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Chapter 3. France at Last


The 302nd ENGINEERS

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


CHAPTER III.

FRANCE AT LAST!

FRANCE at last! With what mingled feelings did we first see the land of history and battle, of beauty and destruction; of courage and suffering!

Calais was reached on the afternoon of the 14th April, 1918. The 302nd Engineers, being the first regiment of the 77th Division to sail overseas, has thus the honor of being the first National Army regiment to reach France. Calais, the forlorn, at that time but recently relieved f or a brief spell from the menace of capture by the Hun; nightly bombed by the most powerful infernal machines of the air; peopled by the soldiers of a dozen nations; presented a sorry appearance to us as we marched through.

Ruined houses, ruined industry, stared at us from all sides; anxiety was on every face. The only life seemed to be in the little band of old French territorials, who bugled the Regiment to a British "rest camp." Their bugling was continuous, and one marveled how they found breath to blow, until it was seen that the ranks of buglers alternated -only the drummers were steadily at work.

"Rest camp" sounded like a haven of rest to us after the ocean voyage, the railroad trip across England, a cheerless night at Dover and a rough channel passage. Later, we found that the only rest in British rest camp lies in the name itself. But of them all, "Rest Camp No. 6 East" of Calais was the most dispiriting. It was a camp of small conical tents, pitched in the shifting sand on the outskirts of Calais. Compared with it, Camp Upton was a Paris. However, we were not to remain there long, for within thirty-six hours the British had issued to each man a gas mask, which he tested himself in a chamber of tear gas; a steel helmet (thereafter his constant companion), and a British rifle in exchange for his American rifle.

It may be well here to explain the particular mission of the 77th Division: In order to obtain British shipping for the transport of United States troops to France, our War department had agreed to place and train behind the British lines in Flanders, nine American divisions. The British were to act as advisers in the training of these divisions; were to supply and arm them with British rifles, and in turn could use these troops as a strategic reserve. Once trained, these divisions were to be at the disposal of the American high command (G. H. Q.), but if withdrawn from Flanders, were to be replaced by other divisions arriving in France. The 77th Division was the first American division to be so trained (as a division) behind the British front.

It is also interesting to note that at this time (April, 1918) it was proposed that the 77th Division should be made a "replacement division"; i. e., its organization as a single fighting unit was to be destroyed, and its officers and men used merely to replace losses in other divisions. Happily, fortune had in store for us a nobler fate, for had this plan been executed, our Regiment would doubtless have become a corps engineer regiment, and as such, would have missed its great opportunity to serve as an integral part of the combat branch of the American Army.

On the 16th April, 1918, the Regiment marched from the rest camp to entrain for its first trip on a French railroad. Those of us who had read Ian Hay's "The First Hundred Thousand", knew in imagination what we might expect to find in French troop trains. True to our anticipations, there were the little box cars, about half as long as an American box car, each marked "Hommes 40, Chevaux 8", which means that, for military travel, the cars are to be filled, nay, crammed, either with forty men or eight horses. Later we managed to get additional cars, so that it was necessary to carry only thirty men or six animals per car. But at first, lacking experience and "savoir faire", we followed the rule strictly, and suffered accordingly.

The first rail journey of the Regiment in France ended at Audruicq (Pas de Calais). Audruicq was a British rail-head (supply point) about seventeen kilometers southeast of Calais. From it the Regiment marched to its first French billets. It was a weary journey. Our men were not accustomed to long marches, because the extreme winter and the late spring at Camp Upton had offered no opportunity for such exercise.

The regimental headquarters staff and the First Battalion marched to Ruminghem, and the Second Battalion to Muncq-Nieur-let.

The incomparable British system was every-where apparent. We never ceased to marvel at the efficiency of the British rear organization. No matter what the fortune of battle at the front, the British service of supply (in the American Army called the "S. 0. S.") never failed. So it happened that, although the combat troops of many British divisions had been practically wiped out by the German offensive in Picardy during March, 1918, the British transport system had escaped practically intact. This fact was of particular interest to American troops, because our incoming troops depended upon this transport service for much of their fighting equipment.

The 77th Division Headquarters were at Eperlecques (Pas de Calais) as were also the headquarters of the 39th Division (British). This latter division had suffered very greatly in the March (1918) German offensive in Picardy, and its staff was placed at the disposal of the Americans for training the 77th Division. To each regiment of the 77th were attached several experienced British officers. The 302nd Engineers were fortunate in having assigned to them, as instructors, several splendid officers from the 13th Gloucestershire Regiment (Pioneers) and from the Royal -Engineers. These officers gave freely of their experience and skill, and were of the greatest assistance in bridging the difficult period of transition during the first few weeks after the Regiment's arrival in France.

It must always be remembered that the American soldier in France faced many new situations. Not only was there the difference in language, but even more strange was the difference in customs and habits. In the United States, soldiers are habitually quartered in barracks or, when in the field, under canvas. In France, law and custom place the soldier in "billets" except when very close to the enemy. There are many good reasons for this, and the Americans soon learned to make themselves comfortable in barns and outhouses, and when within a few kilometers of the front, in the wine cellars which are invariably to be found in every French house. At the beginning of their French service, however, the American soldier did not enjoy an ordinary billet.

The Regiment, after settling down and resting for one day (17th April, 1918), commenced its last course of intensive training for active service. The area in which the 77th Division was billeted was about twenty miles behind the British front in Flanders. The sound of the big guns was easily heard, and the night raids of the Boche airplanes were common enough. Practically every fair night, one could hear the buzz of the heavy-laden bombing planes, headed for Calais or Boulogne, or perchance the bombs were intended for Watten or St. Omer, which were much nearer our billets. When one of the 2,000 pound bombs exploded within ten miles, the concussion was so terrific that we felt we had just escaped destruction.

The regulations required everyone to seek shelter during air raids, not so much because of the bombs as because of the quantity of shrapnel and high explosive shell which the British anti-aircraft guns (so-called "Archies") poured forth. However, curiosity generally got the better of prudence-the accompanying display of searchlights-some-times as many as fifty at once looked for the plane-was a sight never to be forgotten. Throughout the war, it was always fascinating to watch the air. Whatever went on there was a free exhibition and helped to drive away dull care and ennui!

At the time of the Regiment's arrival in France in the middle of April, 1918, the military situation in Flanders was very precarious for the Allies. On 9th of April, the Germans had launched a surprise attack between Ypres and Arras, which was unexpectedly successful for the enemy. A deep salient was driven into the British line. Armentieres, Bailleul and Merville had been taken and 136thune was seriously threatened. If the latter city and environs had fallen, France's last great coal field would have been in the hands of the enemy. It was at this time (11th April, 1918) that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, issued his famous order of the day, declaring that the British had their "backs to the wall." Because of its historic importance and the remarkable effect it had in a great crisis in the history of the world, this order, addressed to "all ranks of the British Army in France and Flanders", is quoted in full:

"Three weeks ago today the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports, and to destroy the British Army.

"In spite of throwing already 106 divisions in the battle, and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has yet made little progress toward his goals.

"We owe this to the determined fighting and self-sacrifice of our troops. Words fail me to express the admiration, which I feel for the splendid resistance, offered by all ranks of our army under the most trying circumstances.

"Many among us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to flight it out.
"Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

The Germans, for their part, were not in a comfortable situation. The salient they had driven in the lines was not broad enough for safety, and everywhere the British held the heights. It was obvious that the enemy must either attack or withdraw. Flushed with victory, it did not seem likely that they would withdraw.

During this period the British Army was bending every effort to build additional positions of defense in the rear of their front. So it happened that the 302nd Engineers were hardly settled in their new quarters, and had hardly started their last training, when an order came detaching them from the 77th Division and sending them to the area east of Watten to help construct the British "G. H. Q." positions.

The regimental headquarters staff and first battalion moved on 29th April, 1918, to Volkerinckhove, and the second battalion to Merckeghem. Immediately the Regiment commenced work on the positions of defense in front of Watten. This work consisted of digging trenches and constructing wire entanglements. In the digging, a large number of Chinese coolies were used under the direction of officers and non-commissioned officers of the Regiment. Aside from its military importance, the construction of this defense position was splendid training for the Regiment.

Lieutenants Headman and Booth of Co. "E"

Early in May, 1918, the Germans attacked and captured Kemmel Hill in their endeavor to widen the Flanders salient. Very severe fighting took place, and at one time the Regiment heard in the distance the unceasing artillery fire for Over 72 hours. It was feared that another attempt to capture the Channel ports was about to be made by the Germans, and several French divisions were brought into this area as a reserve.

The month of May, 1918, was spent at Volkerinclikhove and Merckeghem. Much work was done, despite a lack of engineer equipment. All the tools and apparatus of an engineer regiment which had been gathered together so carefully at Camp Upton, had been left behind when the Regiment sailed overseas. The British supplied wagon transport and animals, but could not supply the technical equipment required for the proper functioning of an engineer regiment.

Part of the training of the Regiment at this time consisted in testing gas masks in a cloud of real chlorine gas. This test gave the men confidence in the mask, that could not be obtained in any other way. Also, each man had an opportunity of throwing "live" hand grenades at dummy Boches.

During the month of May, many officers and non-commissioned officers had an opportunity to visit the British front south of Arras. The purpose of these visits was to get first-hand knowledge of the actual conditions of trench warfare, and this knowledge was of great value. The Colonel, his staff, majors, all company commanders and first sergeants were absent at the front at one time. During their absence, a divisional maneuver (May 17-19) was held. Although lacking most of its commanding officers, the Regiment performed its part in the maneuver efficiently, and was commended by the judges. Other maneuvers were held later, which gave our troops valuable practical experience in the problems of mobile warfare. Little did anyone realize then, how soon this training would be put to use, for all fronts by this time had become stabilized again after the first 1918 attacks of the Germans.

At four o'clock of the afternoon of 30th May, 1918, the Regiment received orders to march out at seven o'clock. In spite of this short notice, officers and men were ready promptly at the appointed hour, and marched about seven miles to bivouac near Hellebroucq. The following day a march of over 17 miles brought us to a bivouac in the Bois de Bomquehault. On 1st of June the Regiment marched to billets, with regimental and second battalion headquarters at Locquinghen, and the first battalion at Belle. The six weeks' training in France showed its results plainly, for the Regiment marched splendidly and was complimented by Major-General Blacklock of the 39th (British) Division.

This change of station of the Regiment was preliminary to its departure from the British sector. For a few days, the Regiment busied itself in preparing the area surrounding it for the reception of incoming American troops. These preparations consisted of the construction of rifle ranges and bayonet assault courses.

On the 7th of June the Regiment entrained at Rinxent and was transported to Anvin (Pas de Calais), where it arrived the same day. The regimental transport and 302nd Engineer Train proceeded by march route to the same place, via St. Pol, arriving on the evening of the 8th of June. The regimental headquarters staff was at Monchy Cayeaux, while the regiment was billetted between Anvin and Wavrans.

From Wavrans on 10th of June the entire Regiment entrained on three French military trains. This trip was the longest of any taken in France. The route lay through Abbeville-sur-Somme, Versailles, Sens, Wassy and Nancy, south to the detraining station at Thaon, Vosges.

This route illustrates well the precarious state of communications between the French and British armies in the early summer of 1918. The only useable railroad connection between the north and south of the Somme River, which roughly divided the British and the French, was at Abbeville. Due to the March advances of the Germans in Picardy, the important railroad center of Amiens was under such bombardment that its railroad lines could not be used. Also the direct rail route from Paris to Nancy had been cut at Château-Thierry by the German advance of 27th of May. This necessitated a long detour for troops who were being transferred from one front to the other.

The train trip from Flanders to Nancy took three days. The weather was ideal and the countryside very beautiful. The men of the Regiment knew that every mile took them nearer to their first real test. There was no depression -only a determination not to be found wanting.

It was during this trip that Capt. F. S. Greene was formally placed in command of the 1st Battalion.
Thaon was reached on the night of the 12th-13th June, 1918. The Regiment took station as follows:
Domevre-sur-Durbion-Regt. HQ and HQ 1st Bn., Cos. "A" and "B".
Bayecourt-HQ 2nd Bn. and Cos. "E" and "F".
Pallegney-Company "C"
Villoncourt-Company "D

These stations were, however, but temporary. Almost immediately upon arrival, Colonel Sherrill, with the company commanders, proceeded to the front to become familiar with the work which was to be taken over. It was at this time that there was attached to the Regiment Lieut. Gilbert ,Macqueron, of the French Army. Lieutenant Macqueron accompanied the Regiment as liaison officer through all its operations in the field, and became actually, if not technically, a member of the Regiment.

The 77th Division was to relieve the 42nd, popularly known as the "Rainbow Division". The 42nd Division then held the quiet Portion of the Lorraine front known as the "Baccarat Sector", because headquarters were located at Baccarat, Meurthe-et-Moselle.

On 16th of June, Company "F" and Headquarters Company, 302nd Engineers, marched from their billets to Rambervillers. The following day these two companies marched to Baccarat and relieved the corresponding companies of the 117th Engineers of the 42nd Division. So far as we are informed, these two companies were the first companies of the National Army to be assigned to duties in a front-line sector. They were billetted first in the old "Crystallerie", and later in the Haxo Barracks.

On the 19th of June, the remainder of the Regiment followed and relieved corresponding organizations of the 117th Engineers, being stationed as follows:

Regt. HQ, HQ Co., Co. "F", and Engineer Train at Baccarat, Meurthe-et-Moselle.
One-half of Company "A" at Reherrey.
One-half of Company "A" at Vaxainville.
Company "B" at New Barbett Camp.
Company "C" at Vacqueville.
Headquarters 1st Bn. at Merviller.
Headquarters 2nd Bn. at Neuf-Maison.
Company "D" at Pexonne.
Company "E" at Neuf-Maison (later moved to Ker Avor).

The men of the Regiment will not soon forget this-their first "relief ". The unknown is always formidable! To make it worse, the weather was miserable. Cold, cutting rains drenched the men on the marches, which were made at night.

Thus it was that, in June, 1918, the 302nd Engineers first assumed duties in a front-line sector.
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