Death in the Trenches

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, ninety years ago today, Ferdinand Foch of France, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and Matthias Erzberger, a civilian representative of the German government,  came together in the Marshal Foch's railcar in the Compiegne Forest and signed an armistice agreement ending more than four years of what up to that time had been the deadliest war in history of man.  Though the war wouldn't officially end until June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the 11th of November would forever been known as Armistice Day, that is until 1954, when the name was changed to Veteran's Day in recognition of all veterans.

Considering the relative short period of American involvement, the nineteen-month war cost the lives of fifty four Laurens County men, making it the deadliest war in the county's history by fatalities per month at nearly three.  Though the vast majority of the deaths suffered by local men were a result of disease, and in particular pneumonia, the deadliest month came in July 1918, when the Allied armies began their final push across the trenches of France in deadly trench to trench and hand to hand combat.

Before America's involvement in the war, a large segment of the military force of the Army was composed of citizen soldiers of the National Guard.  For the previous quarter of a century, Laurens County citizens participated in local guard troops under the umbrella of a state guard.    In 1916, after returning from duties in Mexico, the unit in Macon formed the 151st Machine Gun Battalion.  Over the next ninety years, the unit would be known as the 121st Infantry and now under it's current designation as the 48th Infantry Brigade.

Seven  men from Laurens County decided to go to Macon to Camp Harris and enlist.  Many of them, already veterans of the Mexico campaign, knew that their country would soon become involved in the fighting in Europe, which had been raging for two years.  Cecil Adams, Alexander Davis, Clarence Fordham, Lewis Gordie, Daniel P. Hudson, Delmar W. Howard and James Mason all joined up to go over there and fight the Huns.

In the first days of July in 1918, the Allied Expeditionary Forces began an all out offensive on the German lines in eastern France.   The 151st was assigned to support the 84th Infantry Brigade, composed of two regiments, the 167th from Alabama  and the 168th from Iowa.  The 84th was one of two brigades of the 42nd Rainbow Division, so named by their future commander General Douglas McArthur because his men represented the entire spectrum of America.

The 42nd's commander devised an ingenious plan to mix the companies of his four brigades into three lines, the front line having only a few men to fool the Germans into believing that they were being opposed by an inferior force.  The 151st companies were positioned in support of the brigades, who were occupying a line in front of a forest which, despite its bareness, afforded sufficient cover to conceal the German advance, one which was made with lightning quickness and efficiency.

Just after midnight of the 15th, the German army opened their attack.  High explosives and mustard gas was heaved upon the entrenched American boys.  Father Duffy, a bystander, compared the barrage of artillery and its resulting flashes of light to the Aurora Borealis.  Most of the German artillery fell harmlessly on the front trench, which had been manned by a meager sacrificial force.  The bombardment continued until the early light of dawn.

When the sunrise illuminated the allied front, the Germans poured into the trenches expecting to find dead Americans.  Instead, they found only a few bodies and shattered equipment.  They plunged forward, only to find themselves right in the middle of a mine field and in full view of the machine gunners of the 151st.   The Alabamians in the trenches expected a fight and they got one, despite the fact that Germans were slaughtered by relentless American artillery fire.  The Iowa boys readied for battle, fixing their bayonets as the Germans came out of the woods.

Then the second line opened up.  The 151st mutilated the Germans as they approached the infantry.  The 167th and French viciously counter attacked to hold the line.  The combat turned to hand to hand.  The Americans and the French banded together to defeat their common enemies.  It was said that the Americans developed an intense hatred of their German enemies.    Elmer Sherwood, a machine gunner from Indiana, reported that the Alabamians took their Bowie knives and cleaned up the enemy.  "It was no surprise to any of us, they were a wild bunch, not knowing what fear was."   Lt. Van Dolsen agreed and stated that the Alabamians did not take any prisoners.

Cecil Adams (Co. C) of Dublin was gassed and was forced to retire from the field.  Dexter resident Daniel P. Hudson (Co. B) was killed during the fighting.  The next day, the German air force bombed the Americans.  To make matters worse, the Georgians had to keep their heads down from a withering artillery barrage.  This was the day that Delmar Howard fell dead on the field.

On the 18th of July, the Allied Forces launched the first great offensive of the war. During the fighting, Walter Martin, of the Hospital Department of the 6th Field Artillery, was severely wounded. The initial attacks were directed to both sides and the point of Chateau-Theirry salient.   Six days later the 151st and the Rainbow Division moved by camion from La Ferte sous jouarre to the outskirts of Epieds.  In front of them was the beautiful valley of the Marne.  They were there to relieve the advance troops.

This new battlefield was unlike any other the men had experienced.  They knew the fighting would be more intense, unlike their relatively tranquil assignments in the Luneville and Baccarat sectors or the "old-fashioned doggedness" of the Champagne.  There were no rusty camouflage screens, old trenches and barbed wire.  Their mission was not to hold ground, but to take more.  They were there to beat the Germans both physically and mentally.

Their objective was the La Croix Rouge Farm, described as one of the finest little nests of the Boche in France.  The combat zone was surrounded on the forests on four sides with a road cutting across the field in a southeasterly direction.  The far side of the road was lined with deadly machine gun posts.   Beyond the road, the tree lines on three sides of the field were filled with more battle hardened machine gunners, perhaps as many as a thousand.

By the end of the day on the 25th, the American forces were in place.  At daylight on the morning of the 26th , the attack began.  With the Alabamians on the left and the Iowans on the right, the Americans pressed forward across the field, falling left and right to withering machine gun fire from their front and along both flanks.    By the end of the day, the field was strewn with corpses of the farm boys from Jayhawk and Yellowhammer states, along with those from the Empire State of the South.  Among them was Clarence Fordham, the 17-year-old son of Dublin residents Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Fordham.  At the age of fifteen, Fordham left his home and family to see action along the
Mexican border.  He briefly returned home before he went over there.  The Fordhams never saw their son alive again.

             The Americans pulled back to the safety near their original line of departure. They soon realized that gaining open ground did little good when German machine gunners would be ready to descend upon them in their moment of victory.  Though their morale was high, the Germans evacuated the area and retreated from a key position on the line back to the Ourcq River and a natural fortress surrounding the village of Sergy.

The Rainbow Division encountered the enemy once again on the night of the 27th.  At dawn, the surge to cross the Ourcg, swollen with rain water,  began. German machine gunners opened with a vicious enfilade from three directions. Lewis Gordie, of Dublin, was severely wounded in the early fighting.  The Alabamians, supported by the guns of the 151st, rushed to take Sergy, only to lose it as they retreated back to the river bank.    A second rally was met by the powerful Fourth Prussian guards, who fell before the surging Americans, albeit at a high cost of young men.   The seesaw battle continued throughout the next day.  With no air support, the American infantrymen had little chance against the entrenched German army, which had superior air support.    By dusk on the evening of the 28th, the Alabamians once again rushed toward Sergy.  This time, they took it and held it at least for a while,  despite an intense overnight artillery barrage.

On the morning of the 29th,   the powerful Prussians poured into the hastily set up American fortifications, driving the Americans back to the river for the seventh time in just two days.   The boys of the Rainbow Division had to do something. Sitting still meant sheer suicide.  A general attack on three fronts was launched.  But, there was no charge.  Machine gunners strafed the wheat fields in
hopes of hitting the crawlers.

Finally, the Alabamians routed out the last German resistance in Sergy.  The Iowans took the plateau.  By the end of the 30th, the grim casualty reports were reported to be 3,276 wounded and a countless number of dead.  Among the dead was James Mason of Dublin.

Albert MacLellan of Company B described the eight brutal days of fighting in a letter to his mother, "It is just about the hardest eight days I have ever lived.  They have been in the hardest fighting, and have seen men fall right at my side, but could not help them.  Had to push right on to have a chance myself.  It was surely bad.  We have lost almost a hundred men out of our company, but all of them are not dead.

We are a sad worn out bunch.  We have fought in the rain, worn wet clothes and slept in little holes in the open until I feel like a groundhog and am just as dirty as one."

The war would go on for another hundred or so  days before the German government surrendered.  A special memorial service was held at Henry Memorial Presbyterian Church to honor Mason and other members of his battalion, who were killed in the fighting in the Rheims-Soissons salient.  The congregation also honored the memory of Leonard T. Bostick, of Dexter, who was killed near Mason while serving in the Rainbow Division.

It wasn't until the 9th day of May in 1919, when the boys of the 151st made it back from over there to their homes in Middle Georgia.    The train carrying the survivors pulled out of the Vidalia station along the Macon, Dublin and Savannah Railroad.  But not before the men enjoyed a breakfast cooked during the night by the kind women of "the Onion City."  All along the way, in towns and hamlets, people cheered and waved to the returning heroes.  Fifty fathers from Macon couldn't wait for the eight-hour trip, so they chartered a special train and road east to meet their homecoming sons.

When the train pulled into Dublin, the men were treated to a banquet of fresh fruits, sandwiches, soft drinks and coffee by a Red Cross Committee chaired by Miss Helen Baum.  The reception was headed by Mayor Pro Tem J.R. Broadhurst, substituting for Mayor Peter S. Twitty, who was on duty in France.

Standing off to the side, but not in a cheering mood, were the mother, sister and brother of James Mason.  Mason wasn't aboard.  In fact, his body was never found.  His name appears on a cenotaph tablet at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France.  They were there to cheer the return of their loved one's squad.

As the train pulled up to the depot and the crowd rushed toward the cars, tears began streaming down the face of Mason's sister, who turned to her mother and said, "Mother, don't we wish we could the face of our Jim looking out one of those windows?"  Mrs. Mason turned to comfort her daughter and instructed her, "We must welcome his comrades, for they did their part as well."

Mrs. Mason and her children were introduced to Robert Windall, who was with Mason when he was killed.  Other members of his squad, including Cecil Chappell, Jack Peavy and Ed Isaacs,  came up to greet and comfort the Masons.  The men convinced  them  to board the train and ride with them to Macon, so that along the way, they could privately share their memories of the slain comrade, whom they affectionately dubbed the "war boss."  They especially wanted to share private thoughts about the last moments of his life.

Lake Proctor, Lawton Davis, L.C. Cobb, R.O. Poole, and Cecil Adams were mobbed by their families as well.  As the trained pulled away,   Mrs. C.C. Jordan cried out "Sorry, we could not do as much for you as Macon can do, but everybody here loves you just the same."  The soldiers, as they headed out of town,  answered in a loud chorus, "We'll say you do!"

It is not known whether or not the families of Clarence Fordham, Delma Howard and  Daniel P. Hudson were present.  Hudson's body still remains in France in the Meuse -Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France.  Fordham's remains lie in the shade of an oak in Northview Cemetery. The final resting place of Howard's remains are unknown.

Of the eight Laurens County men of Companies B and C of the 151st Machine Gun Battalion, four were killed in action and two were wounded for a casualty rate of seventy five percent.  Only Privates Cobb and Davis survived unscathed, or should I say somewhat unscathed.  Laurens Countians accounted for twenty seven percent of the fifteen combat deaths of the two companies.

The City of Macon erected a monument to the men of the 151st Battalion who gave their lives in defense of their country.  On this Veteran's Day, ninety years after the end of "The War to End All Wars," let us take the time to remember all of the veterans who have served us and those who will serve us in the years to come.