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Yanks At Hinges In Counter Offensive Below Soissons


The part taken by the 2nd United States Division in the counter-offensive was perhaps as brief and certainly as breathless as that of any division, American or French, which participated in the memorable struggle. The circumstances of its approach march, its attack and its battle were so typically American that they savor more of Shiloh, Chickamauga or Spottsylvania Court House than of incidents of European warfare.

The 2nd Division, whose regimental units were the same as during its fighting around Bouresches and the Bois de Belleau in June, but whose commander was now Maj. Gen. James G. Harbord, was relieved from its support position in the sector northwest of Chateau-Thierry on the night of July 16-17 and taken by motor bus to Marcilly near the western side of the Foret de Villers-Cotterets, the horse and motor-drawn transport going to the same vicinity by marching.

In the Forest

Shortly after arrival there on the morning of the 17th, orders were received for an attack to be delivered at 4:35 o'clock next morning on the enemy's front along the eastern edge of the forest, which latter is an immense tract of very heavy timber, 10 or 12 kilometers wide at the point where the 2nd Division was approaching it and intersected in every direction by a maze of main and woodland roads.

Confusion in directions received from various sources as to the proper roads to follow resulted in the troops becoming more or less scattered through the woods and entangled with the mass of transport, American and French, which, because the forest gave concealment from airplane observation, was congested there behind the divisions going to the attack.

Extra ammunition and other supplies had to be issued to the troops; commanding officers had to receive at least hasty sketch maps and sufficient instructions to know where they were and what they were expected to do.

But by the time these essential preliminaries had been attended to in even part of the division, night had fallen. With darkness a heavy rain set in, and under the forest trees the night became so black that one could not see a pace ahead and the advancing troops seemed hopelessly blocked and delayed by the endless columns of wagons and trucks filling the roads. Officers of the line and staff, regimental commanders, enlisted men, worked madly, searching for and then directing or guiding confused companies or battalions toward their jumping off places.

As zero hour, 4:35 a.m., approached, it seemed that the assaulting line could by no human possibility be in place in time. But it was. Somehow the troops stumbled and dodged and ran, and foundered their way along the Route du Fait and the Laie des Tetes Salmon and the Paris-Maubeuge highway and the Route de Verriers and the Route du Chapeau des Cordoliers and a score of other roads and by-roads into the very northeastern corner of the dripping forest, and when, with the streaks of morning, the artillery barrage came down with a crash on the enemy's trenches, the first line battalions of the 23rd Infantry, on the right, the 9th Infantry and the 5th Marines on the left, went over behind it, breathless and staggering from two or three kilometers of double time to reach their places at the appointed second, but still active enough to shoot or bayonet or capture the first dazed Germans upon whom they hurled themselves, like specters coming out of the dawn.

The Second's Path

Their sector, starting in the edge, of the forest between Chavigny Farm, on the right, and the Carrefour des Fourneaux, on the left, ran straight away northeast for about three kilometers over open, rolling country across Verte Feuille and Beaurepaire Farms. Then, swinging sharply to the right with the hill just west of Vauxcastille as pivot, and narrowing gradually to a breadth of less than two kilometers, it went east and slightly south across the ravine of Vauxcastille and that of the Bois Leonore, north of it; the ravine and village of Vierzy where, on the highland, it also crossed the longest tunnel of the railway line between Soissons and Paris; and then, still traversing lengthwise a high, flat ridge of the uplands devoid of buildings but interacted by various farm roads, it crossed the main Soissons—Chateau-Thierry highway between the villages of Taux and Hartennes and terminated in the Bois d'Hartennes.

Although the German counter-barrage opened promptly and although, owing to their precipitate advance, the infantry had neither machine guns nor hand or rifle grenades, Major Fechet's 2nd Battalion, leading the 23rd Infantry, with only rifles for weapons, was on its first objective, which included Beaurepaire Farm, 15 minutes after going over, and the leading battalions of the 9th Infantry and the 5th Marines reached their objectives at practically the same time.

By 6 o'clock streams of prisoners were already being conducted to the rear, and at 7 Col. Paul B. Malone, of the 23rd Infantry, trying to keep up with his men, on arriving at Beaurepaire Farm to establish a new post of command, found that they had already disappeared over the hill in front, in the direction of Vauxcastille. This village, on their second objective, the 2nd Battalion had, in fact, occupied at 6:45, leaving behind them on their headlong course, in the vicinity of Beaurepaire and elsewhere, several batteries of captured field guns and a complete hangar with large quantities of gasoline.

On Plateau Above Vierzy

Swinging, now to the new direction. east by south, and with the 1st Moroccan Division keeping abreast on the left as it headed for Lechelle and the ravines beyond, and the 38th French Division keeping abreast on the right toward Montremboeuf Farm, the 2nd Division plunged into the ravine of the Bois Leonore and Vauxcastille, crossed its marshy woods and the embankment of the Soissons-Paris railway, after a brief but terrible struggle with German infantry and machine gunners, and by 9:30 a.m. was on the plateau overlooking Vierzy.

The western extremity of this village was taken immediately thereafter with a large number of prisoners, including, it was reported, a major general, but, though surrounded on the north, west and partly on the south the enemy continued to hold out bravely in the rest of the village and also in the unsubdued nests and dugouts of the Vauxcastille ravine, where the mopping-up troops of the support waves were encountering stubborn resistance.

The American casualties had already been severe, but now they became still more so. The batteries of the 2nd Battalion of the 15th Field Artillery came up to close action to combat the torrent of shells which the enemy's guns just east of Vierzy were sending over, and little by little through the afternoon the rear waves of the infantry were fed into the front line to take the places of those who fell.

During this time of bitter and disjointed fighting it was that many men in all the regiments engaged showed extraordinary heroism in the rushing and capturing of machine gun nests, as was done by Sgt. Louis Cukela, of the 5th Marines, who, having no hand grenades of his own, captured some German ones, worked his way alone to the rear of an enemy strong point that was holding up his line, rushed it with grenades, and captured two machine guns and four men.

Saved His Captain's Life

It was in this vicinity that Cpl. J. Tickner, 9th Infantry, himself wounded, assisted his wounded captain to walk forward and direct the attack of their company until a shell took off tile officer's leg and again wounded Tickner, who thereupon, nothing daunted, compelled five German prisoners to carry the captain back four kilometers to a first aid station, thus saving his life.

And it was near Vierzy, too, that Sgt. Hercules Korgis, 23rd Infantry, lived up to the reputation of his given name by walking into a large dugout, extracting therefrom six German officers and 200 soldiers and marching them back, under a small escort, to the regimental prison cage, obliging them to police the field of wounded men on the way.

Engineers Go Through

Vierzy had finally been captured, but all the ground traversed by the attack was covered with wounded, and no further progress could be made that night. The American troops, such of them as remained, dug themselves in, and the next morning the 2nd Engineers, following the Engineers' prerogative of digging all night and fighting all day, advanced through the remnants of the 9th infantry in the 6th Marines, through those of the 23rd infantry, and at 7 o'clock drove forward again more than 2 kilometers to Tigny, where, on the edge of the Bois d'Hartennes and less than a kilometer west of the Soissons—Chateau-Thierry highway, the depleted American units were brought to a stop, but entrenched themselves, and, aided by the men of the machine gun battalion, held every inch of their gains.

It was now evident that even the extraordinary driving power of the second division was exhausted, for it was reduced to little more than half its original strength, the 23rd infantry, for example having only 37 officers and 1,478 enlisted men left out of 90 officers and 3,400 enlisted men, while the troops had received no cooked food since leaving Montreuil-aux-Lions, on the night of July 16. It was relieved, accordingly, by the 58th French division during the night of the 19th–20th, rested until noon the next day in the forest, and then marched to St. Etienne, where it bivouacked until at 7 a.m. on July 21.

Spewed out of the woods in the gray dawning, the 2nd Division had advanced 8 kilometers in 26 hours and one of its regiments, the 23rd, alone had taken prisoner 75 officers and 2,100 men from 11 different German regiments belonging to the XIVth Reserve, the XLIInd, the XLVIIth, the XLVth and the CXVth German Divisions, besides capturing two batteries of 150mm. field guns, five batteries of 70mm., one battery of 210mm., about 100 machine guns and 15,000 rounds of 77mm. ammunition. No available information gives the prisoners and booty taken by the rest of the division, but at least 878 more prisoners were captured, and the division had contributed its full share toward giving to the Marne salient a place in Prussian history beside that of Jenna.

(To Be Continued)
The Stars and Stripes January 3, 1919.
 
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