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

Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Happened at Nantillois?

Looking North from the Road into Nantillois

Nantillois (pronounced Nuh'/tea/wa) is a tiny village north of Verdun and west of the Meuse River at the bottom of a valley. Its name shows up only once in all the annals of history, a three-week period in late September and early October 1918. For that brief period, it was at the center of some of the worst fighting American forces have ever experienced.

In the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the inexperienced 79th Division was directed to advance rapidly to the corps objective which, in the zone of action of the 79th Division, was a line running slightly northeast and southwest through the village of Nantillois. It was to seize in succession the villages of Malancourt, Montfaucon, and Nantillois and assist the 37th Division by turning the enemy position in Bois de Montfaucon. The 37th Division was to assist the 79th Division in taking Montfaucon. After considerable confusion and to the great disappointment of General Pershing, the first-day assault on Montfaucon did not succeed. The bastion did not fall until  the 27th.   

The Green Star Indicated Nantillois

Later that day at 1530 hours, plans were made to continue the attack to Nantillois. But as night fell, the 79th Division was only able to secure a line just north of Montfaucon. By this time, the soldiers of the 79th were tired and hungry. No supplies had reached the front lines since the offensive had begun and the soldiers had received little rest. 

At 0700 hours, 28 September, the relief of the 313th and 314th Regiments was completed, and the 315th and 316th Regiments began their attack on Nantillois. The initial assault was supported by artillery, but by 0730 hours the artillery support had become ineffective. German heavy artillery fire, in turn, became very intense, and Nantillois was not captured until 1050 hours. Both regiments reported heavy casualties due to the artillery fire as reflected in a message from Major Atwood, Commander, Third Battalion, 316th Regiment:

"Being fired at point blank by field pieces. For God's sake get artillery or we'll be annihilated."

A Humble Memorial to the Regiment That Secured Nantillois

Both regiments eventually succeeded in pushing their positions north of Nantillois but were unable to move farther because of the intense German artillery and an additional infantry regiment to reinforce the two already in the sector. At 1640 hours, Col. Knowles, 315th regimental commander, sent a message to division stating that the men of the 315th couldn't advance any farther without food.  The supply trains were still held up below Montfaucon and the food could not be delivered. Heavy rain fell on the night of 28 September adding to the misery of the already hungry and tired troops. Late in the evening some food did reach the forward battalions, but not nearly enough. 

The 79th Division was ordered to continue the attack at 0700 hours, 29 September, after an artillery preparation from 0600 to 0700 hours. The artillery preparation was inadequate, though, and when the 315th and 316th Regiments attacked, they were overwhelmed by  machine gun and artillery fire.  At the time of the attack, Col. Oury, commander of the 314th Regiment, sent a message to MG Kuhn stating that the lines of the 315th and 316th Regiments were getting thin due to details of soldiers looking for food and others getting lost for various other reasons. This was the first indication that the seriousness of the supply problem was effecting the division's ability to carry out its mission. Division in turn replied that it was doing all it could to get the supplies forward. At this point in the battle, the 79th Division was facing some to the fiercest fighting of the entire operation. The 79th Division began to receive heavy fire from an area in front of the 4th Division's sector to their right and could not advance until this area had been taken.

A Grand Memorial Honors the Pennsylvanians Who Fought with
the 80th Division North of the Village

It was during this time that Col Knowles (315th Rgt) sent a message to MG Kuhn that the troops were exhausted and had no more driving power.  At 1245 hours, MG Kuhn sent a message to both regiments to reorganize and hold their positions in front of Nantillois at all costs.  However, before this message reached the 157th Brigade, BG Nicholson ordered an attack by the 316th Regiment supported by the 313th. This attack proved costly in lives and seriously affected the morale of the soldiers.  

Still, the division held its position under increasingly heavy artillery attacks. At 1930 hours, 29 September, MG Kuhn sent a message to the V Corps Commander explaining the plight of the 79th Division. At 0430 hours, 30 September, the 79th Division received word that it was to be relieved, the 3rd and 80th Divisions were to move into the sector. In view of this order, the 79th Division decided not to attack on the morning of 30 September. By 1800 hours, 30 September, the majority of the 79th Division had been relieved and bivouacked in the vicinity of Montfaucon. 

Nantillois at the End of the Battle, Utterly Leveled

The next objective of the First Army was the penetration of the Hindenburg Line  just to the north and the capture of the village of Cunel, just three miles from Nantillois but on the other side of the main German defenses.  The 3rd Division was given responsibility for the west side of the Nantillois-Cunel Road and the 80th Division for the east side. It would take these and other divisions brought into the sector two full weeks to capture Cunel.  Nantillois, being a crossroad, would be both a major transport hub and supply base during this time, therefore a constant target for the enemy's artillery. The village was completely leveled by the time the fighting moved north. Today, with the two memorials shown here, rebuilt and quiet, Nantillois is an important stopping point for battlefield visitors.

Source: The Battle for Montfaucon, Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth

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