The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
Battery B, 103rd FA
Battery B, 103rd Field Artillery:
At the Second Battle of the Marne
Contributed by John Wheat of Berkeley, California
Son of Lt. Renville Wheat, Battery B
A Selection From
The History of Battery B
Composed and Written by a Committee from the Battery
Typical Gun Pit
Battery B of the 103rd Field Artillery began the war as part of Battery A of the Rhode Island National Guard Artillery. They were called into Federal service on July 25, 1917 and incorporated with other New England guard units into the 26th Division of the AEF. Trained to fire 155mm field pieces under their first commander, Capt. Gerald T. Hanley, the unit arrived in France two months later. They experienced much additional training in France and were eventually deployed in a "quiet sector" near Toul where their weapons temporarily included some obsolete 95mm cannons. In early July 1918, the 26th division was deployed to the area around Belleau Wood, relieving the 2nd AEF division.
On July 18th French and American forces would launch the first of a series of great offensive operations to roll back the German Army on the Western Front. This action would be known as the Second Battle of the Marne. On July 1, 1918 the men of Battery B thought they were heading for a rest. Here is what actually transpired:
On July 2, late at night, we detrained at Ligny, and immediately started out on one of our "nice little hikes." We plodded along all night with no seeming end to the journey. About two o'clock the next afternoon we reached Jouarre, and a halt was called. Horse lines were stretched and pup tents pitched while waiting for mess. The meal, however, was hardly over when orders came to prepare to move. At dusk we moved out. Early the next morning we reached Citry. Pup tents were again pitched and horse lines stretched in a meadow in front of a rather pretentious looking Chateau. A charming place and one in which we would have been delighted to have spent a couple of days. But no such luck. That evening the Regimental band "entertained" with a concert. When they ceased we sought sleep, and a whistle blew. "Harness and hitch and prepare to move!"
Capt. Gerald Hanley
The guns had been parked in a lane, completely screened from the eyes
of enemy aviators by great trees. The night itself was pitch black, and it seemed as if the shadow of the trees intensified this darkness. To expedite things a few lanterns were lighted, but Fritz heaved over a few GI cans. Freddy Black admitted that he knew it would happen, and lights were dispensed with. On each side of the lane there were reserve trenches and dugouts. Many a tumble was the result. At last the start was made, and the morning of the fifth found us back in Jouarre. It was beginning to look like a game of checkers.
The next move and the real beginning came the following evening. The gun crews left Jouarre and followed the guns and caissons to Champigny on the Paris-Metz highway. The guns were run into position, ready for action, on the edge of the road. A skeleton gun crew was left on duty while the rest of the boys found quarters in a large farm house across the fields. The next day the Battery Field Train joined the firing Battery, the park wagons and other carts being brought up one at a time so as to conceal the size of the troop movements from the Germans. The same evening the second platoon moved into position in the woods near Fèrme d'Issinge, opposite Bois de Belleau, relieving one platoon of a Battery of the 17th Field Artillery, Second Division. The next day, July 8th, the first platoon folio wed the second, completing the relief of the Battery of the 17th.
At the same time the echelon was divided. The horses of the gun sections were always close to the pieces, but the remainder of the echelon -most of the field train-moved back to Jouarre and after this just kept close enough to keep supplies going forward.
The move to Fèrme d'Issinge was the final one for a number of days.
Life was monotonous. Fire and dig trenches, dig trenches and fire; the
kind of work that makes every one grumble. On the morning of the 14th the first piece moved into position in front of Fèrme Paris or Paris Farm, as we called it. Things were growing a bit livelier. Our own Artillery Brigade joined with a French brigade in reducing a patch of woods behind the German lines in which large forces of reserves had been concentrated. The seventy-fives had thrown a box barrage around the woods while our own cent cinquante cinqs [155s] demolished the target.
On the afternoon of the 18th it became evident that things were shaping up for some real fireworks. Great supplies of ammunition were being brought up. That evening the second, third and fourth pieces moved into position with the first. Then came natures prelude- a terrible electric storm. Mids't the rumbling of thunder, the flashes of lightning, and a terrible downpour of rain, the men were ordered to their post. For hours they stood there, greasing shells, without even the consolation of knowing the great work at hand. At one-thirty-five the order came to fire, and just as our guns spoke the whole front leaped into action. Flares, gun flashes, streaks of lightning, the rumble of thunder, the put-a-put of machine guns, the snap of the seventy-fives, the crash of the big guns, all combined to make it a night never to be forgotten. Even then we did not realize how great a task was in front of us, what great confidence the French had shown in the 26th by assigning it the position it now held. Later we learned that it was the most important and difficult position of the great counter-offensive.
All through that day and then through the night and then through the next day we fired incessantly, only taking time out occasionally to cool and swab the guns. The Germans had made a feeble attempt to respond to our fire but had soon been quieted. As we lengthened our range the 26th Division Infantry entered Torcy after the fiercest kind of fighting. At the end of the second day we realized what a change was taking place on the front. Our guns had a range of thirteen miles. We had started immediately in back of the front line trenches. Now we were firing at our maximum range and could not reach the Germans. They were on the run. They had been driven out of their trenches and dug-outs and now it was to be open warfare.
Battery B Advancing During the Battle
On the morning of the twenty-second, the Battery moved into Sorcerie Woods, but only for a short while. That night we moved into position near Beceau which because of its general appearance at this time, we called "the slaughter house." Here we exchanged shots with a German battery, and were very fortunate to escape without losses.
We occupied this position for almost two days, or until the afternoon of the twenty-fourth, when. we moved into position east of Epieds. This was our first opportunity to see the damage wrought by our own guns. Torcy the first town through which we passed, was absolutely demolished. Everything was level with the ground. It would have taken a wonderful imagination to picture the ruins we saw as orderly rows of buildings. Our Infantry as well as the Germans had suffered heavily.
Cercy and Belleau were the same as Torcy. The hike had taken all night and dawn was just breaking when we pulled into position northeast of Courpoil. The guns were hastily camouflaged and the horses put under cover. The first anniversary of the date we were mustered into the federal service found that service telling on the men. A spare gun crew was formed under Corporal Lovell, the object being to relieve the other gun crews in turn and give them a rest, and also to have a crew around to carry ammunition, dig, and do all the other extra jobs. It was highly successful as far as the work went, but no one got a rest.
No great amount of action took place here. The Germans dropped a
few shells over, which landed pretty close, but we sent some back that probably landed closer. That night the second platoon moved forward again and took up another position about two kilometers away. Intermittent firing followed for the rest of the night and all the next day. On the night of the 27th we were moving again and the entire Battery took up a position in an apple orchard northeast of Beauvardes. Action started immediately. So far the gun crews had been lucky. A few men had been wounded and a number of horses lost. On the 28th, a battery which the Germans had left behind to cover their retreat found the exact range of our Battery and then a barrage on the position and forward horse lines followed. Leeman, who had joined the Battery at Toul, was killed, a number of the boys were wounded, some of them severely, and seven horses were killed. German aviators helped to make things lively for us, and for the first time in our experience we found a use for the rifle.
We remained in position here until August 2nd. Our Infantry meanwhile, had been relieved by the 28th Division Doughboys, only to have to come back into the lines again. The 42nd Division Doughboys now relieved our own, but the Twenty-Sixth Artillery followed along in support. On August 2nd we moved forward to a new position near Villier-sur-Fere on the banks of the Ourcq. We had rather expected a difficult job in crossing this river. The only ones who found it so were the members of the spare gun crew. In some way they got their feet wet while carrying shells across the much talked of stream. Sergy, the last town taken by our Infantry, was just in front of the position, and there was plenty of evidence of the character of the fighting which had gone on for possession of this town.
Sergy at the Time of the Battle
The next day, August 3rd, we made our last move forward through the town of Sergy to a position near Chery Chartreuse. We had advanced farther against the enemy than any other division. We were as proud of that as we were of the evidence of the result of our firing. Anyone who thought the artillery at all unessential, needed only to follow up the drive, before the damage was camouflaged by the engineers, to find out their mistake.
On August 5th we were relieved by the 4th Division and started back that evening. The next morning we reached Beauvardes. Here we met the rear echelon, which had had experiences all its own, but just as exciting and trying as that of the gun crews.
One of the earliest arriving and most active of the AEF divisions, the 26th New Englanders would see subsequent heavy action at both St. Mihiel and north of Verdun in the Meuse Argonne Offensive. Nine of the Battery's men fell in France: Willie J. Bacon, Alfred C. Butts, Ray C. Bertherman, Archibald Coats, Edgar P. Black, William H. Francis, William J. Brailsford, Frederick A. Harmon and Harry Leeman.
The History of Battery B was written by a committee from the Battery and published in Providence in 1922. National Guard units which had an identity and an armory both before and after the war, had more opportunities to collaborate on such works. Consequently, they are valuable sources and often have more detailed information available about them then the regular army formations or the national army [draftee] units.
Lt. Renville Wheat
This work typically contains many gems contained in such small unit histories: cartoons, verse, sports records, photos of individuals and more. The authors included a little commentary on each man in the battery. This is how they remembered Lt. Renville Wheat, father of the contributor:
"Sometimes known as 'Reveille.' Came to us at Coetquedan with the official issue of Plattsburgh officers. For a while we thought he was going to be O.D. [olive drab?], but we soon found him to be a regular fellow. The Seicheprey fight deprived us of his services [Lt. Wheat was seriously wounded there], but during that engagement he brought credit to himself and the organization.
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