America's First Victory in France
By Hamilton Holt
[The Independent, August 3, 1918]
The one American division above all others I wanted to visit was the Twenty sixth. It ranked as the first National Guard, division in France. It was the first American division to engage in a battle in this war. It was made up entirely of New England troops. And the 102d Connecticut boys of that division, upon whom devolved the honor of holding the line against the German shock troops at Seicheprey on April 20 and 21st, were the boys who came from the hills and valleys in the neighborhood of my summer home, from, the region where for over 200 years all my ancestors have lived and died.
Accordingly, it was with the anticipatory delight of returning for an "Old Home Week" festival that I started out from American headquarters on May 12, exactly three weeks after the battle of Seicheprey, to see my home boys in the trenches and to hear from their own lips some account of how, as Irvin Cobb would say, they took the mania out of Germania. Our party consisted of Judge Wadhams, an adopted son of Connecticut on account of his four years at Yale, two escorting American lieutenants, and myself.
Our objectives were, first, an American aviation field, and then General Edwards’s headquarters, where we were to receive final instructions before proceeding to the front lines. I shall reserve comment on the various aerodromes I visited till another paper—suffice it to say that after mess with the American aviators we motored to Toul and thence on to a little village where we found General Edwards at his headquarters, in a beautiful old twelfth century chateau that I was informed belonged to the French general who commanded Verdun during the great German drive in 1916. Major General Clarence Edwards, commanding the Twenty-sixth Division, received us in a noble room furnished with rich draperies, gilt and pink antique furniture, and old French portraits on the walls of periwigged gentlemen and lace-collared ladies. General Edwards is evidently a "character." I have come within the spell of very few soldier personalities that impressed me more. He seemed to be a man of great personal dash and decision, and yet withal full .of humanity and even tenderness. In one breath he would damn the Germans and in the next exhibit the most fatherly solicitation for his troops. "Heart and guts," he said, were the prime ingredients of a true soldier, and he looked as tho he had both. He was especially concerned for the morale of his boys, which he said depended as much on proper food, sleep and clothes as dry powder. He even insisted on my reading aloud to Judge Wadhams his recent orders for the "delousing" of the troops, and his eyes twinkled with merriment as I proceeded.
Then the general asked his aide to bring us a map of the sector he was holding and proceeded to explain to us the battle of Seicheprey.
From the general’s account and also from the stories, more or less conflicting, of a dozen other participants, I take it the Americans' first real battle went about as follows:
Altho there had been two or three skirmishes between our troops and the Germans immediately after we took over the sector, it was several weeks before the enemy finally planned to go over the top and attack us. When they eventually launched two attacks we dropt them in their trenches. The Germans then summoned 600 shock troops and sent them over to teach us a lesson. But only three got to our front trenches, and of these two were killed and one was captured. The next morning the barb wires in front of our lines were full of German dead. On the 20th, 3500 Germans started for us and the French 0% our left. They came over in close formation and drove us out of the front trenches. We fell back and reformed. The boys could hardly wait to get the orders to counterattack, but finally permission was given and in two tries We regained all our lines. The 102d Connecticut boys got badly cut up, losing 123 men, about the same number gassed, the same number captured and some 500 wounded. They fired during that fight between 5000 and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Three of our batteries were rolled out into the open and fired at the enemy for over five hours, tho under a severe bombardment. Major Rau met a counterattack with cooks, signal men and every one available. Our machine gun squad was nearly annihilated. When we regained our line our doctors found the Germans had left there poisoned coffee for our troops.
General Edwards then said, "The best thing for you to do is to have a talk with the boys themselves. Come with me and you shall hear them tell, their story in their own words. I’ll tell the officers to keep away, so they will talk to you freely."
So he ordered his car and we jumped into ours. He led us a pretty chase up and down the hills at a clip of forty miles an hour till we came to a two mile stretch alongside of a ridge of hills in full view of the German trenches not two miles away. We now hit up the pace to at least fifty miles an hour, but the day was misty and either the Germans did not see us or they decided not to take a pot shot, for we received no reminder of their presence. I was not in the least unhappy when we shortly turned behind a hill out of sight of the German observation balloons and quickly drew up at a little crossroads village. The boys who were lounging about came swarming out of the yards and billets to meet us, for the General and two civilians, the first they had seen since the fight, were as much objects of curiosity to them as would be General Pershing walking down the streets of any inland American town. The boys collected about the car in a circle twenty deep, and I instantly established friendly relations by calling out, "I’m from Connecticut, too. I have a home in Woodstock. Is there any fellow here from there "One private had an uncle who lived in town, and wished to send his regards. Then I asked if there were any who came from Pomfret, Thompson, Eastford, Danielson, Willimantic, etc., and as boys replied, "That’s my home," "I come from there," I said, “If you will give me your name I will be glad to write to your family, saying that I’ve seen you and that you’re still determined to get the Kaiser." And before I knew it I had 242 soldiers hand me names of parents, sweethearts and friends at home, for me to send letters to. One of the boys gave me a German bayonet that he had taken off the body of a dead German. Another gave me a German water bottle which had been jabbed thru with an American bayonet, and another a belt of cartridges which he wished me to give to his parents in Torrington. The boys were in superb spirits and yelled frantically and affirmatively when I asked them if they wanted to get back at the Germans. "Only let us get another crack at them," they shouted. Without any request on my part they told me that they had the best officers in the American Army and that they would do anything that their officers asked.
I have only space to tell one story of the many the boys gave us from their personal experience. Private Clyde Thompson, of New Haven, said: "The battle started at 3 a.m. I was in my dugout at headquarters 350 yards behind the lines. The Boche came over from the Hank and not directly behind their barrage—a very pretty trick. When I came out of my dugout there were five Boches yelling 'heraus mit.' I shoved the door back. They threw grenades at the door and blew it in. I came out the other door, drew my revolver and opened fire. One threw up his hands and fell backward. Two carried him away. The other two fell back. I threw two grenades at them and killed one. The, other ran away. I then went to headquarters, picking up the major's orderly on the way; we joined Lieutenant Ingersoll and we held the reserve trench with one squad of eight men until 5 or 6, when the Boche left town. While carrying in wounded men I saw three Boches coming up the side of a fence. I opened fire and killed one of them; the other two disappeared. I am recommended for a cross."
After listening to the various experiences, I walked across the street to where the officers were waiting in a group and talked with them. They told me they had the best boys in the United States Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Dowell said, "The boys will do more than you ask them to. They never have to be driven." I then said to the Colonel, "When I get back to my summer home in Connecticut the people will probably ask me to stand up in the village church and tell them something of how their boys are getting along. Can you give me some message that will interest them?" The Colonel thought a moment and then said, "Tell them this." And then he related the following story, which I wish every American could have heard him tell: "When the Germans made their great attack on that fateful night, one of our boys, First Lieutenant Lockhart, a Yale graduate and a school teacher in New Haven, was isolated with a band of thirty-seven men when the command to retreat was given. The report got thru that they had been badly cut up, but we heard no more from them and we thought fche entire lot was killed or captured. On the evening of the 21st, after two days of fighting, when we regained our trenches, I went to Colonel Parker, in command of the 102d, and suggested that he and I go out and look for Lockhart and his command. Just as we left the trenches we met Lockhart coming back. The first thing he did was to draw himself up and salute, apologizing for his two days' growth of beard and his dishevelled appearance. In response to our requests as to how he had fared, he replied, 'I am glad to report, sir, that we are all here. We have eight men alive, the others are dead in the trench with us.'"
Just think what this story of Colonel Dowell means. Here was the first fight in the Great War in which America took part on the soil of France. The honor of representing America fell to a band of Connecticut boys. When the order was given to retreat, this little group being isolated did not receive it. They therefore stayed in their trenches for two days, altho completely surrounded by the Germans. And when they were finally relieved, there they were, every single man, dead or alive, at his post. There was not a manwho had run away. Our histories tell us that America probably never produced a braver soldier than old Israel Putnam. I cannot help feeling that were that old gentleman alive today he would not be ashamed of these boys from his native state.
That evening we were invited to dine at the field hospital run by Yale unit, which is the closest to the front line of any American hospital in France. There were fifteen physicians and over eighty Yale boys under them, and fifteen trained nurses, all from Connecticut. After supper we adjourned to one of the hospital huts for vesper services. Judge Waldhams and I, both Yale men, made addresses. The meeting ended with the famous Brek-ek-ek-ex Yale cheer, which must have astonished the Germans if they heard it in their trenches over the hills not far away.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald