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

Friday, July 5, 2024

The 353rd "All Kansas" Infantry Regiment of the National Army, Part 8—An Armistice Day Mission and On to Germany

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.  

The Best-Known Photo of the 353rd Infantry
Men of the First Battalion a Few Moments Before the Armistice, Stenay, France

End Game for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

As had been anticipated, upon the taking of the Heights of Barricourt, the enemy began to withdraw his forces across the Meuse, leaving only rear guard to delay the advance of the 89th Division. As all the troops of the division's 177th Brigade, including the 353rd Infantry, had been engaged on 1 and 2 November, the division commander ordered the 178th Brigade to pass through their lines during the night of 2/3 November and to continue the advance as the assault brigade. The 353rd Infantry was encamped to rest and refit around the village of Tailly for the next six days.

In Tailly the billets and dry socks boosted morale. Everybody was getting cleaned up, many at the little wash-house with the inscription Gott Strafe England over the door. Suddenly, they were ordered to get their packs ready, for they were to return to the line and advance. The march began on the evening of the 9th. Guides came to take charge for movement toward Laneuville where they were to relieve units of the 355th Infantry.

Companies "C" and "D" arrived in the woods just west of Laneuville late because their guides got lost. Company "B" was billeted in Laneuville while Company "A" was assigned a large dugout by the railroad tracks. All of Company "A" together with one machine gun platoon were crowded into three rooms.

Mission: Take Stenay

Map Showing Crossings of Meuse River by AEF
Stenay in Red

German snipers, machine gunners, and artillery were active. One dare not show himself outside the dugout in daylight; a major and his orderly had been picked off that very afternoon. A patrol was stopped by machine guns, leaving casualties behind. At this critical moment Major Blackinton threw a pall on all listeners as he said, "Your orders are to be in Stenay tonight."

The Germans still occupied Stenay and the high ground beyond. The river and the canal alongside had to be crossed and only one 30 man boat was available. Advancing on the east side of the Meuse, the 90th Division was supposed to have taken Stenay on the 10th but had been held up, location unknown, so now the First Battalion must cross over and capture the city.

Prewar Stenay Bridge, Destroyed by Germans

Meanwhile the Second and Third Battalions were on their way to co-operate with the 90th Division on the east side of the Meuse. The Second left Les Forgettes Chateau in the early evening, moving over the high hill in Tailly Woods, through Montigny and Saulmury. Near Ville-Franche engineers had constructed a pontoon bridge. Lieutenant Melvin with a patrol from Company "G" went ahead. It seemed impossible to locate the 90th Division troops, but the Second had to advance on Stenay in the morning.

The men moved across the bridge in single file. The meadows between the river and the canal Meuse were stiff with hoar-frost. Movement was necessary to keep from freezing. They halted near the locks on the Meuse Canal about two kilometers southeast of Mouzay.

Lieutenant Melvin reported that the town of Mouzay was filled with gas and that he had still been unable to contact the 90th Divisions. The men fell out along the steep canal banks and officers and a few runners again went forward. Some men found a two-day old newspaper in the lock-keeper’s house listing the terms of the armistice, but everyone fully expected that fighting would continue. At 4:30 a. m. the march was resumed to Mouzay where it was learned that a strong patrol from the 90th which had been sent into Stenay to determine the strength of the forces there had not returned so the 90th Division would not attack yet.

Dead Ahead: The Meuse Canal Lock at Mouzay
Lt. Melvin's Men Would Have Approached from the Left

The Second Battalion took over the abandoned German billets and proceeded to forget about the war. But shells began to land in the edge of the town. There were no orders to move and no one stirred. Presently word came from 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 were so nearly "all in" that they must rest before they could react to 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 held positions in La Haie Woods near Beauclair, when orders were received to join the Second in the advance on Stenay from the south.

The march of the Third led over the flooded roads along the Wiseppe River. Dawn brought them to Wiseppe. The bridge was gone, so logs were laid down. Only one man could cross at a time. Eventually the battalion reached the pontoon bridge at Ville-Franche.

All was going satisfactorily until the mooring of the pontoon boats gave way. Several men fell into the cold, swift river. The bridge had to be hastily repaired before the Third could follow the Second into Mouzay.

While they were waiting a staff officer announced the news of the coming  armistice, and ordered them to continue to Stenay. The chief concern of the men now was to find a good place to rest.

Meanwhile the First Battalion continued their efforts to cross the Meuse. Lieutenant Driscoll and Lieutenant Connors had not reported back with their patrols so at 3 a. m. Lieutenant Chalmers 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 had been found, but later Lieutenant Chalmers reported that a crossing could be effected.

Destroyed Meuse Bridge at Stenay, Crossed by 353rd

The embanked road had been blown out in no less than eight places, and the bridges over the river, canal, and mill-race were blown too. Nevertheless, Company "A" was ordered to cross the river. Lieutenant Connors was to lead with a patrol, followed by Lieutenant Chalmers and his platoon fifteen minutes behind to secure the crossings. It was now 9:30 a. m.

They had passed through lines of stakes marking machine gun intervals and ranges. It was a killing zone but there was no fire. A fog hung close to the ground. 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 farther. Was the enemy waiting to open fire?     

The gaps in the embanked road were from fifteen to thirty feet across and water flowed through them. The men had to steeply descend, pass over the debris in the bottom, and then steeply ascend. After five of these gaps was the destroyed bridge over the Meuse. One long girder lay suspended from its base on one side across the gap, and single-file crossing was possible. The canal bridge was completely destroyed, but the nearby ruins of the lock-gates could be crossed. The mill-race bridge was also gone, so timbers were made into a foot-log, which could be crossed one at a time. All safely across, the patrols were ready to advance. Lieutenant Hulen told them: "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. He immediately set about getting civilians out of their cellars and looking for stray Germans. Occasionally, a shell would fall in the southern section, but the patrols met no resistance in their operation.

At 10:30 a patrol from the 90th Division finally showed up at Stenay. Lieutenant Connors notified its leader, a Lieutenant Quinn, that the town was in possession of the First Battalion, 353rd Infantry, 89th Division. Before 11 a. m., all of Company "A" had made their way across and established outposts on the heights. [The photo at the top of the page  shows men of the 353rd by the village church just moments before the 11th Hour of 11 November 1918. The photo below was taken on the church steps after the Armistice.]

Stenay Villagers with Men of the First Battalion

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 good billeting in Stenay for their regiment.  November 12th, 1918 found the entire 353rd in Stenay. Since entering the Lucey Sector a hundred days before, the men had usually been sheltered in dugouts or fox-holes; now they had comfortable billets, for the city had been a French artillery depot before the war and had barrack space for three French regiments.

Moreover, there was a feeling of a task accomplished. The flooded Meuse had been crossed. One line of the enemy's lateral communications, the Sedan-Longwy railroad, had been cut. The great American Objective—the Sedan-Mezieres railroad—was within grasp; the German forces were divided, the victory was won.

Stenay had been captured by the Germans in August, 1914, and was held until driven out by the 353rd.  The remaining residents had been ordered to leave on November 1st and the German reserve was moved out on the same day. The relentless advance of the Americans had warned the enemy that his occupation was nearly over.

From afar, Stenay seemed untouched by war. American artillery rounds had fallen in the vicinity, but few if any into the city. The prominent church had no battle damage, the artillery barracks showed only the disorder of a hasty retreat, and the chateau where the German Crown Prince had once stayed still retained its peaceful charm. However, the bridges had been blown up, everything had been looted, heaps of refuse were left behind, streets had been barricaded with furniture and household goods. The lighting and water systems were out of commission, sewerage mains were blocked, and many of the bigger houses had been misused as offices and workshops. Nor had the church escaped pillage — the pipes of the organ had been ripped out for the metal.

The refugees slowly returned to seek shelter and peace in their homes. Empty rooms, marred walls and ruined floors greeted them. Promptly and cheerfully they began life over again; some had even managed to conceal heirlooms from the invaders. The city records had been hidden under loose stones of a basement floor. And everyone seemed to have a Tri-Color to display, one that had either been hidden or carried on their person. Though stripped of possessions and humiliated by invaders, the city looked to the future.

Company "G" was detailed to post the first guard and each organization moved into its quarters. The men needed no urging to make themselves comfortable. Within a day many had "made arrangements" for a stove and a bed. Then came the traditional order, "Police Up!" Floors were scrubbed, backyards cleaned, streets swept and trash wagons put into ceaseless motion. Dead animals were found and buried, and within a week the devastated and deserted city was a well-regulated garrison.

German Prisoners Taken in Stenay

Also important was the personal clean-up and re-clothing of the men. A drive was mounted against the cooties. They were strongly entrenched and they seemed to have unlimited replacements. Change of clothing was imperative and so the surplus kits that had been left back at Transvaal Farm and Bantheville Woods on November 1st had to be retrieved. The Supply Company beat all records for service. New suits replaced ones that were torn and stained; underwear and socks were abundant. New boots replaced old ones, but these were English and not well-suited to American feet. They were large enough but took no account of the difference in shape of feet. At the time it was a good joke on Tommy. "Odd, ain't it that 'e should 'ave both feet alike?" remarked men sporting a new pair of  heavy, box-toed, iron-capped boots. The comedy changed to tragedy later [on the march to Germany]. Rations, too, were generous. With new equipment, beds, to sleep in, mail from home, regular meals, and best of all, the hope of an early return to the "Good Old U. S. A.," the men rapidly came back to old time form.

From unknown sources appeared a rumor about assignment to the Army of Occupation. This new duty was supposed to be attractive: it was an acknowledgment of accomplishment and it afforded the men an opportunity to visit Germany. The general feeling, however, was "The war is over, I want to go home." or "I joined the war, not the army, I want to get back in time to put in a crop next spring." It didn’t occur to them that there was still danger of losing the fruit of victory even after the victory seemed won.

There were setting-up exercises, close order drill and guard duty. Lectures on “pertinent historical and military subjects," and classes in French, compulsory for all officers. A target range was built and each day a battalion repaired roads. Finally was this requirement: "Practice marching at least twenty-four kilometers under full mobile equipment." The Third Battalion had already marched to Margut to receive returning prisoners of war and to take over enemy property. Surely there was enough to do in Stenay?
Occupation Duty

Occupation Zones — Click on Map to Enlarge

Suddenly an order came that the 89th Division was to be part of the Army of Occupation:

The forward movement will begin the morning of 24th November. No effort will be spared to prepare for it. Immediate report will be made to these headquarters by phone of approximate shortages of equipment. Inspections will begin at once and accurate report of shortages will be made to Immortal I [?] through these headquarters. All training and work on target ranges will be subordinated to preparation and equipment.

November 24th, 1918, was a Sunday. The enemy still had one day to clear out of the "invaded countries of Belgium, France, Alsace-Lorraine, and Luxembourg" but the 89th Division began its march to Germany, so the Army of Occupation was close on the heels of the retreating Germans.

The 89th, along with seven other American divisions, had been selected for the Army of Occupation. With pride and confidence, albeit some griping, officers and enlisted men accepted this new duty. They had overcome the enemy in battle, and now they were to occupy his country. The 353rd formed the advance guard of the 89th on the march.

Third Army Patch

Briefly stated, the mission of the Army of Occupation [designated Third Army] was to insure compliance with the peace treaty. General Pershing issued the following G.O. 218:

In view of the extraordinary conditions under which that part of the American Expeditionary Forces which constitutes the Army of Occupation of German Territory is serving, the Commander-in-Chief desires to acquaint the officers and men composing it with the expectations which he entertains as to their conduct. You have come not as despoilers or oppressors, but simply as the instruments of a strong, free government whose purposes towards the people of Germany are beneficent. During our occupation the civil population is under the special safeguard of the faith and honor of the American Army.

It is, therefore, the intention of this order to appeal directly to your pride in your position as representatives of a powerful but righteous nation, with the firm conviction that you will so conduct yourself in your relations with the inhabitants of Germany as will cause them to respect you and the country you have the honor to represent. While you appear among them as a conquering army, you will exhibit no ill will towards the inhabitants.

On the other hand you are warned against conduct unbecoming your position as instruments of military rule. So long as a state of war continues, Germany remains enemy territory, and there must be no intimate personal association with its inhabitants. A dignified and reserved attitude will be maintained on your part at all times.

It is not believed that any acts of pillage or violence will be committed by members of the American forces, but, should any persons prove themselves unworthy of this confidence, their acts will be considered not only as crimes against the sufferers, but as dishonoring the American Army and as a direct insult to the flag of the United States. Such transgressions, should they occur, will be punished with the severest penalties known to our military law.

This order came as a personal message to each man.  Everyone understood that assignment to the Army of Occupation meant duty, not participation in a touring party. 

Doughboys en route to Germany

These were the marching orders from  the 89th Division:

The highest possible standards of discipline will be exacted at all times. The following will govern:

(a) The habitual formation for marching will be the column of squads, the present organization of units conforming thereto as nearly as practicable.

(b) Whenever units march in column of squads, except during ceremonies, company, battalion, and regimental commanders will, from time to time, march in rear of their respective units and will check every breach of march discipline. The company commander responsible for the pace of a column will march at the head of the company to which he belongs. Commanders of covering detachments, advance guard, etc., will march as contemplated in F. S. R. for such units.

(c) Marching troops will habitually cover a mile in twenty minutes, two and one-half miles during the fifty minutes of marching time in the hour. An officer will set the pace. He will constantly check the rate by counting his paces against the watch. Each company officer by pacing over the measured mile, will determine the number of paces per minute required to give the desired rate of a mile in twenty minutes.

(d) The elements of the column will cover accurately in file and will keep accurately dressed toward the side of the guide. Rifles will be carried either slung vertically or in such manner on the shoulder, muzzle up and elevated, as not to interfere with the soldier next in rear.

(e) No one will fall out of ranks on the march except with the specific authority of his company commander. Authority will be given only for the most urgent reasons. The equipment of a soldier authorized to fall out will be left with his squad.

(f) No one will ride on any horse-drawn vehicle, except the necessary driver. A brakeman may be assigned to a wagon, where necessary, but will only be permitted to ride on down grades, when the setting of the brake is needed. Drivers of machine gun carts and ration carts will walk. All personnel of animal-drawn transportation, either artillery or trains, will wear full equipment and carry the same pack as the infantry. Drivers are the exception to this rule as to packs--the team drivers placing the pack on the off horse. All personnel, other than section commanders, drivers and brakemen, will be formed and marched in one group under the senior present at the tail of each battalion section. The practice of hanging on to a vehicle while walking is prohibited.

 (g) Marching in cadence at ease will be the normal practice in the division.

Transportation was scarce since the 89th hadn’t been one of the first divisions ordered to move. On November 24th the Supply Company could get barely enough animals to pull the kitchen and ration wagons, and only four Ford trucks were available for hauling surplus kits and baggage, so the men were carrying seventy pound packs.

The surplus kits and baggage had to be left behind after three days movement. The First Battalion was in the lead, the Second was in support while the Third was ahead at Margny and maintained its station. 

An Exaggerated Pack Showing How a Soldier
Felt after a Full Day's March

The route out of Stenay northeast was the national highway. Trees had been cut on both sides of the road and blocked the advance. At one place there was a pile of German helmets. The fields were barren except for the bushes that had grown up since there had been any cultivation. The country was a continuation of "No Man's Land."

It was fine fall weather, just right for vigorous exercise. By 1:30 p.m. the distance for the day—twenty-six kilometers—had been covered, and the regiment was in Margny.

Margny was typical of the towns in this area. The ragged walls of buildings destroyed in 1914 already looked like ancient ruins. Only a few civilians remained. Not a cow or a chicken was in sight—the Germans had carried away everything. This little town of possibly five hundred inhabitants before the war now furnished scant shelter to the men for the night.

Billeting parties divided up the shelter. Only barns were available, but the men asked no questions. Another day's march would begin in the morning, and quite a few were anxious to investigate the burning spots on their feet.

Needing to re-group, the next morning the march was delayed until 8:00 a. m.  The First had stopped beyond Margny at Geronville on the first day and thus had a significant lead over the Second. An engineer wagon train joined the column in the vicinity of Geronville and slipped in between the First and the Second. The First troops were fresh and struck out at regulation rate. The engineers constantly lagged and then made it up at a trot. The Second had specific orders to keep up with the last wagon. This race went on at an irregular rate for a time, but soon men were dropping out by the wayside. By the time that they reached St. Marie a staff officer had recorded one hundred and three names, but no one gave up; when the hourly halt was made those who had fallen out straggled back to their companies. The march was only two kilometers farther than that of the preceding day but the men were completely used up. The following report illustrates the cause:

Headquarters Company:
   Blistered feet..........................30
   Bad arches and degrees of flat feet.....12
   Sore cords.............................. 6
First Battalion:
   Blistered feet..........................25
   Swollen feet and fallen arches.......... 9
Second Battalion:
   Blistered feet..........................54
   Corns and bunions....................... 7
   Weak arches.............................15

Most of these injuries were caused by the new English boots which had chafed and strained the feet.

This second day's march, disastrous as it had been, brought the regiment into Belgium. The First and Regimental Headquarters were stationed at Buzenol, the Second, Supply Company and Machine Gun Company at Chantemelle and the Third at Fratin. On November 26th the regiment was ordered to remain in its present location until further notice.

The Belgians had welcomed the Americans with arches of evergreen that spanned the entrance to each village. Everywhere was written: "Honneur á nous allies." Flags waved gaily, with many versions of Old Glory. Local seamstresses had added stripes according to supply of material and stars by guess. Homes were wide open and the 353rd Infantry, tired and foot-sore, enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving celebration in Belgium.

After three days the regiment proceeded, stopping at Fouches and adjoining towns. A memorandum from corps headquarters several days earlier had ordered:

In addition to suitable outposts each unit down to and including the company, will have a designated assembly point to which all members of the unit shall repair, without delay, in case of alarm.

The alarm signal for units of this corps will be the "To Arms" on the bugle, or the firing of five shots in quick succession from a pistol or rifle.

At each halt for the night, or for longer periods, at least one practice alarm assembly will be held. In each bivouac, cantonment, or garrison alarm assemblies will be held whenever directed by higher authority.

Company commanders believed that no alarm would ever be necessary. About midnight on December 2nd Buglers blew the high, thrilling call, "To Arms". The men awoke with the startled feeling of campaign days. They struggled to find their equipment in the dark and when they rushed to the doors they found themselves locked in. They had not counted on the European custom of locking houses. In several cases a full half hour had passed before the companies were formed. After this experience everyone made sure of his equipment and the exit from his billet before turning in for the night, and assembly was accomplished within five minutes, often three.

Welcome Arch at Mersch, Luxembourg

On December 3rd the Regiment continued on into Luxemburg. In spite of the heavy packs and sore feet the men were taking interest in the scenery. This little country had well-cultivated fields and roadways lined with evergreens. Modern houses and store buildings spoke of prosperity and an occasional castle or ruins added a touch of historical interest.

The official language was "Luxemburg Deutsch," but most also spoke French as well. They were noncommittal with regard to their sympathy, preferring, however, to be considered with the French. Evidently they had profited by the German occupation and now wished to maintain the same business relations with the American Forces. The country seemed to be normal and the Americans felt that, in Luxemburg, at least, they were tourists rather than soldiers.

Into Germany

On December 6th the 353rd received these instructions:

Tomorrow this division marches into Germany. Every man is proud of this division, proud of its fine record, proud it has been selected to represent the United States on hostile soil.

The Commander-in-Chief has called on us to deal fairly with the German people. Our great nation entered this war to give to oppressed people a square deal. With our Allies, we have won the victory which guarantees this square deal. Our Army of Occupation is here to secure this square deal. We demand it, we enforce it, and we will also give it.

Security and protection of troops on the march or at halts, must never be neglected.

Until further orders, enlisted men will not go beyond the outposts established by their command, except on duty. Officers will not travel without arms, and troops will habitually be formed and marched under arms. The unpoliced portions of larger towns must not be frequented by individuals. Single individuals will not, as a rule, be sent on any duty.

The use of light wines and beer is not prohibited, but intoxication will be punished severely and the use of strong drink of whatever kind prevented. The beverage called "Schnapps" is prohibited.

In all dealings with the German people, their homes and their families, will be respected.

Reports from advance troops were that the Germans were not friendly. Quarters were to be had only upon forced requisition. So it was with some foreboding that the regiment crossed the Sauer at Echternach.

This river was scarcely wider than an American creek and the road leading down from Luxemburg to the little stone bridge continued on the German side just as if all were under one government, but American soldiers were guarding the bridge. 

So this was Germany. The town of Echternach was clean and orderly. Its adjoining fields showed intensive cultivation. Rows of fruit trees on either side marked the improved highways, rough from the recent heavy traffic, but still showing the thoroughness of German construction.

Early Billets in Germany — Later Improved

Here thrifty families still lived and kept their homes in good order; in France the people had abandoned their homes in ruins. Here the fields, laid out like gardens, showed signs of a recent harvest; in some places, plowing had already been completed for the planting of another season; In France fields had lost their boundaries and were still covered with wire entanglements, cut by trenches, and cratered by shell holes.   

Contrary to anticipation, the German civilians were very friendly. Army orders required all returned German soldiers to put on civilian clothing immediately. This was threshing season and they were back at their work. The only signs of the once mighty military machine were the wrecked vehicles and abandoned equipment along the road.

The Germans gazed with eager eyes when our rations were unloaded. Here was white bread, the first they had seen in years and quarters of fresh beef. They could scarcely believe that such provisions still existed in the world but were "verboten" to them.

Instructions upon the necessity of military courtesy had been emphatic before the march was begun. A surprise to the Germans was the many Americans who spoke their language. They knew of their relatives in America but they had not expected to find them in the ranks of the forces arrayed against the Vaterland.

While in Germany the Regiment Received the
Croix de Guerre

On 9 December, the 353rd reached Gerolstein. This was said to be the end of the march. Gerolstein had been a health resort before the war, noted for its mineral water called "sprudel." There were six large hotels and many other buildings easily adapted to billets. There were fine shower baths and rations came in regularly on the trains. Supply soon managed to recover the surplus kits and baggage. The people were delighted that their city was in the American rather than in the French or British zone. There were possibilities for comfort and also much of educational interest. All about were ancient volcanic formations; upon the hill was the ruin of a castle which Napoleon had wrecked a hundred years before; down in the valley was the beautiful Church of the Emperor. Plans were made for a big Christmas celebration there. Gerolstein was a real town, almost worth the long march from Stenay.

But no sooner had the companies settled down to the enjoyment of the city, word came that the regiment must move.  They would be billeted in Weinsheim, Gandelsheim, Willwerath, Olzheim, Neudorf and Reuth, plus the First would provide railroad guard from Erdorf Junction to Lissingen. The dispersion could not be more complete. The connecting roads were bad and none of these towns was on a railroad. The billets were poor, many of the buildings had thatched roofs and often the men preferred the barns.

But the men had learned to make the best of bad situations. What these villages lacked in comfort their people made up in good will. The villagers were of the class that had borne the brunt of war. Weinsheim, with less than 300 residents, had sent 40 soldiers to war; 13 would never return; others were still suffering from wounds; others were still prisoners. Hatred and bitterness were masked by grief. The inadequate billets and the inconvenience to these suffering people made the 353rd anxious to move.

Prüm, Germany:
Main Headquarters during the Occupation

There were blinding snow storms and the weather grew steadily colder. When living conditions became all but intolerable, readjustment within the entire divisional area saved the day. On 21 December, the 353rd was reassigned to Prüm, Niederprum, and Romersheim. They were concentrated in this, their final area of occupation. The long march of two hundred 40 kilometers that began on 24 November in Stenay, continuing through Belgium and Luxemburg into Germany, was over.

Next Friday: The All-Kansas regiment completes their occupation duty and heads home.

James Patton

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