Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Fighting 69th at Landres-et-St. Georges

The exhausted troops of the 42nd Rainbow Division were plugged into the line in the Argonne in the middle of October 1918 south of a village named Landres-et-St. Georges. They were facing three defensive trenches and were constantly under regular gas barrage. Lt. Col. William Donovan commanded men of the 165th Infantry (Fighting 69th) during the action. He wrote a letter describing the fight when he was in the hospital recovering from a wound he received in the battle. Donovan would later receive the Medal of Honor for his service in the action.

Fighting Before Landres-et-St. Georges

We were suddenly ordered forward to relieve another Division, the 1st. The same old jumble of troops and camions and trains on the road, only now the roads more slippery and more in need of repair. Our way led past freshly killed and yet unburied Germans, through unmistakable smell of dead horses to a farm in a valley where we parked our wagons and disposed of our men. The farm house had been used as a dressing station for one of the regiments of the other division. Outside was a huge collection of torn and bloody litters, broken salvaged equipment, reddened underclothing and discarded uniforms, all of our own men – the cast off of the dead and wounded. Within, however, was a nice fat Y. M. C. A. man in a suit of blue overalls and a sombrero. He was in attendance at a big cauldron of cocoa while on a stand beside him was bread and, best of all, beef. There could have been no better meal. They then arranged a bed in one of the ambulances into which the Colonel and I crawled. 

I slept until 6 and then met the Battalion commanders and their company commanders and went forward for a reconnaissance. We met the liaison officer of the other division and he apportioned the various liaison agents to our groups. I talked with the Colonel of the 18th and took over his cellar for our colonel. Then I went up to the position we were to occupy. 

The division preceding us had a terrific fight just three days before and the ground was a stew of dead Boche and American. One attack had evidently been made in the morning mist and as it cleared an entire company was caught on a little rise. The bodies were laid out in rows. It was easy to determine the formation and the plans of the different leaders. In one hole we found a wounded German who had lain there three days afraid to come out – in another, a wounded German and wounded American who had crawled to the same hole, shared their water and cigarettes, and then, rolling into the German's blanket, had gone to sleep. If we read that in a story book we would not have believed it. I then went over the position.  

The support line was in rear of a long ridge running some 3 kilometers. This was the ridge the Germans had held commanding the valley. I went to their machine gun positions. Gun after gun was there with the gunners lying beside them, dead. From these positions I could look back across the valley and then it was easy to see how heavy a toll could be demanded for entrance there. Over this ridge and into the next valley. Here the Germans had a prison camp. The shacks of the officers had been on the northern slope of the ridge and had evidently been well equipped. Now they were shell broken, full of gas, and in pitiful disorder. Near some of them were the bloody torn bodies of what were evidently orderlies.

Landres-et-St. Georges Today, Near Center

That afternoon we commenced our relief and at nightfall I went up and established my Post of Command on the long ridge. I slept two hours that night under a shelter tent and except for a few telephone interruptions had a good rest. With the telephone lying beside you it is not bad. I was on, as were all the men, the reverse slope, well under the top. Our only danger was from splinters. Up here we pulled all the kitchens and were set. 

Two nights of this and then early on the morning of the 14th [14 October 1918] we received orders that the attack would be made in the morning. There was a multitude of things to do and the orders coming so late they could not be done properly. The brigade on our right was to advance first, all the guns being concentrated to assist it. Then two hours later all the guns were to concentrate to help us. 

The party started. I moved to the forward position which they were shelling heavily. I could see no advance on our right. Our hour struck and promptly the leading battalion moved out. The Germans at once put down a heavy barrage and swept the hill we had to climb with indirect machine gun fire. The advance did not go well. There were green company commanders with the companies; liaison was not maintained; the barrage was not followed closely; there was not enough punch. There were times when I had to march at the head of the companies to get them forward. They would follow me. New men need some visible symbol of authority. I could see nothing coming up on our right or left. They were crowding in, the resistance was becoming stronger. 

Remains of Nearby German Strongpoint

The preparation had been hurried, proper instructions had not been sent; officers had been killed or wounded, N.C.Os. the same; vast quantities of new untrained elements. We fought our way to within 500 meters of the line. You know the Germans were entrenched with three parallels of wire and a position they proposed holding. The attack, as is always the case, finally languished. I sent for another battalion. It was late in arriving and in coming into position. Not until 8 P. M. did I get it across, but it too was beaten back. Orders then came to stabilize for the night. I was in a little shell hole with my telephone operation.

 For mess I had an onion, which was delicious and raw, and two pieces of hardtack. At 1 A. M. the telephone went out and it was impossible to get in touch with the rear. Patrols were sent out to tie with elements on our right and left. I knew an attack would come in the morning, but I had no orders. I did not know how or where it would be launched, what artillery preparation, nothing. The night passed only too quickly. I sent back for food but the lieutenant with his party never returned. Ammunition came up and then at 6.20 the orders for an attack at 7.30. With such short notice it was impossible to get proper word to all units and to make the best disposition. A heavy mist was hanging. I went around to the men and talked to them. All of this was close to the German line. We had gained two kilometers the first day, the 14th, I should not have been there but remained so because it would have had a bad effect on the men if I had taken position further in rear.

Tanks were to be near to help us. Zero hour came but no tanks, so we started anyway. I had walked to the different units and was coming back to the telephone when smash, I felt as if somebody had hit me on the back of the leg with a spiked club. I fell like a log, but after a few minutes managed to crawl into my little telephone hole. A machine gun lieutenant ripped open my breeches and put on the first aid. The leg hurt, but there were many things to be done. The tanks then came along the road but almost immediately turned back either on account of smashed mechanism or wounded drivers. The situation was bad. There was more defense than we thought and the battalion was held up. 
Messengers I sent through were killed or wounded and messages remained undelivered. We were shelled heavily. Beside me three men were blown up and I was showered with the remnants of their bodies. No communication with the rear as the telephone was still out. Gas was then thrown at us, thick and nasty. Five hours passed. I was getting very groggy but managed to get a message through, withdrawing the unit on the line and putting another in place. Then they carried me back in a blanket. I told them to put me down but they said they were willing to take a chance. It was a tough hike. At last the shelter of a hill. I turned things over to the major, turned in a report, and then was taken on my way to the hospital. 

Col. William Donovan After the War

I will tell you in detail just what is done with human baggage from the first aid station on. At the battalion first aid station they tied a tag to me: "Lt. Col. W. J. Donovan, G. S. W. right knee, Corbet, M. O.," meaning I had received a gun shot wound in the right knee. From there I was carried on a stretcher about 1-2 kilometers to the Regimental dressing station where my wound was dressed and I was placed in an ambulance. A tough 3 kilometers ride over shell-torn roads to the Field Hospital. I was hauled out and placed on the ground. It then being determined that there was no immediate need of an operation I was sent on to the Mobile Unit. This was about 4 kilometers further back, and all these rides were damned uncomfortable.


  1. This was William "Wild Bill" Donovan, later head of the Office of Strategic Services in WW2, whom Eisenhower refered to as "the last American hero"

  2. Interesting...The 42nd (now a Separate Infantry Brigade) was my old National Guard unit in the 90s.


  3. My Great Great Grandfather Frederick Craven was in the 42nd, and he recieved the distinguished service cross because of what happened on Oct. 15th. After all had been killed or wounded, Private Craven accomplished the mission and delivered "an important message" to the battalion commander.