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

Friday, June 21, 2024

The 353rd "All Kansas" Infantry Regiment of the National Army, Part 6 — The St. Mihiel Offensive

By James Patton

The following is an extract from the History of the 353rd Infantry Regiment 89th Division, National Army September 1917–June 1919 by Capt. Charles F. Dienst and associates, published by the 353rd Infantry Society in 1921. It has been extensively edited for length, style, and clarity.  

A Tank Moves Up through the Rear before the Attack

For more than a month we had been on the southern leg of the St. Mihiel Salient.  The 11th of September, 1918, found the First Battalion on the front line, the Second Battalion ready for assault in the support positions, and the Third Battalion in reserve. Each day had brought increasing signs of "something doin'". 

The veteran 2nd Infantry Division had taken positions on the right. Big guns were being pulled into place; reconnaissance was ceaseless. Fritz’s artillery tactics and his aircraft flights showed that he sensed something “going on” with the Americans, but the officers and men of the 353rd Infantry were unaware of the specific part they were to play in the great offensive.

The enemy had held the St. Mihiel Salient since 1914 and had done its best to make the positions secure, with many strands of barbed wire entanglements and various types of field fortifications. By holding this 65 km-wide salient, the Germans could threaten Verdun and prevent traffic over the railroad from Verdun to Nancy—a main line of communication for the French forces on the left. Reduction of this salient was the objective of the first all-American offensive. All information was kept secret until the evening of 11 September. 

The 353rd Formed the Right Flank of the 89th Division's Advance.  They Would Be in Communication with
Marines of the 2nd Division throughout the Battle

In the plan of battle, the 353rd was to drive through the enemy positions to the right of Mort Mare Woods. The Second Battalion, formed in two echelons with Companies "E" and "F" in advance, supported by Companies "G" and "H" at a distance of 500 m, would make the assault. The Third Battalion similarly deployed in depth was in support. Companies "B," "C," and "D" of the First Battalion were to guard the left flank of leading waves and to mop up Mort Mare Woods as the advance continued, while Company "A" was to form combat liaison with the 2nd Division on the right. The Regimental M. G. Company accompanied the assault battalion. When the first day objectives had been reached, the Third Battalion was to leapfrog the Second Battalion and carry on to the final objective, with the First in support and the Second in reserve. The plan itself was simple, but the 353rd was unfamiliar with the ground, and maps and compasses were scarce. 

At dusk the different outfits began to move to their jumping off places. The roads were crowded; in the darkness some groups lost contact with their own outfits and were delayed in reaching their positions. Reliefs by the 2nd Division were only partially carried out. It was a dark night; a cold rain was falling—now a drizzle, now a downpour; the trenches held water ankle deep.


The Second moved from support positions along St. Jean-Noviant road to the jump-off line out in "No Man's Land." Crouched down in the mud-filled trenches, we waited. All surplus clothing except raincoats had been stored, so we shivered. Our final orders contained the following:

"In a battle there is no time to inquire into the identity or motives of persons who create panic, disorganization or surrender. It is the duty of every officer and soldier to kill on the spot any person who in a fight urges or advises anyone to surrender or to stop fighting. It makes no difference whether the person is a stranger or a friend, or whether he is an officer or a private."
(G. O. No.5, Headquarters IV Army Corps, A. E. F., September 6th, 1918.) 
{Editor Dienst’s Note: This order is shockingly draconian, more like the German army than the American. I don’t know of an instance where anyone was killed under this authority.}

At exactly one o'clock the bombardment began. More than a million rounds of ammunition were consumed between 0100 and 0500. All along the line the sky was lit up with flashes of heavy-caliber guns, distributed in depth for almost ten km to the rear. In the intermissions between deafening explosions could be heard the puttering of machine guns. Very-lights and rockets of many colors went up from the enemy lines, then came into view a new kind of fireworks, a big ball of fire that seemed to explode in midair, fell to the ground, and glided along as if on wheels. It was a sight that fascinated the eyes. At first the sensibilities seemed to be numbed and then electrified. Thus, after four years of comparative inactivity, our "quiet" sector had come alive with a vengeance.

The Regiment's Jump-Off Trenches Here Were
Perpendicular to This Road to the Left. 
Remnants of Bois Mort Mare Are Still Visible

There was practically no counter-bombardment. This unexpected good fortune permitted us to continue final preparations for the jump-off. Small detachments from the 314th Engineers assisted us in cutting our way through the wire and clearing trenches of obstacles. As early as 0400, groups began to steal forward until the entire battalion had formed up only a 100 m or so from the first German trench. Units were closed up as much as possible, to escape the expected counter-barrage. At 0500, an almost solid wall of fire swooped down upon the enemy front line trench—our barrage had begun. After 20 minutes it began to roll back, as it swept slowly across the German trench system, the Second Battalion began to advance, with wide intervals and distances, following the barrage almost too closely. Soon word came that Major Wood was wounded and Captain Peatross had assumed command of the battalion.

The enemy's elaborate bands of wire had been little cut by the preliminary bombardment, and only by energetically trampling and tearing our way through it could we advance. The enemy had made the mistake of matting it so closely in some places that some Doughboys were able to run over the top, but elsewhere it had to be cut or blown up with Bangalore torpedoes. The men threw off their raincoats as they drove ahead.

Our barrage had demoralized the outposts, and practically no resistance was met in crossing the Ansoncourt line of trenches. But as the advance companies approached Robert Menil trench, they met deadly machine gun fire from the Euvezin Wood. The next half kilometer, from this trench to within the woods was one of bitter fighting. German machine gunners claimed a heavy toll. In Company "G" Lieutenant Wray was mortally wounded 100 yards beyond the jump-off line, and Stretcher Bearers Holmes and Lamson were killed trying to help him. Captain Adkins, so severely wounded that he had to be helped along, kept forward in command of his company for almost six km until he was carried from the field near Thiacourt. First Sergeant West was found with a bullet-hole through his helmet.

Some losses occurred, too, from our own artillery. "Follow the barrage," were the orders. As soon as the barrage had lifted ahead the men moved up, not realizing that the artillery would roll back almost to their last position before moving forward again to the next objective. As a result, Lieutenant Shaw was the victim of one of our own shells a minute after he had led his platoon out, but the men moved forward in spite of losses. While Lieutenant Wickersham was advancing, a shell burst at his feet and threw him into the air with four ultimately mortal wounds. He first dressed the wounds of his orderly, then improvised a tourniquet for his own thigh and continued to advance. Although weakened by loss of blood, he moved on until he died before further aid could reach him. Everywhere action was heroic. 

Lt. Wickersham and His Grave at the St. Mihiel Cemetery

Eagerness of the men to advance in spite of the machine guns led to the serious error of telescoping on the part of the supporting units. Company "H" had pushed up to the right of Company "F," and Company "G" to the left of Company "E," and the Third  had come to within a few meters of our assaulting line. The Divisional Airmen swept low over the advancing troops, waving and shouting at them to scatter. However, the aggressiveness of the assault had affected the enemy. Resistance weakened at the edge of the woods. A few snipers up in the trees continued to cause casualties, but American marksmanship was effective. As soon as a tree man revealed his position, a rifle shot brought him tumbling like a squirrel to the ground. In the woods, the men fell irresistibly into skirmish line and dashed on through the thick underbrush. When Colonel Reeves asked a small party of stranded 2nd Division Marines what they were doing behind our men, they replied, "Tryin' to keep up with them d---- corn huskers."

Units began to reform in the triangular open space between the Euvezin Wood and the Beau Vallon Wood. Some machine gun resistance developed on the left flank, but was quickly overcome. The right was held up for a few moments by a heavy machine gun emplacement, until Sergeant Moore of Company "F" succeeded in gaining possession of one of the guns and turning it on the rest of the nest. The Vallon trench was not organized and the enemy was in rapid retreat throughout the sector. The Third was to pass the lines of the Second and take up the assault beyond the Vallon trench, which was the third objective. Some of the units had already entered the Beau Vallon Wood. Colonel Reeves realized the confusion incident to a passage of the lines in the wood, and fearing that in some cases the third objective had not been fully developed, he ordered the Second to continue the assault until the fourth objective, just beyond the Wood. 

For five km through the elaborate trench system and the intricate wire entanglements of the enemy, through the densely intertwined undergrowth of the woods, the men of the Second had carried the assault. They had overcome desperate machine gun defenses, and braved the explosion of shells in their midst. For four hours and 45 minutes, the advance had continued. Three officers and nearly 200 enlisted men were wounded; four officers and 35 enlisted men had been killed.

Captured German Position near Euvezin and
Beau Vallon Wood


From the first day on the front line in the Lucey sector, the 353rd Infantry had faced Mort Mare Woods. For two and a half kilometers, its ragged edge extended beyond our advanced positions. On the map its boundaries were well defined, but as it actually stretched out before our eyes, it showed uncertain limits lost in the brush that had grown up during the war. Many of the old trees were scarred by fragments of high explosive shells. Intelligence reports contained information as follows:

“Area eight square kilometers, wire has been put all through Mort Mare Woods and is about one meter high and varies in depth. This wire is strung from tree to tree and does not follow any regular line. In addition to the communicating trenches which lead to the rear, there is evidence that the edges of the four openings through Mort Mare Woods have been prepared for flank defense. It is probable that anti-tank guns are in position to defend these passages. Batteries are scattered through the woods and also in the opening cut between the woods and the second position. Machine gunners are known to be located at [coordinates followed]." 

Nevertheless, Mort Mare remained a mysterious green wood until September 12th. One thing we knew—it was occupied by the enemy. Listening posts had heard the Germans at their work. Patrols had already drawn the fire of machine gunners, and there was no question but that the foliage camouflaged many guns.

But just what was there no one knew until the morning of the big offensive, when Companies "B" and "D" of the First, advancing on the left flank of the assaulting waves until well within the enemy positions, turned to the left to mop up Mort Mare Woods. Company "C" continued on with the assaulting battalion to mop up Euvezin Woods, while Company "A" formed combat liaison with the 2nd Division, a difficult maneuver. In fact, the commander of the 2nd Division anticipated serious difficulty and placed an extra battalion on his left flank.

The First Battalion was holding the outguard line at the time of the offensive. Only five days before, Company "D" had repulsed a determined raid at the cost of three dead and seven wounded. Our companies had not been relieved and on the morning of the 12th were still widely scattered.   

Captain Wood (commanding Company "D") describes the circumstances:

On September 11th the company commanders were called to Battalion Headquarters.  At about five o'clock in the afternoon Capt. Crump, the Battalion Commander, returned from Regimental Headquarters  with our orders for the assault on the following morning.  At eight o'clock, the four platoon commanders, Lieutenant Hunter and I assembled to go over the plans.  Our mission was to reach the second objective, then turn to the left and mop up Mort Mare Woods.  
 I gave the platoon commanders their final orders and then prepared to move up with my headquarters and reserve platoon. Just as we were leaving we learned that Sergeant Hammond, commanding the first platoon, had accidentally injured himself. Time was short, so one platoon must go into action commanded by an un-briefed sergeant.  

Burial of First Men Killed in the Opening Attack

At one o'clock the bombardment began. It seemed that all hell had broken loose. There was a continuous roar so loud that ordinary conversation was impossible. The trenches were full of soldiers, so it was impossible to get the company together for the jump-off; we would have to assemble on the other side of "No Man's Land." I had had very little sleep during the week. My feet had been wet all of the time. I was tired and knowing the next few days would be a test of endurance, I lay down to rest at 2 a.m., and soon went to sleep. My orderly awakened me at 4:30. The guns were still pounding away with increased fury. I gave the order for everybody to get set. 

At 4:45 it seemed that we were doomed to failure. The trench was jammed, making lateral movements very difficult, so I crawled on top and tried to collect my men. It soon became apparent that I would have to go with one platoon, but I had great confidence in Lieutenant Jones and the other platoon leaders. At five o'clock the whole mass jumped out of the trench and started through the wire. The first man to fall near me was Private Reyelts, who was hit just as he jumped out of the trench. I became entangled in the wire and had my leggings completely torn off. But we found Lieutenant Jones's platoon, and I now had half of my company together. I looked back and saw the most inspiring sight. Streaks of light were breaking over the hill tops, leaving a silver background for the thousands of advancing American soldiers silhouetted on the horizon. 

For the first hundred meters we met with little resistance, then were held up. I went forward and saw one man lying in the trench shot through the leg and another lying behind a bush receiving first aid. I started to cross to where they were when machine gun bullets tore up the ground near my feet. On the left there was a big tree where the gunners were located. Lieutenant Metzger took a few men around to the left and drove them out, but they got away. About the same time, Mechanic Hanlin spotted a sniper in the same tree. With one well-placed shot he brought him down. Hanlin, poor fellow, was killed later in the day.

We had now reached the cover afforded by a ridge. We re-organized the company, and then started to advance through the timber, but the company was split again. I lost contact with the platoon on the right and did not see them again until the next morning. While they were not with us they did their part in an excellent manner. The mix-up was quite general. I gained a platoon from Company "C" when Lieutenant Lewis reported to me that he was lost.

No sooner had the men entered the woods when there were cries of "Kamerad" from Boche with their hands in the air. They seemed rather stupefied by the terrific bombardment. We lined them up in column of two's and sent them back with a very small guard. The prisoners carried the wounded, both American and German. 

Captured German Pillbox Turned into a Field HQ

Although the resistance was sporadic it was still hard to get through the underbrush. There were narrow lanes, some even covered with corduroy walks, but these were carefully avoided as machine gun traps. The main business at hand was to rout the Germans out of their dugouts. A shout down the entrance usually brought forth a bunch with their hands over their heads. If no answer, down went a grenade, and then a Doughboy with his bayonet at "guard" made his way down the narrow passage. He must make assurance, but above all he must satisfy his curiosity.

It was interesting to see the home life of the enemy. His deep dugouts were comfortably and orderly arranged. However, these were only places of safety. His summer houses had all the touches of rustic beauty. For four years Fritz had used his spare time making life livable out here in the zone of action. The men of the 353rd, who never expected to stay long enough in any one position to make it worthwhile to fix up, learned a lesson in field comfort from the enemy. In the future everything available, from elephant iron to featherbeds, would be used to make even fox holes habitable.

Specific instructions had been issued regarding prisoners:

"The Commander-in-Chief has called the attention of the Division Commander to reports being circulated in Germany that Americans kill those who attempt to surrender and has directed an investigation to see if there is any foundation for such reports. He has further directed that all officers and soldiers be informed that an enemy who has not been guilty of treacherous conduct and who offers to surrender shall be treated in accordance with the laws and customs of war on land.

"The object of the German propaganda is undoubtedly to make soldiers fight more bitterly and kill more Americans before they are finally killed themselves, rather than surrender when the situation is hopeless.

"Officers and men should use discretion in accepting surrender, and in judging as to treacherous conduct. Firing into the rear of our troops after they have passed a point may be considered as an example of treacherous conduct."

German Prisoners Captured in the Fighting

So thick were the Doughboys in the woods and so careful were they in their task that practically every one of the enemy was accounted for when the first wave had passed. Every prisoner had to be searched. Luger pistols, compasses and field glasses were in great demand as souvenirs, but as the number of prisoners multiplied, the demand soon exceeded the supply. 

Quite a few of the men were able to talk with the Germans, who were surprised to learn that millions of Americans were here and millions more on the way. They had been told that the submarines had made transportation absolutely impossible. Many could scarcely believe their eyes as the countless men in khaki sprang up out of the brush. Some of the prisoners were very young, others well along in years. Although frightened, most of them seemed to be in good physical condition, and their clothing, too, was in good repair. Evidently, the Germans still had food and supplies, as well as plenty of machine guns. All day long groups of men in gray-green uniforms were marched to the rear, carrying their own and American wounded. By evening, more than 1,600 had been captured by the 353rd.

The men were famished, so they dug into their Reserve Rations. The pound of hard bread and two pounds of corned beef soon disappeared. Since the 3.4 ounces of sugar, 1.12 ounces of coffee, and .12 ounces of salt in the condiment cans had not been considered worth carrying, they had to supplement the ration with whatever they could scrounge from German stores. They moved along, leaving a trail of empty cans and cardboard boxes behind them. Little did they realize the wisdom of the army which dictated that the Reserve Ration was to last for two whole days.

By eleven o'clock, six hours after going over the top, the First had mopped up Mort Mare Woods and had joined the regimental reserve on the Brigade objective. Much hardship had been endured and comrades were missing, but the men of the First were ready to "carry on."

Wounded Men from the Division Were Taken to
This Assembly Point


One of the most difficult phases of a great military offensive is getting up to the jump-off line. Each battalion of the 353rd Infantry had its own problem with this. Manonville had been turned over to the 2nd Division and the evening of September 11th found the Third Battalion in Minorville Woods almost 10 kilometers from the front line. For two days the incessant rain had made everybody and everything wet and disagreeable. The men were glad when orders came to march to Minorville where they were to take trucks to the jump-off line. Hardly had the trucks reached Noviant, three kilometers on the way, when the roads were blocked and they had to proceed on foot.   The road was so crowded it was necessary to move in single file. The lines were continually broken by small groups cutting across and milling from one side of the road to the other. Four files of infantrymen were moving up and down the road in the darkness at all times with an occasional machine gun company thrown in. Traffic was frequently blocked by ambulances, trucks, and stranded pieces of French artillery. The rain continued to fall and in places water and mud were already knee deep.

Nevertheless, we struggled on, for "tomorrow was the big day." We were to be in the trench behind the Metz road by 11 p. m. The bombardment started at 1 a.m., but not a man of the Third had arrived yet. We were still on the congested road, but by 3 a.m. each company was in place.

In the trenches no one seemed to mind the knee-deep mud. We were soon to leave for "No Man's Land." The tremendous roar of our guns was music to our ears for we were sure they were playing havoc with the Boche. At 4:30 a.m. we moved forward through the wire, so as to be immediately behind the first line trench at 5:25 a.m. Here we waited in great anxiety and impatience to begin the big offensive.

The Third followed the Second in support until the fourth objective had been reached. Part of the time during the advance to this objective the men were almost on the heels of the assaulting waves. In fact, eagerness to get forward had once again led the men into the dangerous error of telescoping. But Fritz had already received too much of a shock from his first contact with the Yanks and was falling back. So by 11:30 a.m., the Third Battalion was on the final objective of the first phase of the St. Mihiel offensive—the ridge overlooking the Rupt de Mad south of Bouillonville.

We continued to hold and develop this position until 6 p.m. Detachments pushed forward on the right through machine gun fire and cut off traffic on the Bouillonville-Thiacourt highway, preventing the retreat of the Germans in this direction. On the left groups entered Bouillonville.  Sergeant Harry J. Adams followed a retreating German into town and was led to a large dugout in a hillside. He fired his pistol into the entrance and ordered all inside to surrender. Three hundred prisoners including seven officers filed out. Sergeant Adams established the record haul for the day.

Sgt. Adams and the Dugout Where He Took His Prisoners

But the halt on the first day's objective was not to last very long. Orders were received at Division Headquarters to continue on to the army objective. The Chief-of-Staff, Lieut. Col. Kilbourne, personally directed Major Blackinton to continue immediately to the army objective at Xammes (see map above), originally scheduled for capture on the second day.

Advance toward this new objective was made without resistance. The battalion was soon overtaken by darkness, but they couldn’t stop. The Chief-of-Staff said that the 26th Division on the left was already well on toward the army objective and that the Marines were taking a position on the right. "The honor of the division," he declared, "is at stake. The 89th must fill in the gap."

The situation was difficult. Night was on and no one had ever seen the positions to be taken. The Third was already advancing towards Xammes, which was to be on the extreme right of our new outguard line. Captain Crump and Captain Peatross were ordered to proceed with their battalions to the high ground beyond Bouillonville, where Col. Reeves met them. He and the two battalion commanders huddled under a shelter half to block the light of his flash and he showed them the situation on his map which was the only map available. 

"Blackinton," he said, "has gone on ahead to take a position southwest of Xammes; get in touch with him. The 355th Infantry should be on the left and the Marines on the right. Take your battalion, Crump, to a support position within a kilometer of Blackinton and "dig in." You, Peatross, will be in reserve approximately a kilometer in rear of Crump. You must be out of sight by morning. "Dig in" for your lives."

Exhausted Men Resting after the Continual Battle

In the meantime, the Third Battalion continued to advance toward their position on the army line. The men had fought hard during the day. They had had little to eat and canteens were low. Loss of sleep plus the strain and excitement of battle had taxed their strength. The men were dead on their feet. Suddenly, loud explosions broke the stillness of the night and huge flames shot up, illuminating the sky above the enemy lines. Everyone began to wonder what had caused these outbursts of flames. Many thought our artillery had hit an enemy ammunition dump, but our artillery was busy moving up and behind our lines all was quiet. Other flames sprang up and then it was apparent that the enemy was destroying material as he retreated out of the salient. The victory was complete. With renewed inspiration the men plodded on toward the army line.

Finally a halt was called, and the men began to "dig in." Soon they were sound asleep in fox holes, but not for long, as the objective had not been reached. The advance was resumed and before dawn the Third took its position with the right flank resting on Xammes, while the line extended to the west six hundred meters. "I" and "K" Companies held the outguard line while "L" and "M" formed the support. Yet again the men began to "dig in." This time it was none too soon, for observers on the Hindenburg line a kilometer in front had detected our arrival and greeted us with a heavy shower of large caliber shells.

Colonel Reeves expected to pass through the Second in reserve and the First in support, to the Third on the army line, but he found no trace of these battalions. Some Marines were stationed along the Beney-Thiacourt road, but they knew nothing of any troops of the 353rd. Evidently these Marines had come up after our troops had passed on to the army line. No one could be located on the left flank at all.  Daylight found the Third on the army line. Close behind them, the First and Second were "digging in" beyond the Beney-Thiacourt road. Patrols had been pushed to both flanks but no friendly troops could be found. The 2nd Division was not on the right and the 355th was not on the left. A counter-attack might be launched at any moment and the 353rd would have to resist it alone. The situation looked precarious. Early in the morning of September 13th Major Blackinton reported that the Third was taking machine gun fire. He asked for a Machine Gun Company and some Engineers.

Later that day units from the 354th moved up on the left but were greeted with such terrific shell fire that they fell back. Gradually, however, units found their place on the new line. A Machine Gun Company arrived. The First took up positions in support about one km south of Xammes and the Second remained in reserve along the Beney-Thiacourt road. Regimental Headquarters were established in Bouillonville. The 354th came up on the left again and the Marines moved forward on the right. Shelling continued throughout the day. Fritz was getting direct hits in the regimental sector, but there was nothing to do but hold on until our artillery could catch up with us.

It was along the Beney-Thiacourt road that the 353rd would capture the ground destined to become the American
St. Mihiel Cemetery.

This was the most trying warfare that the men had yet experienced. It was easier to go ahead than to sit, and especially to sit without anything to eat. The men of the First now regretted using up their Reserve Rations. Defying danger some ventured out into Xammes in search of food.  They found that Fritz had left a store-house intact.  Rabbits, vegetables, honey, bread, apple-butter, even beer and wine were there. Kegs of beer were maneuvered amid the bursts of enemy shells and the shouts of Kansas prohibitionists. Each battalion got a share. Stretcher bearers carried the wounded to the Aid Station in Xammes and brought back stretcher loads of food and wine.

No longer starved, the men set about making themselves comfortable. Bedding was carried to the funk holes. Some Boche aviators spotted this and it had the same effect on them that a red flag has on a bull. Shelling increased, so orders forbade anyone to leave his funk hole during the day. At night everyone was kept busy building the new defensive line.

In the fighting of the five days fighting in the St. Mihiel Offensive (12-16 September), the 353rd Infantry suffered 88 men killed and 195 wounded. They would hold their final line and engage the enemy in a form of trench warfare until 8 October, when the 89th division was relieved. During this latter period, the regiment would have an additional 26 men killed and 178 wounded. The division was re-assigned to the III Corps and was sent for rest and refitting near Commercy, about 14 km southeast of St. Mihiel, where it remained until it moved to the Meuse-Argonne front on 20 October. There the 353rd Infantry would fight in the final American offensive of the war and experience its most famous moment on the day of the Armistice.

Next Friday: The All-Kansas regiment fights in the Meuese-Argonne Offensive

James Patton

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