The Battle of St. Etienne: The 36th Division in World War One
by Bruce L. Brager
(Reprinted with permission from The Texas 36th Division: A History)
"A German major said he had been in the war ever
since it began but never had seen such fighting."
A. Page, member of 144th Infantry Regiment, c. 1918
The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Though the exact
nature and degree of American participation in the Allied cause had to be
worked out, some token contribution to the Allied World War I effort was needed
as soon as possible. Four infantry regiments of the Regular Army were
collected, the 16th, 18th, 26th and 28th Infantry, formed into the 1st Division
-- the "Big Red One," still in existence -- and sent overseas. The regiments
still had to be expanded, and sailed to Europe about two-thirds new recruits.
One battalion of the 16th Infantry paraded through Paris on July 4, 1917. They
were still outfitted with cavalry hats similar to cowboy hats; which seems to
have quite fit the French image of Americans. After the parade, however, the
Division had to undertake three months of intense training behind the lines
until it could be deployed in a quiet sector.
American officials quickly realized that recruiting volunteers would not be
sufficient to expand the small regular army of less than 200,000 men, and the
National Guard, to a force sufficient to actively contribute to the war in
Europe. Conscription had been proposed by the War Department two months before
the United States declared war on Germany. After overcoming resistance to the
idea of a national draft, a bill was signed by President Wilson on May 18,
1917. The bill was a substantial improvement on past experience, eliminating
many of the administrative problems in the Civil War Federal and Confederate
draft systems. "The most significant difference in the draft of 1917-18 . . .
was that local civilians rather than army officers administered it," as one
historian summarizes things. General policy, and quotas, would be set from
Washington. However, eligible men would be drafted by boards composed of their
During the course of the war the Army would expand from 213,000 men in Federal
service on April 1, 1917 (including some remobilized Guard) to 3,685,000 men in
the "National Army" at the time of the armistice, November 11, 1918. Nearly two
million Americans were in France when the war ended. The mobilization of
manpower, and economics was massive, surpassing anything this country had done
before. Supplies arrived where needed. Food, unlike during the Spanish American
War, was not more deadly than enemy bullets.
An early step in organizing the "National Army" was to designate the divisions.
The government settled on a system of reserving certain numbers for Regular
divisions, certain numbers for National Guard divisions, and certain numbers
for "National Army" divisions, primarily draftees, organized especially for the
conflict. State names, however, were eliminated from unit names. It would not
be the "36th Texas Division," nor the "141st Texas Infantry Regiment," nor
"Smith's Texas Division," after its combat commander. The War Department wanted
to give the army a more national and less regional identity.
The divisions would be "square" divisions. Each had two brigades of two large
regiments each. The total strength of a full size American infantry division,
with its attached artillery, would approach 30,000 men. This is twice the size
of a World War II division, larger than Lee's entire army at Appomattox. Each
brigade had a regiment of light artillery. The division had its own heavy
artillery regiment. Further combat elements included three machine gun
battalions, a trench mortar battalion and engineer troops. Normal supply and
support units were attached.
The division was large and hard to move, as this was before the day of the
mechanized army. However, the huge divisions, ". . . had frontal attack,
breakthrough power unknown to any army until the advent of full motorization of
divisions and the creation of large units of fast, armored vehicles,
self-propelled guns and tanks." A theory is that the size of the divisions
was partly related to a perceived shortage of officers qualified for high
rank. The huge World War I division had a major general in command and three
brigadier generals. Splitting it into two World War II size divisions would
have required a total of two major generals and 4 brigadier generals.
The Texas and Oklahoma National Guard units were scheduled to be formally
federalized on August 5, 1917, though most were already back in Federal
service by this time. The units would have to be expanded, through recruiting,
to four times their size at the August federalization. It would be several
months before the 36th Division existed as a practical military unit.
Individual units would be recognized as meeting federal standards for Guard
units at different times. However, August 5, 1917 can be considered the day
the 36th Division was born.
Most people's image of World War I is that of trench warfare. They think of
shell ravaged ground, devoid of any vegetation, as desolate as the moon. People
think of opposing trench systems slicing their way across the landscape. The
mental image comes to mind of soldiers going "over the top" of the trenches,
accompanied by massive cannon fire, in frontal assaults on enemy positions.
Finally, the popular image is of enemy machine guns slaughtering attacking
troops by the thousands. This is a grim picture, and was true of much of World
War I on the "Western Front" of France and Belgium. Opposing Allied and German
trenches, with the moon-like landscapes of no-man's land in between, stretched
from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea. There was little room for
a war of broad maneuver, even if the commanders had able to conceive of such
World War I did not start as static trench warfare. On August 3, 1914, the
Germans began a broad rightward sweep into Belgium and France. The relatively
rapid German advance caught the French army, and the few British troops in
France at the time, off guard. The Allies were forced back for a month, until
the early September Battle of the Marne stopped the Germans' advance and sent
them into retreat. The Germans managed to limit this retreat. Each side then
tried to outflank the other to the north.
Neither side considered a major attack outside of a central corridor, though
the French made some half-hearted advances into Alsace. According to one
historian, writing in his study of World War One tactical innovations,
"The chief and most unrealistic error committed by both sides was continuing to
emphasize the corridor stretching from Verdun to the Rhine: The traditional
route of access to Germany by a French army or to France by a German army.
Because neither side could forget the history of this corridor, neither could
really gamble profitably on an alternative."
Prewar military planning had looked to a war of mobility. Though recognizing
the power of defense, neither side was able to react quickly when the war began
to stalemate. Troops would dig-in for protection where an engagement had ended.
Short-term entrenchment is a valuable military tactic, one still used by modern
armies. The World War I armies, however, stayed where they entrenched in
September and October 1914. "Little did we think when we were digging those
trenches that we were digging our future homes," is the way one British
soldier described the almost casual start of trench warfare. A German wrote
that ". . . the war has got stuck into a gigantic siege on both sides."
Trench warfare began in all its horrors. "Quite early in the war the opposing
high commands became aware of the stalemate when they read reports showing a
sudden increase in casualties coupled with inconsequential gains of
The armies still thought offensively, though. The French, for example, refused
even minor withdrawals to more defensible positions. The French general staff
preferred to advance. Acting quickly and with audacity, bringing French "elan"
into play, was the way to overcome problems. Fine-tuning attack procedures was
the first thing the generals tried. With both sides looking to martial ardor to
combine with massive frontal assaults, results such as the Battle of Verdun,
fought on and off from February through April 1916, could be expected.
Virtually no ground changed hands permanently in this German attack. The
Germans, however, suffered 300,000 casualties. The French total was somewhat
Even the slowest of military minds saw this slaughter could not continue. In
France and Britain, politicians pointed out the dangers to popular support of
the war. By August, 1915, the Germans introduced the first special assault
units, or Sturmtruppen. In December, 1915, special training started to expand
the number of these units. These troops did not play a major role in the Battle
of Verdun. A year later, however, in the spring of 1917 things began to change.
Erich Ludendorff, in operational command of German forces in the West, pushed
for greater and more effective use of storm troops in attacks.
The World War One German army was surprisingly open to tactical innovations.
Tactical command was decentralized, within the limits of operational
assignments. Decentralization evolved form the unusual nature of the WWI German
Army -- a loose combination of the armies of individual German states,
particularly Prussia and Bavaria. Tactical innovation could move up from field
units, as well as down to these units. ". . . the German Army was a highly
decentralized, mission-oriented organization that placed a great deal of trust
in its officers."
Greater centralization in the British and French armies made it substantially
harder for innovation to be adopted. Changes had to be proposed to the high
command, and then sent down through the chain of command. German military
tradition encouraged independent tactical thinking and made it easier to try
out their ideas. Inconspicuous small units of well armed and highly trained
men, able to lead an attack by infiltrating through enemy lines to wipe out
enemy strong points, was such an idea. Despite the German openness to
innovation, it still took well over a year for the sturmtruppen to
become fully effective.
The Allied incorporation of tanks as full partners in their attacks was
similarly slow. Armored land fighting vehicles had been conceived as early as
1855. Later in the 19th Century, H.G. Wells called for a "land ironclad" to
destroy enemy defenses. Just before World War I broke out, Hugh F. Marriott, a
British mining engineer, thought that a vehicle known as a Holt tractor could
be adapted for military purposes. Marriott started the process of creating the
tank when, in July 1914, he told a British staff officer friend of his, E. D.
Swinton, about the idea. Swinton forwarded the idea to the War Office, but
nothing happened. There still was no progress a few months later, despite
Swinton's further efforts and first hand reports from the front. Swinton later
complained that "we ought to have realized that our established methods were
useless in warfare of such a nature."
The first tank prototypes were not demonstrated until January of 1916. Tanks
were not used in actual battle until September of the same year, at the Battle
of Flers. By late summer of 1917, the role of tanks in battle was still
uncertain. Tanks could be highly effective when properly used. Terrain,
however, could make it almost impossible to use tanks successfully. This
included terrain pockmarked by too many artillery shellholes. Tanks could also
be mechanically unreliable. Tanks were a weapon with great potential, but
tactical and mechanical refinements were necessary before they could be put to
The United States Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The next
day, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker told the House Military Affairs Committee
that "the plans of our military cooperation are in the making rather than
having been made." British and French delegations arrived in Washington
later that month to plead for immediate assistance. The War College Division of
the General Staff (the primary United States Army planning bureau at the time)
recommended that all trained officers, Regular Army and National Guard, stay in
the States to train recruits and draftees.
The German U-Boats were being defeated, making travel to Europe much safer. The
British had found enough shipping to get American units to France. There was
still the question of how they would be used once they got there. The British
had initially wanted American troops to be incorporated into British forces.
However, by 1918 the Germans started what one official telegram described as
"what may well be prove to be the decisive battle of the war . . . the
situation is undoubtedly critical and if America delays now, she may be too
The British and French were forced into flexibility by their increasing
desperation as the German spring advance continued. Pershing got the other
Allies to agree that the Americans would fight first in one, than a second,
independent American army -- after some time training with the British and
French. Such an arrangement had been slow to work out, with the Allies arguing
-- with much logic on their size -- that American forces were substantially
less experienced in combat than British and French forces. They felt United
States troops would be most effective if used to bolster experienced units.
The Americans would get experience and training, Allied provision of supplies
would be easier. Allied units would be restored to functional strength.
John J. Pershing had been assigned to command in Europe in an order dated May
26, 1917. The order specifically stated that Pershing was to cooperate with the
Allies, "but in doing so, the underlying idea must be kept in view that the
forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the
combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved." The reasoning
behind this order, and Pershing's full support of the need for independence,
was both practical and emotional. There would be distinct problems integrating
American troops, even in company or battalion size units, into Allied armies.
Culture was different from the British. Language problems would create
difficulties working with the French.
American desire to undertake offensive warfare as soon as possible was an
issue. Though considering infantry as the key to victory in battle, Pershing
did not want his men used up in the trench warfare meat grinder. In the words
of Pershing's 1919 final report, "Trench warfare naturally gives prominence to
the defensive as opposed to the offensive. To guard against this, the basis of
instruction should be essentially the offensive both in spirit and in practice.
The defensive is accepted only to prepare for future offensive." The
offensive, and the new "sturmtroopen" assault tactics, had begun to restore
mobility to the war. A memo on training noted that "All operations reports
emphasize the importance of the ability of troops to maneuver. This applies
especially to the infantry."
National pride was also a factor in Pershing's reasoning. American troops could
not be made to feel they were not trusted to fight on their own. "High officers
of the Allies have often dropped derogatory remarks about our poorly trained
staff and high commanders. . ." Extensive association with war weary and
depressed Allied troops, aside from that needed for training, might rub off on
the Americans. Without independent American armies, it would be harder to have
a real say in any peace discussions after the war. The Allies were never fully
reconciled to this approach. The emergency would sometimes require American
troops to used wherever and however needed. However, on July 24, 1918, Pershing
issued orders creating, effective August 10th, the American First Army.
American units would still receive field training with the British or the
French, with somewhat different systems depending on which of the two
administered the training. For those to work with the British, according to the
official government history of the American military in World War One,*
"Under the Six-Division Plan, six American Divisions were to be moved from the
United States to France in British ships and trained by the British. . .
Immediately upon debarking, each division was equipped by the British and
dispatched to its previously selected training area.
There, under the supervision of veteran British units and experienced British
training cadres, intensive training was begun. By agreement with the British,
American units in training were to be used in emergency to man the rear
defenses. As the training progressed, some units participated in front line
operations with the British units to which they were attached; but from the
American viewpoint these operations were incidental to training."
For those units training with the French, such at the 36th, the procedure was
". . . for infantry units -- to billet a French and an American unit in the
same locality, the French unit to assist in instructing the American unit.
After a period of careful, deliberate instruction, small units of the American
division would be sent into the lines were they would serve for a few days side
by side with French units. This method was to be continued until all units of
the American division had short service in the front line. . . When this
preliminary training. . . was completed, entire divisions were to be
concentrated at key points. . . for divisional training."
* Not published until 1948.
Pershing wanted American troops fully trained before they saw combat. He saw
the role of the American troops as winning the war in 1919. Pershing must also
have foreseen the morale effect on the Germans of suddenly having to face
enormous numbers of fresh American troops. Ludendorff also foresaw their
effect. The German March 1918 offensive was timed to take advantage of a
"window of opportunity," to use a modern term. The Russian surrender in the
east let the Germans bring reinforcements to France. With the slow buildup of
United States forces, American troops had not yet arrived in anything like
their expected numbers.
The near success of the German offensives made it necessary for Pershing to
modify his policy. While they were underway, according to a 1944 government
history of the 36th Division in World War One, the German offensives
". . . so depleted the Allied reserves that the Allies faced almost certain
defeat unless they received immediate support. In this crisis [Pershing]
postponed for the time being the concentration of American divisions for the
formation of an American army, and made all American combatant forces available
for service with the British and French armies."
American units helped blunt the German attacks. Ludendorff's offensive
eventually ran out of steam when the Germans lacked the logistical capability
to exploit breakthroughs. American participation in the defense, including the
successful counterattack and recapture of the village of Cantigny, provided, in
the later words of a senior American general "The first cold foreboding to the
German that this was not, as he had hoped, a rabble of amateurs
Allied forces began, on July 18, 1918, a counter offensive in the Marne
salient. A July 24th meeting of the Allied commanders, undertaken while the
Marne offensive was still in progress, agreed on a further offensive with a
role for an American Army. "The immediate purpose of this plan was to reduce
the salient which interfered with railroad communications which were essential
to further offensives operations."
The next step was a series of major converging offensives. An American attack
was to be launched on September 26th between the Argonne forest and the Meuse
River. The French Fourth Army would be on the left of the American attack. The
attack was to be directed against a German railroad, their principle supply
line, running between Carignan, Sedan, and Mezieres. At Sedan this lay 53
kilometers from the front. This was a vital line of communications, certain to
be fiercely defended by the Germans. "The enemy is strongly resisting the
advance of this corps," a September 30, 1918 dispatch would read. A 36th
Division staff officer later wrote that, "While it is undoubtedly true that the
morale of the German troops had deteriorated since the . . . termination of the
spring offensive, such was the force of Prussian discipline that there was
little indication of weakened spirit. . ." If the Allies could cut the
supply line, the Germans would not be able to hold their positions to the west
and northwest of Sedan.
"East of the Argonne Forest, the American First Army was to make an initial
advance of 16 kilometers and penetrate the hostile third position on its
front," the staff office continued. This was the Kriemhild Stellung, part
of what was popularly called the "Hindenburg Line." As the Americans were
advancing to the east of the Argonne, the French Fourth Army would advance to
the west. By October 4, eight days after the attack started, the Americans had
advanced 12 kilometers and gained a foothold in the advanced positions of the
Hindenburg line. The French Fourth Army had initially been stopped in front of
Blanc Mont, a "sloping chalk-limestone ridge, which rose about 250 feet at its
highest elevation and extended several miles east to west," as later
described by a historian.
The 36th Division, and the 2nd Division, were assigned to the French Army Group
controlling its Fourth Army. When the French attack bogged down, Fourth Army
commander General Henri Gouraud obtained the services of the 2nd Division. The
2nd Division was known as a "Marine" division. Though commanded by a marine,
Major General John A. Lejeune, the division actually had only one marine
brigade. On September 29th, the 2nd Division began its assignment to the Fourth
Army. The night of October 1st/2nd the Division went into line, and attacked
October 3rd. The Division, and cooperating French troops, suffered heavy
casualties but succeeded in capturing the ridge and advancing several miles
On October 5th, Lejeune felt it necessary to request that his division be
relieved. Gouraud had anticipated the need to relieve a part of the 2nd
Division, and the 36th was available. General Smith, commander of the 36th, had
already been asked to send one brigade of infantry and the 111th Field Service
Battalion to the Suippes-Somme-Suippes area the night of October 4th/5th.
Lejeune was given command of the 71st Brigade, which included the 141st and
142nd Regiments, the afternoon of October 5th. At a conference that evening,
Lejeune told the brigade and infantry regimental commanders that the next night
the 71st would replace the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 2nd Division. Lejeune
promised to make up ammunition shortages, and have his brigade leave their
heavy weapons until the 71st Brigade's weapons could be brought up. The 71st
was ordered to move out early the next morning.
The brigade had to stay off the main roads, so the march to the line took most
of the day. With the exception of shelling, the march was relatively
uneventful. However, the men were particularly impressed by the remains of the
German defensive positions of the Hindenburg Line. The many bodies seen by the
men of the 72st Brigade led one officer to later remark that "the sun was
sitting [sic] on our day of posing in one of Uncle Sam's uniforms and it was up
to us to make good on what we have told the folks at home we were going to
Looking north, the direction in which they were advancing, the men of the 36th
could see smoke clouds, airplanes and observation balloons. As the shelling
"increased in the early evening the wandering troops frequently found it
necessary to break up into detachments and hug the places of shelter to avoid
casualties." The brigade had halted for dinner, and to await the return of
their commanders, away getting specific instructions from General Lejeune. Some
shells were coming very close. A division member wrote that,
"There's absolutely nothing so uncanny as to hear a shell approach. It is not
comfortable in broad daylight, but at night it is positively bloodcurdling.
. . . It does not take a man long to differentiate between a shell or 'G.I.
Can'** coming his way, and one going the other way -- at the foe. It took me
only about four seconds, more or less. A shell coming in your direction . . .
warns you of its approach when thousands of feet away by a chortling whistle,
like that of a distant locomotive. This whistle, more of a longdrawn moan than
a whistle, grows louder and hoarser as it approaches. A swish-swishing sound is
added as it whirls nearer until you have a reproduction of the sound wind
causes when blowing into an empty bottle. Just before it strikes, the sound is
like that of a wild cat whistle and then comes the all-shaking sharp 'BOOM.'
[Capitalized in original typescript.] To hear one of these 'G.I. Cans' approach
from an utter darkness, knowing not where it will land. . . is enough to cause
your knees to wobble and a chill to run down your spine. And then to have one
strike near, and the next one nearer. . . and then after a pause to hear
another one coming, with the full knowledge that if its progress forward were
equal to that of the preceding, brings you mighty 'near to God' as one man
said. . ."
** The division staff officer preparing the authoritative official history,
Captain Spence, describes the "G.I. Can" as being shells from a 155mm cannon.
They were nicknamed after United States government issue garbage cans, an early
use of the term G.I. The other main artillery piece was the 88mm. The G.I. Can
made a whistling noise when incoming, the 88 was silent. Spence, footnote on
Guides from the 2nd Division were supposed to meet the 71st Brigade, and escort
its components into proper places in line. The maps given out proved to be
almost useless. The front was not marked; nor were the locations the Brigade
was to take. A further problem came from the 71st's sector being on the corner
of four maps, difficult to read even if pasted together.
The guides took shelter during an evening shelling, and did not reappear until
dark. It turned out, also, that they did not fully know the area near the
front. According to the unpublished official division history ". . . the
original guides furnished the [141st Infantry, 2nd Battalion] led them around
all night under shell and machine gun fire, and only when new guides found them
were they able to get into place." One lieutenant in the 141st later said
that his battalion's guide become lost when they were almost at the front.
After this, "we . . . wandered around in the woods lost while the artillery was
playing on us and machine gun snipers were very active." Fortunately for
the 71st Brigade, there was little movement on the front on October 7th.
Sixteen members of the Brigade, however, were killed or wounded by shelling in
the evening. Entrenching tools become well appreciated. As one soldier put it,
"I have two weapons of defense, one a rifle the other a small shovel which I
carry on my belt. It may sound foolish but both are of equal importance and I
would not part with my latter friend which I use solely for digging."
Another member of the 144th Infantry wrote a young woman, asking her to:
"Tell your dad and Mr. White that if they want any pools dug, just to wait
until Argie and I get back and all they will have to do is get something that
sounds like a machine gun or a cannon and turn it loose and either one of us
can move more dirt laying flat on the ground with a shovel than they could both
move with a team and scraper."
Second Division commanders, thinking they might be called back into action,
refused to turn over maps and related data to the 36th. Commanders from the
71st Brigade were hampered from the resulting lack of information.
German artillery fire was coming from the hills to the north and northeast of
the village of St. Etienne, between the lines. German planes were out in force,
strafing, bombing, collecting information and, apparently effectively, spotting
for the artillery. French planes were not effective.
German and American lines at places were little more than 100 yards apart. The
71st Brigade's machine gun Battalion, the 132nd, was divided between the two
Texas/Oklahoma regiments. French units were on both sides of the Americans.
There were also gaps in the line, inherited from the 2nd Division. The gaps
made communication difficult within the Brigade.
The area near St. Etienne was far less wooded than at Blanc Mont. The
unpublished division history prepared by staff just after the war notes that
"The nature of the terrain and the character of the German defenses were well
adapted to a stubborn rearguard defense such as the enemy was making." An
Oklahoma officer with the 36th later wrote that "The northern slopes of Blanc
Mont are covered with growths of pine and underbrush which thin out as the
village of St. Etienne and the Arnes are approached. Beyond the edge of these
trees and underbrush the country is open and for anyone to venture out of the
cover was to draw fire immediately in the day time." The Germans hid
machine gun nests in wooded areas. The posts were arranged in depth, and
arranged so that if one was captured it could be fired on by another position.
The system worked, causing casualties in the ensuing American attack.
Several small hills were visible, as were observation posts and deep dugouts.
Barb wire was used to complete the defensive positions. The Oklahoma officer
remembered that "To a naturally defensive position the Germans had added
strength by stringing barbed wire from tree to tree in the woods and placing
strands of entanglements in the low places. . ." The forces were at worst
relatively evenly matched in this sector, or the Americans might have had an
advantage -- German force strength is uncertain. However, the Germans had the
tactical advantage of defending positions on slightly higher ground. The
particular topography of the area pushed the 141st Regimental line, to the
brigade right, 600 meters in back of the line of the 142nd.
While the 71st Brigade was arriving and digging in, the morning of October 7th,
French 21st Corp commander, Stanislas Naulin, was conferring with General
Lejeune. General Naulin told LeJeune that "a general attack would take place at
daylight on the 8th, and that he anticipated that the fresh brigade would
achieve a success equal to that gained by the 2nd Division on October 3rd."
LeJeune protested that the French general "was expecting the impossible of
untried troops," urging that they be allowed a few days of training in the line
under fire -- basically Pershing's technique of the year before -- before being
used in an all-out attack. Naulin did not accept the suggestion, and left
declaring that "Tomorrow will be another great day for the 21st Corps!"
General Gourard had actually ordered the three corps attack for October 7th.
The attack was postponed to give the 71st Brigade time to get into line. "The
proven aggressiveness of the Americans was why the French had asked Pershing
for the services of two American divisions for the Champagne drive in the first
place," as a recent history notes. Possibly the failure to let the 71st
adjust to the line justified Pershing's original concern of the treatment of
Americans fighting under foreign commanders. However, the 71st Brigade had been
assigned by Lejeune to relieve two brigades of the 2nd Division. Lejeune issued
verbal orders to his brigade commanders that morning, subject to written orders
to be sent later. General Whitworth, commanding the 71st, relayed the orders to
The 71st was to be supported in its assigned advance of about two kilometers by
the 2nd Division units on its flanks, two battalions of French tanks and
artillery. The tanks were supposed to help the infantry wipe out German machine
guns nests. A short preliminary barrage was to be followed by the advance of
the 71st behind a rolling barrage -- a valuable, but complex, artillery
technique of having shells targeted to stay in front of the advancing unit.
Warning orders were issued the day before. However, Brigadier General Whitworth
did not get Lejeune's written attack orders, for the 5.15 AM attack, until
after midnight. It took his staff three hours to get copies and his own orders
out to his subordinate commanders. Some company commanders were not actually
informed until H hour had arrived.
Field telephones had not been used to transmit orders, for security reasons.
"It was well understood," a division memo noted, ". . . that the German was a
past master in the art of 'listening in'." Orders had to be hand delivered.
Some elements never received their orders, "at least one of the runners having
been killed by shellfire," and ended up attacking at the "sound of the
guns." However, despite precautions, the Germans seemed to have guessed that
something was up. A German officer present at the battle later wrote that the
Germans knew something was planned, and were ready, due to observing "strong
traffic along the enemy rear lines of communications moving chiefly in the
direction of St. Etienne, and apparently also a number of tanks."
The German artillery started firing the same time as the Allied, but more
effectively, including gas shells. The Germans were slightly overshooting,
inflicting heavy casualties on the support and reserve battalions. One veteran
of the battle remembered that ". . . whenever a barrage comes over every one
has to dig a hole in the earth and get in it for protection. A great burlesque
among the fellows is 'these dugouts are bomb proof until a shell hits
one.'" German planes and balloons directed the fire without any opposition
from Allied planes.
The Allied 2nd Field Artillery overshot more seriously, leaving the German
entrenchments and machine gunners virtually untouched. German machine gunners
were quite effective at long range, but apparently surrendered easily when the
Americans came close.
Waiting could seem more nerve racking than actual combat, remembered one
division veteran who took part in the attack. "There is no fear in those
thrilling moments when you are in the fight but, ah! it is before the fight, in
those still, awesome, soul-trying moments and hours when you realize that you
are soon to grapple with the Hun, and as you contemplate the dreadful
The rolling barrage, designed as covering fire just ahead of the advance, was
moving away before some of the companies went "over the top." The advance, due
to lack of written orders being received in time, lost coordination a few
minutes after it started, when the troops reached the first barbed wire. German
machine gun fire was heavy as the Americans tried to cut their way through
The normal confusion of combat grew worse at the attack continued. Many
officers had been killed or wounded shortly after starting out. An example was
the commander of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry. The unpublished division
history noted that "He had only advanced some three hundred yards when the
burst of a shell immediately in front of the advancing lines scattered the
Battalion Headquarters detachment, knocked the Battalion Adjutant unconscious,
and instantly killed the Major."
The men in the support and reserve battalions pressed so close to the assault
line that switching position, and dispersing casualties among the units, was
harder. The 141st and 142nd Regiments lost contact with each other. The attack
soon degenerated into a series of small units actions. "In a short space of
time all liaison between units of the assaulting companies had been broken up.
. . Platoons broke up into small groups and then became intermingled as the men
fought for themselves," the Oklahoma officer, quoted earlier, later wrote
in his history of the 36th Division.
Both regiments were hurt by machine gun fire from their right flanks. The
starting gap between the 142nd and 141st was never rectified during the attack.
The 141st also unable to advance as far as expected, at least partly due to
heavy losses among battalion and company commanders, leaving inexperienced
combat troops with insufficient leadership.
Supporting French tanks come into action about 15 minutes late. Their commander
was one of those who never actually received an attack order. They provided
little assistance, and drew heavy enemy fire. Worse, they mistook the 3rd
Battalion headquarters detachment, and nearby Company B, for the enemy and
twice fired into the detachment. The tanks were eventually withdrawn. A battle
participant from the 144th Infantry remembered that,
". . . We got so mixed up the Germans could not use their guns. Our men used
their bayonets and rifles for clubs, some of them had pick handles and trench
knives. A German major said he had been in the war ever since it began but
never had seen such fighting.
. . . By sun up we had killed or captured, (mostly killed) every Boche in our
front and had left the French on both sides of us about a mile to the rear. . .
while the Germans were retreating from the French, they tried to pass us, but
we cut them all to pieces with our machine guns. In the early part of the fight
there were such little firing, the French thought we were not charging. We were
using clubs and bayonets. The French general commanding the fourth army corps
sent a message to us asking why we were not attacking. The Messenger went back
and reported that he could not find the Americans. We had gone too far for him.
The French tanks had come down. They didn't know we had gone so far, and
started to shoot us up."
Portions of the 2nd Division were able to provide some assistance, partially
compensating for the lack of any real progress by the French 73rd Division. The
141st Regiment, and the 2nd Division elements, were pushed back from their
maximum advance. At 5:30 PM they repulsed a counterattack, ending the action
for the day on the Brigade's right.
Members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 142nd Infantry received no advance
notification at all of the attack. An official report sent to Division
headquarters after the attack noted that "As far as can be found out, no
regimental orders were issued for the attack of October 8th." Their first
"word" was the start of shelling by both sides. On the right of the 142nd's
sector, troops began their advance from a hill top position, running
immediately into German machine gun fire, directly ahead and on their right
flank. The troops used a sunken road as cover, rushing forward short distances
and taking shelter, then repeating the process, until the frontal German
position was flanked. The captain of the leading company was hit almost
immediately. An American doctor was also killed early in the attack, while
giving aid to some wounded men.
One veteran of the 142 infantry described what he saw of the attack. The men
". . . crawled out in a little bunch of shrubbery and the Boches were in two
good sized woods one in front of us and the other on the right of it with an
open space of about one hundred yards between. To get to either we had to cross
an open space of about seventy five or a hundred yards and of course the enemy
were shooting at us from both woods with machine guns and snipers located in
trees or any place where they could get a view of us, but protected from our
view. We did not stay in the shrubbery long and then we started into the weeds.
The first Germans I saw were coming out of a dugout yelling 'Kamerad' at every
breath, so I picked up a few German hand grenades, which we call potato
mashers, and when I come to a dug-out would pull the string and throw a couple
in. If any one was at home, they had a hard day."
The 142nd was taking its worst fire from the left front, causing the regiment
to veer to the right towards a wooded knoll called Hill 160. "In going forward,
the assault battalion was to skirt the eastern edge of St. Etienne. . . These
instructions were given because the Marines were thought to be in possession of
St. Etienne, as they had reported." The knoll was about 1,000 southeast of
St. Etienne, and would provide some protection from the unexpected heavy fire
coming from the town. The Marine brigade to the left of the 142nd was supposed
to have occupied St. Etienne during the night. However, a patrol found it empty
and the marines did not move in. The Germans did. Particularly effective was a
machine gun in the steeple of a church. The Oklahoma officer remembered that
"This machine gun had been able to cover the entire area of open ground over
which the support and reserve battalions had been compelled to advance. .
." The position was finally destroyed by an American artillery shell.
The French tanks were little more helpful than those "assisting" the 141st.
The 142nd managed to end German resistance on Hill 160 and then head towards
the strong enemy positions in the cemetery. Some of the attacking American
troops came in through the village, at the flank of the Germans. Hard hand to
hand fighting finally resulted in the capture of prisoners, and the evacuation
of the cemetery. The Germans evacuated the town before noon, as it was empty
when the marines entered. The marines were unable to advance north of the town.
The 142nd kept going towards the northeast, reaching the St. Etienne-Semide
road. German resistance stiffened. Without flank support, the 142nd was taken
heavy machine gun fire on the right. German artillery was effective. Allied
artillery was not effective.
The 142nd was forced to pull back from its most advanced position to meet an
expected heavy counterattack. Some members of the regiment were captured when
they failed to get the word to withdraw, another example of major
communications problems. Most of the maximum advance of the 142nd, however, was
held and, aided by artillery, the attack repulsed.
A line of defense focusing on the hill, stretching back to St. Etienne, had
little trouble repulsing the counterattack. The regiment held this position
throughout the night and the next day, following orders from the 2nd Division
to ". . . rectify your line, organizing it in depth. Gain and maintain contact
with the enemy along your front and close liaison with allied troops on your
right and left." The brigade was also ordered to scout for a possible
attack and to take over the 2nd Division lines when that unit pulled out.
War is confusing. Perhaps this is an even greater characteristic than the
"hell" William Sherman applied to war. The regiments had to be prepared for the
continuing advance, and their remaining strength evaluated. This was not easy.
Officer casualties were heavy in the attack -- frequently an ironic sign of a
well lead unit. Units were disorganized, and only provisionally sorted out the
Message runners suffered particularly heavy casualties, as they made good
targets. Reports were often inaccurate when sent back to headquarters, creating
major problems for the commanders. A modern historian writes that "At first the
messages were optimistic; later, they were the opposite. Casualties were
grossly overestimated. Determining the exact locations of the various
organizations was impossible presumably because many officers did not have maps
and those who did found them inadequate. The uncertainly explains at least to
some extent the poor placement of the artillery."
Estimates are that the 71st Brigade suffered over 1,600 casualties in the
attack of October 8th and 9th. 1,300 of these known casualties occurred on the
8th. 298 officers and men were killed. 74 men were missing. The rest were
wounded, including some by gas. An unknown number of other men were evacuated
for "shell shock" (battle fatigue) and exhaustion. Two battalion commanders
were killed, a third wounded, a fourth evacuated for shell shock, out of a
total of six. Fighting had also taken a heavy toll of company commanders. The
surgeon for the 3rd battalion, 142nd Regiment, was killed in action.
The attack's execution had problems. One German observer later described the
attack as a "failure." He explained the problems, somewhat sympathetically, as
due to the 36th being under fire for the first time, and the tactics of the
advance -- battalions in line -- leading to confusion if the lead battalion got
held up or stalled at all. However, the German position was strong, and the
German soldiers' reputation as tough, skillful fighters well deserved. The 2nd
Division, the French and the artillery did not supply as good support as might
have been expected. The lack of Allied effort in the immediate air was vividly
apparent even during the battle. Casualties were heavy, but World War One was
characterized by heavy casualties, brave soldiers trying to make up for a
frequent lack of skill in the upper levels of command. The frontal attack
tactics were more reminiscent of the Civil War -- when they caused even heavier
casualties among American troops -- than those used in World War Two. Heavy
casualties also resulted from the enthusiasm with which the Texas and Oklahoma
soldiers pressed the attack.
Finally, it had been 53 years since the 36th Division, or its ancestors, had
seen real war. Even so, the attack was not a failure. The Allied advance
- - -
Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in
World War I , Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army,
1914-1918 , New York: Praeger, 1989.
Jim Dan Hill, The Minute Man in Peace and War , Harrisburg, PA: The
Stackpole Company, 1964.
Hubert C. Johnson, Breakthrough! Tactics, Technology and the Search for Victory
on the Western Front in World War I , Novato, California: Presidio
Lonnie J. White, "The Combat History of the 36th Division in World War I," Military
History of Texas and the Southwest , Volume 17, Number 4, 1982.
. A. Page, 144th Infantry, letter undated, published in Van Alstyne Leader
, date not given, Hornaday Collection, Texas State Archives, Box 3, page 309.
. John J. Pershing, My Experiences in the World War , New York:
Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1931, Volume I, pages 264-265.
. Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars: The American Military
Experience in World War I , Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press,
1986, page 25.
. Marvin G. Kreidberg and Merton G. Henry, History of Military Mobilization
in The United States , Washington: Department of the Army, 1955, pages
. Jim Dan Hill, The Minute Man in Peace and War , Harrisburg, PA: The
Stackpole Company, 1964, page 264.
. Meiron and Susie Harries, The Last Days of Innocence , New York:
Random House, 1997, pages 123-124.
. Memorandum, From: The Chief, Militia Bureau; To: The Adjutant General of
Texas; Subject: Federal recognition, new units, July 31, 1917; John Hulen
Papers, Texas State Archives.
. Memorandum, From: The Chief, Militia Bureau; To: The Adjutants General of
all States, Territory of Hawaii, District of Columbia, all
Inspector-Instructors and Officers in Charge of Militia affairs, Department
Headquarters; Subject: Organization and entry into Federal service of the
National Guard; May 5, 1917, John Hulen papers, Texas State Archives.
. Hubert C. Johnson, Breakthrough! Tactics, Technology and the Search for
Victory on the Western Front in World War I , Novato, California:
Presidio Press, 1994, page 51.
. Frank Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die , London: Faber &
Faber, 1933, page 35.
. Rudolf Binding, A Fatalist at War , London: Allen & Unwin,
1929, page 21.
. Johnson, page 59.
. Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army,
1914-1918 , New York: Praeger, 1989, page 172.
. Ernest D. Swinton, Eyewitness , London: Hoddor & Stoughton,
1932, page 115.
. Marvin A. Kreidberg and Merton G. Henry, History of Military Mobilization
in the United States , Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1955,
. March 23, 1918, Telegram, From War Office, To: General Wagstaff [Chief,
British Military Mission] Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces, France. United
States Army in the World War , Training and Use of American Units with
British and French, Washington: History Division, Department of the Army, 1948,
pages 71 - 72.
. Russell L. Weigley, History of the United States Army , enlarged
edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, page 383.
. Ibid, pages 381-385.
. Quoted in Pershing, Volume I, pages 38 - 39.
. Final Report of Gen. John J. Pershing , Commander-in-Chief,
American Expeditionary Forces, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,
1919, page 22.
. Memorandum, June 14, 1918, French Group of Armies of the North, United
States Army in the World War , Training and Use of American Troops with
British and French, Washington, DC: History Division, Department of the Army,
1948, page 321.
. Pershing, Volume II, page 189.
. Training and Use of American Troops, pages 2-3.
. Ibid, page 1.
. American Battle Monuments Commission, "36th Division: Summary of
Operations in the World War," Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1944,
page 5. Files of the Center for Military History.
. General Hunter Liggett, AEF: Ten Years Ago in France , New York:
Dodd, Mead and Company, 1928, page 70.
. American Battle Monuments Commission, page 5.
. G-3 Report File, First Army, Messages Received, 107.04 Operations Report,
V Army Corps, September 30, 1918.
. Alexander White Spence, The History of the Thirty-Sixty Division, U.S.A.,
1917-1919 , Unpublished manuscript, 1919, pages 82-83.
. Ibid, page 6.
. Lonnie J. White, "The Combat History of the 36th Division in World War
I," Military History of Texas and the Southwest , Volume 17, Number 4,
1982, page 124.
. "Statement of Captain Stephen D. Ridings," Medical History of the 142nd
Infantry, Historical File, 36th Division, RG 120, National Archives.
. Chastaine, Capt. Ben H., Story of the 36th , Oklahoma City: Harlow
Publishing Company, 1920, page 85.
. Sgt. John A. Cegner, Co. G, 141st Infantry, letter of November 13, 1918, Arlington
Journal , January 17, 1919.
. White, page 129. An examination of what appears to be one of these maps,
at the National Archives, confirms the comment.
. Spence, page 78.
. "Statement of Oscar F. Washam," Personnel War Experiences, 36th Division,
. Letter by George McCall, Headquarters Company, 144th Infantry, of October
18, 1918, Llano News , December 5, 1918.
. Letter of Olin N. Buchanan, Co. B, 144th Infantry, of October 18, 1918, Lone
Oaks News , November 22, 1918.
. Spence, page 83.
. Chastaine, page 89.
. Ibid, page 91.
. John A. Lejeune, The Reminiscences of a Marine , Philadelphia:
Dorrance and Company, 1930, pages 360-361.
. White, page 132.
. Memorandum, Headquarters 142nd Infantry, A. E. F., January 23, 1919,
From: C.O. 142nd Infantry, To: The Commanding General 36th Division (Attention
Captain Spence), Subject: Transmitting Messages in Choctaw.
. Spence, page 117.
. Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Otto, German Army, Retired, "The Battle at Blanc
Mont," Part III, United States Naval Institute Proceedings , Volume 56,
Number 325, March 1930, pages 177-199, citation from page 184.
. McCall Letter.
. White, page 135. Also Washam, Personnel War Experiences, Supplemental
File, 36th Division, RG 120, National Archives.
. Sergeant W. S. McBirnie, speech before Dallas Automobile Club, undated
typescript circa 1919, Hornaday Collection.
. Spence, page 119.
. Chastaine, 105.
. A. Page, 144th Infantry, letter undated, published in Van Alstyne Leader
, date not give, Hornaday Collection, Texas State Archives, Box 3, page 309.
. Headquarters, 142nd Infantry, A.E. F., APO #796, 21 December 1918, Memo
To: Captain Spence, Division Headquarters, From: John K. Boyce, Captain, 142nd
. Cpl. Wayne Wheeler, Co G. 142nd Infantry, letter of December 13, 1918, Hereford
Brand , February 6, 1919.
. Spence, page 107.
. Chastaine, page 121.
. Headquarters Second Division (Regular), American Expeditionary Forces, 9
October, 1918, From: A. C. of S. G-3, To: C. G. 7st Brigade, Subject:
Instructions for October 9th, 1918.
. White, page 138.
. Otto, Part IV, Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 56, Number 326, April
1930, pages 304-316, citation from page 312.
- - -
Copyright © 2005 Bruce L. Brager
(Reprinted with permission from The Texas 36th Division: A History
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 08/20/2005.