OF THE SEVENTY SEVENTH DIVISION
Black, gloomy, forbidding, the Argonne Forest, the largest expanse of woodland from the Mediterranean to the Rhine, stretches a distance of thirty-nine kilometers from Passevant and Beaulieu in the south, with the big town of St. Menehold in its southern confines, to Grand-Pre and the valley of the River Aire on the north. On the eastern edge of the forest are Varennes. Montblainville, Cornay and St. Juvin. On its western boundary are the towns of Binarville, Lancon and Grand Ham.
For four years, since the beginning of the Great War, it had been a region of dark mystery, under the dominion of the Germans who had early overrun it and adapted its natural features into a vast, impregnable fortress. It was known to be an area of densely wooded bills and ravines, of swamps, brooks and marshland, with tangled underbrush, trailing vines and briars everywhere.
The few roads that afford an approach to it were commanded for miles by the heights that rise above the deep abris of the forest, and in all the far-flung battle line of the western front there seemed no place in German hands more inaccessible to attack than the Argonne.
The portion held by the enemy included all but the open woods in the south, and ran from a line slightly above La Harazee, Le Four de Paris and La Pte Court Choisse to the northern border on the Aire, covering an area twenty-two kilometers long and from seven to nine kilometers wide. Their long proprietorship had given the enemy perfect knowledge of this wide terrain. A, glance behind the curtain of trees would have shown their artillery in position to sweep all avenues of approach to every ravine and summit. It would have revealed their machine guns placed not only so as to command all roads, paths and trails traversing the forest, but also to furnish a series of interlocking bands of fire between the trees and along systems of wire that they had constructed, calculated to make a hostile advance humanly impossible. It would have disclosed look-out stations built in scores of favorable tree-tops, and other high lookout towers constructed to direct the fire of artillery and machine guns, and, threading in and out, an intricate and complete railway line supplemented by a telephone system, furnishing perfect means of supply and communication between all the units in this intensively defended sector. No wonder the enemy, who knew all this, laughed at the idea of the Argonne being captured by direct attack. It was the one sector of the Hindenburg line they were sure of. Small wonder too, that the French, who guessed it, shook their beads and said " Ce n'est pas possible. "
But the capture of the Argonne Forest was imperative. It was the hinge of the great swinging movement that was to drive the Germans across the Meuse. It was the key that must be turned to open the way to Grand-Pre, Sedan and the great German communication centres along the Sedan-Mezzieres railway. The French said " It can't be done. " The American said " It can be done. " The 77th Division said " We'll do it. " And they did.
battle of decision in the great European war is known as
the Argonne-Meuse operation. Popularly it is known as the
Battle of the Argonne. To the 77th Division was assigned
the task of direct attack through the forest. After the
first day, this Division operated alone within the
confines of this forest, and fought its way through its
entire length. When the Division emerged, eighteen days
later, it completed its record by crossing the Aire and
capturing St. Juvin and Grand -Pre, two positions
controlling the northern limits of the Argonne and that
sector of the Aire valley.
All the divisional artillery from the 152d Artillery Brigade was there-the 304th and 305th Field Artillery with their 75's, the 306th with their 155's and the 302d Trench Mortar Battery, later armed with their captured German 105 howitzers, and behind them for distant work, were 8-inch howitzers from Corps and 6-inch rifles from the French Army. Nearly two hundred guns were gathered together into this mighty orchestra, merely to cover the relatively narrow front assigned the 77th Division.
The utmost care was taken to insure concealment of movement from the enemy. As much of the work as possible was done by night, and by day, camouflage and the screen afforded by the trees were utilized to the fullest extent. In the skies, our aeroplanes easily had the supremacy, and their patrolling was so constant and so vigilant that the Boche scouts never dared venture beyond their own lines.
Every precaution was taken by the artillery commanders to preserve the element of secrecy. No registration was permitted. No observation posts were occupied except by observers in the uniform of the French, who had been quietly holding the sector for the past four years. A complete artillery telephone system was installed, but no English was spoken over the telephone. The guns were laid by astronomical observation.
The enemy knew that there was something impending. During the week previous to the attack, he exhibited a pronounced nervousness. Three nights successively, his patrols attacked the advanced outposts of the French, but were driven off. Harassing fire was delivered on crossroads Croix Gentin, and on the 25th of September, a heavy harassing fire with gas shells was placed on the western part of Bois des Hautes Batis.
He had a premonition. It may have been gained from irrepressible noises at night heard by some of his more daring scouts, it may have been telepathic. But he never dreamed of the, extent of the attack that was to be made upon him, as later information proved.
The initial positions taken by the Artillery were governed to a great extent by the nature of the terrain and the plan of advance, which contemplated close cooperation between the Artillery and the advancing Infantry. It was impossible to move the guns through the trees covering the entire territory from which the attack was to be delivered. Rapid mobility could be insured only by their keeping in close proximity to the few good roads traversing the forest. Accordingly, the guns were placed for the opening barrage along the highways themselves-the 75's of the 304th Regiment on the road running east from La Chalade across the ridge, where they were joined by a number of the French 6-inch rifles, the 305th Regiment 75's on the north and south road in the north-east sector of Bois des Hautes Batis, and the heavy 155's of the 306th on the roads in the vicinity of Le Rond Champ and Croix Gentin. Each battery had to fell between 40 and 50 trees to obtain the necessary field of fire. This was done by sawing and wedging the trees, but they were not thrown over until shortly before the hour set for the opening of the Artillery preparation. The Headquarters of the 152d Artillery Brigade were established on the night of September 25th, at P. C. Pau.
Sixteen avenues in the enemy wire were assigned to the Artillery to be cut for the passage of the assaulting troops. Four of these were at La Fille Morte and four at Taille Rongard on tile front of the 153d Brigade. Of the other eight, three were lined out to the east of the Four de Paris across Ravin Intermediare to Rau des Meurissons and one to the north of Rau des Meurissons. For the troops facing La Harazee, two lanes were arranged for to the east of La Harazee and two to the south of Rau de la Fontaine aux Charmes. By these means it was designed to provide an open war for our men to the heights commanding the large ravines in the enemy's territory and to permit the 153d Brigade to sweep around to the left and take the high ground between Abri St. Louis and Abri du Crochet.
At H. hour, after the lanes had been cut, the plan of attack called for a rolling barrage of 75's placed 500 meters in front of the Infantry going over the top, with the 155's firing a standing protective barrage, 500 meters in front of the 75's mm. barrage, advancing at the end of 25 minutes at the rate of 100 meters in 5 minutes, by 100 meters bounds.
On the night of September 25th, the Infantry of the 77th Division quietly moved into tile front line. About midnight, the French outposts were relieved, and the Division was ready for the attack.
The assault, as directed by Field Order No. 43, was to be delivered on a seven and a half kilometer front extending across the enemy's Position from a point west of La Harazee on the left, to Courte Chausse and Taille de Ramce on the right. The Division was disposed in line, all four infantry regiments being in the front line, with the 305th on the extreme right, the 306th on its left, the 307th next and the 308th on the left of the line. This disposition was not the most desirable, but the frontage to be covered was so extensive no other disposition appeared possible.
Undoubtedly, at this time and at all future times in the operation, because of the extent of front, too great a proportion of the Division was employed simultaneously and a disposition in depth, which is desirable from every point of view, could not be made at the time of attack. The 28th American Division was on the 77th's right and the 1st French Division on its left. A Franco- American force intended to act as a combat liaison group on the Division's left flank was also organized, for the purpose of maintaining contact with the French on the left. This combat liaison group, consisting of a regiment from the 92d American Division (the 368th), was to have advanced in conjunction with the left of the 77th Division. It did not so advance, as subsequent events proved, and, as a consequence, the left flank of the. Division was exposed during the whole period of operations of the three weeks in the Argonne.
Before the battle opened, the 153d Brigade, in readiness on the right, was facing the heights of Le Fille Morte and Taille Rong, with the two ravines, Fond des Meurissons and Ravine des Meurissons beyond the heights, and on the left, the expectant forces of the 154th Brigade had before them the ravines de La Fme an Mortier and de La Fontaine aux Charmes, with high ground running to the northeast. As to what lay beyond the enemy wire, they had no information, other than the words of the Commanding General addressed to his Infantry officers on the day before the attack, when he said
" I don't believe we will find very much opposition in the first or even second line. Such opposition as we find will be confined to machine-gun nests. We have all had opportunity to see the aeroplane photographs of the ground we are going over. It is very densely wooded and it is probable that it is very difficult to get through and that along paths you will find such machine-guns as are warranted there. You will find machine-gun nests on the paths and drains. We shall have to work around them and cut around them through the bush.
" I cannot go
into detail on the work of the artillery and you don't
care about that. I will tell you where it is going to be.
It is hard to draw up a definite plan on account of the
terrain and the difficulty of registering tire. You all
realize that the closer up you get to that barrage, which
is to precede you by 500 meters, the more protection it
is for you. If you lag behind and it passes on, before
you get there, the enemy is up and using his weapons.
Keep as close to it as you can. The limit of 500 meters
was put on it for reasons that I have carefully
considered. It is not necessary for you to stay back
For three hours the bombardment of the enemy wire continued with amazing accuracy and completeness, literally blasting the Germans from their concrete trenches and leveling lanes in the wire which for four years had guarded this front.
At 5:30 A. M. behind the rolling artillery barrage, the 77th Division went over the top and hurled itself upon the remnants of the 2nd Landwehr Division of the German Army, the enemy Division that had been guarding the Hindenburg Line where it crossed the Forest of Argonne.
Thus began a campaign unique in the history of the whole European struggle, in point of character of the battle ground fought over and of the method of combat employed-" The Wilderness Campaign " of the Great War. Through a tangled jungle of trees, clinging vines and thickly brailed brush, through swamps and muddy morasses flooded by the constant rains that were falling, over steeps and across wild valleys, through the mud and the wet and the cold, the unfaltering soldiers of the 77th Division were obliged to push on day after day, against invisible machine-guns, against trenches concealed by foliage and underbrush, against positions whose forward areas were perfectly protected by numerous lines of barbed wire and chicken wire interlaced among the trees, against an enemy who could not be seen to be fired at and who could only be nosed out and routed by attacking parties that crawled along the ground and scouted from tree to tree until they could engage him in hand-to-hand combat.
At the hour of attack, side by side, all four regiments of the Division took the jump-off with elements similarly disposed, one battalion in the front line, one in support and one in either divisional or brigade reserve. Practically no opposition was encountered in going through the enemy front-line trenches. The big guns had done well. Little remained of the outer defenses of this particular section of the Hindenburg Line, but a mighty jumble of shattered timber, smashed concrete and twisted wire. The torn-tip condition of the ground, however, covered with a confused tangle of wire and debris, and the deep ravines that were encountered at the outset, made progress difficult. To add to the difficulty, way had to be made through a dense fog which did not lift during the morning. On our right, the 154th Brigade soon ran into thickly forested terrain. without roads, paths or trails.
In spite of these drawbacks, the lanes cut in the enemy wire, according to plan by the artillery, were found and steady progress made by the infantry following behind the rolling artillery barrage, so that an advance of over two kilometers was made on the first day. A few shells fell on our advancing lines and there was some sniping, and, late in the afternoon, a brisk machine-gun fire on the 307th's right, all of which resulted in a number of casualties. But nothing was met indicating a strongly organized resistance. Our line that night was established on the ridge just north of the Four de Paris-Barricade Pavillion Carr des Meurissons Road, running thence, from a point slightly south of St. Hubert's Pavillion, in a westerly direction and parallel with the Biesme River.
The events of the next day were very different. The Division resumed the attack at 5:30 in the morning, preceded by a half-hour's artillery preparation. It was not long before the Hun began to snarl and show his teeth.
The 307th Infantry struck the first resistance, from the heights on its right front above Rau de La Fan, aux Charmes, whence some hostile machine-gun fire had been directed the previous afternoon. It soon became apparent that the enemy was going to defend these heights as his main line of resistance and that he held strongly entrenched positions along their crest and On the high ground of St. Hubert's Pavillion, Four de Zube and Abri de St. Louis on the front of the 153d Brigade. The 308th, on our extreme left, pushed ahead. But the 307th was strongly opposed by artillery fire accompanied by a heavy enfilading barrage from machine-gun nests, that the Boche appeared to have constructed along the whole plateau south of Bagatelle. Similar strong points confronted the 306th and 305th.
The German plan of defense was unfolding. It was to be machine-guns to stop our advance, echeloned in depth and supporting one another with cross fire, operating from perfect concealment and from every angle on our front and flanks, and then artillery and trench mortar shells to scatter our halted forces. This meant hand to hand. fighting for our men. Into it they plunged all along the line through the tangled underbrush and wire, against an enemy they could not see, but who was reaching them through the mechanical process of shooting along lines of fire carefully laid out before hand.
Two companies of
the 306th Infantry, K and B, were the first to stir up
the Huns on the right sector of our line. Starting their
advance with the rest of the Regiment at 5:30 in the
morning of the 27th, these two companies soon found
themselves scrambling down in single file into a deep
ravine containing nearly a hundred dugouts. Signs of
recent enemy occupation and hasty flight were visible,
but everything was quiet and our doughboys pushed ahead,
cheering themselves with the belief that the Boche had
pulled out for at least two or three kilos to the north.
Everything was going smoothly. High spirits prevailed,
for one and all had absorbed a full meal and enjoyed a
good sleep, the night before. Through the village of
dugouts and up the opposite slope went the confident
lines of Infantry. The first platoon to reach the top had
three scouts forward who sent back word that there was
plenty of barbed wire ahead and no openings. The rest of
the companies were halted and an inspection of the wire
Wire clippers immediately got into action and inside of three minutes, a wide path was cut through the wire, enabling the entire two companies to file through and occupy the trenches which the Boche had vacated only a few minutes before. This advance and occupation was made under con-stant flanking fire from machine guns and casualties were suffered, but they were surprisingly few in view of the furious enemy fusillade.
Upon reaching the trench system, both companies jumped in and lined the parapet with expectation of an attack. They did not have long to wait. Suddenly a volley of potato mashers (hand-grenades) landed around them, apparently coming from nowhere, for not a Boche could be seen on account of the thick brush in front. The order was given to pour a grazing fire through the brush in an attempt to inflict casualties by chance shots. After a few minutes of rapid fire in which the Chauchats joined, everything became silent. Our men loaded up, in preparation for a possible second attack, and waited.
The second attack was preceded by a smoke screen, which gradually enveloped the entire country to our front in a thick blue haze. Then over came the Huns, and for the first time it was possible for our men to see them and take aim before firing. The Boche almost immediately fell back from the front, but an alarming cry went up from our left that they were coming in directly from our left flank. This rush took Co. K by surprise, and the enemy succeeded in capturing for a few seconds, the extreme left portion of our trench. From this point of vantage, he rained grenades with uncomfortable accuracy into our ranks.
At this stage of the proceeding, the quick wits and aggressiveness of the Americans came into play. " Up and at them" was the cry. One German officer was bayoneted in the act of throwing a grenade. Three Boche who tried to carry off one of our men by the collar were shot down in quick succession by a runner who was using a Chauchat for the first time in his life. One Boche rifleman had his rifle within three feet of Co. K commander's chest. The Boche was shot down before he had a chance to pull the trigger.
The Germans were beaten back into the cover of the bushes, but they had succeeded in severely damaging the left flank and destroying the machine guns posted there for flank protection. Ten minutes quiet ensued. Then the enemy adopted new tactics. About thirty or forty of them came toward our line yelling " Kamerad " with their hands in the air and, to use the expression of one of the doughboys, "We fell for it," and ceased firing, in the belief that a large number of prisoners would be taken. The unexpected happened. When the enemy arrived within a few yards of our trench, they attacked with a shower of potato mashers, which, catching our men unawares, inflicted a number of casualties. But the Huns had to pay for it. As they turned to run back, every rifle in American hands, opened on them. As one of the veterans of the fight said, "We simply let them have all we had. "
From that time on, the entire advantage remained with our men. Whenever the Boche consolidated for a fresh counterattack, they were greeted by phosphorous grenades thrown from our lines. This treatment evidently destroyed their nerve. For, although they made several more attacks, it was quite easy to drive them back.
During this operation, a great deal had been learned by our men of Hun duplicity, and the kind of fighting that would be necessary to drive the enemy from the Argonne. The Boche, too, had learned a lesson. He knew now the kind of fighting timber these Americans were built of, and that the closer you got to them the more dangerous they were.
While these two companies of the 306th were fighting off counter-attacks at St. Hubert's Pavillion, the other units of our forces were going through similar experiences at right and left of them. At many points, the Boche were forced to give way. Assaulted four times by the 305th Abri St. Louis finally remained in our bands. Against sweeping machine-gun fire, the 306th made three attacks on Four de Zube and wrested it from the enemy. The night of the 27th saw our lines advanced, except in the center, an average of a kilo and a half over the day before and the huge engineer and railroad dump at Barricade Pavillion in our possession.
When the attack was renewed on the morning of the 28th, the effect on the Boche of the previous day's hard fighting became evident. The strength of his positions along the ridges to our front bad been shaken. For several hours our advance met little opposition. St. Hubert's Pavillion and Abri St. Louis were crossed and mopped up, yielding eleven prisoners. The 307th passed the Bagatelle Pavillion. Abri du Crochet was captured by the 305th on our right.
It was apparent that the enemy had abandoned his first line of resistance. About 2 o'clock in the afternoon, it fell to the lot of the 307th to gain first contact with his second line. On the for-ward slope of the draw, north of Bagatelle, the rattle of machine guns greeted the 307th's advancing lines. Then down came the artillery. It was impossible to locate the hostile machine-gun nests, so carefully were they concealed in the wild growth on the opposite crest, and anything like an attack on them in force, was rendered impossible by the terrific shell fire tearing through the ravine and forward slopes. It became necessary to dig in and establish temporarily the front on a general line, 300 meters south of Depot de Machines.
On the right, the 153d Brigade
was having easy sailing. "Easy sailing" in the Argonne, however, had a
meaning different from any the expression ever bore before. It indicated
progress, steady and sure, but only gained by crashing through bushes,
tearing through barbed wire entanglements and smashing down lines of chicken wire.
It meant a progress constantly harassed by Boche snipers
with light automatics, some of them firing from treetops,
who bad to be crept upon and shot, bayoneted, or disposed
of in some way. It signified an advance tortuous,
stifling, struggling, whose single joy consisted in
encountering no organized system of machine-gun positions
of the kind the Boche had constructed on the crests of
the Abris. Such was "easy sailing" in the
Under these conditions, the 154th Brigade on the 29th of September, "sailed" 3 kilos ahead as far as the heights bordering the Abri du Crochet, its line running thence west about a half-kilo along the east and west trail leading to Bagatelle Pavillion.
Along the slopes and heights of Abri du Crochet, and Champ Mahaut to the southeast, our advancing troops uncovered a German paradise. Here was located one of the famous rest areas of the German armies, where battle-worn and weary Boches were taken to fatten up and recover morale amidst amazing comforts and luxuries.
Adjoining "Waldhaus Martha," was the bowling alley, with the open-air restaurant and beer garden built above it, where sat the onlookers on a sunny afternoon, quaffing their beer and cheering on the bowlers. Down in the ravine below, where the brook ran, was the great concrete swimming pool, a close rival to the one in the Columbia College gymnasium, and here also were found spacious shower baths supplied with hot water by modern boilers and concrete furnaces.
The Chapel, the Library teeming with the best works of German science and literature and including, even from hated England, the tales of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, the officers' club with its attractive bar, the big theater, fitted for moving-picture exhibitions-none of these was wanting to make the place an ideal spot for quiet life and recreation. In the photographer's shop our men found hundreds of plates showing Germans, short and tall, fat and thin, single and in hilarious groups, having all kinds of good times with hunting parties, beer parties, singing parties, Christmas parties, high festivities generally in their valley paradise, where they had rested so securely for over four years.
It seemed a pity to put the rude hands of war upon such a place as this. But it bad to be done, and the slap was administered so suddenly that the recreational sojourners had hardly time to skedaddle before our infantry was upon them. Our men found every instance of hasty flight. Uniforms were still hanging in the closets, cigars, wines and other food luxuries were undisturbed in the storerooms, and meals were laid on the tables, ready to be eaten.
Needless to say, Abri du Crochet and Champ Mahaut were soon adapted to our own uses. Division Headquarters, established at P. C. Pau on September 25th, was moved up to Champ Mahaut on the 2d of October, and the fighting battalions in their few short reliefs from the firing line, when they acted as Divisional Reserve, were brought to these comfortable huts for brief breathing spells.
Our center was heavily opposed during the entire day of the 29th and little progress was made on the left. But the right gained a good kilometer and a half through the thick woods, destroying many machine guns on the way. It reached the crossroads on the trail leading southwest to Depot des Machines by 11:30 in the morning.
The balance of that day and all of the next was spent by the 305th and 306th in consolidating their positions. Battalions were distributed in depth, liaison was perfected on the right and left, and vigorous patrols were sent ahead to feel out the enemy resistance. Dumps were moved forward, supplies replenished and lines of communication improved.
The 30th was anything but a day of rest for the 154th Brigade. The morning's attack of the 307th failed to dislodge the enemy in their front. It was finally decided to try a blasting operation engineered by our artillery. The coordinates were sent back, the signal was given and a thirty minutes barrage from our 75's and heavies crashed down on the opposing ridge. The regimental 3-inch Stokes mortars were brought up and they added a powerful dose of thermite to the party the Huns were enjoying. The preparation was efficient. The infantry attacked in the afternoon and the enemy was driven from the hills north of Depot des Machines.
But the Boche did not retreat far. He retired only a kilometer to the ridge south of the Binarville-La Viergette Road and occupied apparently prepared positions extending across this ridge and through the Bois de la Naza on the front of the 153d Brigade. Outposts of machine guns and snipers guarded this line. The 153d Brigade swinging to the left fought their way step by step against the most persistent kind of resistance from an invisible and almost inaccessible enemy. Machine guns were posted to enfilade every path and to sweep every clearing in the forest. One by one they had to be rooted out. Ladders were constructed for climbing over long stretches of chicken wire, while the bullets were singing along them, close to the ground where, according to the Boche plan, our men should have been.
Our artillery could render little aid. The hills and deep ravines covering the entire terrain complicated the calculation of all data. Observation and checking were impossible. Furthermore, our lines were often so close to the Boche it would have been impossible to reach the latter without shooting into our own men. Narrow woods trails, deep in mud, militated against the mobility of the guns. It was always a desperate struggle of men and horses to get them into position.