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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Discovering Berzy-le-Sec and the Brutal Fight That Took Place There

The Château at Berzy-le-Sec Today, Undergoing Restoration

During my latest visit to the Western Front, we visited the battlefields of the element of the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July–2 Sep 1918) known as the Battle of Soissons (18 July–22 July 1918). For the first time, I visited the site of one of the culminating events of that action, the struggle for the village of Berzy-le-Sec. It was easy to see the strategic importance of Berzy and just how difficult it would be to assault. This tiny community is situated on a little rise that overlooked two critical lines of communication for the German Army in mid-1918: the Château-Thierry–Soissons Road and the Villers-Cotterêts–Soissons railroad line. For the Allied forces it was a critical target if they were to make the Marne salient untenable for the enemy. The village, however, is dominated by a 12th-century Château turned into a fort and excellent observation post for the defenders back then, the German 1st Guards Division. Originally assigned to the French 1st Moroccan Division, the U.S. 1st Division was given it to capture after the 1st Moroccan's failure.

What happened there from various sources:

On 20 July  orders were received that on account of the difficulties encountered by the French division on our left, its progress had been delayed, and Berzy-le-Sec, the taking of which had been assigned to them, was placed in our sector and the 2nd Brigade of the 1st was ordered to take it. The order to advance at 2:30 p.m. called for the 28th [Regiment] to take the town and the 26th to conform to its movements and take the railroad.

1st Division Troops Just Before the Assault on Berzy

By this time the divisional artillery was in position on the Paris-Soissons Road and delivered a terrific fire into the town and along the railroad. The capture of Berzy-le-Sec which dominated the railroad from Soissons toward the south meant the loss to the Germans of the entire salient. It involved desperate work, and that day we failed. The fighting was intense, often at close quarters, when the bayonet was used with telling effect. We swayed to and fro with the balance slightly in our favor. But by nightfall Berzy was still uncaptured.

The division commander MG Charles Summerall  came to the front line Battalions that night. He did not come to find fault but simply to learn some first hand information why we had failed and then to remedy the cause. He promised the boys relief the following night but the 1st Division wanted Berzy-le-Sec.

Soldiers of the 1st Brigade pushed forward at 4:45 on the morning of the 20th behind a rolling barrage and managed to capture Buzancy. Meanwhile, the 2nd Brigade, still facing staunch German resistance, received aid from American artillery which pounded Berzy-le-Sec for nearly three hours. Following the artillery barrage, the men of the 2nd Brigade swept forward in three waves. The 26th's 1st Battalion leapfrogged the 3rd and established itself beyond the railroad. The 28th Infantry swept into Berzy. All day long the battle raged, but the Hun had lost. All that now remained of the regiments was hurried forward to resist the counterattacks.  Companies and Battalions were so inter-mixed that their identity was practically lost, but all realized the necessity of holding that which had been so dearly earned.

The Château After the Battle

In four days fighting in the Battle of Soissons, the 1st Division would lose approximately 2,000 killed and 5,000 wounded.

Sources: 26th Infantry Regiment; First Division Foundation and Museum Website

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