Another day without an entry from Robert gives me the opportunity to talk about an extraordinary set of decisions that impacted the 35th Division just days before their first “real” action of the war (Robert would have said they hadn’t seen real action yet; I would beg to differ). Less than a week before joining more than a million soldiers in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 70th Infantry Brigade and its regiments changed out several of its key leadership positions. I don’t know that anything like this has happened before or since.
I previewed this a few weeks ago; apologies if I re-use some of the best quotes here.
Chaplain Edwards in From Doniphan to Verdun says this critical transition in leadership positions had started even earlier (emphasis added in bold):
In France during July and August, and the first part of September we lost Grant Davidson, Henry E. Lewis, Edward P. Sammons, John R. Smiley, John P. Griebel, and Fred O. Wickham among the Captains. These were all excellent efficient officers; some of them of exceptional ability. They were sadly missed when we went “over the top.”
Among the Lieutenants we had removed were Wm. R. Stryker, a fine officer, Jerry F. Duggan, a born soldier, J. O. Ferguson, Wm. C. Gordon, H. P. Lawrence, Howard Frissell, Kiser and Hocker. The removal of these officers, and others whose names the records fail to show, placed the regiment at a real disadvantage.
Not only is it true that these men were for the most part competent officers, who had the full loyalty of the men, but so many were removed that the 140th went into action on September 25th, sadly short of its full complement of officers, and unquestionably suffered because of that fact…
Colonel P. A. Murphy, who had command of the regiment during its training in the Vosges, was relieved from command in the Forest Le Haye. Major Fred L. Lemmon from the 1st Battalion took command for a few days and was relieved by Lieut. Col. C. E. Delaplane, recently a Major in the Ordnance Department with the Regular Army, who was placed in command of an Infantry regiment, a full strength infantry regiment, two days before going into action.
(In my head, I can hear Chaplain Edwards complaining about this: “He was a major in the Ordnance department, and they gave him command of an infantry regiment – a full-strength infantry regiment! – two days before going into action!” I love Chaplain Edwards.)
Later in From Doniphan to Verdun, he returns to this story:
Col. Murphy was relieved Sept. 16th and Maj. Fred L. Lemmon commanded the 140th until Sept. 22nd, when Lt. Col. C. E. Delaplane was given command. He was unacquainted with the officers and men, and was placed in a difficult position. In the days of peace he had commanded small units of men. He had made a good ordnance officer. But to be given 3500 men and ordered to fight them was a sudden shift and an unexpected task. He did the best he could. Companies F, H, I and L were without captains — a whole battalion — and went in under the command of lieutenants. Few of the other companies were fully officered.
The colonels leading the 138th and 139th infantry regiments and the 128th artillery regiment were also relieved of duty in September. And these leadership changes were not just at the regimental level. This is from Heroes of the Argonne:
At 8 o’clock on the evening of September 21, Brigadier General [Charles I.] Martin was notified by the commanding general of the division, Gen. Peter E. Traub, that he was to be relieved of his command of the Seventieth Brigade. The same day General McClure was notified that he was to be relieved of his command of the Sixty-ninth Brigade. General Martin had been with his command since its organization at Camp Doniphan. He had sailed across with it and had seen it through the trench-training period in the Vosges…
[Martin] was going to the rear. He was not to be permitted to lead his troops again into battle, or any other troops. He was done, finished. The blind fight against the Kansas general was being carried to the very opening of the great battle. I can conceive of no action more poorly advised or shorter sighted. A fine brigade was taken out of the hands of a strong, able man, of abundant physical powers to withstand the strain and stress of battle…
As General Martin drove away, hundreds of men and officers of his brigade stood beside the road in the forest to say “good-bye” to their old commander. One reason given for relieving Col. McMahon in the Vosges was that he wept while standing beside a soldier’s grave. If tears are valid cause for relief, that whole brigade should have been sent to the rear on Sept. 22.
I’ll give the last word here to historian Edward G. Lengel, who in one paragraph from To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 The Epic Battle That Ended the First World War sums up how unprecedented and unwise all of this was:
Where was Robert today? See the timeline.