Chapter 11. Grand Pre



Grand Pre


The, general withdrawal of the enemy lines upon this front, forced first by the fall of Montfaucon to the east, and later by that of Fleville and Chatel Chehery, where their communications to the north had been cut, was now resumed with added speed. The right of the First Corps and beyond it the Fifth, forging farther and farther ahead through the open ground, was winning miles of forest for the 77th Division, with, for the moment, little effort upon their part; and from the flank of this growing salient on the east the 82nd Division freshly thrown into the line, struck west across the front of the 28th. Both armies were sweeping northward to the Kriembilde Stellung, the next line of German defense along the open valley of the Aire, which represented in fact the enemy's most vital remaining artery of cast and west communication. The Aire itself, a stream some fifty feet across and six to eight feet deep, promised something of a barrier to the division's progress, and the northern bank was strongly held by the enemy; the wooded heights beyond Grand Pre' had been converted into a fortress, and the Bois des Loges lay beside them.

At daybreak of October 9th, now with a new colonel (since Lieutenant- Colonel Houghton had been evacuated sick and replaced by Colonel Sheldon) the regiment had pushed forward, against a delaying fire of machine-guns and artillery, some five kilometers to the Bois de la Taille northeast of Lancon, where, for the first time in nearly three weeks, it had briefly emerged from that never-ending forest into open grass-lands. On the eleventh the advance bad been resumed past Grand Ham, and, skirting the valley of the Aisne, to Chevieres and the Bois de Negremont. The twelfth found the First and part of the Third Battalions on the line, with outposts along the railroad, and their supporting platoons, together with the Second Battalion, behind the wooded ridge of the Bois de Negremont. An attempt by a patrol of "D" Company to cross the river on the broken bridge at Chevieres had been repulsed with loss, nor had the other patrols along the banks discovered any fords; an attempt by the engineers to throw bridges across at night had also been driven off by artillery and machine-gun fire. The enemy's strength had been everywhere developed, and his weakness not yet found when, for the morning of the fifteenth, a general assault was ordered. On the right the 153rd Brigade had on the fourteenth effected the capture of St. Juvin, and it was not probable that the 154th had anything to gain by further delaying their attack upon Grand Pre'.

Morning broke with a thick white mist clinging over the open meadows, and blotting out the town of Grand Pr beyond the river. At six-thirty the American artillery opened fire upon the wooded hills, and an hour later the First Battalion advanced to the attack-"C" and "D" from the southeast, "B" and "A" from the south. Despite the protecting fog, the first movement of troops into the open brought a sweeping fire of artillery from the heights to the north of the town, and of machine-guns from the high ground, from the town itself, and from the north bank of the river. The troops moved forward slowly and in little groups, using every feature of natural cover, and searching for targets for their fire. It was an open fire-fight, the first in which the regiment bad ever engaged; and though the advantage of position and of cover lay entirely with the enemy, the relief from the blind struggling in the forest was enormous.

The Machine- ' Gun Company was helping with indirect fire from behind the ridge, and, for the first time, the one-pound cannon came most efficiently into action. By two P. M., under a constant storm from 77's, 88's, and machine-guns, which already had caused it casualties of an officer and sixteen men, "C" had built up its firing-line along the open south bank of the river. "D" held the narrow gauge line behind it. "B," having also consumed the forenoon in its gradual advance, bad carried its firing-line first to the tracks by the railroad station, and thence, by infiltration, to the trees and bushes of the river, where three platoons lined the bank on the left of the north and south roadway, while the fourth huddled down in support along the concrete platform of the railroad station. "A" held one platoon forward by the tracks and three along the north edge of the woods.

Enemy artillery-fire of H. E. and gas covered the whole area back to where the supporting battalions lay about La Noue le Coq, and where the lake by the ruined chateau was filled with the constant bubbling explosions of gas- shells. The machine-gun fire along the front never slackened. Captain Newcomb, who had joined the regiment a few days previous, was about noon put in command of the First Battalion, and, three hours later, Major M'Kinney was given general charge of the operations of the front. At eleven-thirty A. M. the Third
Battalion had been pushed forward to the northeast for an attack on the right of "C" Company, and, though unable to reach the river, on account of the intensity of machine-gun fire from its farther bank, bad got its two forward companies, "K" and "L," along the north apex of the railroad curve. "E" and "H" of the Second Battalion were, at two-thirty P.M., moved east across the open to Chevieres in an effort to connect with the 308th, which was advancing astride the river. Though the movement brought immediate shellfire, the shallow
depression in the ground along which they moved saved them from heavy casualties; but there also the north bank of the river was lined with machine-guns, preventing a further advance of either themselves or the 308th, still to the east. There they took position, under a very constant fire, in a shallow trench bordering the road to Marcq. Their patrols discovered fords across the river northeast of Chevieres, but it was dark before "Y' and "G" were brought up to this ground and dug in by Barbanqon farm, covering the fords without attempting to cross them.

In the meantime "B," extending its firing -line to the west, had reached the sharp curve on the river opposite the south end of the island, and there, about five P. M., a possible ford was found. Two earlier attempts to cross the river elsewhere, by wading and by swimming, had been driven back with heavy loss to the men in the water; the first platoon had lost its lieutenant-crawling back two hundred yards under fire of snipers with a compound fracture of the ankle-and all but eight of its men; the ford just discovered by the fourth platoon was held by an enemy outpost, and the man who found it was shot while leading his platoon to the place; four successive messengers sent to this platoon from the Company P. C. at the railroad station had been shot before reaching it, but without deterring the fifth from going, or from continuing to go. After dark a crossing at the ford was effected. The firing-line opened with everything it had against the west end of town, and under cover of this fire the troops continued to cross, "B," "A," "D," and "C," building up a new line beyond the river. As the supports came forward they carried planks from the railroad station, and foot-bridges were built from a fallen tree to a sand-bank in the river, and across the canal beyond.

By two-thirty A. M. of the sixteenth almost the whole battalion had crossed to the island, and a patrol of "A" Company had crossed the canal and the wire to the edge of the town, where it was driven off with grenades by an enemy patrol, but without seemingly starting a general alarm. At three A. M. the last stage of the attack was begun.

"It was so dark you could see nothing and it had begun to rain. Yet this did not make us anymore uncomfortable as practically all had either waded the river or fallen off the bridge in the darkness. I had fallen in three times. We started in single file across the canal and up a steep clay bank, cutting our way through a belt of low wire; I was standing on the bank, helping our heavily armed men on to an old road, and about half the column bad gotten across, when a report sounded to our left. I bad known that there was a Boche outpost somewhere there, and another about fifty yards away to the right of the bridge, but with the rain, and as absolute silence bad been preserved, we bad gotten by so far without being discovered. The report was that of a Very light, fired by some Boche who had probably heard a man fall into the canal. For a moment I thought it was all up, and aimed my pistol at the place, waiting; every man froze in his tracks. The light burst almost directly above the ford, glittered for a moment amidst the driving rain, and went out. Still silence, then a whispered word down the line, and we moved on. Just as the first gray streaks of dawn began to appear we started cleaning up the west end of the town."

"B" Company, which had so far borne the heaviest brunt of the attack, and with a loss of two officers and nearly forty men, was now placed as a covering party south of the town. "D" was sent to the west to ward off a possible counterattack from that direction, one of its patrols there effecting the capture of an enemy outpost of four men and two light machine-guns, while another followed the Longwe' road for nearly two kilometers without encountering resistance. "A" and "C." entering the town by a narrow alley in its western part, began the cleaning of it.

Formed as it was along a single street, organized principally for defense to the south, and taken completely by surprise, the cleaning up of the town was accomplished with astonishingly little loss. Not a shot had been fired since crossing the canal nor had any sentinel been met; in complete silence, and still almost in darkness, "C" turned to the east along the street, and "A" to the west. A single figure came round the corner of a building; there was a startled "Mein Gott!" and still in silence, with the muzzle of a pistol at his stomach, 'W' Company had captured the first prisoner. He told of a garrison of one hundred and fifty in the town, all machine-gunners or automatic -riflemen, and led the way to the cellar occupied by the rest of his squad. At his summons they climbed out, their packs on their shoulders, and were passed along to the rear. There was some movement down the street, and a German officer passed, unconscious that American soldiers were flattened against the walls to right and left. He seemed to be leading out a relief of the guard, and all might have filed on into the ambush had not some one shouted "Hands up." The officer swung around, falling as he did so with a bullet through the neck; there followed a swift struggle in the half-light, and then a stampede back across the open fields to the north. Some were shot as they ran; a few were killed in the street, and some more made prisoners; but probably the greater part escaped. This completed the west end of the town, with twenty-three prisoners already on their way to the rear. "A" Company then turned east to help "C" in its more difficult task.

Here, as the surprise had been less complete, the resistance was much stronger; the fire of machine-guns and automatic rifles spouted from windows and cellars, and swept down the length of the street; fighting continued across the main square by the church till after nine A. M. Lieutenant Grubbs of "C" Company took a patrol around the backs of the buildings there to break this resistance, and seemingly succeeded, though he himself was not seen again. From here on the work was completed by three patrols of "A" Company, one of a lieutenant and six men clearing the buildings to the right of the street, another, similarly formed, clearing those to the left, while a sergeant and six men, recrossing the canal, went through the outbuildings to the east. Lieutenant Ross's patrol attempted also to clear the crest of the hill beyond the north edge of town, but were driven back by machine-gun fire; Lieutenant McCullough's, after reaching the last buildings to the northeast, were again driven back by grenades thrown from this same eminence; and Sergeant Swenson, occupying this last group of houses, though on the other side of the street, was effectually cut off from retreat.

The buildings occupied by this patrol formed the last group on the east of the road, and were separated by several rods from the continuous structures of the rest of the town. Although, during the unorganized resistance of the enemy, the patrol had drawn no fire while in the open meadows beyond the canal, hardly bad they entered these buildings, about eleven A. M., when a messenger, crossing this open space toward them, was seen to fall; and a little later a messenger sent out by them was shot down on the same ground. The first was dead, but as the second, who had recklessly paused to thumb his nose at the hilltop, was still living, another went out to bring him in. He, too, was wounded, and the man be had sought to help died in his hands. The fire came both from a machine-gun seemingly just placed in position up the road to the north, and from the bill to the west of the road. The ground here rose in a sheer cliff above the roof-tops, from the upper ledge of which a machine-gun was fired and hand-grenades were thrown. Every effort of the patrol to return a sniping fire from the upper windows upon this position was driven off by grenades thrown through the roof, and a status quo was thus established lasting throughout the day.

Beyond this ledge of ground, and hidden by it from sight, was a large chateau with formal gardens-the "citadel" which figures so largely in the subsequent story of the 78th Division upon this ground, and which has led to such unfortunate controversy as to which of the two divisions might fairly claim the taking of Grand Pre'. Grand Pre', as a town, was undoubtedly taken, swept, and outposted throughout by the 307th Infantry; nor was there any reentering of the town by the enemy during that day, as none passed the "A" Company patrol, which lay there awaiting relief until nightfall; nor when the patrol withdrew through the town did they see any sign of the enemy. But as a position the capture was not completed while the enemy still held this dominating keep; and perhaps one should add Bellejoyeuse Farm, a kilometer to the north, where his artillery seemed to be concentrated.

The relief by the 312th and 311th Infantries of the 78th Division began on the night of the fifteenth and sixteenth, and for the Second and Third Battalions of the 307th was completed by daybreak of the sixteenth. The Third Battalion had after dark been withdrawn from its position to the east of the town and returned to support, "L" Company outposting about the railroad station, and "I" endeavoring, though unsuccessfully, to effect liaison with the French on the left. The ground of the First Battalion was not taken over until one P. M.; and the farthest post, that of Sergeant Swenson's patrol, was never relieved at all. At about three P. M. the 312th withdrew from the northeast part of town; and at four an American barrage was put down on it, during which the outpost of "A" Company fortunately suffered no casualties. After that the enemy artillery took a hand, as they had been doing all over the town during much of the day, and at dusk the patrol withdrew, carrying its one wounded and leaving the two dead.

The taking of Grand Pre' represents probably the most successful action of the regiment, for it is the only occasion on which it can fairly be said that the enemy were driven en masse from a position which they had fully intended to bold. Such occasions are much more rare than might be supposed, even in the course of a long, and eminently successful, advance. The war, as it was found by American troops, seems very seldom to have involved a fight to a finish on any one bit of ground; and the most that was usually accomplished was to hurry a withdrawal, for which the enemy were prepared at a later date. There were forty soldiers and an officer captured here, together with eight light and two heavy machine-guns. The ground afforded an opportunity which had long been lacking for the use of auxiliary arms; the Machine-Gun Company and the one-pound cannon platoon were able to bring an effective fire from the Bois de Negremont, over the heads of the troops, upon the houses of the town, and some of the accompanying guns could be laid "pointblank." The casualties of the regiment were returned as twenty-four killed, ninety-one wounded, seventeen missing, and seven gassed, one hundred and thirty-nine in all.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth the regiment was withdrawn to the Bois de la Taille, seven kilometers to the south, and thence on the next day as far to the southeast as the Chene Tondu. Here in an amphitheater of ground on the eastern edge of the Bois d'Apremont a collection of German huts and barracks, ranged one above another on the slope, gave lodging to the whole command, and here for four days the regiment remained, resting, bathing, and refitting. On the twenty-first it moved north six kilometers to a line representing the Corps Line of Resistance, the First Battalion near Fleville, the Second near Cornay, and the Third near La Besonge, where for four days they garrisoned and, which was far more actual, dug the trenches. On the twenty-fifth the battalions were again returned to the Chene Tondu, where they received replacements, five hundred for the regiment, and remained in rest and training till the end of the month.
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