Wednesday, September 12, 2018

July 27-28 1918: “Kill or Be Killed” – Crossing the Ourcq

by Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

This Signal Corps image of Marines of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, 2nd Division offers an example of how a squad of the Georgia National Guard’s
151st Machine Gun Battalion would have looked after emplacing one of their Hotchkiss Machine Guns. 

Following ferocious combat to secure the Croix Rouge Farm, German forces withdrew north to prepared defenses on the north bank of the Ourcq River. The companies of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion, moving with their supported infantry units followed, encountering little resistance along the way. Moving north through the wooded terrain of the Bois de Fer, the Soldiers reached Villers sur Fere about one kilometer south of the Ourcq River which meandered in a southeasterly direction.

If you were to stand on the northern outskirts of Villers sur Fere and look to the east you would behold a view very similar to that which confronted a Soldier of the 151st MGB one hundred years ago. Open fields of freshly-harvested wheat extend perhaps 1,500 meters to the northeast before a southeasterly running row of trees betrays the location of the Ourcq. The river itself is not imposing, at places not much more than a trickling stream. To the north and east, the terrain begins gentle rise over a distance of two kilometers. Halfway between the River and the heights dominating its crossing is the village of Sergy, a village of perhaps 300 residents. Rising beyond Sergy, the terrain culminates at a bowl-shaped prominence. Hill 212, as the high ground was designated, rose a full 200 feet above the Ourcq River crossing site. This heavily defended German strong point would pose a deadly challenge to the attacking American Soldiers.

Southern view from the crest of Hill 212. Photo by Maj. William Carraway

The 42nd Division commenced the crossing of the Ourcq River at daylight on July 28th. Cpl. Robert Gober Burton, writing after the war, described the assault.

Pfc. Paul Hearn, Macon, Ga. killed in action
July 28 1918.  
Long before dawn word was passed to be up and ready to move. So, everyone was up and ready to go about his job of kill or be killed. When the first faint streaks of light lit the sky, we moved forward to the attack.
The first thing we did was discard all blankets and equipment except your reserve rations.
This done, we moved out close on the flanks of the attacking wave. On the banks of the Ourcq the fighting became pretty hot and the Infantry went to it with the bayonet. Slowly but surely the Dutch gave up their precious crossing of the Ourcq to the reckless bravery of the American doughboys. It was here that we lost our first men in action during the whole of the five months that we had been in the line we had not lost a man killed.
Corp. Frank Enters and gunner Paul Hearn, two of the best men in the Battalion were the first to go.[i]

First Lt. Vivian Roberts, a platoon leader in Company A, 151st MGB recalled the attack.

At daylight, July 28th we learn from a patrol which had been out, that the enemy had fallen back during the night. We leap frog the battalion then in line and advance by platoons in formation against heavy infantry fire. It was during this advance that a “whiz bang” killed Corporal Enters and Private Paul Hearn Jr. and seriously wounded Private Anderson.[ii]

The final resting place of Cpl. Frank Enters of Company A, 151st Machine Gun Battalion in the Oise Aisne Cemetery, Seringes-et-Nesles, France. 

Pvt. Herman K. Davis, Zebulon, Ga. killed
in action, July 28, 1918
Moving forward under the same barrage of enemy artillery fire was Pvt. Kenneth Cross of Company C, 151st MGB. In a post-war application for disability, Cross recalled:

Just beyond the east bank of the (Ourcq) River, while advancing, a high explosive hit twenty-five feet to my right hurling a lump of solid earth against my right knee.[iii]
Cross stated that he had refused medical treatment for his injury.

Owing to heavy loss in our company I would have been terribly criticized for running away when men with flesh wounds were staying.[iv]

Despite enemy resistance, the men of the 151st MGB were able to establish firing positions. Cpl. Walter Binford of Company B, who had been wounded in the engagement at Croix Rouge Farm recalled the advance.

Overlooking Sergy was a hill, known as 212. We captured the hill and attacked the town.  After desperate street fighting, we drove the enemy out, but before he could organize, a counter attack drove us out and the enemy retook the town.  During the day this happened nine times.  About the fourth attempt the Germans counter attacked and were coming up Hill 292 and I caught a company with my machine gun and forced them to stop their advance.[v]

Pvt. Thomas Blissitt, Juliette, Ga.
Killed in action July 28, 1918
Moving forward with Binford’s Company B in support of the 167th Infantry Regiment was Company A of the 151st MGB. Roberts continues his narrative:

I was then ordered to take my platoon forward and drive back the machine guns that were holding up our advance. We realized that many of us would not return so we stripped down as light as possible leaving our packs and canteens and only carrying our gas masks, arms and ammunition.  I then went forward with the first two guns and crawled to the right front and sent Sgt. Grant forward to the left front with the other two guns.[vi]

During the confusion of the advance, the units of Company A and B intermingled as related by Binford:

While firing on (a German) company back of the hedge row, an officer and a platoon of (Company A) came up and wanted me to go down back of the hedge row and fire on the town in preparation of the next attack. I told him that the Germans were back of the hedge row, but he would not believe me and took his platoon down there.[vii]

Roberts relates further the actions of his platoon.

Pvt. Thomas Otis Knight, Macon, Ga. Killed in action
July 28, 1918.
About 200 yards away were five or six Germans who seemed to have a machine gun; several of them raised their rifles and took a pot shot at me. I ducked and heard the bullets singing over my head. I was standing near one of the nests they had previously occupied. It consisted of three square holes about three feet deep neatly camouflaged by wheat straw… As we reached the crest of the hill, instead of the five or six Germans I had been firing upon, a solid line of Germans arose stretching all across the hill. Machine guns opened up on us from the woods on the right and from the church steeple and buildings from the little village of La Ferte on our left, pouring a terrific fire into our ranks. Hearing a groan at my side I turned and saw little F. H. Dent from Macon, his shirt on fire; a bullet had struck a clip of cartridges in his belt, exploding them, setting his shirt on fire as well as badly wounding him. I put the fire out, gave him first aid and sending him to the rear took his rifle… A German plane swooped down over our line strafing, mowing down it seemed about every sixth man in our line. A bullet struck me in my right thigh breaking the bone and passing on through the leg and lodging in the lower leg… I asked two infantrymen to carry me back. They tried to do it but as my right leg was dangling giving me so much pain and bullets were singing all around us I asked them to put me in a shell hole and make their escape.[viii]

While Roberts had been delivered to the relative safety of a shell hole, Binford continued to advance.

I was standing, talking to a friend by the name of Little, when a shell burst right over the gun, hit me twice in the right arm, severely wounding Little and killing two men directly behind me.  As I struggled to get up, another shell burst right over me, killing Little and severely wounding me with a piece in my lung. The tide of battle swept over me, part of the time I was surrounded by the enemy and part by the Americans.[ix]

As the day wore on, Roberts found himself surrounded by the enemy.

The name of Pfc. James Mason, of Company B, 151st Machine Gun Battalion is
recorded among the names of American Soldiers missing in action at the chapel
of the Aisne Marne Cemetery in Belleau, France. Photo by Maj. William
I was in such pain and hearing footsteps on the edge of the shell hole I looked up and found four Germans looking down at me.  One of them spoke to me in French asking me if I was badly wounded.  He sat down on the edge of the shell hole and began to talk to me, the other three going on further down the hill to snipe on our boys… Just about dark, it began to drizzle rain and the German who had been talking to me came back and taking his blanket from his pack, tucked it around me, telling me he would be back at ten o’clock that night to take me back.[x]

Roberts would spend the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Meanwhile, Binford’s fortunes were somewhat better.

Finally, the stretcher bearers got to me and started carrying me off the field. As I was being carried off, a German aviator flying up and down our lines, spraying us with his machine gun, waved to me. When I got to the field dressing station they gave me anti-tetanus serum and put four of us in an ambulance to the evacuation hospital. Two died on the way. After a nightmare of a ride, we arrived at the evacuation hospital. There they operated on me and took out the bullets. When I came out of the ether, the bullets were tied in a little bag at my wrist, which I intended to keep as a souvenir. The next afternoon I was put on a hospital train and started to the base hospital to be nursed back to health.[xi]

With Roberts and Binford out of action, Burton resumes the narrative:

Time after time, six to be exact, the doughboys hurled themselves on an unbroken line of machine guns. The little village of Sergy changed hands six times in that one short day. The seventh time it was taken at the point of the bayonet and held.
During all the while an aeroplane had been circling overhead and raking us with machine guns. The most demoralizing thing in the world.
Advancing as far as was possible and to a terrace on Hill (212) we dug in and prepared to beat off counter attacks.
During the night, all men stood-too ready for the expected counter attack but it never came. With nothing to eat and water that came from the river which was choked with dead men and horses and the sun beating down it was rather an uncomfortable place.
With the coming of the dawn it was up and over again but those machine guns could not be moved by mere human bravery and again we were held.
A check was made to determine our strength. We had lost 16 men killed and seventy wounded.[xii]
The Soldiers of the 151st MGB killed or mortally wounded in action on July 28, 1918:

The final resting place of Pvt. Martin S. Cover
of Company D, 151st Machine Gun Battalion
in the Oise Aisne Cemetery, Seringes-et-Nesles,
France. Photo by Maj. William Carraway
Pfc. Martin Cover, Company D
Pvt. David Davis, Company D
Pvt Carroll Fanus, Company D
Pfc Paul Hearn, Company A
Pvt. Aaron Jenkins, Company D
Pvt. Thomas Otis Knight, Company A
Pvt. James G. Mason, Company B.
Pvt. Ernest P. McWilliams, Company A
Cpl. Martin L. Moore, Company D.
Pvt George Smith, Company D
Pvt Jack Taylor, Company A
Pfc. John G. Walter, Company D
Pvt. Fred White, Company D
Pvt. Melvin Wilson, Company A
Pvt Harry Wright, Company D

Also killed in action was Pfc. Robert McClain, a Georgia National Guard Soldier who served in the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Division. 
Next Chapter: “I Have Been Wounded”

[i] Robert G. Burton to Mrs. R. F. Burton. June 27, 1919
[ii] Henry J. Reilly, Brig. Gen., O.R.C., Americans All: The Rainbow at War. F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1936, 436
[iii] Kenneth Cross, Disability affidavit, n.d
[iv] Ibid
[v] Walter Binford Diary, n.d., 12
[vi] Henry J. Reilly, Brig. Gen., O.R.C., Americans All: The Rainbow at War. F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1936, 436
[vii] Walter Binford Diary, n.d., 12
[viii] Henry J. Reilly, Brig. Gen., O.R.C., Americans All: The Rainbow at War. F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1936, 437
[ix] Walter Binford Diary, n.d., 13
[x] Henry J. Reilly, Brig. Gen., O.R.C., Americans All: The Rainbow at War. F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1936, 43
[xi] Walter Binford Diary, n.d., 13
[xii] Robert G. Burton to Mrs. R. F. Burton. June 27, 1919


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  2. The article states that 16 men were killed that day, yet only 15 are listed. I believe the other man was my granduncle, Robert Johnson McClain, from Lindale, Floyd, Georgia. He was about 15 years old and served in Co B, 150 MG Bn 42 Div. He is buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial. Several pictures and more information can be found at FindaGrave. I will post link below. My cousin, also named Robert McClain, was killed in Vietnam at age 19. There is no shortage of heroism and bravery on that side of my family. May they rest in peace.

    1. Let me correct myself. His body was never recovered, and he is listed on the Tablets of the Missing. The military officially declared his date of death as July 28, 1918