One hundred years ago today, September 12, 1918, Sergeant First Class Shetler, Unit A, and the rest of the 301st Engineers arrived in the destroyed town of Flirey at about noon. The St. Mihiel Offensive, the first all-American drive of the Great War had begun a few hours earlier just north of Flirey; the front line was only a couple kilometers away when they arrived. By the end of the day, the A.E.F had advanced those lines to 5 km from the town. The fighting in and around Flirey had ended but it was still close. The doughboys would have experienced the sound and pounding of shells being launched over them at retreating Germans just a short distance away. They were also on a main road over which men and supplies were going to the front and dead and wounded soldiers were being brought from that front. They were now, in the war.
On this day in 1918, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under the command of General John J. Pershing launches its first major offensive operation as an independent army during World War I.
The attack began on September 12, 1918, with the advance of Allied tanks across the trenches at Saint-Mihiel, followed closely by the AEF’s infantry troops. Foul weather plagued the offensive as much as the enemy troops, as the trenches filled with water and the fields turned to mud, bogging down many of the tanks. Despite the conditions, the attack proved successful—in part because the German command made the decision to abandon the salient—and greatly lifted the morale and confidence of Pershing’s young army. By September 16, 1918, Saint-Mihiel and the surrounding area were free of German occupation. The American forces immediately shifted further south, to a new offensive near the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River, where they combined with British and French forces to further hammer the Germans, as the Allies moved ever closer to victory in World War I.
Earlier that day in the city of Toul…
We stood before Chaplain Ramsey and received his final blessing and encouragement.
After that solemn moment we entrained on trucks, and were soon underway. Out of the city we rumbled, out into the rolling country: through small towns and villages, those nearer Toul being still inhabited, and showing no scars of war; but as we progressed into the war zone, the civilians became fewer, the jagged walls and shell-torn homes more frequent, till finally we reached the confines of the “Alert” area. The roar of the artillery had become louder all the time, and it was not long before were beyond these hidden monsters, that were so skillfully concealed that their huge spurt of flame was the only clue to their location. Progress now became more difficult for the road was littered with debris, gutted by traffic, torn by shells, and well night impassable with mud. We managed to struggle on however, and soon reached Flirey – or rather what once was Flirey, because at that time Flirey was nothing but a heap of jagged ruins and tottering walls. It had been battered and hammered for four long years, first in the hands of one and then in the hands of the other. The first line trenches of the allies skirted the town a bit north and to the east.
– Our Memoirs: Company A, 301st Engineers
The St. Mihiel offensive went over on the morning of September 12. The 1st Battalion arrived at noon, the 2nd Battalion the following morning and most of our effort as concentrated on the Flirey-Essey road. The men shoveled mud off the roads, threw stone on, pulled artillery through the mud and trucks out of ditches and acted as traffic police. The French carts from C.I.X. No 115 dumped spoonful after spoonful of rock while the Mack trucks, when not stuck in the mud, transferred the ruins of Flirey to the road across No-man’s-land. By continuous effort the road over Flirey hill was opened and kept open until, when relieved toward the end of the month, the road had a base and shoulders such that trucks would not dig themselves in.
– A Short History of the 301st Engineers
The 1st Battalion finally drew into the shelled and battered little village of Flirey, the last town before the “jumping off” trenches of the morning’s attack. Little did any one realize, at the time, the importance of the part of this town was to play in the regiment’s operations. A casual survey of Flirey caused wonder as to how the heaps of ruins could be of value or service. There were no buildings that could be said to be intact. They had all suffered to some extent from the marksmanship of the enemy artillery. At the cross-roads where the companies had alighted and changed pack and rifles for picks and shovels, one building alone remained standing. This was the ruin that later served the Red Cross as a canteen and shelter – where many a cold and exhausted “doughboy” sought rest and comfort and was sent on his way with the well-wishes of a woman’s voice ringing in his ears and a cup of hot cocoa in his stomach. The Red Cross in Flirey later became a warm favorite with the troops in that sector.
The concentration caused by our soldiers and the slowly moving traffic made it immediately necessary to dispatch the companies to various points.
“A” company followed the road toward Essey (to the north), making a hasty reconnaissance and filling some of the worst holes. In a short time it was brought back to Flirey Hill, which presented the greatest obstacle to traffic.
– The Three Hundred and First Engineers – A History 1917-1920