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Chapter VII — The Argonne
(October 28, 1918 to November 11, 1918)

Maps / Photos / Misc.

Conditions in the Argonne had reached the point where the Americans were ready for another drive. The 2nd Division had been resting about two weeks, so General Pershing secured it from the French and called it over to the Argonne for this drive. The 2nd Field Artillery Brigade and the 2nd Engineers had not been resting, but they were called away from the 36th Division and placed without rest with the 2nd Division in order to participate in this drive. Colonel Mitchell and Lieut.-Col. Strong were not with the Regiment, so Major Steiner was in charge of the movement with the 2nd Division to the new field of battle.

On October 27th, the order to the First Army headquarters relieving the 2nd Engineers from duty with the 36th Division was received by Major Steiner at 6:45 A. M. The necessary Field Order was gotten out, and Major Steiner reported to the Commanding General of the 36th Division and members of the General Staff for any final instructions. A written request for the relief of the wire-cutting details of Companies "B" and "D" was submitted to the Commanding General in order that First Army headquarters orders might be thoroughly complied with. By indorsement thereon, the Chief of Staff stated this to be impossible at once, but they could come later, after the Forest Farm fight. Arrangements were then made with Colonel Davis, Commanding Second Field Artillery Brigade, to have trucks call at 71st Brigade Headquarters for these wire cutting details, giving full information of the arrangements made, and the Chief of Staff issued necessary instructions to assure the arrival of the wire-cutting details at Brigade Headquarters prior to the above time.

On October 28th the Engineer Train reached Les Islettes and bivouaced [sic] there at midnight. Foot troops arrived and bivouaced at Camp Cabaud at 7:00 A. M. Fifth Army order (G-3) reached Major Steiner at 11:00 A. M. directing movements of the Regiment at seventeen hours at the vicinity of Les Boullaux Bois, one kilometer west of Eclisfontaine.

Major Steiner reported to the 2nd Division Headquarters for instructions, and received a hearty welcome for the 2nd Engineers from the Division Commander and the Chief of Staff. Maps had been obtained from G-2 the night before and issued to the regiment. He obtained information on Engineer Dumps, proposed operations, available engineer assistance, water supply, roads and bridges, and on roads, bridges and water supply behind the German positions.

On October 29th Colonel Mitchell returned from the trip to the Service of Supply and General Headquarters, and stopped overnight at the office of the Department of Light Railways and Roads, at Vraincourt.

Colonel Mitchell had been especially successful in his trip to the Replacement Depot. The 2nd Engineers needed officers, and he had been to the Engineer replacement depot at Angers, in order to obtain them promptly. The C. O. of the Engineer Replacement Regiment, 116th Engineers, Colonel Olson, was especially anxious to assist; he stated that everyone in the replacement regiment was watching the work of the 2nd Engineers, and that all were anxious to join it. With Colonel Olson's permission, Colonel Mitchell selected six of his best instructors, and next day obtained orders for them from the Chief Engineer to join the 2nd Engineers. All of them except one, actually did join the regiment in time to participate with glory in the last fight of the Division on the night before the Armistice.

On October 30th, Colonel Mitchell and Major Steiner went to Army Headquarters and saw the Chief Engineer of the Army. Returning, they stopped by Corps Headquarters and obtained a list of the water-points and of the Engineer Dumps of the Army and of the Corps, so that the usual map of engineer information could be prepared by the Map section of Regimental Headquarters.

The Problem of Battle.

The conditions facing the 2nd Division were very serious. The previous campaign from September 26th to November 1st, by the American Army before the 2nd Division joined it, had shown that the Germans realized the desperate situation in which they were placed. The Americans were almost within reach of their railroad through Montmedy, and the Germans knew that if the Americans broke this railroad, they would be utterly unable to supply their troops by their single remaining line of supply through Liege, north of the forest of Ardennes. It was then a final struggle between the best German Divisions and the American Army. The 2nd Division, with the 89th on its right and the 80th on its left, was ordered to go over the top on November 1st, and break the last line of the German defense. All possible artillery was brought up, and the barrage was probably the most intense of the whole war. The engineering problem was a very serious one. From September 26th to November 1st, the Commanding General had been worried by the roads almost as much as by the Germans; in fact, from October 15th to November 1st, it had been reported necessary to stop the advance, partly because of the condition of the roads. It was raining more or less continually, and the roads were getting worse and worse; consequently practically all of the engineers were to be used on the roads, and the 2nd Engineers looked forward to hard, gruelling, wearisome days of road maintenance, without any of the joys and excitement of battle. The bridges over the river at Landres-et-St. Georges were the particularly critical points in the roads of the 2nd Division, and Colonel Mitchell ordered the Engineers to get into Landres-et-St. Georges right on the heels of the Infantry, and rebuild or repair these bridges, no matter how heavy the enemy's firing. The special details for wire cutting, traps hunters, and artillery assistants were rendered as usual.

Accordingly, October 31st, the following assignment of troops was made for the battle next day:

Company "A"; 25 men as wire-cutters; rest for road work.
Company "B"; 55 men as wire-cutters; rest for road work.
Company "C"; 22 men for tank detail; 50 trap hunters; rest for road work.
Company "D"; 25 men as wire-cutters; 200 men for artillery detail.
Company "E"; 50 men as wire-cutters; 40 men at Engineer dumps; rest for road work.
Company "F"; all men for road work.

The regiment was considerably short in personnel, owing to sickness and lack of replacements. The men on road-work details encamped in a ravine about two miles south of Landres-et-St. Georges, ready to proceed quickly to that town, and repair bridges so that there could be no possible delay.

Colonel Mitchell realized that the situation was very serious and that the regiment, having been in the front of battle for a month without any rest, needed every possible encouragement. Consequently on the afternoon of October 31st, he assembled all the officers, and called their attention to the seriousness of the situation. They were told to seize every opportunity to rest the men; that under no circumstances were the men to be allowed to sleep on the ground if a house could possibly be secured; that no men would endeavor to seem busy purely for the effect on a General or other staff officer who came by, but that every man would be forced to work hard when he worked, and would be allowed to lie down and rest when he rested, regardless of who was in the vicinity; that every officer must be out with his men every minute, and that summary punishment would be visited upon any officer who neglected his men in any way; that constant encouragement would be given the men on every occasion by word and deed, by reference to their past records and by frequent statements to them individually and collectively of the great necessity of maintaining the roads.

It seems pertinent to remark here that the regiment kept up its record for work during the next 10 days. The Corps commander himself complimented the regimental commander on the fact that he never saw any members of the regiment loafing; and the medical records show that 10% were evacuated for sickness, brought on by exposure and constant hard work in the next 10 days.

The battle started, and we started. The men on road work followed the infantry promptly into Landres-et-St. Georges, losing 24 men on the way and later in the town. They found that the bridges in Landres-et-St. Georges had not been destroyed, and also that the bridges in St. Georges, the next town to the west, had not been broken. Consequently, the road work was considerably facilitated. Special details were sent temporarily to assist in repairing the roads for the dressing station, as ambulances were finding great difficulty in approaching the dressing station and there was considerable delay. At night, the entire regiment was assembled in Sommerance, so that they could sleep in comfort.

Next day the regiment was put to work on the roads north and south of Landres-et-St. Georges, and half of Companies "A" and "D" were sent in trucks north of Landreville and Imecourt so that they could get to work quickly. The day was spent in repairing roads, and all of the regiment was assembled at night at Landreville, except Company "E," which stayed in Landres-et-St. Georges. The roads assigned to us were not very satisfactory, because the road Landres-et-St. Georges—Landreville—Bayonville had two unusually steep places on it and the traffic could not make the pull without great difficulty, thereby causing many blocks in traffic.

On November 3, the Engineer troops continued the work of the preceding day up to noon, at which time the Corps Commander granted permission to switch to the road Landres-et-St. Georges—Remonville—Bayonville. The switch was made shortly after noon. The road Landres-et-St. Georges—Imecourt went to pieces this afternoon because another Division filled it full of trains. It is not known why they came over to our sector, but we gave them the road and they ruined it.

As the Corps Commander stated that he would make G-1 of the Corps send our supplies by "Soixante" railway to Landres-et-St. Georges, Company "E" was placed in the afternoon on the work of repairing the "Soixante" road, Landres-et-St. Georges to northeast to Andevanne. The 21st Engineers had been rather speedy on this work, and Company "E" found things in very good shape, but assisted somewhat.

On the night of November 3, the 1st Battalion and Regimental Headquarters was in Bayonville, and the 2nd Battalion and Engineer Train in Landreville.

Next day, the 2nd Battalion moved to Barricourt, and worked on the roads in that vicinity. The 89th Division's road, Remonville—Barricourt being impassable. —they used our Bayonville—Barricourt road, and it was full of traffic all day. As a result, we decided to open up the road Bayonville—Buzancy, but started a little late, so traffic was delayed considerable during the night on this road. The road from Bayonville straight north to the main highway was kept open for south-bound traffic, especially for ambulances. A road map, with road circuits, was issued and given to all Military Police and to all men of the 2nd Engineers who were sent out as "trouble-shooters" on the night, as on previous nights.

Our expectations as to traffic were not disappointed. During the day, nearly all of the 1st, 2nd and 89th Divisions, a small portion of the 80th, and part of the corps and armp [sic] troops went through Bayonville, coming from all directions and going their respective ways. It was nice to be appreciated and it was pleasant to have others know that the roads of the 2nd Engineers were being well maintained; but it was almost heart-breaking for our men to work so hard to maintain our roads, and then to see them cut to pieces by vehicles with markings strange beyond compare. The poor private of the 2nd Engineers, working in mud and rain, thought the whole Allied army was using his one poor road.

A thorough reconnaissance was made of all roads to the front and all available engineer troops were placed on the parts which required radical attention. Several tractors, including a German tractor, were impressed in the engineer service and were of material assistance in pulling trucks out of the ditches and in clearing up blocks in the traffic. In many cases, we found that the artillery of our assisting troops was not obeying orders regarding stopping on the road. It was actually stopping on the road and blocking traffic, and the only excuse given was that they did not know where to go. This was no excuse, because Corps orders stated positively that no vehicles could stop on the road for any purpose.

Master Engineer Thompson was sent on a special railroad reconnaissance in the territory of the adjacent Corps, as it was thought possible that he could learn something of value regarding the chances of building up the railroad running into Buzancy. He learned that the standard gauge railroad and the narrow gauge railroad had been so effectively destroyed that nothing could be expected of them in the immediate future. The Corps Engineer was given, as usual, the information by telephone regarding the situation, and a copy of the road map was sent him. A copy of the road map, and of Master Engineer Thompson's railroad reconnaissance, was sent to the Army Engineer.

On November 5th, the work was continued on the roads. An inspection was made of the saw-mill at the cross-roads southeast of Vaux. No attempt had been made to destroy it, and the plant was found to consist of the following:

Several sheds in good condition, with a fair sized brick house nearby.
One large steam stationary engine.
One large steam (traction) engine (used as stationary engine).
One system of transmission, with some belting in place.
One large vertical saw (to cut 26 planks at one time).
One large vertical saw (to cut 15 planks at one time).
Two carriage systems (1 for each saw).
Several circular saw blades.
Several straight saw blades.
Cant hooks and sundry tools.
Track in place, with truck.
Soixante track, in place.
Quantity of cut lumber 1/2" to 1" thick.
Number of uncut logs.
Three log wagons, for hauling.
Two Excelsior machines.
Large quantity of Excelsior.

The 1st Battalion and regimental headquarters moved to Fosse on November 5th.

On November 6th, it was necessary to make more roads available so that wagons could come to the Supply Dump at Fosse, therefore a wagon road was built across country leading from North of Nouart into Fosse, and the impassable road leading southeast of Fosse was rendered fairly passable. The rest of the troops worked on the roads elsewhere.

On November 7th, orders were received to change the Divisional Area, and the Engineers were promptly started. Regimental Headquarters, Engineer Train, and the 2nd Battalion marched towards Sommauthe, and the 1st Battalion for La Bagnole. The orders were changed about 9:00 o'clock, and the 1st Battalion was stopped at the saw-mill. Regimental Headquarters and the 2nd Battalion were stopped at Buzancy, but the Engineer Train could not be stopped in time and it went to Sommauthe. Fifty men were sent this day to the Artillery to help fix up the narrow gauge railway to carry ammunition from the main road to their positions. This was considered necessary by them; but no locomotive was available, and all artillery ammunition would have to be hauled by horses. Company "F" was sent from Buzancy to Fosse to make that road passable for trucks again. The 1st Battalion continued work on the roads.

On November 7th it became evident that the Engineers would be needed up at the front line. However, it was impossible to leave the roads for any length of time, because they would immediately go to pieces. On November 8th, the 1st Battalion had Company "C" at work on the road near the saw-mill, and Companies "A" and "B" on special work preparing foot bridges to cross the Meuse river. The 2nd Battalion was also on the road work around Fosse and Buzancy. On November 9th, Company "F" worked on the road to Fosse, "C" Company at the saw-mill, while "D" and "E" moved to Sommauthe with regimental headquarters. On November 10th, "D" Company had stopped road work in order to get ready some bridges to cross the Meuse, but the remainder of the 2nd Battalion continued on the roads. By the night of November 10th, the road workers were rather tired. For 10 weary days in mud and rain, they had been plugging away on it without rest; but the officers had almost always been able to give them hot meals, and they had slept nearly every night in houses; consequently they were not entirely worn out and were still ready for more work when the Armistice came.

Fighting Engineers.

On November 7th, it became evident that the 2nd Division was to cross the Meuse. This involved building foot bridges under fire, and ponton bridges for the trucks. After much consideration of the circumstances it was decided to build 2 foot bridges north of Letanne and two more foot bridges north of Mouzon. It was also decided to build a ponton bridge near Letanne and a heavy wagon bridge near Mouzon. All of these bridges were not built, but the necessary preparations were made. The Corps Engineer, 5th Corps, provided from his stock enough proper standard trestle bridge material for the heavy bridge at Mouzon. This was delivered at Yoncq, but the parts did not fit very well, so Company "D" spent all of November 10th erecting this bridge on land at Yoncq and fitting the parts. Incidentally as the Armistice came the next day, this standard bridge material was left at Yoncq, this being the third heavy bridge prepared by the 2nd Engineers for crossing rivers and left on the ground about 4 miles away from the river, because it was never needed. One bridge was left about 4 miles south of Thiaucourt, another was left in the field at Pauvres about 4 miles southwest of Attigny, and the 3rd bridge was left at Yoncq about 4 miles southwest of Mouzon.

The ponton material did not arrive on time, but did arrive on November 11th and 12th, and the 2nd Engineers built the ponton bridge near Villemontry after the Armistice.

The Corps Engineer furnished us 280 feet of Lampert foot bridge on November 8th; this was unloaded on the highway three miles east of Buzancy. Ten wagons were sent from south from the Engineer train over the fields from Sommauthe to Buzancy, as traffic over the road was all going north and there was no other way available. These wagons were loaded with the Lampert bridge material and were just starting for Beaumont, when orders were received not to build the bridge that night. Therefore, the wagons were sent to Buzancy. At 6:00 o'clock, Colonel Mitchell decided to send the bridge to Beaumont anyhow; therefore, the wagons were started for Beaumont, and reached the saw-mill at 1:00 A. M. on the 9th. The drivers were relieved and allowed to sleep until 6:30 A. M. The mules were groomed, fed, and hitched by other men at the saw-mill and at 7:00 A. M. the bridges continued to Beaumont.

However, Captain Rossell in Beaumont had already prepared some raft foot bridges; so these Lampert foot bridges were sent on to Yoncq, and on the night of November 10th were sent down with men from Companies "B" and "D" to put them across north of Mouzon. The bridges were not put across the night of November 10th, and it was reported to the Regimental Commander that the men could not face the barrage. The next day about noon the regimental commander visited the location selected for the foot bridges, and came to the conclusion that it was rather fortunate for all concerned that the bridge was not put across, because a German mahine-gun nest was found on the bank about 100 yards east of the selected location, and it is probable that troops crossing would have been slaughtered unmercifully, if the bridge had been laid. However, in order to determine if the Engineers were to blame, he immediately ordered Major Steiner, Major Hetrick and Captain Wyche to investigate the cause of the failure and report to him. They submitted a written report which showed that the Engineers had three times traversed the German barrage and that the Engineers were not to blame for the failure to cross. The matter was brought to the attention of the Division Engineer, who stated that the Brigade Commander had told him the Engineers were not to blame for the failure to lay the bridges and that no further investigation would be necessary.

Remarkable Foot Bridge under Fire.

Meanwhile other men of the 2nd Engineers had actually built foot bridges under machine gun fire northeast of Beaumont. On November 8th. we were told to prepare foot bridges. So Companies "A" and "B" built in Beaumont two foot bridges of the raft type from the material at the saw-mill, and from German barracks at Beaumont. This work was completed on November 9th. The rafts were modeled on the plan of the rafts which we devised during our drills at Attigny about a month before, and it was especially fortunate for us that we had been given these drills, because otherwise we would never have crossed the river Meuse. Company "B" was selected because it had been especially drilled at Attigny in building these rafts. For details of the rafts, see appendix 8.

On the night of November 10th, Company "A," under command of Lieutenant Wall, and Company "B," under command of Captain Chrisman were detailed to construct those two foot bridges across the Meuse River, about six kilometers south of Mouzon, Prance.

Two companies of the 9th Infantry were detailed to assist in throwing the bridges across the river.

Sections of the bridges had been constructed in Beaumont, approximately six kilometers south of the site chosen for the bridges to cross. These sections were constructed in 12 foot lengths and were six feet in width, containing about 25 cubic feet of lumber. (For design see appendix 8).

These sections were loaded in wagons, four sections to a wagon, and hauled to within 150 yards of the river bank where they were unloaded. The enemy held the East Bank of the river and was prevented from locating us by the barrage which started as we unloaded the sections and by the very dense fog which covered the valley and prevented us from being utterly annihilated. The fog was so dense that flares were hardly visible at 100 yards distance and so uncertain were the enemy of our exact location that flares fired by the enemy fell on the men at work on our side of the river and yet they could not be seen by the enemy from the other side.

From the place of unloading, the sections were skidded across a double track railroad embankment, about six feet high, which was lined with underbrush, thence along a low bottom land to the river's edge where they were assembled.

Enemy machine-gun patrol came up the opposite side of the river; the enemy also had six machine gun nests in the woods about 300 yards from the river, and they all began shooting. All, however, fired too high, probably because they knew the location of the road, and supposed that material was being unloaded there, when as a matter of fact, the material had been unloaded and the road was practically clear. The men were lashing the rafts near the river bank while a continuous stream of machine-gun bullets was striking the road on the side of the ridge above them. The bridges were assembled on the bank about 200 yards apart. The rafts were placed end to end. so that each bridge was on the bank perpendicular to the river, and a double column of men were crouched alongside the 180 feet of each bridge. Very fortunately for us the enemy never turned his machine-guns on these two columns of men, as he could have absolutely destroyed the two bridge details in five minutes. At the word of command, our men raised the bridge on their shoulders, and marched forward with it to the river bank. One man held the guy rope attached to the end, to keep the current from carrying it down stream. As the bridge was pushed into the river, the men turned to the right and left, and the bridge was pushed across by the men in rear coming forward with the remainder of the bridge. A lashing broke on the bridge being launched by Company "B," but Sergeant Marshall ran out on the bridge and lashed it together and the bridge continued across the river. Company "A's" bridge was shoved across in 7 minutes, and Company "B's" in 11 minutes.

The Engineers had established guides to the bridges from the road via a handy ravine which ran from the road halfway down to the bridges; consequently when the Marines arrived, just as the bridges were completed, they were guided to the bridges via the ravine without any unnecessary exposure to fire. When the bridge of Company "B" struck the opposite bank, the enemy machine-gun patrol discovered the bridge and turned the machine-gun on the bridge, so that it was impossible to cross. The column of Marines was held up until the other column of Marines crossed on the "A" Company bridge and came down the river and destroyed the German machine-gun patrol.

A detachment of men was left with each bridge to keep it in repair and were kept busy, for before daylight each bridge had received a direct hit by enemy artillery, but the damages were rapidly repaired by these detachments.

The two companies of the 9th Infantry which assisted in launching the bridges suffered heavy casualties, as they were caught in the enemy barrage as they were going back after their work was completed.

The Corps Commander wrote us a special letter of commendation for constructing these two foot bridges, and the Division Commander published the following order:

France, November 12, 1918.

ORDER:

1. On the night of November 10th, heroic deeds were done by heroic men. In the face of a heavy artillery and withering machine gun fire, the 2nd Engineers threw two foot bridges across the Meuse and the first and second battalions of the 5th Marines crossed resolutely and unflinchingly to the east bank and carried out their mission.

2. In the last battle of the war, as in all others in which this Division has participated, it enforced its will on the enemy.

John A. LeJeune,
Major General, U. S. M. C.
Commanding.
Summary of Results.

(a) Roads were maintained for the 2nd Division, and at times for three other divisions, and for the 5th Corps and part of the Army. Owing to the bad weather and the poor roads given to the 2nd Division, the Regiment could not maintain the roads as well as desired, but ammunition and supplies were gotten to the troops.

(b) The Engineer troops went into Landres-et-St. Georges with the reserves of the front line, and succeeded in clearing the way so that there was no delay for the Artillery or for the supplies.

(c) A special detail was furnished to the Artillery to clear up the way for it and accompany it. As this detail diminished because of the arduous work and sickness of the men. it was relieved by other details throughout the campaign. In addition to clearing roads, the detail for the Artillery built two miles of 60 c. m. track to haul Artillery Ammunition; and incidentally a few of our men helped the Artillery in emergency at their guns.

(d) We built two foot-bridges over the Meuse river and launched them across the river in 7 and 11 minutes; this is a record. The Marine Brigade crossed on these bridges and the Engineers maintained them during the whole of the very heavy barrage, two shells of which actually hit the bridges.

Comments.

No special comments seem necessary, except to call special attention to the fact that the 2nd Engineers built two foot-bridges 168 feet long in 7 and 11 minutes across a deep and unfordable river under fire by the enemy machine-guns. Fortunately the bridges were constructed so quietly that the enemy machine-guns did not locate the platoons building the bridges. It is impossible to build a bridge of any kind under active and sustained machine-gun fire. The 2nd Engineers were particularly fortunate in that they had been drilled in exactly these operations only three weeks before, while waiting for orders to cross the river Aisne at Attigny. This regiment had been in the service in France for over a year, but had never had any opportunity for drill in crossing a stream until the short drill for crossing the river at Attigny. If this drill had not been given the regiment, it would never have been able to build the bridges at Beaumont.

The regiment secured a quick start in its road work, by sending its road troops into Landres-et-St. Georges with the Infantry. In fact, it is thought that by this means the regiment was about one day ahead of troops in other divisions, and it is believed that the 24 men lost by the Engineers in getting into the town with the Infantry were more than compensated for by the fact that we repaired the roads, and kept up with the Infantry, much better than is generally expected of Engineers.

 
LOSSES AND REPLACEMENTS DURING PERIOD OCTOBER 27 TO NOVEMBER 11. 1918.
  Officers Enlisted Men Total
Morning report of October 28. 1918 47 1604 1651
Lost by transfer, evacuation, etc 2 219 221
Gain by transfer, replacement, etc 7 64 71
Morning report of November 11, 1918 52 1449 1501
 
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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