Phase V - From the Vesle to the Aisne

Phase V
From the Vesle To The Aisne


THE Division advanced. Almost four weeks on the stationary front along the Vesle showed that the Division had only potentially evidenced itself. Individual deeds of sacrifice, of heroism, of courage, had been plainly manifested. It remained only to coordinate these qualities in the Division, to consolidate the powers of the parts into the spirit of the whole, to fit the cogs of the wheels so that all would contribute to the energy of the machine. Major General Robert Alexander took command of the Division at this stage. The well proved units of the Division were, from this time on, moulded by him into an uncrushable engine; its armor the unfailing resolve of its enlisted personnel; its mechanism the courageous leadership of its officers, and its pilot-the Major-General. The advance was the first one in which the Division had participated. It was hard going, but it was satisfying work. Every man knew the Roche had been hammered out of the Vesle, knew that he was now being rewarded for the weeks of waiting, and rejoiced because he was now tramping over the very ground from which the enemy bad spit its iron hail at him a few hours before. Every man took unto himself part of the glory, and whispered to himself, " I have chased the Hun out of here. " And so were born the pride and the aggressive spirit of the Division.

A German Barrier

As early as September 2d, American Observation Posts reported fires and explosions in the enemy area, and vehicles and troops bound north. The next day, Paars, Perles, Vauxcere and Blanzy showed columns of smoke. The Boche was laying waste to all as he slowly retired. The Infantry followed him across the Vesle, bad a vigorous brush with him on the steep heights above Haute-Maisons, where he had left a rear-guard of machine-guns, and lost him on the table land that stretched between the Vesle and the Aisne, so fast did he move. French cavalry dashed ahead as far as Vauxcere, where heavy fire prevented their going further. The 77th moved more rapidly than the right and left flanks, actually pulling the flanks along with it. Further north, the pressure of General Mangin's army was urging the German to withdraw his forces from the inevitable pocket, which the 77th was fairly turning inside out. Safe across the Aisne, and with outposts on the narrow strip between the Aisne Canal and the river, the enemy made another stand in front of the fortifications running along the famous and many times fought-over Chemin des Dames.

But it was not without cost that the Boche left the Vesle, for a harassing Artillery fire followed him closely. The ground between the Vesle and the Aisne forms a table-land covered with wheatfields, which falls off abruptly toward the Vesle and completely dominates the area containing Bazoches and Fismes. It is serrated with ravines running up into it in a general north and south direction. Here the Boche was greatly exposed during his withdrawal, although some of his light pieces tried for a time to hamper the American advance by shelling the Vesle Bridges from the shelter of the ravines. His heavy pieces were already across the Aisne, and were for a few days silent, until they had been emplaced, when they sent a hail of heavy shells over the entire plateau.

North of the Aisne, where he had entrenched himself, he found the excellent shelter of his former works, which had been improved, for the purpose by his engineers. Here the terrain again forms a plateau, which is a network of trenches and strong-points cut into the soft sandstone. The Aisne itself, at this point, has a breadth of 150 feet, and a depth of about ten feet, and is bordered by flat meadows and fields, which are inundated when the river is high. On its south bank, at varying distances, runs a lateral canal. Bridges cross the river at Pont Arcy, Bourg-et-Comin and at Oeuilly.

The morning of September 4th, the Division moved toward the Aisne. For the first time, the troops saw what the constant fire into Bazoches and Fismes had accomplished. Bazoches was a ruin, and Fismes, while intact in some parts, was a mass of tumbled stone in others. The men had been instructed to be careful of traps and mines. At Bazoches, part of the old Chateau Tower was still standing. Two Frenchmen and an American were climbing through the mess of mortar and rock, when a loud explosion occurred, throwing debris high into the air. The Frenchmen were killed instantly, but the American escaped injury. Near the scene of the explosion lay some minenwerfer shells with the fuses in them, intertwined with a tangle of wires. At Fismes, in a cave, an officer found a 105 caliber shell under a table covered with flowers, with a wire running to a sofa. Engineers carefully took apart this trap, for the shell had in it a fuse upon which a weight was ready to drop. On the road between Blanzy and Fismes, a mine exploded several days after the Infantry had passed over it.

The bridges over the Vesle needed constant repair, as the infantry, the heavy artillery and the transport wagons, camions and combat trains rumbled over them. Shells fell closely about the bridges, many times exploding in the bed of the Vesle and throwing up huge geysers of water, mud and stones. The enemy began a harassing fire upon Bazoches the night of September 4th, which continued until the Division left the geetor. Fismes was being heavily shelled as the advancing columns crowded one another to pass through. At Haute Maisons, an Artillery P. C. and a Dressing Station were continually under enfilade artillery fire, Owing to an exposed left flank.

At Fismes, a town of considerable size, and a railroad center, the bridges over the river had been destroyed. Artillery was halted until the completion of a new one by the Engineers. While, waiting in the main street, with the Third Battalion, 306th Field Artillery, the Division Commander expressed a wish to the Commander for Artillery support for the Infantry, which had met with resistance further on. Battery F was unlimbered, firing 79 rounds in half an hour. Shortly after, the enemy shell-fire ceased. It is not often that heavy artillery turns its cumbrous pieces about on the road, to engage in desultory firing.

Fismes brought back strong reminiscences of shattered Chateau Thierry. In peace times, it was a beautiful town. Magnificent trees had once lined the sides of its streets. Of these many were blown to shreds, while others lay across the path, cut to make an impediment to the American advance.

Troops continued to crowd through the town. The 305th Artillery Regiment, and the 154th Infantry Brigade established temporary headquarters in the Hotel de Fismes, once the resort of tourists, now the mark of shells. German dead lay about the streets as evidence of the fighting through the town, when the Boche held one end of it and the Americans the other.

Division Headquarters found that it must move from the Chateau Bruyere. Yet the further forward one went, the greater became the ruin and desolation. There seemed to be no place suitable for the reception of the General Staff officers and the lesser luminaries composing Division Headquarters, to say nothing of the typewriter battalion, without which it would have been impossible to win the war. At length a place was selected, perhaps the strangest Post of Command which Division Headquarters had yet occupied.

On the road between Chery-Chartreuve and Saint Thibaut was a place called the Ferme des Filles, perhaps because there was once a farm there. The only evidence upon which to base this supposition was a shed consisting of a roof supported by four uprights, with no sidewalls. From the road, alongside which this shed stood, a narrow trail led tip the steep side of the hill and ended in what will forever be famous in the history of the Division as "The Cave." The front part, to which there were several entrances, was almost high enough to stand erect. From this entrance chamber, narrow corridors cut from the soft rock led back into the hill, branching and turning in such a manner that it is doubtful whether anyone knew how far the cave really extended or how large it was. This portion of the cave was lower than the forward part, and those who, for several weeks, lived and slept there acquired an attitude almost simian.

Saint Thibaut

When the installation of Division Headquarters was complete, the cave was a cross between a menagerie and a madhouse. It housed within its narrow limits the Stair, the Intelligence Office, the Message Center, Field Artillery Brigade Headquarters, a Telephone Central, a Radio Station, six or eight telephones, always simultaneously in use; a battalion of typewriters who every evening at nine o'clock delivered a barrage which lasted almost till dawn; to say nothing of an uncounted host of clerks, orderlies, messengers and liaison officers. If ever one doubted the American Army to be democratic, be needed only to have looked into this cave-the Commanding General snatching a few hours of sleep on his cot, with an orderly stretched underneath it and a clerk nodding over his typewriter only a few inches away. In the rear of the cave was an indistinguishable mass of staff officers, second lieutenants, buck privates and baggage. If it was necessary to call anybody during the course of the night, the orderlies started at the front end of the cave and waked everybody, all the way back, until they got to the right man.

The New Life Proved a Strain

During business hours, which meant every hour in the twenty-four, the air rang with shrill cries of " Qui est a L'appareil), " " Stenographer! " " Message Center! " and " Give me a 20,000 Chemin des Dames!" punctuated by the sounds of 77's exploding in the woods and valleys below and the raucous responses of German prisoners, who were being interrogated.

The new life proved a strain, and it is no small testimony to the iron nerve and dauntless courage of the Division Staff that after two weeks they emerged from this bedlam, not as gibbering idiots, but still able to function intelligently and successfully.

The enemy now became still more active in the air than he had been, and sent his platies over in groups of from four to a dozen. Thirteen of his balloons were counted one, (lay, close together on the Division sector. Ile had excellent observation over the whole of the Vesle-Aisne plateau, but from the, plateau itself, American observers were enabled to spy far back into enemy territory.

No Man's Land

No movement that took place by day in the towns of Bourg-et-Comin, Pont Arcy, Ocuilly, Beaurieux, Pargnan, Moulins, Vendresse et Tryon, and on the roads leading into those places escaped the keen eyes of the men in the Observation Posts. It was only beyond the range of the Artillery Brigade's 155's that the Boche was at all daring. On the Vendresse et Tryon Road, men and transports moved north continually in broad daylight. A little further behind the Boche lines, a wagon park offered a tempting artillery mark. But the long-range rifles of the Corps Artillery had been withdrawn for another sector, and the Division's Artillerymen could only sit and fume because their gun was short and stubby, and would shoot but a scant seven miles! As a rule, not a German was to be seen in the rear areas by day.

By September 5th, the Division's line extended through the Bois de la Vicomte, Bois des Genettes, Pierre ]a Roche, La Butte de Bourmont, Revillon, and around the village of Glennes, the latter being on the front of the

Division on the right flank, which had not closed up. The enemy was then entrenched strongly between the canal and the Aisne and in the old French works behind La Petite Montagne, about one kilometer south of the

canal and two kilometers south of the river. A sniper gun is thought to have fired from behind the mountain, close to the Division front, but the fact was never established. The mountain was subjected to intermittent barrages by friendly artillery. In several places, furtherwest, the infantry patrols crossed the Aisne.

To simplify operations, the Division front was divided into the right and. left sub-sectors. The 153d Brigade covered the left, the 154th the right. By September 10th, the line of the right sub sector was advanced to a point 400 yards west of Revillon and to St. Pierre Fertile and the left sub-sector bad reached the Aisne. The village of Glennes, where the Germans had strongly established themselves, now stood in the way of a flanking movement against the formidable La Petite Montagne, and it was planned to take the village. As this was not a 77th Division objective, the Division offered to "go halves" with the division on its right. The division on the right did not think it could spare the men, so the 77th decided to bear the burden alone.

The men, though exuberant, were by this time fatigued by the rapidity of the advance, although hot meals had been brought up throughout. The fighting elements must have hot meals to work efficiently, General Alexander had insisted, and, as a result, ration parties could be seen, day and night, making their way through the old French trench system which lay north of Vauxcere, and extended north toward the Aisne. Through the heaviest of shell-fire, these carrying parties forwarded hot food as though there were important messages in the pots instead of merely "chow. "

While in a cave at La Petitie Logette, where the Germans had placed a leaking gas shell, General Evan M. Johnson was gassed and evacuated to the rear. In this emergency, Major-General Alexander sent for General Whittenmeyer, commanding the 153d Brigade. Late that night, through the driving rain, and a piercing wind that swept across the plateau, General Whittenmeyer rode from his Post of Command at Vauxcere to The Cave. He appeared before the Major General with the raindrops dripping from his silver-grey hair, saluted, and waited in silence for his senior to speak.

Major-General Alexander explained that the 154th Brigade had temporarily lost its commander;

"I want these troops organized and ready to attack in the morning," the Division Commander concluded.

General Whittenmeyer, tall and broad-shouldered, heedless of the water that ran in little rivulets from his cap to his slicker and down his boots to the ground, saluted again, saying with a voice that had in it the air of finality:

"Very well, Sir."
Those three words were the General's signature. The next morning, the Brigadier phoned that be was ready to attack, as ordered.

The 77th Division was to take part in this operation covering the left flank of tile 62d French Division on its right, by advancing its lines from the heights of Merval to La Carriere, which was the western exit of Glennes. The Artillery was to fire on Revillon, La Petite Montague, Haut de Cuchery and Maizy. One battalion of the 154th Brigade was to be used in attacking; its left to be covered by a detachment which was to take La Carriere. Machine guns were to fire on Revillon from the slopes north of Merval, Serval and Barbonval.

On the 13th of September, with all these preparations made, came the order for a relief. The Italians were coming in to take over the sector. General Garibaldi, a grandson of the Italian Liberator, was in command of the relieving division, every member of which wore a red silk handkerchief in the upper right-hand pocket of his uniform, the gift of an American woman. The Division was well on its way out of the sector on the night of September 13th, a Friday, with the Boche firing farewell salutes over the whole plateau. The relief was a welcome one for the Division, after over a month of continuous fighting. The 77th bad entered the sector a recruit Division. It left it a veteran one, prepared for any task that was to fall to its lot.

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