Monday, January 1, 2018

"Today, a year ago, I was in Texas. Today I am in France." November 1917-January, 1918.

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

When the U. S. S. Agamemnon sailed out of Hoboken it carried not only the 570 officers and men of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion but the hopes and prayers of thousands of family members back home who would wait, pray, and scan the newspapers for casualty reports. News would come days late, if at all through letters back home, heavily censored by company officers to remove referenced to specific locations, times and casualties. 

The voyage of the Agamemnon was largely uneventful for the crammed Soldiers who passed the time smoking, playing cards and listening to music on a handful of gramophones. The only event of note took place on the evening of November 9 when the transport Von Steuben collided with the Agamemnon burying her bow in the Agamemnon’s port side. Fortunately, the hole caused by the collision was above the water line and repairs were swiftly made. The majority of the men likely had no idea at the time what incident had befallen their ship and would only learn of the events through the second-hand gossip.

U.S. Navy troop transports at sea, November 10, 1917. These ships, steaming in convoy from New York City to Brest, France, are (from left to right): USS Mount Vernon (ID 4508), Agamemnon and USS Von Steuben (ID 3017). Note the damage to Von Steuben's bow, the result of a collision with Agamemnon on the previous day. U.S. Navy Photo NH 57750

Three days later, November 12, 1917, land was sighted, and the Agamemnon and other ships of her convoy sailed into Brest Harbor. Due to the shortage of resources to unload the ships and lack of transportation and lodging, the Soldiers remained aboard the Agamemnon an additional five agonizing days.

Finally, on November 17, 1917, the men disembarked and crowded forty at a time into railroad cars. Issued three days rations, the men remained in the cars until the 22nd of November when they detrained at Vaucouleurs. Without issue of rations, the battalion was split up and elements marched in a pouring rain, Company C going to Vaux la Petite while Company A, B and Headquarters marched to Uruffe.

Having arrived at their initial training stations, the companies of the 151st MGB conducted nearly a month of training before beginning a 110-kilometer foot march to their new station in the Rolamport sector. Marching in heavy snow on December 14, the entire Battalion assembled at Manois where it remained through Christmas, 1917.

Nov 21-Dec 26, 1917: The 151st MGB arrived by train in Vaucouleurs Nov. 21, 1917. Detraining on Nov. 22, the Bn. split with Co. C taking station in Vaux La Petite while HQ, A, and B moved to Uruffe. The companies remained in place until Dec. 12, when they began a 150 kilometer march to the Rolamport Area. Company C marched from Vaux la Petite to Bure while HQ, A and B marched from Uruffe to Verseignes (location estimated. On Dec. 13, HQ, A and B advanced to Domremy while Co. C marched to Germisay. On Dec. 14, during a heavy snow storm, the battalion assembled in Manois.
Battalion movements shown in yellow.  White indicates Co. C while Green shows the movements of HQ, A and B.
Source:  “Vaucouleurs.” 48 00’15.49”N 6 16’01.44”E. Google Earth. Landsat/Copernicus. Dec. 31, 2017.

Burton’s correspondence is uncharacteristically spotty from the time the 151st MGB boarded the Agamemnon to Christmas with only three letters making their way home to Monroe. The first letter was a post card informing his family that he was shipping and would write soon. The second letter would not come until Company A had completed its march to Uruffe. Writing thus on November 28, Gober noted that he was well and asked for his family to send soap and tobacco.

When next he had a chance to write, Gober was in Manois.

Somewhere in France
December 18, 1917
My dearest mama,
Well, I have another chance to write. I am getting along fine. Sleep warm at night and get to stay around a stove when we are not at work in the daytime.
I have received about three or four letters from you since I have been over here. I have written to you three times since we sailed. I suppose you have gotten all those by now and I hope that you have started me a box for Xmas. Please send me plenty of tobacco.
Write a check on me and buy a Ingersol Junior watch and send it to me. I have broken the crystal on mine and haven’t got a chance to get one.
Mildred wrote me that she was coming up in Ga. Xmas and that she might come by Monroe. I hope that she does because I want you to know her.
Don’t worry for a minute about me for I am getting along just as fine as can be. Uncle Sam is taking care of me.
Will write to you every chance I get. Write every week.
Your devoted son,

The day after Christmas the 151st MGB was again on the march. For these Georgian soldiers, the constant snow storms and freezing temperatures added a particular layer of misery to an otherwise tedious affair of endless marching with heavy packs and blanket rolls. 

Dec 26 1917-Jan 4, 1918: HQ, A, and B marched to Treix Dec. 26, 1917 while Co. C moved to Blancheville. The next day, Co. C advanced to Crenay by way of Chaumont. On Dec. 28, 1917, HQ, and Co. A marched to Vieux Moulins while Co. C and B congregated at Leffonds. On January 14, the battalion was reunited at Villers-sur Suize where they received an additional company from the Penn. National Guard, Company B, 149th MGB.  This company became Co. D, 151st MGB.
Battalion movements shown in yellow.  White indicates Co. C while Green shows the movements of HQ, A and B.
Source:  “Vaucouleurs.” 48 00’15.49”N 6 16’01.44”E. Google Earth. Landsat/Copernicus. Dec. 31, 2017.

By January 1, 1918, Burton was able to write home.

Corporal Burton's letter home Jan 1, 1918. Georgia Guard archives.

Somewhere in France (Vieux Moulin)
January 1, 1918
My dearest mama,
Well! Today a year ago I was in Texas. Today I am in France. I am getting along just as fine as possible. The Xmas boxes haven’t been given out yet, but we will get them before long.
How is everything at home? Write to me as often as you can, and I will do the same, but my chances are not so good as yours.
I had a nice letter from Mildred on Xmas day. Also, two or three from you. One from Rache (Burton’s brother) saying that he was sending me some cigarettes.
I wrote you telling you to send me some toilet articles and tobacco. Here is what I want. Don’t send them too often. Don’t forget the Ever Ready safety razor blades. That is the only thing I am short on now. When you send me tobacco send Prince Albert smoking tobacco. Cigarettes are too hard to carry about and Prince Albert don’t get damp so quickly as cigarettes. That doesn’t mean to say not to send any cigarettes. Mix them up.
Don’t you worry about me for I shall be OK.
Wish that I could have been at home during Xmas. Did Mildred come by Monroe during Xmas? She wrote me that she was coming up into Ga. Xmas and that if possible she was coming by Monroe.
I am sitting in the middle of the floor writing this by candlelight. The place is warm, and I am comfortable. You know how I used to write …. On the floor at home.
Write me soon.
Your devoted son,

On January 4, 1918, the 151st Machine Gun Battalion assembled at Viller sur Suize with the addition of a company from the 149th Machine Gun Battalion. This company of Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers formed Company D of the 151st MGB. That same day, the 151st lost its first Soldier, Private Edgar Coots. While the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Coots death was due to gunshot wounds, it is far more likely that Coots was killed in an accident as reported by the battalion in the post-war account The 151st Machine Gun Battalion, Rainbow (42D) Division.  

Viller sur Suize would prove to be a more or less permanent training station until the battalion was called to move into the trenches. Here the battalion received their Hotchkiss machine guns, helmets, gas masks and final equipage. The men also received overdue Christmas packages from home as Burton related in his letters back home.

Corporal Burton's letter home Jan. 6, 1918.

Somewhere in France (Viller sur Suize)
January 6, 1917 (1918)
My dearest mama,
Well, I received the Xmas boxes last night. All of them came together. They were surely appreciated. From what you and Auntie sent you had not received the letter that I wrote you on the boat. I wanted some razor blades, but you can send them later.
I am getting along just as nicely as possible. Haven’t been sick yet.
Two letters came last night from Mildred. She said that she had had a nice letter from you. I like to hear about that.
I haven’t cut the first cake yet, but I can tell by the smell that it is fine. I gave a lot of the boys some of the candy and they seemed to enjoy it very much and I know that I did.
I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but we have been hearing peace rumors over here. Here’s hoping that it is so.
I received a box of cigarettes from Rache a day or so ago. Please when you write to him, thank him for me.
Mildred’s letter said that she was sending me a package. I can’t imagine what it is.
I think that it won’t be long before we come back to the States. Don’t you for a moment worry about me.
Write me as often as once a week anyway,
As ever,
Your devoted son,

Burton paints a cheery picture for his family at home. At no point does he relate the misery of the train ride to Vaucoulers or the extended road marches, first in freezing rain and then in deep snow, clad in only wool uniforms and a great coat. The next few weeks would pass in relative safety 70 miles from the front, but the 151st would presently enter the front lines, and suffer their first casualty.

Next Chapter:  Training For the Trenches