Joseph Hyde Pratt and the Hindenburg Line: Part 2

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

Today's blog post is the second of a two-part series of posts featuring entries from September 28 and 30, 1918, from the war diary of North Carolinian Lt. Col. Joseph Hyde Pratt, commanding officer of the 105th Engineers Regiments. This post covers all of the events of the 105th Engineers, 30th Division, U.S. Army, for September 29-30, 1918, as described by  Pratt in his war diary. The post also features field documents sent to Pratt and other 30th Division commanders as the battlefield was prepared and maintained by the 105th Engineers from September 28-29, 1918.


Diary entry written on September 30, 1918, covering details on September 29-30


Too much to do and too much excitement to write yesterday. Saturday night I was up all night, waiting for reports and giving directions for work. Then again I began to get a little worried about the party laying the tape: Major Cothran, Captain Brooks, Lieutenants Griffin and Taylor. I did not receive the report that it was finished until 4:15 a.m. They finished it, but several were gassed, including Lieutenant Griffin. He was sent to the hospital.

I had to haul a lot of Engineer stores to advance dumps. At 1:00 a.m. there was a knock on the door and a sergeant came in. He stated he had several lorries for the Engineers, that he had been hunting all night for the Engineer Dump. I thought they had been hauling all the evening and now they were reporting to me for instructions. It was not the Sergeant's fault. He started in the right direction for the dump and got within 300 yards of it when he met a Military Police at the railroad crossing, who told him that all the Engineers had moved and none were at the old place, that they had gone to Hervilly. I sent them over to the Roisel dump and the transfer of stores began. By Zero hour the work was done. At 4:15 a.m. I received a report that the taping had been completed, but not without casualties. Lieutenant Griffin and several of his men had been severely gassed and two corporals were missing. Lieutenant Griffin had the northern sector to tape. Major Cothran had the center and Lieutenant Taylor the southern sector. Work in the two latter sectors was interrupted by machine gun fire.


On Sunday morning at Zero hour, 5:50 a.m., the 30th Division went over the tape following one of the heaviest barrages ever put down on the German lines. It was one continuous roar of artillery, from one-pounders to twelve-inch guns, and then followed up by a machine gun barrage. This barrage kept up all day with the exception of about one hour in the p.m. I had five companies at the front, and one, C, in reserve; three companies, D, E, and F, working on the Red and Black roads; A following up the Infantry and testing the water in wells and locating water supplies, examining dugouts to see if they had been mined or were full of gas, searching for mines, and making note of the location of Engineer stores. B Company was with the 117th Regiment, ready to assist them in the consolidation of the new line if necessary.


I was at Division Headquarters (Advance Battle P. C.) and received reports from the battalion commanders every hour. Victory was with us right from the start and the Division reached all its objectives on time, and went through the Hindenburg Line at its supposed strongest point at Bellicourt. The Germans resisted and we had a good many casualties before the day was over, but our men were all game (a little too eager) and determined. "Remember the Lusitania" and "Lusitania" were two of the calls the boys gave. When our men had reached their objective, an Australian Division went through them and pushed on still further.


Unfortunately the 27th Division on our left did not succeed as well. They did not gain their objective, and that left our left flank exposed so that we had to withdraw a little in the northeast corner of our sector and are subjected to a flank artillery fire. It is stated that the front line of the 27th Division was 1,000 yards behind its barrage instead of 100 to 200, which if true would prevent their getting the full benefit of the barrage. When the line passed over the tunnel there was supposed to have been left a detail of sufficient size to clean up the dugouts, other shelters, machine gun nests, etc., but this was not done and a great many of the enemy were left behind. The Germans put down a heavy counter barrage which caused a considerable number of casualties among our Engineer men working on the road.

All of headquarters were delighted at the work of the Division and are proud of the men. I wanted to go forward during the day but I had to be in one place at Division Headquarters in order to receive reports from the companies and to advise with the Commanding General if necessary, and to order any change that might become necessary in the disposition of my troops. German prisoners began to come in about nine o'clock and by the end of the day our troops had taken about 1,200.


My great loss was the death of Captain Bascom Field. He was killed Sunday morning by shrapnel from a high explosive had just started his work on the Black Road. Captain Armstrong and Lieutenant McDonald were wounded. Besides these, there were nine others in the ranks killed, 130 wounded and three reported missing.

Today, Monday, I went as far front as Bellicourt to inspect the work on the Black and Red roads and to see how Company A was getting on with its work. I was going over the battle field, which was still being shelled by the Germans, and we were still having casualties. Dead and wounded were on the field, and it was all a realistic picture of the battlefields I had read about. It was a hard experience to see our men lying dead on the field, and while it was to be expected, it did not ease the pain it caused me. There were also many dead Germans. Dead horses were scattered around and several guns were seen that had been knocked out of commission. There was a good deal of shelling of the area through which we passed, and although it did not bother me as much as formerly, I do not like it and it still keeps my nerves taut. I am still, however, able to control my legs and make them go where I want them to, regardless of how I feel inside.


Near Bellicourt one of the "tanks" had tried to cross a cut in the Black road and had failed. Consequently this road was completely blocked for traffic, and a platoon of F Company had to be sent out that night to repair it. Met a detail of A Company in a trench where they had taken refuge from shell fire. In Bellicourt met Lieutenant Baldwin and another detail of Company A who were locating and testing the water supply. All were doing splendid work. The Hindenburg lines of trenches are each side of a canal, part of which is in a tunnel. This tunnel had been converted by the Germans into a veritable beehive of shelters, and they could house almost a Division in perfect safety. Inlets and outlets to the tunnel were very numerous, so that it is a hard proposition to get it thoroughly mopped up.

We returned to 60th Brigade Headquarters via the Red road. Company E was working on this road and all the men were in good spirits, notwithstanding the fact that the Company had suffered severe casualties and that the road was still being shelled. At one point there was a big crater blown in the road, about forty feet in diameter and twenty feet deep. We were building roads around this crater. From this point toward Hargicourt there was a good deal of shelling on our right, one or two shells making us duck down behind the bank as they exploded. As we neared Hargicourt the shelling came nearer. The Germans were sending over at regular intervals two types of shells in two distinct areas, one that landed on the ridge to our right and gave off a brown smoke or gas, and the other, a high explosive, that landed in front of us at varying distances. There was a difference of three-quarters of a minute between the two shells and of two to two and a half minutes between the same types of shell. We saw several of the high explosive shells fall in Hargicourt near the Red road and decided they were just shelling the town as their usual daily stunt. We kept on drawing nearer to the part of the town being shelled, when they changed the angle slightly and the next high explosive shell was right at us. The shriek of the shell and the explosion were almost instantaneous, but I was flat on the ground hugging the road ditch almost with the explosion, and escaped without a scratch. A few small rocks and dirt fell on me. I saw big rocks going by but fortunately neither they nor the shrapnel hit me. It was a narrow escape and it made me shiver a little. There were six men near by, and not one was hurt.

Colonel Hearn and Captain Sullivan, who were making the trip with me, were about 100 yards back, and they said it looked as though I fell with the explosion of the shell, and they thought I was hit. They were very much relieved to see me get up. There was no time to take a look around as another shell was due in less than two minutes. It was just as safe to go forward on the road as back ward or to one side, as you did not know where they would drop the next one. ' So I spent the next two minutes running through Hargicourt and got beyond the next shell, which fell in a field on the side of the road just in advance of the previous one. After leaving Hargicourt we were not bothered with any more shelling. We found our car waiting for us at 60th Brigade Headquarters. I stopped a few minutes to speak with General Faison. Got back to camp about 4:00 p.m. after a very exciting and interesting trip. Just before dark was notified that the Division would move out to back area for reorganization, and that the Engineers would go into the Herbecourt area.



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.