Seicheprey, Crucible of the 26th Division

Today’s post is by Jan Hodges, volunteer at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In April 1918, after World War I had ground along for nearly four years, the 26th Division of the American army was assigned to the front lines under French command.  A large German raid on April 20th penetrated the American line at two points, a tiny patch of trees called Remieres Woods and the small town of Seicheprey.  The raid on the unsuspecting Americans was swift and decisive.  It tested the mettle of officers and men alike. Moreover it revealed weaknesses within the division.

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany in early 1917, the Massachusetts National Guard was formed into the 26th Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Other units from New England, including some from the National Army were added to the division to increase its strength.  As with other divisions, it was assembled quickly and many officers did not meet or work with their men until they arrived in France in late September 1917. The 26th Division spent its first four months in France mainly constructing hospitals, building telephone lines and organizing the Services of Supply in preparation for the arrival of the rest of the American army.

At last the time came for the Division to fulfill its purpose. In February 1918, the 26th Division, under the command of Major General Clarence Edwards, was assigned to the French XI Corps under the command of General Louis de Maud’huy.  General de Maud’huy was glad to have the American troops and saw to it that they learned how to fight in the style in use at the front. Through February and March, the Americans trained alongside French troops in the trenches and participated in the occasional raid over the top into German territory.  Twenty-sixth division casualties during this period were minimal; the French clearly understood their business and de Maud’huy was a strong leader. (Pearson’s Magazine, vol. 34)

Generals Maud'huy and Edwards stand side by side facing camera
General Louis de Maud’huy (left) and General Clarence Edwards, Near Hdqrs 51st Brig. 24 Feb 1918; Historical Records (NAID 6713448), RG 120

At the end of March, the 26th Division was transported to the La Reine/Bouq sector northwest of Toul where it would relieve the 1st Division on the front line. Toul is approximately 300 miles east of Paris and 55 miles southeast of Verdun. The units of the 26th were spread across, some of the infantry in reserve at Beaumont, others closer to the front line. The area of front line manned by the American force was seven kilometers long, amounting to something slightly more than four miles, running from the Bois de Jury at the eastern end to Seicheprey on the west.  The line of trenches spread northward to include the Remiere Woods (a little patch of ground less than a kilometer square) and the town of Seicheprey, slightly to the west of Remiere Woods. The remaining parts of the sector were held by seasoned French troops, under the command of General Fenelon Francois German Passaga, of the 32nd French Army Corps.

The area was considered to be “quiet,” subject only to the daily dose of artillery or gas shells lobbed by the opposing sides at each other’s trenches and the occasional raid to determine the enemy’s position and capture prisoners to obtain information about the strength and composition of their forces. But there was no going over the top, nothing in the way of advance.  The Sector was static. It had remained largely unchanged since 1914, neither army able to coax the other into the peril of No Man’s Land.  At some points along the front line, No Man’s Land was no more than forty-five yards wide, approximately half the length of a football field.  From their position in the trenches, men could clearly see the enemy if they peered over the top of the trench.

troops lined up along trucks at the edge of a field
Men of 26th Division entering Toul Sector to relieve the 1st Division, April 1, 1918. France (detail) (NAID 55184131), Photographs of American Military Activities, RG 111

Because the line of trenches and woods that needed to be manned was long the allies were unable to completely fill the trenches with soldiers. Commanders chose to concentrate the men at certain areas, called strong points, which created gaps along the line; which a resourceful enemy could use to their advantage. The gaps were patrolled routinely but because there were not enough soldiers to man them, they were left undefended. Some of these gaps occurred along the line under control of the 26th Division. The Boche used them in the raid against Seicheprey.

The day and evening of April 19th were typical of any day at the front, not much in the way of artillery, no movement by the enemy on the ground, no enemy airplane sighted in the sky.  Some movement by train was noted. French and American soldiers went about their routines, sending patrols out through during the evening and night.  The 102nd regiment rotated into position in the Remiere Woods, Bois de Jury and Seicheprey as scheduled shortly before midnight on April 19th. All was quiet.

German cannons roared suddenly to life around 3 a.m. on April 20th, aimed at the Remiere Woods and Seicheprey.  The Germans, aware that the untried 26th Division had been put into the front line, took the opportunity to take a poke at the American Army. Their objective was to pinpoint the exact position of American troops, identify troop formations, and to assess the morale of the troops. If all went according to expectations the raid would provoke an American counterattack that the German army was waiting for.

This blog will continue in Part II, with the battle action in Seicheprey.