Fightin’ Friday: Mon Plaisir Farm


The Lightnings’ First Strike, reprinted from Camaraderie

By Neil M. Burns

On the night of Sept. 15, 1918, the green 78th “Lightning” Division relieved the veteran 2nd Division north of Thiaucourt. The St. Mihiel offensive had just wound down, and the 2nd handed over little more than a collection of recently gained rifle pits in the Bois de Montagne.[i]  After some days spent consolidating their position, orders came down on the 21st from the U.S. IV Corps calling for a raid in the early morning of the 22nd.[ii]

This rather short notice made preparations difficult for the Division’s first real offensive operation. Mon Plaisir Farm was the hastily chosen target, about 800 yards away from the 78th’s position, just inside the Hindenburg Line. The farm was a well-fortified observation point for the Germans, and the raid was to both gather prisoners and destroy the defensive works at the farm.[iii] The 310th Infantry Regiment was to make the raid.

It was past noon on Sept. 21st when runners from the 310th Infantry’s Regimental Headquarters at Thiaucourt arrived summoning the 310th’s battalion commanders. Once the battalion commanders arrived, Col. Babcock outlined the plan for the Third Battalion along with two platoons of the machine gun company, to attack on a 600 yard front.  Engineers were to clear paths through the barbed wire entanglements. A rolling barrage would precede the advance and the battalion would attack from a position 100 yards in front of the Bois de Montagne. During the raid a box barrage would isolate the German defenders by laying down a wall of shellfire to their rear and flanks. [iv] The battalion was to advance 100 yards beyond the farm and hold their position for 20 minutes. During this time, Company C of the 303rd Engineers (78th Division) were to destroy the defensive positions at the farm.[v]

Receiving the orders in midafternoon left little time for a proper reconnaissance. Regimental and battalion operations posts were established; the commander of the engineer company went over the terrain to request the proper supplies needed to clear the wire and destroy the pillboxes of the farm.[vi]

By 9 P.M.  Sept. 21st the Second battalion had moved forward allowing the First battalion to relieve the Third battalion in the front line. At 11 P.M. the 3rd battalion was assembling to the rear of their jumping off position. Midnight found the infantry ready and in position, but the engineers “failed to appear”.[vii] Apparently, there was some delay in reaching the assembly point, most likely due to the hurried nature of the raid. The loss of the engineer support removed half the original intention of the raid: the destruction of the farm’s defensive positions. Despite this, there seems to have been no serious thought of delaying or canceling the raid.

Following the rolling barrage at 1 A.M., the infantry moved up the slope to Mon Plaisir Farm. German flares shot up, calling for defensive artillery fire which began to fall on the First and Second battalions holding the U.S. lines. Companies L and M were in the first wave with company K in support and company I in reserve.[viii] Despite the uncleared barbed wire in their front, in some areas 20 feet wide, the 3rd battalion managed to drive the Germans from the farm buildings by 1:20 A.M., clearing the trenches at bayonet point. The Germans, cut off from aid by the box barrage, were fighting hard but giving ground.

For 20 minutes the Third held their position until the withdrawal signal at 1:40 A.M. It was during the withdrawal that things began to go wrong. German machine guns on the flanks opened fire on the withdrawing infantry. Simultaneously, the German troops hurried to reoccupy the undestroyed defensive positions at Mon Plaisir Farm. This meant the retreating raiders were taking fire from three sides; thus, casualties began to mount. Thanks to the efforts of Sgt. Lawless and Corp. Amling of the attached machine gun company, some of the German machine guns were silenced.[ix]

Sgt. Lawless was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the withdrawal. His citation reads:

“During a raid Sergeant Lawless bayoneted the men at 2 enemy machine guns which were firing upon our raiding party and put several others out of action with hand grenades.”

Casualties were heavy and included Lt. Corey and 29 men missing from the battalion. Sixteen men were killed, five officers and seventy-two enlisted men were wounded.[x] Total casualties for the entire 310th were 191killed and wounded; this included casualties from the German artillery fire.[xi] Lt. Corey died of his wounds in German hands. At least one of the missing men, Cpl. William C. Crouch, was later listed as killed in action, although his body was not recovered.[xii]

The Third battalion brought back between eight and eleven prisoners.[xiii] Members of the experienced 31st Division, they appeared well fed and seemed glad to be out of the war once they had overcome their initial fear of being captured by Americans. A review of their correspondence revealed no unusual conditions on the German home front.[xiv]

Not surprisingly, the division and regimental histories were sure the Third had inflicted heavier casualties than they’d suffered. The raid was praised as being made “with splendid spirit and dash”.[xv] The night of Sept. 23rd, the 310th sent out patrols to find any sign of the missing men, but nothing was found. The regiment assumed they were captured.[xvi]

Overall, the 78th’s first attack had been less than successful: Mon Plaisir Farm was still a formidable defensive position, 191 casualties were suffered and a handful of prisoners were taken.

Much of the fault lies with the IV Corps ordering a raid by largely inexperienced troops to be carried out within 24 hours. By the time the 310th had ordered the raid, there were only a few hours of daylight to plan. No doubt this was a key factor in the failure of Company C 303rd Engineers in reaching the jumping-off position in time. There seems to have been no attempt to delay or cancel the raid, or to adequately protect the flanks of the retreating raiders. The actions of the men in the machine gun company seems to have saved a number of lives, but seems to be attributable to the personal heroism rather than an effective plan to cover the withdrawal.

Despite claims that they gave better than they received, it would appear the more experienced Germans had called in artillery fire and then simply fallen back before the American raid, rushing back to fire on the retiring raiders.

The raid on Mon Plaisir Farm was quickly lost in time as the events of the Meuse Argonne Offensive overshadowed it. But for the draftees of the 310th Infantry, it was an attack they would never forget.

[i]  “Squandered Victory,” James Hallas, page 215-217

[ii] “The 78th Division in the World War,” Thomas Meehan, page 75

[iii] Ibid, page 75

[iv] A History of the 310th  Infantry of the Seventy-Eighth Division U.S.A. 1917-1919, Association of the 310th Infantry New York, page 74

[v] 78th Division Summary of Operations of the World War. page 13

[vi] A History of the 310th., page 75

[vii] Ibid, page 75

[viii] Ibid, page 75

[ix] Ibid, page76

[x] Ibid, page 76

[xi] Ibid, page 227

[xii] New York State Archives Summary of Service Card, William C. Crouch, Rochester,  N.Y.  Cpl Crouch is commemorated by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission on the Tablets of the missing at St. Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiaucourt, France.

[xiii] The History of the 78th, page 75 states 8; The History of the 310th, page 77 states  11.

[xiv] “Squandered Victory,” page 215

[xv] The History of the 78th, page 75

[xvi] A History of the 310th, page 77

ABMC St Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiacourt, France

On the Meuse-Argonne battlefield

The Allies, including the Americans, attacked on the Meuse-Argonne in France on Sept. 26, 1918, and fought on there till the end of the war.

One of the most famous incidents of the battle was the losing of the Lost Battalion (not a battalion and not lost, as Clive Harris, Battle Honours guide, likes to shout).

Here’s a good link about that aspect of the battle.

And here’s the memorial:

Lost Battalion

(OK, this is a serious story of perseverance, etc., but isn’t it amusing that there’s a memorial to the Lost Battalion marked with an arrow?)

Here is the monument to honor the American capture of the high ground at Montfaucon, about six miles from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The monument has 264 steps up to a 360-degree observation platform.

Montfaucon memorial

The memorial towers over the ruins of the church — all that is left of the village.

Ruins at Montfaucon

America loses its first soldiers

The first three Americans fighting for the U.S. who were killed in combat died in a German trench raid Nov. 3, 1917. Corporal James Gresham and Privates Thomas Enright and Merle D. Hay were members of the 1st Division, assigned to a quiet sector in Lorraine, east of Nancy, alongside the French, who were to train them in trench warfare. A patrol of Germans crossed No Man’s Land to get a look at the Americans everyone had heard so much about, and in resulting hand-to-hand fighting, 12 men were taken prisoner and Gresham, Enright and Hay killed.

The French buried them on the battlefield, though their remains were returned home in 1921. The large cross erected Nov. 3, 1918, to honor them was destroyed by the Germans in 1940 and, after WWII, replaced with a solid slab. A poster nearby describes the three young men and the early actions of the U.S. in the war.

American soldiers killed

Poster re Americans who died for France

“The Bonus Army”

An Off-Broadway theater is producing the musical “The Bonus Army,” about the 1932 march on Washington by unemployed WWI veterans and their supporters. Congress had voted the war veterans a cash bonus to be paid in 1945 — that would have been funny timing — and the marchers wanted their bonus certificates paid immediately.

The show was first produced in 1976. Here’s the link:

And here’s a link to a documentary about the Bonus Army, produced by the Disabled American Veterans.

WW1HA 2013 Symposium speakers: Richard F. Hamilton

Richard Hamilton is a professor emeritus in sociology and political science at the Ohio State University. An Army veteran, he has written more than a dozen books, including three WWI books with fellow WW1HA 2013 Symposium speaker Holger Herwig.

“The Origins of World War I,” published by Cambridge University Press, was praised by the Journal of Military History:

Richard F. Hamilton, Holger H. Herwig, and their distinguished team of nine additional contributors prove triumphantly that indeed there is (more to say about the war). Building on a carefully crafted conference held at Ohio State University in 1999, their book focuses on precisely who, within both the major and several of the minor belligerent states of World War I, took the decisions to go to war, and how and why they reached those decisions.”

Here’s the link to his Symposium page:

WW1HA 2013 Symposium speakers: Michael S. Neiberg

Michael Neiberg is a history professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. He is a dynamic and lively speaker as well as an expert. His books include “The Second Battle of the Marne” (Indiana University Press), part of the Twentieth Century Battles series. This battle took place from July 15 to August 9, 1918 —   Ludendorff called Aug. 8, 1918, “the black day of the German Army.” 

Mike Neiberg also wrote “The Eastern Front 1914-1920” and “The Western Front 1914-1916.” His pre-war book, “Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), was reviewed by Jay Winter for the Times Literary Press in these words:

“Neiberg’s story is a sober and chastening one, since it shows how wars take on a life of their own, in that the moral pollution they trigger lingers long after the diplomats have finished with the peace treaties supposedly ending hostilities…”

Here’s the link to his WW1HA Symposium page:



Memorial Day 2013

More than any other modern war ’14-’18 lives in the memory as the ultimate example of a mismatch between what was at stake and the price that was paid. It is the war of the ‘lost generation’, sacrificed for a cause which, in hindsight, is difficult to pinpoint.”

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Belgian historian and Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, quoted on



A salute to Cher Ami

Here’s the telegram that brave little Cher Ami, the passenger pigeon, carried for the Lost Battalion. Maj. Charles Whittlesey sent the message to his commanding officer.

Cher Ami was shot during his flight — his leg later had to be amputated.


And here’s the story of the Lost Battalion and its pigeon soldier:

Over there, over there

The WW1HA is going to the battlefields again in May.

Come with me.

The tour will begin May 25 in Brussels and go to the fortress city of Liege, where brave little Belgium’s army held up the German advance for 12 days at the beginning of the war.

The group will move on to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, to visit the Le Linge battlefield and museum, full of artifacts. More than 2 miles of trenches and fortifications are still in place. On to Hartmannswillerkopf and its incredible views — at nearly 1,000 meters above sea level — and memorials. The American Ambulance Services worked here.

Then to Verdun, the St. Mihiel Salient, Belleau Wood, Le Hamel — where American troops fought alongside Australians on July 4, 1918 — and a full day of exploring around Ypres, concluding with the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

To walk where they walked, to stand on the ground they fought so hard for is incredibly humbling.

To raise a glass to them while chomping frites — the best fries/chips you will ever eat — with the possibility of chocolate croissants for breakfast is incredibly fun.

Come on. I’ll meet you in Brussels and buy you a beer.