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Chapter III — Soissons
(July 17, 1918 to July 30, 1918)

Maps / Photos / Misc.

French Moroccan Troops on Villers-Cotterets Road

Before July 16th Marshal Foch decided that he was sufficiently strong to make an attack on the Germans. The military situation was such that this attack must evidently come from the direction of the Compiegne Forest. This was evidently the case because any reserves available to the French must necessarily have been located in this forest, as this was a strategic position from which he could attack in the flank or more quickly place troops in front and stop any advance by the Germans in the direction of Amiens from Peronne or in the direction of Paris from Chateau-Thierry. Having decided to attack, Marshal Foch concluded that it was better to attack from the west and cut off the salient formed by the drive on Chateau-Thierry rather than to attack from the south and cut off the salient formed by the drive on Amiens. He decided to drive in the general direction of Soissons, and selected for the troops at the apex of the drive the 1st and 2nd American Divisions and the 1st French Moroccan Division.

The 2nd Engineers at 1:00 A. M., on July 16th, received orders to be ready to march. The men rolled their packs in the rain and stood ready to move until 4:00 A. M., at which time definite orders were received that they would take trucks at 5:00 P. M. at Montreuil-aux-Lions. The regiment was on the ground at 5:00 P. M., but the trucks were not available until 10:00 P. M. No orders whatever were received, as to destination, but those of the regiment who had taken the other truck ride before the Chateau-Thierry battle were fully aware that troops were not hauled around by trucks on pleasure trips. We did not know then that we were one of the three Divisions that on the 18th of July would strike the vital blow south of Soissons, that would electrify the world and turn the tide of the great war.

Colonel Mitchell at 6:00 P. M. decided that he would go ahead of the regiment and started forward in his automobile. After following directions during practically all of the night by French guides stationed at road crossings all along the route, he came to the end at 5:00 A. M. and was told that there was where he stopped. Seeing no place to stop, he continued to Taille Fontaine and there found the orders to the effect that the 2nd Division was part of the 3rd Corps, that an attack would take place next day and that he would command the division reserve consisting of the 2nd Engineers and the 4th Machine Gun Battalion. After considerable rushing around, he finally secured four maps of the terrain, and these were the only maps available for the entire Engineer regiment during this famous battle. Meanwhile, the regiment had gotten on the trucks and was directed onward by the same French guides until at 2:00 P. M., July 17th, it debussed near Retheuil and started for its camp. All of the regimental staff was busy during the remainder of the day in getting up ammunition and hurrying the regiment forward to its position which was a cross-roads called Vente Cagneau. However, the roads were so badly congested and the rain had rendered them so muddy that it was not possible to get the companies into position. They did not reach there by dark, and were so much confused by the various cross roads and illegible signs that, after several hours marching they camped after midnight in the woods about a mile from their proper camp. The artillery was in position before the movement of the rest of the division commenced, so it had no trouble. The Infantry and Marines had moved in the first camions and, except two companies of the 5th Machine Gun Battalion were practically in position; the 4th Machine Gun Battalion moved among the last and it had to camp for the night in the woods, not in its assigned position.

The artillery opened at 4:35 A. M., July 18th, and the Infantry and Marines moved forward. At 5:30 A. M. the first Engineers troops began to arrive at their proper camp and all had arrived by about 9:00 A. M. The first three companies intrenched on arrival. At 6:00 A. M. a division staff officer arrived with orders for the 4th Machine Gun Battalion to report to the 5th Marines to take the place of two of the Machine Gun Companies which had not arrived. This order could not then be carried out as it was 6:32 A. M. before the 4th Machine Gun Battalion arrived, and even then their guns had not arrived. However, they soon came up and at 7:32 A. M. the Regimental Commander sent the battalion with guns ahead, and sent a message to that effect to the Division Chief of Staff. At 10:23 A. M. the 2nd Engineers received orders to go to Verte Feuille Farm; at 10:45 A. M. it started; at 12:20 P. M. it arrived. The Regimental Commander sent a message to the Division Chief of Staff notifying him of his arrival, and while waiting, started two companies to clearing the roads which were in very bad shape because of fallen trees and shell holes. At about 4:50 P. M. the 2nd Engineers received written orders to proceed to the ravine east of Vauxcastille, as Division Reserve. The Chief of Staff explained the situation, and told Colonel Mitchell that it might be necessary for him to use his own judgment after arriving there, because messages were not being properly delivered at their destinations.

The working companies were called in and the entire regiment arrived at Vauxcastille at about 8:30 P. M. by marching partly over the fields and partly over the roads. At this time some ration details arrived, which had been sent out in the morning, and most of the men were given some rations. At 9:00 P. M. Major Zane of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion arrived accompanied by his adjutant, and stated that his two companies were in the fight. Colonel Mitchell agreed with Major Zane that he should establish his Post of Command in this ravine for the present, and the next day Colonel Mitchell received a message from him showing that he was still at that point picking up stragglers and using all efforts to send men forward.

Aeroplane attacking troops from low height at Vierzy during Soissons attack / L. Jonas, 1927.

At 9:20 P. M. the Regimental Commander had received no instructions and had learned that Vierzy had just been taken, so he ordered the regiment to go forward to the firing line to consolidate the positions or to help the Infantry, as his men were fairly fresh and the Infantry was all tired out. Every engineer had been carrying, since he left Montreuil, a large and heavy intrenching tool, in addition to his regular equipment, and they were prepared for this movement. The two battalions were sent over the hill through the wheat fields in line of platoon columns and a message was sent to the Chief of Staff telling him what had been done. The food and tool wagons were ordered to this ravine about the same time that the engineers went forward from it, and regimental headquarters was moved to Vierzy, arriving there at 10:00 P. M. Three truck loads of tools were also ordered to Vierzy and arrived at 10:30 P. M.

At 12:10 A. M. on July 19th the Regimental Commander found the Commanding General of the 3rd Brigade at his headquarters and took charge of his Brigade from 12:30 A. M. until 2:30 A. M., during his absence at Division Headquarters. During this time, two machine gun companies reported for orders and were placed in the eastern entrance of Vierzy, with orders to be prepared to defend the town but also with orders to rest as much as possible. One of the trucks unloaded its supplies in Vierzy and was sent back to Verte Feuille Farm to get a load of German wire which had been found there. At about 5:30 A. M. Division Field Order No. 16 was received, directing the 1st Battalion of 2nd Engineers to report to the 6th Marines as reserve in their attack, Lieut.-Col. Brown to command the 1st Battalion. Lieut. Col. Brown having been sent back to bring up tools and the rolling kitchens and water carts, Major Fox was given the necessary orders. Lieut. -Col. Brown returned about 6:30 A. M. and was sent cut to take command. As both Engineer battalions were already in line with, and in support of, the Infantry, the Regimental Commander sent a message to the Chief of Staff suggesting that the 1st Battalion be relieved from this duty, but was told that the orders would not be changed.

However, there was no difficulty, as it soon appeared that only one company had been committed to the fight and it was entirely practicable to withdraw the battalions from the lines, as the 1st Battalion was in support of the 23rd Infantry, having dug its own trenches and the 2nd Battalion was in line with, and support of the 9th Infantry, having dug its own trenches and those of the 9th Infantry. During all of this day, the two engineers battalions were actively in the fight. Meanwhile, regimental headquarters was very useful. The regimental surgeon established a dressing station at Vierzy and the regimental headquarters established a cooking station with some supplies which were found in Vierzy, having been left there by some Quartermaster wagon which unloaded at that point. It is estimated that at the Dressing Station at least 1200 patients were treated, and that probably 1200 wounded going back and also 500 men going forward were given coffee and bread and some potatoes. As the situation was developing favorably, permission was obtained from the Brigade Commander to unload a truck of tools at the eastern entrance of Vierzy, so that the truck could evacuate patients, in order to prevent congestion at the dressing station. This was risky business as the trucks might be needed, but it had to be done, as the field hospitals seemed unable to send any ambulances to Vierzy so that patients could be evacuated and about 300 patients were gathered there at this dressing station at one time, probably 100 of whom were exposed to shell fire.

At 5:00 P. M. July 19, 1918, word was received that the regiment would entrench where it was. The Commanding Officer prepared the order to consolidate the position. A copy of this order is given to show the form of an engineer field order:

Order No. 6 2nd Engineers
Map: Oulchy-le-Chateau, 1/20,000 19 July 1918, 5:00 P. M.

1. Our troops on right and left have now caught up to this Division. It is thought that the woods north of TIGNY are in our possession, but that TIGNY itself has not yet been captured. Attack ceases for the present and position now held will be consolidated tonight.

2. The 2nd Engineers will advance at dark to the front line and consolidate the positions in connection with the troops on the firing line, and remain in front line until relieved.

3. (a) The 1st Battalion will consolidate the line from the connection with the troops on our right to an east and west line through the north edge of the woods north of TIGNY. Two runners will be sent to Regimental Headquarters upon receipt of this order to guide chow, water and tool wagons to positions assigned to paragraph 4.
(b) The 2nd Battalion will consolidate the line from an east and west line through the north edge of the woods north of TIGNY to the connection with the troops on our left. Two runners will be sent to Regimental Head- quarters upon receipt of this order to guide chow, water and tool wagons to positions assigned in paragraph 4.
(x) Trenches will be dug first; wire will be strung if time is available.
(y) Machine gunners will dig their own emplacements, and Infantry and Marines will dig their own trenches as much as possible.
(z) Special attention will be given to camouflaging the position, as it is much exposed.

4. (a) Chow and water wagons will leave camp at 8:30 P. M. and go to the front. Those for the 1st Battalion will go to the crossroads 1,100 meters west of TIGNY; those for the 2nd Battalion will go to double crossroads 1,000 meters west of LA NABERIE and distribute to details which will be sent from the companies without stopping work.
(b) Horse and motor drawn wagons will deposit tools, especially picks, shovels, and barbed wire near these two places. These tools can be taken by anyone without receipt.
(c) Camouflage material will be sent, if any is available, but very little need be expected.

5. Messages to VIERZY. Copy to Division Commander

W. A. MITCHELL
Colonel, 2nd Engineers
Division Engineer.
1 inclosure (map)
C. O. 3rd Brigade
  4th Brigade
  1st Bn. 2nd Engineers (who will confer with C. O. of his half of the line)
  2nd Bn. 2nd Engineers     ditto
  Engineer Train
  Regimental Field Train.
 

Execution of the above order was suspended, because at 7:45 P. M. word was received that the regiment might be pulled out of line that night. At 11:40 P. M. on July 19th, order was received to pull the regiment out of the line. At 12:01 A. M. on July 20th, the order was issued, but the runner went astray and it was nearly 2:00 A. M. before the two battalions left their trenches. They returned over the wheat fields in the same formation in which they went forward, that is, in line of platoon columns. All started promptly except Company "A" which was in the firing line and did not start until about 6:00 A. M. At 4:00 A. M. Regimental Headquarters left Vierzy and at 10:00 the whole regiment was assembled in the old camp in the woods at Vente Cagneau near Puisseux. On July 20th, the regiment was withdrawn from this sector, and it moved by marching to Monthyon, near Meaux, arriving there July 26, making stops enroute as follows; Near crossroads Maison Neuve, July 20; in woods south of Taillefontaine, July 21-23; in the town of Villers-St. Genest, July 24, 25 and 26. The regiment remained at Monthyon until July 30, during which period it took a bath in the Marne River, the first real bath since June 1st. New clothes were received and distributed and we actually rested for four days. The regiment on July 30 proceeded by marching to St. Mard, near Damartin, where it entrained for its destination at Champigneulles, near Nancy, on July 31 and August 1.


MEN SPECIALLY DISTINGUISHED
SEE APPENDIX No. 2.
LOSSES AND REPLACEMENTS
DURING THE PERIOD JULY 16 TO JULY 30, 1918.
  Officers Enlisted Men Total
Morning Report of July 17 49 1638 1687
Losses by transfer, evacuation, etc 10 254 264
Gains by transfer, replacements, etc 15 92 107
Morning Report of July 30 54 1476 1530

 
SUMMARY OF RESULTS

The campaign at Soissons was short and strenuous. There was very little time for special Engineer work, but it is felt that the regiment justified its presence as Engineers and its work as Infantry. The following is a brief summary of results accomplished.

(a) The road was cleared of trees where this clearing was necessary, about two miles of its length. Shell holes were filled and the road was rendered passable. This was done without orders and while in position as Division Reserve, but if it had not been done it would have been impossible to bring up ammunition. to evacuate the wounded, or to bring up supplies.

(b) The Regimental Headquarters kitchen fed about 1700 men.

(c) Regimental Headquarters Medical Department treated about 1200 patients, although the wounded of the regiment amounted to only one-sixth of this number.

(d) Tools were unloaded' and placed in position where they could be obtained by the Infantry.

(e) The map of the terrain was copied; and maps would have been issued if we had stayed longer in the battle. This was very important because very few maps could be obtained from the French.

(f) The regiment went into the front line to consolidate the position. It actually dug the trenches for the 9th Infantry and dug its own trenches back of the 23rd and 9th infantry.

(g) During all of July 19th, the regiment held a position in the fighting line and in the supports along with the infantry, and on the right formed the support of the advancing troops and advanced a short distance in the attack, stopping only when the attack of the 6th Marines was stopped.

Comments.

All things considered, it is believed that the Division orders fitted the situation for engineers as well as could have been expected in view of the understanding of the military situation. This was the first time that sustained attack had actually been made by American and French troops. The conditions were unusual and it was believed that the Engineers should be in the Division Reserve.

The use of the regiment as Infantry in the evening of July 18 and all of July 19 seemed necessary. The regiment was put into the fight by the Regimental Commander and acted as Engineers and as Infantry.

Its value as Engineers is proven by the fact that it actually dug the trenches for the 9th Infantry; in fact the 9th Infantry was so tired that it did not dig its own trenches. The next morning, a very heavy shell and machine gun fire was practically continuous on the 9th Infantry and it might have been almost annihilated if proper trenches had not been dug for it. The use of the 2nd Engineers as Infantry on the day of July 19 is also considered proper. The regiment was used as a whole and was not frittered away in useless detachments. Actually it took positions in the line and behind the line on the left, and behind the line on the right. The Engineer officers who were in the fight on the left believed' that the 2nd Battalion, which was the battalion on the left, actually averted what might have been a serious disaster. The Commanding Officer of the 9th Infantry stated in a lecture at Langres that he had less than 750 men available on the left, but he was holding on to his position. He actually received as reinforcements a number of Engineers practically equal to the number of men available from his regiment. The next morning the Germans started an attack around and in the rear of the left of the 9th Infantry, such an attack being feasible because the Moroccan Division to the left of the 2nd Division was not up to the 2nd Division and the Germans tried to slip into the gap between the Moroccan and the 2nd Division. However, when the Germans discovered the Engineers in support and saw the 6th Marines coming up they retreated in disorder, leaving machine guns in the fields in prolongation of the 9th Infantry line.

Colonel Mitchell might be criticised [sic criticized] for ordering the Division Reserve into the battle without waiting for instructions! from the Division Commander, but it is certain that the regiment had to be moved forward at once in order to take advantage of the darkness for fortifying the positions. It was a rule in the 2nd Division that initiative and independence in action were required and that proper results justified the use of initiative, whereas improper results resulted in sending the officer to a reclassification depot. As the Division Commander approved of the action of Colonel Mitchell in this case, it is believed that his orders were proper ones and justified by the emergency.

Heavy intrenching tools carried by each soldier of the regiment were found very useful. They were first carried at the suggestion of Major Fox before the soldiers boarded the trucks at Montreuil; but the tools were found so useful in this battle that every 2nd Engineer soldier carried an intrenching tool without further orders until the end of the war.

 
United States, and W. A. Mitchell. 1920.
The Official History Of The Second Regiment Of Engineers And Second Engineer Train, United States Army, In The World War.
[San Antonio]: [San Antonio printing Co.].
 
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