Chemin des Dames (Feb.-March 1918)

“We have been under a very heavy fire all day so please excuse all mistakes. I beleive I told you that I wouldn’t write much for reasons not my own but I just can’t help it.” -Letter from Sam Avery, 2/22/18

In late January, 1918 the preliminary training of the 26th Division was cut short and it was assigned to reinforce the depleted XI Corps of the French 6th Army on the Chemin des Dames front, north of Soissons and the Aisne River. The 103rd Infantry entrained at Liffol-le-Grand on February 5 and traveled by rail to Soissons with the troops gaining experience in traveling on standard French military trains which used freight cars accomodating up to 40 men or 8 horses {Hommes 40/Cheveaux 8} apiece.

The city of Soissons was a strategic railroad hub and distribution center which had been engulfed in the Great War since the beginning. It had been briefly taken and held by the Germans in 1914 and was also the center of French counter-operations in 1917. Now in early 1918 it remained firmly in Allied hands but was still subject to German long-range artillery fire. After arriving at mid-day on February 6, the 1st Battalion of 103rd Infantry detrained and marched to St. Blaise Quarry which was located near Nanteuil-la-Fosse and consisted of a giant underground cave system of large chambers and corridors able to accomodate an entire Battalion of men. Although infested with rats, the quarry featured bunks of chicken wire and electric lighting, and had the advantage of concealing both movement and numbers of troops from enemy observation. Sam Avery detrained with the 2nd Battalion and marched to Crouy which was a small ruined village on the outskirts of Soissons where the men found shelter in cellars and dugouts.

26th Div. Troops Aboard 40 man/8 horse rail cars, 1918

The Chemin des Dames had been fought over since the beginning of the war and the rocky, wooded terrain favored the German defensive line. In addition, the Germans enjoyed almost total air superiority in this sector and frequently flew low over the roads and trenches to strafe them with machine gun bullets. The 12 battalions of the “Yankee” Division were spread across a front of 30 kilometers. The 103rd Infantry held the front line between the ruined towns of Chavignon and Pinon. Regimental HQ was at Vaudesson with a support battalion located at St. Blaise Quarry/Nanteuil and a reserve battalion at Vregny. The 52nd Brigade’s HQ was at Juvigny with the towns of Jouy, Vailly and Missy-Conde used as assembly areas for the battalions in reserve.

Ruins of Chavignon, 1918

As individual companies took over the French positions (by platoons of 20-40 men supported by 2 or more machine guns) in shallow, knee-deep trenches along the northern edge of the Chemin des Dames plateau,  the balance of their battalions remained sheltered in reserve inside limestone quarries and caves along the edge of the ridge.

26th Div. Trench, Chemin des Dames 1918

The line itself was composed of a series of strong points (“petites postes”) equipped with machine guns and automatic rifles that provided mutually supporting fire across the front of the line. The German and Allied lines were approximately 500 yards apart with the Oise-Aisne canal running east to northwest across the valley in between. The entire terrain was covered with shell craters and sections of abandoned trenches from past engagements. The outposts were occupied by men whose mission was “warning and sacrifice:” If attacked, they were to fight to the last man and resist capture, which would buy time for the main line of resistance to make ready. No reinforcements would be coming. Private Ralph Spaulding of the 103rd was the first death from hostile fire in the 26th Division on February 14, 1918.

Burying the First Dead, Chemin Des Dames 1918

During this time, the American infantry reacquainted their French mentors with the value of skilled riflery compared to excessive reliance on machine guns and mortars for trench warfare: One intrepid sniper of the 103rd Infantry picked off an average of one German soldier per day.

26th Div. Rifleman at work, Chemin des Dames 1918

On March 16, the Germans fired a combined artillery barrage and gas bombardment of 20,000 mixed chemical shells that lasted a full 24 hours and caused considerable casualties before the 26th Division was relieved from the sector.

No Man's Land, Chemin des Dames 1918

 

No Man's Land, Chemin des Dames Today (photo by Michael St. Maur Shell)

LIFE IN THE TRENCHES

In his second  letter from the line on Feb. 19, 1918, Sam writes “This trench life is all that it has been cracked up to be and we havent seen much wet weather latly either.” Sam’s letters reveal a rapid transition from initial excitement at the prospect of finally going In to weariness after living the trench life in a mire of mud and blood for just two weeks.

Death was a constant companion for all who served on the line, even when no ground attacks were in progress. Shellfire (both high-explosive and gas) brought random death and injury whether men were at rest in earthwork shelters (dugouts), keeping watch on the fire-step, or in Sam’s case constantly on the move between positions to maintain contact with all the platoons across the Regiment’s sub-sector. Novices to the trenches were frequent casualties since they had not yet developed the instincts to evade incoming fire and peered over the trench parapets with curiosity where enemy snipers shot at them.

The trenches were also infested with vermin including rats (called “Trench Rabbits” by the Americans) which freely scampered and fed on unburied human remains, sometimes growing to the size of a cat and spreading disease and contamination.  Close combat with these creatures was a daily occurrence, and troops frequently slept with their faces covered in order to not be disturbed when rats ran across their faces in the dark. Lice or “cooties” were another endless problem which caused constant itching from their bites and movement inside clothing.  Although issued Army clothing was periodically deloused in steam disinfection machines to the rear of the line, eggs embedded in the heavy seams would remain behind and hatch from body heat when the clothes were worn again for a few hours.

Poilu and Yanks sharing a Dugout, 1918

 

"Chemin Des Dames" by C. LeRoy Baldridge, 1918

Coughs and colds were universally suffered due to continuous exposure to unsanitary conditions combined with the cold, wet environment. Other ailments endemic to trench life included Trench Fever which was an infection and fever caused by lice infestation, Trench Foot which was a fungal infection of the feet, and Trench Mouth which consisted of bleeding gums and foul breath due to poor oral hygiene, malnutrition and smoking.

Trench Foot

The rancid, overwhelming smell was another environmental condition that affected both the health and the mindset of the troops on the line. First-time visitors to the front line were stunned by the magnitude of the stench, but all gradually acclimated to it. The smell of death and decay was pervasive from rotting corpses that lay unburied or in shallow graves which were unearthed by shellfire and the digging of new trenches. Latrines overflowed and their contents were carried by hand through the trenches in buckets which were frequently spilled and sloshed under fire: Often the waste would also be dumped directly in front of the trench parapet when an oncoming attack was expected. The men themselves stank from not having washed or changed clothes for weeks, with rotting feet and teeming with lice. Added to all this were the smells of explosives, gun smoke, poison gas, rotting sandbags, mud, tobacco smoke and food cooking on trench stoves.

As Sam would say on Feb. 19, 1918; “This is the life, this is the life, (it has come to be the life for me). Im far from liking it, but it’s the best weve got.”

"Infantryman" by H.E. Townsend

The 26th Division held the Aisne line under the instruction of the French Army from February 6 until March 20 1918, making successful raids and learning hard “finishing lessons” in the realities of trench warfare. These lessons included how to endure daily artillery fire and gas bombardments, the necessity of concealment, maintaining liason between units, maintaining health and sanitation in the trenches, care of equipment in the field, making organized reliefs among units, logistics and intelligence, repairing defensive works and patrol tactics. Soon these lessons learned would be put to hard use…

ORIGINAL FILM OF NO-MAN’S LAND IN CHEMIN DES DAMES, FRANCE.

ORIGINAL FILM OF 102ND INF. HQ FORT MALMAISON AND 103RD INF. HQ FORT FRANCINETTE IN CHEMIN DES DAMES, 1918.

ORIGINAL FILM OF 102ND INF. FIELD KITCHEN IN CHEMIN DES DAMES, FRANCE.

Read Soldier’s Mail from the Chemin des Dames here: February, 1918; March, 1918.

 

Published on November 10, 2008 at 5:25 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I’ll just leave my remark here as, due to poor eyesight, I am copying out most of Sgt. Avery’s letters to read another time on paper. This is a terrific site, one of the best I’ve seen on ’14-’18 or ’39’- ’45. Thanks for all the background information too (esp. on the 1916 border war with Mexico). Eventually I’ll probably be wanting to quote a few passages, and will be back in touch about that.


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