A hundred years ago last weekend, New York National Guard soldiers fought their way into the Hindenburg Line defensive works — an attack that caused heavy casualties.
At a cost of 3,076 men wounded and killed over two days — out of the division's strength of 18,055 — the New Yorkers fought through a maze of German machine gun nests and ...ortified positions and captured the leading edge of the main German defenses.
The 107th Infantry Regiment, the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, had 396 men killed and 753 men wounded out of a total of 1,662 soldiers who began the battle.
But the attack broke open the main German defense in northern France and opened the way for the British army to go on the offense.
By the end of September 1918, most American soldiers in France were part of the First American Army commanded by Gen. John J. Pershing. But the New York National Guard's 27th Division and the 30th Division, made up of National Guard soldiers from several southern states, had been "loaned" to the British Army and fought under British command as the II Corps.
They'd fought their first battle at the end of August, then pulled out of the line to begin training for this major assault.
American divisions were twice the size of British army divisions, and British Field Marshall Douglas Haig knew he needed numbers for this assault.
For this battle the Americans were placed under the command of Australian Gen. John Monash. His plan called for the 27th and 30th divisions to lead the attack. The Americans would take the St. Quentin Canal, then two Australian divisions would follow, leapfrogging through the Americans to finish the assault.
A key feature facing the Americans was a 3.52-mile long tunnel through a mountain in which Germans were using old barges as barracks. They could wait out the artillery and then pour out to counterattack.
The plan called for the Americans to launch a preliminary attack and move up to a set line on Sept. 27. But things did not go as planned.
The British division to the north of the 27th Division did not advance as far as it should have. Americans of the 106th Infantry Regiment, which led the attack, started farther behind than they were supposed to and did not reach the planned start line for the Sept. 29 attack.
Americans were holding the line in locations where Allied artillery should have been falling to allow the 107th Infantry Regiment to attack. In World War I communications were so slow that artillery fire had to be planned well in advance. There was no easy way to adjust fire.
So on the morning of Sept. 29, the Americans would have to move more than a half mile in the open before they caught up with the artillery barrage.
At 5.55 a.m., the attack began. The 107th Infantry Regiment attacked on the left of the 27th Division front while the 108th Infantry Regiment attacked on the right.
Artillery fire fell on the Germans but not the Germans right in front of the National Guardsmen. The tanks that were supposed to provide fire support got knocked out by artillery fire — and in some cases by old British mines. The soldiers were pinned down by German machine gun fire and counterattacks.
For previous stories about America's role in the Great War, see the Times Union's history blog at https://blog.timesunion.com/history.
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Monash blamed the Americans for not sticking to his plan. The Americans, Monash told an Australian war reporter, "sold us a pup. ... They're simply unspeakable."
The confusion on the ground made it impossible for the Australians following the 27th Division to "leapfrog" through the Americans, and Monash directed the Australian units south of the St. Quentin Tunnel, where the 30th Division had better success.
Historians, though, say Monash was unfair to the men of the 27th Division. Because they were not able to start the attack where they should have, their lines were thin and they had to advance farther than they should have.
The fighting continued on Sept. 30, and the Germans began to give way. By Oct. 1, 1918, the Americans and Australians had cleared out the fortifications.
After the war, and outside of the heat of the battle, Monash was generous to the men of the 27th Division. "I have no hesitation in saying that they fought most bravely, and advanced to the assault most fearlessly," he wrote.
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