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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The AEF's Sole Cavalry Attack

The 2nd Cavalry at St. Mihiel

[Ed. Note: The men of the four American cavalry regiments that were sent to France usually found themselves fragmented and set to such prosaic tasks as directing road traffic, guarding prisoners, and carrying messages. Historian and friend E.M. Coffman brought to my attention an account written by a cavalry troop commander (who would go on to greater fame as one of the "fightingest" generals of World War II), Captain Ernest Harmon, on his unit's (F Troop of the 2nd Cavalry) support of the St. Mihiel Offensive in September 1918.] 

2nd Cavalry Just After Its Arrival in France

His commander's summary action report noted Harmon's mission and its results:

8. Troop F, sent north, surprised the enemy at Vieville and caused him to abandon a four-gun battery of heavy guns, and prevented him from burning part of the town. In St. Maurice it engaged a rear guard of mixed troops, mounted and dismounted. A number were killed and several prisoners were taken, including a Major with a very good horse. From St. Maurice patrols were pushed out to Hannonville, where liaison was established with the French troops, and to Woel where a force of the enemy was encountered without loss. From Woel patrols were sent forward to Doncourt and to within a kilometer of Jonville. As a result of the day’s work the Cavalry secured early news that the enemy had completely withdrawn from the St. Mihiel salient and that he was reforming on the line Champlon-St. Hilaire and Jonville. 

In all about three hundred prisoners and three horses and a large amount of arms and ammunition captured. The enemy was either of poor quality or badly demoralized and surprised by the rapidity of the American advance. If a regiment of Cavalry well mounted and well trained had been sent through the line of the First Division about noon of the 12th, it is my opinion that a large number of prisoners would have been taken. 
Lt. Col., Cavalry

Harmon's Account of the Mission:

Lieutenant Colonel Hazzard [on 13 September 1918] gave F Troop the following mission: to proceed north along the main line of railroad running from St. Mihiel toward Metz, to gain contact with the enemy; locate his new line of resistance and to procure, if possible, liaison with the French who were expected to come through from the west side of the Salient...

Flank patrols were sent out on both flanks, keeping abreast of the head of the column. The patrol on the right, due to the open country, kept well over from the road, that on the left kept at the foot of the ridge with scouts on the ridge. Realizing that much valuable information could be obtained by even a small unit as a troop and anxious to redeem our first brush with the enemy, the troop moved out at a brisk trot in the regular formation of point, advance party, and main body, in columns of troopers on either side of the road. The advance led through town already ablaze, left burning by the German retreat. To go through the towns keeping on the main road was a reckless proceeding, as a few machine guns well posted could do us great damage but to circle around would lose time and Captain Harmon, desiring to get back information quickly, took the chance and kept up a fast trot going north on the main road. The men were instructed that if in passing through the towns, machine gun fire was encountered, to leave the road from the right and left and get between the houses under cover. The first town passed through was Hattonville, about two kilometers north of Vigneulles. This town was deserted but was all afire, the flames scorching us as we passed through.

Capt. Harmon After the War
Our point was fired upon from a stable on the right near the outskirts of the village. From the fire it was very easy to see that not more than two or three Germans were located there. The advance was not halted but a squad turned out of the column, dismounted, and surrounded the barn, killed one German and took the other occupant prisoner. All along the road were wagons of loot and supplies left in the flight, the drivers evidently unhitching the horses and mounting them. The next town, Vieville, was in flames and apparently deserted. The troop kept up its advance, not stopping to search the town. The next town, Billy, six kilometers north of Vigneulles, was on fire and here we found a battery of Artillery being limbered up by about twenty of the enemy. They were taken by surprise and offered no resistance to being captured, in fact seemed greatly shaken in nerve. The prisoners were sent to the rear under escort and the advance was continued. St. Maurice is now reached. This town was of considerable size and many Germans were seen running about in the streets upon our approach. The road forked to the right here. The troop charged into the town, the advance party and the point establishing a temporary outpost on the road north of the town, while the right flank patrol was placed on the road leading out of the town to the right toward Jonville. Patrols were hurriedly scattered to reconnoiter the town, the main body of the troop being formed at the crossroads for action of any sort.

A German staff officer, mounted on a large black horse, was discovered leaving a side street. He was captured and his horse was turned over to the captain who immediately mounted him, his own having gone lame during the advance. About 25 stragglers and wounded men left behind, were captured and sent down the road toward Vigneulles under escort. Messages were sent from each town describing our progress and the information available. The villagers all came out to see us and were very enthusiastic. The men were hungry and it was with difficulty that the civilians were kept away from the men. To their credit, however, it must be said that the men behaved splendidly, realizing that they must keep good order and be ready for anything, as we were ten kilometers from any supporting troops. Our best information came from the former mayor of the village. Captain Harmon, being able to speak French, talked with him and got very valuable information. A German officer had told the old French mayor where the new line of defense was to be established, namely on the line formed by the towns of Champlon, Doncourt, Jonville and Chambley. This information was sent back in a message for what it was worth and with St. Maurice as a base, patrols were sent out toward Champlon, Doncourt, and Jonville. . . The next message received from Lieut. Dockler was that he had made a junction with the advance point of the French Infantry at Hannonville, three kilometers north of St. Maurice. The message was sent back to the rear, thus accomplishing one part of our mission.

...Shortly after the Lieutenant’s report a message came from the patrol toward Doncourt, stating that they had come under machine gun fire on approaching the town, having one horse wounded. Word was sent back to reconnoiter thoroughly and to return and report his patrol. Two hours later this patrol returned, having established the fact that the enemy were entrenched in and about the town and had wire entanglements across the road...At this time a message came from the patrol toward Jonville stating that a large force of Germans were approaching St. Maurice from that direction. Everything was put in readiness for a hurried departure in case of a counterattack, as our force was too small and too far from our base to meet a counterattack of any size. A second message corrected this error and the Captain rode out and met the patrol.

At Woel, four kilometers east of St. Maurice toward Jonville, the patrol had been fired upon from a church steeple. The patrol brought back five prisoners, one of whom was badly wounded in the stomach by a .45. In order to reconnoiter Jonville, it was necessary to clear Woel and being convinced it contained only a few stragglers and a weak rear guard, the captain ordered all patrols to feed their horses and men and after a half-hour interval, proceeded with fifty men to attack Woel. This force was led up a dry creek bottom to the edge of the town where it was dismounted under cover of the brush. The captain, with the dismounted men, worked up the main street of the village and was fired on from the church. The church was surrounded and five prisoners were taken. The party returned to their horses and were mounting when an aeroplane swooped down on them. However, no damage was done as the circles on the wings soon showed it was one of our planes sent out to locate us, as was afterward found. 

2nd Cavalry on the Move, St. Mihiel Sector

A[nother] patrol was sent to Jonville and brought back the report that it was fired upon, and from his field glasses the sergeant could distinguish wire entanglements about the town. It was now 7 p.m. and our mission having been accomplished the troop was assembled and began its march back to Vigneulles. Everyone was greatly fatigued and the horses were jaded as they had been going at fast gaits all day. However, it was felt that we had successfully accomplished our missions and everyone was in good spirits. On our way back we met our Infantry advancing and digging in for the night to hold the ground.

Great quantities of stores were found by the Infantry and they were rolling barrels of beer down the road and through the streets. The troop was halted and the willing doughboys gave each of our men a sack of German hardtack and three bottles of beer, a very acceptable ration after our long absence from our wagon train. We arrived at Vigneulles at 9 p.m. Here we found the rest of the squadron in camp, in a field, and to our joy, saw the rolling kitchens and the wagons ready with a hot supper. The Mess Sergeant of H Troop, Sergeant Rock, by his push and pluck had gotten his wagon train through the jam of traffic and had the rations ready. 

Sources: Captain Harmon's account appeared in the Cavalry Journal in 1922.