Brave and True, part 1

Company A, Texas Engineers was a National Guard unit formed in the spring of 1916 in Port Arthur. Later that spring Company B formed in Dallas. Because of the Border Crisis, the two companies were Federalized for service along the U.S. – Mexico border in the summer of 1916. The Engineers served, along with the rest of the Texas National Guard, until March 21, 1917. Sixteen days later the United States was at war with Germany and these citizen-soldiers were again activated for duty. Company B traveled in June to San Antonio to build Camp Travis, future home of the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Division. Company A reported to Camp Bowie in August 1917.

The Texas Engineers were enlarged with the addition of Company C from Sweetwater in West Texas. The companies joined together for the first time in August at Camp Bowie as the First Battalion, Texas Engineers. Joining the Texans was the First Battalion, Oklahoma Engineers, who were recruited in 1917. Together they formed the 111th Engineer Regiment, the Engineers of the 36th Infantry Division. Along with the two battalions was a Headquarters detachment, a Medical detachment and the 111th Engineer Train. They helped the U.S. Army Cantonment Division construct the camp and took over responsibility for completing it when the Cantonment Division left Camp Bowie in November, 1917. Their home stations were as follows:

1st  Battalion, 111th Engineers

  • Company A: Port Arthur, Texas;
  • Company B: Dallas, Texas;
  • Company C: Sweetwater, Texas;

2nd Battalion, 111th Engineers

  • Company D: Tulsa, Oklahoma;
  • Company E: Ardmore, Oklahoma;
  • Company F: Oklahoma City
Part of the 111th Engineers at Camp Bowie, Texas

Training in France

On August 5th, 1918 the 111th Engineer Regiment arrived in Bar-sur-Aube, France with the 36th Infantry Division. The 36th was stationed there for final training. Headquarters for the 111th was in Spoy, a small village eight miles from Bar-sur-Aube. As the division engineers, the 111th was busy improving local roads, building rifle ranges and a grenade training area. They also dug model trenches for training and mapped the area as practice for the front. An Engineer Regiment in France normally had 1,750 members but the 111th had about 1,500 officers and men at this time.

Moved to the Front

On September 9th, 1918 the 111th Engineer Regiment was ordered to leave the 36th Infantry Division and report to I Corps, First U.S. Army at Frouard, one hundred miles away. The Texas – Oklahoma Engineers were going to war. The Engineers left Bar-sur-Aube on September 10th and 11th for the 10-hour train trip. Once the regiment arrived at Frouard, they unloaded their equipment and rested. On the morning of September 11, the regiment marched toward the front line past Griscourt, a nine-to-twelve mile journey. The march took the regiment nine hours.

The first American-led attack of army-size in the war, the St. Mihiel offensive reduced a German bulge in the front line. The German Army had seized the area early in the war, in September 1914, and had eliminated French Army resistance inside the bulge by May 1915. The bulge stuck out over a dozen miles into France from the rest of the front, ending at the town of Saint-Mihiel. Busting the bulge and moving the Germans back to the 1914 line would enable the Americans and French to more easily send troops and equipment by rail to their next objective, the Argonne Forest region.

Saint-Mihiel operation

The 111th Engineer Regiment made camp for the night in a forest just north of Griscourt at 6 p.m. At ten o’clock, the sky lit up and trees shook as American and French artillery opened up along the front. Seven American infantry divisions went across the front line near the 111th early on the morning of September 12. The regiment was on the road again by 8 a.m. By three o’clock the next morning, the 111th reached Regniéville-en-Haye, a village so badly ruined by war that it does not exist today. At Regniéville the regiment built a road through the ruined village for army trucks and artillery to aid combat troops just ahead.

It was at Regniéville that the 111th took its first fire from the Germans. Artillery shells were a real danger for Engineer troops working just behind the front line. The first shells on September 13 killed some horses. German planes would fly over at night and drop bombs on the engineers. On the 14th the regiment continued to build roads over captured trenches and shell craters. They made their way another six miles to Thiaucourt, where they met newly-liberated French civilians.

After repairing the roads around Thiaucourt, the 111th Engineers started their march from the front at 3 p.m. on September 15. Away from the front, but not from danger. On the evening of the 16th, they were shelled near the village of Blénod and three men were wounded. The next night, gas shells hit near their camp at Dieulouard. For six days in the St. Mihiel salient, Texas-Oklahoma engineers had tested their mettle. (You can read Sergeant Lou Sheckard’s first-hand experiences in Company D, 111th Engineers, in Peter Finkle’s blog here)

 

Company E, 111th Engineers in Le Mans after the Armistice.

Meuse-Argonne

With the St. Mihiel pocket reduced, it was now time to prepare for what became the largest offensive of the war. Over one million American soldiers and marines would participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The French-American plan was to push trough the Argonne Forest to the Meuse river and seize the fortress city of Sedan. If the Germans lost Sedan and Metz to the southeast, they would lose rail transport networks and their famous Hindenburg line of defenses. They would have little option but to retire back to Germany.

On the march

The front lines in the Argonne Forest were sixty-five miles away. To get there, the 111th Engineers would have to walk once again. They left Dieulouard on September 17th at 7 p.m. and marched all night. Along the way they passed a line of captured German artillery two miles long. The next morning they camped just past Sanzey, sixteen miles away. The regiment would march at night on their way to the Argonne Forest, which kept them safe from German artillery. By 5 a.m. on September 19 they had possibly reached Sampigny, 20 miles from Sanzey.

Two days later the Texas-Oklahoma Engineers were in Èvres, 26 miles away. By this point the roads are clogged with soldiers on their way to the front, and the going is slow. In addition, some of the men were coming down with influenza and had to be hospitalized. Americans in France all remembered the near constant rain. It had rained for much of the time the 111th was on the move.

By September 23rd the regiment was in Les Islettes, 15 miles from Èvres. In seven nights of marching the 111th had gone about 77 miles though northeast France.

(Read about the experience of Corporal Walter G. Sanders, Company B, 111th Engineers in France in Judy Duke’s post to WWI Texas History here.)

 

AEF Engineers stringing telephone wire near the front, 1918

Area 13

On his seventh day at Saint Nazaire, France, Otho Farrell and Headquarters Company of the 142nd Infantry Regiment marched to the train station. It was the beginning of their journey inland, to final training before combat. By August 6th, the 142nd Infantry was spread over three ports of entry on the Atlantic coast of France. The regiment would be reunited at the training area, Area 13.

Soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division lined up at train stations near Bordeaux, Saint Nazaire and Brest for the trip. Non-commissioned officers (sergeants) rode in second-class coaches. The rest of the enlisted men traveled in 40-and-8s. A 40-and-8 is a French boxcar, much smaller than its American counterpart. Each one was to carry forty men, or eight horses (40 Hommes/8 Chevaux). Standing inside of one today makes one wonder how forty men with their gear could possibly stand, much less sit or eat or sleep in it. There was no bathroom, you just stood on the running board outside. The officers, by the way, rode in first class coaches.

36th Div. HQ was in Bar-sur-Aube

Experiencing France

Traveling through France packed with thirty-nine of your closest chums in a boxcar in August is no vacation. But the men did see a lot of France. Depending on where he started from, a soldier in the 36th traveled through Tours, Bourges, Orléans, Dijon, or else around Versailles and Paris. Crowding in the boxcars was unbearable and some rode on top of the train. The 142nd experienced its first fatality in France when a private from Company G was knocked off his boxcar by a low bridge.

Along the way, the men of the 36th saw ancient cities and towns, cathedrals, factories and farms. Farmers and ranchers from the west marveled at the small stonewalled fields and horse-drawn farming equipment. They traveled through vineyards and mountain passes, villages and fields of grain in summer. If the rude condition of their transit could be forgotten, France was starting to look better.

Bar-sur-Aube

Training Area 13 was located in the Aube département of France, 120 miles southeast of Paris. The train stopped in Bar-sur-Aube, where the Division Headquarters was located. The rest of the division was spread out in towns and villages in the area. There was no army camp or fort; the soldiers would live side by side with the local civilians. Nearly one third of the 36th Division did not go to Area 13. Instead the 61st Field Artillery Brigade traveled to artillery camps for training.

Once detrained at Bar-sur-Aube, soldiers marched to the town or village where they were to find quarters. Quarters could be in a farmhouse, a barn, a mill or outside in a tent. Accommodations were ad hoc, but most soldiers found the countryside and the relative quiet enjoyable.

Otho Farrell arrived in Bar-sur-Aube at 5 a.m. on August 8, 1918, after riding in a boxcar for thirty-six hours. He and the men of Headquarters Company marched the nine miles to the village of Bligny, arriving there by 12:45 p.m. The Headquarters staff of the 142nd Infantry found comfortable quarters in the local Château. Headquarters Company, the regiment’s medical detachment, Company C and Company D were all quartered around Bligny, as was the 71st Brigade Headquarters. Other units of the 142nd were located nearby at Urville, Couvignon, Bergères, Montmartin, Le Puits, Nuismont, Meurville and Le Val Perdu.

Chateau de Bligny, 142nd Inf. HQ

Training the AEF way

By this time in 1918, General John J. Pershing had 1,210,703 Americans serving in Europe. Fourteen months earlier he had just two battalions, 1,308 men. Even more soldiers and marines were on the way, over 200,000 new American arrivals in France during July, 1918. While the men were trained to varying levels of competence stateside, they were about to enter a machine-age war in Europe. American troops had been trained for trench warfare at home. Pershing and his staff saw the results of four years of deadlock in European trenches and wanted nothing to do with it.

Instead the American Expeditionary Forces taught open warfare doctrine; an aggressive, mobile tactic designed to move the Germans from their trenches in order to beat them. As a commander, Pershing planned to rely on his strength of American marksmanship and physical stamina to win battles and the war. Part of this tactic must have come from the wish to avoid the grinding, unrewarding war of attrition that turned the fields of France into a slaughterhouse. But part of Pershing’s plan was practical as the front line, for the first time in nearly four years, was beginning to crack.

Training Area 13

Pershing wanted his men to take German fortified points in combined-arms thrusts with stopwatch precision. To get to that level, the men had to learn anew how to fight. For the men of the 36th Infantry Division, training started with a refresher in military discipline and physical strength. Southwest men were proud of their rough and ready skills, but they did not translate as easily to military discipline as the staff of the AEF saw it. Training in France was to reacquaint the soldier to inspections, military courtesy and precision in all things. The next element of the training was fitness. The men once again became familiar with long hikes with their gear, this time over the hills, forests and valleys of northeast France.

The men also took bayonet practice and the Engineers built rifle ranges and grenade pits. Men of the 36th Infantry threw their first live grenades at Area 13. They improved their marksmanship and became familiar with the new Browning Machine Gun and Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). The 36th was the first division in the AEF to be equipped solely with BARs. The men made night marches and solved field problems. They learned to coordinate their movements with each other, but there were no tanks or artillery to train with in Area 13.

Despite their spread-out existence in rural France, Area 13 was just 100 miles from the front line. They were in frequent contact with soldiers from other units and other nations. They were learning daily of the war that was, at this moment in the war’s last summer, raging just out of earshot.

Letter from Bligny to Gladys Loper, 1918