162 – Over There

Larned Chronoscope – May 9, 1918

On May 9, 1918, soldiers of the 137th Infantry disembarked their ships and set foot on French soil at Le Havre.

The 137th served a few weeks with the British in Northern France and then by three days of forced marches and three days train travel moved to the eastern end of the Western Front, near Gerardmer, from where it went into the line with French troops on German soil near Switzerland on June 18, 1918.

A History of the 137th Infantry, An All-Kansas Regiment

On the night of June 22, just a few days after going into the line, the 137th repulsed a German raid in the Metz sector. This was followed by intermittent skirmishes.

The Signal Platoon

Ralph Jarvis was in the signal platoon of Headquarters Company.

The signal platoon was the communication heartbeat of the regiment. Its purpose was to build and maintain communications between the combat units and the command headquarters. During protracted and moving battles, the signal corps would need to continually move wiring and equipment to forward positions.

Successful communications systems could determine the outcome of a battle. Failure of communications had lethal consequences.

Here’s the signal platoon’s organizational structure.

137th Infantry – Signal Platoon

There were multiple and overlapping communication methods. Let’s take a closer look.

The signal platoon was responsible for five communication methods.

Lamps, Flags

Signal flagmen

Yes, lamps and flags were often the most surefire way to signal a message. If radio or telephone hadn’t been brought forward to the fighting line, visual messages were sent by flags during daylight and lamps during darkness.

Visual signaling had likewise not entirely disappeared from the Signal Corps’ arsenal. The familiar red and white wigwag flags remained in use to a limited extent, but the flagstaff underwent some changes. Since the wooden staffs broke rather easily, the Corps contracted with a fishing rod company to manufacture steel staffs.

Getting the Message Through


Yes, pigeons. Though a one-way method, pigeons were a reliable way to send messages back to regimental command.

Cher Ami – American Museum of Natural History – Smithsonian

Carrier pigeons contributed another “low-tech” but effective means of communication. In July 1917, impressed with the French and British pigeon services, Pershing requested that pigeon specialists be commissioned into the U.S. Army.

Probably the most famous use of pigeons occurred during the fighting in the Argonne Forest in October 1918 when elements of the 77th Division, commanded by Maj. Charles W Whittlesey, became separated and trapped behind the German lines.

After several days without relief, with hope for survival fading and friendly artillery fire raining down, the men pinned their lives on their last bird, Cher Ami, to get word back to silence the guns. With one eye gone, his breast bone shattered, and a leg missing, Cher Ami completed his mission. In recognition of his remarkable accomplishment, Cher Ami received a medal and a pension.

Getting the Message Through


A method of “broadcasting” a signal for all to see over long distances.

Other visual signaling methods included pyrotechnics (rockets, flares); battery-powered electric lamps, based on a French model, to replace the previously used acetylene type; and projector lamps.

Getting the Message Through

Buzzer / Telephone

The buzzer phone, an improvement on the British Fuller phone, could be used to transmit buzzer signals or act as a normal telephone. The advantage of this telephone was the fact buzzer signals could be transmitted between two telephones of this type with no possibility of interception by the enemy.

The Waving of Flags and Torches
Buzzer / Telephone

In general, from division headquarters forward, telephone lines ran to each infantry battalion as well as between adjoining battalions. But the traditional lance poles did not prove suitable for use in the trenches. Instead, the wires were strung on short (four-foot) stakes or run along the trench walls.

At division headquarters the telephone switchboards were installed in underground dugouts where they could withstand artillery bombardment.

Getting the Message Through

Radio, T.P.S. Panels

Ralph was assigned to the regimental company. He had been promoted to Corporal. He was responsible for radio and T.P.S systems, and he was also in command of the 1st Battalion Signal Detail.

So Ralph’s responsibilities were at the battle front. His crews had to install the T.P.S. ground stakes in the front trenches.

The Signal Corps procured French earth telegraphy equipment known as T.P.S., from the French word telegraphie par sol (the British used the term earth induction). This system worked by each station laying insulated wire (up to seventy-five meters) along the ground, parallel to one another and grounding each end of the wire with iron spikes driven into the ground. The transmitting station connected in the center of the wire a battery-powered telegraph induction set, which sent a powerful buzzer signal over the wire. The receiving station had a similar length of wire with a telephone receiver attached to pick up the transmissions. The system worked up to three kilometers apart. This system was excellent near the front lines because it had less wire to be torn by artillery and mortar fire.

Receiving set for trench radio – receiving a message

During the battle the signal troops went “over the top” close behind the advancing infantry. The repair teams sustained many casualties, however, due to heavy concentrations of poison gas. While the enemy repeatedly knocked the division’s telephones and radios out of action, the earth telegraphy stations remained in operation.

Getting the Message Through

There were other communications methods that weren’t under the auspices of the signal platoon. These included messengers, runners, motorcycle couriers, balloons, airplanes, etc.

Battle of St. Mihiel

The St. Mihiel battle was the first major battle organized and fought completely by the American Expeditionary Force. You might recall that this is the battle in which Ben Teply was wounded. See his story in an earlier post – Ben Teply – WWI – St. Mihiel Salient.

On September 1, the 137th regiment was moved by trucks to Nancy and then into reserve for the St. Mihiel drive of mid-September.

That battle was so easy that the Reserve was never used, and the men lay in their pup tents in the soggy dripping woods, without even a chance to see the enemy, though under shellfire.

History of Kansas: State and People, Volume II

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The Division was moved by some two hundred French trucks from their reserve at St. Mihiel to the neighborhood of Grange-le-Conte, in the woods east of Beauchamp, and remained there until the morning of September 26th, when the greatest battle in American military history, the Battle of the Argonne, commenced.

The artillery preparations began at 2:30 a.m., September 26th. On the afternoon previous the infantry had begun the move forward, and that night were up to the guns and awaiting the coming advance in the morning. After three hours of intense artillery preparation, the advance began at 5:30 a.m.

History of Kansas: State and People, Volume II

A 6-hour barrage was launched on this hill and was taken by the Kansas soldiers in their first attempt on 26 September, and their trial by fire began; an ordeal that was to last six days and six nights, with little or no food, only snatches of sleep, and an uninterrupted rain of shells, gas, and bullets from infantry, artillery and warplanes. The 137th Infantry took every objective assigned it, but in the taking suffered casualties of nearly 1,300 men out of the 2,800 combatants engaged; 46%

A History of the 137th Infantry, An All-Kansas Regiment

The regiment was relieved October 1, 1918, and after resting in the rear for 10 days, the regiment moved to Verdun and remained in the fighting until November 9.

The Armistice

The Armistice of November 11, 1918 finally stopped the fighting.

When the Division received the word of the armistice, orders were sent out immediately to the battalions by whatever means possible – T.P.S., radio, phone, flag, pigeon, courier, runner, etc. Troops were ordered to stop firing at 1045to avoid mistakes.

And so it was that the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Troops celebrate the Armistice – November 11, 1918

For more background and information on the Armistice, see an earlier story – Ben Teply – WWI – The Armistice!

Here’s an amazing two-minute recording of the guns falling silent at 11 am on November 11.

Army of Occupation

After the Armistice, the 137th would participate in the occupation of Germany, and stay in Europe for six more months. The troops were granted furloughs and had some time to explore their surroundings in France.

Too many casualties

The official report shows that there were some 1,480 deaths; 6,001 wounded, and 167 captured, making a grand total of 7,913 men (46%). This loss, while not an excessive one, was mostly sustained in the one battle of the Argonne, where the losses were heavy.

It may well be and is probable that the division did not have the best leadership possible and that it could have done its job with fewer casualties if its leadership had been different, but certainly the Division, itself, has no cause to be ashamed of its achievements, or of the gallantry of its officers and men.

History of Kansas: State and People, Volume II

Through a variety of means, the Signal Corps successfully supplied communications to the front lines, and its casualty figures reflected that fact. Its total of 2,840 casualties ranked second only to the Infantry. This figure is particularly impressive because the Signal Corps (less its Aviation Section) comprised only about 4 percent of the total AEF

Getting the Message Through


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