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

Friday, April 30, 2021

AEF's 353rd Infantry in Stenay, France, on Armistice Day 1918

On the morning of 11 November news of the coming of the Armistice was well circulated within the AEF. Overnight, units of the 89th and 2nd divisions had been fighting their way across the Meuse River, presumably to gain the most advantageous position possible when the Armistice fixed the positions of the opposing forces. One well-fortified town in the section assigned to the 353rd Infantry of the 89th Division had not been attacked, since the troops had been unable to find a crossing of the river. Major General William Wright was not happy about this situation and ordered that the town be captured. He ordered the town taken, and and the attack was mounted mounted at 8 a.m., three hours before the Armistice. General Wright would later be criticized for the casualties taken by his division during the Meuse crossings of 10–11 November. However, fortuitously there were no casualties in the capture of Stenay, and the operation yielded on of the most famous photos (below) of the AEF. 

Company A, 353rd Infantry, 89th Division
At Stenay 1058 hrs, 11 November 1918

Here's an account of the assault from the history of the 353rd Infantry:

Local information indicated that the First Battalion must cross the Meuse and enter Stenay. German snipers and machine gunners were active and artillery threatened at all times. One dare not show himself outside the dugout in daylight on account of the snipers. A major and his orderly were lying at this moment down the road. They had been picked off that very afternoon. The bridges across the river had been blown up. A patrol attempting to cross the river was stopped by machine guns. They had left their leader and several dead on the banks. At this critical moment in the narration Captain Dahmke, followed by Major Blackinton, entered the dugout. Then came the news which the men had anticipated. The calm, steady voice of Major Blackinton threw a pall on all listeners as he said, "Your orders are to be in Stenay tonight."

It was hard to realize the possibility of accomplishing the mission under the conditions. The Germans occupied the city of Stenay and the high ground beyond. They were prepared to hold their positions with machine guns and artillery. Moreover, there was the river and the canal to be crossed and only one boat available. It had a carrying capacity of thirty men. On the east side of the Meuse the 90th Division was advancing from the south. They were to have taken Stenay on the 10th and to announce occupation with a rocket signal. Close observation revealed no signal, and their location was unknown. The First Battalion must drive across the river for Stenay.

Prewar Photo of Stenay Bridge Destroyed in 1918

Meanwhile the Second and Third Battalions were on their way to co-operate with the 90th Division troops on the east side of the Meuse river. The Second Battalion left Les Forgettes Chateau in the early evening, never to return. The march led over the high hill in the heart of Tailly Woods, through Montigny and Saulmury. Near Ville-franche the engineers had constructed a pontoon bridge. Lieutenant Melvin with a patrol from Company "G" was on ahead. It seemed impossible to get definite information regarding the location of the 90th Division troops, but the battalion must be in position to advance on Stenay in the morning.

Without a moment's hesitation the men moved across the bridge in single file. The meadows between the river and the canal, on the east bank of the Meuse, were stiff with a heavy hoar-frost. Movement was necessary to keep from freezing. Finally the battalion halted near the locks on the Meuse Canal about two kilometers southeast of Mouzay.

Location of Stenay

Lieutenant Melvin reported that the town of Mouzay was filled with gas and that he had been unable to gain contact with the 90th Division troops. Major Peatross, Lieutenant Melvin, and a few runners again went forward while the men fell out along the steep banks of the canal. Some officers and a little party of men tried to kindle a fire in the lock-keeper's house. Someone had left a newspaper here. It was two days old but it gave the terms of the armistice. Everyone fully expected that fighting would continue. At 4:30 a. m. march was resumed to Mouzay where it was learned that a strong patrol had been organized to enter Stenay. Its mission was to determine the strength of the forces holding the town. The patrol did not accomplish its mission and the 90th Division did not attack in the morning.

The Second Battalion took over the abandoned German billets and proceeded to forget about the war. But hardly were the men asleep when shells began to fall into the edge of the town. There were no orders to move and no one stirred. Presently word came from the 179th Brigade Headquarters of the 90th Division that the armistice was signed. Those who were asleep were not disturbed and those who were awake found a place to sleep. The men of the Second Battalion were so nearly "all in" that they must rest before they could realize the news.

The experience of the Third Battalion was quite similar to that of the Second. Up until 2 a. m. of November 11th the Third Battalion held positions in La Haie Woods near Beauclair. At that hour, orders were received to join the Second Battalion across the Meuse River in the advance on Stenay from the south.

German Prisoners Captured in the Assault

The march of the Third Battalion led over the flooded roads along the Wiseppe River. Dawn brought them to Wiseppe. The enemy had destroyed the bridge. It was necessary to improvise a crossing. Only one man could make his way at a time on the treacherous logs. At last the battalion reached the pontoon bridge at Ville-franche.

All was going satisfactorily until the mooring of the boats gave way. Several men fell into the cold, swift river. Difficulties could not be allowed to impede the progress. The bridge was hastily repaired and the Third Battalion followed the Second in the direction of Mouzay.

While sitting alongside the road an officer drove up and announced the news of the armistice, and gave orders to continue on to Stenay. The chief concern of the men now was to find a good place to rest.

During these hours, the officers of the First Battalion continued their efforts to find a way across the Meuse River. Lieutenant Driscoll and Lieutenant Connors had not reported back with their patrols at 3 a. m. Lieutenant Chalmer with Private Cadue was sent out. The light from a burning barrel of oil at the water's edge enabled him to locate Lieutenant Connors' patrol. No crossing could be found. When they returned Major Blackinton set out with Captain Dahmke to confirm the information of the patrols.

Lieutenant Hulen in command of "A" Company had posted sentries under cover to make observations. At nine o'clock Lieutenant Chalmer reported back that a crossing could be effected.

After the Armistice, with French Civilians

The high, embanked road leading over to Stenay had been blown out in no less than eight places, and the bridges over the river, canal, and mill-race were destroyed. Some engineers had been trying to estimate the possibilities of a crossing, but were driven away by enemy shrapnel. On the basis of this information, Company "A" was ordered to cross the river. Lieutenant Connors was to lead with the patrol, Lieutenant Chalmer was to follow with his platoon in fifteen minutes and prepare crossings. It was now 9:30 a. m.

A heavy fog hung close to the surface. Nothing was visible but the broad expanse of the water which disappeared in the haze a few yards out from the shore. Every man wished he could look beyond. Surely the enemy was waiting to open fire at the first appearance of advancing troops. But this fog that had been so disagreeable served effectively as a screen for our activities.

Nearer approach to the road showed mysterious rows of sticks driven in the ground parallel to the water's edge and at right angles to the road. These sticks stood some seven or eight feet high. Wisps of vegetation were tied about two feet from the top. Their use was apparent. Machine gunners knew the range to these sticks. They knew the intervals between the poles and could control their field of fire from right to left without being called upon to estimate it. Quietly and patiently the men worked their way forward. The gaps which had been blown in the embanked road were from fifteen to thirty feet across. Water rushed through the openings below. It was necessary to make a steep descent on one side, pass over the debris in the bottom, and then make the steep ascent on the other side to continue toward Stenay. After crossing five of these gaps, the bridge which spanned the Meuse loomed into view. One long girder lay suspended from its base on one side across the gap. Just beyond was the bank of the canal, covered with wire entanglements. The bridge across the canal was out, but fifty yards above lay the ruins of the lock-gates which afforded a passage. The mill-race was still to be crossed. Its bridge was completely down. Heavy timbers were soon adjusted into a foot-log. Only one man could cross at a time, but in the event of shelling this formation was highly desirable.

The thought of machine gun fire was oppressive. On the battlefield there was a chance of flanking the enemy but here the men were at the mercy of the enemy. We could do nothing but move ahead. Safely across, the patrols reported that they were ready to leave. Lieutenant Hulen with the slightest trace of a smile on his worn face said, "It is reported that there will be no firing after eleven o'clock, but don't throw away your equipment!"

At ten o'clock Lieutenant Connors reported the occupation of Stenay in the following brief message:

"Private Gielow defeated for mayor of Stenay by three votes."

View Today from the Rebuilt Meuse Bridge

He immediately set about getting the French civilians out of their cellars and rounding up the few Germans who remained behind. The town was still being bombarded in the southern section, but the patrols met no resistance in their operation.

At 10:30 a patrol from the 90th Division entered the town from the south. Lieutenant Connors notified its leader, a Lieutenant Quinn, that the town of Stenay was in the possession of the First Battalion, 353rd Infantry, 89th Division. Before 11 a. m., Armistice hour, all of Company "A" had made their way across and a line of outposts was established on the heights above the town. There were no casualties, but the mental strain and physical exertion had been terrific. The men of the First Battalion had earned the right to the good billets of Stenay for their regiment.

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