September 27-28, 1918 – Full diary entry:
“Slept in a dugout last night.
Carried casualties all day under artillery fire.
This job between the front line and back lines is far more dangerous than front line. The artillery action is awful all the time.”
In To Conquer Hell, Historian Edward Lengel reports confusion and disarray in the 35th Division as the second day of the battle began:
September 27 brought the already-confused 35th Division closer to dissolution. The previous evening had ended with the 138th Regiment, bloody and exhausted, on the right; on the left, Lieutenant Colonel Carl Ristine had pushed his 139th Regiment to the front, passing through the shattered 137th Regiment. Ristine had acted against orders, but division commander Major General Traub ordered the 139th to continue ahead while the as-yet-untested 140th Regiment leapfrogged the prostrate 138th on the right. The 139th and 140th would then advance toward the division’s original objective, three miles north of Fléville.
Poor staff work caused two different attack orders to enter circulation, preventing a coordinated advance. On the right, Lieutenant Colonel Channing Delaplane’s 140th passed through the 138th at dawn and advanced northwest, with weak artillery support, up the broad, open slopes of Hill 218. The Germans had festooned the hill, an important observation point, with massive coils of barbed wire, which held up the Americans at the crest. Wire clippers went to work with maddening slowness as German 77mm field guns and Maxim machine guns, which had preregistered on Hill 218, delivered horribly accurate volleys on the infantry from long range. There was no escaping the bullets and shells, as Sergeant William Triplet discovered to his horror:
[The Germans] were artists with machine guns, used them at two thousand yards or more, placing them well back where the trajectory of the bullets would follow well down the curve of our reverse slopes. Then the gunner would range in with bursts of ten and when he saw just one bullet kick up dirt on the crest he’d clamp his gun at that elevation knowing that the other nine bullets were making life miserable for anybody on the reverse slope behind the crest.
The 140th stopped, pinned down, below the crest.
By the next day, the 35th had made decent progress but at a severe cost. And the leadership changes I discussed a few days ago were, predictably, causing problems. More from Edward Lengel:
The Missouri-Kansas Division had done well so far, advancing five miles over two days and taking Charpentry Ridge in a stirring assault on the evening of September 27. September 28 began with Lieutenant Colonel Delaplane’s 140th Regiment, on the right, still occupying the ridge road north and east of Charpentry, and Lieutenant Colonel Ristine’s 139th holding the ridge above Baulny to the west. Ahead, the regiments faced a series of open slopes and ravines, the most prominent feature being Montrebeau Wood, about a mile ahead on the left. Dense with trees, thickets, and emplacements occupied by the fresh German 52d Division, the wood covered a broad, craggy hill that overlooked much of the surrounding country. Its capture was essential to I Corps’ advance east of the Argonne. The 35th Division’s commander, Major General Traub, had no particular plan for taking it; but Pershing lashed him forward, demanding attack without regard to artillery support, terrain, or the state of the German defenses.
Traub took little interest in coordination and planning, preferring to wander along the lines, brandishing his swagger stick and shouting fiery, irrelevant commands. He lived on coffee and cigarettes. Traub’s staff scattered in the process of trying to follow him around the battlefield. Brigade and regimental commanders, most of whom he had appointed only a few days earlier, gave up trying to consult division headquarters and acted independently.
Chaplain Edwards in From Doniphan to Verdun recounts the devastating casualties in the 140th Infantry:
Through the draws, over the hillocks, through the dense brush and woods the men lost heavily. The regiment passed Chaudron Farm, reaching Montrebeau woods. There was little support from the Artillery, while the enemy planes were very active. It was a grueling hour. The enemy artillery overwhelmed us with direct, indirect, and flanking fire. Planes with machine guns and bombs cut down on us from the sky.
The losses were terrible, and when the regiment rested for the night in Montrebeau wood, with the second battalion in the hedge north of Chaudron Farm as reserve, it was badly cut to pieces. The third battalion had lost half its men. Murray Davis was wounded, but refused to pay any attention to it. Holt was terribly wounded, dying in a few hours. Harrison, Hunger and Barnert of I company were casualties, Eustace Smith was in command of I and K companies, plucky Captain Kenady having received his wounds. Stark and most of the battalion Headquarters were gone. M company had lost Captain McFadden, wounded — a strong, brave, splendid officer. Champion — the bravest of the brave — was killed. Nottingham, who had proved himself in Alsace, was wounded. Slaughter was terribly wounded, and Denham and Stinson, also of L company, were casualties. But in the driving rain, the men held firm.
I won’t attempt to comment on the military tactics used in this battle, nor the subject of whether the 35th had adequate support from its artillery. The consensus among the experts, though, is that the battle was a disaster in these areas and American casualties were far higher than they should have been.
Where was Robert today? See the timeline.