Brave and True, part 2

The 111th Engineer Regiment was part of a National Guard Division, the 36th Infantry, that was sent to France in July 1918. Six weeks after they got there, the 111th Engineers were sent to the front without the 36th Division. For the rest of the war they served as the Engineers of I Corps, First Army. Their job was to follow closely behind the leading division of the First Army and clear obstacles, defuse landmines, build roads and string telephone wire along the front. Their job would have been difficult even if it were not in the combat zone. Clearing mines and building roads so the wounded could be transported to hospitals saved a lot of lives, but the job was dangerous.

September 23, 1918 found the 111th near Les Islettes in the Argonne Forest. They were close to the front line and still with I Corps, American First Army. They had spent the last seven days on the march to get to the Argonne Forest, where the largest American operation of the war was about to begin. As usual, it was raining. The men found shelter wherever they could. The area was full of American and French forces moving forward, preparing for the coming fight.

111th Engineers Band

Meuse-Argonne

On September 25th, the 111th Engineers were on the move again, marching at night once more. Around midnight hundreds of American and French cannon begin firing at the Germans and the battle is begun. By 5 a.m. on the 26th, the Engineers are on the road again marching through Clermont-en-Argonne and Neuvilly-en-Argonne in heavy rain. German artillery hit their position in Neuvilly at 10 a.m. and they spent the day repairing the road. The next day the 111th is at work further up the road between Boureuilles and Cheppy. German prisoners and wounded men on their way from the front fill the road. German artillery continues to fall, but Americans are still advancing.

The 111th arrives in Varennes-en-Argonne on the 28th to find the town demolished by the fighting. German aircraft once again are bombing at night. Artillery projectiles are falling all around, in one instance killing a number of soldiers near the 111th Engineers. On the 29th, Company D enters Vauqois, a small village that was the front line on the first day of the battle. It had been a battleground for four years. No living thing remained in Vauqois; artillery and tunnel mines from both sides cratered the countryside.

 

Stalled

By October 1, the gains of the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive stalled. German forces had reorganized a defense further down the line, and the advances stopped. The 111th Engineers were in an unfamiliar situation: they hadn’t spent two nights in the same place for twenty days. The regiment was located near Varennes-en-Argonne at this time and there was plenty to be done. There were more roads to repair and since there was a bottleneck they were always crowded. The Engineers got to work and built a new road around Varennes to ease the traffic.

While American forces were making slow progress just ahead, German planes still ruled the air. On October 9th they bombed the 111th Engineers, killing one. They were also still in range of German artillery, which would send over shells for a few minutes and then go silent. On October 11th part of the regiment moved ahead fifteen kilometers to just south of Marcq and Grandpré repairing roads. It was raining there, too.

 

Doubling Down

With the advance stalled, American General John J. Pershing reorganized forces and sent new divisions to the front. The 111th were still near Varennes and trying to keep up. Rain was a constant, roads were turning into mud flats, and the increase of soldiers and supplies going up, wounded going down, kept the roads clogged. The engineers got in the habit of using rubble from ruined buildings in making roads, but more was needed. They found a quarry and soon were hauling rock for their highways. They also cleared mines and improvised explosives buried in the roads by the Germans.

Through October the men of the 111th steadily built and rebuilt roads for I Corps north from Varennes. They even built a narrow-gauge railroad from their quarry in Chatel-Chéhéry. Through that month the American front line straightened and forces were better deployed at the front. By this point the First Army has overrun three German defensive lines in the Argonne region. German resistance was organized and determined. Their aircraft make frequent bomb sorties over the 111th, which make them a little nervous since some of them are encamped across the road from an ammunition dump. (You can read first-hand accounts of Sergeant Lou Sheckard, Company D, 111th Engineers in Peter Finkle’s blog here.)

 

111th Engineer Regiment on parade in Dallas, June 14, 1919

November 1918

Just after midnight on November 1st, the 111th Engineers were on the move. At 3 a.m. they witnessed an artillery barrage that lit up the sky. “(T)alk about being able to read a newspaper at night,” one engineer wrote, “you sure could then.” One American Division, the 2nd Infantry, advances six miles the first day. The gains are costly and engineers encounter carnage on the battlefield as they make their way forward. The men are hard at work clearing the way for reinforcements. Once more, there are German prisoners streaming away from the fighting. In seven days the 111th had advanced twelve miles.

The retreating Germans blew up bridges, shell holes dotted the roads. As the 111th repaired them, they saw abandoned trucks and artillery pieces. The enemy retreat was beginning to look hasty. The American advance brings the engineers further north. They are busy as ever, repairing roads, when Germany signs the Armistice on November 11th.

The men are hungry and exhausted. The 111th Engineer Regiment served 62 days in the combat zone, about three times as long as the rest of the 36th Division. On November 11th they began yet another long march, this time away from the front. Eventually they rejoined the 36th Division and waited until their transport back home. When they returned to the United States, they paraded in their hometowns of Tulsa and Dallas before the men mustered out of the Army at Camp Bowie in June, 1919.

After the war a motto was chosen for the 111th Engineers, Fortis et Fidelis. And that remains true of them to this day.

(You can read the account of Corporal Walter G. Sanders, Company B, 111th Engineers in Judy Duke’s post to WWI Texas History here.)

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.

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.

Company D, 111th Engineers at Camp Bowie

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