Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Six
Monday, July 28th, 1919.
This morning, we went all over the scene of the Chateau Thierry and Belleau Woods operations. There were very heavy American losses all through here. In some divisions the losses in three days were as heavy as the losses in the same divisions in three weeks, some months later in the Muese-Argonne. Even allowing for the weakened German morale during the latter operations, this means that the losses at Chateau Thierry were excessive and due largely to lack of experience. There is a large American Cemetery near Belleau Woods. French and German cemeteries are found everywhere.

The town of Chateau Thierry is divided into two parts by the Marne River. Both the stone bridge and the railway bridge were destroyed and later repaired. On the north side of the city is located the Hotel de Ville, in the tower of which is a clock. At the centre of the clock can be noticed a hole through which the Germans fired a machine gun on anything moving on the main road,, running through the south side of the city.

The entire city was occupied by the Germans in early September, 1914, but they were driven out of it that month in the first Battle of the Marne. The north half was again occupied by the Germans in May, 1918, but they were unable to get into the south half. The northern half did not suffer much from hostile bombardment, as the Germans occupied it in 1918 without much opposition. While the enemy held it, the Allies did not shell it. At the time that the French re-occupied the northern half on July 21, 1918, there was very little fighting, as the Germans were then evacuating the whole of the Chateau-Thierry salient on account of the French-American successes near Soissons.

From the top of the railroad bridge over the main highway at Vaux can be seen the roofs of the buildings of Le Thoilet, about two and one-half kilometers to the west, which mark the extreme advance of the Germans towards Paris in May and June, 1918.

Belleau Woods have an extent of about two kilometers by one kilometer.

The Germans considered them very important as a point of departure for their troops, in ease of a now attack, and occupied them very strongly. The system of defense used was to cover the approaches with machine guns and to have these machine guns covered by other machine guns in rear, so that, when the first line of guns was destroyed, the second line would come into operation.

In the Bois du Chatelet, which lies east of the road about two kilometers north of Bezuet, was located the emplacement of a very large gun intended to be fired on Paris. The emplacement was not finished in time to be used there.

Reims is the largest city we have seen. It is being rapidly rebuilt; quite a contrast to the Meuse Valley where the people are still rather helpless . The people through here are better looking, though the country has suffered just as much, Our route crossed that of the Cadet Special here.

Five of us motored over to Epernay for a good dinner, the first decent meal I have had since leaving Paris last Monday night, Our meals on the train are fair and cost only eleven francs a day, but we welcomed a change to a twenty francs a meal diet,

The Y. M. C. A. had a dance here but we know the Cadets would monopolize the seventeen American girls available. We stopped in on our way back from Epernay and I found a girl I had met in Houston, Texas, several years ago. What the Secretary of War called "an honest to goodness American girl" certainly looked good after a weak of devastation and desolation.

Chateau-Thierry Operations.

As the Marines have given such notoriety to the Chateau-Thierry operations, I shall attempt to give a hasty summary of the operations there. The third German offensive of 1918, which started on May 27th in the Chemin des Dames, had, early in June, established the enemy in the salient of which Chateau-Thierry was the southern point, There was every prospect that the advance would continue when those phases of the operations, with which the American forces were so vitally concerned, started.

The opening of the first phase (June 1-4) saw the 2nd Division (two regiments of Marines formed part of the Infantry contingent of this division) sent into the line against the advancing Germans. These troops had been training in a reserve area north of Paris after their two months' tour in the quiet Toul-Troyon Sector, when, on May 30th, orders reached them to move with all possible speed to Meaux. It was clear that this unit was to be sent to help stop the Germans who, by that time, had taken Fere-en-Tardenois in their
rapid march on Paris. The movement began early in the morning of May 31st, when the infantry of the division was placed in trucks and started for Meaux. The division finally took up a position across the main Paris-Chateau-Thierry road at Le Thoilet. On June 3rd, the enemy made a strong attack on the French and American positions but was unable to advance.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Division in training in an area southwest of Chaumont, on May 30th, received orders placing it under the orders of the Commanding General of the Group of French Armies of the North. This division was immediately ordered to move with all haste to the vicinity of Conde-en-Brie. Its infantry began to arrive in the vicinity of Chateau-Thierry on June 1st. The withdrawal of the French troops across the Marne in Chateau-Thierry was made under the protection of the fire of the 7th Machine Gun Battalion of this division located on the south bank of the river. The gunners were kept on duty for seventy-two hours without getting any rest. When the French troops had all crossed to the south side, the stone bridge near the centre of the city was destroyed by them. The other bridge (railroad) was blown up by the French on June 7th.

The beginning of the second phase (June 5- July 14) found the Germans occupying the north bank of the Marne east of Chateau-Thierry. Heavy attacks  and counter-attacks resulted in little change in the relative positions until June 25th, when the Marines finally drove the enemy out of Belleau Woods following a very efficient artillery preparation. On July 1st, by a combined operation, Vaux and the Bois de la Roche were taken, and were held the next day against a determined counter-attacks.

On July 4th, the 26th Division moved into the Chateau-Thierry Sector and took up a position about two miles behind the 2nd Division in anticipation of the German attack which was expected early in July. On July 10th, the 26th Division changed places with the 2nd Division. About June 24th, the 3rd Division was brought together and given the south bank of the Marne. Their operations consisted of raids across the river to get prisoners and information.

The third phase (July 15-17) includes the big German attack of July 14-15, which extended from Chateau-Thierry to Ville-sur-Tourbe, except directly in front of Reims. The German General Staff knew that the daily arrival of additional Americans would soon give the Allies a numerical superiority and that their best chance to win was to defeat the French and British decisively before America could make her efforts felt. General Fouraud had accurate information of the proposed attack. By a clever plan, called the system of elastic defense, he was able to inflict heavy losses on the Germans without losing any appreciable ground. The 42nd (Rainbow) Division formed part of General Gouraud's 4th French Army, whose right flank rested on Ville-sur-Tourbe.

The 28th Division, which had been in training south of the Marne near Chateau-Thierry, was turned over to the 38th French Corps and placed in support positions behind the 3rd Division on July 14th. Daring this phase, the 4th Division occupied support positions west of the Ourcq River.

The fourth phase (July 18th - August 5th) is best described as the Marne-Aisne Offensive, which met and repulsed the 5th and last German Offensive. Through his service of information, the Allied Commander-in-Chief learned that the Germans were holding the line from the Aisne to Chateau Thierry with only eleven divisions. In a desperate effort to concentrate every available man for his offensive between Chateau-Thierry and Ville-sur-Tourbe, the enemy had massed his manoeuvre divisions back of this line, Marshall Foch had also learned that the German attack would commence at midnight of July 14-15.

To meet this situation he planned to leave south of the Marne only enough allied troops to hold the German attack and to concentrate his other available forces between Chateau-Thierry and Soissons. He planned to make an attack along this line as soon as the Germans had committed their troops to the carrying out of their own plans. The Allied plan was to cut the main road and the railroad running from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry, thus practically cutting off the principal means of supplies of the Germans in the salient.

The above account of the strategy employed by Marshall Foch will aid in giving a picture of the subsequent operations. The attack was to be a surprise. Marshall Foch was able to concentrate twenty French and American divisions for this operation. There was no artillery preparation, but, when the infantry went over at 4:45 A.M., July 18th, the Allied artillery opened an every known enemy gun position. Everything went off as planned.

I shall not give the operations in detail, other than to enumerate the additional American divisions involved. The 1st Division arrived from Cantigny on July 17th and took its place early that night southwest of Soissons now St. Pierre l'Aigle. By July 21st it had made substantial gains, had suffered terrific losses, and was relieved by a Scotch Division. At the end of the operation, the 26th Infantry of the let Division was commanded by a Captain of less than two years' experience.

The 4th Division, after having its subsidiary units brigaded with other American and also French troops, began relieving the 42nd Division and was, on August 11-12, itself relieved by the 77th Division, which, prior to August  4th, had held a quiet sector in Lorraine. On July 30th the 28th Division was relieved by the 32nd Division near Cierges. The 32nd Division, previous to our offensive of July 18th, had been in a quiet sector not far from the Swiss border. It was, in turn, relieved by the 28th Division on August 7-8.

By August 5th, the Germans had all been driven to the north side of the Vesle. During August. numerous attempts were made to drive them across the plateau north of the Vesle, but without success. About September 4th the enemy was forced to retire towards the Aisne on account of the Allied attacks north of Soissons.

Tuesday, July 28th, 1919.
Soissons was first occupied by the Germans early in September, 1914 and was evacuated by them about ten days later, following the First Battle of the Marne. It was again occupied by them on May 30, 1918 and again evacuated by them about August 1,1918, following the Allied Counter-offensive. In their retreat, following the First Battle of the Marne, the Germans established themselves on the row of hills north of the village of Crony. The French held the town and had a footing on the high ground north of it until January, 1915, when the Germans drove them back to the south side of the Asine. From that time to early in 1917, the Germans had the north side of the river and the French the south side. This proximity accounts for the destruction of the city.

After visiting some operations near Soissons, we motored all over the country, visiting Laon, La Fare, St. Quentin, Chauny, Coucy, and back here. Most of the roads were very good, but the entire country has been devastated and remains a mass of shell holes, old trenches, and wire. Here and there fields are being cultivated again. All roads are bordered by beautiful tall, graceful poplars, but for miles they have been cut down.

About a kilometer north of Crouy, we passed numerous German dugouts along the roadside. Following the Allied offensive of 1916 along the Some River, the Germans, in March 1917, began retiring to the Hindenburg line which is here about seven kilometers northeast of Soissons. By May 5, 1917, the Germans had been driven back to a line which lay roughly about two kilometers south of the Chemin des Dames.

Reims, Soissons, Laon, La Fare, St. Quentin, and dozens of intermediate towns have been completely wrecked. Some towns can scarcely be found at all. All town sites are plainly marked by big wooden signs at the main crossroads. If any ruins remain, the first wall bears the name of the town in big painted letters. With a good map, therefore, it is easy to motor anywhere without getting lost.

All along the "Chemin des Dames" the fighting was particularly heavy and not a foot of ground remains undisturbed; yet poppies, daisies, and a purple flower are now growing thickly all around, giving a decided red, white and blue effect on the brown earth.

 We visited the 70-mile gun position in the St. Gobain woods, but nothing much remains except the concrete pit and part of the gun platform. Back (southwest) of Soissons is another American Cemetery.  About 500 yards east of the railroad station at Vierzy, we saw an immense underground quarry, in which an entire regiment of our troops lived in perfect security for some time. A small French quarry shelter some distance away and almost on the front line contained a piano,

On the open ground around Croix de Fer the German artillery succeeded in getting direct hits on about twelve Allied tanks and wrecked them the morning of the attack.

The German lines passed about two miles from the Cathedral of Reims until October, 1918. The city was continually bombarded by the Germans. Reims was occupied by the Germans for several days at the beginning of the war, but was evacuated following the First Battle of the Marne. The Reim Cathedral has been terribly damaged. It is still beautiful and much of the best glass has been saved. The building can be restored, but the stone carving is damaged beyond repair. Most of the damage to the stonework was done by fire, the enemy's shells having set fire to masses of straw and mattresses within the cathedral. The Cathedral here (Soissons) was much less elaborate and is about as badly damaged. Another lesser cathedral was completely shot away except the two towers and the front façade. St. Quentin was a big city, too, and suffered as badly as Reims.

The children here are not so pathetic nor distressed looking as farther east. Everyone seems more prosperous, or rather less discouragingly ruined.

In a year or two, when living conditions become again normal, I want to come back to France with a congenial companion and an automobile and spend about three months motoring. It should be simply enchanting. As it is, we are having a wonderful trip. Carrying our own supplies, we are independent of the local people. In fact, we have to carry supplies, as not even bread can be obtained in sufficient quantities from the French. Except for some of the Boche prisoner broad we succeeded in buying at Verdun, all our supplies come out from Paris.

Tonight our train moves to Amiens.

Wednesday, July 30, 1919.
This morning the Knights of Columbus gave us each a consignment of chocolate, chewing gum, peppermint, and gum drops. Then we fell into the hands of the British Army and had champagne cocktails before our long day's motor trips We got back to our train at 7:45 P.M. As we have breakfast at 6:30 A.M. It was quite a day. Four Royal Engineer Officers are taking us all over the Somme Operations. It was the most interesting day of all. We crossed the Hindenburg line several times with its trench system several miles deep. One of the British officers, who was through the entire show here, said that, in the heaviest attack extending over a couple months, his company had a total of 39 officers and over 1200 men on its rolls, yet the casualties came so fast he never had his full strength at any one time.

The cathedral here at Amiens is larger and quite as ornate, though not so individualistic as the one at Reims. It was hit only once and was not damaged at all. It still wears its sandbag protection.

We visited the tunnel on the St. Quentin canal, in which the Germans quartered a division of their troops. It is connected with the front line by an elaborate system of auxiliary tunnels. It was from these tunnels and machine gun nests that an American division was badly cut to pieces from the rear because, through inexperience, it failed to mop up properly as it went along.

We also saw a 15" German Naval gun on a permanent mount hidden in the woods. The Germans blew the muzzle off the gun and wrecked the carriage before abandoning it, but the emplacement was sufficiently intact to show the immensity of the work. Its capture was claimed by a crack Australian outfit, as a carefully painted sign advised all newcomers.

But I promised no technical details. Our trip grows more and more wonderful every day.

Thursday, July 31st, 1919.
Today we have been in the country of our Allies. Everywhere one sees Russian and Chinese labor battalions; French Sudanese, Maroquins, Tonkinese, and Annamites; Canadians, Australians, Hindoos, Portuguese, Scotch, English, Americans and French.

We are covering so much historic ground and impressions are crowding in so fast it will take months, or years, to digest it all. I am mentioning only a large town or a particularly critical point here and there, but there are hundreds of intermediate points of great importance that it would take a book to describe. Every day new features develop; the character of the terrain, the operations, and the inhabitants change, and the immensity of the whole show grows on one.

We desert our train today, spend the night in Lille, and join the train again tomorrow night.

End Notes and Bibliography