World War I, July 25, 1918
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True story, as the commander saw and experienced it
The Marne is only 50 yards wide. The Germans could throw pontoon bridges across in exactly 120 seconds, so we took the warning and kept Company G on the front line. I had been recruited up to full strength of 250 men plus one. We had 600 yards of front, with a wheat field between my line of resistance which was on the nine-foot railway bank and the river, some 500 yards to our front.
We learned late that they expected to crush any resistance in our sector with their artillery, then use the area to reorganize in after crossing the river.
Their artillery bombardment started exactly at midnight on July 14, so July 15 was D-day for us. At 1530, their general fire ceased, and their rolling barrage started, behind which at 40 yards came their infantry. They attacked with two regiments and more machine guns than I thought were in the whole German Army. One regiment veered off to my left and proceeded south without resistance, causing my left gland to be completely exposed, but I didn’t know it. The other enemy regiment commenced operations against my company as soon as the barrage had passed over.
I have one platoon on the riverbank, one on the forward edge of the railroad bank, one just behind that bank, and one along the spur track that jutted into our lines. Four platoons in-depth. It was open warfare — no trenches, except that we had dug shallow slit trenches to protect our men against shell fire. We lost no men from the barrage.
The enemy battled their way through the river platoon, using grenades, and wiping out these men except for a very few. Then they advanced against the platoon on the railway bank. Here we had much the best of it for a time, but they gradually wiped it out too, until all that were left were the few survivors of the river platoon, who had infiltrated back through the thick German lines to take position there.
The third platoon, in desperate hand-to-hand fighting, took over from the second. A few Germans got through it, only to be picked up by the fourth platoon. Now they were an easy prey.
It is the God’s truth that that one company beat and routed one full regiment of picked shock troops. And it was our first combat action.
The enemy started to retire across the river, and I to further their rout, deployed 16 men and started a flank attack from the left. We drove in 185 prisoners, but only three of our 16 survived. There had been three men on my left, but they were dead. I was midway between the railway and the river after our little counterattack. So, I crawled down the line myself.
It looked as if thousands of Germans were going back, but there were still an awful lot with machine guns still in the wheat field. When I got to the railway bank on our extreme left flank, at Mezy station I, found an enemy machine gun enfilading my rear line. I lost three prisoners I had taken, but got them back together with the machine gun. In this action, I used my headquarters company clerks, cooks, and runners.
At 1000, the big shock was largely over. The Germans were carrying back their wounded and dead to the riverbank, and we in our exhaustion had to let them do it. But the still left in our front 600 dead that were counted later by the provost marshal’s burying detail. Also, 52 machine guns and a lot of other equipment.
Then a brand-new attack started.
The prettiest skirmish line I ever saw, of 250 Germans, debouched from the woods in my left rear, some 800 yards away. They got within 300 yards from us before I could organize a defensive position behind some rock piles in rear of Mezy, with all the men I could spare — 52 men, including the cooks, runners, and clerks. Again, we had the advantage of the position.
I placed 20 men in a bit of woods to my right to get converging fire. We opened at 300 yards. The enemy were in an open field, at it was a joy to see them hit the ground. A few broke and ran. Then a few more. Finally, the whole bunch skedaddled. I made the mistake of moving into an L-shaped trench in front of the rock piles, that was enfiladed by German minenwerfers (short range mine shell launching mortars), 1-pounders, and machine guns. You couldn’t stick up a finger without losing it.
I took two large rocks in front of my face and peeked between for one second, then both rocks were shattered. My men in the woods on the right kept up an excellent fire, however, and by making individual rushes, we again got behind the rock piles.
Now I withdrew all but a strong out guard to the railway bank, where I placed a captured German captain to signal to his men not to fire. It worked.
As the day wore on, I began to wonder what we would do when night came. I started with 250 men and five officers. Now we were down to two officers and 50 men. I was wounded in the back, but that didn’t matter. My clothes were practically shot off.
At 1630 came an order to retire to the support line. This wasn’t easy. The enemy had penetrated the sector on our right and were deep into the sector that had been occupied by the French. The hills on our flanks were infested with their machine guns and 1-pounders. We carried all the wounded we could and crept along the railway underneath the spur track in a culvert under fire all the way. But we wriggled and crawled until we got to our support line, which was a shallow trench. Imagine my shock when I was ordered to hold that line!
Our Colonel, the greatest in the world, had lost 50 percent of his men, but he was determined to hold. We began to crowd in men and push the Germans back. We didn’t eat for days, but we pushed them back and back, finally across the Marne that has always been their jinx.
It was an impossibility, but we went right after them and fought them again at Jaulgonne. Still, nobody on our right, where for several days it rained steadily, and we hammered them until they fell back to the Vesle.
At the time of writing this, there are not many of us left in the old 38th. There had been considerable talk in French circles about “regiment elite,” “unconquerable tenacity,” and the like. Yes, our flag has been decorated with the Croix de Guerre, and it is generally recognized that McAlexander’s defense was peculiarly American in concept and execution.
“Things like this we keep close to our hearts.”
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Any questions? Email me at AboutVets@yahoo.com.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry