|"God Was Good to Me That Day!"|
The Experiences of 2nd Lt. Fred T. Wilson, Co B, 16th Inf., 1st Division, AEF, at Soissons, July 18, 1918.
By Tom Gudmestad
|Over There! Magazine - Winter 1990|
|The 1st Division, American Expeditionary Force, landed in France on June 26, 1917. During its welcoming ceremonies in Paris on June 30, an officer of Pershing's staff spoke the eloquent phrase, "Lafayette, nous voici!" - Lafayette, we are here! |
In the division's first public appearance in France, doughboys of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry paraded down the Champs Elysees on July 4, giving the war-weary French capital an electrifying glimpse of the brawny, new arrivals.
The late summer and autumn months of 1917 were spent in training, the 1st Division being rotated into a quiet sector in Lorraine under French instruction. On November 3, the 16th Infantry was holding a series of trenches on a bald knoll near Bathelemont when the Germany artillery laid down a "box barrage" isolating the regiment's 2nd Battalion. In the darkness and at the height of the bombardment a heavy German raiding party smashed into the American lines. In the ensuing melee, the 1st Division suffered the first American infantry casualties of the war: Corp. James B. Gresham and Privates Thomas F. Enright and Merle D. Hay were killed; eleven Americans were carried off as prisoners of war.
One week later, on the morning of November 11, a young, fresh 2nd Lieutenant from New York state joined Co. B, 16th Infantry as a replacement officer.
"I was working in the Fifth Avenue Bank in New York City when Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917. Along with Frank Melley, my best friend and co-worker, I applied for and was accepted into the Plattsburg Officers Training Camp in May. Both of us duly graduated from the course in August and received our commissions as Second Lieutenants. We were pretty proud to be two of only five from our class chosen to proceed overseas immediately to make up the officer shortage in the 1st Division which had sailed from the States in June.
"As casual officers, we sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the coastal steamer H.R. Mallory, Also on this ship were New England troops of the 101st Infantry from Massachusetts, part of the 26th Division, to whom we were attached for purposes of travel and rations.
"We landed at St. Nazaire on September 20 and for the next six weeks were kept busy with training and preparations, including a British trench warfare course at Hardelot.
"On November 8, Frank Melley and I received orders to join a group of thirty five other officers, all First and Second Lieutenants, and report to the 1st Division for assignment. Frank and I got off to an unpromising start by missing the train in Paris and arriving at 1st Div. headquarters a day late, November 11.
"I reported to the 16th Infantry, then under the command of Colonel John L. "Birdie" Hines and was directed to join Company B of the 1st Battalion in which I served until wounded. Within Co. B, I assumed command of the 2nd Platoon.
The 16th Infantry was a great regiment, in our opinion the premier infantry regiment of the A.E.F. It was made up of a mixture of tough, pre-war "regulars" who had seen service on the Mexican border, and enthusiastic volunteers. The senior officers were strictly first-class, nearly all regulars, who loved their men and the life of soldering.
"The week before my arrival our regiment had been raided by the Germans and had suffered the first A.E.F. casualties of the war. The prevailing mood when we joined was that we were still learning the ropes but if these were the rules, well then OK, we'd be ready the next time. It hardly requires underscoring what kind of a reputation the 1st Div. earned and maintained for itself throughout the First World War!
"B Company was under the command of Lt. Charlie Ryder - a West Pointer of the 1915 Class, one of Eisenhower's classmates - a wonderful officer and leader who went on to become a Major General during WWII. He welcomed me aboard and we developed a lasting friendship. "In bitterly cold winter weather we continued our training, moving in and out of quiet sectors, at Gondrecourt and near Toul. We endured the routine of occupying winter trenches, with all the attendant hardships, as well as occasional German shelling and gas attacks. On March 10, 1918, the regiment avenged its losses at Bathelemont when we raided the German trenches at Rambucourt, near Toul; no prisoners were taken.
"On March 21, the great German offensive rolled back the French and British lines on the Somme, in front of Amiens and within one week they had captured an enormous amount of territory. In response to this, our division was moved toward the tip of the German salient which had pushed out southwest of Montdidier. We relieved exhausted French troops and went into the trenches near Broyes.
"On May 28, 1918, in the first American assault of the war, the 28th Inf. Regt. of our division attacked the Germans at Cantigny, capturing the high ground on which the village sits and beating off a number of determined counterattacks. For the next two months, the 1st Div. garrisoned the Cantigny area and resisted every German effort to reclaim their lost territory.
"That same month another German offensive rolled down from the Aisne River, driving on Paris, and crossing the Marne. By mid-July, in response to this latest threat, our 1st Div. was pulled out of the Cantigny sector and moved south. We were picked up in French trucks - 'camions' - always a bad sign in the A.E.F. because they only drove you when the situation was serious, and driven to Compiegne. By night we marched into the great forest there and camped under the trees by day, hidden from German aerial observers.
"We were occupying dugouts in the Forest of Compiegne when one afternoon our company commander, Charlie Ryder, came along to visit. He was sitting on the edge of our dugout talking to me and Alan Cole, another 2nd Lt. As he talked he was swinging a flare pistol around one finger and it accidentally discharged, firing a burning flare down into our dugout! Fortunately no one was injured but it provided a diversion and a vivid memory.
"Two American divisions, our 1st and the 2nd, had been brought up to participate with the French Army in a massive attack against the western flank of the German salient which ran down to the Marne. Our objectives were straightforward: to advance over several miles of open terrain, cut the Paris-Soissons road, continue on and finally capture the Soissons - Chateau Thierry road.
"In pouring rain, the darkness slashed by lightning, French guides led us forward on the night of July 17. All around us troops and tanks were moving up for the attack. We settled down in some woods, everyone soaked and miserable, around midnight, to get what rest we could. At 4 a.m. we moved several hundred yards forward to our final jump-off line behind a railway embankment.
"This was to be a surprise attack, no preparatory bombardment being fired by our guns. We waited in silence, the forty men of my platoon checking and re-checking their equipment and weapons.
"These last few minutes before the attack were the hardest. Your imagination is at work and you have to keep yourself busy, your mind occupied. Waiting to go over the top, you must steel yourself to the task, that you're going to do it. As an officer I had the added responsibility and anxiety of setting an example for my men. But we had confidence in ourselves, due in part to our rigorous training, and a determination to take and hold our objective.
"The 1st Div. was deployed from north to south, 28th, 26th, 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments respectively. To our south was the famous French Moroccan Division and beyond them our 2nd Division.
"Our orders were simple: 1st Bn. jumps off the attack and captures the Paris-Soissons road; 2nd Bn. to move through us there and press on. The wording was clear: 'We are going to the Paris-Soissons road!' In addition, it was well known throughout the regiment that we were not to report, 'Held up by machine guns.' There was no excuse for failure.
"Dawn on July 18th was bright and clear, heralding a warm summer day. Right at 4:35 am we went over, our 1st Bn. leading at the very moment a thunderous barrage tore overhead.
"Co. B advanced on a 200 yard front, over fairly open ground. Resistance was initially light, some long-range machine gun fire as the Germans fell back. The French tanks supporting us could be seen moving slowly over the fields and we could see they were the small, two-man Renault tanks.
"After about one and a half miles, the German defenses stiffened and the rifle and machine gun fire became heavier; casualties began to mount. Our men would identify the location of the machine guns and then rush them, killing the gunners or taking them prisoners. I remember one gunner distinctly, dug into a hole in the ground, who kept firing until the very last minute and hopped out with his hands up. Under the circumstances he was lucky to have his surrender accepted.
"On our left front appeared the village of Missy. There was a steep ravine north of the village, in the 28th and 26th Infantry's zones and they were bogged down in heavy fighting in the ravine. As a result as we came abreast of the village our left flank was exposed and we began to suffer heavy casualties from enfilade machine gun fire. We were crossing a nearly flat field of young wheat and the ridge, across the front of which ran the Paris road, rose gently in front of us. To make matters worse we were now passing through a heavy artillery barrage - the Germans and our own which was falling a little short.
"For this attack, a man named Francis had been assigned to me to act as my runner. He was a recent emigrant from Russia. He kept close to me and at about 6 a.m. a shell burst beside us. Neither of us were hit by fragments but Francis must have been concussed and shell-shocked. He clung frantically to me and eventually fell to the ground and threw his arms around my legs. I literally had to kick him away from me in order to advance with my platoon. As an officer, I was only carrying my pistol but as I moved on I bent down and picked up Francis's rifle. I carried it with me and this proved, I am sure, to be my salvation that day.
"I was carrying the rifle diagonally across in front of me, my right hand on the bolt. I was actually grasping the bolt when, at about 6:30 I was struck by a German machine gun bullet. The doctors later said that it must have been a soft-tipped bullet, a 'dum dum'. The bullet hit the third knuckle of my right hand , smashing the bones and lodging in my hand. But the force was such that it split the rifle's wooden stock down the entire length and wrenched it from my grasp. Had that rifle not been there the bullet would have hit me dead-center in the chest.
"I wrapped up my hand in a handkerchief and carried on with my platoon. The Paris road was now directly in front of us, raised on an embankment and lined with the tall poplar trees common in France. The Germans had dug in their machine gun nests right at the base of these trees and they were firing at us point-blank. We came upon one German headquarters dugout which had two entrances. A group of us concentrated on one entrance: we ran forward and threw hand-grenades down the opening. The others of my platoon waited by the other exit, out which the Germans poured, and bagged them one by one.
"By noon we had taken the road and consolidated our positions along it. The 2nd Bn. came across the open behind us, suffering heavy casualties, and tried to press the attack forward. The fields behind us - the infamous wheat fields of Soissons - were littered with our dead and wounded.
"At this point, Charlie Ryder came down the line and seeing my hand, ordered me back for treatment. Alan Cole was also wounded and we made our way back together, stopping at a field dressing station where my hand was heavily bandaged.
"From there a truck carried me further back until I eventually reached the American Red Cross hospital on the outskirts of Paris. My hand was operated on there, an incision made in the palm of my hand and the flattened bullet removed. This 'souvenir' was placed on the night stand next to my bed but it was stolen during the night.
"The following day we were taken by train to Mont Pont, near St. Nazaire, where Base Hospital No. 3 from Mt. Sinai, New York City, was set up. My wound kept draining and two more operations took place. My finger was only hanging on by a scrap and I asked the surgeon - Dr. Geist - if he would just take it off. But he said he could save it and did, but the finger today is absolutely useless and the knuckle stiff and non-functional. Overall, though, the treatment was very good.
"My wound took a number of months to heal, months during which the 1st Div. was in action at St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne. In the first week of November I was pronounced fit for duty but given a leave before being returned to my regiment.
" 2nd Lt. W.J. 'Blacki' Black, who had been wounded with the 2nd Bn. on July 18, set off with me to see Monte Carlo. We were in Marseilles when news of the 'false' Armistice caught up with us, on November 9, and we decided to return to the 16th Infantry at once. We made it back to St. Nazaire when the real Armistice took place and I wrote to my mother in a spirit of celebration, "Water very scarce around here - lots of wine!" We celebrated.
"We caught up with the 1st Div. in Luxemburg, enroute to the A.E.F. bridgehead over the Rhine at Coblenz. On my return, I was made Ist Bn adjutant, an excellent job. While I had been away in hospital, Charlie Ryder had recommended me for the Distinguished Service Cross.
"A division parade was held at Montabaur, Germany in April 1919. 1 was called to step forward and General Pershing pinned the DSC on my chest. What a wonderful memory."
|Tom Gudmestad has been a serious historian of the Great War for many years. He has travelled extensively to the battlefields and enjoys corresponding with veterans of the American Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Tom lives in Seattle. Reprinted with permission.|