November 3, 1918. Sunday morning. 5:30 am. Grandpa and the members of Company “C”, 356thInfantry, 89thDivision, prepared to advance on German troops. From historical accounts of the division, I place him in an area roughly 60 miles east and slightly north of Reims, between the northern edges of the forested area called the Barricourt Heights and the small villages known as Le Champy Bas and Le Champy Haut. (1)
The Germans had long held this part of France and knew how to take advantage of the dense woods (for traps and hiding spots for snipers) and the hills (to follow the enemy) and the open fields (to pick off advancing troops).
That morning, on November 3, the American infantry troops set out with extra supplies for what the army expected to be heavy fighting: “two bandoleers of small arms ammunition, one automatic rifle clip or the equivalent number of cartridges, two hand grenades, two rifle grenades and one white panel.” (2) They followed behind the artillery, whose deadly shells added a smoky haze to the foggy, wintry morning. Advance, always march forward, they knew. Use a compass, as needed. Stay with your group. If a comrade falls, leave him. Don’t give the enemy an inch.
Major General Charles P. Summerall, in a daily briefing, explained.
The best way to safeguard the wounded is to push ahead and defeat the enemy. Pitiful examples have occurred in the present offensive wherein units have allowed their strength to be weakened by details for carrying wounded and in the face of a counter attack have been driven back, leaving their wounded to die. To halt plays the enemy’s game, since he is fighting a defensive action with machine guns and artillery. To halt means losses. (3)
On that November day—one hundred years ago today, one of those machine guns fired at my grandfather. He fell to the ground. The only information I have on the nature of that battle and his injury appears in a letter he wrote six weeks later.
Letter written December 12, 1918. The second page includes the section shown above.
My arm don’t bother me a great deal only is weak. But there is a good cause as I had a gash about five inches long cut to the bone just above my wrist which cut a leader [tendon], and a bullet through the muscle of my arm which cut an artery, which almost bled me to death before got off the field. We were in the front wave going over the top at this time and the Germans had a large number of machine guns just about three hundred yards ahead of us. And they were sure using them. Ha. Ha.
Historical accounts describe the advance by the 356th Infantry as coming under “severe fire from the woods in front and from the village of Le Champy Haut.” (4) Grandpa told Grandma, in a letter from November 28, that “our whole bunch was hit hard.”
I’ll never know who saved my grandfather, or how long he lay on that field, nearly bleeding to death by his own account. Was he carried off? Did an ambulance transport him, over muddy, rutted roads, to safety and care?
In an earlier post, I noted the levels of care established during World War 1. It was a system that saved the lives of men like my grandfather. Medical personnel were stationed in trenches, to evaluate injuries. Advanced dressing stations, 400 yards away from the fighting, to stabilize bleeding. Field hospitals, 1 ½ miles away, for emergency operations. Evacuation hospitals, 8 – 13 miles away, for more serious operations. Base hospitals, 23-28 miles away, for convalescence and physical therapy. (5)
Grandpa nearly came through the war without injury. His luck ran out that November day, so close to the official armistice. People tell me that he was lucky because he received medical attention and survived. But it’s also true that his luck was scarred by a wound that would never fully heal.
(1) English, George H. History of the 89th Division, U.S.A. War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, pp. 196-200. To explore the November battles, visit the online map collection of the Library of Congress, especially the map of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, day by day, noted by Major General Charles P. Summerall. You should be able to enlarge sections, and when you do, follow the 89th: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g5831s.ct004281/?r=0.115,0.528,0.473,0.199,0
(2) English, p. 171.
(3) English, p. 168.
(4) English, p. 199.
(5) National WW1 Museum and Memorial, exhibition notes.