Joseph Hyde Pratt and the Hindenburg Line: Part 1

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

Joseph Hyde Pratt was a native of Connecticut. He earned a bachelor’s of philosophy degree and a doctorate from Yale University. He moved to North Carolina in 1897 to become the assistant general manager of the Toxaway Company, and to serve as a mineralogist for the North Carolina Geological Survey. From 1899 to 1906, he was field geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Also, in 1902, he was a special agent for the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1906, Pratt was appointed as North Carolina’s state geologist. He was credited with the discovery of several minerals while working in North Carolina.

 

He was also active in the acquisition of land for state and national forests, and in the nascent North Carolina Highway Commission, serving as its secretary for a short period. Pratt was a member of the North Carolina National Guard beginning in 1913. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on July 24, 1917, and was commissioned as a Major of the Army engineers. Pratt was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in November 1917, and assigned to command of the 1st Battalion of the 105th Engineer Regiment, 30th Division, U.S. Army.

 

Pratt assumed command of the 105th Engineers on June 19, 1918, when Col. Harley B. Ferguson was assigned the duties of American Second Corps engineer. The engineers received training from the British until July 10, 1918, when the regiment moved to the Ypres area. Here they trained with the 30th Division until August 17, 1918, when the division relieved a British division in the front lines of the Canal Sector. The 105th spent the next two weeks improving the fortifications, roads, and water supply in the area.

 

On August 31, 1918, the 30th Division launched an attack on the German lines south of Ypres. After temporary assignments with the British First and Third armies, the 30th Division was permanently attached to the British Fourth Army on September 22, 1918, and relieved the Australian Corps in the trenches at Bellicourt, France. A week later, the division attacked and broke through the Hindenburg Line. From October 8 to 19, 1918, the 30th Division and its engineers were engaged in daily attacks that pushed back the German lines.

 

During his time in Europe, Pratt kept a diary in the form of long entries, which he would mail back home to his wife. In his diary, Pratt gives one of the most complete and unique perspectives of the 30th Division’s attack on the Hindenburg Line on September 29, 1918—that of an engineer. Most of his and his regiment’s work was preparing days before the launching of the attack as part of the Battle of St Quentin Canal. 

 

We present for you a two-part series of posts featuring entries from September 28 and 30, 1918, from Pratt’s diary, along with field documents sent to him and other 30th Division commanders as the battlefield was prepared and maintained by the 105th Engineers from September 28-29, 1918. Today's blog post is Pratt's diary entry from September 28, discussing the preparations of the battlefield ahead of the 30th Division's attack the next day.

September 28, 1918, Diary Entry

 

Today has been most exciting and tense. The day before the expected battle. Many times I have read about the feelings of men as they waited for the dawn and the commencement of the battle, tonight I am going through that same sensation. The preliminary of the battle is now going on. The artillery is firing on all sides, getting the range for their guns and testing them out in preparation of the awful barrage they are to put down on the enemy tomorrow morning. The tanks have gone forward to get into line for their part of the battle. The roads have been packed all day with lorries [trucks], wagons, automobiles and troops all going forward to take their part in the coming battle. I have been very busy finishing up my preparations. We really make the first start as we have to mark out the line from which the start is made at zero hour on Z day. Last night a preliminary survey was made and tonight we actually lay the white tape which will guide the infantry and insure their bearing on a straight front.

 

I hope to have read by midnight that the work is accomplished, and without casualties. In the meantime I am waiting amidst the booming of guns, the crash of shells and the [?] noise of bursting bombs, dropped by airplanes. A short time ago (1/2 hour) a plane flew over us and dropped six bombs one after another, they hit and burst near by. The search lights caught up the plane and one of ours attacked it, but it escaped. I presume the planes will keep up their buzz all night, and drop their bombs on us if possible.

 

I have taken every precaution possible to have my part of the battle program ready. I have confidence in my officers and men and believe they will be right on the job at the right time. The marking of the tape is a very particular task, and the final marking will be done by Lieuts. Griffin and Taylor.

 

I was up late last night on work connected with the Battle program and did not get up this morning until 7:10 A.M. Then it has been a continuous hustle all day long. I was working out my battle order and instructions for the regiment. I went in to the Hdq. 1st Bn. at Hervilly for final conference with Maj. Cothran, Capt. Winthrop and Capt. Brooks. It began to rain soon after we started which was favorable to us in connection with our hauling up supplies to our dumps, without being observed by the enemy, but it made the roads very slick and muddy. It is now [?] [?] we are all praying for a clear, sunshine day, tomorrow. On returning to camp had conference with G.3 and C. of S. and was able to report that last nights work was satisfactory.

 

This P.M. we have moved Div. Hdq. to a camp in a quarry, northeast of Roisel [France], at K11C5.6. This location is our Battle Headquarters. We are in huts banked up with earth and sleep in bunks. My office is in the same hut. The Division surgeon also has his office in the same hut and sleeps here. We probably will not sleep very much tonight.

It is now 10:30 P.M. and I am thinking of my men out in front of our trenches, laying the white tape. I should receive word by 1 A.M. that the tape is laid. There it is just a wait until zero hour when the battle begins. While it is my part of a bigger battle extending along nearly the while line, yet to us it is the big think, and our boys will come out victorious or be in the Beyond.

 

To learn more about the role of Joseph Hyde Pratt and the 105th Engineers in WWI, you can read Pratt's original field records and war diaries in the Joseph Hyde Pratt Papers in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.