Part 2

Phase 6
The Capture of the Argonne
Part 2

One week had passed since the Division had gone over the top and penetrated the Argonne. Overcoats and blankets had been discarded at the beginning of the attack, so that progress should not be impeded by heavy equipment. A very limited amount of food was carried by each man at the outset. As the infantry plunged farther into the forest, it was only with the utmost difficulty that food and ammunition could be supplied to them. A great part of these supplies had to be carried in on the backs of men. At all times, rations were short and hunger was an ever-present companion. On the night of the 27th it began to rain. The downpour continued practically throughout the entire time that our troops were in the forest. Nights grew cold. The woods were damp and dripping. At the end of each day's march the men had to dig in and shiver during the night in funk-holes half full of water, bereft of the protection of overcoats and blankets. Even this rest, such as it was, was seldom undisturbed. Searching batteries of Boche artillery were constantly seeking to locate them throughout the night with high explosives and trench mortar shells. The machine gunners from the regimental companies and brigade battalions attached to the infantry were obliged to carry their heavy guns, tripods, ammunition boxes and equipment by hand as they struggled bravely through dripping bushes in the wake of the infantry line. At night, these heroes of the Hotchkiss, exhausted as they were, posted their guns on the flanks of the bivouacked infantry and guarded the lines against counterattack. Their vigilance accounted for many a Boche sniper, sneaking up along secret lanes in the forest, who tried to use his automatic maxim on our positions in the dark. (From prisoners captured it was learned that a fresh division, the 76th Reserve Division, had been thrown by the Boche to support the 2d Landwehr Division holding the forest when the attack began.) These were the heart-breaking conditions our men were facing day after day, and night after night.

One Week Had Passed Since the Division Went Over the Top - dressing Station in Church at La Chalade, October, 1918

Amid these conditions was born "The Spirit of the Argonne " the spirit of indomitable determination to win against all odds. When men are called upon to endure to the utmost cold, wet, hunger and the hardships of trackless passageway, when they are called upon to defeat in unfamiliar territory an unseen enemy armed with the deadliest weapons of modern warfare, fighting from concealed positions skillfully prepared in the light of perfect knowledge of terrain, if they have in their soul "The Spirit of the Argonne," they win!

By noon of the 2d of October, the 153d Brigade had fought its way to the enemy entrenched and wired position on the heights of the Bois de la Naza. Here they were stopped, as the 307th had been stopped to the left the day before. All efforts to break through this line at any point along the Divisional front were checked by the murderous automatic fire of the Boche. Bands of crossfire were so interwoven that not a yard of ground was left unprotected. Halted in front of this wire, our troops were placed just where the enemy wanted them for his artillery. Down it came upon them in a furious barrage from the 77's and trench mortars, reinforced by showers of band grenades and rifle grenades from the enemy's trenches.

At 12:50 A. M. on the 2nd, a determined attack was made by the 154th Brigade, with the result that six companies of the 308th Infantry succeeded in penetrating a gap in the German trenches which was found in the bottom of a deep draw running north and south on the left of the brigade sector. This force, under the command of Major Charles S. Whittlesey, pushed forward as far as the ravine at Charlevaux Mill, a distance of about one kilometer. On its right, the 307th was again checked by the wire and trenches. Up to this time, the left flank of the brigade bad been partially covered, first by units of another American division and later by a French division, although at all times these units were to our left rear.

The six companies under Major Whittlesey made their advance far to the front, carrying out instructions from the Division Commander to smash through the Boche, wherever a weakness might be discovered, and to "push forward without regard to flanks." In view of the enforced halt of the 307th and of the fact, afterward disclosed, that the enemy trench line which had hereto-fore checked our advance continued to the left, where it was held in force by the Germans who bad successfully opposed any advance on this front attempted by the French, this movement by Major Whittlesey's command left his two flanks dangerously exposed. The German occupation of this line of trenches made it possible for them to pass by the flank in rear to the elements of the 154th Brigade, which had moved forward to the vicinity of Charlevaux Mill.

When the situation was reported, two companies of the 308th and the brigade reserve were sent to protect the exposed left and had moved well to the front before night set in. Co. K, 307th Infantry, got through and joined up with Major Whittlesey on the left.

Major Whittlesey had orders, on reaching Charlevaux Mill, to hold that position until the other elements of the line had reached him. At daybreak of the 3d, the entire 154th Brigade, less the companies with Major Whittlesey, attacked the enemy front in a determined effort to push forward to the line of Charlevaux Mill. At all points the enemy held. During the night he had moved up and occupied trenches already constructed covering the ravine through which our advance force bad passed, and he had placed new wire in the bottom of the valley. Two other attacks were made during the day, but failed to make any impression on the enemy line, and at night the conditions were unchanged communication with Major Whittlesey being cut off.

Meanwhile on the right that same day, desperate efforts were made to break through and gain the heights of the Bois de la Naza. Our fighting patrols kept in contact with the enemy, but encountered strong machine-gun resistance everywhere and suffered heavy losses in attacking individual machine-gun nests. A general attack was launched by the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 305th Infantry at 4 P. M., but it was impossible to make headway against the intense machine-gun fire. In this attack the 2d Battalion of the 305th alone lost five officers killed and over two hundred men killed and wounded.

On October 3d, a communication addressed to the Commanding General, 77th Division, from the Chief of Staff, 1st Army Corps, was received, containing the following words of high commendation:

"The Corps Commander has directed me to extend to you and to the entire 77th Division a most cordial expression of his gratification at the steady, solid progress made since the beginning of the operation now under way.

"The difficulties of the terrain are fully understood and the amount of ground gained is noticeable, while your supplies and communications are thoroughly satisfactory. "

The history of the next three days covers one of the most heroic periods in the story of the 77th Division. There was no such thing as rest or relief, no concern for food and water, no regard on the part of anyone for the wet, the cold and the exhaustions that all were suffering from. The one thought in the minds of every officer and every man was to fight through at all costs to Charlevaux Mill. The heart of King Richard had been thrown far into the enemy lines and way must be won to it.

Up to this time the fighting had been bitter enough. Henceforth it was to be a supreme test of Yankee pluck and endurance against German automatic skill fortified by strength of position and perfect knowledge of terrain.

Our attacks increased in violence. The Commanding General of the 154th Brigade put himself at the head of his men and in person led them through the woods against the Boche batteries. Combat patrols were sent out from the 305th and 306th to encircle the machine-gun nests in front and desperate hand-to-hand fights ensued. A bayoneted Boche sniper beside a smashed Maxim told the story.

On the left, the French made repeated attempts to turn the enemy's right flank. Locating the principal strong point in the German line at La Palette Pavillion, from which the enemy was directing his harassing attacks on our beleaguered battalion, the divisional artillery directed its fire on La Palette Pavillion and converted it into the warmest spot in the Argonne Forest.

With the French working away on our left, a battalion of the 307th was moved over to the right, and reinforced by units from the 153d Brigade, this force started to move up the ravine south of' Bois de la Naza in an effort to break through to the beleaguered battalion on its right flank. To divert the Boche attention from this column, the 308th and remainder of the 307th made a noisy demonstration along the whole brigade front. The ruse was successful and the relief column had made considerable progress up the ravine before it was discovered by the enemy. Thereafter, it had to fight its way, especially against point-blank machine-gun fire from the Bois de Apremont on the right flank. But with the incentive of starving, battling comrades in front, whose motto had become " No surrender, " the column forged slowly but surely ahead to the cry of " Never give up."

Liaison became increasingly difficult. One of the greatest problems our troops had to face in the Argonne was proper maintenance of liaison. Communication, not only with neighboring divisions on our right and left, but also between the units in our own line, was kept up only with the greatest difficulty. Companies would proceed for a way, side by side, then suddenly a deep ravine would step in between them. Supports, in as good order as permitted by the wild growth they were struggling through, would be following somewhere behind the front line, when suddenly they would find themselves floundering in a swamp. Runners and connecting patrols were called upon to accomplish the feats of Iroquois Indians.

Frequently night advances were necessary, especially at times of reliefs. Heavy mists blanketed the woods after dark. Compasses were then of little use because lights were out of the question. If the runners and guides found themselves confronted by a hard task in daylight, they simply had to develop a sixth sense by night.

Even messages had a way of getting distorted in the dark. One column filing through the woods, each man with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front, started a message from the head to the rear-" Watch out for holes. " In about ten minutes, the indignant lieutenant bringing up the rear made his way to the head of the column and demanded to know what the Sam Hill kind of a drive this was to send back the message "Wash out yer clothes. "

The proper formation of advance was also an ever-present problem. Paths were dangerous to follow because the Boche had every path covered with machine guns. It was equally dangerous to go crashing through the trailless forest because he could detect your position by sound and bring the Maxim into play with deadly accuracy. Where there were no trails, he had constructed other lines of fire in the form of barbed trip wire concealed along the ground and chicken wire, hidden by trees and brushes until you suddenly ran tip against it.

A Lean, Lank Infantryman Was Being Littered into an Advance Dressing Station

It was a hard thing to determine what was the best method of proceeding and keeping all elements in touch with one another. "Just put your head down and batter your way through," was about the only order that could be followed. A little story will illustrate the spirit in which the men of the Liberty Division carried on the advance. A lean, lank infantryman had just been littered into the advance Dressing Station and was calmly smoking a cigarette while the doctors were attending to his many serious though not fatal wounds. Partly to distract his attention from their work of dressing his injuries and partly from curiosity to learn where he could possibly have stopped so much Boche ironware, the medical men drew him into conversation. " well, " he said, we came to a clearing in the woods and there was a nice wide stretch of marsh and soggy field to charge across before we could get at the Hun who was peppering us from the opposite trees. Our lieutenant said 'deploy' and we did. We got over about a hundred yards of that clearing when shells and machine-gun bullets began to find us, so our lieutenant ordered 'take cover.' The grass was that high, you know," indicating a height of several inches with his uninjured left hand. "Well, what did you do? " asked the doctor. Swiftly and seriously, without any attempt to be funny, he raised his hand to his steel helmet and pulled it down to an angle over his left eye. "That's all, and kept on going, " he said.

With the 307th, fighting its way up the Ravine de Charlevaux, our frontal attacks continued. Nine Companies of the 154th Brigade launched a drive in the afternoon of October 6th, following an effective artillery barrage. To our men in the front line it began to seem that the enemy was at last wavering. It appeared as though he was not coming back at them with his accustomed fury of grenades and whistling bullets. (The divisional artillery had located the enemy's position at La Palette Pavillion with absolute certainty and between 5 and 8 A. M. laid a concentration of fire on La Palette trench to support this American attack as well as the French operations on our left.) Word was received in the evening that sent cheer through every tired, hungry man in our lines. The flanking elements of the 307th were well to the front and were approaching Major Whittlesey.

The 7th of October saw success all along the divisional front. In the morning, orders were given to feel out the enemy position in front of the 308th and if no resistance was encountered to push forward. Our patrols reported all quiet and the 308th pressed ahead. Runners brought word that the 307th had nearly reached the Binarville-La Viergette Road to the left of Charlevaux Mill. Simultaneously with the report that this force had finally reached its objective, came the electrifying news that the 308th had penetrated the enemy's position and reached Major Whittlesey, relieving his battered, famished, but unbeaten command.

Abandoning his position on our left, the enemy, pressed by our constant and vigilant patrolling, together with harassing artillery fire on his lines of communication, began to withdraw from his positions on the ridge in the Bois de la Naza. Troops of the 153d Brigade closely pursued him and established their line on the road west of Crossroads La Viergette, making an advance of two kilometers. Nightfall of the 7th saw our exhausted but victorious soldiers occupying a divisional front running east through Charlevaux Mill on the left, along the Binarville-La Viergette Road, thence along the north and south road held by the 153d Brigade, with the latter in liaison to its left with the beleaguered battalion of the 308th. Our entire line was unified and intact once more. It had been a mighty effort, tireless, relentless, that had been crowned with this success.

There were rumors of relief for the Division, but a breathing spell only was allowed. In the lexicon of the 77th there was no such word as "relief " when there was ground to be gained or an enemy to be beaten. That the Boche was in full flight and would not stop south of the Aire seemed evident. So after him went the Liberty Division.

It soon became equally evident that in his flight he had not forgotten his famous rearguard tactics. South of La Viergette, the 153d Brigade were greeted in the morning of the 8th by the familiar rat-tat-tat of machine guns and the crash of trench mortars. But the country had opened out somewhat, there was cleared space to maneuver through. Our own Stokes mortars were brought up to operate with our machine guns, firing on an open target for the first time in many days, and the Boche was blasted out. One kilo was the day's bag, and we gained to a line running along the narrow gauge east and west railroad.

Sunlight and blue sky cheered the eyes of our battle-worn troops for the first time in many days. Open fields began to put in an appearance along the roads above La Viergette, and through the trees to the right, toward Chatel Chehery, bright, sunny vistas spread out below along the cleared valley of the Aire. It was a wonderful relief for the men of the 154th Brigade just to break out of the forest into the meadowlands east of Lancon, that bordered the Bois de la Taille.

During the next two days, the advance continued steadily although slowly through the forest. On October 9th, the 304th Machine Gun Battalion was thrown into the line to cover the interval between brigades, as both brigades pushed forward. The usual allotment of snipers had been left behind by the retreating enemy and they had to be cleared out one by one. The check in our advance occasioned by the rescue of the beleaguered battalion had been used by the Germans for hurrying up reinforcements to support their two hard-pressed divisions, and October 9th saw two regiments from each of the 41st and 45th Reserve Divisions and the 15th Bavarian Division fighting for the Boche.

Two Wounded Doughboys Enjoying Red Cross Refreshments - Chatel Chehery, October 10, 1918

The 307th, which had taken over the entire brigade sector on the left, meeting considerable rear-guard resistance, was joined in the front line by the 308th on the 11th and the two regiments pushed on that day to the general line of the Bois de Negremont, south of Grand-Pre, running to the edge of the woods immediately south of Chevieres, with detachments forward along the line of the road and railroad on the south bank of the river Aire.

Argonne Outpost Station of the American Red Cross

About ten kilometers had been covered in two days. Meanwhile the 305th and 306th side by side made headway through open country, against heavy fire from machine guns and artillery posted north of the river, and captured La Besogne and Marcq. Chevieres was taken by a battalion of the 306th on October 10th. The next day, the 154th Brigade occupied the divisional front, which extended along the river from the crossing south of Grand-Pre to Chevieres inclusive. All of these operations were accomplished under constant shelling and harassing fire from the enemy posted on the heights above Grand-Pre and St. Juvin.

Our patrols attempted to get into Grand- Pre on the 12th, and the divisional engineers made numerous efforts to construct bridges over the Aire, but these activities were checked by the murderous fire from automatic weapons that the enemy, with good observation, was able to direct on our forces. Operations were then being directed from Division Headquarters established at Chatel Chehery.

At about this time, the work of the Divisional Artillery became extremely effective. The forward guns in the edges of the forest were firing with accuracy on the enemy machine-gun nests across the river, since observation was now possible. Harassing fire was laid down in the vicinity of Grand-Pre and the road leading east to St. Juvin. Excellent observatories were established on the heights south of the river from which all batteries of the brigade were accurately adjusted. The enemy's line of resistance had now been reached and a surprisingly large amount of German heavy artillery was in position waiting for our further advance. For the first time since the attack began, our artillery became engaged in counter-battery work, as our observatories easily located the German guns.


With the Argonne completely cleared of the enemy, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the task of the 77th Division had been completed. The work of taking Grand-Pre and St. Juvin and cleaning up the northern bank of the Aire seemed an undertaking that would be reserved for fresh troops. Tired and hungry, the mud and battle-grimed fighters of the forest thought surely that Fact" had at last overtaken " Rumor " and that the 77th was to be relieved.

A ringing note of praise and congratulations had come in from the Commanding General of' the First Army Corps. There is not a word of it that should be omitted from the history of the 77th Division.

Advanced Headquarters First Army Corps

Oct. 12, 1918.
From: Commanding General, 1st Army Corps U. S.
To: Commanding General, 77th Division, U. S.

Subject: Commendation.

1. The Corps Commander directs me to inform you that he, feels once more during that present operations called upon to express his gratification and appreciation of the work of the 77th Division.

2. This Division has been in the line constantly since the night of the 25th of September, under circumstances at least as difficult as those, which have confronted any other Division of the 1st Army.

3. In spite of these conditions your command has pushed steadily forward on a line with fore-most, and to day after eighteen days of constant fighting is still ready to respond to any demand made upon it.

4. The Corps Commander is proud indeed, of such a unit as yours and congratulates you on such a command.

Malin Craig,
Chief of Staff"

But sweet as was the thought of relief, when the 77 th men were told that the neighboring division on our right had been blocked in three attempts to take St. Juvin and that the belief was growing that St. Juvin was impregnable to a frontal attack, they squared their jaws and knew that it spelled for them "Action, Front!" The soldiers of the Liberty Division simply tightened their belts, looked over their pieces, oiled tip their machine guns- and they were ready.

" Column right" was the order, and the 306th swung off at right angles to take position behind Marcq and one kilometer west of Cornay, in readiness to attack. This was on the 13th.
During that night and the early morning following, harassing artillery fire was delivered on the woods and roads in the vicinity of Grand-Pre and St. Juvin. Under the protection of this fire, the 302d Engineers made several unsuccessful attempts to bridge the Aire in front of St. Juvin. The enemy fire destroyed their work as fast as it was completed.

At 8:30 on the morning of the 14th, the 306th attacked, with battalions arranged in depth, supported by the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 305th. The jumping-off place for the leading battalion was the front line of the 326th Infantry (82d Division), from Marcq east to the Aire. This regiment was side slipped to the right to give our men room to operate. As the 1st Battalion of the 306th advanced through Marcq to the attack, the way was prepared for them by Companies A and D of the 305th Machine Gun Battalion. Early that morning these two companies had taken positions, reconnoitered the day before, on the high ridge, 900 meters southeast of Marcq. The battery positions were excellent, as they afforded indirect fire with direct observation on the target.

Twenty Eight Germans Captured in One Dugout

Arrived at the river-bank south of St. Juvin, the 1st Battalion, 306th, made several attempts to cross the river, but all were checked with heavy casualties. Of the officers alone, seven were killed here and as many more were wounded. At this crisis, the 2d Battalion of the 306th executed an enveloping movement on the town from the right, with the 3d Battalion, 306th, in close support.

East of Marcq, a crossing of the Aire was forced by Company H, 306th, and St. Juvin attacked from the south and east. Some of the men waded the river, others scrambled across oil planks. Forty-five minutes after crossing the river, the troops entered the town and captured 150 prisoners. The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 305th crossed the river close behind the attacking battalion of the 306th and supported the latter in mopping up the town and holding it.

That afternoon, the conquest of St. Juvin and its environs was completed by tile capture of Hill 182, a strongly concentrated enemy position directly north of the town. The capture was made by Company H, of the 306th, and a detachment of Company D, of the 305th Machine-gun Battalion. A body of 150 Germans holding the crest of this hill were all either killed, wounded or put to flight. Our forces immediately spread out and dominated the roads east and west of the town. Liaison was soon established with the 82d Division on the right.

Before reaching the town, Company H of the 306th and the machine-gun detachment that engineered the attack from our right flank were obliged to charge across open fields under intense fire. When they gained the outskirts of St. Juvin, the infantry company mustered only forty men and the machine gunners, one gun and four men beside their lieutenant. After the fighting in the town, the infantry were reduced to twenty-six men. In all, three hundred and fifty prisoners, including three majors, one captain and one lieutenant, were taken in St. Juvin by the 153d Brigade, and most of these were the prizes of twenty-six American doughboys and four machine gunners.

The capture of St. Juvin won for the 153d Brigade the following commendation of the Division Commander, contained in General Orders:

General Orders AMERICAN E. F. 14th October, l918.

1. The Division Commander congratulates most heartily the troops of this Division upon the successful result of the operations of the 14th of October. A difficult night march was involved to place the 153d Brigade in the proper position for attack, which march was accomplished, the attack made and the objective set for the day's effort successfully reached. In the course of the operations a large number of prisoners, including officers of superior rank, were taken by the 153d Brigade.

This success, coming as it does in the course of a campaign which has already lasted eighteen days, made under circumstances which have tested to the limit the skill, courage and endurance of officers and men, demonstrates once more the indomitable spirit and courage of this Division.

The Division Commander, reiterating the commendation already twice made by the Corps Commander of the work of this organization, feels that it is indeed an honor to him to command such
Major-General, Commanding.

The enemy had not yielded St. Juvin, however. On the night of the 14th, no less than six barrages were poured into St. Juvin and the valley south of the village and continuous harassing fire of artillery, trench mortars and machine guns swept the positions of our troops in the vicinity of the town. A great deal of the enemy's fire fell on our rear lines and caught the divisional reserve in the valley at La Besogne, inflicting twenty-five casualties among the machine gunners of the divisional machine-gun battalion, held in reserve at that point. In the morning over came the counterattack. A severe fight ensued, but St. Juvin stayed in our hands.

The same kind of business was going on at the left of our line with the 307th and the 308th handing out the goods. St. Juvin without Grand-Pre was a condition not to be tolerated.
On the 14th, the 308th threw one battalion across the Aire to the east of Grand-Pre, with its right resting at La Lairesse and its left at Chevieres. The mission of this force was to move by the left and cut the enemy's communications in the east, thus assisting in the operations against St. Juvin then under way. This mission it proceeded to carry out on the morning of the 14th. Meanwhile the main attack against Grand-Pre was preparing.

The divisional artillery, which had established art observation post, directed the fire of its 155's with unerring accuracy into the town. From point of vantage on the hill in Bois de Negremont, our machine guns and 37 mm. poured their fire into it. With this protection, and under the cover of rifle and Chauchat fire which distracted the enemy's attention, two platoons of Co. B, 307th , waded the river unobserved by the Germans and reached the island south of the town. Foot bridges were constructed, and soon the balance of the 1st Battalion gained the island. During the night, they were joined by Company I.. At daybreak of the 15th, we attacked. Company D encircled the town from the west. Company A rushed in on the left and Company C on the right. Company B remained in support just south of the village. The Americans came on them from all sides, and the Germans broke and fled into the bills to the north, leaving 1 officer, 2 N. C. O.'s, eight light and two heavy machine guns to be gathered up by A and C companies, when they mopped up the town. Grand-Pre was ours.

Thus ended the "Wilderness Campaign." That night, the Liberty Division was relieved on the Grand-Pre-St. Juvin front by the 78th Division of the American Army. Both brigades were drawn back, the 153d to Camp de Bouzon and the 154th to the vicinity of Chene Tendu and Abri du Crochet. After three weary weeks of constant fighting and exposure, rest had come. The thought of' baths and shaves and clean clothing to replace the itching, tattered rags they were wearing, filled every tired, grimy soldier with joy. Gaunt faces grew cheerful at the idea of food in plenty to fill out the hollows and build up strength that was nearly spent. Spirits needed no bracing. They had been put through the fire and come out fine steel.

In their struggle through twenty-two kilometers of dense woods and across the Aire, fighting against five German divisions, the 77th Division had taken, beside the vast territory included in the forest itself, the towns of Chevieres, Marcq, St. Juvin and Grand-Pre, and captured ten cannons, 155 machine guns and 631 prisoners, the latter including 12 officers. The cost had been heavy. Our casualties included 24 officers and 537 men killed, and 98 officers and 3,038 men wounded and missing.

This was the story of the. Argonne-the undertaking, the preparation, the attack, the pursuit, the victory. The victory won by the men of the 77th Division was a moral as well as a physical victory. They had shown to the world that the soldiers of America's National Army, in endurance, aggressiveness and spirit, were the equal of any soldiers on the Western front. With the tenacity of a pack of beagles, they had routed the snarling Boche tiger from the wilderness he had grown to consider forever his own. They had given a pull to the bell that was sounding the knell of German hopes. They had proved to Germany that, Americans could accomplish the impossible. They had captured the FOREST OF ARGONNE!

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