le Coq. The 155th Brigade extended its line to the Ferme des Greve and the gap from there to Grand Pre across the bend of the river was covered by strong machine gun positions. The 312th, upon its relief, went into division reserve, and the 311th, supported by the 309th machine gun battalion, organized the 156th Brigade front in the Bois de Bourgogne in preparation for the major operation of November 1. Further serious exploitation of the success of reducing Grand Pre was not attempted upon camp orders. Minor rectifications of the front, including the occupation of Talma Village on the 28th and Bellejoyeuse Ferme on the 29th, and the reduction of annoying machine gun nests, were easily accomplished before the great attack of November 1.

The final and successful attack on Grand Pre was the occasion for the

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commendatory message from Lieutenant General Liggett, commander of the First Army, which reads as follows:

The Army is very much pleased with the persistent, intelligent, and successful work done by the 78th Division in clearing up the ridges north of Grand Pre.

Major-General Dickman of the 1st Army Corps, added the tribute:

I heard the Commander of the 1st Army, General Hunter Liggett express himself as much pleased with your intelligent persistence in pushing operations against the enemy in your sector.

I wish to add to this high appreciation of the perseverance of yourself, the officers and enlisted men of your division in pursuing operations in most difficult terrain and under severe conditions, completing the capture of Grand Pre and pushing your line well forward in the Bois de Bourgogne.

Please convey my sentiments to all concerned.

During the last few days of October, preparations were made for the big attack of November 1. Quantities of small arms, ammunition, rockets, flares, etc., were brought up close to all lines and stored in dumps. Telephone liens were increased and new lamp stations organized so that communications would be assured during the attack. The 303d Engineers under constant fire built several bridges across the Aire River. the artillery force was greatly increased by 1st Army and 1st Corps troops and many French batteries. The only thing that was lacking to put the division in good shape was men to replace the heavy casualties of the depleted infantry regiments--but none were available.

The Pursuit towards Sedan--During the last days of October when the front line of the division stretched out along the crest of the ridge in the southern portion of the Bois de Bourgogne to the village of Talma, the sector was quieter than it have been during any of the month's fighting. The Germans still sent over their morning and evening shells into the valley of the Aire. Enemy planes occasionally flew low along the division front line firing machine guns with little effect. Stray bullets came down the Ferme de Louvet road and from the woods north and northeast of Talma, cracking over the heads of the American outposts. But there was little organized fighting, Talma and Grand Pre having been cleared and the Bois des Loges, which had proved such a stronghold against earlier attacks was quiet as a country churchyard.

It must have been hard for the enemy to gather what the forces on the other side were doing during the lull, and where and when an attack was contemplated and whether any serious operations were in contemplation at all. As a matter of fact the allies in the sector were preparing the biggest movement that the 78th division had yet participated in--the November 1 attack. During those last four days of October the line officers me daily in their battalion and regimental P. C.'s, and studied the secret orders and maps as they came in from division headquarters.

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Back in brigade headquarters and division the intelligence reports were being analyzed with the great care. The artillery was bringing up vast supplies of ammunition. Every detail was being carefully prepared.

The 155th Brigade, with the 309th and 310th Infantry regiments on the line in the order named from the right to left, was supported by the 308th Machine Gun Battalion, and the 309th Field Artillery. The 156th Brigade was supported by the 309th Machine Gun Battalion and the 308th Field Artillery, it had the 311th Infantry only on the line, the 312th Infantry being in reserve. For this attack the army command had supplemented the 78th division's own artillery with the direct, close suppose of the 238th French F. A., 257th French F. A., each with nine batteries of 75 Mms., and the 65th Regiment U. D. Coast guard Artillery Corps, with two batteries of 9.2" guns.

The plan of attack was as follows: In front of the 156th Brigade lay the Bois de Bourgogne, a belt of thick woods extending north fro about eight kilometers. Fighting through the woods was to be avoided by saturating it with yperite (mustard gas)m especially along its eastern edge. The 156th Brigade was to hold the southern edge of the woods from Talma to the north of Grand pre, and attack and face the eastern edge of the woods. The 155th Brigade was to attack north through the Bois des Loges, its left flank being protected by the 1256th Brigade. The French were to advance to the west of the Bois de Bourgogne and liaison re-established with them at its northern end, near Boult-aux-Bois.

The first objective was a line stretching from the Bois de Bourgogne on the left through the northern edge of the Bois des Loges; the subsequent objective, a ridge two kilometers north of Briquenay. As the Bois des Loges was believed to be thinly held, two hours artillery preparation was thought to be inadequate. During all this preparation the mysterious symbols "D" day and "H" hour were the only information that was given out as to the moment of "jump-off." On October 30 the wail of gas shells from the division's artillery told the men that the yperite was beginning its deadly work in the Bois de Bourgogne. All that day and all the next the gas fire continued unceasingly. Nearly 40,000 rounds of yperite shells were fired into certain areas of the Bourgogne Woods, then batteries continued rapid destructive fire on certain known enemy positions. The continued rapid whirr of the shells passing over to the German lines turned day and night of October 31 into a weird pandemonium. Four two hours immediately preceding the attack 10,000 rounds of high explosives were poured into the troublesome Bois des Loges by the 153d F. A. Brigade and the attached army artillery. As further fire preparation a heavy machine gun barrage was laid down on the Bois des Loges, the ridge to the west of this woods and on the road running north into le Morthomme from Grand Pre. Under this intense concentration it seemed well nigh impossible that the Germans could survive. The night of the 31st word

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was whispered down the front line that we were going over at 5:30 the next morning.

Great confidence prevailed among the officers and men on the eve of the attack. The morale was excellent. The few days quiet had restored the spirits of everyone. One battalion commander said, in a conference of officers for final preparations, that the next day's show would be a "picnic" and, he believed , the last battle of the war. The major was right in his second prophecy, but the picnic was a little delayed. He had under-estimated the brilliant rear-guard defense of the Germans in the Bois des Loges--the last of the German surprises.

Rumors of an imminent armistice--rumors which had haunted the men almost from the time that they had left the St. Mihiel lines--had little weight with the forces. Peace appeared remote to the occupants of the shell holes on the St. Juvin.

At 1:30 on the morning of November 1 the troops took their positions on the line of departure organized in the wave formation in which they were to jump off--two think skirmish lines followed by lines of staggered columns. At half past three the thunder of the artillery began back in the hills and the great circle of the horizon burst into flame. From the ridge south of the Aire Valley came the sharp "rat-tat-tat" of a machine gun barrage.

The men were eager for the attack when dawn came. Chilled by the long hours of the night they waited impatiently for the signal to advance. A heavy mist hung over the broad plain which stretched ahead of the line of departure and the first advancing waves were soon lost to sight. But this happy concealment was short lived and as the last of the staggered columns moved out the mist rose and the sun shone on thin, long lines of bayonets. Immediately the counter-barrage of German 77s came down in the face of our men. The men advanced steadily against the artillery barrage but the bands of fire laid down were impassable. The men dug in along the edge of the Bois des Loges.

On an unimproved road progress was checked by the machine gun fire from numerous German Maxims echeloned in depth tot he front and on the heights to the northwest. Such was the strength and cunning of the German positions that the previous artillery preparation was a wasted effort.

The front line of the right brigade was held up all day of November 1 and suffered heavy casualties. A definite attempt was made at 1:30 to advance against the hostile machine fun positions, but the accompanying barrage was light and no progress was made. The front line units were so depleted that it was impossible to send wounded men to the rear and it was not until late that night that they could be removed. Much suffering resulted and everyone, whether wounded or not, spent a day and a night doing one of the most difficult of war jobs--the job of siting still under nearly continuous fire. The enemy had very clearly

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Taken full advantage of the naturally strong positions he held; every road, trail and by-way of the woods was in perfect enfilade.

In the 156th Brigade the front line held by two battalions of the 311th Infantry. The 3d Battalion under Major Cooke, reinforced by a machine gun company, was to remain in position holding the southern edge of the Bois de Bourgogne from Talma to a point about 700 yard northwest of Bellejoyeuse Ferme, and maintain liaison with the French on the left. The 2d Battalion, under Lieutenant-colonel Budd, in position along the ridge extending north from Grand Pre and connecting with the right of the 3d Battalion, jumped off at the appointed hour. Its first objective was a general east and west line connecting the northwest point of the Bois des Loges with the Bois de Bourgogne. The attack of this battalion was in a northeasterly direction, across deep, open machine guns from the high ground to the north and east. The most serious difficulty was encountered in attempting to get cross the valley immediately north of Bellejoyeuse Ferme, for the ridge extending from the point of the Bois des Loges was strongly held by the enemy and their flanking fire throughout the early par of the day could not be overcome. By late afternoon however the right company succeeded in working up the ridge from the road west of Ferme and the 311th Infantry attained its objective.

Night came and with it a new plan of attack. The way over now open; the Bois des Loges was to be attacked from the west. The 312th infantry moved up during the night into position in the vicinity of Ferme des Loges to strike this stronghold of the flank at the same time that the 155th Brigade renewed its attack from the south. The Bois des Loges, as one of the enemy's main points of resistance, was doomed, and the Germans knew it.

With the morning light the front lines moved forward. Steadily through the thick woods they advanced without a suggestion of opposition. Men who had dodged and crawled and walked between bullets half the night could not believe their senses until they came on the tangible evidence of their retreat. Deep buried in the woods, carefully dug and skillfully protected, were the countless dugouts and emplacements. Besides the Maxims and plentiful supplies of ammunition, the Germans in their haste had left helmets, packs, pistols, personal equipment, wine and maps in reckless and whole abandonment. But of the men themselves there were not except here and there a body shattered out of human resemblance by Allied artillery. Thus the worst of their rear-guard actions ended by a quiet, sudden withdrawal of the last gunners during the early morning hours of November 2.

No time was lost in taking up the pursuit, one feature of which was immediately to load a detachment consisting of several companies of the 311th and 312th Infantry and one of the 307th Machine Gun Battalion

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into motor truck and rush them forward until stopped by mined roads and blown out bridges north of Briquenay.

The Germans had developed a complete system of light railway transport, and veritable networks of these light, narrow-gauge liens were constructed by them, supplementing the standard rail lines they had won from the French in the early stages of the war. One of their terminals, with great track and sidings, was located midway between le Morthomme and Briquenay on the fringe of the Bois de Bourgogne. So under the tremendous pressure of our two days artillery preparation and the driving attack of November 1, the Germans quietly loaded on trains the bulk of their forces that had been doggedly holding this well-nigh impregnable front and speedily withdrew them to the rear, leaving only a very light covering to follow on foot. The enemy reasoned that after three weeks of this continually persistent, hammering blows and desperate thrusts that the "Lightning" Division would be in no mood or condition to press to closely on their heels, but notwithstanding, they took every precaution to retard pursuit. Great trees, which had lined the roads, were felled cross-cross in certain sections. Numerous rows had been chopped with a huge V neat the base, ready to be dropped, but the installation of the necessary spark wire and explosive discharge were neglected in their haste. Roads were blown up, bridges destroyed, and the steel rails at close intervals shattered and twisted by explosive charges.

The 78th Division infantry could advance through the shell torn fields in, around and through the numerous craters that dotted the landscape, but the farther they went the farther the transport had to go to provide them with rations and ammunition. Therefore the ability of a division to continue pursuit after the "break through" indispensably required most efficient arrangement at the rear. These fortunately the division had. Engineers were prompt in clearing up and repairing the shattered roads and hastily constructing temporary bridges; the artily and transport personnel assisting in this work of construction, and the pushing on in the vain effort to keep up right up with the advancing infantry. Signal troops rolled and unrolled reel after reel of wire for communication, but try hard as they could, it was impossible for the auxiliary forces to keep up.

All day the advance of the divisions infantry units was steady and rapid. Night brought the front line to a point in front of Briquenay stretching through the northern edge of the Thenorgues Woods. The advance was so fast that all communications with the rear, including, of course, ration and ammunition supply, had been temporarily cut off. The night was cold and a constant drizzling rain wet and chilled the men. On the right a few machine gun bullets came over slowing that the infantry was catching up with the German retreat. The night was very uncomfortable. The division forces were so depleted that the two regiments of the 155th Brigade, then under the command of Brigadier-General Sanford B. Stan-

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berry--General Hersey having been promoted to Major-General and assigned to command of the 4th Division, October 27--altogether numbered a little less then the strength of a single regiment, while practically the same was true of the 156th Brigade. The men were hungry. Many of them had nothing to eat since morning, there was one unit, however, that had been lucky enough to cross a flourishing German cabbage patch, and picked cabbages as the went along.

On the left contact was gained with the enemy just as he was withdrawing from Boult-aux-Bois. A patrol, followed by Company C, 312th entered the town and followed the Germans north to Belleville-sue-bar, which they captured at noon. At Boult-aux-Bois, the Americans joined up with the happy rejoicing French troops, who had come up on the west side of the Bois de Bourgogne. Further east other troops of the 312th, under Major Andreason, had driven the enemy out of Germont at 9:30 a. m., and then advanced detachments north through Authie towards Brieulles-sur-Bar and west toward Chatillon-sur-Bar. On this day the 311th Infantry--less its 3d Battalion--advanced on the right of the 312th, and occupied Brieulles-sur-Bar at 6;30 p. m., with its leading battalion. The remainder of the regiment halted for the night at Germont.

On the right, the 310th and 309th Infantry moved due north through Autruche. As the first men climbed the ridge south of that town they waved their arms and shouted back that the war was over. Truly there appeared to be ground for their conjecture, for the town presented an amazing spectacle. From every window, church steeple, and house top, sheets, towels, and clothing had been hunt to do duty as white flags. But a few men, wiser than the rest soon quieted that rumor. The truce flags merely showed that the town still held French civilians who thus pleaded with the American at long rang not to fire on them.

On the late afternoon the units which had reached the ridge south of Verrieres became convinced that the war was not yet over. Some machine guns held the opposite ridge, and the town was still occupied by Germans. Major Segarra immediately entered the town with the two front line battalions of the 309th and following brief guerrilla warfare, captured it. Two guns of the 308th Machine Gun Battalion and a one-pounder supported him by opening heavy fire. the range has to be guessed at because the advance had gone off the map carried by our officers, but the moral effect was good and the Germans soon withdrew. One dramatic incident marked the entry into Verrieres. The Germans in their retreat delivered a parting blow to the civilian inhabitants who, for four years, had endured their tyranny, by setting fire to three of the houses. When the Americans entered Th. main street just at suck they found, standing between the flaming houses, a little group of Frenchmen singing the "Marseillaise." They thronged about the American as they came in, shouting "Vive l'Amerique," "Nous sommes biens sauves par les Americains!" It was their first knowledge that America was in the war.

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Hunger was relieved at Verrieres by unlimited quantities of "saw-dust" German bread and "ersatz" coffee; thirst, too assuaged by bottles of "red ink." That night, in the rain, the men dug in on the ridge north of the town and enjoyed a short snatch of sleep, warm despite the rain, in bundles of captured straw.

Through the night artillery fire on Verreieres told the troops that they had at least caught up with the rear guard of the enemy. By this time "contact" was the sole American objective and speed the most important perquisite. So during the night plans were made for a rapid march the next day with units in close order. The plan never materialized.

On the morning of the 4th the point of the road march--the 155th Brigade Reserve which had leap-frogged the front line battalions--ran into severe resistance in the Sy Woods. The division troops had gained close contact with the German rearguard, and here they made a stubborn stand, backed up with close support of numerous light artillery pieces. It appeared for a time that the Germans had decided to make a determined stand along the Tannay-G. des Armoises-La Berliere Road. General Sanford B. Stanberry, commander of the 155th Brigade and his adjutant kept right up with his front line infantry and on the morning of the 4th started to move his posts of command from Brieulles-sur-Bar to Verrieres, where Colonel Morgan of the 309th Infantry and colonel Babcock of the 310th infantry had just established themselves, when several enemy artillery pieces opened on the general and his party as they were about to enter the Bois de Sy. This was the beginning of the first heavy artillery fire from the German guns since the pursuit started, and it was quickly followed by rapid firing of enemy gas and high explosive shells into the valley north and east of Brieulles-sur-Bar and the town itself, where many of the old French natives has been left by the hastily departing Germans.

General McRae and his division operations staff in the morning established the division post of command in the town hall of Brieulles--the general remarked how comforting it was to find a building intact with the glass windows still in good shape, and but a short while later a number of heavy German shells had shattered the roof and walls of adjoining buildings. He was busily engaged with maps planning to continue the driving advance and oblivious of danger, he remained on the second floor of the old town hall until he had completed his task, but in the meantime, scores of nearby buildings had been shattered and many men passing through the streets and seeking shelter in doorways had been killed and wounded.

The Germans rearguard has mined the wide, filled road covering a stretch of nearly one-half kilometer from the road fork just north of the Brieulles to the form near the southwest tongue of the Bois de Sy. It was an exceptionally fine piece of rearguard strategy, as it effectively blocked

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the advance of the division artillery and transport. The heavy charges had blown the immense rock boulders forming the road bed far to either side and left huge, gaping holes at intervals of about twenty yards. The always alert 303d Engineers lost no time in getting their forces to work and hastily began the construction of a corduroy road crossing the low, swampy march ground alongside the ruined portions, which enabled the pirate guns of the divisions to proceed. This work the engineers did while under German observation and deadly shellfire; their rapid, skillful work, however, kept their casualties down to the minimum.

Colonel fisher, then commanding the 307th Field Artillery, drove u his Dodge car and was checked at the road fork by the wrecked road; alighting from the car he directed the chauffeur to return to Brieulles and await him there. He had barely left the car to proceed forward a foot when a German H. E. shell landed in front of the machine, instantly killing the driver and shattering the car.

All day on the 4th the line on the right of the division was held, and that night the enemy, after many sever skirmishes, against withdrew. Patrols were promptly sent forward and occupied the town of Sy.

 

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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