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The 89th Division in the Meuse Argonne offensive.


“For several days the enemy poured thousands upon thousands of gas shells into the Bois de Bantheville in a desperate effort to cause the abandonment of this important position... For the remainder of the week this area was kept constantly filled with mustard gas by constant slow fire. Finally, the night the offensive started, the enemy, evidently realising what was coming, laid down a bombardment of green cross and yellow cross in the forward area, right close to his own lines….Had we gassed this area with mustard gas ourselves and gone around it instead of mopping it up, these casualties might have been avoided"



Right: Before suffering hundreds of gas casualties in the Bois de Bantheville the 89th Division had made the same error near St. Mihiel. Areas of the battlefield into which a steady bombardment of Mustard gas was fired proved to be very costly to hold. In the above photo medics of the 89th Division treat gas victims in August 1918


On the 4th of June 1918 the 354th Infantry Regiment sailed from New York headed for Europe. They landed in England then transferred to France where they arrived at La Havre towards the end of June. During their time in France the 354th would be the target of two intense gas bombardments. The first would be in the St. Mihiel area, the second near Romagne in the Meuse Argonne Offensive.

St. Mihiel
 
In the Rimaucourt area the Regiment, along with the rest of the division began their preparation for the front. On the 5th of August 1918 the Division took up position in the front line at Toul in the Remonauville -Seicheprey -Bouconville sector.

The baptism of fire for the division was during the relief when a gas bombardment from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on the night of the 7th-8th of August wounded approx. 700 men of the 1st battalions of the 354th and 355th Infantry.

The Division wrote:

"This attack was made during the period of the relief of the 82nd Division by the 89th Division. In most instances it was the first night the troops had been in the line; in practically every instance it was the first time the personnel had been under fire. The orders in force at the time required troops of the advanced positions to hold that position to the death unless withdrawal was ordered by the Army Commander.

This order was carried out in spite of the intensity of the attack and the helplessness of the troops to retaliate. It was an example of courage and steadfastness deserving the highest praise and the spirit of the troops was further indicated by the fact that they requested to remain in the line and finish their tour of duty when relief was proposed."

A postwar US army report by Dr. R.C. Cochrane was more critical:

“The 89th Division, from its commander down to its company officers, would not believe, in their first encounter with German Yellow Cross (Mustard) gas in August, that contaminated ground could not be occupied. The division suffered over 600 gas cases before its French superiors arrived on the scene and ordered the gassed area evacuated.”

The Division was to remain in this sector until the 12th of September when the attack on the St Mihiel pocket started. The division attacked from the South Eastern part of the pocket from Flirey, moving through the Bois de Mort Mare towards Thiaucourt. In front of them where the 10th German Infantry Division and the 77th Reserve Division, the latter facing the 354th Infantry Regiment as they advanced.



Meuse Argonne - The Bois de Bantheville


The 89th Division missed the beginning of the Meuse Argonne offensive but arrived to on the night of the 19th to 20th of October to go into the line along the Sommerance -Romagne Road. This was to the North of the German Kriemhilde position which had been taken by the 32nd Divison the week before. The Division was tasked with straightening the front line in the Bois de Bantheville before the planned attack on the 1st of November. It was to be the hardest fighting the 89th Division had seen so far. The wood had reportedly been cleared by the departing 32nd Division, but the Germans had re infiltrated and from the 20th to the 22nd of October the units of the division set about clearing the forest of enemy soldiers again.



For a more detailed map and Sat view of the area occupied by the 354th Infantry regiment go HERE


In spite of Marschall Foch’s instructions to Pershing that he wanted a “powerful attack, as soon as possible, in the direction of Boult-aux-Bois and Buzancy “While avoiding getting engaged in combats in the woods of the Argonne (i.e. Bois de Bourgogne) and of the Bantheville region”” the 89th Division found itself stubbornly holding a forest full of poison gas.

“Had we gassed this area with mustard gas ourselves and gone around it instead of mopping it up, these casualties might have been avoided.”

Above: The position of the 89th Division, flanked by the 32nd and 90th Divisions. The Bois de Bantheville is to the north east of Romagne.


The following text comes from the history of the 89th Division

WAITING FOR THE ORDER TO ATTACK


The 177th Infantry Brigade, having taken over the entire Divisional front, in anticipation of leading off the attack, was subjected to some of its most trying experiences during the period of waiting. The day of the attack was from time to time postponed, awaiting developments on other sectors of the front ; and the troops remained in their positions, organizing them, patrolling the front and preparing for the attack from October 21st until November 1st.

The 353rd Infantry occupied the right half of the Division's sector, holding the tip and sides of the Bois de Bantheville on October 28th, the 90th Division took over the northeastern borders of the Bois de Bantheville, the dividing point for the jump-off being the extreme northern tip of the forest.


The 354th Infantry held the left half of the sector, the line extending in a southwesterly direction so as to connect with the 42nd Division, whose lines were less advanced than our own because of the German occupation of the strong point at Landres-et-St. Georges.

As soon as our possession of the whole forest was secure, the enemy inaugurated a campaign of harassment that made the holding of the position one of severe hardship. Continuous shelling of the position was coupled with airplane raids upon the troops in the edge of the woods. Worst of all was the establishment of a gassed area extending across the central portion of the forest, which was maintained by an almost uninterrupted bombardment for days with the gas shells. Communication and supply of troops in the tip of the forest must be through this gassed area. The heroism and devotion to duty of the carrying parties, the runners, the litter bearers carrying wounded, and the telephone linemen, whose duties took them constantly through this dangerous area, are alone worthy of a chapter.
 

CONTINUOUS GASSING


The gassing became exceptionally severe in the last few days before the attack. On October 26th and again on October 27th, beginning about 2 :30 o'clock in the morning and continuing until nearly 6 :00 o'clock, several thousand gas and high explosive shells were thrown into the southern portions of the Bois de Bantheville and the northern part of Bois de Romagne.

The area of concentration was between the front line battalion of the 353rd Infantry in the tip of Bois de Bantheville, and its support battalion in the southern part of the woods. Consequently no troops were in positions of high concentration.

In the 354th Infantry, whose outposts were in the open beyond the woods, the area of high concentration was upon positions occupied by the support companies of the front line battalion, the 2nd battalion. Company "F" of this regiment suffered most severely in the bombardment of the night of October 26th, and many casualties resulted from direct hits splashing the gas on the men. The intensity of the bombardment and the darkness of the night prevented the men from being moved until towards morning, when the troops in the area of high concentration were withdrawn further to the rear, strong outposts and machine guns, however, being left to hold the front lines. The troops in the outposts were supplied with rations during the nights, these being carried up on a horse which was led along the narrow-gauge track southwest of the woods and thence through the open to the troops in the northwestern part of the forest.

Although these gas bombardments produced many casualties, and called for the display of the highest qualities of courage and determination in the men, especially on the part of runners, food details and signal corps men repairing wires in the dark, yet it was demonstrated that the measures of gas defense were effective. Troops who were well disciplined and instructed in gas defense, who used their masks intelligently, kept their clothes carefully buttoned up, did not sit down or linger in low places and reported for treatment at the first sign of injury from the effects of the gas, escaped with slight losses and light cases, even of those affected.

Left: The Purple Heart of Corporal George S. McCulloch was a member of H Company, 354th Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division. He took part in the fighting at St. Mihiel but was gassed in the forest of Banthenville on the 28th of October 1918 and did not participate in the Divisions advance in November.

 Colonel Babcock, commanding the 354th infantry regiment, reported:
 
“I have investigated the outpost line in the Bois de Bantheville and find even the high ground shelled strongly with gas, and numerous men stationed there more or less affected… from my experience in the gas today and from the number of working parties, ammunition carriers, engineers and others found in the gassed area, and food details going up to the 353rd infantry, it is very possible that there will be many more gas casualties during the next 24 hours. The woods seemed to be saturated with gas and the sunshine is bringing it out over a vast area”

General Winn, brigade commander reported

“354th Infantry had 3 officers and 80 men gassed up to 6 hours and numbers increasing. I have authorized changes in the gassed area by reducing the number of companies on 354th forward positions to two. The effects of the gas are not so much the result of a single attack on specific areas as the continued gas spread for several days over a wide area”

On the 1st of November the 89th Infantry division advanced after having lost 400 men to gas in the forest.

Above: Arriving at the end of October, the men of the 89th Division learn the frustrations of digging in in the sector.

Post war US Military studies questioned the decision to hold the forest.

If, as in August, artillery could make ground untenable with yellow cross gas, surely the Americans could have kept the Germans out with gas?
 
The report stated:

“The enemy on the heights above the Bois de Bantheville commanded the woods, and just as Rowan pointed out, the woods could just as well have been neutralised by the 89th (Division) as by the enemy. There is no evidence that jumping off from the top of the woods aided the advance of the 89th in the slightest. The artillery road built at such a cost through the wood wasn’t even used in the attack, for such artillery as advanced that day found easier ways outside the wood. The 2nd Division, jumping off from below Landres et St. George, advanced just as swiftly on 1 November as did the 89th. The 89th Division did it the hard way”

An officer of the division wrote of the time between the 22nd of October until the attack on the 1st of November

"……were written some of the bloodiest and most tragical (sic) pages of the history of the 89th Division. The front line was held by the 353rd and 354th Infantry and for eleven days in particular the 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, of these two named regiments suffered a relentless bombardment of gas and high explosives that extended well back into the support position and rendered the question of supply and evacuation of wounded a most difficult problem. The approximate loss to the brigade during this period of heavy shelling was between 500 and 600 men. But during this time there was not reported from any organisation in this Division, an instance of a single straggler deserting his post and seeking refuge in the rear. Especially to be commended were the heroes of the food details and the ammunition carrying parties. Night after night in the blindness of October fogs and subjected to constant sniping and destructive fire, they carried out their missions in both regiments. The same tribute must be paid to the signal men and runners who, in the darkness of dense woods, exhausted form lack of sleep, and pushed to the limit by the demands made upon them, never faltered. It was by the combined efforts of all concerned that the important jump-off position was secured and held by the 177th Infantry brigade. It was this same brigade that led the attack on the morning of the 11th of November."

The officially accepted gas casualties for the division were 626 in August, 289 in September, 1080 in October and 140 in November.



To return to the Page on the AEF and the decorations of men who served click HERE

 
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