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Second Division Had Big Part in Changing Course of War.


Extent of Its Activities Seen in Fact That the Casualties Were One-tenth of United States Armies' Total Losses.

With the Third Army on the Rhine, February 9—In the battle that probably saved Paris, in the great counter-offensive that broke and rolled back the tide of invasion from the heart of France, in the action that pinched off the St. Mihiel salient, in the battle that pierced the German line in the Argonne, in the stroke that relieved Rheims—in each of these momentous struggles the Second American Division had a large share.

In coming years, when historians and military experts calmly and dispassionately unravel the tangled skein of events of the great war, they may find that the Second Division played a greater part in changing the course of the war than any other American division —perhaps any single division in Europe.

The Second Division captured about one-fourth of the entire number of prisoners taken by the American Expeditionary Forces, captured one-fourth of the total of guns and suffered about one-tenth of the total casualties in the American armies.

The division landed in France in the early autumn of 1917. The officers were mostly experienced Regular Army officers with regiments composed of a nucleus of Regulars and Marines filled to full strength by men from every section of the United States, but largely from the middle West.

In March they moved up and went in with the French for six weeks training on the Meuse heights near Verdun. Outside of exciting patrolling activity and a few raids, the sector was "quiet." Then the Second was entrusted with a sector of its own in the Eparges region.

REMARKABLE RAID BY FOE.

About the second week of April the Germans launched a remarkable raid. Under cover of darkness about 500 Germans dressed in American and French uniforms and speaking French and English, infiltrated into and through the lines. Before they were aware of the deception two companies of the Ninth found the enemy among and behind them. Despite the great disadvantages and confusion of uniforms, the little groups rallied. Then ensued a savage fight in the darkness. By daybreak the lines were cleared of the enemy. The Germans had suffered heavily—67 dead Germans were picked up in our trenches, and scores limped or were carried back to the enemy trenches. The American losses were unusually light. That was where the Second learned it could whip the Boche.

After six weeks in the line the division was withdrawn for rest and training.

Then came the dark days of May and June. The German flood broke through the Chemin des Dames and poured swiftly toward Paris. The whole world held its breath as the gray masses drew closer and closer to the capital of France. The Second was called upon for the supreme test. On the night of May 30th the orders reached headquarters.

Throughout the night the division prepared feverishly for the move. There was no sleep that night for the officers. In the early morning long columns of French motor trucks—3,000 of them—rumbled into the divisional area.

START RUSH TO SAVE PARIS.

The entire division of 27,000 men was quickly loaded and the memorable rush to save Paris started. Through the long, hot day the lines of crowded trucks tore along the dusty roads. As they passed scores of French villages the peasants lined the streets and cheered frantically and threw flowers at the trucks. They knew the terrible significance of the coming battle.

After a fatiguing journey of about 100 miles the division was detrucked directly in the path of the advancing enemy, where he was nearest Paris. The lines were thrown across the famous Paris-Metz road. Then followed a forced march of 12 miles toward Chateau-Thierry. The broad highway was crammed with pitiful caravans of distracted refugees fleeing the foe. On the same road were the columns of French troops withdrawing. As the Ninth Infantry was deploying, runners hurried up with the orders to go into the line within a few hours. The men were told. They immediately unshouldered packs and threw themselves upon the ground to snatch a few minutes of sleep. Few had slept for 36 hours. A group of French officers looked on in amazement.

MARVEL AT AMERICANS' NERVE.

"Do these men understand?" they asked, "Do they know that within a few hours many of them will be dead? How can they sleep if they know?" The French officers were told that the men understood perfectly—that they were husbanding their strength for the fight.

Fortunately at this moment the Germans were forced to slow up their advance for a breathing spell, but meanwhile pushed up troops for a fresh drive designed to reach Paris. On the morning of June 4 the Americans took over from the exhausted French a 12-mile front. There were no reserves between them and the Marne.

On the first day in the lines, the Marines repulsed an attack. Then the historic fighting in Belleau Wood. In their first attack the Marines gained a foothold in the woods in the face of terrible machine gun fire. The wood was literally alive with machine gunners. In the almost impenetrable undergrowth and among the rocks the Germans concealed scores of machine gun nests arranged for enfilading fire. For days the ugly man-to-man fighting went on. Meanwhile Bouresches had been penetrated and held securely. One by one the machine gun nests were wiped out of the sinister wood, mostly with the bayonet.

After nearly two weeks of bitter fighting, during which a regiment of the Third Division had made an attempt, the Marines finally swept through the wood. Meanwhile the Third Brigade launched the attack upon Vaux. The little village was reduced to a heap of stones by the artillery. Before the attack the Germans put over 15 hours of intense counter-artillerying. But Vaux was occupied within five minutes after the "jump off."

22,000 SHELLS IN 24 HOURS.

In the early fighting the men had only their "iron rations" and sometimes were without food or water for 24 hours, through difficulty of transport. There was an ammunition shortage in the first hours of the battle. The enemy shelled the whole area heavily. In one brigade area nearly 22,000 shells fell in 24 hours.

During the month of continuous fighting that followed the Second captured 24 officers, 1,654 men and a large quantity of guns and material. Because of the bitter nature of the fighting the division lost heavily, more heavily than in any other fight. The total casualties were 9,777, of which 1,260 men were killed on the field and more than 1,500 severely wounded, nearly 7,000 slightly wounded, gassed and missing.

At first the hospitals were inadequate to care for the stream of wounded. In one village the stretchers were laid in the open, side by side, until nearly an acre was covered by the rows of them.

For five weeks the division held the road to Paris. The German drive was halted. Then the Second was withdrawn to nurse its grievous wounds.

At this time Foch was preparing the great counter-offensive that sent the Germans reeling back from the Paris salient. The Second was getting replacements to fill up its depleted ranks. On July 16th the division was hastily transported in trucks and unloaded in the Villers-Cotteret region. By night marches through the forest the division was pushed up to the lines. The forest was full of troops moving toward the front. In the inky darkness and driving rain the men were forced to march double file, touching one another, to avoid being separated. Reaching the lines only a few minutes before the "H" hour, the Second attacked behind the tanks at the vital point of the thrust near Soissons

SWEEP OVER ENEMY'S POSITIONS.

Despite stubborn resistance and heavy losses the line swept over the German positions. Many times the German artillery fired point blank into the advancing Americans. But they fired only a few times. Then the tide rolled over them. Most of our losses occurred in the first few hours. The Ninth Infantry lost 66 per cent of its men within three hours. As the officers fell others took their places, until sometimes sergeants commanded battalions. After a terrific day of fighting the Second gained its objectives. During the night the Germans brought up fresh divisions, and at dawn the Americans and French tore into them again. In severe fighting they gained the heights dominating all the region around Soissons.

In this battle the French and American divisions were under the command of General Mangin. At Mayence, after the armistice, Mangin said this battle was the decisive battle of the war.

The Second's casualties totalled 3,942 men in the two attacks. Only 481 were killed on the field. Among the killed, wounded and gassed were 154 officers. The captures included 66 officers, 2,899 men, 75 guns and much other booty.

The next action of importance was the battle of St. Mihiel, America's first offensive effort as an army. In seven days of fighting the division advanced more than five miles against resistance, with 1,551 casualties. More than 3,300 prisoners and 121 guns were taken.

After a few days the division was shifted to the Blanc Mont sector. By an impetuous attack the Germans were shoved back and the martyred city of Rheims relieved. In an advance nearly 2,500 prisoners were taken. The losses aggregated 4,975 men, of whom about half were only slightly wounded. The dead numbered 702; the severely wounded, 977.

Soon thereafter the attack in the Argonne was launched. In this fight the Second drew from the Germans the first admission in their communique during the war that their line was broken. The Americans smashed through the Hindenburg line and the Freya Stellung— both formidable systems of successive wide belts of barbed wire and concreted strong points.

Despite the difficult terrain and stubborn resistance the division crashed through and started the Germans on the run. By this time the whole German military machine was going to pieces.

MOP UP MACHINE GUN NESTS.

In the ten days before the armistice they advanced nearly twenty miles on the heels of the fleeing Geimans, mopping up machine gun nests left to slow up the pursuit. The Ninth Infantry accomplished a unique move. During the night it marched five miles straight ahead into the enemy lines. At dawn the Germans found the Americans behind them and a panic ensued. The manoeuvre was repeated several times. On the night before the armistice the famed Second Engineers threw a bridge across the Meuse under heavy fire and the Fifth Corps occupied a bridgehead on the heights across the river. The Second was still fighting when the armistice was ordered.

During the advance the men suffered many hardships in the rapid movement in cold rain over roads ankle deep with mud. Sometimes the supplies failed to come up and the men went hungry—but always ahead.

In the Argonne-Meuse fighting the division lost 3,299 men. Only 403 were killed on the battlefield. Most of the others were slightly wounded. The captures were many—105 guns, 500 machine guns and 17 trench mortars. The divisional total of prisoners during the war is 12,026. In the march toward the Rhine the Second had a place of honor. It is one of the three divisions holding the bridgehead. That briefly is the record of the Second Division. The men and officers are more proud of the "Star and Indian" symbol of the division than they would be of any decoration. More decorations and citations have been awarded the Second than to any other division. In the records is a whole sheaf of citations and telegrams from Generals, Field Marshals, Presidents and Kings.

The division is composed of the Ninth and Twenty-Third Infantry organizations, which have records from the War of 1812 — the Fifth and Sixth Marines, the "Fighting" Second Engineers and the Twelfth, Fifteenth and Seventeenth Artillery Regiments.


Source: Commendations of Second Division American Expeditionary Forces — France 1917-1919 Germany
Published by The Second Division Association at Cologne, Germany May, 1919
 
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