“When I say trenches, of coarse I mean the front, for there is no such thing nowadays. Only shell holes or holes that each individual doughboy digs himself. The Boshe have been driven from their trenches and holes and is given no time to resume his old tactics.” -Letter from Sam Avery, 11/1/18
Once again promoted to Private First Class, Sam Avery was discharged from the hospital in late September and rejoined Hdq. Co., 103rd Infantry by October 4, 1918. He was issued a replacement gas mask, rifle (#138211) and bayonet (#691932) and took his place back in the ranks just in time for the 26th Division to participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive had formally commenced on September 26, 1918 and was both the largest American military operation and greatest AEF victory of the Great War.
Following the St. Mihiel operation, the 103rd Infantry was heavily bombarbed by gas at Saulx before being relieved on October 6-7 when it moved north of Verdun, marching by night. The movement was difficult due to bad conditions of the roads and the sheer number of troops being concentrated in the area for the upcoming offensive. By October 9, the entire Regiment had arrived in the vicinity of Fromereville with HQ established at Moulin Brule. On October 10, the 26th Division’s HQ was opened in the battered citadel at Verdun with the troops located in camps and billets to the southwest.
On October 13, the 52nd Brigade entered the lines attached to the French 17th Corps with Brigade HQ established in the ruins of Cumieres. The line occupied by the 17th Corps extended from Sivry east to Molleville Farm Wood, then southeast to Haumont Wood and Caures Wood. On October 14, the 103rd Infantry moved to Cote d’Oie in preparation to take over a sub-sector on the line. The night of October 15-16, the 26th Division completed relief of the French 18th Division in the Neptune Sector from Ormont on the left to Beaumont on the right.
The 52nd Brigade held the right side of the line in a tangle of trenches north and northeast of Cote de Poivre. All battalions of the 103rd Infantry moved into the front lines on the nights of October 22-23, occupying old German positions which were in a bad state of disrepair. From the moment of its arrival on the line until the very end of hostilities, the 103rd Infantry was subjected to severe artillery fire.
Facing them, the German 1st and 32nd Landwehr Divisions had constructed layered defenses over months which proved highly resistant to attack including artillery, machine guns and intricate trenchworks embedded in a muddy moonscape with observation points on the heights above. The weather was dismal with a continual rain and cold river mists saturating everything including clothing and blankets. Dugouts and trenches were flooded and knee-deep in mud, hillsides were mud piles torn by constant artillery and sniper fire, the roads were impassable, and toxic gas permeated everything. Exhausted and clad in worn, filthy clothing, the men also had insufficient hot food and were forced by necessity to use untreated water from any source including puddles and shell holes which caused many cases of diarrhea. What further added to the misery was an outbreak of dreaded influenza that took its own share of casualties across all ranks.
On October 23-27, the 51st Brigade on the left side of the line struggled to clear the eastern ridge of the heights of the Meuse with mixed success and very heavy casualties while the 52nd Brigade remained in place at Bois d’Haumont (Point A) protecting the right flank. The 103rd Infantry’s center of resistance was along the captured “Kriemhilde Line” at the Tranchee de la Mamelle near Romagne with the 104th Infantry positioned to their left. Division casualties during this time included 261 killed, 1,287 wounded, 1,229 gassed and 231 missing. On November 6, a battalion each from the 103rd and 104th were briefly redeployed to the area of Ormont Wood in support of the U.S. 79th Division and were occupied with making regular trench raids on the German lines to capture prisoners.
On November 7 the entire 26th Division front was bombarded by 3,000 gas and 6,000 high explosive shells as the Germans prepared to withdraw. On November 8 in response to evidence of a German withdrawal across the front, the 103rd Infantry pushed into the German front line positions in their sub-sector and occupied them. Immediately the detached elements of the 52nd Brigade were recalled and a new 26th Division advance line was established on the heights above the Azannes-Damvillers road (Point B).
New orders on November 9 changed the direction of advance to the southeast with the objective of the hills called the “Ornes Twins” and the village of Azannes. After being held in check by German machine guns during the remainder of the day, on November 10 the 103rd Infantry captured Town Wood and the 104th Infantry flanked the enemy at Ville-devant-Chaumont. At 2100 hours on November 10, despite rumors that an armistice would be signed on November 11, orders were published directing a new attack on Les Jumelles d’Ornes, Hill #265 and Maucourt the next day.
[Pictured above are shoulder-straps cut from the uniforms of captured German prisoners to confirm military intelligence. According to the Daily Intelligence Report of the 17th French Corps on October 25, 1918, hostile contact was made with the German 160th Infantry and 245th Reserve Regiments which held sections of the enemy line of resistance from Sivry to La Wavrille. The 103rd Infantry was part of the Corps attack that drove back these and numerous other German units in retreat until the Armistice on November 11.]
On November 11 at 0545 hours, a radio message from Marshal Foch was received that stated hostilities would cease along the entire front at 1100 hours French time, but much to the dismay of American officers, the order for the 26th Division to attack commencing at 0930 hours remained unchanged. Information about the cease-fire was deliberately withheld from the rank and file to keep order and discipline intact during the continuing offensive operations.
The 103rd Infantry made its final advance in line with the other regiments in pursuit of the retreating Germans, reaching the road south of Ville-devant-Chaumont (Point C) before coming to a final halt at 1100 hours. The men of the 103rd were occupied with clearing machine gun nests until the very last moment, and some were angered when their artillery support suddenly stopped before realizing that hostilites had finally ended.
Across the entire front the guns fell silent, followed by frantic cheering from the men on both sides who had already counted themselves dead and now realized they had been given the gift of survival. But the joy of Sam Avery and the men of the 103rd was tempered by the memory of those who had recently fallen: Casualties in the 103rd Infantry during the 11 days of November were over 400 killed and wounded with 500 additional gassed.
Just before dusk on November 12, one officer and 10 men of the 103rd Infantry who had fallen during the last 2 days were buried in one large common grave on a hillside at the edge of Bois de Ville. This marked the most forward position of the 103rd Infantry’s final advance in the Great War. Among the men killed on the final drive before the Armistice was Moses Neptune, son of the Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor William Neptune. Although not considered a full American citizen (Congress enacted legislation on November 6, 1919, granting citizenship to Indian veterans of World War I), Moses had enlisted for service at the young age of 19 along with 34 other volunteers from the small tribal enclave of Pleasant Point, Perry, Maine. Read the Chaplain’s letter to Tribal Gov. William Neptune here.
The Regiment was relieved on the nights of November 12-13, and the next day began a march of 185 kilometers towards a well-earned rest. When it finally left the lines on November 14, the 103rd Infantry had been reduced to only 25-30% of its original strength…