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"At 4.20pm the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 61st Infantry, had reached the bank of the river, and the engineers started work on the first bridge. At this moment a tremendous fire of machine guns and artillery burst on the exposed troops with great suddenness. The infantry sought shelter and found it, but the engineers bravely continued at their posts. Shells sank their boats as fast as they could be placed in the water and by 6.00 P. M. no boats were left. "

Pershing’s offensive in the Meuse Argonne slowed in mid October at which time General Hunter-Liggett took command of the 1st Army.

On the 1st of November 1918 the newly reorganized 1st Army began the final push. The III Corps on the right flank was ordered to cross the Meuse. The 5th US Infantry Division was given the task to cross the river near Dun-sur-Meuse.

(To see the exact spot where the attempted crossing took place as it is today, please go HERE)

Private John A. Byron of B Company, 7th Engineers was part of a group of 9th Brigade, 5th Division soldiers who tried to build a foot bridge across the Meuse to the south of Dun-sur-Meuse at Clery-le-Petit. Their efforts and bravery were recognized by Army Headquarters, the men were awarded Silver Star Citations. 

Left: John A. Byron's Silver Star

Hqrs. 5th Div. A.E.F. 11/30/18 - General orders No. 77  

The following officers and enlisted men are cited in orders for distinguished conduct in action:  
1st Lt. Frederick J. Langer, 7th Engrs.
Sgt. Vivian a. Whitehead, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Cpl. William E. Tinckmell, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Cpl. Harold L. McNew, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Cpl. Ernest F. Holmgreen, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Pvt. George W. Edwards, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Pvt. Richard C. Boyd, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Pvt. John A. Byron, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Pvt. Albert B Rickert, Co. B, 7th Engrs
Pvt. Clifford D. Parsons, Co. B, 7th Engrs  

On Nov. 4, 1918, near Clery-le-Petit, under extremely heavy machine gun and shell fire, the foregoing named officer and men carried boats for a foot bridge across the Meuse River, a distance of 1500 meters, and although they suffered heavy casualties and in some cases the boats were cut to pieces by machine gun fire, they persisted in their efforts until ordered to cease by their commanding officer, thus setting a splendid example of bravery and devotion to duty.  

By command of Major General Ely:
C.A. Trott, Chief of Staff

The attempt failed after all the boats for the pontoon were shot away. Recognizing that it was impossible to cross at this point a new effort was made a short distance to the South. Here the men of D Company, 7th Engineers, managed to establish a Bridgehead. The action by D Company saw 6 awards of the Distinguished Service Cross. 

Charles Hendricks in “The United States in the First World War-An Encyclopedia” wrote:  

“US Army engineers won personal recognition for their actions in bridging the Meuse River. Major William Hoge, jr., a June 1916 graduate of West point who was serving with the 7th Engineers, 5th Division, won a Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism in reconnoitring a site for a pontoon bridge across the well-defended waterway north of Brieulles. Hoge selected that bridge site during the daylight hours of Nov. 4, 1918 while under enemy observation and artillery fire and he directed the construction of the bridge that night. After German artillery destroyed three pontoon boats supporting the bridge, engineer Sgt. Eugene P. Walker, Cpl. Robert E. Crawford and Pvts. Noah L. Gump, John Hoggle and Stanley T. Murmane (All of Co. D.) jumped into the icy river and held up the deck of the bridge until replacement pontoons could be launched and installed. These men also received the Distinguished Service Cross. This bridge was one of thirty-eight constructed by US Army Engineers during the critical Meuse-Argonne offensive.”

Above: A light infantry bridge built by the 7th Engineers on the 4th-5th of November 1918

Extracts from an article by Colonel Conrad L. Lanza “The battle of the Meuse River- A river crossing” published in the Field Artillery Journal in October 1935 describe the events as experienced by John A. Byron can be read below (For the full article, including the description of the opposing forces, click HERE)

The First Army had issued an order on 31 October, providing that if, as expected, the forthcoming battle around Buzancy would result in a withdrawal of the enemy, a vigorous pursuit would be started immediately. Zones of action were prescribed. Corresponding orders followed down through Corps and Divisions. Instead of the main axis of advance being to the northwest as it had been, it was changed to the northeast. This was caused by the success of the battle of Buzancy, coupled with similar successes by the Allies near the sea in Belgium and north France, the two victories having resulted in pinching out the German salient in France. Instead of the two wings of the Allied forces having a converging advance, Marshal Foch desired that, there now being no salient, a straight line advance commence. In view of this change the Divisions of the Army would arrive successively on the Meuse from east to west, starting with the 5th Division of the III Corps, whose right flank was already on the river just south of Brieulles.

As soon as it was known that the I Corps had on 2 November closed the gap on its right and the French Fourth Army to the left of the I Corps was still further forward, the First Army ordered the change in direction to be placed in effect. On this day the OPs reported smoke from many fires east of the Meuse. This was assumed to indicate that the enemy was destroying stores and supplies preparatory to a retreat believed to be under way east of the river, as was known to be the case west of the river. It was decided to seize a bridge head somewhere between Brieulles and Dun-sur-Meuse. At 4.00 P. M. on the 2nd, the First Army issued an order for this. The III Corps was directed to attack at 6.00 A. M. 3 November, with the mission of securing and holding the high groundon the west bank of the Meuse overlooking Dun-sur-Meuse, Sassey-sur-Meuse and Halles. Strong patrols were to be sent across the river to the east and to the north towards Mouzay and Stenay, to maintain contact with the retreating forces of the enemy.

The III Corps had in line the 89th, 90th and 5th Divisions, in order, from west to east. Of these only the 5th could, in view of the change in the axes of advance, reach the Meuse by the following day. The Corps having issued an order in correspondence with the Army order, the 5th Division directed their 10th Brigade, which had its right on the Meuse, to push patrols across that same night in the vicinity of Brieulles, to maintain contact with the enemy.

At 3.30 P. M. 3 November, the 5th Division issued a field order for crossing the Meuse, in compliance with instructions received. The order stated that the enemy to their left was "in full retreat" and that it was believed he was also withdrawing in their ownfront. The plan was for the 9th Brigade to cross in the vicinity of Clery-le-Petit, while the 10th Brigade crossed near Brieulles.  

(The men of the 10th Brigade attempted to cross near Brielles)  

There was no interruption to the work of the engineers, and by 7.00 A. M. on the 3rd they had a foot bridge completed over the river. It was now daylight, and the OPs reported no targets were to be seen and no sign of any enemy. It appeared that there would be no opposition. Company E started over the bridge to the narrow strip of land separating the east bank from the canal. Immediately heavy machine gun fire was received, apparently from somewhere inside the Bois de Chatillon. The advance stopped. Some men were across the river, but they were unable to cross the canal. The balance of the patrol fell back and sought cover. There was a bridge about 600meters away, and an attempt was made later to cross there. The bridge was found to have its spans broken, and this, combined with severe machine gun and artillery fire, prevented any crossing near Brieulles on this day.

Left: The engraving on the back of John A Byron's Silver Star. He applied for and received it in 1942 after joining the US Navy Reserve.

The American First Army had no bridge trains, so two pontoon trains were borrowed from the French XXXIII Corps. The III Corps had foreseen the need of these trains, and they had been brought up to the Bois de Cuisy and concealed therein. They were now ordered to proceed after dark, one train to the south exit of Dun-sur-Meuse, or if this were an impracticable place to cross, then about 1 kilometer further south; while the other train was ordered to Brieulles. During the afternoon, the 9th Brigade occupied Clery-le-Grand and Clery-le-Petit, thus bringing the entire division in line along the west bank of the Meuse.  

The 5th Division did not fix any hour for the crossing. The troops were to cross during the night, whenever they could, and it was expected that two bridges would be completed before morning. Troops in column, preceded of course by advance guards, would then start the pursuit of the enemy, with the mission of reaching the line: Lion-devt-Dun—Murvaux—Fontaines.

The 9th Brigade had selected, on the 3rd, a position near coordinate 89.2 (just north of the junction of the canal and river), near Clery-le-Petit, for constructing the permanent bridge during the night. But nothing was accomplished, as the pontoon train could not be found. Its commander had led it to the vicinity of Doulcon, which was what he understood by the designation south exit of Dun-sur-Meuse. Finding no activity in the vicinity, he decided that obviously this had been found to be an impracticable place at which to cross, and that consequently the place now was 1 kilometre to the south. Finding a road leading in the desired direction, he followed it for one kilometre which placed him on top of a hill (hill 261). He thought this a peculiar place for a river crossing, but his orders seemed to be clear that this was where he was to go to, so after taking appropriate precautions for concealing his train, he awaited orders which he assumed would arrive whenever his train was wanted. He considered the situation due to the inexperience of the Americans; probably to be expected under the circumstances.

The 9th Brigade had sent out guides along roads to the south and west for the pontoon train, but they failed to look on hill tops, and it was 7.00 A. M. before the concealed train was located. It was then considered impracticable to move it off the hill and down to the river until darkness once more set in. For a long time neither the III Corps nor the 5th Division knew what the situation was. Believing that the crossing would proceed according to plan, the Corps at 3.40 A. M. on the 4th, ordered all artillery fire suspended west of coordinate 317 (north and south line just east of Milly), so as not to endanger the heads of the advance guards.

After daylight the OPs could see the valley, and reported that there were no bridges and no one crossing. The 76th Field Artillery then started to fire continuously, but as no targets were seen, the fire was directed against prominent terrain features, and particularly hill 292 (Côte de Jumont. 1.2 Km S. E. of Dun-sur-Meuse), and hill 260. There was no enemy reaction. The valley was apparently free of any enemy. It became evident to the Army during the morning of the 4th that the III Corps was not securing a bridge head across the Meuse. At 1.00 P. M. it issued an order directing the French XVII Corps, which was east of the Meuse, north of Verdun, to advance on and seize the heights southwest of Brehéville, while the III Corps was to continue its movement and seize the Côte St. Germain and the high ground south of Murvaux. The order specified that both Corps would furnish the Army Chief of Artillery with details of their plans and time tables, in order thatthe Army might intelligently use its artillery to further the attacks. The CP of the III Corps was inspected about 1.00 P. M. by the Chief-of-Staff GHQ. The situation, which at this time had become clear, was explained, and it was added that in accordance with the Army order, of which advance information had been received by telephone, the 5th Division would cross the Meuse by the following morning and obtain a bridge head. The Chief-of-Staff expressed surprise that the operation was to be thus long delayed and stated that it was extremely important to push the Germans hard. In his opinion the bridge head ought to be secured that same day. The Corps thereupon, at 2.00 P. M., ordered the 5th Division to attack across the Meuse that very afternoon. The 5th Division desired to wait until night, but being overruled by telephone, directed both of its brigades to attack immediately. In view of the preparations being made, the III Corps at 3.25 P. M. notified the Army that they would be unable to furnish details for next day's attack, either to the Army or to its Chief of Artillery for coordination of artillery fire, as the attack was already in progress, and everything depended on the outcome of the present operations.

Above: A heavier bridge built by the 7th Engineers at Dun-sur-Meuse

The 9th Brigade prepared to cross the Meuse without delay near coordinate 89.1, which was just north of the junction of the river and the canal. This avoided the problem of crossing the latter obstacle. It was decided not to wait for the pontoon train, as it would be difficult to bring it up during daylight; instead, foot bridges were to be used. Although no targets had been noted, there was some doubt as to whether the enemy had evacuated the east bank of the river. It was consequently believed best to have an artillery preparation. It was limited to 30 minutes. to be fired by the 76th Field Artillery, plus such assistance as the Division 155mm howitzers could give. All available machine guns were also to be utilized. Visibility was excellent, and promptly at 3.30 P. M. 4 November the batteries opened fire. As no targets could be seen, assumptions were made as to the location of the enemy, and fire directed on these places. There was no reply to the fire, and the OPs having reported nothing to be seen, at 4.00 P. M., two battalions of infantry, echeloned in great depth, left the cover on the hills and advanced to the river, crossing the flat valley land, which afforded little concealment. Company B, 7th Engineers, followed, carrying material for foot bridges. At 4.20P. M. the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 61st Infantry, had reached the bank of the river, and the engineers started work on the first bridge. At this moment a tremendous fire of machine guns and artillery burst on the exposed troops with great suddenness. The infantry sought shelter and found it, but the engineers bravely continued at their posts. Shells sank their boats as fast as they could be placed in the water and by 6.00 P. M. no boats were left.

Right: John A. Byron's Victory Medal

The attack had to be suspended. The 10th Brigade did not attack during the afternoon as ordered. It later claimed that the telephone message to do so had not been received in time by the brigade commander to enable the necessary preparations to be made. At 7.30 P. M. the 3rd Battalions of both the 60th and 61st Infantry were ordered to start another crossing southeast from Clery-le-Grand, near coordinate 86.5 (1.3 Km N. of Brieulles), where the Meuse is at the foot of steep hills along its west bank. The check to the crossing of the 5th Division became known to the First Army around 5.00 P. M. It decided to intervene without waiting on the III Corps, and ordered its artillery to support the attack without delay and without regard of requests from lower authority as to restrictions of fire.

During the night 4-5 November the 5th Division, under cover of constant artillery fire, commenced to throw bridges across the Meuse, using the French pontoon trains. Near Clery-le-Petit, the engineers, favored by darkness, completed a foot bridge near coordinate 88.3 (opposite Cléry-le-Petit) by 12.15 A. M. There had been no opposition, and the engineers themselves crossed the bridge and started two additional foot bridges across the canal. Company M. 61st Infantry, followed the engineers and deployed along the canal bank, ready to advance as soon as the bridges were ready. At 12.45 A. M. the enemy suddenly opened a terrific artillery and machine gun fire, which stopped bridge building. But later the engineers resumed work, notwithstanding constant, heavy enemy fire. By 5.30 A. M. one of the foot bridges was completed and Company M crossed. The second foot bridge was not completed, as it was shot away time after time. Other infantry companies followed, and by 7.00 A. M. the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, was over the river, while Company I, 60th Infantry, and Company I, 61st Infantry, were both across the canal, where they joined Company M, already over. Supported by constant fire of the 5th Division Artillery, the infantry now slowly advanced on hills 260 and 292. They were rapidly supported, as the enemy artillery weakened, and with daylight several fords across the canal had been discovered. By 9.00 A. M. the hills were in possession of the 5th Division. The 10th Brigade also succeeded in crossing the river. Although the enemy artillery fired considerably during the night, work was started on an artillery bridge near Brieulles, using the French pontoon train. The enemy apparently did not discover the movement, as his fire hampered operations but slightly. By 1.00 A. M. 5 November, the bridge was finished. Infantry crossed at once and, meeting little resistance, by 7.30 A. M. had a sizeable bridge head in their possession, and were advancing beyond. By 10.00 A. M. hill 260. north of Liny-devt-Dun,had been passed, and our infantry were entering the Bois de Bussy and the Bois de Chénois. Nearly 100 prisoners, 49 machine guns, 6 trench mortars and 10 1-pounders were captured.

Above: A view from the hill at Dun, looking down over the ground over which the 5th Division advanced In the picture below you can see where Byron and his section advanced. The Hill to the west of Clery is visible, Clery itself is so small it is not seen on the photo. This Photo was taken by a German soldier in August 1918

To Go to the full account of the crossing by Lt. Col. Lanza go HERE

To return to the US Page go HERE