header image

Experiences of an Engineer Battalion Commander
with the
2nd Division, A.E.F.

At the Second Battle of the Marne
By M. P. Fox

Major, 2nd Engineers, A. E. F.
{Note.— Personal experiences of observant people are the most valuable and the most interesting source of information. There was no American division which saw more active front-line service than the 2nd Division. The author of this story commanded a battalion of the 2nd Engineers during that period of intense activity known as the 2nd Battle of the Marne. The account, enlivened by Major Fox's sharp perception and entertaining humor, is a word-picture of the experiences that fall to the lot of combat engineer troops during battle. In a highly entertaining fashion it presents a vast amount of information as to the difficulties that must be met and how things should and should not be done. Every engineer should read this entertaining and instructive account.—Ed.}

I SHALL describe briefly the experiences of the 2nd Engineers near Chateau-Thierry and Soissons during the period from the last of May until their relief from the line in the latter part of July. The subject is taken up more from the standpoint of a battalion commander than from that of a divisional engineer, because my opportunities for observing at close range that portion of the work were much better. Attempt will be made to point out mistakes made during this period; show if possible how they may be avoided, and to explain in some detail the actual conditions under which the regiment worked and what it accomplished.

About the middle of May the 2nd Division was concentrated in a rest area about 50 K. N. W. of Paris. The division had previously served in a quiet sector near Verdun, American battalions being sandwiched in between French. In this rest area maneuvers were held, under French corps orders to fit the division for taking over a sector of their own, functioning as a division. The general understanding was that the first of June the division should be placed in line alongside the first division near Montdidier. Map of 2nd Engineers participation at Belleau Wood

On the 27th of May, however, the Germans started their third big offensive of the year, over-running the Chemin des Dames ridge, crossing the Aisne and Vesle, and reaching the Marne. Accordingly, orders were received May 28th to be ready to move by truck at 10 that night. Movement by truck always means separation for an indefinite period from all animal-drawn transportation, including of course rolling kitchens and tool wagons. Consequently, all the available time between the receipt of orders to move, and the arrival of the trucks is usually employed in cooking up available rations. It is a pretty good idea to get rations into such shape that each man can carry his own rations on his person, since there is usually a march of several miles both to the embussing point, and from the debussing point. In this case the trucks were 12 hours late in arrival, about the usual amount. The entire regiment was loaded at 10:00 a.m. May 29th and unloaded at 3:00 a. m. May 30th at a point 35 kilometers approximately N.W. of Chateau-Thierry, about 10 kilometers in rear of the line and opposite a point half way between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. From there the regiment was marched to Montreuil, about 10 kilometers west of Chateau-Thierry. Practically all the officers in one company and a large number of men were missing, due to several trucks having broken down on the way. It is like putting all your eggs in one basket to put only officers in a truck, for French trucks are uncertain to say the least.

At this time the front line was lightly held by French cavalry, about 150 men per kilometer of front. The divisional infantry had taken up a position in rear of the French outpost line, one regiment from each brigade being in line. Orders were issued that evening for assigning the engineers, one battalion to each brigade of infantry, an order which did not have the happiest possible results. The brigade commander to which my battalion was assigned in turn assigned two companies to the 9th Infantry in line, and one to the 23rd in reserve. At this time the engineers were in a far worse condition than the infantry for tools, since of course the wagons had not arrived, and the engineers had no intrenching tools. The division engineer was able, however, to secure from the French corps engineer enough shovels, picks, and axes to provide about 40 tools per company.

In leaving Montreuil to join the stations assigned, the companies took up formations designed to avoid loss in case of being shelled en route, and moved across fields instead of on the roads. This lost much time and proved entirely unnecessary, since the Germans had so far outrun their artillery that they did not have a single piece available. Upon reporting the two companies to the regimental commander, 9th infantry, he assigned one company to each of his two battalions in line. The result was that the battalion commander had no command and the only thing possible was to attempt to advise the infantry battalion commanders as to the choice of positions and the methods of preparing them for defense. With the limited number of tools very little work could be done, so one of the first steps necessary was to organize foraging parties, and collect all the tools in abandoned villages near the front. By these foraging methods, enough tools to equip all the men were secured, and enough kettles, pots and pans to provide each platoon with sufficient kitchen utensils to start a mess for each platoon. This made a very mobile organization.

Platoons could be sent anywhere, each man carrying in addition to his regular pack either some tools or a cooking utensil. The general distribution of engineers was, however, very unsatisfactory and no good results could be secured.

These arrangements lasted for about a week, until June 6. Life was very pleasant at first, due to the absence of German artillery, but about the third or fourth day their artillery started to arrive and by June 6th was practically all on hand. By June 3rd, the French had been driven through the American lines in some parts of the sector and on the balance the Americans had moved forward and taken over the front lines from the French.

On the 6th of June, about 3 p. m., the Americans started local counter-attacks with the idea of securing more advantageous positions. That company which had been with the brigade reserve was designated to take part in the attack. Two platoons were detailed with one infantry battalion. They were sandwiched in between the first wave and the support, given three tools per man and instructed to assist the infantry in entrenching as soon as the objective was reached.

The attack failed, with very heavy casualties, and the objective was never reached. The engineers were able to render valuable assistance to the infantry, both as engineers and infantry. But it was rather an unfortunate location for one of the two platoons especially, since it came out with one officer and four men. It is believed that in a small local attack of this kind the best place for engineers is at some distance in rear of the support, and it is usually preferable to wait until the objective is secured before moving out to consolidate it.

That evening about 9 p. m. orders were sent from Brigade Headquarters for the two companies attached to the 9th infantry to proceed to Lucy le Bocage. The two companies carrying tools and kitchens arrived there about midnight and found a dark, deserted town, under shell fire. The companies were halted outside and eventually a marine private was found who could give instructions on how to find the P. C. of one marine major. Two battalions of marines had attacked that afternoon, one succeeding in capturing the village of Bouresches, and the other securing a lodgment in Belleau woods. The engineers had apparently been sent to consolidate these two positions, and accordingly one company was sent into the village, the other two into the woods. The company in the woods could do very little. The woods were very thick, all fighting was very close and the engineers were valuable principally as so many infantry reinforcements. The company in the village had a better opportunity for engineer work. They fitted up all the cellars in town as secure dugouts. They prepared buildings and walls for machine gun and rifle fire, and laid out a few trenches near the town. Rations and supplies during this time were delivered at night principally, although during the second attack, which took place on the 8th, ammunition was delivered by truck.

The repulse of the second attack on the woods the 8th of June was the signal for the relief of all the units engaged in it. One day's rest was allowed, and then the engineers were ordered to resume work.

This time arrangements were made that proved more satisfactory. The orders governing the work were issued by the French corps to which the division was assigned. The outpost line or sector was placed entirely under the charge of the infantry occupying it. The main defense line was placed entirely under charge of the engineers, the corps engineer indicating where this line should run. It was, as a rule, placed about 2,000 m. in rear of the outpost line, the reason being of course that the French have a very healthy respect for the German minenwerfer. The conditions then existing demanded that the line selected be put in a defensible condition as rapidly as possible. The division engineer therefore decided to organize first a series of strong points on this line, capable of obstinate resistance, and at 400-800 meters in rear of these a similar system of supporting points. Each of these two lines was to hold four companies and numerous machine gun replacements. The strongpoints were to be dug to a depth of 3 feet with a 1-foot embankment. They were to be wired in, and the space between the strongpoints was covered with wire only, the wire to be swept with machine gun fire. After completion of this, fire and communicating trenches for a continuous system were to be dug to a depth of about 6 inches. This was done so that any infantry assigned to the positions would have a definite plan laid out, and the works resulting from anything they might do would be part of a harmonious plan.

The construction of the works was divided evenly between the two battalions. One battalion was camped at La Croisette, the other about 2 k. east of Montreuil, or about 6 k. from the line. The battalion at Croisette was camped in a fairly large woods about 1 or 2 k. from the front, one large enough to make it too expensive for the Boche to try to cover the entire woods with artillery fire. Therefore so long as he was kept in ignorance of the exact location of the camp there was no danger from his shells. It made it very convenient to go to work making a long march to and from positions unnecessary. There were, however, several disadvantages. There was a more or less constant strain, since shells were continually passing overhead, and since the Boche used a cross road about 150 yards distant for a registration point. In case of an alerte this battalion was always assigned to a certain sector of trenches, and this of course interfered with work. There was also constant liability of a gas attack, always to be feared in camps located in woods.

The battalion camped further in rear, had a really more desirable camp site and selection of a position at this distance to the rear is to be recommended. They had, of course, to start to work earlier in the evening. But as they came nearer the front, it grew darker and they found they could just about march, so that the falling darkness would be sufficient to hide their movements from hostile observation. They lived, of course, under no strain and could have a much more comfortable camp than the battalion nearer the front.

In choosing camp sites it is of course necessary to secure concealment from aerial observation, which makes it necessary to choose either a woods or a village. While villages offer more protection due to their cellars, which can easily be gas-proofed, woods are less liable to shelling and to aerial bombardment, and in the summer are, in my opinion, more desirable.

The camp at Croisette consisted of a number of shallow pits, about 2 to 3 feet deep, laid out accurately in platoon streets. It is essential to have an accurate layout, since in case of gas men cannot be trusted to awaken by noise, but the gas sentinel must awaken each man individually. Over each dugout was put about 1 to 2 feet of cover, dirt laid on short poles. This is a good plan in woods. The majority of shells landing in a wood are air bursts and even this slight protection will keep out fragments. Kitchens were placed about 300 yards from camp and so screened that cooking could be done at night, without light showing through. The location selected was on the road, to facilitate the delivery of rations.

Rations were delivered of course at night. Each battalion has a supply officer detailed with the regimental supply officer, whose duty was to look after supplying the battalion with rations and clothes. He was charged with distributing rations equally among the companies; a very serious proposition because of the extreme shortness of rations at that time. Food was brought up to the camp from the kitchen, and when there was any artillery fire going on served to the men at the entrances of their dugouts. One infantry company near by permitted their chow carriers to appear in the open one day, and this brought a salvo from the Boche about 15 seconds later that caused upwards of 30 casualties. Water was brought in at night. Water carriers had to work all night to supply enough for the kitchens and drinking purposes, so cleanliness was out of question. Hence cooties, the most constant companions of the soldier.

After the arrival of tool wagons, they were kept in camps near the kitchens, and intact as far as possible. Battalion engineer dumps were run by each battalion, these were located about 1 or 2 kilometers in rear of the outpost line. The material for these dumps came from the French and American corps engineers largely, since the division engineer tried to keep the supplies in the engineer train intact also, in case of emergency. The infantry could draw supplies and tools from the battalion dumps, or upon request, the division engineer would deliver engineer supplies to any spot desired. For this purpose an engineer supply officer was appointed who made deliveries nightly as requested, using trucks from the engineer train. Supplies consisted principally of barbed wire, intrenching tools, wire cutters, axes and mauls. There was little demand for dugout material, since the occupation of the sector was almost certain to be of short duration. During the period June 1 to July 8, there were lost by the division upward of 1,500 tools, mostly shovels. The only way to prevent this needless loss is to impress the infantry with the fact that tools cannot be replaced, for the principal loss was due to pure carelessness.

Work was of course done entirely at night,.except in woods. Due to the shortness of the nights, hours were fixed from 10 to 4. It was found desirable in the battalion at Croisette to have each man keep his entrenching tools at his own dugout. This obviated getting a mass of men together for issuing tools and saved time; but from my observations of the infantry I doubt if the same rule could be successfully applied to them. Work in woods was done daytime, it was found impossible to work there at night. In isolated cases where it was necessary to go across open ground, working parties would be moved into the woods under cover of darkness and brought back the following night. Staking out was ordinarily done in the day. The size of the party was kept to the minimum, ordinarily the battalion commanders, the commander of the company which was to do the work, and one man to act later as guide for the working party. A party of this size usually failed to draw artillery fire. Care had to be taken to prevent the Germans learning where work was to be done. This could be accomplished by a staking out a few days ahead, or in staking out additional localities where no work was to be done at all.

Considerable difficulty was experienced in securing any infantry working parties. Eventually when it was seen how slow the work was going, the division engineer was given one battalion of the division reserve. The rules for working parties are well known, but too much stress cannot be laid on having them strictly followed. It is amazing how little work 1,000 infantry-men can do in one night on a poorly laid out job. An officer from each battalion of engineers was assigned to brigade headquarters as liaison agent. The importance of this officer's duty is very great. He must keep the brigade commander familiar with everything that the engineers do, since in an alerte the brigade commander is responsible for the defense of that sector. Also he is the division engineer's principal source of information as to what work the infantry is doing on the outpost line.

Lots of trouble was experienced in making reports of work done. Maps were so inaccurate, especially as regards woods, that considerable difficulty was found in showing accurately on a map the real location of work done.

During this period, instruction in wiring entanglements was given to some of the battalions of infantry in reserve. Excellent results were obtained and it is believed that considerable extension of this instruction in engineer work is possible and desirable.

Between June 8 and June 30 fighting continued in the famous Bois de Belleau, and the engineers were used to very large extent.

Serving with infantry as infantry, has two very considerable advantages. It gives the engineers more prestige than anything else they can do. After the infantry discovers that engineers can fight, they are usually much more willing to cooperate on engineer work, and line and staff officers are usually more willing to recognize the value of an engineer regiment. Furthermore, the effect on the morale of the men is excellent, it makes them easier to handle on any work that has to be done under fire. But the practice must not be carried to such an extreme as to seriously interfere with the work the engineers must do.

On the evening of July 1st an attack was made by one battalion of the 23rd, one of the 9th, and one French, with the objectives of Bois de la Roche, Vaux, and Hill 204. This was an elaborately planned attack, very much on the order of trench warfare attacks. There was considerable time for reconnaissance, and for arrangements of details. Aeroplane maps were made, elaborate barrage charts, and tables worked out, and practice held over ground staked out to resemble the terrain to be attacked. One company of engineers was assigned to the 23rd infantry, and one to the 9th. The task of the first company was comparatively simple. They were to help the infantry dig in, and to wire the position when captured. The company with the 9th infantry going into Vaux was assigned the following duties by the infantry battalion commander:

To follow the support into Vaux at 400 meters.

To help mop up the town.

To spring tank traps on Monneaux-Vaux road and repair the road.

To examine all dugouts, box traps and label for use. To inspect and label all water supply, whether fit for use or not.

To organize Vaux for resistance, loopholing walls and buildings and strengthening cellars.

Engineer dumps for these two companies were placed, one at Bourbelin and one at Monnieaux. The jumping off place was the north edge of Bois de la Marette. and both companies were moved into this wood before daylight of the first. The artillery preparation for this attack was very heavy, lasting over 12 hours. Naturally the Germans replied, tiring back on the brigade sector, according to intelligence bulletin that day 21,000 shells, of which 12,000 were 105's or heavier. By keeping troops back 500 to 1,000 meters from the edge of the Bois de la Marette, however, very few casualties resulted, although most of the infantry and half of the engineers had no shelter whatever. Practically all the German shells fell within 100 meters of the edge of the woods, or in the village of Monnieaux. The attack was successful as far as the American end of it went. The company detailed to consolidate the woods waited until the German barrage placed on the north edge of the Bois de la Marette lifted, and then proceeded to their work. Two or three platoons finished their work and came out the same night. The third platoon was under a sergeant who became interested in teaching the infantry to operate German machine guns, and two nights later it was necessary to send back a platoon under an officer to finish up this work. The total casualties in this company were only four.

The other company moving into Vaux had more troubles. The artillery preparation had been so complete that it was in places hard to tell what had been street and what buildings. Careful examination of maps and distant reconnaissance of the ground had failed to show the relative heights of walls, buildings, etc. Therefore elaborately detailed plans for the consolidation of the town had to be abandoned, and new arrangements made on the spot. No tank traps nor booby traps were discovered. The company here remained in Vaux for several days, doing combined engineer and infantry work. This was necessitated by the failure of the French to capture Hill 204. leaving Vaux in a very uncomfortable position.

The Germans hail been in these positions for a month, so they had made considerable preparations for defense. Their preparations as usually found were done in about this order: Preparing just trenches enough for the garrison assigned and wiring them in. preparing shelters, deep shelters for the men, and very fine ones for PC; making arrangements for obstructing roads to the rear. At this time the Germans seemed to have, and to be able to get to the front, all material including engineer supplies, they could use. This was probably due in large measure to their captures since March 21st.

Beginning the 8th of July, the division was relieved, and started for a rest area. Due to the discovery about this time of a heavy German attack impending, the division was held in reserve, about 8-12 km. in rear of their former position, and were engaged in working on the corps line, a position about 6 to 8 kilometers from the front.

On the morning of the 15th of July the German attack was delivered, the extreme western edge of the attack coming a few kilometers east of the divisions' position. That evening, as I learned considerably later, decision was made to counter-attack near Soissons. Work was called off on the 16th, and everyone held in readiness for movement. At 6 o'clock that evening orders were received to entruck at a point 6 kilometers away at 4 p. m. The trucks, however, did not show up until midnight, so the orders arrived early enough. As usual the engineers all carried tools in addition to their regular equipment. This has a certain advantage, since you can pick out your men at quite a distance. The trucks arrived at their destination (not ours) about 3 p. m., July 17th. For some reason French trucks never land you very near where you want to go. The entire country was filled with troops all marching east, both French and Americans. The division engineer had kept with division beadquarters, and at this point issued maps and directions for the march to position. The greater part of the march was made at night and in the rain. Roads were badly crowded, four organizations of foot troops, and two columns of wheeled transportation abreast. Unfortunately, one of the engineer captains had not been furnished with a map and in attempting to take a short cut lost his way. He had the 2nd company, so five companies did not reach their destination until nearly 7 the next morning. At that they did better than a large part of the infantry. The attack was scheduled for 4:35 a.m. of the 18th, and started off very successfully. The lateness of the engineers did not cut any figure, since they were in division reserve. As the attack progressed, the engineers moved forward, repairing the roads as they went. The main artery of traffic consisted of a road paved in the middle with Belgian block, and with a wide earth berm on each side. The Germans had ruined the road in several places, and had felled numerous trees across it. The work of removing these was very valuable, since the road in about four hours was made to carry three columns of traffic in place of one. One obstruction requiring much labor was a tank trap. Pits 8 feet deep and 15 feet long had been dug out on each side of the paving, and the paved sections ruined.

The first phase of the attack was completed by 8 p. m. the evening of the 18th, and the 2nd phase started immediately, with about 1,000 to 1,500 meters advance. This phase of the attack met with very severe opposition, and was stopped almost immediately.

The engineer regiment received orders to move out shortly after this phase of the attack had started, and consolidate the position to be taken that night. It was assumed, owing to the success of the previous attacks that this one would be successful, and assignments of sectors were made on the assumption that the objective would be reached. The attack, however, was stopped after about a 1,500 meter advance, and the lines were rather badly mixed and lacked some half a kilometer of connecting with the French on the right. The necessity for getting work done rapidly, the mingling of units, the difficulty of finding battalion and company commanders, and of trying to stake out positions at night made any satisfactory layout impossible. Lines were straightened as well as possible, and then the engineers dug in as supports and to fill gaps in the line. Carrying of tools was absolutely essential in this case. Practically all division maneuvers had been almost solely for testing out liaison agencies. But at 1 p. m. not a report had been sent back to brigade headquarters as to the location of the line, and so far as could be determined the only ones that ever did come back were sent by the engineers.

The value of insisting on prompt reports is of course evident.

Furthermore, it is believed that if engineers are to be used in consolidating positions in attacks of this kind, some liaison agents must be kept in touch with the infantry and be given every opportunity to make reconnaissance during daylight.

The next day the attack was scheduled for 7, but did not take place until 9. It was stopped completely by 11, partly due to the failure of the French to keep up, but principally because of a determined German resistance.

Orders were given for consolidating the ground gained that night. Arrangements were made by the division engineer for the delivery of wire, and additional tools at the front. By this time the engineer train was available, but most of the material had been secured from captured dumps. In this case it was possible to get a view of the ground by daylight and to find the location of troops and infantry unit commanders, and it is believed that work could have been done in a very advantageous and thorough fashion, lines rectified, and units properly placed. But by evening orders had come for the relief of the division, which took place that night.

Here endeth the first lesson.

The Military Engineer, Volume 12, Jan. - Feb. 1920, No. 61 (Google eBook)
Last Update: 06/18/2017 9:13 AM Sitemap Search this Site ©2002-2017 MG Ryder & Contributors