The story of Sgt Paul A Smithhisler (112th Engineers, 37th Division, US Army) and his bravery in Flanders has appeared on several web sites and has been the cover story for the American Military Journal "Relevance" and, more recently, the US Army Engineer Magazine. In 2005, I met with the Sgt Smithhisler's two sons (Joe and Jack). They had traveled to Belgium and France to retrace their father's 1918 wartime exploits in Europe. They had resurrected his sketches, diary notations, stories, medals and commendations. I had the opportunity to travel with Joe, as I identified the terrain, and he made a photographic record of the sites where his father had made a dozen or so sketches. This Photo Journal depicts the utter destruction of much of Flanders, Belgium in 1918 and the rebuilt villages, as they stand, nearly 100 years later.
About The Author
Dr J P Deweer is a noted Belgium author, medical doctor, Great War historian, and authority on the Ypres-Lys battles of 1918. A Lt Colonel (retired) in the Belgium army, he was active in the Belgium resistance movement during WW2. His father served in the Belgium army during the First World War. He was born, raised and lives in Oudenaarde on the Scheldt river. In 1988 he first published his research in De Slag Aan De Schelde - 1918. European military historians have quoted his extensive research on these battles. This research had never been translated from the original Flemish into English, and little is known of his research generally in the western hemisphere. Oudenaarde City Officials had requested that Dr Deweer publish a sequel to his book, which now includes his recent findings on the first bridges across their Scheldt River immediately before the end of the Great War. In Flemish this sequel is titled: "Sergeant Paul A Smithhisler: an American Hero of the First World War".
Doctor Deweer has authorized this abridged first original English translation. His research now highlights the 37th Division's "doughboys" and their battles to establish bridgeheads across the Scheldt (Escaut) river. With permission from the Smithhisler family, he has included the battlefield sketches and diary entries of Sgt Paul A Smithhisler. Dr Deweer has been able to identify the site locations of these 1918 Belgium sketches. This Photo Journal coordinates the 2005 photographs with its appropriate First World War sketch.
37th Division in Flanders, Belgium
On 14 October 1918, Marshall Foch sent a telegram to the headquarters American First Army: "Extremely Urgent - For General Pershing: The Belgian, French and British troops have made a considerable advance. We should take advantage of this situation and transfer more troops to the front. Under these present circumstances I wish to request two American Divisions, who are battle worthy and experienced in offensive attacks, to be transferred to this area." The 37th and 91st Divisions would be designated for this last offensive on the River Scheldt between 31 October and the Armistice on 11 November 1918.
For the first time these young Americans saw the reality and horror of destruction to the town of Ypres which, together with Verdun, were the sites of two of the more important strategic battles during the War [Editor's note: there were four battles for Ypres, all told]. Although hardened by the previous French battles at Avocourt and Montfaucon in September 1918, the Americam troops were still astonished and devastated by what they saw along the sector; especially the plain of the Ijzer (Yser), which had been changed to a lunar surface. Because of this complete destruction it was extremely difficult for supplies to follow.
They wrote home: "Also the small villages further along are in complete ruin. Windows of houses that partially stand have been broken by the thunder of artillery. The civilians live in miserable circumstances and are fighting starvation. Many children are pushing their way towards the field kitchens hoping to receive something to eat. During the night, rats and lice are our worst enemies as we try to catch some sleep. We are forced to sleep with all our clothes, gloves and helmet on."
The 37th Division arrived by train at Ypres, located within the Army Group of Flanders, on 20 October 1918 and was immediately confronted with the devastation and floods in this sector. It was in the neighboring town of Vlamertinghe, Belgium where Sgt Smithhisler made his first (21 October 1918) sketches. Also shown here is his diary notation on the reverse of the original along with a comparative 2005 photograph of the rebuilt church.
This was the Sergeant's first witness to the destruction of Flander's churches.
By this time the German Government had initiated secret armistice negotiations, but both parties disagreed on the opening statements. On 22 October the 37th Division Headquarters were located at Hooglede and, from 26 October, in the vicinity of Tielt.
Planning for the Scheldt offensive was being established in great detail. Troops marched with their gear and heavy backpacks over uneven roads through deserted areas towards the Lys, passing through Ypres. It was here on 23 October that the Sergeant sketched his witness to the destruction of the magnificent Cloth Hall and the beautiful St Martin's Cathedral [described as St Andrew's -Ed]. Sgt Smithhisler's horror at the complete desecration of such magnificent works of art is plainly described in his diary notation.
The 112th Engineer drop off zone at Meulebeke was finally reached on 28 October. It was the next day that Sgt Smithhisler made his sketch and diary notes. The 2005 photograph is believed to be the site of his windmill sketch. There are currently very few windmills in Flanders and, as shown, this one has undergone extensive renovation.
It was on 31 October (Day 1) that this last offensive was launched on the Belgium Front. On the second day, the first elements of the 37th Division had driven the Germans back nine miles to the Scheldt river villages of Heuvel, Heurne and Eine.
Eine (Eyne) Station 1918
Eine Bridge 1918
The Battle for the Scheldt
Making use of a rain-drizzled Autumn day on 1 November, the 112th Engineers made numerous attempts, all in vain, to bridge the River Scheldt in the 37th Division sector. A few miles to the south in Oudenaarde, the 91st Division made the same futile attempts. The river was going to be dangerous and difficult for the 37th to cross.
By the evening of 1 November, the long marches, fighting, and failed attempts to cross the Scheldt had taken a heavy toll of the men. Sgt Smithhisler must have been relieved to be given a 24-hour pass and to rest his aching limbs on dry straw, in a barn at Wannegem. As shown in the photograph, this barn has been renovated; it is now the home of an Oudenaarde physician. It was from here after 7.00 pm on 1 November, 1918 that Sgt Smithhisler heard that that high command was seeking volunteers to make a reconnaissance on the opposite side of the river. He was the only 37th Division volunteer. Headquarters must have appreciated his offer. They were aware of his excellent observation talents, artist skills and superior swimming ability. His friend Private Burke agreed to accompany the Sergeant and remain on the river's west bank.
After a concealed march on a cold, windy, 1 November night they went down to the banks of the River Scheldt. Smithhisler slid through the brushwood off the steep bank into the cold water. Regardless of the strong currents he successfully swam underwater until he reached the opposite side of the riverbank, without being noticed by the German sentries. All sluices were inoperative and it had rained continuously during the previous days.
Once he had reached the opposite side, Sgt Smithhisler successfully crept though waterlogged ditches, brushwood and barbed wire, eventually finding his way behind enemy lines without being caught. He was able to make his location sketches of encampments, foxholes and machine gun nests.
The sketches were carefully secured in a waterproof pouch, before Sgt Smithhisler made his way back to the riverbank. Just as he was sliding back into the water, a German sentry spotted him and sounded the alarm. He came under heavy rifle fire and, subsequently, artillery shelling. Some of these shells contained the deadly chlorine gas, and landed on the opposite riverbank. An excellent swimmer, Smithhisler could easily swim the 100 feet under water. However, due to the cold water, the chlorine fumes, a steep bank and exhaustion he had difficulty in climbing back to safety.
His comrade in arms, Private Burke, who had waited upon his return, helped to pull him out of the water and, in neglect of his own safety, helped Sgt Smithhisler affix his gas mask. This unselfish act of courage eventually resulted in the loss of his own life from the effects of gas poisoning as it is believed that he died in America the following year.
The valuable information gleaned by Sgt Smithhisler was immediately put to good use and shortly thereafter Allied artillery was able to take out many of the enemy positions. The first bridges were hastily improvised, using cut trees. Later, during the evening of 2 November, 112th Engineers was able to construct three light pontoon foot bridges, which were to be used for the infantry crossing. Bridgeheads were finally secured on the east bank by 3 November. The infantry's objective was to hold the bridgehead at all costs. They were "to hold until death". It was here that the 148th Regiment established their motto "We will do it ". 91st Division was also authorized to use these bridges as they were unsuccessful in securing a crossing in their sector near Leupegem.
The next sketch and diary notation was made just back from the river, at Heurne on 3 November. This was the day after the infantry's initial crossing of the river. Note the peaceful 1918 windmill scene and then the 2005 photograph showing the current farm house (the windmill was taken down many years ago).
Overcast skies and drizzling rain made for a dismal day on that 3 November. Visibility being poor, the enemy did not attempt a counter-attack but secured their positions approximately 500 to 1000 meters from the river banks. Enemy artillery was fierce with much destruction to the town, surrounding villages and troop concentrations. Despite the poor visibility, the German airforce was also active. Twelve German officers and 317 soldiers were taken prisoner at that time.
The strenuous efforts of recent days had taken a heavy toll on the troops and consequently they needed a few days rest. General de Boissoudy decided that only one division from each corps would remain in the front line. These orders were issued during the night of 3 - 4 November.
On 5 November the two American Divisions were withdrawn from the front line and they spent a few days in rest camps in the vicinity of Tielt. Meanwhile there were rumours that the enemy forces were withdrawing from their present positions. It was of the utmost importance to follow up and to expand the front line beyond the existing bridgehead.
By 7 November, 112th Engineers were recalled back to the front lines to assist in a new offensive from the Scheldt, expanding their bridgehead from the positions they had left. The attack was set for 9 November but the advance was very slow. The French were experiencing difficulties with the construction of a fourth bridge in the vicinity of Zingem and Gavere.
On 10 November the 112th Engineers were again called upon to construct this final bridge across the Scheldt at Zingem. They completed the bridge before the end of 10 November and troops of the 37th Division fought their way across, establishing a new bridgehead.
In the early morning of 11 November they received the more than welcome news that the Armistice was to become effective that same day at 11.00 am. Suddenly, an eerie silence spread over the countryside. The soldiers were finally granted some rest and peace, interrupted only by intermittent weaponry inspections.
So successful was this action by the 37th Division that the following French Order was issued on the last day of the war, 11 November 11, 1918:
General Order No. 31:
"On the heights between Lys and the Escaut, the enemy was to hold to the Death. The American troops belonging to the 37th Division ... in an operation of extraordinary daring, crossed the Escaut under the enemy fire, and maintained themselves on the opposite bank ... glory to such troops and to such Commanders. They had bravely contributed to the liberation of a part of Belgium territory and to the final victory. The great nation to which they belong can be proud of them."
The Commanding General Of The Army (signed) Degoutte"
After a few days, the 37th Division commenced their march towards the French coastal harbours. Sgt Smithhisler passed through Lozer on 16 November where he then made his next sketch, of the Chateau at Lozer, where the 37th Divisional headquarters had been established.
The Chateau at Lozer
Sgt Smithhisler's next sketch was made at Merkem and, as you can see, the church and all surrounding houses have been completely demolished. The rebuilt church is as beautiful on the inside as it now is on the outside.
Merkem Church rebuilt
His final sketch shows the ruins of a village he identified as "Juyghem". Today there are no maps of any Belgium town by this name. However, just a few miles outside of Merkem, I discovered a marker identified with the name "Luigem". It is believed it was here that Sgt Smithhisler made that final sketch. Just down the road the new houses bear testimony to the reconstruction.
Despite evidence of his poor health, Sgt Smithhisler's final three sketches above were made before he was transported to the large military hospital at Alençon, France. At this point he was suffering from exhaustion, hypothermia effects and respiratory problems. Released from hospital on 25 January 1919, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, received personally from General John J Pershing. He also received the French Croix de Guerre from the French General Degoutte. It still isn't quite clear if he personally received the Belgian Croix de Guerre or if it was issued to his unit, the 112th Engineers.
Belgium's appreciation for the 37th Division's heroics at the Scheldt River and the liberation of our country has been best expressed by King Albert's 1921 letter to General Farnsworth:
"Though confronted by an extremely difficult task, namely, the forcing of the crossing of the flooded Scheldt, the 37th Division broke down stubborn opposition on the part of the enemy, threw him over the Scheldt and daringly crossed the river on Nov 1st, 1918 in advance of all other units and thereby establishing bridge heads on the right bank of the River which were held against repeated counter attacks ...... Belgium will never forget your countrymen, who having neither the Fatherland nor their home to defend, ran up to secure the rights of humanity".
"Yours very sincerely, Albert"
Postscript: Back in the United States
A few years after his demobilization, Paul Arnold Smithhisler became a registered architect in the States of Ohio and, during World War 2, in Tennessee. He was married to Stella Barrett. He died on 24 December 1982. He was buried with full military honours in Sun City, Arizona. He is survived by two sons, four grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
There are historians who have concluded: "The 37th Division had not performed as well" as the 91st. The 37th was arguably the first to secure the Montfaucon heights, in the Meuse-Argonne battle. The 37th was also the first (and only division) to bridge, establish, and hold the Scheldt river beachheads during those early days of November 1918. These two battles were considered some of the AEF's hardest fought victories. Finally, after the war, the German military authorities cited the 37th Division, as one of five of the Allies' most feared divisions. It must be noted that the brave men of the 91st, who were twinned with the 37th, performed equally well in these battles. The people of Belgium are grateful to both these American divisions and for the historic part they played in Belgium's liberation.
Before Joe and Jack were to leave Belgium and continue to their father's sketch locations in northern France, I requested that they tell me something of their father and what information they could share with me concerning his sketches and diary notes. They were both most helpful and later Joe provided me with the following:
As the eldest son of Paul Smithhisler, I was given custody of Dad's sketches. As little boys, my brother Jack and I were filled with questions, as we learned about Dad's WWI wartime hospitalization, medals and sketches. It was only our Mother who told of his being gassed, an icy swim and numerous commendations. We were little boys growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1930s. In our later years Jack and I were resigned that Dad would probably never tell us about his WWI wartime experiences in France and Belgium. We accepted that he probably had some bothersome flashbacks of the death, mutilation, and destruction that he had witnessed. I believe my first memory of Dad mentioning his wartime experiences and sketches was in a 1977 letter he wrote 60 years after his heroic actions, telling of thoughts (dreams?) after wakening one morning:
"When I awakened this morning I then remembered the town of Heuvel ---- that's where I slipped down that steep bank and started off; leaving a good kid by the name of Burke to pull me out if I ever got back." As I later recalled, I had told him of a forthcoming business trip I had to make to Holland. He had then suggested that I try to pick up a map of Belgium. At the time, this did puzzle me.
It was sometime after that when Dad called (from his home in Tennessee). He said he wanted to visit with my family and that he had something to show me, and that he hoped I had obtained that Belgium map. I remember both of us sitting at the dining room table, and unlocking a small old metal box.
He then spent considerable time, filled with remembrances and emotions, viewing his wartime sketches with me. He seemed most pained when talking of his witness to the destruction and desecration of all those churches and cathedrals in France and Belgium. He appeared equally tortured when discussing all the senseless killings he witnessed during the last week of the war and his lonely desperate swim across the Scheldt River. As he was to explain to me, this was Germany's last line defence in Belgium - The Hindenburg Line.
I do recall asking Dad: "What motivated him to volunteer to make an underwater swim in an ice cold river, over 120 ft wide and to sneak among a German division in the middle of the night?"
As I recall his reply was something like: "I had spent an entire day watching dozens of my comrades drowning in that swift current or being blown to pieces. I had concluded that there was no way we could bridge that river with the Hun camouflaged over there, and picking us off, as I had just witnessed most of that day."
He continued: "I probably felt guilty when I was given a pass to go back into a dry straw filled barn, out of that night-time freezing rain. The infantry, who had survived that day's carnage, had no such opportunity. I knew I could easily swim that river underwater and sketch exact enemy locations back from the river. After all, most of the Huns would find shelter out of that freezing rain. In that situation you just don't think about the near freezing temperature, ice cold water, soaked to the skin in a cold and wet full uniform, exposed to German bullets and poison gas, and climbing up an 8 ft muddy bank if I ever got back".
Also in that box was an old, April 1919, local Cleveland newspaper clipping. This clipping reported that both Pvt Burke and Sgt Smithhisler had swum over to the German side and returned with valuable information. To me, this seemed at odds with Dad's DSC citation and commendations, which had made no mention of a comrade also making that swim.
As Dad explained: "After return to the States, I was told that the newspaper wanted to interview me, and some of the local men from my 112th Engineer regiment, to get a first hand report. We all felt bad that Burke (who had died) was not to be a part of that interview, nor had he received any Army recognition for his heroic actions".
Dad and his buddies had decided that the newspaper report should include Burke, for also helping to make that swim and collecting that information with Dad. For Dad had reasoned that what Burke did, took more courage than his actions; but somehow the Army had overlooked Burke's act of bravery.
I do recall Dad's explanation that: "Pvt Burke, by not making that swim saved my life, at the risk of his own." For Burke had waited all night, exposed in that freezing rain in hopes of Dad's return swim. At daybreak that private pulled him out of the water and up that steep bank, with machine gun bullets and poison gas all around him. He then put on Dad's gas mask before putting on his own. Burke had never received any recognition or an acknowledgement of his bravery that saved my father's life, with all the precise sketches of German gun emplacements and troop locations.
After the article came out, Dad said his concern was "that Burke's inability to swim would be remembered by some of his friends or family". This could then unfairly taint the bravery of the real hero, who had given his life, so that the lives of numerous doughboys would be saved in the days ahead.
His closing comment, before terminating our chat was, "Thank God for Burke". To this day I can only surmise that his appreciation was for saving his life and that of thousands of their comrades. Like most veterans who survived that hell on earth, it was just too painful to talk about. It was only in his later years that he did share, with Jack and me, additional thoughts and feelings about the tragic loss of life, mutilation and the destruction of entire villages.
It was for this heroic action in Belgium that General John J. Pershing personally awarded Dad the Distinguished Service Cross with Silver Star, after his release from the French hospital at Alençon, France. The French General DeGoutte also presented him with France's Croix de Guerre (with Division citation).
One of our last discussions that I do remember, were his recollections surrounding his DSC award. I believe that was the first and only time that he mentioned the 37th Division Commander, Major General Farnsworth, and the 112th Engineer Regimental Commander, Colonel Galbreath.
As I recall Dad had been told: "One of his Commanding Officers recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but that General Pershing felt that mostly Infantry personnel (from Regular Army Divisions) who had engaged in heroic armed combat with the Germans should have his recommendation forwarded to the War Department". Apparently General Pershing's staff felt that the DSC was in order.
I recall putting that old metal box in the bottom of a closet and forgetting about it. Twenty-five years later, our family historian, Gene Small, discovered one of Dad's sketches and he reasoned that the family would be interested in a little history and the story of a family hero. To this day I sense that Dad considered himself more of an artist than a soldier or hero.
In September 2005, my son Tom and his wife Robin gave me the present of a lifetime. This was a trip to Europe to revisit all the 1918 French and Belgium battle sites which Dad had sketched. Jack and I rented a car, and drove through Belgium and northern France. What made this trip most memorable was the help we received from Belgium and French WWI authorities, who had an intimate knowledge of the history of all these old battles, and the villages that have long since been resurrected. Our special gratitude is for the time that Dr Deweer (in Belgium) and later, Rob de Soete, and his father Leonard (in France), spent with us in locating those old battlefield sites, long forgotten by most Americans.
13 August 2006
Below are two photographs of sons Joe and Jack taken in 2005 at the River Scheldt where their father started his heroic swim. [Select Exhibits 38 & 38.1 here]
You can view all the images and photographs shown in the article above in a slideshow. Use the "expand" icon to see them full screen, press "Esc" on your keyboard to close the show).