Ireland’s Wars: The 69th On The Western Front

The last stage of the war, following the end of the Spring Offensive and the beginning of the Hundred Days, was, looking at it from a distance, a time of unrelenting Allied gains and success, as their combined armies seemed to sweep a demoralized and under-supplied enemy away. But the truth is that there was still a large amount of very difficult fighting to be done, and a lot of casualties to take, before the Central Powers finally threw in the towel in the Autumn and Winter of 1918.

In amongst all of this, fighting in large scale war for the first time, was the American Expeditionary Force. Commanded by General John “Blackjack” Pershing, elements of the AEF had been arriving in France since 1917, but it was only now that the number of trained, prepared troops really surged. By the end of the year, over two million American soldiers would be in France, more than making up for the withdrawal of Russia from the Allied cause. What the Americans lacked in experience, they mostly made up for in numbers and enthusiasm, lacking the fatigue and malaise of other armies that had been fighting and dying for so many years.

Among their number was the 69th Infantry Regiment: the “Fighting Irish”. The last time we mentioned them was in a conflict that straddled the line between old Napoleonic forms of warfare, and the more modern industrial kind. Since then, the 69th had experienced the honour of being the only unit of the American Irish Brigade not to be disbanded, though it did undergo conversion into a regiment of the New York National Guard. It had been placed back on the regular list during the Spanish-American war in 1898, but never saw active service owing to its short duration. Later, they were used as border guards during the “Punitive Expedition” of Pershing into northern Mexico.

The First World War was a very different kind of conflict. Soon after the declaration of war against Germany, the 69th was back in business again, rapidly doubling in size through a flood of Irish-American volunteers from New York. Assigned to the 42nd “Rainbow” Division (so named as it compromised units from 26 different states), they took the voyage over the Atlantic in October 1917. As part of general reforms of US Army administration at the time, the 69th was actually renamed the 165th Infantry Regiment, but in common practice retained its flag and Irish symbolism. In many accounts and histories, even the old name is retained.

This included a coat of arms with the colour green and a shamrock among the details, and a motto of “Garryown in Glory!”. The regimental mascot was an Irish wolfhound, and they celebrated St Patricks Day as a special holiday. This incarnation of the 69th would have some famous faces attached to it, not least the likes of then Colonel Douglas MacArthur, future head of the OSS (a precursor of the CIA) Major William “Wild Bill” Donovan” and Father Francis Duffy, the regimental Chaplin whose exploits in the pursuit of his pastoral duties would go down in legend.

The 69th spent its first four months in France engaged in acclimatisation and training, so they would be ready for the realities of trench warfare. Pershing strongly resisted attempts by other Allied leaders to have the American forces split up to be used as replacements for under-strength British units, wanting his army to remain intact and fight as its own entity. Some of the British and French held an initially dim view of American troops who seemed to have little time for the static nature of the trenches, but the “Doughboy” commitment to the offensive and manoeuvre warfare would stand the Allies in good stead in the latter part of 1918.

The 69th’s first taste of combat came in late February 1918 when they entered trenches around 80kms west of Strasbourg, in the vicinity of the village of Baccarat, at Rouge Bouquet. On the 7th March, they suffered their first casualties there, when a dug-out collapsed under artillery fire, killing 21 men taking shelter inside, an event memorialised in the Joyce Kilmer poem “Rouge Bouquet”: Major Donovan won a Croix de Guerre for his attempted rescue of the buried men. From there, the 69th got experiences in both the normal offensive and defensive aspects of trench warfare, in the form of trench raiding and withstanding gas attacks. In the subsequent says of Operation Michael, the 69th operated under French command.

In June, the 69th and the rest of the 42nd were moved near the village of St Hillaire in Champagne, where they were involved in the defence to the last of the German Spring Offensive, and the subsequent Second Battle of the Marne. The 42nd were among the units, American and French, that checked the German advance at its high water mark near Chateau-Thierry. When the counter-offensive, the Battle of Sossions, began, the Irish and the 42nd were part of the nominally French southwards thrust that, in combination with offensives further northward, sent the Germans scrambling back to the positions they had held at the start of the Spring Offensives.

In July, a combined French/American assault pushed to the banks the Ourcq River, 40 kms from Reims. On the 25th of July, the 42nd relived the 26th Division, and took over the job of crossing the river and securing its northern bank. The 69th and its various battalions were intimately involved, in the initial approach to the river, the crossing of it, and in subsequent fighting around German positions on the north bank. By the end of the month the Germans had been put to flight, though at a fearful cost to the 69th, with over half of its nominal 3’000 men made casualties. The fighting spirit of the 69th appears to have been undaunted by the experience, and its use in the pursuit of retreating German soldiers is the source of a possibly apocryphal comment by Douglas MacArthur, now commanding the 83rd Brigade of the 42nd, who, when the 69th volunteered for pursuit when other regiments begged of, stated “By God, it takes the Irish when you want a hard thing done!”

The losses incurred in the Battle of the Ourcq River meant that the 69th had to step back from the front for a time. A refit was required and, just like the Irish divisions in British service, this meant a diluting of the regiment’s Irish ethos, as the incoming reinforcements were sourced from all over the United States, and not just the regiment’s heartland of the Irish-American communities in New York.

270’000 American soldiers had taken part in the Marne counter-offensive and subsequent operations, taking over more and more of the fighting as they went on to the extent that, by the start of August, entire sections of the front under French command were being held by American units. This reality led to Ferdinand Foch agreeing to Pershing’s request that American units now be allowed to form their own army – the First – and to take over entire sectors of the front line. When this First Army went into combat in September, the replenished – and slightly less Irish – 69th was with the 42nd Division.

Their task would be the pinching out of the St Mihiel salient, a bulge in the line that the Germans were, temporarily at least, determined to hold onto. The 42nd’s role in the campaign ended up being relatively anti-climactic; a few days of heavy rains delayed the start of the attack, and by the time the 42nd went forward, supported by an armoured brigade commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel George Patton, the Germans had largely withdrawn. The 42nd, with the 69th, was mostly engaged in mopping up of retreating German units, taking few casualties while capturing thousands of prisoners.

Even before the St Mihiel attack, Foch had pivoted the American forces, with Pershing’s grudging assent, to focus on a larger campaign in the region of the Meuse River and Argonne Forest. In a series of advances, a huge amount of American troops were thrown into the fighting, and it was only in the later stages of the offensive, at the end of October and on into early November, that the 42nd Division, with the 69th, were involved. There was still some hard-fighting to b done at that point though, and the 69th was involved in the capture of the Hill 262 position on the banks of the Meuse on the 7th November.

With the end of the Meuse/Argonne offensive, the fighting on the western front was just about done. While we will check in on the last days of the war for the 69th in time, for now, we must switch back to the Irish units of the British Army, and document their final struggles against the Germans, in this, the eleventh hour of the war.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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