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War’s End Draws Near

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 31, 2018

The 78th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army was nicknamed “The Lightning Division,” but some people called it “Jersey’s Own.” It was made up of men mainly from New Jersey and New York and had been formed at Camp Dix in August 1917, and trained there until its departure for France in May 1918. Most of Ocean County’s men served in the 311th Regiment of the 78th.

In September 1918 the division played a key role in the largest World War I battle fought by the U.S., known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive. This battle would be the big push to drive the Germans out of France. It wouldn’t be one of trench warfare, but one of attack and counterattack.

Although the information was not published until November 1918, a local man was an early casualty.

“Mrs. Walter Bolton today received a telegram from the War Department at Washington, saying that her son, Byram B. Bolton, was killed in France, in battle, on September 29. Byram Bolton went to Camp Dix on February 26 last, with a good-sized draft. When first at Dix he was in the hospital with rheumatism for some weeks. No details were given in the telegram from the war department, other than the bare announcement of his death. … Byram was well known along the shore and it is with deep regret that this word was received. … It is unofficially reported that in his first battle and the first shell fired at his company caused his death.” Byram is still in France, buried in an American cemetery.

The Tuckerton Beacon tried to keep its readers up to date.

“Mr. and Mrs. James W. Parker received a telegram last week from the Adjutant General at Washington saying that their son, Newlyn K. Parker had been reported missing since September 26. This was indeed undesirable news. He was the first Tuckerton boy to be reported missing.

“Shortly after the arrival of the telegram, Mrs. Fred Shinn, of this place, received a letter from her husband, in which he stated that Newlyn had been located in another Company and was safe. This was indeed encouraging and his friends are rejoicing that he is safe. … Newlyn is in Company K, 311th Infantry, and is helping to keep the Huns on the run.”

Newlyn wrote on Oct. 14, “I believe I am very lucky or that I have a charmed life, for I have seen some of the most terrible shell fire that ever was, and I have learned to be a good ducker; I guess if I hadn’t I would not have been here to tell the tale, sometimes I would have to drop on my stomach every ten yards to keep from being hit with a shell or a machine gun.

“No one back home in the States can ever realize what we boys have had to go through; we have had to make forced marches going day and night, eating whatever we had on the road and that sometimes would be nothing but hardtack and then sleeping along the road or in the woods, and often waking in the morning in a puddle of water for it rains here most of the time.”

Three days later, the 311th was again attacking. Capt. Bernard Eberlin recalled, “The advance was made at the hour ordered, resulting in that the right of our line was advanced to crest of north of CHEVIERES, making a total advance of about 1½ kilometers, and liaison established with 310th Infantry on our right and the 312th Infantry on our left. The attack was made without artillery barrage, but accompanied by harassing fire by our artillery.”

Twelve men were lost that day; 23-year-old Albert K. Haas, from Buffalo, was part of the attack.

“We crossed through the fire at the top of the hill and back to where the (commanding) officer now lay. He had moved forward a few yards. I dropped into a small, shallow hole just in front of him. The hole was too small for me and I had to double up. We were so close that it was possible to carry on a conversation. He directed my attention to a certain point where he said he thought a machine gun nest was located. I looked, but not for a very long time. A series of whistles sent my head below the edge of the hole. Then, for a moment, I thought someone was throwing bottles at me and had hit me, for I became conscious of a dull thud and a stinging sensation that lasted but a second. A man to the left of me let out a yell of pain; one just to the right stiffened up and fell dead. I then became aware of a burning sensation, but because of my position was unable to take an inventory.”

Eventually he discovered, “I came to the conclusion that it was more than a clothing tear. When the fire let up, the commanding officer told me to go back to the dressing station at St. Juvin and get vulcanized. When the fire let up a little I went to the man on my left, but he needed no help. I made my way over the crest of the hill a fourth time and toward the town of Juvin.”

On the way to the rear he witnessed some of the horrors of modern warfare.

“The 156th Infantry brigade was crossing this open area beyond the Aire River. The enemy was shelling it heavily. The men were advancing in open formation. The line stretched for some distance. A whistle of an approaching shell took every man out of sight as they dropped to the ground as one. After the explosion they moved forward again. It was a thrilling sight. At one place along the road, some soldiers had dug little holes. There were six men there, all dead, sitting or lying in life-like positions. There was no sign of any wounds on any of them. They must have reached a point close to absolute fatigue and the concussion of a large exploding shell on the bank over them, probably caused their death.”

Eberlin kept track of the 311th.

“25 October: Considerable resistance was met with from enemy machine guns and snipers. Throughout the remainder of the day and night, this Battalion had small engagements with enemy outposts.”

Twelve men were killed and six men gassed.

“26 October: The enemy now held its line with scattered outposts parallel to our line and about 50 to 100 meters in front. … The enemy counterattacked in the morning and succeeded in forcing our line back about 50 meters from crest of hill, where our line held. Continual encounters with enemy outposts during entire day, but no change in the situation. This Battalion was now re-enforced by three companies of the Second Battalion, and the situation was well in hand at 24 hours.

“During all this preparation, the mysterious symbols of ‘D’ Day and ‘H’ Hour were the only information that was given out as to the moment of ‘jump-off.’ On October 30th, the wail of gas shells from our own artillery told us that the yperite (mustard gas) was beginning its deadly work in the Bois de Bourgogne. All that day and all the next the gas fire continued unceasingly. Nearly forty thousand rounds of yperite shells were fired into certain areas of the Bourgogne Woods, then batteries concentrated destructive fire on certain known enemy positions.”

There wouldn’t be a long wait.

“The night of the 31st word was whispered down the front line that we were going over at five-thirty the next morning. … Great confidence prevailed among the officers and men on the eve if the major was right in his second prophecy, but the picnic was a little delayed.”

Success brought its own problems.

“Rumors of an imminent armistice – rumors which had haunted us almost since we had left St. Mihiel lines – had little weight with the men. One soldier who was told that the war was over, pointed forward to the enemy positions – ‘Over there,’ he replied. Peace seemed very remote to the occupants of the shell-holes on the St. Juvin-Grandpre road. While there was still a German behind a gun they knew that that their job was war.”

As politicians negotiated an armistice, the horrors of World War I would continue.

Next Week: The final 10 days.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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