Seicheprey, Crucible of the 26th Division, Part II

Today’s post was written by Jan Hodges, volunteer at the National Archives at College Park, MD. This is a continuation from Part I.

Bleary eyed American soldiers were jolted to full wakefulness by the tremendous noise of the barrage in a fog created by nature and intensified by haze from exploding shells.  Both explosive and gas shells fell on the Americans before the Germans switched to a rolling barrage – advances by troops were preceded by a long period of artillery fire to soften up the enemy. When it was time for the troops to march into battle, the artillery changed tactics. They sent up shells ahead of soldiers at a predetermined distance and moved the target of the shells forward at specific time intervals.  This rolling barrage cleared the area immediately in front of enemy soldiers and the infantry was expected to march behind it, but keep up with it.  It was a strategy German shock troops, specially trained for making raids, understood well.

map showing position of guns around Remiere, Seicheprey, etc
Map showing position of guns, time of fire, and targets around Seicheprey, April 20, 1918. RG 120

Marching swiftly through empty trenches and open ground around Remiere Woods and Seicheprey, German soldiers followed the edge of the barrage so closely that some were killed by it.  The shock troops cut communication lines and barbed wire, isolating the American forces in the Bois de Jury, Remiere Woods and the shattered town of Seicheprey.

German shock troops overwhelmed American machine guns in the Remiere Woods, completely destroying one of the strong points, killing and wounding many men and taking at least five prisoners.  American troops fought to the last man.  One machine gunner was later found dead, his fingers still gripping the trigger, amid a semi-circle of dead German soldiers.  American soldiers fired until their guns no longer functioned; then broke the guns, picked up rifles and continued to fight.  A few surviving infantry men and machine gunners fought their way out of the woods.  During the retreat one private came across a Boche machine gun, brought out his pistol and shot at the German gunners until he was wounded.  Another private with him, then stepped in and captured the machine gun.

Through the night and early morning Americans held a small part of the Remiere Woods and kept it until French troops joined them on the morning of the 21st. Broken rifles found throughout the area attested to fierce hand to hand combat that ended only with the death of determined American soldiers.

While the German troops entered the Remiere Woods with guns blazing, their entry into the town of Seicheprey was stealthier. The heavy bombardment that preceded their movement took a large toll on the unprepared Americans; many died, many were wounded or gassed.  The Boche entered quietly from an unexpected direction.

Major George J. Rau, commanding the 102nd Infantry Battalion, realized when the bombardment changed to a rolling barrage an attack might follow.  He organized the men at hand, many of them cooks, bakers and clerks, into a defensive position.  Rau expected a frontal assault, however, the Germans went around the town and entered it from the southwest.  The shock troops came upon the medical aid station in the middle of the town and quickly captured a doctor and several enlisted men.  One soldier escaped, pistol in hand, running full out down rutted streets pursued hotly by German soldiers throwing stick grenades at him. As he approached Rau’s command post, he turned to fire at the Germans, who retreated immediately. 

Major Rau consolidated his forces around his command post and asked for a volunteer to go out to send up a rocket that would alert the American artillery that a barrage was needed immediately.  When the volunteer became wounded, Rau ran to the spot, ignited the rocket and returned with the wounded man.  Shortly after the signal rocket went up, American artillery responded and shelled the German position north of the town.

The situation in the town was tense.  The exact location of German troops was in doubt.  Rau sent out small parties of men to find them, but none were found within Seicheprey. By 7a.m., the fighting within the town had ceased.  The Germans left Seicheprey to the Americans, falling back to the Sibille trench.

Major Rau sent patrols outside the town to find the Germans. One party used the scant cover available to crawl toward the Sibille trench.  As they passed the town cemetery, the Boche opened fire on them.  The sergeant leading the men spied a stick with a flag waving from its top and recognizing that it was a range marker, pulled it from the ground. He realized that the Germans were using it to sight on them.  Creeping slowly in groups of two or three, the men finally reached the Sibille trench north of Seicheprey.  The few Germans they encountered retreated rapidly and the Americans entered the trench to find traps and grenades the enemy had left before departing. Upon hearing the report that the Germans had evacuated the Sibille trench, Rau directed a platoon of men to occupy it. These unfortunate soldiers would shortly become victims of dueling artilleries.

At the Headquarters of Major General Clarence Edwards, Commanding Officer of the 26th Division, there was a great deal of confusion, in part because of the loss of communications. The raid began at 3a.m. the morning of April 20th when the Germans sent up a heavy artillery barrage and cut communications lines, isolating the men on the front line from the rest of the 26th Division and from the French army. Clearly the officers at 26th Division Headquarters did not understand the significance of the artillery fire. At 4 a.m. Headquarters telephoned the 26th Division’s Field Artillery to get information about the bombardment.  General Peter Traub (Commanding Officer of the 51st Infantry Brigade) reported that things were quiet, but that he was keeping up a barrage against the enemy “on not knowing what is going on”.

By 5 a.m., it was obvious the Boche were attacking the front line where the Americans were deployed. And at 5 a.m. the French called the 26th Division Headquarters and asked for information about the situation.  Ten minutes later the Americans returned the phone call. The French responded by sending a force to the Bois de Remieres.

Close to 9 a.m., another message sent from George Rau by runner was received at Headquarters.  The message was grim:

“The enemy put down heavy barrage; kitchen on fire; dugouts down; first aid station down; no doctor. Big raid. Men driven back to Battalion Post of Command. Am holding. Large amount of wounded, some captured. Send doctor, stretcher bearers, ambulance. Have taken position on further edge of town.  Shells from Bois Sonnard and St. Baussant.  Send barrage quick. Put barrage on our front line trenches. Request all reprisal fire possible.”

A quarter of an hour before French troops reached the Bois de Remieres, the Germans started shelling the road from Seicheprey to Beaumont, south of the town. The French reported that the situation in the woods was very confused. Hill 269, east of Seicheprey was held by one American company and some French elements. Sibille Trench had been retaken by Americans.

As the morning wore on, some American officers wanted to launch a counterattack. Colonel John Parker called up two reserve units from Rambucourt to the support line in back of the front.  He then approached General Traub about a counterattack.  Traub denied him permission saying that it was absurd and ordered the officer to hold his position. Colonel Parker held his position.

aerial photo negative of Seicheprey
Aerial Photo of Seicheprey; 226-45.6; Records of the 26th Division (NAID 301641), RG 120

At 12:50 p.m. the Field Artillery Liaison reported that at 12:15 p.m. Major Rau asked for the artillery to “Lay a barrage on, north of Seicheprey” By 1 p.m., Rau reported that the shells were falling short of the target and landing in Seicheprey on his troops.

In mid-afternoon French General Passaga presented himself at General Edwards’ Post of Command (PC). The two generals discussed a counterattack.  To make it successful they needed a plan, men, and munitions. The Americans on the front line and the field artillery had expended large quantities of ammunition and the men at the front were exhausted.  In spite of that, some American leaders wanted to mount a counterattack as soon as it could be organized.  After reviewing the situation with General Edwards, Passaga recommended that counterattack take place the morning of April 21st at 4:40 a.m. Word of the planned counterattack reached Major Rau shortly after midnight.

Around 3 p.m. on April 20th Colonel Parker reported that the regiment had received a delivery of 7500 emergency rations for the troops. It was, he said, the “first actual offer of help from the rear from anybody”. It was twelve hours after the attack began. His report documented the casualties up to that point, “E, D, C companies suffered very heavily; D and C are almost wiped out. E Company hard hit, probably half or more gone.”

While the Generals were meeting, American and German shells continued to maul Seicheprey. Between noon and four-thirty, shells from both sides fell on the isolated American outpost, moving Major Rau to anger.  He sent a dispatch to headquarters saying that they would hold until the last man but could not survive simultaneous barrages.

Certainly the artillery should have known the situation in Seicheprey. It had been called in hours earlier to harass the Germans. Rockets had been sent up repeatedly from Seicheprey as a signal to the artillery. Somehow in the chaos and uncertainty that ensued as the men in Seicheprey and the Bois de Remieres fought bravely, conflicting messages about American and German troop locations crossed each other and it was hours before the American artillery got the correct range and by that time, the Germans had retreated.

April 21st 4:40 a.m. arrived. No counterattack materialized.  The Americans were prepared.  The French were prepared.  In a twist worthy of fiction, Major John Gallant, the officer in charge of the counterattack, called it off because two companies of men failed to reach the jump off point at the appointed time and he could not connect with them. However much sense it made to halt the counterattack, Major Gallant disobeyed orders and was subsequently court marshaled. Ironically, it was later noted that his action probably saved lives.  In any event the Germans were nowhere to be found in the Remiere Woods or in Seicheprey. The enemy had retreated as swiftly as they had come. 

The Germans had unleashed 3300 seasoned troops (counting the reserves) against 950 Americans in Seicheprey and Remiere Woods. The shock troops that assaulted the Americans in Seicheprey were specially trained and disciplined raiders who knew how to navigate the trench system, disable communications and dismantle barbed wire barriers.  They moved with speed against the inexperienced American soldiers, 1800 assaulted Seicheprey and the paltry patch of the Remiere Woods (the rest were held in reserve waiting for the counterattack).  German losses were estimated to be close to 300 killed and wounded. The American 102nd Infantry Companies B, C, D, and E and the Machine Gun Company on the line on April 20th suffered losses of 278 men and officers.

typed copy of message relaying operations at Seicheprey on April 20, 1918
Copy of Message Sent by Major Rau to Colonel Parker at about 14:50 o’clock, April 20, 1918 (from Report of Operations). 226-33.6, Records of the 26th Division (NAID 301641). RG 120

From the German perspective the raid was a success: they captured five officers, 178 men, ten heavy machine guns and fifteen light machine guns.  Further, the raid gave them insight into the character of the Americans.  In their opinion, American company commanders, although lacking experience set a good example for their men.  In their estimation American soldiers were courageous and calm during a fight, although they lacked the discipline of French soldiers.

 A German officer, after the war ended, explained that the Germans were anticipating an American counterattack to occur sometime around 5 p.m. on the 20th.  When they realized that there would be no counterattack then, the shock troops were methodically evacuated from the area beginning at 9:30 p.m.

Seicheprey was the crucible that forged 26th Division into a weapon. Innocent and inexperienced young men at 3 a.m. became battle hardened veterans by 3 p.m. In those short hours they experienced fear and reached inside themselves to perform acts of bravery. They dodged artillery barrages and sniper bullets to carry messages when telephone lines were down.  They pulled wounded comrades from harm’s way while being shot at. They held their positions against an enemy that greatly outnumbered them. They buried the dead, American and German, and after they finished, picked up their rifles and returned to duty.  The division would go on to participate, with distinction, in much of the fighting that remained in the war.

Pershing had high expectations of his army and his commanders.  His goal was to field an American army, free of British or French control; an army capable of making strategic and tactical decisions on its own.  The performance of the 26th Division during the raid on Seicheprey put into doubt the ability of the American army leadership to act independently.  The French acted quickly to get support to the men in the Bois de Remieres while the command of the 26th Division floundered through hours of indecision and inaction. It would be several more months before the Americans would be given a chance to operate independently. Major George Rau received a silver star for “gallantry in action at Seicheprey, France, 20 April 1918, for his brilliant leadership.” On July 25th, a little more than three months after the raid at Seicheprey, Major Rau was killed during an artillery barrage and is buried in the Oise-Aisne Cemetery.