The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
A Contribution from the staff of
The Casement Museum, Fortress Monroe, Virginia
155 mm Heavy Battery Firing
The big guns, the heavy artillery of the AEF, made a major contribution to victory. They were, for instance, a decisive factor in the final phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. These large pieces were mostly manned by members of the US Army's Coastal Artillery Corps, including active service and National Guard regiments sent overseas which were supplemented by men trained in the heavy artillery schools in France. Over 70,000 men served in these artillery units which operated a range of weapons from railroad mounted naval rifles to larger field pieces. The story of the 59th Coastal Artillery Regiment which fired French-made 155 mm pieces and 8-inch British howitzers is representative of these units.
In 1653, or thereabout, a company of stout-hearted burghers of New Amsterdam formed themselves into a military organization for the defense of their homes and markets against all and sundry aggressors.
It Came from Brooklyn
In 1918, the lineal sons-in-arms of these good Holland-Americans. . ., found themselves called upon to defend New York in advanced positions along the Meuse and the Marne. And they did it --the whole official commendation appears below—"with a self-sacrificing devotion to duty and a superb efficiency that is beyond all praise."
...The 59th Artillery, C.A.C., was formed at Fort Hamilton on December 29, 1917, from three sources: the 13th C.A.N.Y., Regulars from the Defenses of Southern New York, and selected men from "up state"—chiefly Syracuse and Utica
The Guardsmen had been drafted into Federal Service on August 5, 1917, and had been distributed between Forts Hamilton, Wadsworth and Tilden, the 10th and part of the 12th companies being later sent to Iona Island, N.Y., to guard the Navy powder magazines.
The regiment perfected its organization at the beginning of the new year, and began to whip itself into shape. Enlisted men who could not measure up to standard, physically or otherwise, were eliminated; some officers were sent to Fort Monroe; picked men went to become enlisted specialists, and by March 25th the 59th, which had been concentrated at Fort Hamilton, was fit and "r'aring" to go. They paraded that day for General Calder and received their colors, and soon after midnight of March 26th they got their marching orders. The barracks blazed with lights, and by seven the regiment was on the road to the dock. On March 28th they sailed on the White Star liner "Olympic," without convoy, Colonel Sydney Grant, C.A.N.G., commanding the Regiment. The "Olympic" was headed for Liverpool, but wireless orders en route changed the course to Brest. Alternate concerts by the bands of the 56th and 59th helped relieve the tension that came from daily wearing of life preservers and that even the arrival of the convoying destroyers, in the danger zone, could not remove.
Crew for Manning One Gun [Not from 59th, CAC]
If you have photos of the members of the 59th during WWI, please contact us.
The Regiment had left New York in bitter gray weather; at Brest, on April 4th, it found green grass and yellow gorse setting off the white stone houses that climbed up the hillside and the "quaint tubby little fishing boats with dark red sails" that plied the harbor. France looked very picturesque—from shipboard. But after hiking three miles to the old stone cavalry barracks at Pontanezen, with full packs and overcoats already burdensome, the men flopped on to their "couchettes"—wooden frames filled with springy slats or wire netting—and understood why calling Pontanezen a "rest camp" was one the favorite jokes of the A.E.F.
April 6th—the first anniversary of our entrance into the war—found the Regiment entrained for Organization and Training center No.2 at Limoges, part in "side-door pullmans," the rest in second and third class coaches. On April 10th began exactly three months' training in and about Limoges, for schooling. A substantial interchange of men between the 59th and 119th Field Artillery left the Regiment with a nucleus of trained motor equipment men. On June 8th, Colonel James M. Wheeler relieved Colonel Grant.
THESE DROLL AMERICANS
American soldiers had not been seen in Aixe-sur-Vienne, where the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were billeted, before this, and the villagers found distraction every day in puzzled contemplation of these droll Americans who brush the teeth. Since the only available water came from hydrants along the street there was also a fine chance to watch the Americans wash—and wash so often, too, every morning at the very least. As for policing the towns, the 59th dug down through layer after layer of carefully cherished manure, which made the villagers almost weep, and laid open foundations and sub-strata that the oldest inhabitants had never seen. On July 4th, the Regiment was paraded in Limoges; within the next week it moved to La Courtine for two weeks' target practice with its 8-inch howitzers.
Firing Under Camouflage
ON THE ROAD TO METZ
The first job at the front for the 59th was part of the St. Mihiel show. On August 25th they started for the east side of the salient opposite Thiaucourt where they were to operate with the 5th Division, 1st Corps. Marching by night and bivouacking by day, they reached their destinations – the Fôret Puvenalle and St. Jacques—on August 31st.
Batteries "C" and "D" had a hard time getting into position, for their road lay too close to the Boches to use tractors over the last mile. Secrecy was essential, and the tractors made a lot of noise. So they maneuvered into place by using block and tackle and reversing the tractors, hauling away to the rear and pulling the guns forward. The positions were in rock, too, and space for the platforms had to be blasted out. They prepared their first positions with great care. Two and a half truck loads of camouflage were used in the most approved manner, and they congratulated themselves on an artistic job till captured German maps later revealed the fact that they Boche had the position located within five meters. After that only fish-net camouflage was used—when there was time or after a shoot, or on the road, and much of the time none at all.
At 1:00 A.M., on September 12th, the batteries opened fire. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions contributed 373 rounds to the doughboys' argument by 10:15 A.M. of the next day. The prisoners swarmed back, many of them, an officer of the 59th remarks, with suitcase and kits which suggested that they had been quite ready when the time came to surrender. The 3rd Battalion was the first of all the heavies to chase after the doughboys. The men thought they were right on to clean up Metz. The Battalion went so far over No Man's Land that it had to be called back, but not before enterprising members of Battery "E" had looked about a bit in Thiaucourt. A file of men was seen marching gravely back over the hill which lay between that German stronghold and their own position, led by a man whose khaki was surmounted by an elegant silk tile, and gorgeously punctuated with vivid green parasols, wraps and ruffles of many colors, and a startling variety of civilian gear. These spoils of war the Germans had left behind. For days afterwards the man with the tile wore it while doing K.P., with evident exhilaration.
"CANAL AND CHAMBERS STREETS"
Speaking of Battery "E," one must not forget the "Canal and Chambers Streets" sign that Private J. Cameron, of the B.R.T—Brooklyn Rapid Transit—took with him when he left New York. When the gunners went forward to a captured Boche emplacement the sign went too, and was promptly put up where nobody could miss it.
"O.D." belonged to Battery "E," too. He was called "O.D." because God made him that color. "O.D." was a dog that traveled everywhere with the battery until the doughboys picked him up in the Argonne where, rumor has it, he was gassed.
But, "Howitzer's" history was just the other way. He was a big bull dog that Battery "B" picked up, wounded, in the rear of the doughboys. They fixed him up and adopted him, of course, and made for him a regular pack and pack carrier, with a second-best blanket on his back and the best one in the roll, a miniature mess kit, and even service wound stripes on the blanket. "Howitzer" was stolen in Brest. A bad place, Brest.
When the Opposition Fired Back
INTO THE ARGONNE
The 59th never had a chance to get tired of its job: it changed bosses too often. One night in the space of six hours it fired for four different divisions in two corps. And then one night it divided its time between the French and the Americans. When it moved away from St. Mihiel on September 15th, it was soon relieved from duty with the 5th Division and assigned to the 1st Corps, 2nd French Army. It moved to Camp Dubiefville in the Argonne where headquarters were established in a typical French camp under the trees, wooden shacks with oiled paper windows, and, in this case, hot water and electric lights. After the batteries went into position this was used as a rest camp for men not on duty at the guns, and as a supply base and repair depot.
The first positions in the Argonne were Maison Forestiere for the 1st Battalion, and La Chalade for the others, both in the Bois de la Chalade. Here the regiment was divided between the 28th and 77th Divisions for the big show that opened at 11P.M. on September 26th.[25th] First it fired 800 rounds as divisional artillery; firing on dugouts, strong points and the like, in preparation for zero hour at 5:30 A.M. Then till 8:30 in the morning it fired 598 rounds as corps artillery, doing destruction and counter battery work. That is a rather barren statement of what was happening when the world was afire and a battery position felt like the inside of a volcano in full eruption—but why try to describe it?
From then till the first of November it was shelling and being shelled, and shelling back, moving up and shelling again, all the time.
CAMOUFLAGE? PAS MAINTENANT
On October 6th and 7th the whole Regiment moved into new positions about half a kilometer north of Very, firing there on the 8th and 9th a total of 1,170 rounds. Going into position in the Argonne was something of a gamble. There was so much artillery, both French and American, concentrated there that it was pretty much a case of first come first served. You might go ahead and pick out a beautiful position and find that when your guns came up that some other battery was busily and obliviously working in it. Then you edged your guns wherever you found room for them. As for camouflage—"Ah, oui," the French battery officers would say, "Camouflage; Beaucoup. Mais pas maintenant. C'est la guerre de mouvement."—So there was little or none of it with the howitzers, and little digging in, except that the men were supposed to dig themselves in individually, and for the most part the men were covered by pup-tents and the guns were covered by nothing at all.
The Regiment was working up the left flank of the Argonne offensive. On October 10th the 1st Battalion was under way again, and was followed on the 11th and 12th by the 3rd and 2nd Battalions to positions in and near Eclisfontaine, not more than a kilometer from the front line.
Batteries "E" and "F" began firing on October 11th with targets near Landres, St. Georges. From these positions all batteries fired till October 23. They were held here chiefly to help break up the heavy German counter-attacks on positions first taken by the Americans, including Romagne, where the Regiment itself fired a little later.
Here Battery "D" found [a] whippet tank … . It was one of twenty that had been knocked out within five kilometers or so. Boche traps, pits of explosives which were detonated by the weight of the tank as it passed over them, accounted for some. But this particular whippet was not too much injured to be salvaged, and Battery "D" put it in commission as a tractor. It would not haul a gun, but it was quite capable of taking care of a disabled car.
US Infantry Advancing Over Area Bombarded by the Big Guns
Note the size of the soldiers.
La Dhuy Farm, one of the targets here, sheltered a wood full of German machine gun nests. That and Landres St. Georges were names the Regiment was proud to remember, for [we were commended here for our performance by Vth Corps Commanding General Charles Summerall].
The further the 59th went the hotter it got. On October 24th the 3rd Battalion moved to Fleville, where Battery "E" lost a gun; or the next day the 1st Battalion took position in rear of hill 288; on the 26th the 2nd Battalion went to the Cunel Road, near Romagne. All three positions were under murderous fire. A convoy on the Hill 288 road was badly jammed one day: one driver could keep only one cylinder working; another had trouble in the feed pipe, and so on. They vowed they could not possibly go on till the caterpillars came. Then: Whee-e—Wham—a big one landed just beside the road. In five minutes the road was bare!
The men were far too indifferent to danger, however. In an air raid, they say, the French rush into the cellars, the Americans into the streets. So the 3rd Battalion got a lot of amusement from its French interpreter. Battalion headquarters, on the way to these positions, was in a 5-ton truck. When it pulled up and stopped at the spot picked for headquarters, the interpreter threw himself almost head foremost out of the rear of the truck. When it pulled up and stopped at the spot picked for headquarters, the interpreter threw himself almost head foremost out of the rear of the truck, shovel in hand, and started digging feverishly. In half an hour he had dug himself out of sight, and thereafter he could not be persuaded to go more than a few yards from the entrance of his shelter. When a shell shrieked, he would dive in like a woodchuck, and stick his head out a minute later to see what had happened. Oddly, most of the casualties in motor trains seemed to be among the French. Luck was with the Americans time and time again.
Hill 288, by the way, was a strong point of the Kriemhilde Stellung, which the Germans hoped to hold and which the Americans broke off after bitter fighting.
THE DAY'S WORK
From these positions, constantly under shelling with gas and high explosives, the Regiment fired 3,384 rounds up to and including November 1st. The score on that last day was 1,680. The bare record of that firing is impressive:
On October 28th: Battery "B" fired 50 rounds, harassing fire, on Ramonville.
October 29th: Battery "A" fired 50 rounds, Battery "B" fired 45 rounds on Ramonville and cross-roads; Battery "C" fired 45 rounds on village of Andevanne, Chauteau Farm, and Les Tulieries; Battery "D" fired 35 rounds on village of Andevanne, Chauteau Farm, and Les Tulieries. Casualties: 1 killed, Private William J. Pritchard, Battery "B," and one wounded.
October 30th: Battery "A" fired 150 rounds on Abre de Ramonville, Bois d'Andevanne, and Bois de Rau; Battery "B" fired 100 rounds on Abre de Ramonville, Bois d'Andevanne, and Bois de Rau; Battery "C" fired 120 rounds on Les Tulieries and enemy batteries; Battery "D" fired 68 rounds on La Chauteau Farm and cross-roads. Casualties: 1 killed, Private William R. Lewis, Battery "A."
October 31st: Battery "A" fired 530 rounds on Ramonville and other targets; Battery "B" fired 504 rounds on enemy positions and trenches; 2nd Battalion, batteries fired 7 rounds on village of Andevanne. Casualties: 2 gassed.
November 1st: Battery "A" fired rounds destructive fire; Battery "C" fired 684 rounds on cross-roads and observation point; Battery "D" fired 405 rounds and Battery "F" fired 497 rounds on enemy positions. Casualties: 4 wounded.
At Romagne the 2nd Battalion was having its share of shells. The mess line was scattered at meal after meal by inopportune attentions from the Boches, and dirt was often thrown all over the officers' mess table. Lieutenant J.C.Lange, just joining Battery "C," was told to find a bunk for the night in a truck. He chose one of Battery "D's" trucks, stepped away for a minute or two, and came back to find a shell hole through it. The men in their pup tents would listen to the shells falling around them. One night seven out of eight were duds. The trucks that brought up ammunition were pressed into service to carry back wounded from the fighting in front.
"We knew we were lucky if we ate now and then," said one of the men. "On the roads the guns came first, then ammunition, then wounded, and then grub. The stuff came rather spasmodically, but we all knew how things were. The weather was good enough while we were up there—but if we got a day of sunshine we thought it was Christmas!"
Present-Day Museum Display of French 155 mm Cannon
WHAT THEY DID TO THE HUNS
As to the effectiveness of the fire which the artillery attached to the 5th Corps was delivering, there is strong testimony in information secured from German prisoners and circulated by the Artillery Information Service of the 5th Army Corps, 1st Army:
November 4. 15th Bavarian Division, Captured artillery men of this Division state that in recent days the American artillery, shelling far to the rear areas, had interfered with the supply of munitions to such an extent that the batteries were almost without ammunition.
Prisoners state that our fire on Nov. 2nd in preparation for the attack was extremely accurate and effective.
November 5th. Prisoners continue to praise our artillery fire. A prisoner belonging to the 136th Foot Artillery Battalion states that on November 1st the entire personnel of his battery left the position for the rear because of the effectiveness of our fire. On the 2nd they were ordered to return, but this prisoner was captured before he reached the guns.
Prisoners of many field artillery units captured since October 31st, report that the American Artillery has caused heavy losses in their units, and they are unanimous in praising our artillery's accuracy. Prisoners of the 104th Field Artillery Regiment state that on October 17th alone their regiment lost 150 men from shell fire on battery emplacements, and they are not informed as to additional losses in the regimental trains to the rear. Early November 1st their battery emplacements were shelled so effectively that all communication with the rear and with the Infantry was quickly cut off, and the batteries were practically put out of action. In the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment, the 7th Battery alone lost 15 men between October 26th and November 1st, reducing the effectives with the battery to 30-35 men. On October 31st the 9th Battery if the 10th Field Artillery Regiment lost 9 men. Similar figures are reported from large numbers of batteries.
Many of the prisoners captured on the 1st state that the reason they were taken is that our artillery concentrations were so effective that they were confined to their shelters and isolated in small groups. Artillery prisoners state that they were unable to serve their guns. In several instances, batteries were unable to fire a shot. There were cases of officers who were entirely cut off from communication with their troops.
KICK , BANG AND HOLLER
The 59th was near enough to all kinds of French artillery to enjoy seeing how they did things. They liked to watch the French horse artillery.
"They don't know how to handle horses," said an officer, "but they get their guns over places where you don't see other people going. They take those 105's over stone walls and hedges. But a French rider seem to think the way to ride is to kick with his heels, bang with his hands and holler.
"They like Fords. They seem to like any automobile that makes a lot of noise."
"Yes," interposed another officer, "They like anything that stops in the middle of the road!"
It was impossible even for the 155's to keep up altogether with the rapid going, but they made better speed than the howitzers. On November 2nd the motor trucks of the 59th were taken over to haul ammunition for these lighter guns and the Regiment was soon ordered back to Camp Dubiefville and from there to its old billets in the little villages on the Marne.
Those "elderly people" were ready for them. Word came that the Americans were coming back. In two hours every house in the four towns had a hot meal for their friends the soldiers. The men found their old billets. Their hosts took them in, welcomed them excitedly, and then wouldn't hear of their being moved. The adjutant, Captain H.H. Slicer, was recognized by an old French newspaper man, and it took him three and a half hours to go two blocks. It was a glass of wine here, and a long chat there, and a know of friends next door, and nothing was too good for Monsieur le Capitaine
On December the 8th the whole 32nd Brigade was reviewed by the Commanding General of the 1st Army. Four days later the 59th, Colonel R.K. Cravens commanding, entrained for Brest, whence it sailed on January 8th on the U.S.S "Louisiana" and the "New Hampshire," supposedly for Newport News. Radio orders sent both ships to New York, instead, and the Regiment came back to a warm welcome from its home town before going on to Camp Upton for speedy demobilization.
The Army Artillery of the 1st Army and the whole 1st Army had so many citations and commendations in which the 59th shared that one could hardly quote them all in one article. But there is one belonging to the 5th Army Corps that must be quoted:
HEADQUARTERS V ARMY CORPS,|
American Expeditionary Forces
France, 2 November, 1918
From: Commanding General, V Army Corps.
To: Brigadier General D.E. Aultman
I desire to convey to you and to the Officers and Soldiers of all Artillery serving in this Corps, my profound appreciation and my high admiration of the brilliant manner in which the Artillery of all classes has performed the difficult tasks allotted to it, especially during the advance of November first.
Although the Artillery has been constantly in action, day and night, sustaining the battle since the beginning of the present offensive, it has responded with a self-sacrificing devotion to duty and superb efficiency that is beyond all praise. While our dauntless Infantry have advanced against the enemy's prepared position with a courage that elicits our greatest admiration, it must be recognized that without the powerful and skillful co-operation of the Artillery, it would have been impossible to accomplish the results they have so brilliantly achieved.
The tremendous volume of fire, the skillful arrangement of all objectives, and the perfect co-ordination with the Infantry and machine guns, have made the action of November first a model of completeness, and it must stand as a tribute to the able administrative officers who conceived the plans and to the technical ability and the fidelity to duty of those who executed them.
I beg that you will convey to the Officers and Soldiers of all units of Artillery the foregoing sentiments, and will assure them of my abiding wished for their continued success in the campaigns that lie before them.
Major General, Commanding
Sources and thanks:
This article -- which did not list an author --- first appearead in LIAISON: The Courier of the Big Gun Corps; Vol. 1 No. 28, June 7, 1919. Thanks to David Johnson and the rest of the staff of The Casement Museum at Fortress Monroe, Virginia for finding and sending us this article. GWS member Elizabeth Weilbacher helpfully transcribed it for us. Minor deletions were made by the Editor to shorten the original. Photos courtesy of regular DBC contributors Mary Schaefer and Ray Mentzer and from AMERICAN ARMIES AND BATTLEFIELDS IN EUROPE. MH
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