Extracted (with editing for brevity) from the History of the 353rd ‘All Kansas’ Infantry Regiment 89th Division, National Army September 1917 – June 1919, by Capt. Charles F. Dienst and associates, published by the 353rd Infantry Society in 1921.
‘On October 12th the 353rd Infantry received replacements from the 86th Division. Again we were at “war strength,” with nearly a thousand men to a battalion.
We did not have long to wait for the final phase of our journey. On Sunday October 13th we began the long forward march, whose destination we little realized was to be the Rhine. Theoretically, we were merely moving up to position as V Corps Reserves, for the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive; in reality we were on a back-breaking march over muddy roads, across trenches, through wire; in fact, there was everything to hinder us but the actual resistance of an enemy.
The day after we moved up to Eclis-Fontaine, all officers and non-commissioned officers of the regiment were assembled for a “straight from the shoulder” message from Major-General Wright.
“We are fighting,” he said, “the final great battle of the war. We are privileged men to have a part in it. “
On the same afternoon, all officers of the 177th Brigade [the 353rd Infantry was in this brigade] were assembled for a talk by the Corps Commander, Major-General Summerall. These open air conferences in the misty October rain fore-shadowed grim business ahead.
“Don’t permit yourselves to even think about relief when your division gets into the line. When you are so exhausted, despondent, and depleted by casualties as to be without field action, without a complete reorganization, you will be withdrawn from the battle. But the enormous loss of time and effectiveness in making a relief during the vital stages of battle makes is impossible to relieve a division until it can fight no longer.
Many officers and men have been indulging in criticisms and derogatory comments of other organizations. Statements are used–Outfit on our right didn’t support us or Failed to come up or Did not protect our flank.
Such comments are improper and dangerous. It is the duty of every commander to protect his own flank by his formation in depth. The more fortunate units naturally advance and must exploit their success, thus aiding their neighbors to get forward. In this manner, and only in this manner, can strong resistance be overcome without great loss. The spirit of this Division demands that every individual and organization give the utmost strength to push forward and destroy the enemy. We recognize, therefore, the same determination and desire on the part of our brothers in arms. There has been also a tendency to exaggerate losses and casualties by the use of some of the following expressions:
All shot to pieces. Held up by machine guns. Suffered enormous losses. Men all exhausted.
All officers and soldiers are forbidden to use such expressions in official messages, reports, conversations, or discussions. They are generally misleading and always do harm. An exact statement of the facts will convey the necessary information.”
There was no delusion about the situation at the front when the 353rd Infantry moved up on the night of October 19th, 1918. Reconnaissance parties had noted the intensity of the struggle in the numbers of unburied dead scattered about over their future sector. Field Order Number 82, of the 32nd Division under date of October 16th announced advance on the left and included the following instruction for their own forces:
“No ground now held will be abandoned, but if necessary to obtain more favorable positions, local advance may be made. The Commander-in-Chief yesterday personally gave instructions to the Division commander that every foot of ground gained must be held at all costs. And he desired this impressed upon all ranks. Every man who had individually worked forward will form a rallying point for others coming up and the ground so gained by small groups will be held to the last. No falling back from the present outpost line will even be considered.”
This order in full had come down to the companies of the 353rd Infantry with the endorsement of Division, Brigade, and Regimental commanders. While the phrase all shot to pieces had been ruled out, there was plenty of evidence that the 32nd Division had suffered many casualties. The sector ahead was a desperate proposition.
It had been reported that the enemy was retreating at other points on the line. Military critics had said that this sector formed a pivot and if it gave way, the whole German army to the north would be lost. German orders were, therefore, to hold here at all cost. To our front was one Bois after another and the terrain a succession of hills and draws. The enemy had concentrated large numbers of machine guns and artillery with intent to hold. The machine guns were protected by sniper’s posts built in trees. Our enemy was on the defensive in possession of every natural advantage and fighting what he must have known to be a death struggle.
The 1st Battalion took the lead under command of Captain Portman. Captain Crump, broken down completely, had been evacuated to a base hospital. The route to the new positions led through open fields, past Gesnes, into the heart of Bantheville Woods. On the line one company relieved a battalion, one platoon a company. It seemed all out of proportion, but such was the measure of casualties in the retiring division. Shelling was very severe and the 1st Battalion suffered quite a few casualties before reaching the positions. D and C Companies were on the outguard, supported by Companies A and B respectively. Reconnaissance, however, had been thorough and, once in the area, relief was effected within two hours after it had been commenced.
Shelling continued with increased severity. Captain Portman was severely wounded while standing at the telephone. Command passed to Capt. Allen Barnett of A Company. Captain Portman was evacuated to a base hospital. His services in the World War were over. In addition to the losses from artillery fire, machine guns took their toll. Woe to any man who stepped out into the open to survey the line which wound its way through the dense under-growth, marking the advance limits of the position.
On October 21st it fell to the lot of the 1st Battalion to relieve troops of the 178th Brigade to the right. Reports indicated that they were in position some two hundred yards ahead. Inasmuch as the 2nd Battalion was already in contact with the enemy in their own position, some confusion as to situation and procedure resulted. One thing was clear – the woods must be mopped up before relief could be effected.
The 89th Division had been informed that the Bantheville Woods had been cleared of the enemy and that all that was necessary was to mop them up. It was found that these woods were held in force and that the mission assigned was not one of mopping up but was virtually an advance against strong and stubborn resistance.
The afternoon of October 20th orders were received from V Corps (Field Order No. 48) for the attack of the line Hazois Woods to Hill 253. General instructions required that the attack be made by one brigade with the second brigade in reserve. In preparation for this Field Order No.35 was issued directing the 177th Brigade to take over the entire front, placing the 178th Brigade, with the Divisional Machine Gun Battalion, in Divisional Reserve. This relief was finally accomplished after midnight on October 21st. The enemy’s scattered stragglers and occasional machine gunners in the Bantheville Woods, and his persistent gas shelling through the east central part of the woods impeded the operation of the relief.
On October 21st, instructions were received to adjust the boundary line with the 42nd Division. This was accomplished thru Field Order No. 37 by the leading brigade of this division taking over, on the night of October 21st the front as far as Tulerie Farm from the 168th Infantry, 84th Brigade, 42nd Division.
On the same day Field Order 38 was published directing that the two battalions of the 178th Brigade then engaged in mopping up the northern part of Bantheville Woods to complete the operation. When this mission was satisfactorily completed they were to be withdrawn and form a part of the Divisional reserve. On the night of October 21st the 1st Battalion of the 353rd Infantry relieved the units of the 178th Brigade except two companies of the 356th Infantry which remained in a forward position.’