The Reading Militia in the Great War

Part II - The Career of Company A

Later known as Company B, 108th Machine Gun Battalion, Twenty-eighth Division, American Expeditionary Force

Chapter I - The Training Camp

Company A is the senior detachment of the Reading militia. Its members love to boast that they are the successors of the venerable Reading Artillerists and that their organization has had a continuous existence since March 23d, 1794. The Company served creditably on the Mexican border, under the leadership of Captain J. Lewis Lengel. They were mobilized on Sunday, July 16th, 1918, at nine o'clock in the morning. The same period of forty days' drill and practice hikes, which has been noted in the training of Company I, was ended by the order of departure for August 20th. It has previously been stated that on the 18th of August, Captain Charles G. Miller, of Company I, was transferred to Company A, and Captain Edward V. Kestner, of Company A, was placed in the leadership of Company I. At three o'clock on the afternoon of August 20th, escorted by a dense throng of well-wishers, the Company left their Armory for a short parade through the principal streets and entrained at the outer P. & R. station.

The men numbered at this time one hundred and thirty-three, whose average age was a little under twenty-one years. One hundred and three were from Reading and the remainder from rural Berks. They were commanded by Captain Charles G. Miller, First Lieutenant Irwin E. Seaman and Second Lieutenant James M. Snyder.

After a journey of thirty-six hours they reached the great training ground at Camp Hancock, near Augusta, Georgia. No preparations had been made for their reception and the Company slept on the ground the first night. They were then assigned to the location, which they maintained with some changes, until September 16th. Afterwards they were moved to a new location on Pennsylvania Avenue, which they kept until the date of their departure overseas. The Twenty-eighth Division, which was peculiarly a Pennsylvania and a National Guard Division, was in process of formation at this time. It was commanded at first by Major-General T.C. Clement, of Sunbury, who later was succeeded by Major-General Charles C. Muir. Captain Francis Wilson, who came from the officers' training camp at Plattsburg, was assigned to the Company as an additional officer shortly after Company A arrived in camp. The Company underwent the usual strenuous course provided in the American training camps. After rearrangement, they were chosen as a Machine Gun Detachment and underwent intensive training under English instructors. Eight men formed a squad and to each squad was assigned one machine gun. The exigencies of our Ordnance Department were such that few actual machine guns were available. Men were drilled with wooden guns, except that the non-commissioned officers were given some schooling with real weapons. Conditions were very chaotic during the first few weeks at the training camp and it was not known to which battalion the Reading boys would finally be joined.

On September 26th, to the great disappointment of the Reading soldiers, came a general order, transferring one hundred and twenty-five men to the One Hundred and Ninth Regiment, which had formerly been the First Regiment of Philadelphia. The men realized that it was their soldierly duty to go where they were sent. Most of them, however, had been recruited with the understanding that they were to serve in a peculiarly Reading Contingent, amongst their friends and neighbors. The news of this contemplated action found its way to the city of Reading, where there was a widespread feeling of discontent over this summary breaking up of a detachment which had served as an individual unit since the days of the Revolution. This feeling crystalized in the Citizens' Meeting in which a committee of three, Robert G. Bushong, Esq., John F. Ancona and George Wynkoop, Jr., were appointed to secure, if possible, an amelioration of the order. The Committee called at the War Office and also interested Congressman Arthur G. Dewalt in the matter. Their protestations evidently had some effect, as the execution of the order was postponed for ten days. In the end, and as of October 17th, the Company was formally reorganized as the Second Company of the One Hundred and Eighth Machine Gun Battalion. It was later known as Company B. Seventy-nine of the original Reading boys stayed with the Company. The remainder were scattered about among various contingents and their places taken by men from the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, which had been part of the Thirteenth Regiment of the National Guard of Pennsylvania. Lieutenant Seaman, who had left Reading with the Company was honorably discharged under medical certificate. Second Lieutenant Snyder was made First Lieutenant and three new Second Lieutenants, Bellou, Howard and Frederick, were added to the staff of officers. Captain Sanderson Detweiler, of Columbia, served with the Company for a short while. On November 16th, Captain Miller was removed from the command and assigned to Company D of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry. He was succeeded by Captain Laurence H. Watres, an attorney from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who had received his training in the Thirteenth Regiment of Pennsylvania National Guards. First Lieutenant William P. Hayes joined the Company at this time. Major R.M. Vail assumed command of the One Hundred and Eighth Battalion on November 1st. Two officers of the British Mission, Sergeant Drieballs and Captain Pinnell were assigned to the Battalion as instructors in machine gunnery. The reorganized Company remained at Camp Hancock for six tedious months.

There is little to relate of the stereotyped routine of the camp. The boys trained faithfully and well. Their letters and diaries all breathe a spirit of impatience that their time of active service had been postponed so long.

"The worst of camp life," writes Sergeant Joe Eisenbrown, "is the monotony. We are all of us hoping and praying that we will soon be sent to France."

It was particularly galling to the high-spirited Company to know that their old comrades of Company I were enduring the shock of actual battle in the trenches of Lorraine, while they were condemned to the monotonous inactivity of camp life.

Their hour came at last. On April 21st they left Camp Hancock and on April 23d arrived at the same Camp Upton which had received their Reading comrades six months before. On May 2d they entrained for Brooklyn and embarked at once from the Bush Terminal on board the English ship Anchises. The boys described the ship as ill-kept and very much overcrowded. Eighteen hundred troops were on board. The food was uncertain and indifferent, consisting principally of Australian rabbit. After an uneventful voyage of two weeks the Company arrived at Liverpool on May 16th. The men at once entrained and traversed the length of England, arriving at Folkestone on the southern coast at two o'clock in the morning. The boys were under strict military restraint during the entire journey; they passed through London but had no opportunity to inspect it. That same afternoon, about five o'clock, they arrived at Dover and were quartered in Rest Camp No. 3, in the South Port. It was a nerve-racking location. The great trans-channel ferry for troops and ammunition ended here and the town was bombed systematically by Zeppelins, aeroplanes and raiding torpedo boats from the German base at Ostend.

The next day the Reading Company made the dangerous crossing to Calais, escorted by a flotilla of torpedo boats. They were well received at an English rest camp, where they remained for three days. A part of their war equipment, including gas masks, was issued to them. The boys complained that the rations were insufficient and that they had not yet acquired a taste for the jam and tea with which their English comrades plied them. Whilst in this camp they were raided by German aeroplanes. Sergeant Earl Shilling wrote humorously to his folks at home concerning the incident.

"At the first alarm all the French and English dug for cellars or bomb shelters. Our crowd on the contrary, were so curious over their first sight of an enemy aeroplane that they rushed out into the open and stood gaping at them while the bombs fell. A big English Tommy said, 'My eye! Look at the blooming Sammies standing out in an air raid. They won't last far at that gait."

On May 21st the boys marched to an entrainment point and were borne southward to Desveres, where they detrained and marched to Henneveux, in the English rear zone. The Twenty-eighth Division was billeted in this area for about two weeks, where the lads received the entire British equipment for use in the field and began to train for the first time with real machine guns. The gun furnished them was the Vickers gun, of English pattern. A detachment of the Northumberland Fusileers was attached to the battalion to assist in training.

"The English are well enough," wrote one of the boys to a Reading newspaper on May 20th, "but they do not have any tobacco to give us. The supply that we brought from home is all gone and now we are picking up stumps and even smoking dried leaves."

On May 24th, Captain Watres with Lieutenants Finley and Boss and six non-commissioned officers left for the British machine gun school at Le Wast, where they remained until June 8th. On May 26th, Lieutenant Finley and Corporals Mallatin and Ruddy left for a similar school at Camieres. June 3d was made memorable by the arrival of the first Reading mail.

It seems to have been the intention of the General Staff to leave the division in this training area for a longer period of time. The situation, however, became so critical that it was necessary to throw all available troops into the line. Company B accordingly turned in all of its British equipment, except the limbers and horses and prepared to leave. They left Henneveux about noon and marched to Campagne, where they were billeted for the night. Resuming their hike, they arrived at Chappelle Neuve, "dog-tired," late in the afternoon.

On June 11th they again took up their march and bivouaced that night in a marsh, where they were compelled to wait two days for the other units of the division to entrain. It was here that the Company received its first pay in French money.

On the morning of June 13th they embarked on the classic box cars, "Hommes forty, chevaux eight," for the journey to the eastward. All through the long summer day of June 14th they rode to the eastward, passing through the suburbs of Paris and in clear sight of the Eifel Tower. They detrained at Esbly, the same station which was to receive their comrades of Company I three weeks later.

The men unloaded their guns and equipment and marched to trucks which soon started, crossed the Marne and moved steadily northward. For the first time, the awe-struck boys beheld the flashes on the northern horizon and heard the rumble of heavy artillery at the front. Early in the morning they arrived at Nantouillet, where they slept until evening and then moved on to Thieux, where they bivouaced in a field. During the night they were awakened by the distant wails of sirens and the thunder of a barrage of seventy-fives, so continuous as to suggest the rattle of a machine gun; the enemy aeroplanes were raiding Paris. The Company remained in this place two days and then moved on to Mory. They later moved a few kilometers to Gresse, where they encamped in the beautiful grounds of a fine old chateau. The Germans had swept through this country in their first drive of August, 1914, but had been ejected after the first battle of the Marne before they had had the opportunity to do much damage. Lieutenant Doret of the French Artillery Service was assigned to the battalion as Liason Officer.

The Company started a severe five days of training under French instructors. This schooling terminated abruptly on the 23d, when the Company marched southward in lorries to La Celles, near Montmirail, where a further intensive period of instruction with the French was undergone. Here, for the first time, the boys had a range practice with the Hotchkiss gun. At this place they were rejoined by Lieutenant Shoemacker, Sergeants Lawrence, Schwartz and Grauer and Corporals Malatin and Ruddy, who returned from machine gun school. Lieutenant Finley returned from a similar school at Camieres on July 2d.

The days in this sector were spent in drills, practice hikes, instructions in machine gunnery and in rehearsing attacks in open order. There appears to have been considerable difficulty in understanding the instructions, owing to the fact that the Company was not sufficiently provided with interpreters.

"The Frogs were willing enough," wrote one of the boys at this period, "but for the life of us we couldn't understand them. We were all glad when Lieutenant Finley and his bunch returned from school to teach us in English. Every day we can hear overhead the sound of the big shells which the Germans are sending into Paris from some point sixty miles away."

The division was now in the rear Marne area, directly back of Chateau-Thierry. It was the eve of the despairing and gigantic thrust which the Germans were to make in July. It also was to be their last offensive; they never attacked again. Marshal Foch was so admirably served by his Intelligence Department that he knew the enemy would strike southwest of Chateau-Thierry. For this reason he drew in heavy concentrations of French troops and used the comparatively raw Pennsylvania troops to fill the gaps thus created. A sprinkling of French detachments was left with the Americans with the idea of instructing and steadying the troops as yet untrained in battle. By this disposition the American soldiers were within the sphere of operation, but not directly on the line of attack.

For the first time the Reading boys saw the pitiful scenes which accompanied the exodus of an entire countryside. The peasants from the country north of the Marne were fleeing southward; their household effects piled on high wheel carts. There was an electrical tension in the air. For some weeks they had been hearing the rumble of artillery at the front and now this had grown into a menacing roar. The boys noticed the new gravity of their officers and the fact that they were frequently summoned to Headquarters for consultation. Everyone knew that the great blow was soon to fall. Lieutenant Hayes and Corporal Eisenhower went up into the front line for observation with the French for about four days. A Fourth of July celebration had been planned but was never to take place.

At 2:30 in the morning, of the national holiday, to the tune of an intense bombardment, the entire Company broke camp and moved to Pargny, where they were encamped in a wood near a battery of heavy French guns, which made the night hideous with their continued firing. Lieutenant Boss was sent up to the line to locate a position. Finally, on July 8th, the Company took up its position in the line, on hill No. 208, near Conde-en-Brie, about six kilometers southwest of Chateau-Thierry. The Third Platoon, under Lieutenant Shoemacker, was in position in reserve at Montigny. For five days the boys were feverishly busy, digging new emplacements and dug-outs. All the guns were carefully placed, so that every part of the Brigade front was covered. A telephone line was run to the Brigade Headquarters at Pargny. The horses which had heretofore served to draw the gun carts were replaced by mules. It was at this period that the Pennsylvania Division first saw action, two platoons of the One Hundred and Eleventh Infantry having participated with the French in an assault on hill No. 20.

On July 9th the Company had its first gas alarm. The shrieking of klaxons and hammering of tin pans was caught up from trench to trench and borne along from the front to the reserve trenches three miles away.

On July 14th one of the French liason officers visited the Company and predicted to Lieutenant Boss that the Germans would never get across the Marne, as the south bank of the river was so fortified with machine gun nests and barbed wire entanglements as to constitute an impregnable line of defense. If the officer was sincere in this prediction, he was sadly mistaken, as the event showed.

The day of the French National Holiday was long and tense. Far to the eastward in the front line trenches above Suippes, the Reading boys of Company I were undergoing a similar strain. No one slept. Occasionally a star shell flared up in the sky or a gun sounded from the farther shore of the Marne, where the foe was completing his preparation. Finally, at 11:30 at night, came a ripping roar from miles of French batteries in the rear. Foch had anticipated the attack from the foe by exactly an hour. At 12:30 the great German offensive began, preceded by that famous bombardment which Karl Rosner, the war correspondent of the Berlin Lokal Anzeiger, described as "unparalleled and appalling."

Private Russell Moll, a Windsor street boy, describes the tension of waiting for the blow to fall.

"We were over a week on that damned hill looking down on Conde-en-Brie. From the excitement all around us we knew a big push was coming, but we didn't know when. The Boche planes were over us all the time, sometimes very low. Every night we dug new emplacements and mounted the guns. We had every road and high point fully covered and were ready to give the Boche hell if he came through. It was weary work and the boys put away a whole lot of red wine. We used to fetch up cheese from the French canteens back of Villette and have parties. Part of our One Hundred and Ninth outfit was sent up into the lines because so many of the Frogs wanted to go into Paris for the holiday. Well, at midnight on July 14th, the show began all right. They threw gas at us right away and we never got our masks off the whole night. I never heard such a deafening roar. We could see every shell falling into Conde and they sure did knock the old town to pieces. Then their barrage started to creep up the hill. We thought it was all over but when they got within fifty yards of us they lengthened the range for some lucky reason and began to throw the shells back of us. We had no shelter but the machine gun emplacements and the big fellows were falling around us. If the enemy broke through, our signal was a light in a house at the foot of the hill and we watched for it all night. We had to keep rubbing our guns all the time as the gas was eating away the wood and metal. All next day they were at it and we heard that the Germans were over the Marne and mauling our Pennsylvania boys. Lots of wounded kept coming back. Boche aeroplanes flying very low kept coming for us. Towards evening of the next day three came in a bunch. We all ducked and I heard the explosion just back of me near the kitchen. Private Gerald Manley was killed and Lieutenant Hayes, Sergeant McLoughlin and Cook Bare, wounded. It was a sickening sight. Lieutenant Finley took command. A report came that the Germans were in St. Aignan to our right. We fired at the town for a while, but stopped for fear of hitting our own boys."

So much for the part which the Reading Company took in repulsing the Great Attack. How the Germans attacked with one hundred and seventy thousand men; how they swarmed across the Marne, how the four Companies of Pennsylvania National Guard in the front line were cut to pieces and how the attack was finally stemmed, is scarcely within the scope of this account.

Company B remained in reserve until July 18th, when the First Platoon was relieved and returned to Montigny, where Lieutenant Finley took command of the Second Platoon, which took over the position of the First Platoon. First Lieutenant Hayes rejoined the Company. The men remained in their improvised trenches, still under bombardment, until July 20th. The roar of artillery had gradually died down and the Berks boys realized that the front was moving away from them and that the Germans were in full retreat. The raw Pennsylvania Division had acquitted itself in a heroic manner and earned the sincere praises of our critical Allies.

"The hitherto untrained American troops," wrote the acute military observer of the London Tribune, "fought like veterans. Their officers showed unwonted aptitude and military skill."

The Division including the Reading boys now marched southwest out of the bombarded district to Viffort. The shattered companies were reformed and the depleted ranks filled with newcomers, good soldiers, but very few of them Pennsylvanians.

On July 24th the march was resumed in a westerly direction. Company B crossed the Marne at Charly and camped in a woods about two kilometers north of the river. The German host, stunned by the rapidity of the counter-thrust, were in full retreat. Their Kaiser, who had watched the battle from Ludendorf's villa at Blanc Mont, returned disconsolately to his headquarters at Charleville.

Mangin and Degoutte launched a ferocious attack from the Aisne-Ourcq line, which compelled the German General Staff to direct the recrossing of the Marne and to retreat rapidly to the northward, destroying as much of their material as possible. The roads were blocked by a dense swarm of retreating columns and supply trains, on which the Allied aviators and artillery poured tons of projectiles. The reformed and somewhat rested Twenty-eighth Division was thrown upon the trail of the discomfited enemy.

On July 27th, the fateful day on which a few kilometers to the westward, their comrades of old Company I received such punishment, Company B marched through Chateau-Thierry and struck northward in the direction of heavy cannonading. Even the callous boys were struck by the appearance of the shattered town of Chateau-Thierry.

"We all thought of Reading," wrote one of them to his home newspaper, "and tried to picture Penn street in the condition of these streets here. The ruins were awful and even house corners were shot away. We guessed that the first bombardment must have come about meal time, for we could see the prepared meals still standing on the tables in the ruined houses."

After a short rest, the march was resumed the same evening, through Chartreves, Jaulgonne and the beautiful Foret de Fere. In the middle of the night they observed to the northward a tremendous and continued illumination which one of the boys compared to a blast at the Keystone furnace. No one knew what it was, but they were later to learn that it arose from the destruction by the Germans of their huge store-houses at Fere en Tardenois. The woods were filled with the debris of the retreating army. Two of the lads who had strayed a short distance into the forest found five German wounded, whom they sent into the rear in an ambulance. The Company lay for three days in the forest as the reserve company of the battalion. They were continually under bombardment, both by artillery and aeroplanes. The Germans' retreat was temporarily stayed, owing to the fact that by now they had reached their reserve lines on the Ourcq. The Berks boys lay about in the forest but could get little sleep because of continual gas attacks. Corporal Hawk, a Thirteenth street lad, was badly gassed and sent to the rear. The Forty-second Division was actively engaged to the left; numbers of wounded from that division straggled through the lines and were fed at the Company kitchen. The forest was full of machine gun emplacements erected by the Germans, many of them still occupied by their dead garrison. The houses and villages had been systematically destroyed and the fruit trees hacked down. This was a miserable period for the Reading lads. The men crept close to the trunks of the larger trees or dug themselves little shelters in which to pass the terrible nights. Meanwhile the Fifty-fifth Infantry Brigade just ahead was fighting its way through Grimpetts Wood, one of the crowning exploits of the war for Pennsylvania troops and one all too insufficiently known.

On August 1st, about midnight, an enemy aviator made a particularly vicious and successful raid directly over the woods in which the Company was encamped. He dropped six bombs which inflicted numerous casualties upon the sleeping infantry. The men of Company B were aroused to an indescribable confusion and spent the night in carrying stretchers and giving aid to the wounded. Harry Baureithel was one of the boys who passed through this gruesome experience. He wrote:

"In the afternoon a Boche plane was observed above us for quite a while. We suspected that he was taking photographs. It was easy to mark our position because there was a break in the line of woods. We were asleep when the crash came and didn't know at first that it was an aeroplane. It was sickening the way our poor boys were cut up. You couldn't light a light, as the officers would have shot us if we had, so we had to go up around in all the blood and smell and collect the wounded as well as we could. I needn't tell you no one slept any more."

By this time the way had been cleared. The heroic Keystone boys had driven the enemy back on the line of the Vesle. On the night of August 3d the Company advanced through Roncheres, Cierges and Colounges, names which deserve to be immortal in the history of their native state, and arrived at a wood near Cohan. It had been a hard march through a driving rain; the tired men slept where they stood, leaning against wagons or limbers. There was little rest, however, and the same afternoon they pressed on to the northward to a valley east of the town of Chery Chartreuve. They dug in on a hillside to the tune of a heavy bombardment and numerous gas alarms.

On this march, near the little village of Chemery, the Berks boys passed a decorated grave at which the French had established a military guard of honor. The boys looked curiously for the inscription and read the name of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, who had been brought down here by an enemy aeroplane a few weeks before and buried by the Germans.

The entire next day they were hard at work upon their dug-outs. All varieties of high explosives, shrapnel and gas were hurled on them and they must endure for long hours the misery and discomfort of the gas masks. The crisis had come which was to test their mettle to the utmost. The enemy had turned to bay with his back to the River Vesle. The drive on Fismes began the next day.

Chapter II - The Fismes Sector

The Twenty-eighth Division had now come to be regarded as seasoned troops and had well won their name of the Iron Division. They were next given, as their objective, the town of Fismes, at the junction of the Vesle and Ardre rivers. The exhausted Thirty-second and Rainbow Divisions were brought out of the front line and the Pennsylvanians put in their places. The town had occasionally loomed large on the pages of history, and it was here that the kings of France were wont to rest for the night when on their way to be crowned in the neighboring cathedral of Rheims. It is an important railroad junction on the line which runs from Rheims to Soissons, and one of the largest German munition depots in the sector. The railroad embankment was for a time the barrier between the contending forces. The Germans were burrowed into the north side and the Pennsylvanians into the south slope. The contending forces would throw hand grenades and even stones at each other over the high emplacement. The town lay on the south side of the narrow stream. On the north side was the suburb of Fismette, destined to see some of the hardest fighting of the war and to be entirely wiped out in the operation. From their hillside the Reading boys could see the town and the placid river and the heavy German guns crashing from the hills on the opposite shore. The valley back of the Vesle was the "Death Valley," which was to cost the division so dearly.

August 4th was a glorious and crowded day. From their position the boys of Company B could see the panorama of the attack unfolding before them. The One Hundred and Twelfth Pennsylvania Infantry secured a foot-hold in the south end of the town. Furious street fighting from house to house ensued, the enemy struggling like trapped wolves. It was a costly advance but the gallantry of our soldiers was not to be denied and by nightfall the foe had sullenly withdrawn across the river, leaving a portion of their forces as prisoners to the victorious Americans.

All through the long hot days of August 6th, 7th and 8th the Company remained in their dug-outs. An enemy aeroplane bombed directly behind them. Meanwhile the Americans were moving cautiously forward and planting their artillery, while the stage was being set for the assault on Fismette. After nightfall of August 9th the Berks Company left its dug-outs and moved slowly to the northward over a road which was being violently bombarded. They were to support the infantry attack by a harassing fire into the wooded ravines north of Fismes. The boys went forward gallantly to the forward slope of a hill, about a kilometer south of Fismes, where they were heavily shelled. Privates Coitti, Graham and Hermes were wounded. Company B supported the attack by firing a barrage into Fismette, across the river. To the First Platoon was assigned the task of clearing the woods west of Fismes and firing into a tannery northwest of the town which was still occupied by the enemy. They fired from 3:30 in the afternoon until six. A platoon of the infantry was sent up as support and later a part of the Third Platoon joined the Second Platoon. It was a harassing day under continual bombardment and the Company was nearly exhausted by evening, when the ration wagon finally came up with a hot meal. Private Moran was gassed and Sergeants Hancock and Lawrence and Privates Hobbs and Flanagan wounded.

All of the next day the men clung grimly to their position under heavy bombardment. The kitchen was moved back to a reserve position, giving promise of the expected relief which came that evening. The Company had scarcely fired a shot during the last day and yet it had suffered severely. Private Reber was killed and Privates Franke, Hunter, Mabry, Press, Haggerty, Jill, Joyce, Marsh and Pittoc were wounded. Plucky Harry Mabry lost a leg and died in the dressing station. It was necessary to reform the entire battalion. For four days the exhausted men lay in a reserve position north of Dravegny, while the Germans, who had command of the air, used their advantage to the utmost. Company B mounted their guns for anti-aircraft defense and dug in, as well as possible, against the continuous bombardment.

On August 16th the air attacks were so continuous and virulent that two squads were sent forward to protect the infantry from low-flying enemy planes. In this operation Private Carden was gassed and Private Hafer was wounded. Lieutenant Potter was detached from the Company and became the Battalion Adjutant. The Boche artillery was served with unusual accuracy, their bombardment searching the entire valley and hillside in an effort to dislodge the stubborn Pennsylvanians. There were several direct hits upon our artillery and one costly hit was registered upon a body of infantry near the Brigade Headquarters which caused many casualties. Meanwhile, the fight for the river crossing and the penetration of Fismette went slowly but steadily on in the face of a stubborn resistance. The fight in the town was of an unparalleled intensity. Five times it was taken by the Americans and five times retaken by the Germans. It was now resolved by the Divisional Command to attempt a flank movement against the left of the German forces entrenched behind Fismette. Accordingly, on August 19th, the Reading Company was ordered to take a position on the extreme right of the divisional front. It was obviously suicidal to march across the field, as that section was combed continually by the enemy artillery. Consequently the line of march was taken in an almost southerly direction and the men were temporarily with their backs to the line of fighting.

The platoons marched at fifteen minute intervals, the mules and limbers being with the last platoon. This last platoon and wagon train was under the command of Sergeant George I. Strawbridge, who had been a reporter on the Reading Herald. Strawbridge had served all through the Mexican Campaign and was a man of unusual intelligence and military aptitude. Somewhere in the belated mail, between Chaumont and the Division Headquarters, lay his commission as Second Lieutenant, but when it arrived, the gallant boy to whom it was addressed, was already cold in death. His comrades say that on the fateful day he appeared to have a premonition of impending doom. He was heard to say that he chafed at the life of a machine gunner in the reserve zone and hoped that before he died he would one time go over the top with charging American infantry. There is a rise of ground just before the white road dips down into the ruined village of Arcis le Ponsart. Here the men came under a fire directed by German observation balloons, which were in full view. The animals became restive, and Private Bohn was shot down. Strawbridge exposed himself with the intrepidity of the true soldier, rallied his command and led them down into the village. The Company had reached the market place and were in comparative safety when a well-directed shell seemed to fall almost in their midst. A wall at the side of the Square fell over, instantly killing Strawbridge and Private Salesky. Corporal William Lutz, a Birdsboro boy, was horribly mangled. His grieving comrades crowded about him, but his only thoughts seemed to be of the folks at home. "It will be all right," he said. "Don't any of you write home about it," and again, "Only don't tell my mother." For more than a month his comrades speculated as to his fate, not knowing that he had died that same night in the field hospital. Corporal Watkins had also been killed by this ill-omened shell and Privates Dalton, Davis and Scardelette grievously wounded.

The badly shaken Company reformed itself and waited for the cover of darkness, when they stole up to a stone quarry near the front and east of the village Courville. The quarry afforded some shelter from the almost continual bombardment, and the Company remained in it for nearly two weeks. The place was well within the observation of the enemy and it was suicide to move out during the day. The kitchen had been moved up to a nearby dug-out but meals could be served only at night. The days passed at this place were incredibly long and wearisome. The men worked at their dug-outs, cleaned their uniforms and wrote letters. The smallest sign of activity was provocative of a bombardment. Private Elmer Root was wounded by a shell fragment while attempting to bring up rations. The excessive heat added to the discomfort of the men in the cramped quarters. Watchful enemy aeroplanes were continually soaring over the quarry and were shot at by the lads whenever it was deemed that they were within range. On August 26th they were lucky enough to bring down an enemy plane very near the dug-outs; the aviators were taken prisoners by the French.

Meanwhile the awful struggle for Fismette went on without a pause. The gallant Pennsylvanians were able to hold the line of the railroad embankment but could do little more, while the enemy artillery was continually shelling the back areas. The German guns from the hilltops over the valley poured down their galling fire upon the American positions and their snipers and machine gunners were so well placed as to make the crossing of the river too hazardous for an attack in force. The fighting in the streets of the town swayed back and forth until August 28th. On that day the Germans made a major attack which swept into and over Fismette, driving the Pennsylvania lads back to the river. Then and only then did our High Command awake to the knowledge that the town could not be taken by infantry assault without an appalling loss. However, the Allied artillery was now up and the gunners went systematically to work to level the place.

By that strange free-masonry which prevails in armies, the word was circulated that Company B was once more to take its place in the line of battle. On August 30th, with the coming of darkness, the Company moved stealthily out of its shelter and back to the reserve area south of Arcis le Ponsart, where the men enjoyed the crowning luxury of a bath and received new clothing, of which they were badly in need. Here, too, they were regaled with chocolate, cigarettes and a warm meal, to which they had lately been strangers.

The next night, in a heavy downpour of rain, they reluctantly left their agreeable asylum and marched back to the quarry. Lieutenant Finley was transferred to Company C at this time and Lieutenant Evans took his place with the Reading boys. Captain Watres received orders to reconnoitre positions for firing into the town of Baslieux, about a kilometer northeast of Fismettes. A detail which included Lieutenants Evans and Boss stole up to the lines and located a position in a field to the southwest of the village. They left ammunition in the position which they had chosen and then returned to the quarry. On the next day came definite orders as to the part which the boys were to take in the impending attack. Replacements were sent to take the place of the comrades who had recently fallen and the entire detachment moved forward to strange quarters in a cave southeast of Villette. This was a cavern of some dimensions extending into the hillside. The place was well known to the Germans who had destroyed one of the exits but had somehow failed to block the other. It afforded a very welcome refuge against the searching bombardment, which was continually going on. The men left their guns and tripods outside in the woods and crept into the cave which was large enough to shelter several companies. The enterprising "Y" contrived to bring up a field picture machine and to give a show. Meanwhile the heroic One Hundred and Third Engineers had advanced to the river and, under most trying circumstances, succeeded in placing fourteen frail structures across the Vesle. The Berks boys remained in this unusual place the entire day of September 3d, the entrance was so carefully watched by the Boche sharpshooters that it was impossible to bring up food until the evening.

On September 4th the men prepared for action under the critical eye of their Captain and left their rocky refuge about noon. They crossed the famous railroad embankment and then carried their guns over the river by means of a footbridge recently constructed by the engineers. This crossing was a most perilous maneuver, as it was conducted under the observation and bombardment of the enemy. Once arrived on the north bank of the Vesle, the boys dug in and prepared themselves for the attack of the ensuing day.

The anniversary of September 5th should always be commemorated in the City of Reading, as it marks a particularly glorious page written into the military annals of a martial town. It marks also a unique achievement for American arms, in that it was probably the only occasion on which a Machine Gun Company went ahead of infantry in an attack on an entrenched position. It is hard to discover just why this costly maneuver was attempted. The officers of Company B, upon being questioned upon this point, invariably shake their heads or shrug their shoulders, maintaining a discreet silence. Before the writer lies the letter of Irwin Moyer, a Reading boy, who shared in the heroic attack, written on powder-stained, yellow paper. It deserves to be perpetuated as an epic of Reading valor.

"The order came from Colonel Ham, commanding the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, for the attack to begin at seven o'clock. The First Battalion was to lead with Company B. When we arrived at the point from which the advance was to be made, Company D was without any officers to give us directions. A Boche plane flying very low was directing their artillery fire. At seven o'clock we were still without any instructions and so we left the wood and went to the job. As soon as we got out of the woods they began to shoot at us. Our losses were very heavy. We were advancing in squad columns. Big Mike Panoski, whom we called the Polish giant, made a living tripod out of himself and the boys fired the gun from his back. Lieutenant Boss was just ahead of us and waved his hand to encourage us to come on, when I heard him give an awful shriek and fall down. I tried to get his first-aid packet open but couldn't do it. I saw he was done for, but he kept saying he wanted to go on. We left him and Sergeant Grauer took his place. Our boys were falling fast, as the Boche fire was very accurate. By this time we were up to the top of the hill and very near the wire. Sergeants Grauer and Lawrence went forward to find openings in the wire. The next thing we saw was about fifteen Boche appearing on the other side of the wire, holding their hands up. Lawrence took them prisoners and brought them through the fence. Just then Grauer got a shot in the stomach, which finished him. By this time we had only two guns left out of twelve and only sixteen men out of seventy-two, who had begun to climb the hill. We were in a high wheat field at this point, so we laid down and waited for support. We dug holes as best we could and lay in that damned wheat field for three days. The first two days we had no food at all. We lay in our holes all day. We didn't even fire a shot. At night the Boche sharpshooters would come up from the other side of the wire and pot at us. The first evening, Mr. Barker, the Y.M.C.A. man, who sure was a nervy cuss, came up with first-aid treatment. He crawled through the wire and fixed up the one German and some of our own wounded who lay there. They were pumping gas at us continually and we had our masks on as much as we had them off. The first night it rained hard and we were a miserable bunch. At daylight of the second day we saw a wounded man from the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry lying on our field and Ray Steinacker went out and brought him in. Captain Watres was lying in his hole with us and on the second day, about eight o'clock in the morning, he was wounded and taken to the first-aid station. He was the only officer we had remaining at that time. Lieutenant Evans came forward and took his place. Lieutenant Shoemacker started to come up with us but was wounded for the second time and had to give up the attempt. The last day, about midnight, they brought up our chow, which we sure were glad to get.
"The next day was the hardest of all. The German planes were flying over us all day and signalling to their artillery. We were about all in when Lieutenant Potter came in, just about sunset, and asked us to hold on a little longer, saying that the French were up and believe me, we all beat it, leaving the guns where they were. As we went through the woods again there was some awful bombardment. We beat it back to the sand quarry, where we formed the Company and waited until daybreak and went through Vilette with our limbers, following up back to a woods near Arcis-le-Ponsart."

So much for Corporal Moyer's letter. He who will, may read between the lines. and interpolate a story of confused orders, of incomplete liason, of insufficient artillery preparation and of gallant boys sent unfalteringly to their death because someone had blundered. Out from the frayed pages stands the vision of the long hillside, rising from the river and shimmering in the heat of that September day and of the desperate little groups of machine gunners advancing in the face of a terrible bombardment and then holding their position, almost without food or water, by sheer pluck, for two galling days.

It was only a skeleton of a Company which assembled itself at dawn in the woods by the Vesle. Captain Watres was in the hospital and did not again take up active leadership. The Company had to mourn an irreparable loss in the death of Lieutenant S.H. Boss, a gallant and competent officer, who embodied the best traditions of the American army. The casualties were severe, as was to be expected from the nature of the advance. These included Sergeants Grauer, Shilling and Hayward, Corporals Phillip, Howard, Latin, Ruddy, McLoughlin, Scherimler, Selinsky, Skulmis, Vincent Smith, Stoudt, Stubblebine, Symons, Troy, Watson, Wayne, Adolph C. Yeager, Moll, Hain, Coe, Dutcher, Hahn, Skinner, Thomas, Trout, Harry Yeager, Bowers, Guenther and McCloud.

This heroism was not to go without its reward. While the Reading Company was holding its position on the hill, their infantry comrades of the One Hundred and Ninth, One Hundred and Tenth and One Hundred and Eleventh Regiments had advanced three kilometers across the broad plain, leading from the height above the Vesle to the Aisne. The eventual result of this advance was to sweep the Germans back to the Chemin des Dames. The Pennsylvania boys had fought their way to the top of the high plateau from which they could dimly descry the towers of the cathedral of Laon, lying about twenty kilometers to the north. The enemy had again rallied on a new line of defense on the River Aisne. For the Twenty-eighth Division, however, there was to be no more fighting in this locality. On September 7th they were relieved by the French and ordered back to a rest camp for a period of recreation, of which they were sadly in need.

The infantry had fought unremittingly, day and night, for nearly sixty days and the artillery for over a month. Even the taciturn Mangin, usually so sparing in his praise, was moved to cite the heroic division.

"I am proud," wrote he, "to have commanded you during such days and to have fought with you for a deliverance of the world."

The Divisional Commander, General Charles H. Muir, was equally lavish in his praise.

"A new division by force of circumstances took its place in the front line in one of the greatest battles of the greatest war in history. The division has acquitted itself in a creditable manner. It has stormed and taken points that were regarded as proof against assault. It has taken numerous prisoners from a vaunted Guards Division of the enemy. A little more grit and a little more effort and the division will have the right to look upon itself as an organization of veterans."

Chapter III - The Argonne

The brilliant and arduous campaign on the Vesle marked the conclusion of the Twenty-eighth Division's participation as part of a French Corps. The new American army was now organized and henceforth the division was to fight under American command. It appears to have been the plan of the General Staff to give the worn division a rest, but the crowding events which accompanied the great American advance of September, 1918, made this impossible. The division was held in reserve at Loopy-le-Chateau, in the back St. Mihiel area, where they remained in readiness on the glorious day of September 12th, but were not needed. Scarcely had the rejoicing over the signal success of their comrades subsided, when the Divisional Commander received orders, on the night of September 15th, to terminate the hard-earned rest period and to proceed by stiff night marches northward towards the forest of Argonne. The Fifty-third Artillery Brigade had advanced and taken up its place in the wood south of Boureuilles on the night of September 24th. In the meanwhile, the Infantry and Machine Gun Battalions, with the accompanying divisional trains, reached the new front by the night of September 25th and lay in reserve position until midnight.

The decimated Reading Company hiked wearily southward all through the long hot day of September 10th and reached Ouilly, along the River Marne, late in the afternoon. The men were utterly exhausted and the officers deemed it impossible to move them during the whole of the next day. About ten in the evening, of September 11th, the tired Company mounted on motor lorries and rode the entire night, following the course of the Marne through Chalons, Pagny and Vitry, arriving at Contrison in the afternoon, where they received an issue of hard rations and then marched about twelve kilometers to Cheminon le Ville. Here the exhausted lads were billeted in barns previously occupied by French and Italian troops. The kitchen outfit had been left behind with the wagon train, but the boys improvised a canteen from which they supplied themselves with fresh vegetables and bread. This was the day on which their old comrades of Company I went over the top in the van of the Forty-second Division, in the great attack of the St. Mihiel. The three days which ensued were devoted to rest and a general policing of billets and equipment.

On the night of September 16th the Company moved out for what was to be the longest and hardest hike which they were to make in France. New shoes had recently been issued, which added materially to the misery of the march; many of the boys were compelled to drop out of the line. Early in the morning they arrived at a woods near Lisle en Barois, where they rested for the balance of the day and sent back trucks for their comrades who had fallen out.

On the next day they were cheered by the arrival of the wagon train and early in the evening they took up their march to the northward. It was now apparent that the rest period which they had promised themselves and which they had so well deserved was to terminate all too soon. It is a striking commentary on the morale of the detachment that not one of the letters, written at this period and which the writer has been able to read, breathes the slightest spirit of discontent. These boys had been in France scarcely four months. They had come out of a furnace which would have tested the spirit of the most seasoned veterans and yet they were willing to take up a new and terrible adventure with cheerfulness, even with enthusiasm.

They were now at Les Islettes, directly in the celebrated Argonne forest. The signs of a major operation were everywhere and the men noted with pride that for the first time they were to fight with a purely American army. All the teeming thousands of soldiers--infantry, artillery, engineers, supply service, tanks, air service, medical service, High Command and Staff were American. What interested the boys to an equal degree was the preparation for a belated pay, which was distributed to them on September 19th, and which provoked an orgy in chocolate and cigarettes. Many replacements were assigned to the Company during these days of preparation, including Lieutenant Fred B. Proctor, destined to a brief but glorious career, who joined the boys at Neuvilly. The men were now well within the range of the enemy's heavy artillery and it was necessary to dig in for protection. Inventory was taken of all the equipment and all missing articles were supplied. The lads were prepared, as far as possible, for the tremendous drive which was before them.

On the great day of September 25th, the Company rested all day and cleaned their equipment. They were to assist in the infantry attack on Boureuilles by direct overhead fire during the artillery preparation. One platoon was assigned to be a combat liason group with the Thirty-fifth Division, composed of Tennessee and Carolina National Guard units. To the Brigade Platoon were assigned six guns, under the command of Lieutenants Potter and Proctor. To the liason group were assigned four guns under Lieutenant Evans.

Late that night the Company moved stealthily northward to a point east of the road about three kilometers north of Neuvilly, where they separated, Lieutenant Evans going forward with his detachment and the other platoon removing their equipment from the carts and setting up their guns. There was a tense period of waiting and then exactly at eleven o'clock, far away to the east, sounded the booming of a signal gun. Immediately there began the crash of the famous "Million Dollar Barrage," of which so much has been written. On a flaming front of fifty-four miles, from St. Mihiel to the Champagne, over three thousand guns were bombarding with the intensity of drum fire. When the infantry advanced through the fog at half-past five in the morning, the first line of German trenches had been literally pulverized. The Reading boys performed their part in this tremendous effort by firing into the towns of Boureilles and Petit-Boureilles. About ten o'clock in the morning, an excited runner, his head bound in a bloody bandage, arrived to state that both towns had fallen to the victorious Pennsylvanians. Accordingly, the two platoons joined, again and advanced warily to the northward over a part of the field of the great battle of Verdun, fought in 1916. The ground was so pitted with the craters left in that gigantic struggle that the Reading boys must continually scramble down one side and up another of the enormous shell holes. Suddenly they came in full view of the historic town of Varennes, nestling in the valley. "For all the world," wrote one of the boys, "like a big Bernville seen from the hill." Had they reflected, they might have remembered that this was the town in which the last of the Bourbon kings had been taken prisoner, in his flight from Paris, at the beginning of the great Revolution. The lads, however, seem to have been too utterly spent by their harassing night and day to think of anything but sleep. They spent that night in an abandoned German trench and made ready for the advance of the next day.

Early in the morning the Battalion received its orders to move. Company B went directly through the wrecked town of Varennes, which had been virtually demolished by the shell fire from both sides, most of the buildings having been cut off at the second story. It was while passing through Varennes that the Berks lads got their first glimpse of General Pershing, who passed them in his automobile going up to the front. The Company went forward to a quarry a few kilometers north of the town and made ready to assist in the infantry attack on Montblainville. Four guns, under Lieutenant Proctor, were sent to aid in the attack and two squads were sent to reinforce Company A in the first line. This was a particularly hot corner, as the enemy shelled the roads and fields the entire day. The four squads which remained in battalion reserve busied themselves in bringing up ammunition and in distributing the clips.

On the next day the strongly fortified hamlet of Montblainville, on the west bank of Aire, fell to the heroic One Hundred and Tenth Regiment. A platoon, with Lieutenant Proctor, went on with the victorious infantry. The two squads which had been assigned to Company A returned, having been in heated action and having lost Privates Sloane and Zegular. At one time General Muir, the Corps Commander, had personally directed their fire. Towards evening the reunited Company moved to Montblainville and established an ammunition dump there.

Early in the morning of September 29th the reserve platoon went forward under a heavy bombardment, to a stone quarry north of Montblainville, where the battalion P.C. was established. Sergeant Paul Fett, a Ninth street boy, was severely wounded and lost an eye while gallantly exposing himself in bringing up ammunition. By this time the American attack had gone as far as the celebrated town of Apremont. Here ensued the greatest struggle in which the Reading boys took part during their entire career in France. The town was held in force, much as Fisme and Fismette had been, and presented almost the same problem. The enemy had brought up fresh reinforcements and covered every approach by concentration of machine guns. Apremont had been originally set up by General Headquarters as the objective of a two days' advance. However, the brains which mapped out the campaign had failed to take into account the nature of the terrain. That the Twenty-eighth Division accomplished the task in four days was remarkable. It had only done so at a terrific cost. Regiments were down to half their original strength and the survivors were in a bad state from constant exposure and extraordinary physical exertion. After one engagement at Apremont, Company H of the One Hundred and Ninth, buried twenty-four of its men, which is the largest loss in killed of any company in the Division, in one engagement, during the war.

The Reading boys had scarcely penetrated into the town when the enemy laid down a heavy barrage, followed by a determined infantry attack. There was close hand to hand fighting in the dark. It was here that Brigadier-General Dennis E. Nolan of the General Staff took command of the brigade in person and won the Distinguished Service Cross by fighting in the ranks with the doughboys. A reconnoitering body of enemy, who apparently were not aware that the Americans were in the town, came down the village street almost at the moment that the Berks Company, under the command of Lieutenant Proctor, turned a corner by the church. In the melee it was impossible to use the machine guns. Lieutenant Proctor had, with devoted courage, gone forward alone to find some point of advantage at which a gun could be mounted and brought into action. He was instantly shot through the lungs. Some of the boys carried him to the first-aid station in the rear but he died almost instantly. Lieutenant Potter, who succeeded him in command, became lost in the maze of winding streets and found himself confronted by an enemy machine gun position near the church. Nothing daunted, he called upon the three men serving the gun to surrender and took them prisoners. The entire command then withdrew from the town and took up a position on a hillside to the south.

Much grateful appreciation is voiced by the boys for the work of Cook Dougherty, who had managed to establish an improvised kitchen in a stone quarry north of Montblainville and stuck pluckily to his position, though almost constantly under fire. He sent hot food each day to the Company on the line all during the period up to October 7th.

The Brigade Commander had planned a reconnaissance in force to take place early in the morning of October 1st. All of the machine guns of the Brigade with one Company of the One Hundred and Seventh Divisional Machine Gun Battalion, were ordered to take part. Positions were assigned north of the town, with directions to fire into La Forge and Chatel Chierry. Strong infantry patrols were to go forward, following the Aire River on the right. Considerable ammunition had been brought in bulk to the dump in Apremont. About 3:00 A.M. the reserve platoon moved up from the quarry to the town, where they were joined by the Machine Gun Company of the One Hundred and Tenth Infantry with six guns. Reconnaissance for positions was made and the guns were placed along hedges in the infantry outpost lines a short distance in front of Apremont. Just after the guns had been placed and such ammunition as was in the boxes brought up, the enemy set down a heavy rolling barrage on the town and vicinity. The gunners sought what cover there was and waited for the barrage to lift. A direct hit was made by the enemy on one of the guns, putting it out of action. The Germans followed their barrage closely and due to the mist and character of the terrain they were able to approach within a short distance of the town. When the barrage lifted the machine gunners took their positions and had direct fire at the Germans coming on in groups at short range. The gunners were without sufficient ammunition for sustained fire at the positions but in a short time a clip filling party was organized at the P.C. and enough ammunition was carried to the positions to keep the guns in action. This attack lasted for three-quarters of an hour and ended in the complete repulse of the enemy, who suffered severe losses. It was one of the rare occasions upon which the soldiers were enabled to fire directly upon an advancing enemy at point blank range and the opportunity was only afforded because of information given by prisoners taken the day before. Several American tanks which were in Apremont were sent out from the flanks and rolled ponderously across the fields, firing on the enemy with machine guns and one-pounders at close range. A direct hit was made on one of the tanks by a German "77" which set it on fire. Privates Bea and Stevenson were gassed during this engagement.

The Company maintained its position during the night of October 2d, amid continual bombardment from our own and the enemy guns. In the morning Lieutenant Evans took command of the Second Platoon, crossing the Aire River under a heavy shell fire and went forward along the right bank about a kilometer, where he took a favorable position and assisted in clearing a woods which was infested by the German sharpshooters. The platoon remained here through the entire day of October 4th, keeping up a harassing fire upon the enemy territory which lay in front of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry. Meanwhile, the First Platoon maintained its position in front of Apremont and fired during the entire day into the wooded area near Chatel Chierry. In some places their only target was the flash from the enemy guns. On the morning of October 5th they also crossed the Aire and advanced two kilometers to the northward, taking up a position in a trench about three hundred meters from the Second Platoon. It was hot work the entire time and the Company suffered many casualties, including Privates Dunn, Gray, Frank, Wright and Hawk. All of this firing was prefatory to the infantry attack upon Chatel Chierry and the ridge to the north of the town.

This attack occurred early in the morning of October 7th, preceded by a heavy barrage. A terrific struggle ensued, for the enemy was strongly fortified in the houses and narrow streets of the little town and fought desperately. The Pennsylvanians, however, were not to be denied and penetrated the town at all points. Soon came an order for the Berks Company to proceed into the streets which presented a scene of horrible havoc and carnage.

To reach the village it was necessary to recross the Aire, which, though narrow, was quite deep at this point. It was a most critical movement and was conducted with splendid spirit and success. The men waded into the stream, holding their equipment as well as they could above their heads. In spite of all their precautions they ruined nearly all of their ammunition and could not have taken part in any attack that day without first being supplied with new cartridges. This spectacular crossing of the Aire probably gave rise to the accounts published in the Reading newspapers, which pictured the Company crossing the Marne under shell fire. In the first place, the Marne, a river of about the size of the Schuylkill in its upper reaches, is not to be waded with impunity and in the second place, when the Reading boys crossed the Marne, the Germans had retired from the north bank and they were in no more real danger than if they had been crossing the Penn street bridge. There is so much real glory attached to the career of old Company A that there is no need to encroach upon the realm of imagination.

The bedraggled Company assembled in the town late in the afternoon and was soon ordered to report to the Second Battalion of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, which was some distance away. It was quite dark when the march commenced and the Company was guided through the dense forest in single file and eventually arrived at the P.C. of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, where the men got a much-needed rest in some German dug-outs. Their casualties for the day included Sergeant White, who had been badly gassed; Corporal Eisenhower and Privates Clayton, Price, Shuker, Snyder, Mill and Trask.

It was the understanding of the officers that the Company was to take a part in an attack the next morning, and the forward movement had actually begun when a counter order was received ordering the units back. Indeed, the exhausted Division was bordering on collapse and was in no shape for any further advance. The men had had thirteen days of the most arduous fighting against some of the best troops in the German army. Their losses had been severe and it was deemed absolutely necessary that they be moved temporarily into a rest area.

"The work of this division in the Argonne offensive," wrote Lieutenant-General Bullard, the Commander of the Second Army, "is too well known for me to recount at length, but such names as Varennes, Argonne forest, Apremont, Chatel Chierry and Montblainville are written in history after the name of the Twenty-eighth Division."

Chapter IV - The Projected Attack on Metz

Early in the morning of October 9th, word was received that the division was to be relieved, its place being taken by the fresh Eighty-second Division. The worn out Reading lads returned to their wagon train, north of Varennes. Next day they marched to the rear, passing through Varennes and Neuvilly and entrained late that night for an all-night ride in the direction of Metz. At ten o'clock on the next day the trucks stopped at an encampment north of Menil le Tour, directly on the training ground of the first American contingents in 1917, where the men were enabled to get a much-needed six days rest, punctuated by drills, baths and the cleaning of equipment. They received fifty-six replacements to make up for their severe losses in the Argonne. Lieutenant Potter, who had been gassed in the forest but had pluckily stuck to his post, was admitted to the hospital and Lieutenant Evans took command of the Company. Lieutenant Turner from Company A was assigned to the detachment at this time. It was during this period that the Fifty-third Artillery Brigade was detached from the Twenty-eighth Division and sent across the entire breadth of France to take part in the fighting in western Belgium. The remainder of the division, including the Reading soldiers, was assigned to the Thiacourt sector in front of Metz, with its Divisional Headquarters at Houdicourt. It was now a part of the newly formed Second American Army, which was intended to execute an encircling move and to have enveloped the defenses of Metz for the first great invasion of German territory. The division took over its sector of the front on October 16th.

The rested Reading Company moved up towards the lines to Noviant on the afternoon of October 17th. They were well within range of the outlying forts of the great stronghold of Metz. From the high points they could see the steeple of the famous cathedral, and when the wind was right the sound of church bells in the town came plainly to their ears. For ten days the Company remained in this area, the time being devoted to baseball and drilling on an improvised machine gun range. A major attack on the same gigantic scale as those of St. Mihiel and the Argonne was in preparation, intended to be launched about the middle of November. On October 27th definite orders arrived for the machine gunners to move up and take a place in the line then held by the French. Lieutenant Evans and some of the non-commissioned officers went forward to reconnoitre the positions. The expectant Company waited all day for the trucks to move, but the order was postponed. Finally, on the night of October 28th, the men moved up to a position at Hassavant Farm and took over a position from the French. The wagon train stopped in Houdicourt in German billets. The boys placed their guns and worked hard to improve the emplacements turned over to them by their allies. They were under continual and heavy bombardment and had to be continually on the watch for gas attacks. On October 31st Sergeants Moran and eight privates were badly. gassed by a particularly insidious attack. Sergeant Flanagan and his detail took over the position of the men gassed.

On November 6th the Company rolled packs and waited for a relief which did not arrive until the next day, when the One Hundred and Tenth Machine Gun Company took over their position. The Berks boys moved to a woods near Vegneulles, where they enjoyed a three-days' rest, after which the order came to move again up to the line and support the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry which was attacked at Heumont.

The memorable day of November 11th found the boys dug in at a position about five hundred meters north of the ruined town of Heumont. Let it be set down without any aspersion to the reputation of a gallant company that the boys did not manifest their usual ardor in going into battle on that day. Rumors had been flying for some time and it was tacitly understood that the end of the war could not be far off. Nevertheless, at eight o'clock, orders were received for Company H, of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, to attack at 10:40 in the morning. The Second Platoon, which up to this time knew nothing as to the Armistice, was guided to a position in the rear of the attacking Company. Their advance was held up by an enemy machine gun nest, about one kilometer north of Heumont. The platoon drew back about two hundred meters to better protected positions in a ravine. At 9:45 came the expected announcement that the attack would not be made, that the Armistice was to be signed. The overjoyed platoon at once took up a defensive position which they maintained until the fateful hour. Meanwhile, the First Platoon, under command of Sergeant Flanagan, was in position about two hundred meters west of Heumont, in support of Company G, of the One Hundred and Ninth Infantry, with orders to support the attack upon the heavy entrenched Bois de Bonsil. At 10:40 they were subjected to heavy artillery fire, which ceased at eleven o'clock. The Third Platoon was on the left flank of Company G. Unfortunately the casualties of the Company in this eleventh hour's engagement were severe, including Sergeant McLoughlin, Privates Beaudry, Churchman, Hedrick, Landis, Strickle, Thomas and Wideman. Brave Mike Panoski, the Polish boy who had so distinguished himself in the attack at Baslieux, had been shot through the heart at the beginning of the bombardment.

On this great day, Carl Stuber, a Tenth street lad, was runner for Brigade Headquarters, and he it was who carried the momentous tidings to the Reading men in the line.

"They were in their dug-outs," he relates, "getting ready for an advance, which would have been a pretty hot affair. I had hardly given my message when we were stupefied to see crowds of Boche running over to us between the mine fields with their hands up and yelling like mad. They were crazy for cigarettes and chocolate. They had some cigars but they were awful. They were big fellows in sloppy uniforms, from the Three Hundred and Twenty-eighth Infantry. Some of them had been to America and talked English and, of course, many of our Reading crowd could talk to them in German. They said their food had been vile. We had some burned rice that our boys wouldn't eat and they fell on it like wolves. They showed us where the mines were and it kept us busy for two days exploding them. This getting together lasted for only about an hour when our officers stopped it and chased the Germans back to their lines. All that night we could hear them singing and burning Verey lights and bon-fires. There wasn't much doing with our crowd as they were all played out and wanted sleep."

The heroic division had well earned its repose after a long period of sustained fighting. They had to mourn the loss of 2,551 killed and their wounded numbered 11,429. This was the highest percentage of loss for any National Guard Division and is exceeded only by the Regular Divisions, the First, Second and Third. Company B had been badly cut up and had been reformed several times. The losses to the Berks contingent numbered seven killed and fifty-one wounded.

There is little more to relate of the active career of Company B. Captain Watres, who had received his majority in the interval, returned shortly after the Armistice, as Battalion Commander. It was thought for a while that the division would form part of the Army of Occupation and the men were held in readiness for an advance upon Metz. They spent eight weary weeks in their position at the Hassavant Farm, leading a monotonous life in a small town of scarcely a dozen houses. Captain Potter kept his men as busy as possible in building roads and in drills with the machine guns. Several of the large hospital buildings were still standing and were used by the men as barracks. On January 5th the division was moved back to the Lorraine sector with Divisional Headquarters at Columbey la Belle. The Berks Company was quartered in the small village of Saulxures les Bannes. Another disappointing interval of hope and speculation passed for the homesick boys. At last, on March 16th, they entrained once more and moved westward to the great camp at Le Mans in Brittainy, where they remained for six weeks and then moved on to the embarkation port of St. Nazaire. Here the lads embarked on the Peerless, a Standard Oil ship, hastily remodeled as a transport. The ship proved to be an execrable sailer and the lads were seasick nearly all the way to the Delaware Capes. They received a wireless, when a day out from Philadelphia, to the effect that the great Jubilee Parade of the Twenty-eighth Division was being held without them, but seemed to have been too much occupied with their own troubles to care anything about it. They finally disembarked on May 16th and entrained for Camp Dix, New Jersey, where a week was consumed in the process of mustering out. At last, on May 23d, the impatient lads entrained for the last lap of their long journey, arriving at Reading on the afternoon of May 23d. As they left camp there was an affecting scene when the boys filed past Captain Potter and each clasped his hand. The train moved out and the men joined in a rousing cheer for the plucky Captain who had led them so faithfully and well. Representatives of the Citizens' Patriotic Committee met the men at Camp Dix and their progress was heralded through the fire alarms in the city of Reading. When the train stopped at the Outer Station it was in the midst of a dense throng of rejoicing fellow-citizens, who led the boys in triumphant march through the streets of the city, to the tune of victory bells and amidst the plaudits which they had so well earned. Their superior, as an indomitable hard-fighting unit, is not to be found in the annals of the American Expeditionary Force, nor, has any National Guard Company a more creditable record for continued and severe combat.

Submitted by: Nancy.


Last Modified Sunday, 11-Jan-2009 12:10:33 EST

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