Thursday, February 1, 2018

"Don’t worry for a minute about me." Training for the Trenches: January-March 1918

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Private Joseph Tucker obituary
Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 25, 1918
The 151st Machine Gun Battalion trained at Viller sur Suize for five weeks enduring more severe cold. Weather and hardship took a toll. Private Joseph E. Tucker of Company C died of pneumonia shortly after the battalion reached Viller sur Suize. A resident of Brinson, Ga., Tucker told recruiters he was 18.5 years old when he enlisted in Company E, 2nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry June 25, 1917. When he died January 10, 1918, Tucker was just nine days short of his 16th birthday.

While at Viler sur Suize, the Soldiers familiarized themselves with gas mask drills and practiced emplacing and firing their Hotchkiss machine guns. The Mle 1914 Hotchkiss Machine Gun was capable of firing 600 eight-millimeter rounds per minute. A squad of nine men was required to maintain and serve a Hotchkiss in combat. The squad was led by a corporal and consisted of eight privates. The gunner carried the 53-pound weapon in action while an assistant loader bore the 41-pound tripod. A third man was responsible for carrying the 18-pound traversing rod along with an ammunition box containing 30-round strips of ammunition. Three men served as ammunition carriers and two more were detailed to handle mules who hauled the gun cart and ammunition cart. These carts would be driven as close as possible to firing positions before the guns were carried forward by hand. In practice, road and terrain conditions often necessitated long maneuvers carrying the weapons and ammo distributed amongst the squad members.

In this 1918 Signal Corps photo, Major Cooper Winn, commander of the 151st
Machine Gun Battalion reviews machine gun squad drill with officers of the French Army.

Burdened with more than 100 pounds of weapon system in addition to ammunition crates, the Soldiers were not assigned individual weapons systems. Their lives on the battlefield would depend on how fast they employed their machine guns and how accurately they could place fire.

The companies of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion consisted of three platoons, each commanded by a lieutenant along with a headquarters section. The platoons had two sections composed of two squads. A sergeant led each section while corporals were responsible for the squads. On January 23, Robert Burton was promoted to corporal and placed in charge of one of those squads. The occasion prompted his first letter home since January 6, 1918.

Somewhere in France (Viller sur Suize)
January 23, 1918
My dearest mama,
As I haven’t received a letter from you in sometime will drop you a line.
I am getting along just as nicely as possible.
I had a letter from Mildred some two or three days ago. She said that she heard from you quite often. Good work. Keep it up. She also said that she sent me an Xmas present but so far it hasn’t been received yet.
Tomorrow I am taking out $5,000 more of insurance. I am doing it mostly to do my bit in saving the government money. Not that I think that I am going to be hurt in the war. I am also going to notify the man in charge of the war risk insurance to send the policy to you That means the first $5,000 I took out but after a while you will get the policy on the second $5,000.
How is everything and how are everybody at home? Write me with the news.
Don’t worry for a minute about me. With heaps of love,
Your Devoted Son,

Private Homer Terry's grave marker, Meuse Argonne
Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Jack Solomon
By mid-February the battalion was ordered to prepare to move to the front. The Soldiers entrained February 18, 1918 for transport initially to Giriviller, about 20 miles southeast of Nancy. Five days later, Pvt. Homer Terry of Company B was run over by a machine gun cart and killed. Terry was from Porterdale, Ga. He had enlisted in The Jackson Rifles, Company A, 2nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry June 16, 1916 and had traveled with Burton to Camp Cotton on the Mexican border that year. He was 23 years old.

At Giriviller, the companies of the 151st were attached to the infantry regiments of the 84th Brigade, 42nd Division. Company A and B were attached to the 167th Infantry Regiment comprised mostly of National Guard Soldiers from Alabama while Company C was attached to the 168th Infantry Regiment composed of Iowa National Guard Soldiers. The newly assigned Company D was attached to a reserve element of the 168th.
Major Cooper Winn, commander of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion was assigned as machine gun officer for the 84th Brigade in addition to his battalion command duties. The 27-year-old native of Macon enlisted as a private in the Macon Volunteers March 2, 1899 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the same unit three years later. He served with the Macon Volunteers until 1912 when he was appointed adjutant of the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment, parent unit of the Macon Volunteers. Promotion to major followed in November 1912. Major Winn traveled with the Georgia Brigade to El Paso, Texas in 1916 and was stationed at Camp Cotton at the same time as Cpl. Burton. Winn assumed command of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion in August 1917 after the Georgians returned from Texas.

The Macon Volunteers in 1903. Lieutenant Cooper Winn stands center.
Georgia National Guard Archives

For now, Winn’s focus was on rotating his companies through front line positions in the Luneville and Baccarat Sectors, relatively quiet sections of the front but still part of an active combat zone. These sectors occupied gently rolling terrain north of the mountainous Vosges Region near the Swiss border. Here, the 151st and their supported infantry regiments would begin working with the French 128th Division prior to conducting a battle-handoff of sector responsibility.

On March 8, the first elements of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion entered the trenches near Badonvillier beginning the first of 167 days in front-line combat positions.

Next Chapter: First Contact