Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book exerpt--American Battlefields of World War I

There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes
--- Geoffrey Young
Stars and Stripes, 1918
Generations of Americans born since 1918 scarcely remember or appreciate what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers experienced in France during World War I. Knowledge of the battles, the battlegrounds, and the American participation in that war is no longer in our national memory. It is a sad commentary that "the war to end all wars" has been relegated to the dustbin of history less than a century after the final shots were fired. During World War I, over four million Americans wore the uniform of their country; two million soldiers went overseas, and 116,708 of them gave their lives--53,513 in combat action and another 63,195 from disease and other non-hostile causes.
This volume is dedicated to all of the American soldiers, sailors and marines who fought so valiantly on land and sea and in the air during the greatest struggle for liberty in the history of the world prior to 1914. 'Lest We Forget', this book is written with a determination that "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds." As such, it is a labor of gratitude and respect for those who served so well.
Soldier Courage
The American soldiers were not press-heroes; they were young, idealistic men who fought hard for a cause they felt was right. This book does not seek to highlight the glories of war. But this does not mean there is not room to spotlight the courage inherent in war. There is no greater quality than courage, especially when demonstrated in the process of saving one's fellow soldiers. Such selflessness is an endearing quality often formed in the crucible of combat. This selflessness is genuinely one of most important, albeit, unheralded legacies of war. Certainly it is a heritage worth preserving and perpetuating. It is for this reason that the author constantly kept one eye on the list of citations and decorations of the AEF.
Deeds of valor by units and individuals are picked out for description, but no claim is made that these men were the best or bravest on the battlefield. Rather, these descriptions were chosen only as representative samples. Thus, they owe their inclusion herein to the double chance of being on conspicuous record as well as being pertinent to the story. Medal of Honor citations are freely quoted because they give a vivid picture of the fighting and accurately represent many other acts of supreme courage and sacrifice. Citations and decorations are not the final standard by which to judge the service rendered by individuals. For every man who received the Medal of Honor there were thousands of other men who did as much or more than those who were cited or decorated, who performed similar deeds of heroism and received lesser awards or no reward at all. The Medal of Honor recipients given in this book are merely representative heroes of the AEF, those whose valorous deeds were witnessed and recorded. To recognize all the deeds of heroism performed by members of the AEF, recorded and unrecorded, would be like calling the roll of the stars in the sky. Ninety-four men were awarded the Army Medal of Honor during World War I. As the majority of these men were in the infantry, the branch of service is indicated in the text only in case the soldier was affiliated with some other combat arm or branch of service.
Author's note: It is improper and inaccurate to refer to World War I Medals of Honor as the "Congressional" Medal of Honor." Modern Medals of Honor are awarded by the President of the United States and in the name of Congress. During World War I, however, each service issued its own Medals of Honor--the Secretary of War for the Army, and the Secretary of the Navy for the Navy. There were no lower medals for conspicuous bravery at that time.
For the most part, U.S. Marines serving with the AEF were awarded both the Army and Navy Medals of Honor because the Marines were actually part of the U.S. Army in France. No Marine officers of the AEF were awarded Medals of Honor by General Pershing (one, 2d Lt. Talbot got a Navy MOH while flying with the U. S Navy in support of the British Front). Some consider this to have been a blatant slap in the face; at least two marine officers (George Hamilton and Logan Feland) displayed enough mettle to qualify. Ironically, virtually every Navy officer serving in the 4th Brigade at Belleau Wood received the Medal of Honor. Marines of the AEF were not eligible for the Navy MOH because they were under the jurisdiction of the Articles of War; Navy officers attached to Marine units were under Article of the Navy.
After the war, the Medal of Honor was converted to a national (rather than service) award. At that time the word "Congressional" was unofficially added--this was done so all dual (i.e., Army and Navy medals awarded for the same action) Medals of Honor were consolidated into a single award.
World War I, fought between 1914 and 1918, was a significant event in U.S. history because that massive conflict changed our nation forever and set the pattern for America's current dominant role in world affairs. The American Expeditionary Force of almost two million soldiers provided the strategic counterweight that tipped the scales of victory in favor of the Allies. Without American intervention on the battlefield in 1918, no one knows how the "Great War" might have ended or how the course of history might have changed. All we can say for certain is that the "Sammies" (our French allies referred to American soldiers as "Les Amis" [Our Friends], a phrase that the Doughboys mistook to be French slang for "Uncle Sam") went "Over There" and that the Allies emerged victorious within a year and a half of that influx. In 1917 the United States of America entered World War I and left behind forever its role as a bystander in global affairs.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Exerpt -- American Battlefields of World War I: Chateau-Thierry: Then and Now


"The fields of the Marne are growing green
The river murmurs on and on;
No more the hail of machine-guns
The cannon from the hills are gone.
The herder leads the sheep afield
Where the grasses grow o'er the broken blade;
And toil worn women till the soil
O'er human mold, in sunny glade
The splintered shell and bayonet
Are lost in crumbling village wall;
No sniper scans the rim of hills,
No sentry hears the night bird call
From blood wet soil and sunken trench,
The flowers bloom in summer light;
And farther down the vale beyond,
The peasant smiles are sad, yet bright.
The wounded Marne is growing green
The gash of Hun no longer smarts;
Democracy is born again,
But what about the wounded hearts?"

The verses were signed Sergeant Frank Carbaugh, and below his name was this note: "Written while lying wounded in hospital; died August, 1918."
"Everyone felt that the Americans were present at the magical operation of blood transfusion. Life arrived in torrents to revive the mangled body of a France bled white by the countless wounds of four years."
Jean de Pierrefeu
Staff Officer, French Army Headquarters, 1918


Germany's plan for her military campaigns in 1918 called first for the destruction of the British Army in the Spring, then, all forces were to be concentrated to crush France. In furtherance of the strike at the British, attacks were launched in Picardy and Flanders during March and April. These failed in their announced purpose. Meanwhile, German preparations had gone steadily forward for a blow against the French along the Aisne River line.

The Allied High Command realized that a German attack was in the making, but it was considered improbable that it would come against the Aisne front.

On the morning of May 27, German assault troops struck the Aisne front from between Berry-au-Bac and Anizy-le-Chateau. The blow was a complete surprise and the Germans overran the Chemin des-Dames positions and crossed the Aisne River by noon.

Aisne 27 May – 5 June 1918. The next major German attack fell on 27 May on the thinly held but formidable terrain along the Aisne River known as the Chemin des Dames. The original objective of this new offensive was to draw southward the Allied reserve accumulated back of the British sector, in preparation for a final German attempt to destroy the British Army in Flanders. The French and British defenders were taken completely by surprise, and their positions were overrun rapidly on a forty-mile front. German progress on the first day was so rapid (advances up to 13 miles were made at some points) that Ludendorff altered his plans and decided to make the diversionary attack a main effort. Most of the Aisne bridges were captured intact. The thrust toward Rheims failed but Soissons was taken, and by 31 May the Germans had reached the outskirts of Château-Thierry on the Marne, less than 40 miles from Paris.

In the next few days the Germans sought to exploit and expand the deep and exposed salient which they had established. But by 4 June they had been stopped everywhere. Some 27,000 American troops took part in the check of the German advance. The 3d Division foiled enemy attempts in the period 1-4 June to secure a firm bridgehead across the Marne at Château-Thierry. West of the town the 2d Division, which included a Marine brigade, defended the road to Paris, and on 6 June successfully counterattacked in Belleau Wood.

American troops played an important part in turning the tide of World War I in favor of the Allies at the Second Battle of the Marne. Château-Thierry saw the first fighting of American forces as a separate unit—and their participation under their own officers was decided upon as a final desperate effort to stop the triumphal entry of the German troops into Paris.

At about the time the Second Battle of the Marne ended, German Field Marshal von Hindenburg, attempted to explain and justify "strategical retreat," declaring that "the decisive victory" of German arms had merely been temporarily postponed. The scales had begun to weigh in favor of the Allies and, however long it might take to bring about the final decision, the second Battle of the Marne was the beginning of the end of World War I. For the third time in its history, the Marne had proved to be the bulwark of the free nations of the world.
The part played by U.S. divisions at Château-Thierry, in what is very properly termed the second battle of the Marne, forms a remarkable chapter in the history of the AEF in France. It was an initial effort, and although the American forces at this time were under French control, it saw the first actual functioning of the American Army Corps, it produced the army commanders who controlled American units under General Pershing, and it was essentially the battle of baptism of the American fighting forces.

Eight American divisions took part in the Marne salient battle; four saw real fighting, and one took part in an offensive operation. The other four had either seen no fighting at all, or so little during their training in calm sectors that they had not yet received the classification of fighting units. But they gave so clear a demonstration of the fighting quality of American troops, even though not fully trained, that they had completely restored the morale of the Allied battle line.
Château-Thierry was an emergency; it had no part whatever in the plans prepared by the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) or in the original French scheme for the entry of American forces upon the Western Front.

The result of the German attack on the morning of May 27, 1918, was that in four days, or by the evening of May 30, the leading elements of the German troops had driven from the Chemin des Dames and were at Château-Thierry. The following day the German communiqué stated,"We stand along the Marne" No greater measure of self-satisfaction was ever reflected in an announcement than in this. It was a big advance, nearly forty miles in four days. An advance of forty more miles would see Paris in German hands and end the war in favor of the Germany and the Central Powers.

But on this same fourth day at Château-Thierry the German troops encountered a small American fighting unit, the 7th Motorized Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. 3rd Division. The 7th had traveled a distance of 110 miles in thirty hours in its own motor transport and set up its machine guns to defend Château-Thierry.
For seventy-two hours the 7th Machine Gun Battalion successfully contested the crossing of the river. The delay occasioned by the French-American resistance at Château-Thierry gave French General Foch and his staff the needed precious time to plan for the organization of the defensive strategy which culminated in the battle of Belleau Wood and the defense of the Marne east of Château-Thierry. Subsequently, American divisions initiated and sustained the counteroffensive that marked the turning point of World War I.
By the second day of June the infantry of the U.S. 3rd Division was in position along the river from Château-Thierry to the east for a distance of about twelve miles. The U.S. 2nd Division, which included the Marine Brigade, arriving from a point north of Paris, was in position from Château-Thierry to the west for a distance of about eight miles, standing astride the Paris-Metz Road, and the German drive halted at this point.
At this point, the battles northwest of Château-Thierry, and in particular the savage fight for control of Belleau Wood, took on an importance far beyond the strategic or tactical value of the area or of the Wood itself. Belleau Wood took on a new dimension, discounting the limited value of the terrain in question and emphasizing the psychological aspects of winning and losing—and neither side wanted to lose. From having been a formerly valueless little wood, and one having really no strategic or tactical importance, Belleau Wood now became a battle for supremacy of forces. If the Americans were beaten in the battle for the wood, the Germans would publish the news in every world newspaper, thus giving the American and Allied morale a severe drubbing which might change the course of the war. If the Germans lost the battle, it would prove the value of American arms to the world at large, thus giving a great boost to sagging Allied morale. The outcome of the fighting in Belleau Wood and elsewhere in the Marne Salient would decide once and for all who was the master of the battlefield—the Germans or the Americans.

Although most European military historians (and some American ones also) tend to discount the value of American arms in 1918, most will, if pressed, reluctantly concede that American intervention on the battlefield in 1918 changed the course of the war.

Château-Thierry is a small town in the valley of the Marne about fifty miles east of Paris, now once again picturesque, but sadly battered in 1918. To the AEF Château-Thierry signified the whole area over which its divisions contended through ten-weeks of bitter fighting. More than all else, it signified the fact that the tide of military fortune had turned at that point, that the AEF had taken the measure of the Germans, and were no longer anxious as to the final result. They were then certain that victory would surely be theirs at sometime in the future, though even the most optimistic did not count it possible in four short months.

Just a few miles east of Paris, were enacted the combats of the second battle of the Marne. They took place within a picturesque theater of war, a panoramic stage of forested hills and fertile valleys, with vineyards, fields, meadows and woodland in between. It is a rolling terrain intersected by streams and rivers flanked by steep ridges and webbed together by rail and highways, roads and towns. Villages and hamlets nestled in the valleys, perched on the hills or clung to their slopes. Here also an appalling number of young Americans sacrificed their lives to capture and hold the hills and towns. The men of the AEF thought that, for every yard they conquered, it was at the cost of a doughboy's life. It is there that we begin our tour of the battlefields of the AEF in the Marne salient.

Drive the country roads in and around the valley of the Marne in northeastern France, and you will pass by prosperous stone villages flanked on all sides by fields of wheat. The country north of the Marne was a pleasant place in peacetime. The thick greenery of forests rimmed the yellow of the wheat fields. Here and there were the red-tiled roofs of a farm homestead or one of the tiny rural villages so familiar to the traveler in France. A beautiful landscape, indeed, but a bitter place for men to be in when every woodland hid masses of artillery and every innocent tuft of forest shrubbery concealed a machine gun. The terrain along the Marne was mostly woody and the fighting that took place there was mostly from tree to tree and rock to rock. It is said that the Germans, cleverly concealed in the forests and woods, had a machine gun for about every ten yards of their front.

But in previous days, this area, like the other battle areas of France and Belgium, was besieged by artillery, gashed with trenches and shell craters, and shrouded in the black and foul air of war. The Germans deluged woods and wheat with mustard gas, thrown in liquid form from artillery shells, which hung, an invisible blanket of poison, over the ground which the Americans must cross to reach their foes. The appearance of the American skirmishers always gave a signal for the German artillery and machine guns to open fire. So skillfully were their guns placed to sweep the ground that a soldier could scarcely stand upright and live; to drop flat and crawl forward was hardly better. A dozen courageous machine gunners could make an assault battalion pay a fearful price for a few hundred yards of ground. Then, if conditions favored, the defenders might withdraw to fresh positions before the oncoming Americans could get to grips with their exasperating foes.

Following each rush there would ensue a period of silence during which none moved except the groaning wounded crawling back, when they could, through the spattered wheat. But for these and the twisted bloody bundles that lay motionless here and there, an observer might fancy, during these deceitful lulls, that he was alone in a deserted countryside. But presently, emerging again from shelter of the woods, the brown steel helmets of the Americans would appear, wave upon wave, the bayonets of the men flashing before them and their heads bent to resist the storm they knew would break. In just an instant the opposing woods would burst into an angry metallic chatter, the wheat suddenly to swarm with vicious invisible insects, and overhead the air was flecked with the countless white and black puffballs of the bursting German shrapnel-shells. Men heard the sickening sound of a bullet against flesh, saw their comrades vanish utterly in a swirl of flame and smoke, and finally, after an eternity of this, the shadow of the woods would fall across their front. From that point until the woods were cleared of the enemy the action would resolve to scores of individual fights. Men, grim of eye, hunted one another like quarreling wolves from copse to copse and from tree trunk to tree trunk, moving with a kaleidoscopic rapidity that made one feel that soon one would emerge from this ghastly nightmare and find oneself in a motion picture theater watching those shadowy characters on the screen. Such was the daily, almost hourly experience of the American soldiers in the Marne
salient battles of 1918.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Doughboys and Refugees--continued

Refugees Meet Advancing American Columns
Meanwhile, the two American divisions, split up into as many detachments as there are thoroughfares available in order to facilitate their march to the front, are gradually approaching the battle lines, and presently encounter the rearward columns of the refugees on all roads and by-paths. When the khaki-clad, happy-go-lucky soldiers of America, with joking and singing in their ranks, troop suddenly into their midst, the weary wayfarers are for a moment spell-bound. It is at first difficult for the homeless wanderers to realize what it all means,—that America, with the first of her manpower, backed by her great resources, is going forward into battle! Going forward to throw her sword onto the Scales of War! Finally the truth dawns upon dulled minds and carries hope to fear-stricken hearts. Yes, yes, it is true! These stalwart young men are the Americans, going forward to help the poor Poilus, to stiffen wavering lines, to stop the Huns! Ah, youth, with its hope and confidence, was right!

'Les Américains! Les Américains!'

Hope and Courage Revived
Sudden silence falls upon the hysterical and garrulous lips of middle and old age. Rumor and fiction take flight before truth and fact. Old age plucks up hope and courage. Perhaps even they, the old, will still see victory! Little children cease their weeping and gaze with infantile wonder at the passing troops. With the bubbling impulsiveness of youth, young women and girls assail the soldiers and shower flowers upon them. With gladness and laughter, and in utter disregard of impeding accoutrements of war, some of them shamelessly embrace serious young warriors and plant warm kisses upon startled doughboy faces. Old age grasps swinging soldier hands to carry them to trembling lips in benediction; while middle age, gaining voice once more, takes up the cry—"Vive l'Amérique! Nos sauveurs sont arrivés!" [Long live America! Our saviors have arrived!"]

Marking the sudden transition from settled hopelessness to quick hopefulness of which the human soul is capable, this cry gives tongue to long pent-up emotions and soon swells to a chorused salutation that greets and follows the soldiers as hey march on all the roads and by-paths toward the front.

And thus heartened and reassured, with a new and growing faith, before which all their fears have now fled, the refugees look at the khaki-clad columns until distance shuts them out from view; then the wayfarers take up their burdens once more and trudge on to the rear, while the young soldiers of America approach closer to the battle lines—and the enemy-to play their real parts in the forthcoming drama. For what we have thus far witnessed, though an essential part of the drama, is in point of fact a prelude to the more important and stirring action that is to follow."

In George B. Ford's book entitled, Out of the Ruins, we read:
"The refugees were destitute. In 1918 I saw seventy-five thousand of them pour through Paris in the last days of May and the first days of June, driven back by the German advance at Château-Thierry. They arrived a thousand or fifteen hundred to a train at all hours of the day and night, with the stations pitch black while the air raids were going on: bent old men and women, children in arms, with goats and chickens and baby-carriages and endless bundles—whatever they could manage to save and carry away with them. Most of them had only the clothes they wore. Many of them had ridden a day, or even two days, without food. They wandered about in a daze, quite helpless; most of them peasant farmers who had never in their lives been more than a few miles away from their homes."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Doughboys and Refugees

When the thousands of American soldiers entering the Marne Salient of 1918 met an almost overwhelming number of pitiful French refugees coming out of the salient and ahead of the advancing German Army, their will to defeat the Germans was reinforced and steeled. Many a Doughboy either said to himself or aloud, "This country and its people are worth fighting for," or "I hate the Germans for what they are doing to these poor people."

To give you, the reader, a feeling for what took place behind the battle lines in June of 1918, the following quotation from the AEF newspaper, Stars and Stripes, 1918, tells it all:

"Refugees flocking to the rear
A drama poignant with tragedy, is being enacted in the theater of war behind the lines toward which the two American divisions are advancing. For, upon every road and by-path leading out of the Marne salient, including those you will travel going toward the battlefields, weaving their way through the traffic of transport and soldiers going to the front, are war's victims, the refugees, streaming to the rear,—old men and young, decrepit or crippled; women of all ages, and little children, the flotsam and jetsam of war, forced from their homes by the rising tide of battle.

Nondescript Transport and Loads
In contrast to the spick-and-span business-like aspect of military transport, the means employed by the refugees to aid them in their flight present a bewildering and nondescript variety of vehicles drawn by jaded horses, mules and oxen, with an intermingling of carts, varying in size, pulled by donkeys, goats and dogs. Lacking animal friends to aid them, men and women tug at the traces of wagons or push baby carriages and wheelbarrows along; while others, with no means of transport save their own poor bodies, struggle wearily on afoot, burdened to the limit of their strength. Loaded down with whatever they were able to rescue,—bits of furniture, bundles of clothing and food, bottles and casks of wine, chickens, canary birds in cages, kittens and puppies, etc.,— the burdens carried by the refugees present an equally bewildering and nondescript variety of prized possessions, making a picture that lends a touch of the grotesque and humorous to the tragic drama of people thrust from their homes in flight before the enemy.

They play the game in good part
Lest they interfere with the imperative business of rushing men, guns, ammunition and supplies to the front, the flow of refugees to the rear is frequently halted or diverted into fields to relieve congestion and blockades in traffic on the roads and by-paths, but all of them,—old and young,—play the game of war in good part, obeying orders quickly, with sighs of resignation, with tears or smiles and laughter.

It is an indescribable drama in which these refugees play their parts, one that the imagination, with the aid of these word, must visualize. With minds and hearts already filled with fear and hatred of the enemy and preyed upon by wild rumors of impending disaster at the front, fact and fiction inextricably mingled, without the links of truth and reason to connect the twain, they cry."
"Our poor Poilus are falling back! Ah, Messieurs, hundreds, nay thousands, have fallen! And the Boches come on! We cannot stop them! Oui, oui, it is true. Messieurs! You can hear Mademoiselle Bertha even now bombarding Paris! Hundreds of thousands are leaving the city and the Capital will fall! Our country is lost!"

Military policemen, regulating traffic at cross-roads, aid them and seek to reassure them in their flight, but rumor, gathering speed and substance on the wings of fancy, had terrified them beyond reason and understanding. Some among them, too old to care, burdened too long with Life's sorrows, are indifferent to further blows from Fate. For them the end has come or will soon come, please God!

"C'est la guerre, Messieurs!—and we are old."

The Indomitable Soul of France is Reflected
In spite of the tragedy that weighs so heavily upon their elders, the younger people, boys and girls and young women, though they have suffered, reflect, by word and deed, the indomitable soul of France and with cheerfulness of spirit and courage of heart, laugh at their troubles.
Ah, la, la! Why so glum and fearful, Mes Vieux? Did not Papa Joffre stop the Boches once before? Foch will do likewise, never fear. Oui, oui! Our Poilus may be falling back, but it is only to make a stand and stop the Germans. Soon les Américains will come to help them and together they will drive the Boches from France!

And thus does youth, with its hope and confidence, seek to comfort and reassure old age and put to shame hysterical and garrulous middle age.