Tragedy at Gesnes The Battle That Became a Suicide Mission
“The outfit felt exhausted, sleepy, worn down and sick. Worse they didn’t feel lucky anymore.” Anonymous American Private
Aftermath of the Battle - Town of Gesnes 1918
September 29, 1918, Private ‘Wally’ Campbell and the rest of the 91st faced a suicide mission: Gesnes. The American troops were ordered to take a German-held town of Gesnes, even though nearly all involved knew that once they attacked, they would not return. The Germans had turned Gesnes into a fortress, and a subterranean network of tunnels bored under the town connected bunkers and strongpoints. To reach the tiny French hamlet, the Americans would have to cross a full mile of open ground with no cover. And the land was “double enfiladed by machine guns and subject to the highest concentration of [German] artillery fire.". Despite the tremendous risk, V Corps headquarters had ordered Major General William Johnston, the division commander of the 91st, to attack Gesnes “with utmost vigor and regardless of cost.” Surveying the ground, one saw at once that this was a forlorn hope and a bloodbath would ensue. “The position could be taken, but only if it is desired to pay the price, which will be very severe losses”, was the obvious consensus. Unswayed by the argument, Gen. Johnston resolutely shot back, “The whole army is being held up because this brigade has not taken all the objectives assigned to it. This regiment will charge Gesnes”.
At nearly a mile from the town, was the jump-off position and everyone knew, (including the Germans), that every square yard was visible from the higher hills beyond, occupied by the enemy, with a concrete-bunker on Hill 255, and every foot swept by machine-gun and artillery fire. Protection, there was none, not even enough concealment for one man. The gullies between the hills would be swept by enfilading fire from wooded hills above Gesnes, and the hillsides were commanded by nests hidden in flanks. To make matters worse, the 91st faced some of the Germans’ most battle-hardened elite troops: the Prussian Guards and elements of several other regiments. With plenty of time to dig in, these experienced veterans of the Western Front had all the advantages of bunkers, command of the high ground, and control of the flanks—the 91st’s assault at Gesnes faced German attacks on three sides. To everyone there, they understood that the attack meant near-certain death. In their opinion, ‘any officer of field maneuvers would call the task impossible and would rule the regiment out.’ Officers murmured all down the line that taking Gesnes would be “impossible, that our losses would be terrible.” But their commanding officer laid down the law. “The hell with the losses—read the order!” Gesnes would be taken, regardless of cost.
Heading into the battle, the 91st had brought limited food and water—many were starving. German shells and constant gas alarms had kept the men awake for 36 hours straight. Heedless of their exhaustion, the undaunted Wild Westerners prepared to assault, moving into position about a mile outside the town. Sunlight filtered through the slate-gray clouds and the husks of nearby trees as the members of the 91st gripped their rifles and other weapons, primed to charge into open ground. An enemy sniper picked off men from the rear as a deadly shower of German shells landed only 20 feet in front of the jumping-off position. Frequent screams of “Gas!” cut through the din of battle. At 3:40 p.m. the officers blew their whistles, and Private Campbell, on foot with the infantry, surged ahead. Many yelled their Western battle motto, anachronistic in the modern killing fields of the Meuse-Argonne: “Let ’er buck!” Unbeknown to the mass of soldiers charging forward, according to one Lieutenant, “the order had been countermanded, but too late—the countermand coming just after we started.” He lamented, “The colonel could not be found. I do not know that he could have prevented it entirely, but it surely could have been called off before we had all the losses at Gesnes.”
"A great shrieking noise came, then a dull explosion. Someone yelled, Gas! Gas!"
The 91st attempted the attack on Gesnes three times. The first advance on Gesnes at 7 A.M. was repulsed. The unit gained similar results during the 10 A.M. attempt. Finally, artillery moved in and a third attack was ordered at 3:30. To the older senior officers, the charge was reminiscent of scenes twenty years earlier at the Battle of San Juan Hill, officers led from the front, in the center of the first screaming wave of men. Some of the commanding officers were not as nostalgically reminiscent, accepting their fate, and simply said, “Well, fuck it, let’s go!” and the men lept from their forward fighting positions and the last vestige of cover, leaping into a hail of German lead and steel. Some would later described the ‘glorious’ forlorn hope: “Perhaps the charge of the Light Brigade was more spectacular, more melodramatic and picturesque, but not more gallant”. It is one thing to ride knee to knee in wild delirium of a cavalry charge under the eyes of armies; it is something else entirely different to plod doggedly on, so widely scattered as to seem alone over a barren hillside against an unseen enemy’s invisible death singing its weird croon as it lurked in the air and stinging swiftly on every side. Man after man fell, but the others continued on through a hell of shrapnel and machine-gun fire as would be impossible to exceed. Columns of olive drab—ranchers, cowboys, and loggers—charged, only to morph into blobs of flesh and crimson rags. Heavy shells vaporized others in a spray of blood and gore. The fields outside Gesnes harvested their share of unknown soldiers; bodies of unrecognizable men carpeted the rolling plain. A Renault FT-17, (French light tank) taken in an earlier battle by the Germans, obstructed the path of the advancing tide of Westerners until a company of men took care of it. Charging forward, with no body armor save steel helmets, the men swarmed the tank and shot the crew as those inside attempted to flee the vehicle. Climbing into the blood-drenched tank, they turned the steel monster on Gesnes, and the tank’s machine gun tore into the “Boche” (slang- contemptuous term used to refer to a German) nests. The human cost of the assault on Gesnes is reflected in a 4:30 p.m. message Captain Elijah Worsham gave to three of his men for delivery to Colonel Parker: "My company wiped out and needs assistance."
Finally, irregular groups of Westerners topped the last crest into the town. Once inside Gesnes, they had their work cut out for them. “The satisfaction of some bayonet work was given to us,” recalled one officer. Small groups of men advanced into Gesnes, and promptly cleared it. However, he cautioned, “One must not think of this as happening in an instant—over an hour of this bloody plodding along under a tornado of missiles passed before the worst was over.” Several men from the 91st earned the Medal of Honor that day. “The noise of our own artillery was a comfort to us. It kept us aware that we were not alone in the fight.” Robert Cahal 91st Regiment A commander records a similar instance at Epinonville two days earlier saying “Every time an attempt was made to leave this shelter and enter Epinonville, the men would be met by a blistering fire from machine guns, and snipers hidden in nearby trees. Without some artillery fire to prepare the way it looked like a hopeless task.” This indicates that artillery was never considered as a major part in the planning of the offensive. It also shows that when artillery was incorporated, the result was success. The evidence shows that individual units were slowly realizing the importance of proper coordination with artillery, but unfortunately, the division’s leadership was still willing to order advances without it.
However, there was another factor preventing continual and seamless artillery support. The road network for the entire Corps revolved around one road that was nearly impassable and clogged with traffic. This was one of the largest failures of the 91st division. By failing to recognize that without artillery, success on the battlefield was limited, the division may have senselessly caused increased casualties. Artillery preparation had allowed the division to move forward on day one relatively easy. The lack of full artillery support the division experienced on early attacks at the fortified positions of Epinonville should have proven that artillery and massed firepower was absolutely essential to the attack.
When the division attacked Gesnes the morning of 29 September twice without adequate artillery support, it was obvious the division had not learned that lesson.
Instead, the officers followed the orders of Major General William Johnston, the division commander exactly as they were given, resulting in a large number of casualties and no gain. This type of leadership had worked for him up until now. However, in this case, Johnston had not maneuvered his force to gain a relative position over the enemy. Instead, he left his unit in a dangerous salient, vulnerable on three sides from effective enemy fire. In the case of Gesnes, Johnston, like many other commanders in the war, could not see that conducting the battle effectively was more important than just gaining ground. The final order to attack Gesnes was the subject of later criticism of an insistent Gen. Johnston who “paid no heed to enemy bullets and shells.” Although questioned by his leaders and soldiers, Johnston maintained that the order must be followed. In his letters to Pershing, Johnston’s claims to support this description. He describes his unit’s reaction upon receipt of the orders from higher as follows: ‘Divisions will advance independently of each other, pushing the attack with utmost vigor and regardless of cost.’ The 91st obeyed such unusual orders . . . General McDonald (181st Brigade Commander) called them the worst he had seen in his many years’ of service. Several men from the 91st earned the Medal of Honor that day. As would be the case at Iwo Jima during the next world war, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” So many examples of gallantry that it was difficult to single out the men who were worthy of medals.
Upon the capture of the town and the hill beyond, the next order issued: “Dig in, hold on, and get some food.” In a precarious position and fearing a German counterattack caused some men to make a bonfire of all maps, orders, and papers in their possession, destroying anything that might possibly give any information to the enemy. After taking Gesnes, the 362nd advanced, cutting down Germans with bullet, grenade, and bayonet. About two hundred reinforcements streamed in, swelling the American ranks. The doughboys took prisoners and captured several field artillery pieces. And also discovered a nearby cabbage patch. After starving for three days, the ravenous men cut the cabbages in half and gorged themselves on the green leafy plants, “in the same variety of enjoyment that we would have had, if it been Crab Louie. We ate in the dark, eating cabbages, dirt, and worms, but how good it tasted.” Wallace Campbell’s first sergeant had sent Private Wallace into town to find food. This is one of the very few stories he shares years later with his grandchildren. “We were sent into town to dig up some food, none of us spoke or could read French. However we did find what appeared to be a butcher’s shop open for business. We entered and the owner tried to sell us some freshly cut meat. I was suspicious, it didn’t look like beef or pork. Clearly, we couldn’t understand each other very well except for gestures and pointing, - but it was all there was. So we paid him and took all he had. Upon leaving the shop, I decided to walk around the back and sure enough, there in the trash dumpster, was a mule’s head”. Food was scarce, fresh meat even more so. It was most likely that this mule had been separated from the Americans forces earlier during the course of the day and ended up in the butcher's shop.
Later that night, as the weather turned cold and many men suffered from loss of blood and were already shaking. The men attempted to find shelter wherever they could. Private ‘Wally” Campbell and his soiled exhausted brethren would climbed back into a foxhole on the hill. Despite the German artillery fire raining down around him, Campbell suffering from exposure to gas, fell asleep next to the bodies of dead men. Late that night, their sergeant found the men in the foxhole next to the row of corpses, dead bodies of his friends, and shook them awake. “We are withdrawing”. The division was in grave danger. During the American operation to seize Gesnes, the Germans had launched a massive counterattack, nearly destroying the American 35th Division on the 91st’s left flank. The enemy drove the 35th back almost two miles and fell upon the 91st. Fortunately, the 2nd Battalion of the 363rd Infantry, a machine-gun company, and other units held the line—had they failed, the Germans might have enveloped the 91st. Acting according to their orders, the divisions within the V Corps had attacked independently of each other, charging forward, ignoring their flanks, and as a result meeting disaster. The 37th Division on the right flank, about two and a half miles behind, also did not keep up with the rest of the force. This strategy left individual units widely isolated and vulnerable to counterattack. Disaster loomed. The retreat from Gesnes became horrific. The memory of the withdrawal would be seared into the minds of the men like Private Campbell. Everyone was carrying or helping carry a wounded man. It was ‘quite cold with a strong wind blowing rain in their faces,’ recalled by some. They stumbled along, floundering through shell holes and every now and then picking up wounded men who had not been brought off the field. Many times the stretchers gave way and the stretcher-bearers stumbled and fell. The wounded would groan and curse, and the column would halt until they were ready to move forward again. Morale was all gone—they simply continued ahead. The dead, far too numerous, many of them unknown soldiers, were left behind. The stone-cold realization had set in: The attack had been for naught. The withdrawal finally began, the men all so tired, they did not have much feeling one way or the other at that time, but later the full truth dawned on them. They were withdrawing to the exact same point from which they started that attack. The whole terrible afternoon and hideous night were all for nothing, and the Wild Westerners had advanced more than five miles into German lines since September 26 but had outpaced the units on their flanks. Had they remained where they were, they would have been cut off, encircled, and annihilated. It was noted, “Never have men displayed a greater devotion to duty. That is why a regiment without complete equipment or training could defeat such troops as the elite Prussian Guards, overcame positions of noted strength and still advanced, often without officers, after losing in a few minutes over 50 percent in casualties; the offensive spirit, the will to win, the fitness to win, in a word, the morale was such, the personnel was such, that victory was possible despite the greatest handicap.” One company had 18 men left of its 179. According to the regiment’s history, the morning after the attack, “the survivors slipped into a “loggish stupor. The men lay, their minds heavy with the horror of the last day, their bodies bruised and exhausted, with no more spirit than the mud under their feet.”
While cases of desertion were minimal in the 362nd, desertion and stragglers were a sizable problem in the AEF. Estimates vary, but as many as one hundred thousand soldiers left their units in the first month of the AEF’s fighting in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive—as much as 10 percent of the total American force quit fighting and meandered to rear areas. In the 37th Division, which the 91st flanked, an inspector reported that 20 percent of the men in the unit may have been in the rear with the gear. The doughboys’ steel helmets had no real padding, and many men experienced concussions and traumatic brain injury, also unknown at the time, after shells exploded nearby. In addition, post-traumatic stress disorder, then called “shell shock,” was common. Many of the men wandering away from the front lines were not displaying cowardice but instead were dazed or impaired as a result of these medical conditions.
However, desertion was not a problem in the 91st—the problem was the “butcher’s bill” from the fighting. The Wild Westerners suffered about 25 percent casualties—yet they fought on in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive until the second week of October, when the First Army transferred Taylor, Granger, and Hutchinson to Belgium. There the 91st fought side by side with the British Army, distinguishing themselves during the final days of the war.