|Fismette Across the Vesle River, Then and Now
BY EDWARD G. LENGEL
Originally Published at Historynet.com
“Here they come!”
To the surviving Doughboys, the cry seemed like a death knell. Only a few dozen of them remained, scattered in the cellars of half-ruined houses and strung out behind a battered stone wall that spanned the northern edge of the village. They had been fighting for weeks and had not eaten a scrap of food for four days. Nerves frazzled and lungs wracked by gas, they slumped at their posts, seemingly more dead than alive. They had long since used up their grenades. German artillery had knocked out their only machine gun. Their rifle ammunition was running low. And they were trapped.
The Doughboys occupied the village of Fismette, on the north bank of France’s Vesle River. German troops occupied the steep hillsides that dominated the village to the north, east, and west. To the south the debris-choked river flowed 45 feet wide and 15 deep. A man could swim it if he didn’t mind slithering across submerged coils of barbed wire and risking German machine-gun fire. Otherwise, the only way across was a shattered stone footbridge that barely linked one bank to the other. Clambering over the bridge was a slow business—impossible in daylight, due to enemy mortars and machine guns, and risky at night.
For the past two hours the Germans had bombarded Fismette with every gun in their arsenal. Now dawn had broken, and German observers stationed on the hills above or flying in planes overhead would watch the Americans’ every movement for at least the next 12 hours. It was at this moment—when the Doughboys’ situation seemed impossibly desperate—the Germans chose to attack. A full battalion of elite stormtroopers armed with rifles, grenades, and flamethrowers rushed the weak American line. As thick black smoke and flames spurted toward them, the ranking American officer, Major Alan Donnelly, could find only two words to say.
“Hold on!” he shouted.
The Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division, the famed “Keystone,” was among the best the Americans had in France in the summer of 1918. “They struck me as the best soldiers I had ever seen,” said Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan, commander of the division’s 55th Infantry Brigade. “They were veterans, survivors who didn’t seem to be oppressed by the death of other men.”
|German Flamethrower Team Similar to Those Deployed at Fismette
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 109th, 110th, 111th, and 112th infantry regiments formed the 7th Division. Later that year the unit was re-designated the 28th Division, assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces and shipped to France under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles H. Muir. Though grouchy and inflexible, Muir knew what fighting meant. Serving as a sharpshooter during the Spanish-American War, he had received the Distinguished Service Cross for singlehandedly killing the entire crew of a Spanish artillery piece. Muir’s men affectionately called him “Uncle Charley.”
The Pennsylvanians entered combat for the first time in early July 1918, fighting as part of the American III Corps under Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard. As no independent American Army in France yet existed, however, they were under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Jean Degoutte’s French Sixth Army. Attacking northward from the Marne River about 50 miles east of Paris, they pushed into an enemy-held salient backed by the Aisne River. On 4 August the Americans captured the town of Fismes on the south bank of the Vesle River. They had advanced 20 miles in just over a month and cleared out most of the German salient. Degoutte nevertheless ordered the 28th Division to cross the Vesle, capture Fismette and hold it as a bridgehead.
Muir and Bullard vehemently disagreed with Degoutte’s orders. The bridgehead at Fismette was too vulnerable, they argued. Enemy-held hills overlooked it on all sides, and withdrawal under fire over the Vesle would be next to impossible. But Degoutte would have none of it, and the American generals had to swallow their objections. Until the independent American Army that General John J. Pershing had sought for so long became a reality, they had no choice but to follow the Frenchman’s orders.
The Germans did not concede Fismette easily. On the night of 6–7 August , troops of the 112th Infantry attacked the village, but German resistance was too strong, and they had to withdraw. They tried again the following morning after American artillery had laid down a heavy barrage, and after a savage street fight they gained enough of a toehold to hang on. For the next 24 hours attacks, counterattacks and constant hand-to-hand fighting engulfed Fismette in an inferno of flame, smoke and noise.
Lieutenant Hervey Allen, a literate young man from Pittsburgh who would later become a successful novelist, approached the riverbank opposite Fismette late on the evening of 9 August. His company of the 111th Infantry had been fighting the Germans for six weeks and had not received rations for the past few days. Allen’s thoughts were less than cheerful as he gazed across the Vesle at a churning cloud of smoke flickering with muzzle flashes and echoing with gunfire and explosions. Somewhere in there lay Fismette.
The infantrymen crossed the stone bridge just after midnight. As they picked their way forward, they prayed enemy flares would not light up the sky and expose them to machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the sky remained dark. Rifle fire intensified, however, as the Doughboys entered Fismette. The Germans still held much of the village and contested the Americans house to house. Allen’s captain led them through the village, dodging and sprinting, until they reached its northern edge just before dawn. Ahead, on a half-wooded upward slope cut by a small gully, German machine guns barked at them furiously from the shelter of some trees.
|Lt. Hervey Allen
The captain ordered an attack but was shot dead as he led his men into the open. Allen and the others continued forward another 50 yards before retiring to the village with heavy losses. The few remaining officers in Allen’s company held a hurried conference in an old dugout. Their standing orders were to attack and seize the hills above Fismette, but this seemed insane when even survival was problematic. One of them, they decided, had to return to headquarters in Fismes and seek further orders. Allen said he could swim, so the other officers chose him.
Allen approached the riverbank by slithering down a muddy ditch, dragging his belly painfully over strands of barbed wire half-submerged in the mud. Small clouds of German mustard gas filled the ditch in places, and although he wore his mask, the gas burned his hands and other exposed patches of skin. Enemy shells fell nearby, stunning him into near-unconsciousness. Allen nevertheless made it to the river’s edge, where he slipped into the water, discarding his gas mask and pistol.
The lieutenant crossed the Vesle beneath the bridge, sometimes swimming and other times crawling over submerged barbed wire. As he reached the opposite bank, Allen’s heart sank. American and German machine guns constantly raked the shore. There seemed no way forward and no way back. “I lay there in the river for a minute and gave up,” he later remembered. “When you do that, something dies inside.”
After a moment, fortunately, Allen noticed a small culvert that offered just enough cover for him to make his way into Fismes. A few minutes later he was racing down rubble-strewn streets toward the dugout serving as battalion headquarters. No signposts were necessary—all he had to do was follow the macabre trail of dead runners’ corpses. He arrived at the dugout to the sight of an unexploded German shell wedged into the wall just over the entrance. Inside, Allen waded through a crowd of officers, wounded soldiers, and malingerers to reach his battalion major. The major looked rather pleased with himself, for he had so far received only positive reports of the fighting in Fismette. Allen, as the only eyewitness present, quickly disabused him of his optimism. His duty done, the lieutenant saluted, moved to a corner and lost consciousness.
Several hours later an officer shook Allen awake and ordered him to guide a group of reinforcements back into Fismette. Night had fallen. Little remained of the bridge, and the surrounding area was strewn with shell holes, broken equipment, and pieces of men. A sentry warned that the slightest sound would provoke German machine guns to open fire on the bridge, and that several runners had been killed trying to cross. Waves of nausea engulfed Allen. For a moment his resolve wavered. “No more machine guns, no more!” he said to himself over and over. An American sniper, sheltering nearby and waiting to fire at German muzzle-flashes, hissed, “Don’t stoop down, lieutenant—they are shooting low when they cut loose!”
Allen sucked in his stomach and led his men carefully over the bridge. As they reached mid-span, an enemy flare lit up the sky. The Doughboys stood frozen and prepared to die. “That,” Allen later recalled, “was undoubtedly the most intense moment I ever knew.” The flare seemed to float eternally, until it finally descended in a slow arc, sputtered and went out. Miraculously, the enemy had not fired a shot.
The hours that followed sank only partially into Allen’s memory, passing in a haze of sights, sounds and impressions. What he remembered most was weariness. “In that great time,” he later wrote, “there was never any rest or let-up until the body was killed or it sank exhausted.” Around him, the fighting continued without letup.
|Lt. Bob Hoffman
Months afterward many members of the regiment would receive medals in tribute to their bravery in Fismette. Sergeant James I. Mestrovitch rescued his wounded company commander under fire on 10 August and carried him to safety. Mestrovitch would receive the Medal of Honor for this act of heroism—but posthumously, as he was killed in action on 4 November.
Lieutenant Bob Hoffman would return home with a Croix de Guerre. He spent his days and nights in Fismette scouting German positions and fighting off counterattacks. One morning Hoffman noticed German preparations for an attack and deployed his men in a block of ruined houses they had linked together with strongpoints and tunnels. The Americans had just taken their positions, poking their rifles through apertures in the crumbling stone walls, when German soldiers came rushing down the street. Hoffman never forgot the sight: “Clumpety-clump, they were going, with their high boots and huge coal-bucket helmets. I can see them coming yet—bent over, rifle in one hand, potato-masher grenade in the other; husky, red-faced young fellows, their eyes almost popping out of their heads as they dashed down the street, necks red and perspiring.”
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