Mad Dash to Sedan

This photograph shows soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment on their forced march to seize Sedan. The image was probably taken as the men crossed into the 42nd Division’s sector.

As the Americans continued their pursuit of the Germans up the Meuse Valley, Liggett ordered the III Corps to begin crossing the Meuse River on the east flank of the advance. On 2 November, the 5th “Red Diamond” Infantry Division received orders to push patrols across the Meuse and prepare to execute river crossing operations. This order was a result of reports from the U.S. Army Air Service that the Germans east of the Meuse were withdrawing. The 88th Aviation Squadron reported, “The Boche are in full retreat east of the Meuse. All the northbound roads are packed with troops, artillery and trucks.” Eddie Rickenbacker, commander of the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Aero Squadron, also reported, “All the way up the Meuse as far as Stenay I found the same mad rush for the rear. Every road was filled with retreating Heinies.” Liggett intended to interdict this retreat by a river assault crossing at the Meuse and then a vigorous advance toward Montmedy to prevent the German escape. The plan was to have the 5th Division (“Red Diamonds”) cross near Brieulles and then the 90th Division cross to the north of it. Crossing the river here would be no easy endeavor. The 5th’s 10th Brigade would cross near Brieulles, and its 9th Brigade would follow shortly thereafter with a crossing near Clery le Petit.

The terrain, reinforced with German machine gun nests, posed the biggest dilemma. The Meuse River was swollen from the incessant rains and proved a daunting obstacle to navigate when combined with the marshy ground that covered the western bank. In addition to this, the river had a canal beyond its eastern shore, making two water obstacles for the Americans to cross. Although the Meuse River was about five feet deep and not particularly rapid in movement, the canal had steep embankments, was deep, and had a strong current. Jutting up on the eastern side of the river and canal were the Meuse Heights, a series of hills and woods that dominated the area. This meant that any movement along the river below would be under the watchful eyes of the Germans.

Sedan Overview, 6–9 November 1918.

Using the cover of darkness, elements of the 7th Engineers laid a pontoon footbridge across the Meuse River south of Brieulles. The division’s engineers relied on the expertise of Lieutenant Alfred Jacquin. Jacquin was a French engineer attached as a liaison officer to the Americans. Most of the soldiers in the division recognized him by his steel blue uniform and thick black beard. He was drawn to the sound of the guns and could be found involved in every battle. His heroism was so remarkable that the Americans awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for “his fearless reconnaissance under heavy fire.”

Jacquin surveyed the ground to ascertain where the Americans could cross. The heavy rains limited their options, for in some areas there were marshy swamps several hundred meters wide. However, he found two locations near Brieulles and the engineers went to work. The darkness and heavy rain masked the work from German detection. During the construction, soldiers were rowed across to the far bank of the river (but not across the canal). Construction was completed on the pontoon footbridge by dawn on 3 November, and engineers with infantry support rushed across to begin work on crossing the canal. However, the Germans on the hills above saw this and unleashed a wall of fire from a group of machine guns defending the area. Dozens of soldiers were caught in the wide flat area between the river and canal. The only shelter was behind the canal embankment, which was just below the German machine guns. Although the embankment provided protection, the men were trapped and instantly killed if they exposed themselves from its relative safety. The order issued to the Germans here was, “The enemy’s crossing of the Meuse is to be prevented absolutely.”

During the night of 3 November, two more footbridges were constructed near a destroyed bridge, and soldiers rushed across in the early morning darkness, only to be thrown back by a storm of lead. American artillery, mortars, and rifle grenades were fired by the thousands into the German machine gun emplacements without any effect. Dozens of men were still trapped behind the canal’s embankment again on the 4th of November. Finally, as the sun set, a battalion of soldiers stormed across the shattered footbridges or waded across on the ruins of the destroyed bridge and secured the first American foothold across the Meuse River and canal at a cost of twenty killed in action and another forty-eight wounded. The Americans cleared nine German machine guns and two minenwerfers, and captured twenty-one of the enemy. They then pressed the attack and advanced two kilometers as more troops arrived to exploit this penetration. The 10th Brigade was poised to strike into the enemy flank.

Meanwhile, the 9th Brigade crossing near Clery le Petit was held up and driven back by the Germans. The unit’s engineers managed to build a footbridge across the Meuse and the canal. However, German artillery and gunners put up a wall of lead that blunted progress of the lead company of the 60th Regiment endeavoring to cross to the eastern shore. Trapped on the narrow strip of land between the river and canal was company commander Captain Edward Allworth.

Hailing from Battle Ground, Washington, Allworth had studied agriculture, graduating from college in 1916. Less than a year later, he joined tens of thousands of other young men in volunteering for military service when the United States entered the war in April 1917. Now, trapped between the Meuse River and the Meuse Canal, Washington seemed like a different world altogether. Like the other men on the strip on land, he sought cover behind the canal embankment. Scanning the area, Allworth saw half of his company pinned down on the west side of the river, a group with him trapped between the river and canal, and a small portion of his men on the east bank, fearlessly advancing up the slope to assault the German machine gun positions. Upon seeing this, Allworth leapt into action.

Allworth fearlessly mounted the embankment behind which he and his men had sought safety. Standing in the open and fully exposed to the enemy, he called for the men to follow him across the canal. With German machine gun bullets spraying around him, Allworth jumped into the canal and swam across to the east bank. Seeing this, the remainder of the men followed his lead and likewise swam across the canal to join him and the lead elements of the company in the assault against the enemy machine guns. Allworth led the men forward, clearing a series of German machine gun nests, capturing one hundred prisoners, and advancing the unit a kilometer deep into the enemy lines. Thanks to his personal bravery and initiative, Allworth saved the unit’s bridgehead and dislodged the enemy defenses in the area. For this action he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The 5th Division continued its northeasterly advance up and across the Meuse Heights in the face of determined German rearguard actions. The 90th Division attacked across the Meuse on 9 November in support of the 5th’s left flank. Meanwhile, the I Corps, far to the west, continued its pursuit of the withdrawing German Fifth Army. The 42nd Division was back in action late on 4 November and occupied the westernmost part of the U.S. First Army. The 42nd advanced brilliantly northward toward the Meuse River and the highly coveted city of Sedan. Major General Charles Dudley Rhodes had successfully commanded the division since December 1917. However, in early November Rhodes was injured in an airplane crash and delegated temporary command of the 42nd to Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur had earned quite a reputation as the 84th Brigade commander. He was always at the front, readily identifiable to his men by the slouch cap that he wore in lieu of a helmet. He also refused to wear a gas mask or a sidearm, and usually carried his characteristic riding crop. He reasoned that he did not require a weapon as it was his job to direct others in combat. During the waning days of the war, the 42nd delivered results. The division kept effective liaison with the French 40th Division, of the French Fourth Army, to its west as it advanced to the Meuse, anticipating an assault river crossing near Sedan. To the right of the 42nd was the veteran 77th Liberty Division, likewise advancing toward the Meuse in good form. It would arrive on the banks of that formidable river on 6 November. Major General Dickman, the I Corps commander, was satisfied with the progress his organization had made over the past week. However, this prevented any hopes of an American advance against Sedan.

Key Events, 6–9 November 1918.

Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett, the First Army commander, wrote of the hysteria surrounding Sedan:

After Paris, Sedan was the best known, almost the only familiar geographical name in France to the average American officer. It happened too to be a division point on the all-important railroad for which we were driving…. Sedan became a sort of fetish. “On to Sedan” replaced “On to Berlin” as a shibboleth, and even the cooks talked knowingly of Sedan…. The magic name Sedan drove the First Corps faster and the night of the eighth, the Rainbow Division captured … [the] heights [commanding Sedan from the south], blasted the railroad apart with its artillery and caught the enemy with all four tracks blocked with long trains of supplies of every description.

As the I Corps’ 42nd and 77th Divisions advanced to the Meuse, General Pershing let it be known in his headquarters on 6 November to General Fox Conner, the AEF chief of operations, that it was his desire that the Americans should liberate Sedan. Colonel George C. Marshall was a bit flabbergasted by this and said, “Am I expected to believe that this is General Pershing’s order, when I know damn well you came to this conclusion during our conversation?” Conner answered, “That is the order of the Commander in Chief, which I am authorized to issue in his name. Now get it out as quickly as possible.” Upon hearing this, Colonel Marshall drafted up an order that triggered one of the greatest catastrophes of the war. To compound matters, Brigadier General Hugh Drum, the First Army chief of staff, added, “Boundaries will not be considered binding” to the memorandum. This would make a confusing order even more so. The memorandum was addressed to the I and V Corps and stated:

Memorandum for the Commanding Generals, I Corps, V Corps.

Subject: Message from the Commander-in-Chief.

  1. General Pershing desires that the honor of entering Sedan should fall to the First American Army. He has every confidence that the troops of the I Corps, assisted by the 5th Corps, will enable him to realize this desire.
  2. In transmitting the foregoing message, your attention is invited to the favorable opportunity now existing for pressing our advantage throughout the night. Boundaries will not be considered binding.

By command of Lieutenant General Liggett

Official:

G.C. Marshal

A.C. of S., G3

With this memorandum in hand, Summerall, the V Corps commander, rushed to meet with the commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Brigadier General Frank Parker. Parker had recently taken command of the division. The Big Red One was making excellent progress toward the Meuse and would be on its southern bank by the next day. However, Summerall arrived and said to Parker, “I expect [you] to be in Sedan the next morning.” Parker replied, “I understand Sir. I will now give my orders.” With that Summerall departed Parker’s headquarters, leaving him with the French liaison officer poring over maps of the region. Summerall assumed that the 1st Infantry Division would cross the Meuse in its sector and then wheel toward Sedan north of the river. However, at that moment, the I Corps, together with the French Army, was better positioned to liberate Sedan. Summerall created an environment for disaster when he told Parker to be in Sedan the next morning but provided no further guidance on how it should be accomplished.

There was a strange partiality for the 1st Infantry Division in portions of the AEF. The unit was the first American force in France, the first to see combat in France, and naturally was one of the AEF’s best divisions. There was a natural bias for the 1st Infantry Division. Pershing favored the Big Red One for its superb performance, and Summerall, as a former commander of the division, made his wishes known to Parker to advance the division into Sedan.

However, instead of crossing the Meuse River, as Summerall assumed would occur, Brigadier General Parker irrationally decided to move a brigade from his division laterally out of his V Corps zone of action and across the entire width of the I Corps. This meant that Parker’s men would move across and through the 77th and 42nd Divisions. Parker planned then to continue this lateral western movement into the French Fourth Army’s sector (in the French 40th Division’s area of operations) and pivot north to attack Sedan from the south. This was an amateurish and dangerous move that led to a disaster for the U.S. First Army and embarrassment for the French.

Parker focused on the “Boundaries will not be considered binding” portion of the order and surmised that it would be easier and faster to move against Sedan by traversing across the I Corps and striking the city from the south. However, crossing unit boundaries is a labor-intensive effort and requires deconfliction, coordination, thorough planning, and liaison. Even one hundred years later, with sophisticated communications and a century of experience, crossing into another unit’s area in the midst of combat operations with a large force is not an easy endeavor.

These unit boundaries are assigned to commanders and serve as control measures that define which part of the geography is their battlespace. Within the designated zones assigned to them, unit commanders literally own that area. They determine where, when, and how to synchronize the forces and fires assigned to them. These include both applying lethal kinetic fires against an adversary and maneuvering one’s own forces. Unit boundaries also serve to prevent fratricide (friendly fire). The chances of “blue on blue” fighting are significantly reduced when soldiers know the limits of their area of operations. The boundaries also are designed to protect neighboring units. To engage enemy targets across boundaries requires clearance from the commander who owns that battlespace. This is designed to protect that commander’s forces from mistakenly being fired upon by friendly units outside of the area of operations.

The situation on 6 November 1918 was intense for the AEF. Both the I and V Corps were directed to seize Sedan. This order circulated quickly through the units, with Father Duffy of the 42nd Division writing, “At 10:30 on the evening of the 6th, there came a most extraordinary order … that it was imperative that Sedan should be captured before the end of the next day.”

 

Mad Dash to Sedan, 6–9 November 1918.

General Dickman, commanding the I Corps, checked in with his two divisions in combat, the 42nd and 77th, and was satisfied with their plans to clear their zones of Germans and then to prepare for river crossing operations southeast of Sedan. The 77th Liberty Division was already on the banks of the Meuse on 6 November and planned on clearing the rest of its area of operations of Germans that day while making preparations to continue the attack across the river. Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur planned on finishing his division’s advance to the Meuse on 7 November and likewise preparing for crossing.

As the 42nd and 77th Divisions advanced to the Meuse River, Father Duffy wrote, “Meanwhile events were happening which made the order to advance without ceasing seem more extraordinary. Elements of the 1st Division appeared on our flank and rear [claiming their right to occupy 42nd Division territory].” Indeed, the 1st Infantry Division marched out of its V Corps sector and laterally across the entire front of the 77th Division. All forward moment of the 77th ground to a halt as the 1st Infantry seized the roads and blocked forward movement of the Liberty Division. To compound matters, officers of the 1st Infantry Division took command of groups of 77th Division soldiers, disrupting command and control and degrading the capacity of the division to complete its mission. The Big Red One seized the roads and intersections that the 77th needed to continue its attack. An eyewitness from the 77th wrote, “Mounted generals and staff officers, meeting platoons of [77th and 42nd Division] infantry on the march, would order them on new missions, of which their company or battalion commanders would never hear for days…. Everywhere there was haste, exhaustion and a growing disorganization.”

Captain W. Kerr Rainsford, a company commander in the 77th’s 307th Infantry Regiment, watched as the 1st Infantry ground the 77th to a halt, but was horrified by what happened when it began crossing into the 42nd Division’s sector. It took the 1st Infantry a greater part of the day to cut across the 77th’s sector, and darkness was settling in when it reached the 42nd’s area of operation. Soldiers guarding the flanks of the 42nd Division opened fire on this force, believing it to be a German counterattack. American soldiers were exchanging fire at points along the line. Rainsford wrote, “A part of the 1st Division … crossed the sector of the 77th Division, and in the darkness had become engaged with part of the 42nd.”

MacArthur could not believe what was happening and wrote that this “precipitated what narrowly missed being one of the great tragedies of American history…. the stage was set for tragic consequences.” Early in the morning, reports arrived at MacArthur’s headquarters that the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Brigade was moving across his front. He quickly rushed to the front to ascertain what was transpiring and to prevent his own troops from engaging the 1st Infantry. MacArthur found several 1st Infantry Division staff officers, who showed him their orders from Parker. MacArthur ordered them to turn their troops around before a catastrophe occurred, and then MacArthur rushed forward in his car with his aide to alert his units that the 1st Infantry Division was in the area and not to confuse them for Germans in the darkness.

During this episode a myth emerged that, upon seeing MacArthur with his nonregulation hat, 1st Infantry soldiers confused him for a German general and captured him. The morning of 7 November, MacArthur was at the front trying to prevent fratricide and to get the 1st Infantry out of his area of operations. While at the front, a 1st Infantry patrol appeared under Lieutenant Black. MacArthur said, “He recognized me at once and told me that the troops … were the leading battalion of the 16th Infantry under the command of Colonel W. E. Harrell.” Harrell was a personal friend and West Point classmate of MacArthur’s. MacArthur directed Lieutenant Black to stop the men, report directly to Harrell, and explain to him the danger of crossing his men in front of the 42nd Division. At this point, MacArthur noticed that one of the 1st Infantry Division soldiers was looking at him oddly and thought that the soldier envied the Camel cigarette that he was smoking. MacArthur offered him a pack of cigarettes, and as the soldier lit one to smoke, he said, “I was thinking, if you had just bin a Boche general, ’stead of an American one we would all of us got the D.S.C.” MacArthur said that he laughed at that comment and replied, “If you don’t get a medal in any event you do get a package of cigarettes.” The soldier answered, “To tell the truth sir, I would rather have the cigarettes than a medal.” The general and soldier laughed and parted ways. He was never detained or molested by the 1st Infantry Division, and the long-perpetuated tale of his capture is a matter of not letting the facts gets in the way of a good story. Quite the contrary was true; MacArthur prevented a tragic outcome from the 1st Division’s escapades. As an interesting aside, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division’s 26th Regiment then advancing through MacArthur’s divisional sector was Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the famous president. Roosevelt was at the vanguard of the 1st Infantry Division and crossed the 42nd sector. He then advanced into the French Fourth Army’s area of operations, crossed the Bar River, and advanced toward Sedan from the south. It looked like the Big Red One would indeed have the honor of liberating this symbolic city. Roosevelt wrote of the dash to liberate Sedan:

All night long the men plowed like mud-caked specters through the dark, some staggering as they walked…. Everyone had reached the last stages of exhaustion. Captain [Eugene] Dye, a corking good officer, fainted on the march, lay unconscious in the mud for an hour, came to, and joined his company before the morning attack. Major [Lyman] Frazier, while riding at the head of his battalion, fell asleep on his horse and rolled off. As I rode up and down the column I watched the men. Most of them were so tired that they said but little. Occasionally, however, I would run into some of the old men, laughing and joking as usual. I remember hearing a sergeant…. “What is it, sergeant, aren’t you getting enough exercise?” I said to him, “Exercise, is it, sir? It’s not the exercise I’m worried with, but I do be afraid that them Germans are better runners than we are! Faith, to get them is like trying to catch a flea under your thumb.”

In the morning we passed through a French unit at Omicourt and started our attack. By afternoon we were on the heights overlooking Sedan, where word reached us to halt our attack. Shortly after we were told to withdraw, turning over to the French. We found later that it was considered wise that the French should take Sedan on account of the large sentimental value attached to it because of the German victory there in the war of 1870.

Meanwhile, the phones were ringing off of the hook at Liggett’s army headquarters, at Dickman’s I Corps, and at the AEF headquarters. Liggett said that the first he had heard of the 1st Infantry’s march to glory was when the French Fourth Army called him to complain that the American Division was in its area of operations and impeding its progress toward Sedan. Liggett told the French that they must be mistaken and then mounted his car and traveled to the I and V Corps headquarters “as fast as I could travel.” “This was the only occasion in the war when I lost my temper completely…. The movement had thrown the First Corps front and the adjoining French front into such confusion that had the enemy chosen to counter attack … a catastrophe might have resulted.” The I Corps commander, General Dickman, was indignant and called the whole situation an “atrocity.”

Summerall, whose personal order to Parker the day before had created the crisis, did not learn of the details of it until the morning of 7 November. Only then did he try to stop the westward march, but it was too late to recall the troops, and it would take time to have messengers reach the lead elements. Instead of taking responsibility for the event, he instead placed blame on Marshal and others. Those in the First Army’s headquarters who read Summerall’s defense of his unit’s actions said that it “was a lame affair, throwing the burden onto the memorandum.” Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Huebner, who commander the 1st Infantry Division’s 28th Regiment, and who participated in this push across the I Corps to march upon Sedan, said, “Someone was glory hunting. An army officer is dangerous when he begins to be a glory hunter.” In this case, the glory hunting was largely by Parker, encouraged on by his corps commander, Summerall. Neither would pay the price for this folly, but those under their command suffered the consequences.

Summerall wrote that “in this operation, the division had lost 2 officers, and 127 men killed, 5 officers and 218 men wounded and 2 missing.” He did not specify how many of these casualties resulted from the clash with the 42nd during the early morning firefight of 7 November. Fratricide was rarely discussed by the U.S. Army and usually was covered up during and after the war. General officers’ memoirs took considerable pains to avoid the subject. At least some of the 354 casualties suffered by the 1st Infantry’s march to glory were a result of fratricide. Liggett’s aide-de-camp confided in his diary that indeed “a clash had taken place between the 1st and 42nd.” There were simply not enough German forces on the south bank of the Meuse to have inflicted that many casualties, and the advance of the 42nd on the heights south of Sedan the day before had forced most German units in the area to withdraw completely from the south bank. The irony is that this episode stopped a U.S. Army corps-level advance and disrupted the right flank of the French Fourth Army. The 1st Infantry did far more damage than the Germans could have this late in the war. Had any other division committed such a blunder, there would have been hell to pay. But this was the 1st Division, Pershing’s own, and he would not punish the men, saying, “Under normal circumstances the action of the officer or officers responsible for this movement of the 1st Division directly across the zones of action of two other divisions could not have been overlooked, but the splendid record of that unit and the approach of the end of hostilities suggested leniency.”

The French called the AEF headquarters to demand that the Americans withdraw from their front. Not only did Colonel Marshall have to answer questions from the French Fourth Army, but also the Group of Armies Center (Maistre) and Pétain’s G3. The 1st Infantry’s march single-handedly stopped the advance of an entire American corps and nearly triggered an international breach between the AEF and the French command. Teddy Roosevelt’s men were literally advancing into the southern outskirts of Sedan when a messenger arrived ordering them to withdraw. Neither the 42nd nor the 77th would liberate Sedan, as the 1st Division broke up their preparation to conduct large unit river-crossing operations.

Although taken aback by the 1st Infantry’s violation of their front, the French were magnanimous about the whole affair. Instead of rushing ahead and taking the glory for themselves, the French 40th Division asked MacArthur to detach a company of Americans to share the glory of liberating the city. MacArthur detached Company D, 166th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Captain Russell Baker to join the French in taking Sedan. Sedan was liberated the next day, 9 November, by both the French and American armies.

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