Récit de la
compagnie de Reading, siège du comté de Berk en Pennsylvanie,
appartenant à la 42ème division
militia in the great war
J. Bennett Nolan
Published under the auspices of the Historical Society of Berks
The Baccarat Sector
It was now apparent to the
dullest mind that the hour of the great trial could not be far
distant. All the grim panoply of modern warfare, gas masks,
steel helmets and hand grenades had been issued and the men were
trained as well as troops could be trained, outside of the shock
of actual warfare.
It may be well, at this time, in order to understand the
movements of the Company towards the front, to undertake a short
resume of the general operations in which the Company formed a
small but necessary link.
When it became apparent to the Allied High Command that the
American troops were to appear in France in much greater numbers
and at a far earlier period than our friends had supposed, or,
the foe had expected, the selection of their place in the line
became a problem of vital importance.
Certain important elements in the English and French General
Staff were against an independent American army, holding that it
would be better to incorporate the American troops as reserves
with the French and English armies as they existed. General
Pershing steadily opposed this proposed policy. With an acute
farsightedness, which events have since justified, he contended
that the American army must and would fight as a unit. Happily,
for the future of Democracy he won his point. It was then
determined that the existing operations and arrangements would
be least disturbed if the Americans took their place in the
right of the Allied line. The American front formed a liason
with the French, at a point a few kilometers west of Toul, and
at this time extended to the east of Luneville, where it joined
the Eighth French Army under General Gerard.
This arrangement of the First American Sector enabled our troops
to develop their great bases of Bordeaux, Brest and St. Nazaire,
and to perfect their lines of communication directly through
Touraine and Burgundy without interfering with the lines of
communication of either the French or English. The great depots,
store houses and training camps which were to feed the mighty
army which we eventually put on the front, were scattered along
these lines of communication.
The brunt of the first fighting fell upon four sorely tried
divisions, the First, Second, Twenty-sixth and the Forty-second.
The Reading Company, as has been stated, belonged to the Forty-second
Division, commanded by Major General Charles T. Menoher. It had
not been expected that the Americans would engage so early in
such large numbers. However, when the Germans broke through
between Soissons and Noyon, in their frantic drive in March,
1918, they crumpled Gough and the Fifth English Army like an old
glove and threatened Paris itself. It was well for the Allied
Cause that the Americans were there, brave, devoted and
welltrained, to act as reserves for theharrasssed French and
Each of the four divisions alluded to had a normal strength of
about twenty-six thousand men, but usually mustered far below
that number. Each had a nucleus of regular troops with which
were incorporated certain elements of militia, such as the
Company whose fortunes we now follow.
It was on February 20th, at 2:15, of a bitterly cold morning,
that the Company started for the lines. They hiked to Langres,
where they entrained in box cars at 5 :30 in the morning. The
men were nearly frozen. With the improvidence of youth, they
started a fire on the floor of one of the cars. It was soon put
out, because, as one of the boys naively explains, "We couldn't
stand the smoke." In all their distress and anxiety of mind,
they found time for the inevitable crap game. This, however, had
a tragical ending when Sergeant Ludwig's twenty franc note flew
out of the door and vanished down the track. That day they
rolled slowly to the north, to the sound of heavy cannonading,
and at five o'clock in the morning of February 21st they arrived
at the little town of Moyen and began their hike up to the lines.
All day they passed through a ravaged countryside, from which
the civil population had long since fled. The villages were in
ruins and occupied only by troops who were waiting to go up into
the trenches. The roads were in frightful shape from the
constant passing and repassing of artillery and transport. The
Company finally arrived at the half-demolished town of
Giriviller, where they found some French troops, also the One
Hundred and Forty-ninth, One Hundred and Fiftieth and One
Hundred and Fifty-first Machine Gun Battalions, all in a state
of hopeless confusion.
The Company rested over Washington's Birthday and February 24th,
and left on the morning of February 25th for what was to be an
eighteen-mile hike to the village of Benamenil. This latter
place was only five kilometers from the trenches. Aeroplanes,
friendly and hostile, hovered constantly overhead. The roar of
the artillery was continuous and deafening. At night the glow of
the north horizon reminded the boys of the blast furnaces in
their native county. Ambulances were constantly passing with
their pitiful loads. Fearless youth, however, grows callous to
the most disturbing conditions. In the midst of all this clamor
and misery, the most important entry which Sergeant Smith can
conceive of for the diary, is that he has a real white bed
spread and that Sergeant Gring is enjoying a cot. These comforts,
however, were to be short-lived. The boys were forbidden to
congregate in groups, as these might be marked by the watchful
Boche, who hovered constantly overhead. They stood about through
the whole of the nerve-racking day and watched the high
explosives bursting about them. The Captain went up to the front
line upon an inspection trip. In the afternoon they saw their
first aeroplane battle.
On February 27th, Captain Kestner, who had so well and devotedly
led the Company from its departure from Reading, was relieved of
command and Lieutenant Joseph W. Brooks was appointed as Company
Commander. Lieutenant Brooks was a New Yorker and a graduate of
Williams College. He had been a notable football player and was
well qualified to lead men, as the event will show. He was
twenty-seven years of age and came from the One Hundred and
Fiftieth Machine Gun Battalion. The officer directly over him,
at that time, was Major William Hall.
That afternoon the officers, platoon sergeants and leaders went
up to the second line trenches and at six o'clock the first
platoon started after them, the others following in ten-minute
intervals. It was an intensely dark and dreary night, with a
steady downpour of rain. The Company remained in the support
trenches for three hours and then returned to their billets.
On March 1st, Lieutenants Carman, Trapnell, MacKall and Reidnor
were relieved of command and transferred to other units. They
were succeeded by Lieutenants Hamlin, Shelledy and Rowse.
On March 2d came the Company's real baptism of fire. They left
Benamenil at nine o'clock and had scarcely reached the third
line trenches when the wary Boche opened up a lively barrage
fire, followed by a gas attack. The Berks boys remained in the
trenches for ten eventful days, from March 3d to March 12th
inclusive. They grew accustomed to life in the trenches and
experienced the usual vicissitudes of barrage, both light and
heavy, gas attacks and alarm of actual conflict. They were
supported by the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Artillery and also
by a French Battery. On the second day, however, the Boche got
the range of the American guns and scored two direct hits upon
the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Artillery with ghastly results.
The Germans were employing twelve-inch shells, which exploded
with terrific noise, leaving a hole six feet across. Lieutenant
Arseneau and Sergeant Smith made an exciting trip back to the
base for supplies, walking hand in hand with death the entire
On March 6th Private Sharp was wounded by a bursting shell and
Bugler Folk was hit on the left hand. Private Sharp had a
message for the Company Commander. He devotedly refused any
dressing for the wound until he had delivered his message. The
casualties were soon forgotten in the joyful advent of eleven
bags of Reading mail.
On March 8th, at 10:30 in the morning, Private Kotouche was
struck and instantly killed by a fragment of a bursting shell.
The bombardment was continuous and appalling. The Germans were
masters of the air and directed the fire of their own artillery
without any apparent disturbance. The One Hundred and Forty-ninth
Artillery, maddened by the losses of their comrades, were firing
at the rate of twelve shots per minute and the French were not
far behind them. In the midst of this inferno came the news from
the right sector of the Reading line that Sergeant Ludwig and
Corporal Gehring had been killed. No member of the Company but
had a hair-breadth escape during this appalling period. Each
wondered whose turn would come next. The old Berks County pluck
asserted itself and the boys fired until their machine gun
barrels were red-hot. At last, when it seemed that flesh and
blood could stand the strain no longer, the Company was relieved
and ordered back to Benamenil, where they assembled in the field
Y.M.C.A., drank hot chocolate and greeted each other as men
returned from the grave.
The next day they retraced their steps to Moyen, where the
Company was inspected and reformed. They remained here en repos
until March 20th, when they again returned to Giriviller. It was
at this place, on March 26th, that the Company was formally
transferred from Company A, One Hundred and Forty-ninth Machine
Gun Battalion, to Company D, One Hundred and Fiftieth Machine
Gun Battalion. The Company was then moved to the ruined village
of Domptail and the next day passed through the populous town of
Baccarat. Here, in contrast to the utter ruin in the villages in
which they had lately been quartered, there was some measure of
civilian life. The shops were open and men and women crowded
about the boys and made them welcome.
The Company spent a muddy Easter at the French Cantonment at
Voire and left for Reherry early next morning, where the second
platoon, under command of Lieutenant Shelledy, went into the
second line trenches. The rest of the Company remained in
support for ten days, where they were instructed in what the
French called Defense contre Avion, or antiaircraft defense.
They installed two anti-aircraft guns and watched with interest
the emplacement of a huge nine-inch naval monster, the first of
the gigantic American guns, which were later to blaze a way to
Sedan and victory.
On April 11th, Lieutenant Brooks and the platoon leaders went
upon a reconnaissance to the front line trenches, preparatory to
relieving the One Hundred and Sixty-sixth Machine Gun Company.
That evening the entire Company hiked up to Ancerviller,
directly on the front, where they were to remain for ten days.
All the letters which the writer has been able to peruse
complain of the filthy conditions in which the trenches were
left by their predecessors and of the utter waste which seemed
to have obtained in their kitchen. The French Artillery, which
was in support, threw over a continuous and lively barrage. The
boys were lulled to sleep by the whistling of the shells, while
the Germans maintained a sulky silence. The men were quartered
as comfortably as possible in the damp, dark cellars and debris
of what had once been a smiling village. Meals were served twice
a day. Latrines were dug after the army regulation. The usual
watch observed was two hours on and four hours in repose. The
officers placed their machine guns to best advantage and then
all settled down to the monotony of trench life and watched the
aerial battles which went on overhead. They cheered towards
evening when a German plane came floating down apparently
fatally struck, but in the end, the aviator righted himself and
made off in the direction of the Rhine.
The tedium was broken on April 14th by the appearance of a
German scout who was discovered and fired upon at a distance of
only a few hundred feet and who returned the fire, shooting
through the stock of Corporal Jarrette's machine gun. On the
same day, Acting Sergeant Hostetter was wounded and sent to the
Base Hospital at Baccarat. Detachments of the men went out into
"No-Man's Land" for nightly reconnaissances in the hope of
potting the Boche sharpshooters. They saw several, but were
unable to reach them. The first section of the second platoon
was located a little to the right of the main body in a grove.
It was a critical position enough, being bombed all day and
gassed at night, but the humor of the boys was not to be denied
and they dubbed the place "Carsonia Park."
On April 20th, in a light fall of snow, the Company started to
move out of the trenches and marched to Merviller. The weather
had been steadily bad and the plastic Lorraine mud became more
and moreharrasssing. The morale of the boys was at low ebb after
their irksome stay in the trenches. It required all the efforts
and resources of the officers to keep up the standard of
discipline. The Company was now quartered in another of the
ruined villages which they had come to know so well. The cellars
had been converted into damp, dark dugouts, only tolerable in
the reflection of how much worse the quarters had recently been.
At this critical juncture the boys were cheered by the arrival
of the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Field Artillery Band. The men
wept for joy at the sound of American tunes.
On the 24th the Company was moved still further back to
Neufmaisons, where they were billeted. The surroundings here
were pleasanter than they had been for some time and the Company
was cheered by the presence of a Y.M.C.A. station with a real
American girl to pour the chocolate.
On the 27th Lieutenants Brooks and Hamlin took the first platoon
of fifty-one men who had been ordered to Baccarat, to undergo a
course of instructions in trench raiding.
On May 2d the artillery fire was of an unprecedented intensity
and the Company knew that some unusual offensive was in
preparation. Later in the day came orders to have the men ready
to move up to the lines that same evening. Accordingly, at nine
in the evening, in a steady drizzle, the Company moved over the
muddy roads to the Ancerviller sector of the front, which they
reached at midnight. The sky was aglow with the continual
explosions of the heavy pieces. The first platoon had gone on
ahead into the inferno, and the rest of the men unloaded the
machine guns and made ready for whatever the fates should send
them. Callous as the boys had grown, they all remarked on the
violence of the barrage. The earth seemed to quiver after the
discharge of the heavy railroad pieces. "They were shooting a
blue streak," records the imperturbable Smith, "and they sure
did raise hell." At about 5:30 in the morning the missing
platoon appeared with clothing torn and smeared with blood. They
were covered with mud from head to foot and only to be compared
with a bunch of football players coming from a muddy field. The
Reading heroes had been as far as the Boche third line trenches,
had set up their machine guns there and held their position with
cool daring, until the raiding party was ready to withdraw. It
is worthy of note that this was the first time that a machine
gun had been taken over the top by an American raiding party.
Several of the raiders had been severely wounded, but there had
been no mortalities. Sergeant Jarrette, who had been at the
fore-front in the raid, received the congratulations of the
Company Commander. As soon as the wounds had been bound up and
the paraphernalia collected, the Company left the field, just as
the sun was arising over the Lorraine hills, and arrived again
at their barracks at 9:45, where all hands promptly went to
On May 8th came a very welcome and merited promotion to
Lieutenant Brooks, who was made a Captain. He was given an
ovation by the Company. The Company stayed at Neufmaisons for
three weeks, until May 14th. It was a dreary period on the whole,
punctuated only by drills on the rifle-range and games of
baseball between the showers. All the letters written at this
period bear testimony to the vileness of the weather. The
excitement of the actual fighting in the trenches had subsided
and the boys became again discouraged and homesick. The days
were passed in the succession of cloudy skies overhead and under
foot the continuous clinging of the Lorraine mud. Small wonder
that the note of homesickness is the predominant one in the
records of this period.
The Company moved on to Montigny, where they remained from the
14th to the 21st of May. Here, while not engaged in actual
fighting, they were subject to frequent gas attacks and became
proficient in the use of their masks, of the English model,
which had been furnished to them. They were under continual
bombardment and had grim evidence of the accuracy of the enemy's
aim, when a complete hit was registered on one of their machine
guns, smashing it to fragments. All their comrades who had been
wounded in the trench raids were well cared for in the Base
Hospital at Baccarat.
On May 14th Corporal Ludwig was promoted to a Sergeancy and
Privates Belong, Fry and Behm to Corporals. The spring was now
far advanced on the Lorraine hills. The beautiful verdure of the
early French summer was beginning to make itself apparent. The
same birds came back from the south land, which the boys were
accustomed to seeing at home; the same flowers that bloomed in
Berks County were beginning to be seen in this devastated land.
The boys knew that their hours of respite were drawing to a
close and that they must soon again take their place on the
On May 21st they turned in their extra blankets and heavy
overcoats and made ready for the return trip to the trenches. It
was late in the evening when they moved out from Montigny and
made for their old station in the Ancerviller sector. A German
aeroplane had been brought down that same afternoon and its
outlines were dimly seen in "No-Man's Land," directly in front
of the Reading sector.
Their first days in the trenches were uneventful, except for the
periodical appearance of enemy aeroplanes. These must have
located their position with more or less accuracy, for on May
26th the enemy began shelling the American position with gas
shells. The day passed in the succession of gas attacks and
amidst tremendous artillery fire. The whole country side, as far
back as Montigny, was literally drenched with gas. The full
horror of this form of attack soon became apparent. Those of the
boys whose bodies were in any way moist with perspiration had
their skins eaten into by the insidious gas. They lay writhing
in agony and the more serious cases had to be carried to the
Base Hospital. The enemy were using their heaviest pieces and
dropped two one hundred and five millimeter shells within two
hundred feet of the post command. It was a close call. The
Alabama Militia, who held the sector to the right of the Reading
boys, were less fortunate or less skillful in the use of their
gas masks. They suffered sixty casualties. This frightful
experience continued until five o'clock in the morning, when the
firing gradually died down. Shortly afterwards the boys were
puzzled to see what was apparently an American aeroplane being
brought down by their own guns. It turned out to be a machine
which had been captured by the Boche and sent back by them for a
The long course of vigorous training which the Company had
undergone now began to bear fruit. Their positions were well
taken and skillfully conceived. Their guns were planted in a way
which earned the commendation of the Regimental Commander.
On May 27th the Captain laconically records, "Now have sixteen
guns on the line, having utilized our four reserve guns. Ready
for any emergency." The emergency nearly came that same evening
when the Alabama troops and the French repulsed a particularly
vicious attack, coupled with a heavy barrage and gas. With the
coming of the dawn, the Berks lads could count forty German dead,
hanging on the barbed wire to the right of their position. All
that day the Company was kept on the alert as the firing was
incessant. The expected attack, however, did not materialize.
Sergeant Smith, who had been sent back to Baccarat with
dispatches, was caught in a gas bombardment and had an exciting
time getting the gas mask upon his refractory horse.
May 30th was Memorial Day and all their thoughts went back to
the happy anniversary of a year before, when they had marched
out to the Charles Evans Cemetery. The contrast to their present
position was marked indeed. The boys were worn andharrasssed by
loss of sleep, continual bombardment and the strain of
watchfulness. "Will it ever end?" writes one of the lads to his
sweetheart at home. "It is like a raging furnace." Many of the
letters written at this period express the hope that if death
comes it will be a clean hit, and that they will not suffer the
tortures of their gassed companions.
On May 31st came a more than welcome relief. The Company hiked
back to Reherry in a state bordering on collapse. Their respite,
however, was short. The Allied line was so thinly held that
seasoned troops were continually needed.
At nine o'clock on the evening of June 4th, the platoon moved
out at fifteen minute intervals to the Montigny sector, where
they again took up front line positions. The enemy seemed to
have an intuition that the trench garrison was being changed and
welcomed them with a particularly heavy barrage. Forty of the
boys who were in a dug-out had a miraculous escape when a
nineinch shell struck close by. Only two of them were wounded.
Our artillery retaliated the next morning by bringing down a
German observation balloon with inflammable shells.
The history of the Company's career in the Lorraine trenches is
almost monotonous in its unvarying experiences. The long days
passed in a succession of gas attacks, alarm and heavy barrage.
The harrassed Reading boys, who a year before had been on the
farm or in the workshop, were now cool intrepid veterans. They
realized that they held the forefront of the battle line of
civilization. But for them and their comrades, the Germans would
probably have attempted a mighty stroke against Dijon and again
have threatened Paris from the rear.
June 10th saw the Company in its old station on the Ancerviller
front. The indomitable Captain Brooks was sorely smitten with
fever, but led his platoon the entire distance.
On the 14th of June the monotony was broken by the appearance of
a particularly venturesome German, who recklessly flew low over
the gun positions, bombarding them with his machine gun.
Although pursued by a continuous fire, he made his escape. One
of the boys writes, "I believe he was low enough to hit with a
rock. He sure was a nervy cuss."
The fine weather abruptly ceased and the heavy rains again set
in, turning the trenches into rivers of mud and adding
inexpressibly to the misery of conditions. A particularly
insidious gas attack on June 18th caused the Reading Company
several casualties and killed nine of their mules. The devoted
village of Reherry, which the boys had so lately left, received
a terrible bombardment, killing seventy-three of the Forty-second
Division who were quartered there.
On June 19th the enemy registered three direct hits on the
stable where the Company had forty-seven head of horses and
mules, causing a ghastly havoc.
On June 20th the Company were relieved by a French detachment
and marveled how few men our war-worn allies were compelled to
send to man the sector which they were just abandoning. The
mortality among the horses and mules handicapped the
transportation severely. Each man was compelled to bear a double
burden. Even then it was with difficulty that they were able to
drag their guns, ammunition, field kitchen and paraphernalia.
The boys hiked the entire night in a heavy rain, repassing
through Baccarat and arriving at Domptail early in the morning.
They had covered a distance of twenty-five kilometers, a notable
achievement, considering the heavy burdens which they bore.
The Company was now temporarily under the command of Lieutenant
Rowse, Captain Brooks, according to the army regulations,
remaining on the front twelve hours after the relief. The rain
was incessant, and the boys utterly worn after their sleepless
nights in the trenches. Nevertheless, they were compelled to
meet another forced march of twenty-eight kilometers to
Morriville. Seven of the boys collapsed and were left behind in
a barn on the way. It was two o'clock in the morning when the
tired soldiers marched through the narrow street of Morriville.
Breakfast was served and the men dispersed to neighboring hay-lofts.
They were awakened by the church bells pealing on a beautiful
Sunday morning, marched to their rail-head at Chatel and
entrained the same evening. Their few remaining mules were so
upset by the experiences at the front that it was with the
greatest difficulty that they could be forced into the cars. The
soldiers sat about and waited for the train to start. Some of
them visited a German prison camp in the village and talked
Pennsylvania Dutch with the prisoners.
The train consisted of fifty wagons. It made its slow way across
the breadth of the ancient province of Burgundy ; through Nancy,
Toul and Bar-le-Duc. They passed within a few kilometers of the
headquarters of one of the greatest soldiers whom the city of
Reading has ever furnished to a grateful country - Lieutenant
General Hunter Liggett, a Berks County lad; the Commander of the
First American Army, who was at this time lodged at Neuf chateau
on the Meuse. The Company arrived at noon on the 24th of June,
at the detrainment yard at Coolus. Here they were cheered by
coffee served by the American Red Cross women and detrained
their equipment. After a three-hours' hike they reached the
beautiful town of Togny, which delighted them with its
cleanliness and picturesqueness. The next few days were devoted
to a general clean-up. The Company were again almost on a peace
schedule and were delighted at the indulgence accorded them
after the horrors of the trenches.