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Chapter 12. The Advance to the Meuse


FROM UPTON TO THE MEUSE WITH THE 307th INFANTRY

by,
W. KERR RAINSFORD
1920

The Advance to the Meuse


THE ADVANCE TO THE MEUSE

WHILE the 77th Division was making the most of its two weeks respite from the line, the others, which had taken its place, were still hammering at the Kriemhilde Stellungand progress had been very slow. The chateau and the high ground behind Grand Pre', Belle-Joyeuse Farm, and the Bois des Loges had offered very stubborn resistance, so that when, on the last day of October, the division again resumed the front it was upon almost the same ground as that on which it had relinquished it. Yet, if little territory had been gained, many strong positions bad been carried, and, for those that remained, not very much time was needed. The advance to the Meuse, although now officially listed as a part of the same offensive as that which bad carried the division north, through the eighteen kilometers of the Argonne Forest, was, at least from the division's standpoint, a new campaign.

For this advance the First Corps was formed, with the 77th Division in the -center, the 80th upon its right, and the 78th on its left, the 153rd Brigade forming the front of the Division. On the morning of October 31st, the 307th Infantry was moved from its billets at Chene Tondu six kilometers north to the vicinity of Pylone, a cluster of farms lying west of Cornay, and its orders were to follow, at about two kilometers, the rear elements of the 153rd Brigade. Throughout November 1st these did not advance, for the 153rd Brigade was attacking at Champigneulle the last organized line of enemy resistance south of the Meuse, and the resistance was still very strong. By morning of November 2nd this line had been broken, and the troops started forward on the long advance, an advance such as had never before during the war been opened to Allied troops, and which in five days should carry them, half famished and wholly exhausted, across thirty-eight kilometers of enemy territory to the river.

At dawn of the second, following the 306th Infantry, the Regiment advanced across the Aire, through St. Juvin, and on to a position east of the Moulin de Champigneulle. Champigneulle had been converted into a fortress, where trenches connected house to house, running across the village streets and through the cellars; but it was no longer a fortress nor a village, but a smoldering heap of ruins; the Allied artillery had stamped it out. In a single group to the east of the town lay eighty of the enemy's horses, killed by shellfire. The regiment had dug in on their new position when after dark came orders for a further advance. The First Battalion was loaded on trucks, while the Second and Third took up the march. Verpel, where considerable resistance bad been expected, and of which large-scale maps had been issued, showing every detail of the town and its defenses-Verpel had been passed without a check; and, pushing north through the darkness, the trucks of the First Battalion reached Thenorgues. Here the whole country to the north was under water, and the 306th in the town reported that the line lay along the canal beyond it. Perhaps due to the rumble of motors in the street, or perhaps by chance' the enemy began a heavy shelling of the town, and the troops were withdrawn to the woods west of the Moulin de Thenorgues, where, after an advance of over ten kilometers, they took position with the other two battalions a little before dawn.

Toward noon of the same day, November 3rd, the advance was resumed, through Thenorgues and Buzancy, where the battered houses were still burning in the rain, and on through Bar eight kilometers north to Fontenoy. There bad been intermittent shellfire through the night and morning, which, as the crossroad north of Harricourt were reached, grew to such intensity as to force a halt. And while they halted here, waiting for the shelling to cease, there passed overhead, like flocks of wild geese, squadron after squadron of aeroplanes, hundreds of allied planes, and the sky seemed black with them. They passed over to westward, and then from Authe came the continuous roar of their falling bombs. Whatever there was of enemy strength or munitions there marked for destruction, its destruction must have been very complete.

Here leaving the trail of the 305th, which, now in support, was heading northwest, the Regiment moved direct to Fontenoy, where was the Headquarters of the 306th on the line. Orders were received to take over the front at dawn, and about eleven P. M. the regiment again started forward. The roads were deep in mud and crowded with traffic; at St. Pierremont there was again shellfire to be passed, and the town was partly afire; as almost always at night, it was raining. From the Headquarters of the forward battalion of the 306th, there established, little could be learned of the line; so, without guides, the First and Third Battalions moved forward behind skirmishers to the ridge southeast of Oches to await daylight. The Second Battalion remained in support west of St. Pierremont.

Dawn of November 4th revealed the advance elements of the 306th, which had not been found in the darkness, and an open ridge a mile to the northward pitted with machine- gun positions. The first forward movement of troops brought a sweeping fire from this position across the front, and from La Polka and Isly Farms to the east, where two enemy field- guns also went into action. There was no liaison with flanking organizations either to right or left. As the fire both from machine-guns and artillery was too intense to attempt a frontal assault across the intervening valley, the battalions clung to their positions along the crest, the Third on the right, near the highest point of the ridge, the First on the left, and the Second in close support under the reverse slope. Liaison patrols were sent out to the flanks, but not until nearly noon was the left of the 80tb Division located on the Somman-the-St. Pierremont road, and, much later, the right of the 78th at Verrieres.

"A" Company, from the support of the First Battalion, moved down the western slope and up the valley into Oches, entering it about nine A. M.; but they were not the first of the Allies into the town. The old French interpreter, acting as Regimental Headquarters mess-officer, bad been sent in with the messcart at an early hour, and was unsuspiciously in process of arranging a place for the headquarters mess when he found that he shared the town with the Germans. There "A" Company discovered him in a highly conversational mood, and gathered that he was thinking much less of the glory of his position than of his dislike for American methods. The village was by this time free of the enemy, but fire sweeping down the valley from La Polka Farm and from the direction of La Berliere prevented any movement beyond it to the north. The accompanying guns were close behind, and a message to them brought a very prompt fire on the positions across the valley-a fire in which the Machine-Gun Company also joined. Here and there little figures were seen to jump up among the puff s of smoke and dust, and to hurry back over the open ridge. For the first time in their experience the chauchat-teams had visible targets at which to shoot.

The front line companies, "C," "D," "M," and "L," filtered a thin firing-line down the slope and across the valley bottom, but they could gain no ground up the farther slope. Flanking parties were sent along the saddle-back toward La Polka and Isly, and artillery -fire was also directed on them, but there also very little ground was gained. The fire on both sides was extremely heavy; the crew of one of the American field-guns was wiped out by a direct hit, and in the course of the day the two leading battalions lost four officers and some sixty men; the Second Battalion, in support behind the hill, also suffered some losses from artillery fire, and its commanding officer, Major Prentice, was wounded by a long- distance machine-gun fire, curving down over the slope; there was heavy shelling of St. Pierremont to the rear. Again a vast flight of bombing-planes passed overhead to northward. Night brought no change beyond a closing up of the flanks by the 80th Division across the Rivau du Pre' Billet and by the 308th Infantry into Oches.

At daybreak of November 5th, after a further shelling of the ridge opposite and of the La Polka position, the Regiment again started forward. Up till about five A. M. machine-gun fire had continued from the woods north of Oches, but to the Regiment's advance at six- thirty there was no further resistance on that ground. Pushing north against artillery fire, across country, and constantly urged to speed, the units began to lose cohesion. The wooded height of Mt. du Cygne was passed without a shot; most of the companies were swung north-east along the hog-back leading to Mt. Damion, while a part of "K" was detached to mop up La Berliere. A few civilians were found, but none of the enemy, who could now be seen drawing off across the open hills to the north- west. The Machine-Gun Company, which since leaving St. Pierremont had been carrying its guns by hand, and continued to, do so without losing distance during the succeeding days, opened with effective fire on these targets. In front, on its commanding hillcrest, rose the town of Stonne, and toward this goal the advance continued with increasing speed. A platoon of "L," quite unconnected with the rest of the company, but accompanied by Colonel Sheldon, were the first troops to enter the town; they were closely followed in by "M," who, being lost from the battalion, were unaware that it, together with the First Battalion, was forming on Mt. Damion for an attack on the place. The Germans had left some five minutes before and two of them were captured in the streets.

The town was filthy with a litter of garbage and refuse strewn broadcast about it; and packed in the church and the graveyard was a crowd of civilians, gathered together for the hour of their deliverance. As the first American troops came down the street, close along the house-walls, in one tide of hysterical joy they streamed forth to greet them. Four years of bondage, in hatred and in fear, and these were their deliverers, a people whom they had never seen before, but had been taught to love, and the French do not try to conceal emotion. Old men, old women, and girls, their arms were around the necks of the soldiers, and their poor pillaged homes were ransacked for some token, some hidden treasure of food, to press, laughing and crying, into the hands of the hungry and tired men. It was worth much of hardship and of suffering to have been among the first troops into Stonne; not often is the fruit of victory spread at one's feet in such a harvest of human hearts.

As the First Battalion moved into the town an aeroplane swooped low over the housetops, dropping a message of congratulation, with news of American troops in La Besace to the east. Thither "K," "L," and "M" of the Third Battalion were sent, arriving about dark to find the place held by the 153rd Brigade Headquarters, with a battalion of troops. The enemy, still on the outskirts of town, were firing down the streets. "L" Company sent out a patrol of eight men, two from each platoon, under Lieutenant Hoover and Sergeant Cook, the latter already twice evacuated for wounds on other fronts, and who, as platoon leader, was not intended to have gone himself, only he said that his men were too tired to send. They bad completed their route without loss, and had returned to the edge of town, when, for one fatal moment, they gathered at a crossroads in the darkness and driving rain; and a single shell, striking fairly in their midst, killed or wounded every man. Only one was able to walk back, badly wounded, to the company with the news that the sergeant and four others were killed, and the lieutenant mortally wounded.

Stonne too had been heavily shelled by the enemy, and a number of the civilians wounded, while others, their brief rejoicings over, moved out, pushing their scant belongings before them in wheel-barrows, into the night and the rain. The First Battalion pushed their outposts north through the woods to the line of the Huttes d'Ogny, with their main line along the Stonne-Warniforet road. The Second Battalion lay in support, some near the crucifix of Le Pain de Sucre, and some in the town. The night was one of drenching rain, of exhaustion, of hunger, and of some confusion, as the field messages of the Battalion Commanders indicate:

"My men are absolutely all in. Am trying to locate the front line of 308th. If you have this information it would be greatly appreciated."

"Third Battalion was in La Besace when your message reached me directing me not to occupy it. Rest of your message illegible from rain. 153rd Brigade Headquarters here and one battalion, 306th. I have put out cossack -posts along road west of town. Men very tired and have nothing to cat."

"6:15 A. M., November 6th.--No rations arrived as yet."

Yet, with or without rations, at six-thirty A. M. of November 6th, again the advance started, the First Battalion on the left, the Second on the right, and the Third in support. Pushing north through the Bois de Raucourt the two leading battalions were met, on the northern edge of the woods, by heavy machine-gun fire from Mongarni and Malmaison Farms, and, calling for artillery preparation, took position before them. This was delivered in upward of an hour's time, together with fire from the Machine-Gun Company; but the operation occupied the entire forenoon.

In the meantime, the Third Battalion, less "I" Company, which had become disconnected and joined to the First Battalion, started from La Besace with the colonel, supposedly in support, though not in touch with any other troops. A single mounted orderly sent forward as point, though quite unused to such work, most efficiently fulfilled his mission. There was a sudden burst of fire up the road, and the whole-hearted celerity of both horse and rider in their return gave the required warning of the en-emy's presence. The battalion was deployed across the road about half-way between Hay-moy Farm and the crossroads to Flaba, "K" to the left of the road and "L" to the right; then the advance continued. "K" swung up over the high ground to the west, outflanking the positions of Mongarni and Malmaison, which were holding up the First and Second Battalions; "L" swept out the broken woods along the valley road; and "M" moved east through Flaba, the first troops into that town.

Standing on the open slope northeast of Ennemane Farm one could see the enemy streaming back over the bare hills to the west-ward, and south of them "K's" advancing skirmish line and artillery columns. It was a beautiful motion-picture of well-ordered war, but there was no contact between the two; the Germans did not wait for that. Yet had it not been for a somewhat academic insistence upon artillery preparation of the ground south of Raucourt there might well have been contact. All troops were halted for upwards of an hour, while a total of seven shells was thrown at a supposed machine-gun position southwest of town, and while the enemy made good their escape.

A squad or two of "L" Company under Lieutenant Harkins were the first troops to enter Raucourt, closely followed in by "K," and the scenes of pathetic and hysterical joy at Stonne were everywhere repeated. Through the laughter and singing and tears one remembers the figure of an old man, with face gray and worn but alight with happiness, knocking down the German signs with a shovel. With scarcely a pause in the town, "K" pushed on down the valley to Haraucourt, the first troops to arrive, and were ordered still on to Beau Menil Farm. But by now the Third Battalion, still supposedly in support, was, as a unit, ceasing to exist; and the enthusiasm of mounted officers was overshooting the endurance of unfed men. The order was rescinded, and "K" went into bivouac at the road-forks west of Haraucourt.

"M," after stopping to mop up Flaba, though no enemy troops were found there, had joined "L" in the cabbage-field north of Ennemane Farm, and the two had made some-thing of a meal of raw cabbage. With little prospect of anything more substantial they now went into bivouac at Nouveau Montjoie, two kilometers to the east of Raucourt, and a message from the battalion commander that evening states their grievance:

"My men, with exception of few who went through towns, have bad nothing to eat today. with no prospect of anything tomorrow."

One platoon of "M," however, under Lieutenant Kisch, becoming separated from the rest, understanding their orders to be to press on to the northeast, and imagining themselves to be behind, had gone clear through to Villers-devant-Mouzon, which they reached at four-fifteen P. M., the first troops of the brigade to reach the Meuse. The Second Battalion went into bivouac at the eastern edge of the Bois du Chenois, while the First Battalion, passing through the Third at Haraucourt, took up the front of the advance through Angecourt and on to Remilly-sur-Meuse, reaching the river about four-thirty P. M. after an advance of eighteen kilometers.

During the last half of the way, although no resistance bad been met, it was everywhere evident that the enemy had but just left. As the point of the advancing column entered Remilly a crashing explosion shook the town, telling that the enemy had blown up the bridge at their rear; Allicourt in flames to the north-west sent a flickering light through the dusk. Outposting the railroad tracks across Remilly and Petit Remilly, the First Battalion took up a defensive position on the heights east of Angecourt. Both flanks were open, for there was no liaison with other troops, and it is worth noting that the defense of the left flank, both on the line of resistance and of outposts, was entrusted to Captain Hubbell and his Machine-Gun Company. Still carrying their guns by hand, they had not only kept pace with this rapid and protracted advance, but it was Captain Hubbell's presence with the point of the advance which had saved it from being blown up with the bridge.

The region to the rear seemed to be filled with stray elements of troops from innumerable organizations, from the 1st, 6th, 42nd, and 80th Divisions, half-famished and exhausted men who had lost their regiments and their way; for in the latter stages of the desperately buried advance straggling from all units had become serious, and the men, once separated, could find no information of their commands. A part of the 1st Division, either losing direction or traveling upon an independent schedule for Sedan, had crossed the sector of the 77th Division, and, in the darkness, had become engaged with part of the 42nd. Mounted generals and staff-officers, meeting platoons of infantry on the march, would order them upon new missions, of which their company or battalion commanders would never hear-nor for days thereafter would they hear of their platoons. Everywhere there was haste, exhaustion, and a growing disorganization.

That night, a sergeant from the 168th Infantry, 42nd Division, which previously had relieved the 78th, came up to effect liaison o the left, and reported the forward elements o his regiment to be on the bills west of Ange court. The line was not closed up to the rive until the following afternoon, when the 168th moved in on the left, and the Second Battalion of the 307th on the right, from Remilly to Villers-devant-Mouzon. On the afternoon o the seventh also the bridge across the canal at Allicourt was repaired, and an attempt made by the 302nd Engineers to build a bridge across the river at this point. A covering party from "B" Company, sent to aid in this operation were soon engaged in a fight with enemy machine-guns on the farther shore; and, thou the latter seemed at the end to be silenced, the Engineers had lost one man wounded, and the covering party from "B" one killed and seven wounded, and work on the bridge was discontinued.

There was shelling of Remilly throughout the day, with the pathetic killing of a few civilians-poor worn women, who bad bravely endured four years of bondage and oppression, to die in the hour of their deliverance and at the very close of hostilities. There was a steady machine-gun duel across the river. Captain Hubbell bad located eight enemy positions along the flats, and setting his own guns back in the interior of the houses, so that their flash and smoke were concealed, opened upon them through the windows; but they proved too deeply dug in to be reached. All day there was the sound of firing from the direction of Thelonne, in the sector of the 42nd, and once came a verbal request for flank assistance; but as the messenger insisted that the assistance was to be sent to the east, although be bore every evidence of having himself come from the west, and as the Second Battalion on the eastern flank knew of no such need, none was actually sent. No crossings were found of the river and there was no further infantry action.

Throughout the eighth, enemy shelling continued, concentrating on the crossroads and towns, and mixed along the front with minen-werfers. There was little or no response, for, due to the condition of the roads and the rapidity of advance, the American guns had not yet caught up. On the night of the eighth the Second Battalion, increasing its front, took over that of the First Battalion, which withdrew to Haraucourt. On the ninth the 305th took over its right at Villers-devant-Mouzon, although, on account of the intensity of shellfire, the town itself could not be occupied; and on the same day the Third Battalion took over the right of the 167th Infantry at Thelonne, with the river front from Allicourt to the east of Pont Maugis. The latter relief was somewhat irregular in that the 167th left before the arrival on the ground of the Third Battalion.

We now come to that which, to the conscientious historian, is a most interesting and baffling controversy, namely the Bridges of the Meuse. The Regiment, or such part of it as is interested, may be classified under four beads, namely: those who believe in the bridges both at Allicourt and at Remilly; those who believe in the bridge at Allicourt but not in that at Remilly; those who believe in the bridge at Remilly but not in that at Allicourt; and those who believe in neither bridge. Each faction supports its conviction, for they cannot be called views, with incontrovertible proof, and freely impugns the enterprise, accuracy, and personal integrity of all other factions. The writer, never having looked upon the landscape in question, and therefore being quite impartial, has, after exhaustive research, arrived at no conclusion whatever. And yet the subject is significant, because it involves the passage of the Meuse, with the record of first over and farthest north, and such kindred matters, whose importance tends always to increase as the German machine-gun fades from an ever-present instrument of death to a picturesque topic of conversation. The reader is herewith offered both the facts and the fiction, and must make his own choice. He will do well, however, to bear in mind three modifying circumstances: first, that there was both a canal and a river, and that the former, though on the nearer side, was by some constantly, and by others invariably, referred to as the river; second, that the importance attached to a crossing of the river, somewhere and under any conditions, was quite out of proportion to any military consideration involved; and, third, that at an uncertain point in the interchange of reports the commanding officer of the First Battalion wrote:

"All former references in messages to 'Allicourt' should read 'Remilly.'"

To summarize then the reports: The 302nd Engineers report the bridge complete across canal and river at seven P. M., November 8th. At seven-forty P. M. Colonel Sheldon, in a message to the First Battalion, expresses a doubt that this has been accomplished and urges that a patrol of three be gotten across on a raft or by swimming. At eight P. M., November 9th, Company "B" writes:

"Footbridge over river is reported finished, and I have established a post of two chauchat -teams across river at 302.6-320.5."

And when the historian remonstrated that the coordinates given were those of a point across neither the river nor the canal, he was met by the ingenuous reply that they might be inexact, in that the sergeant who had provided them had at the time no map (and the civilian mind can scarcely realize the profound despair caused by such a statement). Yet it was said to be certain that the chauchat posts were established across the river at Remilly by "B" Company, and that "F" Company had relieved these posts when taking over the sector-a fact flatly denied by "F" Company, who knew of no such posts. Also on November 9th "F" Company reports:

"Sergeant and six men of 'F' found foot-bridge at Remilly completed last night, and sergeant crossed to northeast bank of Meuse at three A. M. Patrol of same sergeant and two men crossed bridge over Meuse at six-forty- five A. M. and went forward about one hundred meters unmolested, though there was distant fire on either flank."

At nine-fifty A. M. of November 10th the same officer of "F" Company reports as a novelty the discovery of a footbridge at Remilly, and complains that "B" Company should not have warned him of its presence. He explains that the bridge on which the sergeant had crossed was actually at Allicourt. on the same day the commanding officer of the First Battalion reports:

"Lieutenant V. and one man tried to effect a crossing at Remilly, but were unable to cross river. He then worked north and crossed at Allicourt bridge, taking northeast direction to Douzy. He reports considerable traffic of trucks and wagons on road, but met no one. There is no bridge at Remilly."

Also on the tenth a Lieutenant H. reports:

"Left Remilly at twelve-fifteen P. M. with ten men and two scouts from Second Battalion

Headquarters, and went to 302.6-320.6" (which is the exact place of crossing mentioned by "F" Company) "but found no bridge there. I learned from the guide from F Company, who are in the town, that no bridge has ever been there. There are the remains of an old footbridge that looks as if it had been destroyed long ago." And he then describes following the river north and crossing it at Allicourt.

At three-forty-five P. M. of the same day a Lieutenant of "F" reports crossing with a sergeant and five men at Remilly, proceeding northeast on unimproved Douzy road to 304.2-321.4, hearing wagon traffic and meeting an enemy patrol of seven or eight men coming from Douzy, and stating in conclusion that a covering party lay between the canal and the river, which was recrossed at seven-thirty P. M. On the eleventh another patrol of a sergeant and five men, also from "F," is reported as crossing at Remilly and describing the condition of the bridges over both river and canal.

Finally, on November 11th, an officer of "L" Company, which then held the Allicourt sector, reports:

"A private and myself patrolled the south bank of the Meuse in search of bridge from 302.1-321.3 to 301.4-322.1 and could find no bridge crossing the river. The sound of trucks traveling along road I discovered was water rushing over a mill-wheel at 301.4-321.9."

Also from the commanding officer of "L":

"I find that the bridge patrolled is not at 301.5-321.7, for there is no bridge there. There is evidence that a bridge had been attempted at that point, but no means of crossing the Meuse River effected. The bridge patrolled is across the canal."

And again:

"Am officer with a corporal and two privates crossed the footbridge over canal, moving northeast to Meuse, at which point a foot-bridge once existed but which has been destroyed. Spans run out from both banks of river, leaving an opening of twenty-five to thirty feet in center. Swift current at this point."

And so the matter rests, but let us, at least for the sake of sentiment, conclude that the 307th Infantry patrolled across the Meuse.

Heavy shelling of the towns and crossroads continued with projectiles varying from three to nine inches in caliber. The surgeon of the First Battalion had been killed while at work in the dressing station, and a single shell had wiped out the driver, five horses, and rolling- kitchen of the Machine-Gun Company. Yet in general the casualties were light. The American artillery, now in position, was replying, but not heavily, and with strangely restricted targets. First it was ordered that they should avoid firing upon the towns across the river, then that they should also avoid the crossroads, then the cultivated fields; and finally came a strange and incredible rumor that an armistice was to be signed, and that all fire should cease.

Yet eleven A. M. of November 11th brought to that sector no sudden or dramatic silence of the four years' thunder of the guns-no outburst of rejoicing, nor any friendly greeting of old enemies. One might wish that it had, but it did not. There had been very little firing through the morning, and after eleven there was none. The ancient women, who had trundled out of town their wheelbarrows, loaded principally with nondescript bedding and still more ancient women, reappeared almost at once trundling them back again. And for the rest the troops, smoking the last of their tobacco, waited more hopefully, but quite inarticulately, for better rations. The first thrill of victory came on the twelfth, when a French battalion of Zouaves, in new uniforms, with colors flying and music playing, with the song of victory in their step and the light of it in their eyes, their officer flashing his sword in salute at their head, came swinging through the streets of Thelonne and Angecourt. It was the first glimpse any had had of the pomp and circumstance of war, and formed a delightful memory of its close.
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