September 14, 1918 – The first casualties

The 301st Regiment were engineers but they were not immune to the dangers of war.  On this date, 100 years ago, the regiment suffered its first casualties.  Today I am standing on the hill, on the road  where an explosion (described below) occurred.  Its very pretty here but 100 years ago, there was nothing but devastation…..and wounded Americans.

On the afternoon of September 14, Lieutenant A.E. McDonald, Master Engineer Bennett and twelve men of “E” company became the first casualties of the regiment.  It is not clear just what occurred; there was an explosion, and though the air was filled with vibration, which, with the noise of the trucks and the shouts and orders, tended to deaden all other sound, there was no mistaking the cries of men in pain, and when their comrades approached, the wounded were lying or sitting on the side of the road.

On both sides of the road were large quantities of ammunition of all kinds scattered about in the greatest profusion; German stick grenades, aerial bombs, large piles of 155’s, German 77’s, and French 75’s, gas and high explosives; unexploded shells of our own were lying partly exposed or covered with earth in such a way as to be very dangerous to any one inadvertently kicking them.  Although as careful as possible under the circumstances, it was difficult to move about without stepping on some form of ammunition.  This was a constant menace, particularly at night.

Its not improbably that a “dud” or grenade had become embedded in the road, and when working with picks one of the men had struck the fuse; or it could have been a trap such as the enemy had placed about a hundred yards north of this point.  Whatever form of explosive it was, it was capable of high fragmentation, for practically all of the men in the immediate vicinity were struck.

Lieutenant McDonald’s right arm was shattered by a splinter and the rest had suffered wounds of a more serious or minor nature.  The most seriously wounded of all was Master Engineer Bennett.  A fragment had entered each breast in almost identically the same place, on both sides of the body, and, piercing the lungs, had made their way out below the shoulder blades in the back.  He was unconscious when he was dressed and weak from the loss of blood.  A pallor settled upon his face and features that foretold the end long before it came.  There were many willing hands that afternoon which rendered first aid to the men who had met with this unfortunate experience.

It is only when one sees, being carried away, men whom they have known and associated with the better part of their military training victims of the fate of the war, that they realize the real, vital seriousness of the moment.  Any number of wounded had been seen by now, but with a different degree of understanding from that with which the tragedy of that afternoon was viewed.  These were men of our regiment who had been made to suffer.  The cries of pain came from the lips that had known only to joke and laugh before.  They had not even been given a chance to prove that they were worthy of all confidence; they had been stricken down while on their work.

–  The Three Hundred and First Engineers – A History 1917-1920

Master Engineer Michael Bennett died of his wounds at an American hospital near Toul, France on September 25, 11 days after the blast on the Flirey road.  I visited the ‘Bennett Delta’ in Medford, Massachusetts in 2017.  It is a tribute his family built in his memory.

I was able to contact some of Bennett’s relatives who told me he had been an unusually tall man. He was very intelligent and destined for a great life. The blast on this hill 100 years ago today is yet another tragedy of that miserable war.

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