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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Eyewitness: A German Counterattack During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The Witness: Sgt. Donald Kyler, Company G, 16th Infantry, 1st Division, AEF

Kyler in Paris, Under the "X"

Donald Kyler was 16 years old when he enlisted in the Army in April of 1917.  A native of Whitley County, Indiana, he grew up on a farm in the small town of Collamer.  With his parents' permission, he enlisted at Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was among the first U.S. soldiers to arrive in France. He participated in the march through Paris on 4 July 1918, fought in seven campaigns, and served with the occupying forces in Germany after the war. Of the 250 soldiers initially assigned to Company G, he was one of only ten who returned to the U.S. with the regiment in 1919, the rest having been wounded or killed.

His Account:

Early in the morning, our scouts observed enemy troops in and around Fleville and beyond getting ready for what looked like a frontal attack on our position. They probably intended to overrun us and advance down the river valley and attack the troops then making a river crossing. Their intent was tactically sound. They were desperately trying to delay or halt our offensive by whatever means. Hence, their decision to make a frontal attack without artillery support. But their execution of it was at fault in several respects.

First Division Artillery Passing Through Fleville

They would have been a perfect target for our artillery. But our artillery was busy elsewhere, and were helping the 82nd Division make their attack across the river, and our other regiments in their effort to take the difficult ground on our right. Realizing that our group could not deliver effective fire from the sheltered position just above the ravine, Captain Wildish decided to man the rifle pits to the front, but abandon the ravine and put the rest of the men echeloned along both flanks rearward. In that way, in case the enemy made a frontal attack, our men would be less bunched up and would be able to deliver enfilading fire on them as they advanced.

Tank and Wagon Damaged by German Mine Near Fleville

Corporal Sanders was told to pick the best marksmen and post them in the rifle pits up the bank. He proceeded to do so and included me in the group. I do not know exactly what the captain told him, but in general we were to hold off the enemy as long as possible. We expected a mortar and machine gun barrage, but it did not occur. Instead, they began advancing straight toward us from their positions around Fleville. Perhaps they had no mortars or machine guns available, or perhaps they thought us so weak that resistance would be minimal.

They soon found out differently, however. We had a perfect field of fire, with good dug in positions in our individual rifle pits. We had narrow slots cut in the bank from which to fire. We had no rifle grenades, but did have hundreds of rounds of rifle cartridges at each pit. The enemy left their shelters in small groups and advanced on a broad front, from beyond Fleville almost to the high ground to our right front. We did not fire until they were at about 400 yards range.

View of Terrain Where Germans Attacked Outside Fleville

Then we began firing with carefully aimed deliberate shots. At that range, most of us were able to hit a man with every shot. The first volley threw the enemy into confusion. They deployed, hit the ground, and began an ineffective fire in our direction. They kept advancing by crawling a short way and then firing again.

I was approximately in the center of our line. I could see enemy soldiers, who by their actions evidently were leaders, and I directed my fire on them when they were opposite my place in line. We fired steadily, but not hastily. The enemy kept coming, several hundred of them at least. As they got closer I directed my fire on those who had worked their way nearest to us. We did not want them to get within grenade throwing range. Also, we thought that they might charge us.

Monument to the 16th Infantry, 1st Division in Fleville

I do not understand why they did not. That would have been their best way of taking our position. If they had done so, we could not have fired fast enough to hold them. They had no mortar or artillery support. Among them, they did have several of their light machine guns, which I would class as about half way between an automatic rifle and a machine gun. Their fire was not accurate. Their bullets kept hitting the bank in front of us and many going overhead. We presented only a few square inches of exposure. By contrast, our fire was deadly. We were able to drop them almost as fast as they moved forward. As they got closer, we increased our rate of fire. My rifle got so hot that I could barely hold it. As the range lessened, we did not need to take so careful aim, and we pumped bullets as fast as we could. And then their line stopped. The survivors fell back. Some carried or dragged wounded with them. Others just fled. We continued firing. 

Source: Donald Kyler. Memoir. "The Thoughts and Memories of a Common Soldier." World War I Veterans Survey. USAMHI.


  1. "Of the 250 soldiers initially assigned to Company G, he was one of only ten who returned to the U.S. with the regiment in 1919, the rest having been wounded or killed."
    I just wanted to sit with that sentence for a minute.

  2. A lot to be said for basic Infantry skills like marksmanship. We don't need a bunch of cyber Geeks and Nerds to tell us how to do that.
    T. Morgan

  3. Great article. Just amazing what these veterans did. How can they not be the Greatest American generation?