Articles from Camaraderie, the magazine of US Branch of the Association. An article from the July 2003 issue.
In November 2002, Camaraderie published "A New York Yank Narrates A Costly Victory at St. Mihiel" by Clark and Clark. The article reproduced a letter, which is in the Imperial War Museum, London, that 2nd Lt. J. Phelps Harding, A.E.F., sent soon after the Allied victory to a Canadian girlfriend. Harding served in the 165th Regiment of the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, a composite National Guard Division formed in the United States at large and which included the "Fighting Sixty Ninth" Irish regiment from New York City.
Harding was born in Saranac Lake, New York, in 1891 and graduated from Cornell University with the class of 1916. Responding to America's declaration of war on Germany in April 1917, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Soon, however, he learned that his previous experience in the Reserve Officers Training Corps could qualify him for an Army commission. By December, he had managed to become an honorably discharged Marine and a candidate in the Army Officers Training Camp at Camp Upton, Long Island, New York. By April, 1918, he was a sergeant in France with the 77th Division, and in early July was appointed 2nd Lt. of Infantry. After brief service in the British sector near Arras, he was posted to the 42nd Division on the Chateau Thierry front. The Rainbow was regrouping after heavy losses sustained at the Ourcq River crossing in the Second Battle of the Marne and was soon to be tested again in the offensive against the St. Mihiel Salient, September 1916.
Following the reduction of that longheld German intrusion into their line, the Allies continued to face the myriad fortifications in depth of the Hindenburg Line, which extended from Switzerland north-west to Belgium and the English Channel. More particularly for the 42nd Division, the objective of First Army on October 14, 1918, was the heavily fortified section of the line known as the Kriemhilde Stellung, extending east from the Argonne Forest and barring the way to the German supply complex at Landres-et-St Georges.
The two letters to his mother that follow describe Harding's participation in the next assignment of the A.E.F., the Meuse Argonne offensive. Reading these details, his family must have doubted his reassurance, "You mustn't worry about me. "Knights of Columbus War Activities October 25, 1918
For over two weeks I haven't been able to get any news out to the outside world. My last letter was written in the Argonne region, to which place we had been rushed by motor lorries from the last front we were on. We rested several days in the forest, then moved into the active area. Since then we have gone over the top, and as long as I live I'll remember that day. I know it must have been your prayers that brought me out of it alive, for from the jumping off hour until late in the afternoon we were m a regular inferno of artillery and machine gun fire. We were up against a hard proposition, with the Huns fighting like madmen and only giving in when absolutely forced to do so.
I can't describe the day to you now I'll do it when I get out of the line and back in the rest area. We lost pretty heavily, and most of the companies are badly handicapped by the absence of noncoms and officers. One company came back with a sergeant in command. I started out with the Major you know I am liaison officer of the battalion and eight runners, almost abreast of the two leading companies, and I lost four men before we had been in action more than a couple of hours. As for myself well, I never knew shells could burst as close as they do without hurting one, and I never knew bullets could find so much space to pass one. Any number of times during the day I was pounded with earth from exploding shells - shells that as they approached, seemed by their screams to be about to land squarely on me. All one can do is jump in a shell hole, if he is lucky enough to be within jumping distance of one, or lay flat on the ground and cross his fingers for good luck. One shell struck so close to me that the concussion knocked me down but aside from pounding me with mud it didn't achieve any great results besides a big hole in the landscape. Just imagine walking behind a line of bursting shells - our barrage - and being in a line of bursting shells German. And add to that the fire of machine guns well, bullets cut the grass at our feet, sailed over us, and some of them stopped, having done their little deeds. My pack stopped a couple but better the pack than I.
The Boche are wonderful machine gunners. They have very strong shooting guns, choose positions giving great range of both direct and indirect fire, and locate their pieces so it is practically impossible to locate them near them. They have a habit of consistently following a small group 'with a continuous fire, or even a single man if there is nothing better to fire at. The 14th - the day of our attack I had to stay in a shell hole nearly twenty minutes, thanks to a Boche machine gun. Any movement at all drew a stream of bullets they clipped the top of the hole, so naturally I stayed in. Finally I managed to locate another hole about ten feet away, and by taking a chance I covered the space between the Major and myself. This same thing happened several times, only usually other groups would draw the Boche fire long enough for me to make the next hole. One time the Boche caught several of us, including the Major, adjutant, Intelligence Officer & myself in a narrow trench, and opened up on us direct fire with a 77a three inch field piece. There's no dodging direct fire you hear whizz, bang and it's all over. We all escaped by spreading out and staying for awhile in deep shell holes, but I never want to duplicate the experience. The Huns very nearly scored some hits that time.
Just one word more about war. We are now in support, having been relieved from the shell holes up front, and are back of a very steep hill where the Boche artillery can't get us. He drops his iron ware just beyond us, and hits the front of our hill, but the reverse slope is so steep he can't register on it. I'm as safe as if I were in Paris, and as we expect to be relieved very soon you mustn't worry about me.
Yesterday I received two letters from you dated Sept. 20 and 30. These I got thanks to a friend who was in a position to send them to me, for there has been no delivery of mail for two weeks. 1 sent a letter after the St. Mihiel drive, telling you of my safe passage through that fight; and I also had the University Club cable you. They had to reword my message, according to a note I had from them, but it accomplished the same purpose. Yesterday I sent a letter to the Club again, by a YMCA man, asking them to cable you of my safety, for there is no telling when this mail will reach you, and I don't want you to do any unnecessary worrying.
I am enclosing the Christmas slip [official list] that we are allowed. As for the most welcomed things, I'm up a stump for I can't think just now of what I need most. If you can find a compact sewing seta small one, it will be a big help, as I lost mine sometime ago. A cigarette lighter would also come in handy and if you can find one that has both the gasoline and dull glow one for a fire, the other for cigarettes it will be doubly welcome. A waterproof match box, too, would be good. We get issues of safety matches, similar to those in the states (the same, I guess) and it is very hard, sometimes impossible, to keep them dry. A waterproof box that I can put both matches and a piece of the striking material in will be a blessing. Another thing is a cigarette case not an expensive one, but metal and not unduly heavy. I have seen aluminum ones that are very serviceable and I think inexpensive. The long kind, with pretty good capacity, would be fine.
Don't think that I expect all of these things. They are just suggestions. You can use your own judgement, and I know I won't be the loser.
Must close now. Don't worry about me I'm still going strong and looking forward to the time when I'll try the Vermont's menu. Tell Aunt Ida I'll write her when I get out but this is my only letter for a long time, and I may not have a chance to mail another for weeks.
Am mighty glad you like the picture from Paris. I'll send you some other things later I have a Prussian Guard belt buckle that I got on the field the other day, and I may have other things later.
Best to Almon & Watson ,
Lots of love to you, Pop Affectionately,
Three days after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, Lt. Harding finds time to write his mother a long letter with more details of the savage fighting he had seen in the Argonne Forest. But there is also concern about what to do with the Germans now that peace has come and thoughts of coming home.
Nov. 14, 1918
My last letter to you was written several weeks ago as we lay in support waiting for artillery to come up and help us take a stretch of the Kriemhilde Stellung line that had held us up for over a week. Since then we have been through so many and so varied experiences that I hardly know where to begin in relating them, or which incidents to relate and which to leave out.
My letter told you briefly of our first attack It was a trying day, and one that will always remain in my memory. Our casualties were heavy, and our advance slight. We dug in, held our line for 14 days, while the artillery 'was massing behind us, and then another division (2nd) leapfrogged our division and went over the top from the trenches we were in. Our barrage was terrible heavier than the St. Mihiel barrage, and all the more terrific because we were very near its first landing place, for it fell fairly close to our trench. It is said that we had one of the greatest massing of artillery used in the 'war. Machine guns from several units other than our own division laid down a machine gun barrage the noise from which resembled thousands of typewriters being pounded at top speed. As I sat in the trench, with both our shells and those of the German counter barrage passing over me or breaking near sometimes too near for comfort it seemed as if all the cannon and machine guns in France had been turned loose on our particular front. Through it all the division relieving us went over the top and out across the wire, just as we had done two weeks before but with a far more terrible barrage.
In ten minutes prisoners and wounded were coming in faster than we could take care of them. We had the Boche carrying stretchers and helping take care of the wounded. Soon I had to take my liaison group I am still liaison officer for the battalion and place guides over the route to be used when we fell back out of the line, and a few hours later we were several kilometers back, behind a hill, safe from shelling, with about fifteen casualties from the morning's barrage. You can imagine our satisfaction at being relieved for every day we were in the line we had casualties from the regular 4 A.M. shelling the Boche put Over.
Two days after leaving the line we started chasing the Hun again, taking over a definite sector. It was this chase that drove the Boche to the Meuse and which gave us Sedan. To make a long story short, we marched and fought day and night for over thirty kilometers, up and down hill, meeting long range machine gun fire and harassing artillery fire practically all the way. The Boche would leave a town in the night, and we would be in it early in the morning. We even captured Germans in towns asleep, not realizing how closely we were on their heels. We slept in holes, waded through brooks and mud, rejoiced at the sight of heavy Boche bread, raw cabbage and turnips, and gave the Huns the fastest race they ever had. We left our kitchens far in the rear, and lived on whatever we could find. The people of the freed villages treated us like their deliverers they gave us coffee and Boche bread and whatever else they had to eat, and did everything they could to help us.
There were some touching scenes in some of the newly freed villages. The populations of all of them consisted of a few old men, old women and children the young people had in many cases been taken into Germany by the Boche. The Boche had also taken practically all the food in sight vegetables, poultry and cattle and unless food is supplied from outside sources, as it of course will be, there will be great privation in many homes this whiter. But when our troops passed through, muddy, tired and hungry, but still going strong, the people gave all they had. Old women stood at their doors handing out German bread, coffee and raw vegetables. Coffee seemed plentiful, and the people gave without end.
I'll never forget one incident. I was in a town as liaison officer ahead of the troops having entered at the same time as the first French soldier - an officer. I was sitting hi a house drinking coffee when someone saw the officer coming down the street. Immediately there was a great outcry. The old women and men ran Out crying "Vive La France" and waving their hands; the children ran down toward the officer, and all tried to kiss him at once. The old people crowded around and shook his hands; then the old women hugged and kissed each other, some of them dying in their joy. Someone succeeded in finding a small tricolor, which caused another demonstration. It is hard for you, over in the states, to realize what it means to these people to be free again. I have been here long enough to know them fairly well, and to respect and appreciate their sentiments. They have been under the German yoke and it was a heavy one for four long years, and now they are free citizens of France again. It's worth everything to help out in a war like this.
If I had time I could tell you a hundred or more experiences, some of them worth a letter in themselves. I could tell you of how I got lost one night on no-man' s-land, after trying to find help to bring in a wounded man, and how I finally ended up in a French house back of the line at 3:30 A.M., way out of our sector. I ran into shellfire and machine gun fire both, and thought I was slated for a Blighty several times but here I am, safe and sound, miles from the front and still going away. I could make quite a story of a billeting party, of which I was the leader, and of our experiences in a town under heavy shellfire, during which one of my men, in front of my P.C. (battalion headquarters) had his leg blown off. The roads and town were shelled so heavily that the battalion never came near it, and I had to withdraw my party and sleep under a steep bank to the tune of a heavy harassing fire. I'll save these stories till later.
Just now peace is the talk. The day after we left the line the gunners stopped, and the armistice started. May peace come I've seen all the war I want. The question now is, what will be done with the Germans? It is reported that four divisions the four best, the 42nd, 1st and 89th, and 2nd May go to Germany as an army of occupation. We will either be first home or go to Germany. In either event, we will be treated as we deserve as the hardest worked and most successful of the divisions in France. We have seen German reports of the recent and other campaigns in which the troops were warned against the "shock troops" of the 42nd Division. Going to Germany isn't bad it would be a great experience but I will take home first. Soon we'll know. In the meantime, we are resting and getting completely re-outfitted. May we parade up 5th Avenue instead of up Wilhelmstrasse.
Must close now. I'm sorry I couldn't write before, but there was absolutely no time, nor any way to get mail out, during the last few weeks. I'll try to make up now, but any day orders may put us on the march or someplace where we can't write, and there may be a long period during which there will be no news of me. Don't worry the worst is over, and I'm as well and lusty as ever, proud that I've been where I have we were the troops nearest to Sedan, just above the city and looking forward to the time après la guerre when we can all talk it over after dinner.
Lots and more love to you & Pop. Also give my love to Aunt Ida and the boys.
Hqrs.3rd Bn., 165 Inf.
The authors are indebted to Mr. John P. Harding for permission to publish his father's letters and for his co-operation. We acknowledge also the helpfulness of archival staff of the Imperial War Museum, London; and that of James W. Zobel, Archivist, the MacArthur Memorial, Norfolk, Virginia, a depository of Harding letters