The 805th Pioneer Infantry was in France, arriving in Rolampont on September 20, 1918.
Rolampont was a troop staging area, with tens of thousands of troops waiting to be sent to the front lines 75 miles to the north. The 805th pitched their pup tents on a mud flat outside of town.
In just a few days, on September 25, the biggest battle in American history would begin – the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Let’s take a quick look at the backstory.
The Western Front
In 1914, Germany had attacked Belgium and France, capturing almost all of Belgium and the northeast part of France. They were stopped by Allied armies, and for the next four years neither side was able to advance. This theater of war was named The Western Front, extending 475 miles from The North Sea by Belgium to the Alps and Switzerland.
Each side dug in. For four years, each side built multiple lines of defensive fortifications, including trenches, tunnels, bunkers, and rail lines.
The main German defensive line was called The Hindenburg Line. There were two or three more defensive lines behind the Hindenburg Line.
Between the German lines and the Allied lines was “no man’s land”. It varied in distance between a few miles and a few dozen yards.
“No man’s land” suffered from four years of battles and artillery shell holes and fires and wrecked equipment. No structures or vegetation remained.
Several miles behind these defensive lines, the Germans had rail lines that ran parallel to the front. They could quickly move troops and supplies to any point along the front where an Allied attack occurred. This capability had prevented the Allies from any major victories for four years.
The Hindenburg Line had proved impenetrable.
The result was a war of attrition. Unsuccessful attempts to break through the enemy’s line had resulted in devastating casualties.
The Battle of Verdun, in 1916, with a combined 700,000 casualties, the Battle of the Somme, also in 1916, with more than a million casualties, and the Battle of Passchendaele, in 1917, with 487,000 casualties.Wikipedia – The Western Front (World War I)
A.E.F. – American Expeditionary Force
Once the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, it began drafting and training and equipping hundreds of thousands of troops. By early 1918, troop ships were arriving in France with these new soldiers.
By July 1918, there were 1.2 million American troops in France. Along with the 805th arriving in September, some 250,000 troops were arriving each month. The American armies began to reinforce French and British units.
German Advances in 1918
Germany launched major offensives on the Western Front in spring 1918. They hoped to achieve victory before American forces arrived in numbers too great to overcome. They succeeded in advancing the front lines further into France.
Hundred Days Offensive
Whereas all the armies had suffered attrition of troops and material in four years of fighting, the addition of two million American troops buoyed the hopes of the Allies. Meanwhile, Germany was having trouble re-supplying its total troop strength.
In this context, the Allies began to plan coordinated attacks on all fronts of the German defensive line. This would prevent the Germans from moving troops away from one area to reinforce an attacked area. Germany would need all available troops at all stations along the front.
The main attacks began in late September. Allied armies began to attack the German lines all along the Western Front.
- September 21, the attack began against the Macedonian front in Bulgaria.
- September 23, the British Army attacked in Turkey.
- September 26, the American First Army struck in the Meuse-Argonne
- September 27, the First British Army attacked in Amiens.
- September 28, the Fourth British Army attacked St. Quentin.
- September 28, the Belgian Army attacked in Flanders.
The American Expeditionary Force was responsible for a critical area along the front, the area between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest.
The Meuse–Argonne offensive was the largest in United States military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. It is also the deadliest battle in the history of the United States Army, resulting in over 350,000 casualties, including 28,000 German lives, 26,277 American lives and an unknown number of French lives.Wikipedia – Meuse-Argonne Offensive
At 11 pm on September 25, American artillery began to barrage the German line. There was one gun every eight meters. In the first day, over a quarter million artillery rounds were fired.
At 5:30 the next morning, American troops went “over the top” and began to advance against entrenched German fortifications. They fought their way across a sea of mud, shell holes, barbed wire, and ruined trenches. Resistance was fierce, and American casualties were high.
Over the next few days, the American army was able to advance a few miles. As they advanced north, they needed more ammunition, food, medical care. Convoys of supplies crowded the roads.
805th to the front
On October 2, the 805th received orders to the front.
Leaving Rolampont on October 2 (via box cars), we were awakened about 2 A.M. by a roaring, rumbling sound. It seemed as if the heavens were being rent in twain. The order “gas alert” somewhat demoralized the troops. Darkness prevailed. Those who had misplaced their masks were bewailing their predicament.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
The 805th was assigned to maintain roads, unload rail shipments, repair bridges, and most any other task to support the plan of battle.
Leaving Clermont 3 P.M. October 5, with Company K, the battalion commander, Major A.D. Cowley, marched us about three miles to the village of Aubreville, and the company again pitched shelter tents, as this village had also been destroyed. For the next six months we lived in or near destroyed towns. This was the only kind there was.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
As the advancing army moved northward, transportation and communications needed to follow. Companies K and L were ordered north to Varennes.
The companies started on their fifteen kilometer hike about 1:00 P.M. The company commanders had gone ahead to find a suitable camp site for the troops. Lieut. T.P Gallagher with the first led off, followed by Lieut. S.B. Outlaw, Lieut. J.M. More, and Lieut. M.J. King with the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th platoons, respectively. It was a long, hard hike. The troops could not use the roads on account of the heavy traffic and the danger of being shelled. There was nothing for them to do except to hit the fields. These were full of shell holes, and the continual downpour of rain added to their discomfort.
About one-fourth of the company fell by the way. When the men began to fall out, Sgt. Thornton was detailed to stay behind and pick up the men who fell from exhaustion. It would be hard to describe this march and the night spent by Sgt. Thornton and his men at Varennes.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
Railhead at Varennes
A railhead was needed as the American troops advanced. Roads were jam-packed with trucks and horse-drawn wagons, moving food and supplies and troops and ammunition to supply the attacking forces, and returning with wounded, wrecked equipment, etc. The count of trucks and wagons passing totaled 180,000 in one day.
The railhead was ordered to be complete by November 1. Track must be laid, platforms built, and warehouses constructed. Tom Gallagher and Company L were assigned to build loading platforms and track. Other Companies would work on the storage warehouses.
The men worked day and night. During this time there was almost continual rain. At night German planes would drop bombs, but damage would be repaired, and construction would continue.
On November 1, supply trains began using the new railhead.
All along the Western Front, Allied divisions were attacking the German defenses. That prevented the Germans to rush troops to any one battle area along the front, because they were engaged all along the front and no reinforcements were available to send anywhere.
Once the Allies broke through the Hindenburg line and the defenses behind it, the Germans rail lines that ran behind the line weren’t available to move troops and supplies.
Company L and the 805th remained at Varennes. They repaired roads damaged by shell fire and heavy traffic. As the attacking army advanced, there were roads to repair for service and supply.
The American and French armies continued to advance in the Meuse-Argonne sector. As they fought their way north, the supply lines became more difficult, and roads and rail construction continued apace.
The coordinated and devastating attacks along the Western Front forced German retreats. The Germans abandoned weapons and ammunition and railroad equipment.
The German command realized that if the Allied advances continued, their army would soon be overwhelmed.
Note: The following information on the Armistice is excerpted from “Why World War I Ended With an Armistice Instead of a Surrender,” on History.com.
The Germans had started making overtures about an armistice in early October. At first they tried to go through U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, fearing that the British and the French would insist upon harsh terms. But that didn’t succeed.
The Germans finally sent a late-night radio message to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, requesting permission to send a delegation through the lines to negotiate an armistice, and asked for a general cease-fire. Forty-five minutes later, Foch replied. He ignored the cease-fire request, but gave the Germans permission to come.
On the night of November 7, three automobiles made their way through no-man’s land in northern France, as a German bugler sounded a truce and another soldier waved a white flag. The German envoys boarded a French train and traveled through the night. On the morning of November 8, they pulled into a railroad siding in the Forest of Compiègne, alongside Foch’s railroad car.
For the Germans, there was the fear of national disgrace. Whoever proposed a laying-down of arms would be hated by militaristic Germans for the rest of his life. Indeed, Matthias Erzberger, the politician who reluctantly agreed to lead the German delegation, would be murdered not quite three years later by German ultra-nationalist extremists.
There wasn’t much negotiation. French General Maxime Weygand read the terms that the Allies had decided upon.
On the morning of November 11, Erzberger and Foch met for the final negotiations. The German emissary tried his best to persuade Foch to make the agreement less severe. Foch made a few small changes, including letting the Germans keep a few of their weapons. Finally, just before dawn, the agreement was signed.
The Germans agreed to pull their troops out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg within 15 days, or risk becoming prisoners of the Allies. They had to turn over their arsenal, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 airplanes, along with 5,000 railroad locomotives, 5,000 trucks and 150,000 wagons. Germany also had to give up the contested territory of Alsace-Lorraine. And they agreed to the indignity of Allied forces occupying German territory along the Rhine, where they would stay until 1930.
When word of the armistice was received, orders were sent out immediately to the battalions by whatever means possible – phone, courier, runner, etc. All firing was to cease at 11:00 am.
And so it was that the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
We shall never forget the night that Varennes was flooded with light, and a celebration broke loose on the strength of the reported signing of the armistice.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
The war was over. The stated goal was to get the American soldiers home as quickly as possible.
But not for the 805th Pioneer Infantry.
- Quotations about 805th Pioneer Infantry and Company L – Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces – Major Paul Bliss – 1919 – https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044088018890&view=1up&seq=1
- Quotations – Pioneer Infantry regiments – A Guide to the US Pioneer Infantry Regiments in WW1 – Margaret M. McMahon – 2018 – https://aweekofgenealogy.com/book-a-guide-to-the-u-s-pioneer-infantry-regiments-in-wwi/
- Newspaper articles – The Junction City Daily Union – various dates – newspapers.com
- Map – Le Havre to Rolampont – adapted from map by LtCol R. L. Cody, USMC (Ret), in Reducing the St. Mihiel Salient – by Colonel Walter G. Ford, USMC (Ret) – https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo90281/Reducing_the_Saint-Mihiel_Salient.pdf
- Map – Argonne Forest and Meuse River – Internet Archive – https://archive.org/details/CSPAN3_20210521_015500_American_Artifacts_WWI_Meuse-Argonne_Offensive
- Map – Hundred Days Offensive – St Amiens – 1918 – Wiki Fandom – https://historica.fandom.com/wiki/Battle_of_Amiens_(1918)?file=Amiens_1918.jpeg
- Image – Soldiers marching in mud – Australian War Memorial – https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/H08519
- Image – No Man’s Land – Lucien Jonas – 1927 – Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/item/2004670697/
- Quotation – Meuse-Argonne troops strength and casualties – Wikipedia – Wikipedia – Meuse-Argonne Offensive – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuse%E2%80%93Argonne_offensive
- Map – Meuse-Argonne battle Sep 26 – Oct 4 – Map Harpers Pictorial World War 1920 Meuse-Argonne Battle
- Image – Congested supply convoy near Varennes, France – U.S. Official Photographs of The World War – p. 239 – https://history.army.mil/curriculum/wwi/docs/AdditionalResources/US_Official_Pictures_of_the_World_War.pdf
- Image – Troops building rail track – The WWI Era – U.S. Army Center for Military History – https://history.army.mil/html/bookshelves/resmat/wwi/pt03/ch14/pt03-ch14-sec03.html
- Map – Meuse-Argonne battle – Nov 11 advance line – American Expeditionary Forces at Meuse-Argonne – https://www.usaww1.com/American-Expeditionary-Force/American-Expeditionary-Force-Meuse-Argonne.php5
- Image – Troops celebrating the Armistice – History.com – https://www.history.com/news/world-war-i-armistice-germany-allies
- Map – Western Front 1918 – Wikipedia – Hundred Days Offensive – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Days_Offensive
- Image – Trench Diagram – Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trench_diagram.jpg
- Quotation – Western Front Battle casualties – Wikipedia – The Western Front (World War I) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Front_(World_War_I)
- Map – Ground Gained By First Army Meuse-Argonne Operation – The WWI Era – https://history.army.mil/html/bookshelves/resmat/wwi/pt03/ch23/pt03-ch23-sec01.html#lg=1&slide=14
- Video – Repair roads and bridges and rail – ENGINEER CORPS, ROAD BUILDING [1918-1919] – 111-H-1495.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24996?objectPage=14
- Video – Railhead at Varennes – ENGINEER CORPS: LIGHT RAILWAY ACTIVITIES  – 111-H-1498.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24999?objectPage=11
- Video – Troops celebrating in Varennes – MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE, SEPTEMBER 26 TO NOVEMBER 11, 1918, 28TH DIVISION – 111-H-1415.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24917?objectPage=7
An expertly researched, detailed and presented account of this agonising period.
I’m so happy to hear from you. Thanks for your comment on the WWI stories. Agreed, it was an agonising period. And there are reminders today that there is still agony in the world.
Hope you are well and reasonably happy.