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Chapter 9. First Phase of the Battle


The 302nd ENGINEERS

by,
Gilbert H. Crawford
Thomas H. Ellett
John J. Hyland


CHAPTER IX.

FIRST PHASE OF THE BATTLE

FOR the 77th Division and the 302nd Engineers, the first phase of the Argonne-Meuse Battle lasted from the 26th of September to the 10th of October. During this time the line moved forward from the "jump off" at le Four de Paris and La Harazee to the Aire River, in front of Marcq. Many noteworthy incidents took place during these two weeks of battle.

On the first day of the attack, the 2nd Platoon of Co. "Y', under Lieutenant O'Donnell, became lost in the old German positions of the forest and got ahead of the Infantry in the vicinity of the battlefield of Bagatelle. This detachment encountered a party of German machine gun snipers, whom they promptly engaged with the resulting capture of seven of the enemy. It was in this action that Pvt. Bergen R. Seaman, Co. "F", and Pvt. Louis Doerr were killed.

Divisional citations were awarded the following for their share in the affair:

Lieutenant O'Donnell, Sergeant 1st Class Solomon, Corporals De Biase, Boniak and Giordano and Privates Doerr, Koch and Bieringer.
On the 28th, Captain Harder of Co. "C" and his acting lieutenant, Sergeant Cavalieri, were both wounded while Co. "C" was preparing to advance with the infantry, just south of the Carriere des Meurissons. Lieut. Frederick Weston of Co. "B" was assigned to the command of Co. "C" and served with that company during the remainder of the campaign.

The battle line of the Division advanced slowly until the 1st of October from the 1st to the 9th there was practically no movement. It was during this period that Major Whittlesey of the 308th Infantry became detached from his brigade with several hundred men, was surrounded by the Boches, refused to surrender, and fought off all attacks until relieved by our advancing infantry on the evening of the 7th.

Meanwhile, the Engineers were busy repairing the very poor roads of the forest, and rebuilding the narrow-gauge railroads that had been abandoned by the Germans. The area in the rear of the 154th Brigade did not at this time contain a single road on which to bring up supplies or evacuate the wounded. The 2nd Battalion of the 302nd Engineers was operating in this area, and orders were given that the French narrow-gauge railroad near La Harazee be connected up with the German narrow-gauge system in the forest. This work was carried on with such energy and spirit that by the 2nd of October, the advance infantry was supplied with food and ammunition, and the wounded were evacuated over this hastily organized railway. The grades were so steep and the roadbed so rough that it was impossible to use locomotives (and none were available), so the traction was supplied by the U. S. Army mule, all animals that could possibly be spared being mobilized for this work. This railway was of the utmost use to the 154th Brigade, because without it the supplies could only have been sent forward by hand and the evacuation of the wounded would have been delayed many hours.

In describing the advance of the 77th Division, General Alexander wrote as follows in regard to this railway line:

"It will be observed that the circulation in the forest itself was recognized beforehand as being most uncertain, and no provision could be made therefor. For the left flank (154th Brigade), it was found that the proposed route via BINARVILLE was entirely impracticable, and in anticipation of such a development, preparation was made to utilize the Boche railway system in the forest, which information from maps and otherwise, indicated to be most complete and far-reaching.

"This scheme was carried out by the divisional engineers. A connecting link between the French system at LA HARAZEE and the Boche system at the head of the FONTAINE aux CHARMES -was constructed so rapidly that by the third or fourth day of the operation that route was used for all supply and evacuation on the left of the divisional sector. No locomotives were available, but a few Boche freight cars were picked up from day to day and these were utilized, being drawn by animals on the railway referred to. I will say here that had it not been for this connecting link and the consequent supply of the troops thereby, a continued advance in the forest-on the left at least-would have been found entirely impracticable. Our difficulties in the way of transportation, at least as concerned rolling stock, was greatly alleviated by the capture of the DEPOT des MACHINES on the 28th of September. At this point, some sixty freight ears in serviceable condition were found and at once put to work. Effort was made to secure locomotives, but for some reason unknown to me, it was impracticable to secure them until the operation reached such a point that the urgent necessity for them had in great part passed. The first call for these locomotives was made by me on the 26th of September, as a result of the developments on my left flank.

"As a matter of interest, I may add here that during the time the Boche railway system and connecting link were operated by animals of the 77th Division, eight hundred and fifty tons of supplies of all kinds were carried into the forest by that route and about five hundred sick and wounded evacuated thereby. The railroad was used in this manner until the tranverse road, BINARVILLE-la VIERGETTE, fell into our control on the 7th of October."

The 1st Battalion was at this time busily engaged in keeping the vitally important le Four de Paris Road in condition for heavy traffic and in repairing the German narrow -gauge railroads in its area. This system was connected with the 2nd Battalion south of Bagatelle, but because of the lack of locomotives it was not used by the Americans until later.

In the area occupied by both battalions were several old German material depots or "dumps". The Depot des Machines and the depot discovered by Co. "A" each contained millions of dollars worth of material. Every conceivable article needed by military engineers was included in these dumps, and they were of utmost value to the American Army in the advances that took place from that time on. The very poor condition of the rearward roads, which had deteriorated very rapidly as the corps and army troops had followed the divisional troops, made it nearly impossible to bring up vitally necessary engineer supplies. These well supplied German "dumps" were, therefore, a God-send to the engineers. From this time until the Armistice, the Regiment relied almost exclusively on the material abandoned by the enemy. And curiously enough he never failed us. Time after time "dumps" were discovered that could easily have been destroyed by burning or demolition. No more convincing testimony was needed to show that the Germans "stood not upon the order of their going."

It was noticeable that the enemy engineers made very few demolitions of any kind in the forest itself. Hardly a road blowout was attempted except at la Besogne. Even the railroads were injured only by shell fire. It seemed strange at the time, but was explained later by the very extensive demolitions north of -the Aire which were encountered between the 1st of November and the Armistice. All the enemy engineers had doubtless been withdrawn for this work, while his infantry was fighting the Americans south of the Aire.

Few details need be given of the engineer activities in the forest. Life was a series of hard- worked days, cold, wet nights, and scant food. It required constant work to keep the roads open at all, and the platoons with the infantry underwent all the dangers of the front line, making themselves useful as pathfinders and carriers a n d occasionally formed the actual battle line, as did Co. "D" on the 27th of September.

One incident of note was a personal and hazardous reconnaissance made by Lieutenant-Colonel Giesting during this period. Accompanied by two men from Co. "B", he advanced along the Haute Chevauchee (or as the Boche called it the Nord-Sud Strasse) for over one-half mile in front of the American outposts, thus gathering valuable information as to the condition of this road long before the troops advanced.

As has already been suggested, everything in the Engineer's life seemed to lead to bridges. So it was, that on the l0th of October the advance of the 77th Division brought it south of the Aire River between Grandpre and Chevieres. The dreary monotony of the roadwork in the Argonne Forest was instantly changed for the far more interesting and dangerous work of bridging the Aire. The river was somewhat wider than the Vesle, but it was fordable in places. These fords it was the duty of -the Engineers to find.

On the afternoon of the l0th, Captain Howry of Co. "A", accompanied by Lieutenant Weston of Co. "C" and Lieutenant Macqueron of the French Army, set out on a personal reconnoissance of the Aire where it passed through the village of Chevieres. This deserted village was located on the southern bank of the river and the American outposts were situated half a kilometer south of it. This party operated in broad daylight between the lines. The north bank was held by enemy snipers who made the reconnaissance very difficult. The information required was, never the less, speedily obtained and all the officers returned unharmed.

In spite of the deter-mined efforts of Cos. "B", "C", "E", and "F" from the l0th to the 14th of October, all attempts made to bridge the Aire failed because of the strength of the enemy defence. On the night of the 11th of October, Captain Howry of Co. "A", accompanied by a detachment from that company, set out to find fords across the river. Before returning this party located six fords less than waist deep between Chevieres and St. Juvin. These fords were marked by stretching wire across the river. This most creditable piece of work was carried on in front of our infantry outposts, and had to be done in absolute silence as the north bank was infested with enemy outposts.

During the evening of the 13th, the 153rd Brigade received orders to maneuver to the east, thus relieving part of the 82nd Division, and to attack St. Juvin (north of the Aire) on the morning of the 14th. This difficult movement was accomplished during a wet, cold night. Details from Co. "A", under command of Captain Howry, advanced to the river during this night and repaired three partially demolished Boche foot bridges. Men from Co. "A" were then sent to the infantry to act as guides to these bridges and to the fords which had been wired on the night of the 11th.

On the morning of the 14th, the 306th Infantry attacked St. Juvin and after an all day battle took the village with several hundred prisoners. During the afternoon of the 14th, two platoons of Co. "B" built one foot bridge in the rear of the infantry near Martincourt Farm. This bridge was used almost immediately by the advancing infantry, but not by the troops of the 306th Infantry who so gallantly captured St. Juvin.

Starting at 8:00 P. M., 14th of October, Captain Howry with details from all companies of the 1st Battalion attempted to build an artillery bridge across the Aire between Marcq and St. Juvin. Material for this bridge was carried to the bridge site by hand for a distance of about one-half kilometer from a large engineer dump which had been discovered by Lieutenant Glenn of Co. "B" while on a reconnaissance on the morning of the 13th. Heavy bombardment prevented the completion of this bridge. About twenty men were wounded during this operation.

On the morning of the 15th, Captain Crawford with fresh details from the companies of the 1st Battalion, took over this artillery bridge work. The site was changed by Major Per-Lee to a demolished German pile bridge near St. Juvin. Work on rebuilding this bridge continued for eight hours under heavy shell fire including much gas. The bridge was completed at 4:00 P. M. on the 15th of October.

During the night of the 15th, Captain Howry with men from the companies of the 1st Battalion practically finished another artillery bridge at the site originally chosen. Before morning, however, the 77th Division was relieved by the 78th Division; so this latter bridge was completed by details from the 303rd Engineers.

During the day of the 15th, Lieutenant Walsh with a platoon from Co. "F" proceeded toward Chevieres to construct a footbridge. There had been no advance by the left brigade; so Chevieres was still in front of the American outposts. Leaving his platoon in a sheltered position a kilometer south of the Aire, Lieutenant Walsh accompanied by Sergt. William Thomas of Co. "D", made a daylight reconnaissance of the river. In so doing both were killed. The Distinguished Service Cross (posthumous) was awarded to Lieutenant Walsh and Sergeant Thomas.

The 77th Division having been relieved, the 302nd Engineers retired into the heart of the Argonne Forest, expecting a well-earned rest with a clean-up, new equipment and clothing. That was the program, but the Regiment had no sooner settled itself in the comfortable Boche dugouts in the vicinity of the Abri du Crochet, than orders were received that called half the Regiment to the front again. The Corps Commander had decided to build a position of security about three kilometers behind the front line. The divisional (303rd) engineers were too much occupied by their own front line work to do this, with the result that the resting 302nd Engineers were again ordered forward. Co. "B" and two platoons of Co. "A" took over the right half of this work, which extended from the Cote de Maldah to the heights behind Marcq. A detachment consisting of one-half of each company in the 2nd Battalion took the other half of the sector from the left of the 1st Battalion to the Bois de Negremont. This work consisted in trench digging performed by the reserve infantry under engineer supervision, and in wiring. The latter was done by the engineers; in all, several miles of trenches and wire were constructed, this work lasting until nearly the 1st of November.

On the 12th of October the Regiment lost its original commander, Col. C. 0. Sherrill, who was made Chief of Staff of the 77th Division, which post he held until the Armistice. No one who has ever come in touch with Colonel Sherrill will fail to realize the immense influence he had upon the Regiment. It was his energy and genius which made the 302nd Engineers the fine organization it was, and to him every officer and man owes a debt of gratitude.

Lieut.-Col. Frank A. Giesting, who had been with the Regiment from the time of its organization, succeeded Colonel Sherrill, and he remained in command until demobilization. In November he was promoted to be colonel and, so far as is known, was the only Engineer Reserve Corps officer with a combat division to attain that rank.
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