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Last Big Push ‘Over There’

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 07, 2018

In November 1918, the eyes of the nation were fixed on a section of France called the Meuse-Argonne, and here American Doughboys were taking part in the final drive to end World War I. For thousands of New Jersey citizens, the focus was on the Army’s 78th Lightning Division, which had trained at Camp Dix, contained many men from the state and was in the forefront of the assault. For Ocean County, a regiment in the Lightning Division, the 311th, was the major point of interest since many of its sons called it home.

On Oct. 25, the Lakewood Citizen published a letter from Fred Wohlfarth, a member of the 311th, describing the situation.

“Dear Mother: Here goes for a letter in the narrative and descriptive style. We are now in a section which was held by the Germans since the beginning of the war. When off duty we have done quite a bit of exploring, and have been able to get a good idea of how things were with the Germans.

“As I said before the Germans had been in possession of this ground for a long time. Consequently, they had things fixed up and fixed up well. The whole area was covered by a well-constructed series of light railways and telephone and telegraph lines.

“Pill boxes of concrete were built at strategical points and even some dugouts were partially made of concrete. The Americans went through the whole area and slammed the deuce out of them with artillery, machine gun fire and bombs.

“The strain is telling on them. A few more pushes and daylight will surely come our way. Everything is most encouraging.”

Capt. Bernard Eberlin of the 311th wrote on Nov. 1, “In accordance with the plan for the general attack as outlined in 78th division … The operation assigned to our Regiment was a pivoting one, the object being to flank BOIS DE BOURGONE, which had been heavily Yperited (mustard gas) by our artillery for the past two days. At the same time combat liaison was to be maintained with the French units on our left. Our Regiment was at the extreme left of this attack, which was undertaken by the entire AMERICAN FIRST ARMY.”

Thomas Meehan was with the 78th Division.

“At one-thirty on the morning of November first, the troops took their positions on the line of departure (to) organize in the wave formation in which they were to jump off – two thin skirmish lines followed by lines of staggered columns. At half past three, the thunder of the artillery began back in the hills and the great circle of the horizon burst into flame. From the ridge south of the Aire Valley came the sharp ‘rat-tat-tat’ of a machine gun barrage.

“The men were eager for the attack when dawn came. Chilled by the long hours of the night they waited impatiently for the signal to advance. A heavy mist hung over the broad plain which stretched ahead of our line of departure and the first advancing waves were soon lost to sight. But this happy concealment was short-lived, and as the last of the staggered columns moved out the mist rose and the sun shone on thin, long lines of bayonets. Immediately the counter-barrage of German 77’s came down in the face of our men, followed by a withering machine gun fire from three sides.”

Eberlin wrote at the end of the day, “The day had been a very profitable one, and will long be remembered by all who participated in this great event. Our objective had been attained despite stern resistance of the enemy, and we commenced to prepare for the next attack.”

The cost had been high, 42 killed and six men gassed. The next day, “it was evident that the enemy was rapidly withdrawing from all forward positions under cover of night … Now that contact with the enemy had been lost, our mission became that of following them in close pursuit and regaining contact wherever possible.”

But it wasn’t over just yet. On the fourth, “LES PETITES ARMOISES which was reached at about 12:30 hours. Again, ours were the first American troops to enter this town, which had been vacated by the enemy only about fifteen minutes prior to our arrival.

“At this point strong enemy opposition was encountered. Machine gun and artillery fire came from direction north-east of the town. The enemy concentrated its machine gun fire into the streets of LES PETITES ARMOISES, and hostile artillery practically put down a heavy barrage on this town and to the south-west, firing heavily also into BRIEULLES-SUR-BAR and vicinity.”

This was the story to be repeated over the next several days – fight, march, and fight again. The thought of trench warfare was in the distance past. Eberlin concluded, “So fast was our chase after the Germans, that we were relieved by the Rainbow Division, their officers complained of the fact that they were compelled to march practically without a rest in order to catch us, and at one time they thought they would never accomplish the relief unless they travelled in motor trucks. When they did catch us, our line was about 1-3/4 kilometers north of TANNY, and we had a total advance of about 24 kilometers since November 1st.”

Then came the big day.

“At 8:00 hours, 11th November, the entire regiment cleared FLORENT and started on another long march. While passing through STE. MENEHOULD we received the official news that the armistice had actually been signed, and when we heard the terms of the armistice, felt that we would not in all probability go into lines again. While this news was very cheerful to us, no celebrations of any sort marked our receipt of it. … It did seem to many men, however that their packs grew somewhat lighter in weight, and the distance marched somewhat shorter than it actually was, but nothing more than a few casual remarks were heard on the subject of the armistice or peace. What we wanted just then was a good rest, plenty of bathing and changes of clothing and equipment.”

Meehan reported from division headquarters.

“On November 11-12-13, the divison was billeted in several small villages radiating from Ste. Menehould. Here they were given bathing facilities and new underclothing was issued. All attention was centered on cleaning up during these three days. Refreshing baths, clean clothes and these few nights peaceful sleep put all hands in high spirits again. Quartered in this quiet farming district, no more annoyed with the sing-song whirr of hostile airplanes, the thunderous crash of shells or the whistling noise of German bullets, all thoughts centered on what was going to be the next move. Indeed, a pleasant relief were these few quiet restful days amid peaceful surroundings. Could it be possible that the war was really ended? Visions of an early voyage home loomed clear in the minds of many.”

A few days after the armistice was announced, Newlyn Parker, who had been listed as missing in action, wrote to his parents in Tuckerton.

“No doubt you will think it strange not hearing from me for so long a time, but if you knew what we have been doing, which I suppose you do by this time you would not wonder at all.

“The 78th has done some of the most wonderful work of the whole war. We were the division that put the fear in the Germans and captured more ground than any other division over here. We captured thirty-one towns in thirty-six hours and pushed the enemy back on their ground. It was in the Argonne forest, and one of the hardest fought battles of the war, also the winning one. We are now out of the lines for good. We were very nearly one month under fire in this battle, and when we (came) out there was not much left of us, and I am certainly thankful I came out with a whole hide, and now that we are through fighting they can cart me back to the old U.S. as soon as they are a mind to.”

While the reaction of those who fought the Great War seemed muted, back home it would be a time to celebrate.

Next Week: Over here!

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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