Storming Machine Gun George Harding OCT1918

COMPANY “L,” SIXTEENTH U.S. INFANTRY IN THE AISNE-MARNE OFFENSIVE JULY 18-25, 1918

(Personal Experience)

 

MAJOR FRED M. LOGAN, INFANTRY

First Division

 

      

      Again the silent, determined columns moved forward—but, now, with an animated resolution of purpose which could not be denied—even by all Germanic resources which had held the upper hand against the world for four years.

Down into the ravine of Coeuvres midst an intensive artillery counterpreparation methodically and instantly placed by the thorough opponent; past high-walled gardens, whose walls were crumbling under the intensity of the heavy shelling; over the little stream, so full of mustard gas; up the steep opposite bank; and fairly on the way toward a surprised adversary, those columns went….

The awkward French (Schneider) tanks lumber laboriously by—to be found a burning or c rushed mass a few kilometers on.  The French Dragoons—hundreds of them—with their dashing uniforms and long slender lances, huddled in a mass awaiting their opportunity.  Incessant artillery shelling and increasing intensity of machine gun bullets notified that the Germans were wide awake and very much on the job—but such were the incidentals of war which had long since been learned by the soldiers of the First Division.  Long columns of German prisoners shortly passed thru to the rear—apparently in good humor and accepting the fate of war with almost French fatality.  Some of the German prisoners carried American wounded on litters….

The first stop was made after clearing the Coeuvres ravine near the site of the former front line trenches.  There was no necessity for any sort of reorganization, for every unit was intact.  A burning French tank was crackling off to the flank.  It may appear strange that a tank, consisting entirely of metal, should burn—but they certainly do.  This particular one had a good start.  The machine gun ammunition on the interior of the tank was exploding so rapidly as to give the impression of a pop-corn wagon busily engaged in the manufacture of its product.

The nature of the terrain at this point prevented observation to the front and flanks and it also obscured the command from the German observers and machine gunners—so a momentary lull ensued.

The First Battalion, in assault, had swept thru the surprised German first lines and had reached the first objective by 5:30 AM.

After a half of twenty minutes the First Battalion continued its advance behind the intense rolling barrage, with Companies A and B in assault and C and D in immediate support.  The resistance had stiffed considerably and many men fell in the next attack from the first to the second objective.  The terrain here was particularly favorable for defense.  The sweeping valley was flanked, on the north by the formidable ravine of Missy aux Bois; on the south by the Trenches de la Glaux, an old French trench which paralleled the axis of attack and it was traversed, just beyond the Missy aux Bois Ravine, by the important strategic Paris-Soissons Highway from which position along the highest ground in the vicinity, completely dominated every approach….

Now, let us see what occurred.  From the position of the first objective, the Trenches de la Glaux obliqued off to the right of the right boundary of the regiment.  Receiving resistances from that trench, the two assault companies veered off to the right of their direction of attack, followed the trench to the second objective—and found themselves several hundred yards to the right of the position they should have occupied.  Other assault echelons of the adjacent regiments had either conformed to this movement, or had themselves become confused by this trench—for all three arrived in the same relative order as at the start.  The battalion commander realized his error and checked his position on his map.  Meantime, the balance of the battalion had disappeared.  So, here was the battalion commander away out of his sector with but a portion of his command.  He reconnoitered and found the balance of his battalion in their proper places—having remained in the regimental sector and having rectified the error in direction committed by the battalion commander….

Meanwhile the battle raged more fiercely than before.  The hostile resistance was now thoroughly organized and was contesting every inch of the ground.  Upon the passage of lines at the second objective the Second Battalion found itself under a murderous fire from the front, left and left-rear.  However, the battalion doggedly pushed on and established itself on its objective by nightfall.  This battalion was almost completely wiped out in that one attack.  It remained ineffective during the rest of the four days of the battle.  From the dominating positions along the Paris-Soissons Road machine guns poured a devastating fire into the advancing lines; machine guns in the tall trees which lined the road rake the determined little groups, while artillery observers from those same trees gleefully directed their deathly missiles into their midst with unerring accuracy….[The battalion’s] losses were staggering.  But it had accomplished its mission as per schedule.

Thus, after a successful attack which had penetrated the enemy lines more than five kilometers, the Sixteenth Infantry rested in position on the night of July 18/19.

In contrast with the previous night when the very elements by the cruel adversity had assisted in screening the tremendous troop concentrations against hostile observation, this first night behind the German lines was a most beautiful, mellow, moonlight night.  The Germans, now beginning to more actively recover from their initial surprise, became most active with their artillery and bombing planes.  Their planes, in particular were busy in that glorious moonlight.  They located the French Dragoons in a small depression in rear of the old German trenches occupied by the Third Battalion and stage a most spectacular series of raids.  For the first time, men of the battalion could see the low flying planes silhouetted against the brilliant sky; and for the first time, they observed the use of flares in conjunction with air raids.  Next morning that little depression was a scene of terrible carnage.  Many lances of these Dragoons were used in conjunction with blankets to improvise litters upon which the wounded were transported back to the rear.

Also, during that serene night, orders were received to continue the attack early the following morning.  The First Battalion was to again lead the assault by passing thru the scant remnants of the Second Battalion.  The entire division would attack at 4:00 AM.

It that night was a breathing spell for the attackers, it was surely a night of breathless activity on the part of the defenders.  Fresh German reserves were rushed to stem the tide—but the gasping First Division could must not outside assistance….

It should be noted at this time, as well, that the company runners had to be changed.  The bright young fellows who enlisted from high schools at the very outbreak of war, and who possessed the intelligence to signal, carry verbal messages, write their own messages and observe the terrain over which they passed proved to be so intelligent as to fail to the return to the company command post when the sector was too hot.  Also, they failed in physique.  It was necessary to substitute resolute men of full growth who possessed extraordinary physical endurance as well as fearlessness and a sense of orientation.  Such men may be found in almost any organization—but they will not be the bright young fellows who make the best impression as athletes during the training season behind the lines.  Perhaps it would have been better to have trained all men as soldiers of the line—then, when runners were necessary, select them at the time for the job….

The intermingling of units and individuals during the two days of combat, and the failure of elements on the north flank to overcome hostile resistances on the their fronts caused such complexity of the situation that it was necessary to spend quite a bit of time to thoroughly locate the various elements of the division in order to plan for the prosecution of the attack and to arrange for its execution.  The French division on the left of the First Division had met with such determined resistance that it was barely able to keep abreast of the Second Brigade which, in turn, with its exposed left flank found it impossible to maintain the pace set by the First Brigade….

Desperate fighting and terrific bombardment prevented the full attainment of the objective on the third day.  Shattered little groupments pushed resolutely forward in spite of all resistance and nightfall found the forward elements across the Paris-Chateau Thierry Railroad—but unable to move forward on account of the devastating artillery and machine gun fire which enfiladed the lines from the direction of Noyant.

Company L was moved forward to more closely support the weakened front lines.  It moved to the military crest of the hill which overlooked the valley of the Crise River, just east of the Berzy le Sec-Lechelle Road.  The movement was effected about 4:00 PM thru a very heavy shelling.  Many casualties were incurred thru the absolute lack of a covered route of approach.

But, it was soon to be learned that the intensive shelling thru which the company had passed was but a bagatelle as compared to the murderous mass of high explosive which was being hurled by the carload into the thing lines to the front.  It was absolutely the most terrific shelling that has been witnessed or experienced by any member of the whole command.

About four hundred yards in front of Company L, where the remnants of Companies I and K were attempting to dig in along a hedge row which ran in prolongation to the massed batteries emplaced upon the height of Noyant, literally thousands of high explosive shells were falling every minute.  It was apparent that nothing could live above ground in such a hail of screaming shell-fragments.  There was no cover under ground.

This Hell-on-Earth became unbearable to those men up there along that hedge line.  It was not surprising when the whole line broke in headlong flight—crazed!  No orderly retirement this time—but dazed maniacs rushing to the rear—anywhere!  Right thru the lines of Company L those poor shell-crazed creatures fled—throwing away all arms or equipment which impeded their progress and shouting, as they went, “The Germans are coming after us with tanks”.  The only officer left with those craven creatures was leading them—even outstripping them all—and was shouting their battle-cry “They are coming at us with tanks”.

The officer was a well known company commander of an adjacent Third Battalion Company.

It required the stoutest hearts of a well disciplined regularly army outfit to prevent the spread of the rout.  Discipline prevailed, however, and Company L, to the last man, remained at its post.

When the shattered remnants of those two companies fled the German artillery pursued them—passing thru Company L enroute, inflicting more casualties in a few minutes than had been experienced during the whole of the day.

This example of battlefield morale should never be passed by without deep consideration.  It is the firm belief of the writer that as many casualties are inflicted upon infantry by loss of battlefield morale as by all other combined causes.  For instance, had Company L joined that mad rout it would undoubtedly have been decimated, whereas, in fact, it was able to later represent the entire regiment for two days on the front line as the only organized groupment [word unreadable] competent to perform arduous combat duty.  Nothing was ever heard of the fugitives during the following 2-1/2 days that the regiment remained at the front.

Patrols soon established the fact that not only was there no counterattack brewing, but that there was not a single tank in sight—nor had a German tank ever been in existence, as far as any man of that command ever knew.  Furthermore, the patrols learned that the fox holes down on the west embankment of the railroad fill under the hill contained the remnants of the First Battalion, who authoritatively stated that there were but few Germans in the immediate  front—and that they were not likely to give trouble.

An attempt to later locate men of those demoralized units which had fled met with no success.  It was presumed that they found the kitchens, alright.  But this scouting about to the rear did disclose another intact company of the neighboring brigade.  This company was informed of the situation insofar as known at the time and was requested to move to the north into its own zone of action in order to protect the left rear of Company L—which was entirely ‘up in the air’.  The invading company commander cooperated by stating that he took orders from his own immediate superiors only.  He had a rather snug hole and was enjoying a savory snack at the time—so was completely satisfied that none of his superiors would find him away over there in the 16th Infantry zone of action.  An interesting example of cooperation.

After dark, the men of Company L reverently buried their dead and wearily sank to rest.

 

 

 

Source:  Major Fred M. Logan, “Company ‘L,’ Sixteenth U.S. Infantry, in the Aisne-Marne Offensive July 18-25, 1918 (Personal Experience),” The Infantry School, Ft. Benning GA, 1928-29.


Image:  “Storming Machine Gun” by George Harding, October 1918, U.S. Army Center of History

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