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THE SECOND CAVALRY IN THE ST. MIHIEL OFFENSIVE, A.E.F., WW1
THE CAVALRY JOURNAL
Volume XXX, July 1921, Number 124
THE SECOND CAVALRY IN THE ST. MIHIEL OFFENSIVE
By Captain Ernest N. Harmon, 2nd Cavalry
A Provisional Squadron of the Second Cavalry, consisting of Troops B, D, F, and H, was the largest body of American Cavalry that saw active combat duty during the World War. A brief account of this service may be of interest to cavalrymen.
The 25th of August 1918, found four troops located in an old French cavalry station near Toul. The troops had just arrived from Gievres, where they had been constructing a remount depot. Since the arrival of the regiment in France, in April 1918, the troops had been widely scattered and had been engaged in remount duty most of the time. The men had been receiving very little drill or training during this period. The horses, to mount the squadron, had just been received from various remount depots and veterinary hospitals. They were in very poor condition, ranging in type from a heavy draft horse to a Spanish pony; forty-two were white or gray.
Thus with only fifteen days in which to train before taking part in a great offensive, with men who had not drilled for six months, with horses scarcely bride-wise and utterly unaccustomed to cavalry weapons, the officers and men had a problem as difficult, perhaps, as any cavalryman can expect. The horses were grazed in the evening and everything was done to prepare them for the hard work to come. Ammunition was procured and all men fired small combat exercises dismounted and fifteen or twenty shots mounted.
General Dickman, commanding the Fourth Corps, to which we were attached, caused experiments to be made with the Browning auto-rifle. It was his intention to equip each troop with four guns, if they were found to be suitable to our use. The offensive came before the guns with available, so each troop went into action with one gun. A set of fours could carry one gun and 2,500 rounds of ammunition and keep up with the troops at all gaits. A gun with this amount of ammunition was so carried in each troop in both the St. Mihiel and Argonne offensives with no ill effects. This was a case where the heavy draft horses were useful.
On September 9, Troop B was detached from the squadron and during the offensive performed liaison and patrol duty with the 1st, 42nd, and 89th Divisions. In the performance of this duty they were subjected to severe shellfire, especially in Thiaucourt. On the same day orders came for the remainder of the squadron to proceed by a night march to a position about ten kilometers in rear of the front lines.
The night was cloudy and the roads were heavy from recent rains. The first march taught many lessons as to march discipline at night when hostile airplanes were overhead. The roads were choked with traffic and marching troops. The formation taken was a column of troopers on either side of the road, with 50 yards distance between platoons. This formation made the column long, but was necessary in order not to delay traffic at crossroads and not to block road space. Liaison had to be maintained from front to rear. Each platoon dropped a man at crossroads to direct the next platoon in rear on the proper route. Due to the length of the column, it was found, on halting, that by the time the rear units received the word to halt the head of the column was ready to move forward. This had to be corrected by better liaison from the front. No smoking was allowed, as the spark from a cigarette has often revealed to a low flying plane the whereabouts of a body of troops, causing them to be attacked with bombs and machine guns. Marching at night, while apparently not so fatiguing to the horses, was very tiresome for the men under the conditions that existed, and constant watch was necessary to prevent slouching in the saddle. The rain fell in torrents about 2 a.m. We reached camp at 4 a.m., and between flashes of lighting strung lariat lines between trees and tied the horses to the lines by squads. Our wagon arrived early in the morning and the day was spent re-shoeing horses and overhauling our equipment. Due to enemy aerial observation, it was necessary to keep under cover of the woods during the day, a circumstance not pleasant after several days of rain. On the afternoon of September 11 two officers made a reconnaissance to locate the position our squadron was to occupy when the attack opened. This position was in an open space 1,000 yards behind the front-line trenches.
The night of September 11-12 was dark and rainy. Our squadron started from its hiding place at 8 p.m. with only 6 miles to go. The march was very trying. The road was filled with moving troops. The ground was swampy on either side of the road, which made it impossible to turn out of the column. The last platoon finally arrived at our position at 12:55 a.m. The squadron was formed in platoon mass with 100 yards between troops and 75 yard in depth between platoons in troops. The artillery preparation was to begin at 1:00 a.m., and all the men stood by their horses’ heads ready to control them in case of fright. Guns were all around us; we could hear the clang of breechblocks as they were closed on the guns at 12:55. We were in our proper place and there was only one place reserved for us. At 12:58 a.m. two signal guns were fired. The rain fell gently. The night was so dark that one could not see the horses from one platoon to another. At exactly 1:00 a.m. all the guns open up. It seemed as if hell had broken loose. The sky became light as day from the discharges. The horses did not seem to mind after the first few minutes, even though some of the guns were as near as 200 yards from our position. The bombardment was to continue until 5:00 a.m. when a rolling barrage was to be laid down and the infantry were to go over the top. The horses were ordered unsaddled and the equipment was placed in front of them. The men tied the reins to their legs, laid down, and in spite of the frightful din and bombardment, nearly every one fell asleep, so exhausted were the men from the marching and confusion.
At 5:00 a.m. a drumfire barrage was thrown in front of our advancing infantry. So many guns were in action that one could scarcely distinguish between reports. The large guns increased their range and began firing on the cross-roads in rear of the German lines, doing great execution among the retreating forces, as we found the next day.
We watered our horses in mud holes near by, saddled and made ready for instant duty. About 11:30 a.m. we received orders to move up to Seicheprey. This was a town situated on the front-line trenches, which had long since been battered to ruins. We passed through batteries of 155’s and heavier pieces. On our way we passed long files of prisoners and lines of ambulances filled with wounded. We crossed the ruins of the trenches with great difficulty. At 2:15 p.m. we received orders to proceed to Nonsard. This town was situated some nine kilometers behind the original front lines and had been reached by our infantry early in the afternoon. The infantry had established outposts and rested at this point. The road was choked with artillery and ambulances and we were forced to pick our way through barbed wire entanglements and trenches. Our tanks had plowed their way through the wire, which greatly helped our advance. We reached Nonsard about 4:00 p.m. Our mission was to reconnoiter toward Vigneulles, a town seven kilometers north of Nonsard, and to intercept the railroad line between Heudicourt and Vigneulles. Should we succeeded in making a dash across to the railroad line we had no demolition outfit for blowing it up. A thick wood lay between Nonsard and Vigneulles, with the main road running through it, crossed by several wood and military roads.
Troop F formed the advance guard. Specific instructions were given by the squadron commander to march rapidly and to put out a strong left-flank patrol. The advance guard commander was told not to put out a right-flank patrol as that flank was covered by the infantry. This was a great error. The point encountered a German immediately upon entering the woods. He was dismounted, and upon discovery of our men started to run. One private tried to shoot him with his pistol, but after two unsuccessful shots, slid off his horse and, kneeling on the ground, took careful aim with his rifle, hitting his man between the shoulders. A few minutes later a mounted man was captured. Several horses were running loose in the woods, and in some of the huts along the road the fires were still burning. The point had penetrated about 700 yards within the woods, the advance party was 300 yards in rear and the support, followed by a platoon of Troop D, was just entering the woods. At this juncture, the troop commander, who had just been down a side road to observe a patrol, came back and found the point and advance party halted on the road. It was stated that word had come from the rear to halt. The captain caused the troop to move forward, believing that there was some mistake and that there was no order to halt. This proved to be correct; who originated the order to halt no one knows.
Troop H, followed by the remainder of Troop D, now suddenly appeared from the left flank and came onto the main road just ahead of the advance party of Troop F. This part of the force had been sent across the field through an opening in the woods 300 yards to the left of the main road with direction to proceed toward Vigneulles, paralleling the main road. The commander had not received instructions as to the duties or exact whereabouts of Troop F, and to avoid an impassable stretch of road had swung into the main road. This situation was very confusing. At this moment the two troop commanders rode forward to a slight ridge from which the point had signaled the enemy in sight. The troops were about 200 yards in the rear. Down the slope about 300 yards away was seen a continuous stream of horses, men, and vehicles crossing the main road from left to right. It was a column of retreating Germans. It was decided to cover the crossroads at once with fire from the auto rifles and move through the woods by the right flank and cut the column off. However good or bad this plan might have worked out, its success was doomed from the start by the precipitation of the auto rifles, which opened fire before the troops were ready, thus losing the element of surprise. As our leading elements moved off the road to form a line of foragers, fire was opened on our column from the left ot right fronts and a machine-gun was set up at the crossroads. The fire came from a machine-gun or automatic rifle and several rifles. The woods were so heavy that the enemy could not be seen.
The decision was quickly made to move to the rear about 300 yards to where a road turned off the main road to the left. On this road the troops would be under cover and could dismount and move forward in skirmish line, as the heavy woods made mounted action very difficult. The command: “Four left about, trot,” was given.
Our horses were green and, under the excitement, a command to gallop back would have stampeded them. Some horses were down from being hit. The men were falling back to the crossroads in good order, when suddenly a machine-gun opened up on the column from a small trail leading from the main road on the right. This was on our unprotected flank. The Germans had allowed our patrols to go by and had brought their guns to the edge of the woods as the column started back. They had been trained to shoot low. Many of our horses were hit in the legs. All the men opened fire on the machine-gun crew with their pistols as they passed. All rules as to flank men only firing from column of fours were forgotten. All men fired, with the effect that the crew of three men were all killed. Of course, the horses broke into a gallop. The head of the column, being without a leader, dashed past the crossroads before an officer could get in front. A second machine-gun opened fire from the left. That crew hardly fired before they were all killed by the fire of the troops as they passed. Both guns were about twenty yards off the road. The time of firing was short. However, the only reason many of our men were not killed is the fact that the aim was low as for infantry and our column was moving so fast. No commands to fire were given our men; the firing was done from a sense of self-preservation, and was effective. After this incident the men had all the confidence in the world in their pistols. The horses were finally checked near the edge of the woods and, under cover of the woods on the left, order was restored.
The squadron spent the night in Nonsard. At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, Troop D was sent out on an independent mission. The troop was ordered to proceed cross country to Creue, a small town situated about a mile west of the main railroad line running south from Vigneulles, and was to destroy a section of the railroad track near Creue, falling back with delaying action to the north on Vigneulles. Troop D found the track already destroyed by the advance units of the 26th Division. The troop then proceeded to Vigneulles.
Troops F and H grazed their horses in the early morning and made a rapid march to Vigneulles. The town had been captured by the 1st Division and their outposts were on high ground north of the town. Considerable shelling was being done by the enemy, which caused the squadron to approach the town through the fields in line of squad columns with wide intervals. The troops followed each other at considerable depth. At the crossroads, about 600 yards east of the town, our column divided. Troop H was joined by Troop D and both troops moved west and spent the entire day until 8:00 p.m. scouring the country west and south of Vigneulles for German stragglers. These troops covered an area heavily wooded and characterized by high, steep hills and deep ravines. All dugouts were entered. Few prisoners were found, but the work was most fatiguing, and the two troops by their mobility covered a large territory. French cavalry was met at Heudicourt about 3:00 p.m., and the French officers were greatly chagrined to find our cavalry had beaten them in following the enemy by a full day’s operation.
Troop F was ordered to proceed north along the main line of the railroad, St. Mihiel-Metz, gain contact with the enemy, locate their new line of resistance, and obtain liaison with the French, who were expected ot come through from the west side of the salient. Our infantry advance had halted on the ridges north of Vigneulles. It was unfortunate that all three troops could not have gone north together as the mission to be performed was typical of the work expected of cavalry. The country to the north was an open plain flanked by a continuous high ridge running north and south on the left. The main road followed a single-tracked railroad about 500 yards from the foot of the ridge. The country to the right of the railroad was flat or gently rolling, with patches of woods here and there.
Realizing that much information could be obtained by as small a unit as a troop and anxious to redeem our first brush with the enemy, the troop moved out at a fast trot in regular formation with point, advance party, and patrols on both flanks. In going through the towns the took the information of column of troopers on either side of the road so that in case of machine-gun fire the men could get off the road to the right and left between houses. All towns were entered at a fast trot, and a march outpost was formed on the farther side, while a hasty reconnaissance was made by the main body. The first town passed through was Hattonville. The town was deserted and in flames. Our point was fired on by a small enemy party occupying a stable on the outskirts of the town. The advance continued; a squad turned out of the column and surrounded the stable, killing one man and taking the remaining two occupants prisoners. All along the road were wagons of loot and supplies left in the flight, the drivers having unhitched the horses and made their escape on them. The next town, Vieville, was on fire and apparently deserted. The troop kept up the advance, not stopping to search the town. The next town, Billy, six kilometers north of Vigneulles, was on fire. Outside of the town were captured six stragglers, who offered no resistance. They were sent to the rear. St. Maurice was now reached. This town was of considerable size, and many Germans were seen running about in the streets as we approached. The troop galloped through the town, establishing a march outpost at the northern exit and on the road going east toward Jonville. Patrols were at once dispatched to search the town. A German staff officer, mounted on a large black horse, was discovered leaving a side street. He was captured and the captain of the troop took the horse and rode him the rest of the campaign. Twenty-two stragglers were found and sent to the rear. The villages came out of their cellars and were enthusiastic over our entry. The mayor of the village, and old man of distinguishing bearing, gave valuable information. A German staff officer billeted at his house had told the mayor that the German army was forming on a new line through Champlon, Doncourt, Jonville, and Champly. He also stated that a German General had left the town barely an hour before the arrival of the troop.
With St. Maurice as a base, patrols were sent toward Champlon, Doncourt, and Jonville to reconnoiter the enemy. The main body of the troop remained at St. Maurice. The patrols were sent out about noon. The patrol sent toward Champlon reported back, stating that they had met the advance guard of a French infantry outfit at Hannonville. The French had come from the west across the salient and were patrolling to the north toward Champlon. Their air service had given them information, which verified the report of the mayor of St. Maurice. At St. Maurice a large quantity of grain and food were found. While awaiting reports from the other patrols, men and horses were fed and grain bags were filled. This was the first feed for the horses since the morning of the 12th. The patrol to Doncourt returned at about 3:00 p.m. with one prisoner, reporting evidences of a prepared position about the town. They had come under a burst of machine-gun fire while reconnoitering the approach to the town. At this time a verbal message came stating that the Germans were coming in force from the direction of Woel, in a counter-attack. The troop took a position to cover the retirement of the patrol on that road. This report proved to be the usual kind given by a trooper with a strong imagination. The patrol was met on its way back from Woel with five prisoners. Two horses of the patrol were wounded and one man missing. This man came in later. The patrol reported that they had been fired on by a few mounted men on approaching the town. The enemy galloped away toward Jonville. While reconnoitering the town the patrol was again fired on from the church steeple. A new patrol was sent out which went through Woel and reported back about 6:00 p.m. with the information that Jonville was strongly held. Messages were sent back from time to time during the afternoon as information was received.
The infantry now began to arrive in St. Maurice from the south. Its mission accomplished, the troop joined the squadron, in camp at Vigneulles. The mess sergeant of Troop H had got his kitchen through the traffic, and had hot soup ready for the men that night. The cavalry squadron was the only outfit that had a kitchen up that far at this time. All the horses were greatly fatigued, and some wounded horses had to be shot. The next day the squadron marched south out of the salient. The attack was over, our infantry were organizing the ground won, and this sector remained inactive until the attack by the Second Army, November 10.
END OF ARTICLE
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