Battle of Saint Etienne

On October 4th, 1918, men of the 142nd Infantry were preparing to leave Champigneul, a village near the Marne river in northeast France. The 142nd was part of the 36th Infantry Division, headquartered in Pocancy, the next village to the south. The 36th Infantry had been living in villages near the south bank of the Marne river for six days, waiting to go to the front. Just eight days before, on September 26th, allied forces attacked the entire German line in France and Belgium. It was, and remains, the largest land battle in U.S. military history.

Only the 36th Infantry Division was not with the American army. U.S. General John J. Pershing had loaned the 36th to the French Army for the battle, where it expected to stay in reserve behind the front line. The 36th had just cut short their training to join the Groupe d’armées de Centre, who were fighting alongside the U.S. First Army. Most noteworthy, the 36th Infantry had no combat experience, and had never been to the front. When it entered combat, according to the plan, the 36th Infantry would push through the French countryside after others had broken through German fortifications.

For France

During their short stay south of the Marne the men of the 36th experienced firsthand glimpses of war. Hundreds of buildings stood in ruins from artillery and aircraft attacks. The appearance of German planes brought the Southwesterners out of their billets to watch. Some of the towns were attacked, while Texans and Oklahomans took shots at German aircraft with their rifles.

Meanwhile, the 36th did their best to get equipped for combat. The French gave them the correct number of mortars, flare pistols and grenades. The men carried out drills as best they could during that week along the Marne, staying out of sight of German aircraft. At night they would look to the north and east to watch and hear artillery duels just beyond the horizon.

To the front

In nearby Champagne, German and French armies faced one another from more or less the same trenches since September 1914. The French had suffered great losses twice in 1915 trying to push the Germans out. Since 1914, the Germans had built concrete bunkers in multiple lines of defense. The last French offensive, in September 1915, cost them 145,000 casualties. The defending Germans regained all lost ground at half the cost in dead and wounded. Over three years the French and Germans expanded their fortifications. Germany’s Hindenburg line was a system of machine-gun bunkers, observation posts and underground shelters that stretched across the region.

Three years later, in September 1918, the French attacked in Champagne. French soldiers were able to capture parts of the Hindenburg Line. Still, after two attacks, they were unable to break through a German stronghold in the Champagne countryside called Blanc Mont. Visiting there today, you can see why: a long hill bristling with bunkers with a clear view for miles around. The French sent in a fresh division, the U.S. Second Infantry, to take Blanc Mont.

Send the Second

The reputation of the Second Division is the stuff of legend (“Second to None”, if you ask them). One of the first U.S. divisions to become active in France in 1917, the division included one Army brigade and one Marine brigade.  In June 1918 the Second Infantry blunted the German spring offensive at Belleau Wood, saving the city of Paris in the process. It was a desperate, costly fight that neither side could afford to lose. German attackers were amazed at the fighting spirit of the inexperienced Yanks, who turned them back in spite of terrible casualties. On June 26th, 1918, silence in Belleau Wood was followed by a dispatch from Major Maurice Shearer, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. It simply said:

“Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

Blanc Mont

On October 3rd, 1918, the U.S. Second Division attacked the system of fortifications at Blanc Mont and captured it within two hours. In doing so, they had advanced a mile and a half beyond the nearby French lines and so were exposed on their left and right. Facing the enemy on three sides, the Second Infantry held their ground despite German counterattacks. The Americans held a narrow wedge of territory, 500 yards wide, inside the German defenses. Try as they might to push forward, further German strong points made this impossible. Artillery shells were landing on the American position from close range. U.S. soldiers and marines dig in and kept watch for an assault.

The next day, October 4th, the Germans counterattacked on the left flank of American positions, which were held by Marines. There was also heavy fighting on the right side, which was held by the Army. On that day and the next, October 5th, the Americans tried to advance but could not. The fighting was intense and losses were heavy. The American-French force had broken through German defensive lines and wanted to expand beyond them. The Germans were determined to resist because retreating would endanger other German troops fighting the main American army in the Meuse-Argonne sector.

Marine veterans of Belleau Wood said the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge was the tougher fight.

Call to the 36th

French and American commanders agreed reinforcements were needed immediately. The 36th Division was called to the front. On October 4th, half the division traveled by truck about 31 miles from Champigneul to the ruined town of Suippes. The journey took all night and the 142nd Infantry marched the last two miles to their first stop, Somme-Suippe. The 142nd waited at Somme-Suippe on October 5th waiting for the other half of the 71st Infantry Brigade, the 141st Infantry Regiment, to arrive. On October 6th the whole brigade marched north to the town of Somme-Py, about 11 miles. On their way the 71st Brigade made its way through the Hindenburg Line, taken by the French in the first days of the battle. Here, Texans and Oklahomans saw French and German dead on the battlefield. When they got to Somme-Py, the U.S. Second Division had ammunition and supplies there waiting for them.

The rest of the way, about four miles, was under German observation and would have to be crossed at night. The commanders of the 141st and 142nd Infantry reported to Marine Major General John A. Lejeune, commanding the U.S. Second Division, for orders. The order was for the 71st Brigade to make its way to the front and relieve the entire 2nd Infantry Division.

 

At the front

The men of the 142nd Regiment spent late afternoon and evening of October 6th near Somme-Py taking as many supplies as they could carry. Company commanders tried to get their hands on maps of enemy positions and water for the men. Marines were expected to guide them to the front, but they had taken shelter while the Germans were shelling the town. However, soldiers of the 142nd did not meet their Marine guides until after nightfall. Since the Marines had arrived by truck in daylight, they did not know how to get back to the front by foot. Finding their way forward in the dark was trial by error, and the men quickly became lost. As a result, the 142nd Regiment did not get on the right track until late at night.

The untested soldiers were now on their way to war. Second Division Marines on their way to the rear passed them as they advanced and remarked of the National Guardsmen “singing and joking as they went. High words of courage were on their lips and nervous laughter.” One Marine told another, “Hell, them birds don’t know no better…Yeah, we went up singin’ too, once–good Lord, how long ago!…they won’t sing when they come out, or any time after.”

The soldiers had witnessed German artillery hits that afternoon near Somme-Py. Now that they were moving nearer to the front, exploding shells were closer and closer. The Germans had targeted crossroads especially, and soldiers were held up at them waiting for a pause in the shelling. Two men were killed by German artillery, the first combat losses in the 142nd.

 

Dug In

It was daylight, October 7, when the 142nd reached the front line. It was not like anything they had trained for: a series of foxholes and shell craters with the occasional abandoned German dugout was their shelter. The Germans were about 100 yards away, and had seen them arrive. Machine guns opened up on the Americans and soon artillery shells exploded nearby. Men dug their own holes or leaped into foxholes just vacated by the Marines. Germans could be seen across no-man’s land, moving from dugout to dugout. That afternoon, artillery hits were more severe with American dead and wounded.

Commanders in the 71st Brigade spent a frantic day completing the relief of the Second Division and locating supplies and ammunition. Later on, a French tank battalion showed up, which encouraged the men. Maps were in short supply and not useful when commanders got them. There was only one day’s supply of food and water; what each man had carried there.

That night, commanders made their way back to Somme-Py for final orders. At that moment they learned that they would attack the German line. Major General Lejeune had asked his French commanders that the 36th spend a few days getting used to combat operations before going on the attack. His superior, French XXI Corps commander General Stanislas Naulin, disagreed and set the attack to resume at dawn on October 8th with the 71st Brigade in the lead.

 

Deployed

September 1918 found the 36th Infantry Division still in the Thirteenth Training Area surrounding Bar-sur-Aube, France. The 36th had been there since early August for their final training before entering the combat zone. Since the division arrived in Bar-sur-Aube from three different French ports of debarkation, it was a reunion. They spent a month traveling there from Texas by train, ship and foot. The Thirteenth Training area was a group of villages in northeastern France, and accommodations for many of the men were primitive. Yet soldiers of the 36th Infantry enjoyed the work and forged bonds with the French people during their training.

But the reunion didn’t last long. As the American First Army was preparing for its first offensive action in September, front-line Divisions needed to fill their ranks. Two thousand men from the 36th were transferred to other divisions in late August and September. Many of them transferred to the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” division. This National Guard Division already contained a transportation unit from Texas and an Ambulance unit from Oklahoma. Overall the 42nd Infantry had units from twenty-six U.S. states and the District of Columbia, which made it unique in the Army.

Other men from the 36th transferred to the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Infantry, a National Army Division from Camp Travis in San Antonio. Men in the T-O insisted it stood for “Tough ‘Ombres” and would get a chance to prove it that September in the Saint-Mihiel Offensive.

Soldiers of the 36th Division with French youth after the Armistice.

 

Training for the real thing

As summer turned into fall the men of the 36th Infantry trained in rural France. Losses to the division by transfer were partly made up by the arrival from Camp Bowie of 783 men who– for one reason or another– didn’t make the train back in July. These men had been AWOL (Absent With Out Leave), sick in the hospital or otherwise detained from making the journey. Training was the constant in the last days of summer with long marches and simulated battles in the French countryside. The men participated with gusto but by the fall had worn out much of the clothing that had been issued to them in New York back in July. Soldiers were also having a hard time keeping clean in their makeshift lodgings and some of them were getting sick.

It was also at this time that the Spanish Influenza reached the Thirteenth Training Area. There was nothing “Spanish” about the this affliction since it was in fact a pandemic. Influenza had a significant impact on German forces just one hundred miles away. But the soldiers of the 36th Infantry were well spread out, and medical officers had the foresight to quarantine men with influenza from the rest of the troops. There were some fatalities from the pandemic. Illness brought more vigilance to personal care and hygiene in the division, and separate quarters were made in field hospitals for those not suffering from influenza. Patients noticed that the Medical units of the 36th Division were receiving supplies for battle.

Last minute changes

Equipment was finding its way to Area 13 as well. On September 20th, the 111th Supply Train got fifteen Pierce-Arrow trucks. Ninety-eight officers were transferred into the 36th Division at Bar-sur-Aube. On September 20th Otho Farrell was promoted six ranks from Corporal to Color Sergeant. Farrell was part of the 142nd Infantry Headquarters office staff, and as a corporal he would be expected to take down orders in shorthand, type them, keep records and post communications. Now he was one of two Color Sergeants in the 142nd, subordinate only to the Regimental Sergeant Major in the HQ.

Machine Gun Team, 132nd MG Battalion, 36th Div.

Deployed

On September 23rd 1918 the 36th Division was ordered to make itself ready for transport to the front. US Infantry Divisions in France normally trained for eight weeks behind the lines before transferring to a quiet zone of the front line. There infantry battalions would embed with an allied regiment (usually French) to learn defensive operations in the trenches. This process could take another eight weeks or more before an American Army Division was released for combat operations. But it was not to be; the strategic situation in late September 1918 had changed significantly. The 36th Division was needed on the front line.

The division curtailed its training schedule about ten days early and made preparations. Motor vehicles in the 36th pulled out toward the front. Men had to pack only their battlefield essentials and move toward the train stations. Troops gathered at stations in Bar-sur-Seine, Bar-sur-Aube and Brienne-le-Château on September 26th. For seven weeks, the 36th Division had made northeastern France their home. Now they were going to fight for it.

Transitions

When the old 7th Texas Infantry Regiment stepped off the train in Fort Worth in September 1917, there were over 1,900 new recruits from northwest Texas and the panhandle. Now, just over one year later, 615 of those same men boarded another train in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment. Of the missing 1,300 men some had been invalided out of the Army by a failed physical or by disease the previous winter. Some of them had died of those diseases, others were killed in accidents. Many were transferred to other units. The Texans that remained were joined by other volunteers from Oklahoma, and then by draftees from several other states. Somehow, the 615 who remained had a Texas-sized influence on the character of their unit on the eve of battle.

The trains and trucks traveled about sixty miles northward to Avize and Épernay, near the Marne River. On arriving, the 36th Division entered service as part of the French Army. General Pershing had loaned the 2nd, 36th and 93rd Infantry divisions to France. When they got there, no one in the French Army was expecting them. After the initial confusion men had to find shelter in the ever-present French rain. The Division had moved within twenty miles of the front line and were staying in villages between Châlons-en-Champagne and Épernay. Their Artillery Brigade, the 61st, had not joined them and they were missing their Engineer Regiment. The rest of the division was 20 percent understaffed.

131st Machine Gun Battalion, 36th Infantry Division after the Armistice.