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Chapter 10. Second Phase of the Argonne Battle


The 302nd ENGINEERS

by,
Gilbert H. Crawford
Thomas H. Ellett
John J. Hyland


CHAPTER X.
SECOND PHASE OF THE ARGONNE BATTLE.

FROM the middle of October until the 1st of November, the American battle line advanced very little. This was due, not to the inability to go forward, but to the very great difficulty of bringing up supplies.

For a distance of many miles in the rear of the front, the heavy traffic and the rainy weather had wrought havoc with the roads.

The railroads had not been brought forward so far as had been anticipated. A renewal of the attack was planned, however, and the usual artillery preparations were made. Large numbers of guns were brought forward and great supplies of ammunition were accumulated. The 77th Division relieved the 78th Division toward the end of October, taking over the same line that it had held earlier in the month.

American troops held the line at all points north of the Aire, so that bridging work could be carried on in comparative safety. For the expected attack, preparations were made similar to those preceding the drive of 26th of September. The front to be attacked by the 77th Division, however, w a s much narrower and was covered by the 153rd Brigade alone. This meant that the 1st Battalion of the Engineers was to be in the attack. Co. "A" and Co. "B" each supplied one platoon to accompany the first line infantry. The remainder of the 1st Battalion was assigned to certain roads, which were to be temporarily repaired as fast as the enemy was driven back. The 154th Brigade, with our 2nd Battalion, was to follow up in support, and to "leap frog" the 153rd Brigade and take over the front when so ordered. The specific task of the 2nd Battalion was also to repair certain roads as the Division advanced.

As an extra precaution, in case other bridges were ruined by shellfire, Co. "D" was ordered, prior to the attack, to build another artillery bridge across the Aire near the two bridges constructed by Co. "A" and Co. "B" during the first phase of the Argonne Battle. The work was performed under the personal supervision of Lieut. James F. Brown. This bridge had a gross length of 215 feet and was undoubtedly the finest structure of its kind erected by the Regiment. It was at this bridge that Pvt. Samuel Apstein lost his life by shellfire on 31st of October, just before the completion of the structure.

During the period prior to the attack, Co. "E" also was busy with bridge building. On the east and west main road between St. Juvin and Grand Pre, the Boche during his retreat from the valley of the Aire, had demolished two bridges, where the two branches of the Agron River cross the road before emptying into the Aire. Although these demolitions were in view of the advanced enemy observation outposts, Co. "E", under command of Capt. Thomas H. Ellett, worked in the broad daylight and two substantial bridges were constructed.

All preparations for the attack being complete, orders were issued that it take place on the morning of the 1st of November. This day will long linger in the memories of most of the 302nd Engineers. The 77th Division was to attack and take Champigneulle, a small village on the heights north of the Aire. This attack made small progress during the day of the 1st, and the town was not entered until early on the morning of the 2nd. During the early morning of the 1st, the Engineers were ordered to cross the Aire and were forced to wait, practically in the first line, all that day and night until the advance could proceed. There was work only for one company (Co. "C") so the rest of the Regiment remained inactive, in the midst of the battle, expecting momentarily to advance.

To Co. "C" was assigned the task of repairing a partly demolished German pile-bridge, which crossed the Agron River on the road between St. Juvin and Champigneulle. This bridge was practically in the front line and directly under fire from the enemy advanced machine guns. It could only be approached with great difficulty, and work had to be carried on from underneath. It was of the utmost importance to the Division, for as soon as Champigneulle was cleared, the only practicable route north for the artillery and transport was over this bridge. All during the day of the 1st, the men of Co. "C" worked at this exposed point, and in spite of several casualties, the bridge was made passable by evening, many hours before it was actually used. This very hazardous and successful mission was carried out under the personal supervision of Major Per-Lee, assisted by Lieutenant Weston of Co. "C". It was during this operation that Lieutenant Macqueron of the French Army was slightly wounded in the -neck by a machine gun bullet.

Company "D" Bridge across the Aire

It was here also that Colonel Giesting greatly distinguished himself. He had come up to inspect the work on the bridge, which was to be of such prime importance to the whole Division. While at this point, he was constantly watching the battle going on around him, expecting every minute that our troops would advance. He noticed that those in the immediate vicinity were wavering. There were no infantry field officers in sight. Colonel Giesting, quitting the cover of the river banks, stepped out into the open, within full sight of the enemy, and coolly walked up and down the infantry lines, encouraging the m e n a n d preventing the threatened retirement.

This action was carried on with utter disregard for his personal safety, because at no time was he out, of sight of the enemy and at no time did he seek cover.

The advance of the Division from the early morning of the 2nd of November to the evening of the 6th was the most rapid in its history. In these five days, the line was pushed northward 32 kilometers, from the Aire to the Meuse. This rapid advance meant exceptionally strenuous labor for the Engineers. The rain and the Boche engineers had conspired to impede the forward movement of artillery and transport, and it was the duty of the Engineers to make the roads passable in the shortest possible time. Thus it was that the five days, from the 2nd to the 6th of November, called forth the greatest efforts from the Regiment of the whole war, and much excellent work was done in this short time.

Showing how to carry a road across a Trench

Early on the morning of the 2nd, the infantry advanced through Champigneulle. Co. "A" and Co. "B", under command of Major Per-Lee, soon cleared the streets of Champig-neulle of fallen debris and followed on after the infantry. During the day of the 2nd, the 2nd Battalion repaired the roads between St. Juvin and Champigneulle. It was on this road that Co. "D", under Capt. N. N. Barber, who had recently joined the Regiment, untangled a traffic jam during the night of the 2nd, which prompted a written commendation from the Division Commander, General Alexander. Co. "E" worked on the road from Champigneulle toward Beffu et le Morthomme.

After clearing the streets of Champigneulle, Co. "A" and Co. "B" proceeded northward, the former to Thernorgues and the latter to Verpel. It was at this time that Captain Howry, with his runner, got ahead of the advancing infantry and captured a machine gunner at Thernorgues mill, together with a roll of valuable German maps of the area. These maps were of the utmost use to the Regiment, as the advance of the Division had carried us "off" the French maps, which up to this time we had been using. The same day (2nd of November) Captain Howry and Captain Farrin, who had the day before been placed in command of Co. "C", and Lieutenant Weston advanced ahead of the infantry and entered Buzancy. So far as is known, they were the first Americans to enter that famous town. Captain Ellett of Co. "E" similarly entered Briquenay. A study of the map will show the rapidity of this advance, and how open the warf are had become in the closing days of the war. The German method of defence was to have lines of machine gunners every few miles, designed to check the American troops. This method had worked well in the Argonne Forest, where it had been difficult to discover the machine gun locations; but in the open country north of the Aire these lines were quickly broken up by our own infantry, so that the limit of the advance was fixed by the marching powers of our men, and the transportation of supplies. The latter was rendered especially difficult by many demolitions.

Co. "E" building a bridge across the Agron

On the afternoon of the 2nd, Co. "B" had removed an unexploded mine from the bridge southwest of Verpel. Sergeants Edwards, Jorgensen and Clader successfully supervised this work. During the evening of the 2nd, Co. "C" began to repair a demolished highway bridge between Buzancy and Bar, which at that time was over a mile in advance of the Infantry. On the 3rd, this work was turned over to Corps Engineer troops and Co. "C" moved northward to Fontenoy to work on the almost impassable road to the south. On the same day, Co. "B" moved to the north and west through Thernorgues and Briquenay to Germont, one platoon stopping at Briquenay to help the 303rd Engineers repair a demolished stone highway bridge. Co. "A" moved to the vicinity of the Authe.
The road between Germont and Authe had the following demolitions in it:
One-half exploded road mine.
One-half demolished stone bridge.
One unexploded road mine.
Three demolished culverts.

Co. "B" worked during the night of the 3rd on the above demolitions, built two road bridges, and had the road passable by morning, except for the third culvert. Assisted by a platoon from Co. "B", one platoon from Co. "A", under Lieutenant Edebohls, bridged this culvert on the 4th.

Between the Authe and Authruche another culvert had been blown up. This was tackled by Co. "A" on the evening of the 3rd and was made passable before morning, by means of a "turnout" bridge. Not satisfied with this turnout, Co. "A" constructed a fine pile bridge alongside, the latter being completed on the 4th. These two culvert bridges, one on each side of Authe, were of great importance and were used by the transports of four American divisions.

The traffic situation was appalling at this time. The roads were in very bad shape. It was necessary for the Regiment to keep men on the roads night and day to enable traffic to move at all. During this fast advance, the front line was, of course, constantly changing. As a consequence, Colonel Giesting and Major Per-Lee several times found themselves ahead of the infantry while riding in their automobile, and twice were fired on by the enemy. Their chauffeur considered his car a tank.

The movement on the 4th had carried the line north of St. Pierremont, at which point the brigades were "leap-frogged". This put the 2nd Battalion in the advance, and the 1st Battalion in the support. There was heavy fighting between St. Pierremont and Oches. During the night of the 4th, the latter village was practically in the front line. Co. "D" advanced under cover of darkness to rebuild a bridge at Oches. This work had to be carried on very carefully so as not to attract attention, as the enemy was very close by. In the morning, the infantry advanced again and the bridge was completed. This particular bridge was novel in design. The only material available was from a standard- gauge railroad. The stringers for the bridge were the heavy steel rails. On these were wired ties close together. These ties were staggered and on top was laid a diagonal course of one inch boards, from flooring of houses in Oches, no real plank being available. A trestle was built up under the center of this bridge, which was finished early on the 5th. It was ready for traffic long before the time set. A similar bridge located a few hundred yards away was finished by Co. "E" on the afternoon of the 5th.

On the 5th of November, the first French civilians were encountered in la Berliere, Captain Simmons being the first American to enter the village. The Germans in their retreat had cleared the country of every living thing except the people. The latter, for their own sakes, were gathered together in a few villages. These civilians treated the Americans as their deliverers, which in truth they were.

On the evening of the 5th, the line had advanced to Stonne. This village was located on the top of a steep hill. In the main road leading out of Stonne down the hill, the Roche had exploded a mine larger than any heretofore encountered by the Regiment. This mine crater absolutely blocked the road for traffic. To Co. "F" was assigned the task of making it passable. With the aid of platoons from Co. "E", this enormous work was completed by nightfall of the 6th, far ahead of estimated time. The main road was thereby opened for the traffic of several divisions which were anxious to use it.

At this time, the 6th of November, a most puzzling set of movements were going on in the rear area of the 77th Division. The 42nd Division was moving laterally from east to west. The 6th Division was moving up in support of the 77th, the 78th Division was being relieved by the 42nd, and the 1st Division was making some wild last dazzling march through several other divisions, hoping to have the glory of taking Sedan. All these movements, added to the legitimate movement of the 77th Division, placed a tremendous responsibility on the 302nd Engineers, which they accepted in the best spirit and never once failed to keep the roads open. The scramble north was so rapid, and the available men so few for the work to be done, that the great road demolitions at la Bagnolle and la Besace had to be passed by because they did not absolutely inhibit traffic.

The infantry had advanced to the valley of the Meuse by the evening of the 6th. The Germans held the north bank with their outposts.

On that night, about 11:30 P. M., Colonel Giesting was sent for by General Alexander, and the following conversation took place:

General Alexander: "Giesting, we are going to the Meuse tomorrow. What preparations have you made to bridge the river?"

Colonel Giesting: "None, sir."
General Alexander: "Colonel, what do you intend to do?"
Colonel Giesting: "Wait till I get there, sir. We have aerial photographs showing tremendous craters in the roads at Stonne, la Besace and Flaba; the roads are congested and our best chance is to improvise a bridge from the ma-terial we will find. I promise you the 302nd Engineers will build the bridges."
General Alexander: "By God, Giesting, I believe you are right."

This promise was fulfilled. Colonel Giesting immediately gave orders to Captain Simmons, in command of the. 2nd Battalion, ending with, "Captain, this is a chance of a life-time."

Captain Simmons, in a short time had the companies of his battalion on the march towards the Meuse, and after an all night ride he himself made personal reconnaissance for the needed bridges.

On the afternoon of the 7th, one of the most brilliant feats performed by the Regiment took place. Captain Ellett, with a detachment from Co. "E", built a footbridge across the Meuse at Villers-devant-Mouzon. This task was carried out in the broad daylight, in advance of our infantry and under the direct fire of the enemy. It was at this bridge that the following lost their lives:
Lieut. James F. Brown, Co. "D", D. S. C. posthumous.
Pvt. Samuel Brill, Co. "E".
Pvt. Arthur C. Hartman, Co. "E".

In addition, seven men were wounded by machine gun and snipers' bullets. As soon as this bridge was finished, a detachment of our infantry crossed the Meuse and established an outpost which was the most advanced point reached by our division or any other American division during the war. On the 8th, Co. "F", under Lieut. R. J. Gross, put across a similar bridge near Remilly. This bridge was not used by our infantry.

While the 2nd Battalion was performing these brilliant exploits, the 1st Battalion had followed up the advance and accomplished the difficult task of keeping open the roads. On the 7th, Co. "A" and Co. "B" had advanced as far north as Flaba. The main north and south road from la Besace to Raucourt had been thoroughly destroyed by the Boune. One stretch of road only a few hundred yards long had been mined in seven places. Rather than attempt to repair this stretch, Co. "A" made a detour around the demolitions. By using brush laid on the ground, then surfacing the brush with rock taken from a nearby farm house, this detour was made passable, first for animal-drawn transport, and later for motor trucks. Only by constant effort could this detour be kept in condition. Meanwhile Co. "B" had encountered similar destructions west of Flaba, but as the roadway had not been entirely destroyed the task of repair was simpler.

On the 8th, Co. "C" moved up to Flaba and relieved Co. "B", which was then ordered to Autrecourt sur Meuse. Co. "B" repaired three mine craters in the road between Raucourt and Autrecourt and prepared to throw an artillery bridge across the Meuse near Villers-devant-Mouzon.

The footbridge which Co. "E" had built across the Meuse, between Villers-devant-Mouzon and Autrecourt had been partially demolished by artillery fire. The infantry detachment north of the river was thus cut off from the Division. The Meuse at this point was about 300 feet wide and the water was icy cold. Captain Barber of Co. "D", who was then stationed at Autrecourt, determined to save these men. On the night of the 8th, he went with a detachment of Co. "D" to the bridge location. The, American outposts were south of this point. The detachment built a raft and Captain Barber personally crossed the river on this frail craft. There were only five infantrymen surviving, one of whom was wounded. On the return trip, the raft was overturned and the wounded man lost his life as a result. Nothing daunted, Captain Barber swam the river and obtained a line, which he stretched across and over which he brought the survivors, one at a time. This action was carried on under constant artillery and machine gun fire. The enemy well knew the location of the bridge and the probable activities of the Americans there during the night, and kept it under fire.

For this very brave act, each man of the Co. "D" detachment was cited in divisional orders, but it is the opinion of those who are familiar with the affair, that a far higher honor should have been awarded to Captain Barber for his great courage and perseverance.

The bridge at Villers-devant-Mouzon marks the high point in the history of the Regiment. A picture of it is given the place of honor as frontispiece of this volume.

On the 8th at Remilly, and on the 9th at Villers-devant-Mouzon, Colonel Giesting and Major Per-Lee made daring daylight reconnaissances that should be recorded. At these two places, pile bridges across the river had been destroyed by the retreating enemy. In anticipation of the Allied advance across the river, it was necessary to know the probable repairs needed to make these bridges passable. Far beyond the call of duty, these two officers personally went to the bridge sites, in advance of our outposts, in the broad daylight and within full sight of the enemy, and obtained the desired information. Such actions as these were splendid and inspiring examples to the officers and men of the Regiment.

On the nights of the 9th and 10th of November, detachments from Co. "B" were working on a bridge over a mine crater north of Autrecourt. This work was carried on in front of our own outposts under considerable shell fire. At the same time, several boats were being built by a detachment from Co. "B" under supervision of Sergeant Jorgensen for use in the expected crossing of the Meuse. Co. "D", also stationed at Autrecourt, was preparing material for an artillery bridge.

THE HANDY ENGINEERS

BY PRIVATE STEUART M. EMERY

(Courtesy of N. Y. Herald.)

"Colonel, we pull a raid tonight into the Prussian Beers.
It looks like a gutty little fight, Chewing of legs and ears.
We'll need a party to cut the wire,
They must run the ring of the Beebe's fire,
It's a dirty business of muck and mire."
"Send for the Engineers!"

The Engineers they will slice a path-That's what they signed to do.
They will take the rip of the M. G.'s wrath Snipping and worming through.
The barbs may cut and the mud may stick,
And the star flares splash and the shots crack thick,
But they'll hop the top and they'll turn the trick. "Send for the Engineers!"

"Colonel, the bridge is hit and gone, Never a plank appears.
Yet the regiment must cross at dawn, Hardly a case for cheers.
The place where it was is swept and sprayed,
For the Boche has got it in enfilade,
But we can't hang back on a plan that's made." "Send for the Engineers!"

The Engineers they will bridge the stream, Anything wet that flows.
Whether the big ones bust and scream, Whether it rains or snows.
They'll fling pontoons and they'll hammer stakes,
Though the water foams as the lead hall rakes,
And they'll lead the show when the Yank charge breaks. "Send for the Engineers!"

"Colonel, the roads are blown to hell." That's what the P. C. hears.
"Crated and gashed where the Jerries fell, Nothing but holes and smears.
They're well in range of the house of Krupp,
But the boys don't shoot and the boys don't sup
And the whole drive stops while supplies hold up." "Send for the Engineers!"

The Engineers, they will mend the pike, Out in the broad daylight,
Where a blind Boche cannoneer could strike, Labor, this time, not fight.
They'll set their teeth and they'll curse each blast
And they'll toil and sweat and they'll thirst and fast
Till the chow and the ammo trains jam past.
"Send for the Engineers!"
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