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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces




37th Ohio Division

FIRST TO BREACH THE ESCAUT RIVER

Sgt Paul Smithhisler
Ohio's 37th Division

By

Joe Smithhisler



Sgt. Paul Smithhisler

Presented the Great War Society

It was the Ypres-Lys campaign that saw the crowning achievement of the 148th. There the Regiment, first of all allied troops, crossed the Escaut (Scheldt) River in Belgium on November 2, 1918 and maintained the crossing in spite of heavy losses from machine gun and shell fire. It was there, too, that the regimental motto, "We'll do it", was inspired."

Regimental History


My Father, Sgt. Paul Smithhisler of the 37th Division of the AEF, was the first Doughboy to cross Germany's Hindenberg Line at Belgium's Escaut River, as part of the last Allied Offensive to end WWI. His role has been memorialized in over two dozen battlefield sketches and diary entries. These sketches and diary entries have just recently been resurrected and his story is now available.

A search of the Web reveals very little about the 37th Division in WWI history. Yet, this Division was the first to fight their way through Belgium's Section of the Hindenberg Line, after other American & French Divisions had failed. This is the story of the accomplishment of the two 37th Division regiments (112th Engineering and 148th Infantry) who made this happen.


One of the Bridges Across the Escaut
Made Possible Through Paul Smithhisler's Reconnaisance

It was the closing days of WWI. The Germans had been stalling the signing of the Armistice. If they could stop the allied advance at their "Hindenberg Line", perhaps they could get better terms. The "FIRST DAY" of the last big Allied drive to reach the Belgium Sector of the Hindenberg Line (Escaut River), began on October 31st. In two days the Allies advanced 9 miles before they were stopped cold at the Escaut River. The French 128th Division had joined the American 37th and 91st Divisions in the battle to cross this River. The Germans had blown all bridges, and massed their artillery and machine guns all along the East bank. So murderous was this firepower, and with the swift current, that these Divisions could not fight their way across. Both the American 91st and the French 128th failed. The American 37th Division did succeed in getting their bridge up.

This became possible, after Sgt. Smithhisler's crossing of the Escaut in a daring nighttime underwater swim, on November 1. His sketching of the exact positions of the enemy's gun emplacements made their elimination by our Artillery possible. These heroics resulted in General Pershing's personal award of the Distinguished Service Cross. France also presented him with their Croix de Guerre and Belgium awarded his 112th Engineering Regiment the Belgium War Cross for this feat.


Damage Observed on the Way to the Front in Belgium

October 31,1918 was the start of the last American big push of the war and they made 3 miles that first day. By "Day Two" (November 1) they had fought their way another 6 miles to Eyne and the west bank of the Escaut River. The American 37th Division along with the American 91st Division and the French 128th Division between them, all attempted to Bridge the Escaut River where the enemy was firmly entrenched on the other side. The Germans had blown all the bridges and had established artillery and machine gun nests on their side. This was to be their last line of defense.

We were sent up and entrenched on the west bank of the Escaut River in the vicinity of Syugau (Syngem), where it was almost certain death to stick one's head above the trench.

From the Diary of Pvt. Robert L. Dwight 148th Infantry, 37th Division


The three Divisions took heavy casualties in trying to cross the river in small pontoon boats and the 112th Engineering and the 148th Infantry Regiments lost many men in attempting to erect a bridge. Completing a bridge proved impossible as the swift current and hidden German Artillery destroyed all their efforts. All attempts to locate and take out this Artillery were in vain. With no hope of getting a Bridge up soon, Dad and Pvt. Burke were given a 24-hour pass to get some rest. A couple of miles back from the River they had found a Barn outside the small Village of Wanagem. They had just settled in the straw, when they heard that the 37th Division had asked for volunteers to cross this river under cover of nightfall. They were to reconnoiter behind the German Lines, pinpointing their encampments and artillery pieces, returning with this information before daybreak.

That night Dad was the only volunteer from his 112th Engineering Regiment. High Command must have been pleased with his credentials for this assignment. He was an exceptionally strong swimmer and they had probably been apprised of the detailed clarity of his daily sketches as they had moved through France and into Belgium. But there was still one problem, in addition to the swift river being ice cold, deep and 100-foot wide; there was an 8-foot steep and slippery bank on the allied side. This would require a volunteer, who would be exposed to the expected heavy German fire, while waiting to help Dad up the bank (in the event of a successful daylight return). Private Frank Burke volunteered to help and as was instrumental in saving Dad's life.

When I awakened this morning I then remembered the town of Huevel - that's where I slipped down that deep bank and started off; leaving a good kid by the name of Burke to pull me out if I ever got back".

Joe Smithhisler letter May 1977


The Sergeant had then started his icy underwater swim, to the German side (East Bank) before midnight on the 1st of November. This daring reconnoitering took place along two miles on the German side of the Escaut, between the small Belgian towns of Huevel, Huerne and Eyne. He related to me that: "the river was ice cold and the current swift, but I did make it undetected to the other side". He then spent the night dodging German sentries and patrols as he sketched exact German positions. It was just at daybreak when he reached the river for the icy return swim, with the valuable information safely secured in his waterproof pouch. Unfortunately the Germans had spotted him just as he slipped into the river. Desperately the Germans opened up with withering machine gun fire. Dad also told me that he: "had never swum underwater for so long or been that cold".

The German's by now must have been quite desperate having failed to kill him, with their machine gun fire, as he reached the allied side. It was one of the last times the German's used the dreaded Mustard Gas during the war. When Dad arrived, so did the mustard gas. As he remembered coming out of the water on the other side: "I was exhausted and completely immersed in this gas and unable to put on my gas mask". Dad did remember Pvt. Burke pulling him up the bank to help in "putting on my mask before he put on his own". Pvt. Burke died shortly thereafter. That act cost Pvt. Burke his life, and it most certainly saved my Father's.

The detailed notes in Sgt Smithhisler's waterproof pouch made it possible for the Allied artillery to take out the enemy's artillery and machine gun nests on the east bank. With the German guns now silenced, that morning, troops from the 148th Infantry and 112th Engineers were the first to cross the river by repositioning trees felled along the riverbank, near Heurne. Beforet the end of 2 November, the 112th Engingeers had completed two foot bridges for the next crossings by the 148th Infantry near Eyne and Huevel. By 3 November, the 148th had firmly established their brigeheads on the east bank. The American 91st and French 128th Divisions had been unable to construct any bridges on 2 November and had to request permission to use the 37th Division's bridges.


Peaceful Section of the Belgian Countryside

If that artillery had not been located and significantly taken out by our own artillery, the 37th Division would no more successful than the 91st and the French 128th Divisions. It would have resulted in significantly more loss of life, by all three of these Divisions, if they had to force their way across the Escaut, if in fact, it could even have been done before the Armistice. For certain, the men of the 148 Infantry Regiment (37th Division) had to be grateful for the 112th Bridge.

In some of the bloodiest fighting that year, the 148th Infantry became the first element to establish and hold a beachhead on the East Bank. In a surprise move (and after the American's had secured the bridge & beachhead) the VI French High Command ordered 2 of their French Divisions (the 12th and 41st) to relieve both the 37th and 91st Divisions; who were then pulled back from the Escaut River for some R & R. The French were certainly most happy to use the 112th Bridge. During this last week of the war, the French were again unsuccessful in the construction of another Bridge across the Escaut.

As a testament to "no good deed should go unpunished", the 112th engineers were soon called back, this time to construct a fourth bridge across the Escaut, at Syngem. By November 10 the 112th Engineers had completed this, their second bridge, with the 37th & 91st Divisions now advancing across all of the 112th bridges. They had driven another 5 miles deeper into Belgium, when the armistice finally stopped all fighting on the "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month."


General Pershing Awards Sgt. Smithhisler the Distinguished Service Cross

Christmas found him being treated in a French hospital for severe hypothermia and seared lungs. Dad continued making more sketches of the carnage he witnessed in the French and Belgium villages during those closing days of that War. As were all his sketches, they were made with matchsticks dipped in water. Upon his release, on January 25 1919 at Alencon France, General Pershing personally awarded my Father the DSC. Only 25 DSC's were awarded to the 37th Division, and they were in battles whose names are familiar to this day. These were no minor skirmishes, with names like: Ypres, Argonne, and St. Mihiel. They helped end a war in two months, which had gone on for 4 years prior. And so went the "War to end all Wars".

In addition to his award of the Distinguished Service Cross, The French awarded him the French Croix De Guerre and Belgium awarded him, and the entire Regiment, the Belgium War Cross. He also received the WWI Victory Medal with three Campaign bars attached, for the: Ypres-Lys, Meuse-Argonne and the Defensive Sectors. On the day this war ended (11-11-18) Major General de Goutte (Commander of the VI French Army) was so grateful for the American actions, in the completion of this first 112th Bridge, that he issued:

On the heights between Lys and the Escaut, the enemy was to hold "to the Death". The American troops belonging to the 37th Division........in an operation of extraordinary daring, crossed the Escaut under the enemy fire, and maintained themselves on the opposite bank.......glory to such troops and to such Commanders. They had bravely contributed to the liberation of a part of Belgium territory and to the final victory. The great nation to which they belong can be proud of them.

French General Order No. 31


Sketched By a Recuperating Sgt. Smithhisler


Contact Joe Smithhisler with any comments you may have on this article.


Acknowledgements & Credits: To Gene Small, our family historian, for all his original research and editorial composition. He did spark my interest to resurrect my Father's long forgotten sketches. This made it possible to Share, HIS STORY, and a bit of the Ohio's 37th Division's history in ending WWI. To David Homsher, a noted authority on the Great War, for all his time and research in providing numerous references to support the conclusions for this document. To Sequoia Powers, a relative and friend, who scanned and made the original CD of all Dad's Sketches and Photos found in the Section 8. Sketches & Photos. To Jack (my brother), for remembering some of Dad's stories, that I had long forgotten. To Tom (my son) and Bonnie (my fiancÚ) for their persistence in correcting some of my abuses of the King's English.



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