David L. Hardee's Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne, Part 1

Author: 
1st Lt. David L. Hardee
retyped and edited by Dr. Frank Blazich, Jr.

Editorial note: Dr. Frank Blazich Jr. has worked for years on preserving, research, and writing about the life and military service of American and North Carolina hero Col. David L. Hardee. Hardee is best remembered as a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II, chronicled in a memoir by Hardee that was edited and published by Dr. Blazich as Bataan Survivor: A POW’s Account of Japanese Captivity in World War II.

 

Before he served in WWII, Hardee served in World War I. He was a 2nd Lieutenant serving in the 3rd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from the end of September-November 1918 in France, Hardee would earn his first Silver Star for gallantry, and later promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Hardee would later after WWI type history of his service in the Meuse-Argonne entitled "Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne: Extracts from Letters to the Home Folks," which has never been published. The piece documents the role of the 3rd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. As part of a four-part blog post series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and North Carolinians' roles in it, we are going to publish a transcribed and edited copy of this history for the first time ever, completed by Dr. Blazich, along with his brief biography of Col. Hardee.

 

Dr. Blazich found this WWI account of Hardee's fighting in the Meuse-Argonne while working with Hardee's late daughter researching about his life. The Hardee family then donated it on her behalf to the State Archives of North Carolina. To learn more about David Hardee's life and military career, check out the first blog post of this four part series.

 

Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne: Extracts from Letters to the Home Folks (Pages 1-5)

 

The next morning the regiment was all formed in a hollow square. First came our fighting Colonel who had led us out of the first Argonne and as reward for his valor had been authorized to put on the silver leaf. He addressed himself more particular to the new men telling them of the good work that the regiment had done in Cantigney, Soisons, and the first Argonne, sited cases where men single handed had captured machine guns with their crews of gunners, reviewed the record of the division and boasted that we had never lost a foot of ground we had taken. In short he made a good effort to put into the new men’s heads the things they were up against in coming to an old and war battered outfit, and what they would have to do to live up to the record of the past.

 

Then adroitly and with an easy manner of speech came our new brigade commander. He told about, how in his idle dreams he had hoped for a command in the First Division, but had thought his chances so slim that he had never dared breath his aspirations to G.H.Q. And on the other hand besides being almost overjoyed at his assignment to us he, who had all his military career been an officer of cavalry could learn a great deal from his associations with the doughboys. It all seemed rather frank to the doughboys such straight from the shoulder talk, but those who knew men, and were used to handling them, rather judged him to be born a diplomat and commander.

 

The command “at ease” was given and everyone waited to see what would come next. There was the noise of a motor which came up and stopped in the hedge next to the road. Someone saw three stars, then there was a medley of bugles, a chaos of human voices all giving the same command and the regiment stood stiff as starch for the corps commander.

“At EASE” he commanded as he came into the arena, and then began his speech.

 

“What is all this talk,” asked one of the new men who had just come from the states, and didn’t know yet how to wrap his spiral puttees.

 

“Oh, it’s just the generals usual barrage of two hundred and tens he always puts us through before some of us gets bumped off,” and old veteran replied.

 

“Gentlemen,” he began, and we all wondered if he was commanding an army or running for office. It was such a strange term to use in addressing men under arms.

“It is with a great deal of pleasure and privilege that I address an organization of the First Division. A pleasure because it is the only single combat division that it has ever been my personal privilege to command. It is a privilege to speak to such men because you have won for yourselves the name of being shock troops. The reputation which you have made for yourselves in the last battles of the world war entitles you to a place in history, and the everlasting gratitude of mankind. It has become a habit in the American Expeditionary Forces to assign you to tasks where other divisions failed, and whenever a hard job is to be done you are the men on whose shoulders falls the mantle of Elijah.”      

 

“However in this opposition as you have already so nobly done your part in gaining seven kilometers of ground against the stiffest resistance and best combat divisions of the enemy and are already grim and war worn, it is not my intention to use you unless exceptionally pressed and forced to do so. The enemy is retiring on a vast front extending from the sea to the Swiss border, and this vast operation swings on the Metz Sedan basis line a huge barn door swings on its vast hinges. Once the hinges are cut the whole machine will collapse. We are going to break through this time, cut the hinges, cut off his retirement through the basin and capture more than half of his forces. With the idea in mind that we are going to break through, and we are, we are going to attack echelons two brigades in depth, that is one brigade behind another so that when once the hostile resistance is shattered the advance elements may continue to advance without being in danger of being outflanked. We hope by pursuing these tactics to carry the war back into the enemy territory and thus close the greatest of all wars on the soil where it originated.”

 

“What do you think of that,” one of the new men put in.

 

“Oh, it’s just his usual barrage. Wait till you know him like I do and then you can judge for yourself, but this talk of going in two brigades deep does sound like breaking through,” replied the old veteran.

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Dark that night found us emerging from out cover in the Bois de Parios and in column of twos making our way slowly over the fields, through the woods on little narrow trails, trudging through the mud to take position somewhere, no one asked and those old at the game did not care. For there is one thing the war learns a man. That is never to worry about tomorrow but just take care of today, and the best do well in such times to take care of the present hour. Midnight found us in the middle of the old Hindenburg line, where not even a living thing was left to gaze upon. It took an old shattered bridge over which we had trouble with transportation to remind us that we were human beings so ghastly was the midnight scene. But it lasted only for a few minutes. No man’s land was not very wide there and soon we were again among trees, on good roads and among living things that we had escaped the fury of the Allied Artillery.

 

Morning found us snoring peacefully in a wet foggy woods on the forward side, while on the reverse slope the constant roar of our guns, and the swish-swish-swish of the shells overhead reminded us that this was the day on which the attack was to begin. Yet everyone slept with the calm that they are accustomed to when living a strenuous outdoor life.

 

At nightfall we were formed and off again. The Adjutant had been sent forward during the afternoon to reconnoiter, and as the column started he was called to regimental at the head of the regiment to help handle the troops and guide them on the right road. It was growing very dark, and down went the adjutant and his horse into a muddy, watery ditch, and up again with a sneer and on. If Germans do not stop an American why should a little fall in mud and water?

 

 “Colonel, this is the wrong road if you want to go to the Bois de Romagne,” put in the adjutant, “ I reconnoitered this this afternoon myself.”

 

“Well, how is the road?” asked the Colonel.

 

“Rotten and five kilos further,” replied the adjutant.

 

“Have your battalion counter march, Major. We are on the wrong road. You stay here and see that the other battalions follow and that none of the units get lost or cut off, Lieutenant.

 

“Follow me,” he commanded, as a solution to the problem, and we were off again.

 

“This is a truck road and foot troops are forbidden,” said the adjutant, as we came to a main thoroughfare down which moved transportation motorized and horsed of all description.

 

“We’ll take a chance,” resolved the Colonel, and it was a chance. The odds were all against us for keeping the units of the regiment together, and from getting completely lost, for the trucks, tanks, caissons, and wagons were constantly cutting the column and while the front elements were moving the rear ones were being left behind in the darkness. Once a mounted office was down the road it was next to impossible to work back up it through the surging mass of vehicles. It was almost a case of trust to luck and see how it would come out.

An hour of struggling brought us to the place we were to cross the road and take a less traveled fork leading off to the left in the direction of the woods we were destined for. Here a couple of mounted officers had to act as mounted police and hold up the traffic for a couple of minutes while one platoon rushed a crossing, and then let the traffic for a couple of minutes while one platoon rushed a crossing, and then let the traffic have its way for a few minutes before putting the next one across. The regiments in the brigade had become mixed during the jams, and one can imagine how long it takes to work a brigade across such a space only one platoon every five minutes. All from the regimental commanders down took a hand and worked reliefs, and the wee hours of the morning found the rear units clearing the crossing.

 

Day broke upon us still moving and at the command “Fall out and bivouac,” everyone fell out and it seemed slept all that day and night without stirring. The next morning chow wagons were up, and so was everyone man in the outfit. Another move was eminent, and this time it would be a day move. Why, no one knew. It did seem strange that the nearer we came to the enemy the more open we became with our movements. We were all in the dark as to the happenings of the great struggle except what little we could see of it with our own eyes, and in our world. The only reading matter that reached us for near a week was march orders, and we kept on marching in a sort of zig zag path across the rear of our corps area.  

           

We did not know then as we do now why the hardships were so hard and the march so strenuous. We were going to points in the rear of the line where it seemed that we were most needed, and were being used as a whip to urge on other divisions. If one faltered of failed to take their objectives, rumors have it that they were threatened to be relieved, and their name would be mud. Other rumors have it that it worked like magic on other division staffs.

          

Soon we were off again on the big hard road and in the middle of daylight. It seemed rather queer as the men looked up to their left. The big hill looked natural and then several recognized it at once as Hill 263 that we ourselves had taken away from the Boche about three weeks before. We were just on the other side of it where the Marines had “jumped off” two days before and begun the last phase of the Meuse-Argonne drive.

 

Before us lay Landres-et St. George upon which we had gazed from the top of the hill when it was our front line, and from which we had stood a counter attack. We approached it down a road that had recently been cleared of huge fallen trees, that had been smashed in the twinkling of an eye by direct hits from hundred and fifty-fives and two hundred and tens.

           

It was a peaceful little burg as we marched through it except for American troops and traffic which jammed its road forks and crossings. On the hill a few hundred yards in its rear we approached the boasted Kriemhilde Line on which the American artillery had been laying its recent heavy barrages. The trenches as shallow as they had been were practically demolished, the barbed wire wrecked, and the ground so pitted with shell holes that it was hard to carry a column of twos through it, and at many places the machine gunners had to help the wheels of their narrow carts over the craters. DuPont should have the picture of it for what they advertize as intense dynamiting.

           

Nothing presents a more gruesome aspect than the battlefield for a day or so after. Here were long rows of Huns, there rows of Marines, and in other places rows of Doughboys, with the burial detail still bringing them together to be laid away and marked with the rude cross of wood, emblematic of their return to nature, and the esteem in which all the world holds them. And yet what they had suffered and done was only a part of the price of victory.

           

Then a little further on were the horses and drivers, and destroyed wagons and guns right where they had fallen. Next we came to the batteries on the reverse slope, and as our barrage had gotten the horses they had to leave the guns, many of which were intact. The gentle reader can picture the battlefield the day after according to any comparison in his experience, and no matter how gruesome the comparisons unless he has been there it is nothing like the mental picture drawn. It appears as if the earth itself has belched up the derelicts of hell.

           

It was not far, only three or four kilometers, from Landres-et St. George to Landreville, where we spent the night and took position to attack at daybreak. The little town was just on the outer edge of what had been the barrage zone, and our position was on the side of a gentle open slope with our reach echelons and kitchens in the edge of a narrow woods which separated us from the little village where the regimental P.C. was located.

           

The men took cover in little foxholes already prepared by the Boche and spread shelter halves for another rain was falling, and the continuous carpet of mud was constantly thickening. We had moved from reserve to support, and when we reached the town the front line was less than a kilometer away. The direction of attack was magnetic north, and everything was fixed except the zero hour which was never fixed. We were permitted to sleep well into the morning when the word came that chow had caught up and the cooks and K.P.’s were functioning.

           

All day it seemed that something was happening. Early in the previous night a few rifle shots could be heard, but now a delightful calm reigned throughout the day, except for a constant turmoil of trucks and transportation hurrying to and from the front, and the steady tramp, tramp, tramp of the prisoners coming back headed by a wounded man or an M.P.  Some stopped at the kitchens for a cup of coffee and an officer, map in hand, interviewed a captured Unteroffizier.

           

“Hier,” he pointed “Ich war gebäuden.” Could it be possible that he had been made a prisoner eight or nine kilometers away to the front? Yet that was what he and the map said.

           

Old man rumor is about the strongest man in this man’s army, and he is especially strong among men who for several days had had no newspapers to check up by. He goes around and smites the doughboys on one cheek and then turns and smites him on the other, and accordingly does his morale go up and down. This time it came to us that the Boche were retreating in motor trucks, and the 80th Division had gone over the top after them in motorized machine gun carts. The old man was working good all day as the prisoners poured back.

           

Late in the afternoon an enraged artillery officer finished a conversation on the telephone and snatched it off the wall calling for a signalman to come and wind up the wire and giving orders for his battery to get ready to move.

           

“Where are you going?” someone asked.

           

“Don’t know, and don’t give a damn,” he replied, “just going to push on up the road towards Buzancy. We got here and had the battery all set up to put down a barrage last night, and now the front line has gone off our map.”

           

We woke up about dark to find ourselves, a bunch of muddy, wet, fighting troops, that the night before were in a stone’s throw off the front lines, and now we were almost in the advance section of the S.O.S.   Something would be done and we knew it would be done quick.

           

“Lieutenant, Regimental directs that the battalion commander report at once and that the adjutant have the battalion ready to move out in ten minutes,” said the regimental runner. The adjutant was up from the little goods box which served for a table and astride his horse almost in the twinkling of an eye. One hand held the reins, and the other the cook’s hot cakes dripping with butter and syrup.

           

A few minutes and we were off again, moving or at least trying to move down a narrow road on which four regiments of infantry, three machine gun battalions, two regiments of artillery, and the trains of two divisions were trying to move down all at the same time. It was a good hour that gained us five hundred yards, and the men standing and waiting and waiting in mud in many places up to their shoe tops, and seventy-five pounds of equipment on their backs, were kidding each other along.

           

“What outfit,” one would ask.

           

“Oh! It’s the Y.M.C.A. replacements,” another would reply, and then possibly we would move up a few steps.

           

In the little village of Bayonville just evacuated by the Hun the day before the battalion commander came out of a large house where he had been to consult his map. “We attack at five A.M.” he said almost breathless, “and how we can get the troops up in position in that time is more than I can see. That was brigade P.C. and I heard them reading the order.”

           

The town offered a worse problem, for here several roads converged and troops seemed to be coming down all of them and with their transportation were going in transverse directions. At last the adjutant had worked the battalion through the worst jams at the road crossing, with the exception of the rear company which was likely to be cut off and lost at any minute. Then the battalion came to a sudden and sullen halt. At the head of the column he found the commander in a parley with an M.P.  Here where it was quiet and hardly needed traffic regulation that insistent individual persisted in holding us up.

           

“No, there are orders against double banking,” he continued repeating.

           

By the side of the road was a narrow line of machine gun carts, and to pass them would not jam traffic, but would relieve the crush that was coming from the rear, and would prevent the company behind being lost in the turmoil.

           

“We have to attack at five o’clock,” put in the adjutant, “and we are going through right now.”

           

“See the Lieutenant down at M.P. Headquarters first,” demanded the sentry.

           

This was too much for the blood of a fighting man. The bare suggestion of begging a non-combatant to let him take his troops to the front made his blood boil. It was worst than adding injury to insult, and as smooth as the adjutant was it was here that force once he lost head and temper at the same time.

           

“Damn the M.P. Headquarters!” he shouted, “take my name if you want to, we are going ahead.” He turned in his saddle, gave a sharp command and the battalion trudged on in the mud and through the congested traffic towards their goal.

 

A few minutes before daybreak registered seven kilometers for our night of waiting, laboring, and marching and the command fall out found the men too tired to unroll their packs even if they had been permitted to. A stumble over something in the ditch and a fall into the mud on the road bank established the battalion P.C., where the officers unrolled a shelter half and blanket to find at daybreak that it had been established under a German horse that could not make the hike and was waiting for the burial detail to catch up.

           

We were in position a second time and the zero hour never came. The day passed there in the Bois de Follie where everyone took cover when an enemy plane approached and began to work his machine guns. A patrol went out to the left for a ways and brought in a machine gun and part of a battery that the enemy had failed to notify of their retirement. They did not know until the patrol approached that they were isolated and practically out of the war.

           

The day brought back the officers that had gone on leave from the training area and been recalled. They had been promoted and did not know it. A serious-faced determined captain put on the gold leaves and took command of the battalion.

 

You can read the third part of this blog series on Hardee's Meuse-Argonne Offensive service as "David L. Hardee's Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne, Part 3," through this link for the last of Hardee's 10-page reminiscence of the offensive in October 1918.

 

Resources

 

David L. Hardee Papers, Miscellaneous Military Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.