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