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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How the 35th Division's Artillery Broke Down in the Argonne


35th Division Artillery at Varennes 

Editor's Introduction: The 35th Division of the AEF got into trouble—the division collapsed and had to be taken out of the line—during the first days of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in 1918. The final tally of casualties was 7,300 with 1,126 killed or died of wounds. In his book, Professor Ferrell lists many causes; one of the most important was the breakdown of the divisional artillery. As a typical AEF division, the 35th was manned with a full artillery brigade which included two regiments of 75mm field pieces and one regiment equipped with larger, 155mm howitzers.

By Robert H. Ferrell

For the [AEF] there was the continuing problem of artillery support. During these opening days in the Meuse-Argonne, the U.S. Army commanders could not quite grasp what was necessary. Going into the Meuse Argonne the AEF had known of the gigantic preparation fire and barrages of [German] Lieutenant Colonel Georg Bruchmueller. Some of the American commanders appreciated the need of infantry for fire that would destroy or hold down opponents. Artillery had long been a specialty of the U.S. Army. At Gettysburg, the classic battle of the Civil War, Union artillery decimated General George Pickett's line. The army could hardly ignore its achievement in 1863, and its experts kept in touch with developments abroad. The army's three-inch field gun was as good as the French 75. But the other arms appear to have taken priority. The army's three-inch gun could not be produced rapidly enough, once war was declared, and it was necessary to use French guns.

The army's artillery organization in 1917–1918, which designated one artillery brigade for each division, with two regiments of light three-inch guns and one regiment of heavy 155s, tended to persuade each division commander that one artillery brigade was enough and, moreover, if another division desired two, that was its problem. When a division went into the line for the first time it often found its artillery brigade unready, in which case it could lay claim to another division's brigade. Normally, however, each kept its own and felt satisfied.

35th Division Sector in Meuse-Argonne Attack

As the Meuse-Argonne developed, it became evident that for an attack division more artillery could easily be used, and this became clear during the final attack on 1 November, in which the point divisions were both in Fifth Corps, at that moment fighting only those two divisions. Each had two brigades of artillery, not one. It would be possible to lay the artillery support of the Fifth Corps's divisions on November 1 to its then commander, Summerall, whom Pershing promoted from the First Division. There can be no question that the forceful Summerall, who started with the AEF as artillery brigade commander of the 42nd Division and believed artillery could do anything, was at least in part the architect of the attack on 1 November, an artillery bombardment that in sheer fury and thoroughness surpassed anything the AEF had previously produced. For November 1st, responsibility also lay with, among others, the army's artillery commander, Major General Edward C. McGlachlin. But, essentially, the result was due to experience. Neither [divisional commander MG Peter] Traub nor [artillery brigade commander BG Lucien] Berry understood the need of the infantrymen for artillery support. They did not have experience on 29 September, when the artillery scheme for the division's last attack failed. One artillery brigade was not enough.

It is saddening, too, that experience was to teach the AEF artillerists to vary the nature of the shells, so that when they were trying to take out the enemy's artillery the shells would be full of high explosive, while if enemy troops were the target the necessity was shrapnel. If they could get guns close enough, flat trajectory with its ricochet was the thing, rather than hole-digging. In the early days commanders fired what they had on hand. It is true that there were supply problems in obtaining stocks for special purposes, but there was no imagination in asking for the right sort of shells at supply dumps nor in bringing up the guns.

During the action of the 35th Division on 29 September, as on the four days that preceded, the artillery brigade used no gas shells, and there again, as in the general use of artillery, it and the other divisions learned by experience. The Germans had employed gas shells from the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne. Colonel Wieczorek was gassed the first day. It was possible to contend that a good soldier would avoid gas, and there was some truth in that argument. When the Germans were attacking American troops in Montrebeau Woods they drenched the place; all low areas, especially ravines, were dangerous, and a good infantryman could keep that point in mind. Luck, as well as care, could save men. A member of the 110th Engineer Regiment manning the hastily improvised engineers' line that would save the division on 29 September remarked in his memoir of many years later that at the time he was so glad the weather turned cold, for it kept down the gas. But gas, even if controlled by the men who had to live close to it, was a terrible nuisance, and this was a part of the calculation of the German enemy that employed it. Troops in the woods were forced to stay there with masks, which were difficult to use because of trouble with breathing, and also because the circled eyeglasses fogged up.

Artillery Brigade Command Staff BG Berry, with Mustache

As with artillery, AEF commanders began the Meuse-Argonne in ignorance of the need for gas to counter German gas and learned by experience. At the outset, division commanders to a man did not want any gas and flame troops in their lines sending gas, for they believed, somewhat quaintly since on the German side the genie was out of the bottle, that if they used it there would be retaliation. Sad experience taught its lesson. When Summerall's 1st Division relieved the 35th on the night of 30 September 30-1 October, one of the first things the Germans did was fill the ravines, in particular those that ran east-west and afforded shelter from artillery and most (unless well aimed) machine-gun fire. Casualties were heavy. So when Summerall in the final First Army attack beginning on 1 November commanded the Fifth Corps, he asked for and obtained gas in support of his infantry. Even then, one of the 89th Division's brigade commanders pleaded at the last minute that there be no gas. In the same attack, the First Corps to the left, needing to rid itself of enemy artillery in the large woods ahead of the attacking 78th Division, put thousands of rounds of gas into that woods and silenced the opposing batteries.

On the morning of 29 September it was too soon in the AEF's developing understanding of gas warfare to use gas against the 1st and 5th Guards divisions and the arriving German 52nd Division and avoid defeat of the U.S. 35th Division. Of the quarter-million Americans killed and wounded in the war, gas shells caused one-third of the casualties (shell and shrapnel half, and rifle and machine gun fire one-tenth).

In the artillery fire that accompanied the attack on 29 September, and despite the need for artillery brigadiers to have experience, Berry made several miscalculations that seem inexcusable. One was to assign the 130th Artillery Regiment of heavy howitzers a fire by the map that would stand one kilometer north of Exermont until the rolling barrage, to be fired by the 128th and 129th regiments of light guns, moved up to that line, whereupon the 130th was to lift its fire to the German batteries at Chatel-Chéhéry. A standing fire north of Exermont might have prevented the Germans from reinforcing their defenses in Exermont, on Hill 240, known as Montrefagne, and in the Bois de Boon on top of it. Fire on the flanking batteries in Chatel-Chéhéry might have cut down on their fire during the infantry attack, but the division's infantry available for the attack was not strong on the righthand side of the division sector, what with the 138th weakened by stretching to the right to cover the four-kilometer gap. On the lefthand side of the 35th's sector, the 137th had disintegrated and the 139th was starting to go. Both sides were in trouble and needed every artillery piece firing in the barrage, including the heavy howitzers of the 130th.

Reducing the barrage of his brigade by one regiment, Berry assigned the 128th and 129th light regiments each 1,500 meters. The 128th, supporting the right side of the line, involving the 140th and 138th, had only a single battalion in action. That meant that, on the right 1,500 meters, the three batteries in the 128th's battalion each covered 500 meters. With four guns to a battery, each gun had 125 meters, or 400 feet. This coverage was utterly inadequate. On the left side, the 129th had two battalions firing for 1,500 meters, so that each battalion had to cover 750 meters, or 250 meters per battery, which came to 60meters, or 200 feet, per gun. Even that was none too dense a coverage.

Battery D, 129th Field Artillery in Action (Detail)
This Was Harry Truman's Outfit

There was a third miscalculation on Berry's part. This, as one would have expected, was his guns' rate of fire. Jacobs believed they fired two shots per minute or less. The War College study says that each battery rested one gun while the others fired four shots per minute. Its estimate seems to be based on figures for shells fired that day, and those figures are not altogether clear, for they may well have been for shells on hand—in any event, to start with the number of shells and move back to the number of guns firing and the firing rate appears to be an uncertain way of calculation. After the war Colonel Klemm of the 129th told the newspaper that the guns were firing two shots per minute. That rate of fire, or four shots (one gun resting), was hardly what the 155mm might have done. And there is no evidence in the War College study that there was any shortage of ammunition, despite Berry's explanation to Jacobs that he was running out.

A final miscalculation in Berry's barrage was that he began it 200 meters south of Exermont. The distance from the top of Montrebeau Woods to Exermont was 1000 meters. This meant that the area in between, 800 meters, was not covered. During the night of 28–29 September, the Germans sent machine gunners down from Exermont and covered it against the attacking troops of the 35th Division.

Some sort of confusion occurred in the failure to place the starting point of the barrage closer to Montrebeau. It might have been the illness of the division's operations officer, Colonel Gallagher. He had contracted pneumonia, from which he would die on 4 October. It is possible that he was not thinking at all straight in stipulating in the division field order, number A8 that the barrage should start just south of Exermont. It is barely possible, for he was at Cheppy, that he did not know the troops had taken Montrebeau, although this seems unlikely. He may have felt that it was better not to start a barrage closer to the troops and chose 200 meters south of Exermont (800 north of Montrebeau) as a safer distance, so there would be no short fire.

It is possible that General Berry, at Cheppy with Gallagher, let the latter do what he wished, not calling his attention to the fact that his artillery was good enough to fire 200 meters above the troops' starting line. Berry might have been observing his habit of keeping out of division (that is, Traub's) business. It is a curious fact that when the division orders came out at 10:00 p.m. on 28 September, Berry misread them and set his barrage 200 meters north of Montrebeau, at 8o.o. He then sent a correction, two-and-a-half hours later, putting the opening of the barrage 200 meters south of Exermont, at 8o.6, as the division order read.

In this last regard one might say, again, that because Berry had good wire and was in easy contact with his regiments, he could have known better than Traub where the front line was on the morning of 29 September. Perhaps he did not wish to know.

Excerpted from: Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division (Reprinted by permission of the author)

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