Author Topic: Sgt York's Fight - 82nd "All American" Division Chatel-Chehery - 100 Years  (Read 543 times)

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Offline ArizonaTank

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Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Chatel-Chehery, France, October 8th, 1918

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, is the largest battle in US history.  1.2 million US troops fought against tenacious German opposition, a month before the end of WWI.  At the height of the fighting, the US was taking 20,000 casualties a week. 

On October 6th, as part of the second phase of the offensive, the US 82nd, “All American” Division replaced the tired 28th Division in the final push towards the Hindenburg Line.  The village of Chatel-Chehery had just been taken, and would become the springboard for the continued advance. 

The 82nd was inserted to attack the German flank, and relieve pressure on the 77th Division so the “Lost Battalion” could be rescued. 

This map is from the US Army's Center for Military History. It shows the 82nd flank attack that convinced the Germans to relieve pressure on the 77th and the “Lost Battalion”


The axis of the American attack was heading northwest from hill 223 to a rail line about 2 miles away.  On the left of end of the American assault was a platoon from G Company, of the 328th Infantry.   Shortly after the 0610 H hour, the attack quickly stalled under heavy German machine gun and artillery fire.   To dislodge the Germans, Corporal Alvin York’s platoon, went around the German position's flank.  While they were able to get behind the German machine guns, causalities in the platoon were heavy; York was just a corporal, but found himself in a command of the platoon, now only a small group of eight troops. 

Google Street View: The Google street view is looking north-northwest along the main street in the village.   In the distance, behind the church steeple you can see the top of hill 223 (strangely Google street view doesn’t get closer).   Hill 223, was the base for an attack by the US 328th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd on October 8th, 1918.  The defending units of the German 2nd Landwehr Division, along with several supporting units, had set up strong machine gun positions, in the hills west and north of this location.

https://www.google.com/maps/@49.280579,4.953989,3a,75y,335.3h,77.76t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sbpzAmvLYSMFvqEqY1wnYGQ!2e0

York, an excellent backwoods marksman, moved away from his platoon, and took up a firing position, low on the slope of the hill.  The German machine gunners turned their guns to face the rear threat.  The gunners had to depress their guns, and aim by raising their heads.  York later said: “every time a head done come up, I knocked it down.”  Desperate to rid themselves of the threat, the Germans tried a bayonet charge on York’s position.  With combined rifle and pistol fire, York stopped the charge.  He then went back to taking out gunners.  It was too much for the Germans and they surrendered.  In the end, York, and his depleted platoon, brought in 132 prisoners (including 4 officers).  York would win the Medal of Honor for his actions.

York's Words

During the war, Alvin York kept a diary, and in the late 1920s he published this along with his story, in a book called; “In His Own Words”, edited by Tom Skeyhill. Here is how York described the most intense part of his fight that day. Note that his editor kept York's original dialect and spelling:

That machine-gun burst came sorter sudden and unexpected. And it done got us hard. The moment it begun the German prisoners fell flat on their faces. So did the rest of us American boys who were still standing. You see, while we were capturing headquarters the German machine gunners up there on the hill seed us and done turned their guns around and let us have it.

After the first few bursts a whole heap of other machine guns joined in. There must have been over twenty of them and they kept up a continuous fire. Never letting up. Thousands of bullets kicked up the dust all around us. The undergrowth was cut down like as though they used a scythe. The air was just plumb full of death. Some of our boys done huddled up against the prisoners and so were able to get some protection and at the same time guard the prisoners. Some others crawled under cover, or jumped up and got behind trees. I was caught out in the open,^a little bit to the left and in front of the group of prisoners and about twenty-five yards away from the machine guns which were in gun pits and trenches upon the hillside above me. I was now in charge.

But I hadn't time to give no orders nohow. There was such a noise and racket all around that I would not have been heard even if I had done given them, I had no time nohow to do nothing but watch them there German machine gunners and give them the best 1 had. Every time I seed a German I jes teched him off. At first I was shooting from a prone position; that is lying down; jes like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn't miss a German's head or body at that distance. And I didn't. Besides, it weren't no time to miss nohow. I knowed that in order to shoot me the Germans would have to get their heads up to see where I was lying. And I knowed that my only chance was to keep their heads down. And I done done it I covered their positions and let fly every time I seed anything to shoot at. Every time a head come up I done knocked it down. Then they would sorter stop for a moment and then another head would come up and I would knock it down, too. I was giving them the best I had. I was right out in the open and the machine guns were spitting fire and cutting up all around me something awful. But they didn't seem to be able to hit me. All the time the Germans were shouting orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I still hadn't time or a chance to look around for the other boys. I didn't know where they were now. I didn't know what they were doing. I didn't even know if they were still living. Later on they done said that in the thick of the fight they didn't fire a shot.

Of course, all of this only took a few minutes. As soon as I was able I stood up and begun to shoot off hand, which is my favourite position. 1 was still sharpshooting with that-there old army rifle. I used up several clips. The barrel was getting hot and my rifle ammunition was running low, or was where it was hard for me to get at it quickly. But I had to keep on shooting jes the same. In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to come and they were coming right smart. I only had about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off,too.

I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't: want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me. Then I returned to the rifle, and kept right on after those machine guns. I knowed now that if I done kept my head and didn't run out of ammunition I had them. So I done hollered to them to come down and give up. I didn't want to kill any more'n I had to. I would tech a couple of them off and holler again. But I guess they couldn't understand my language, or else they couldn't hear me in the awful racket that was going on all around. Over twenty Germans were killed by this time.


82nd Division

The 82nd Division was a National Army division, made up draftees.  Since it was made up of troops from all 48 states, it was named “The All American” division. In WWII, the division was trained as an “Airborne” division, and the rest is history.

York said this about the men in the division.

The American-born boys and the Greeks, Irish, Poles,
Jews, and Italians who were in my platoon in the
World War. A heap of them couldn't speaker write
the American language until they larned it in the
Army. Over here in the training camps and behind
the lines in France a right-smart lot of them boozed,
gambled, cussed, and went A. W. O. L. But once
they got into it Over There they kept on a-going.
They were only tollable shots and burned up a most
awful lot of ammunition. But jest the same they
always kept on a-going. Most of them died like
men, with their rifles and bayonets in their hands and
their faces to the enemy. I'm a-thinkin they were
real heroes. Any way they were my buddies. I jes
learned to love them.


Helmet with "AA" for "All American". This is still the insignia for the 82nd Airborne Division



Sgt York

York was actually only a corporal during the fight. He later received the promotion and a Medal of Honor for his action on October 8th.

York, grew up in poverty in Pall Mall, Tennessee. Hunting game for the dinner table was a part of survival, and York became a good shot from an early age. His father died when he was a youth, so York stepped in to lead the family.

As a young man, York worked hard, but played even harder; drinking heavily and frequenting bars. Over time however, he became deeply religious, and put away his bad habits and became a very active member of his church.

When war came, he was already 29, and he initially tried for exemption from being drafted on the grounds of being a conscious objector. This is the text of his affidavit to the Tennessee draft board.

Affidavit of Person Whose Discharge Is
Sought. State of Tennessee, County of Fentress, to wit: I, Alvin Cullum York, do solemnly affirm that I am 29 years old and reside at Pall Mall, Tenn., and that Serial Number 378 was given me by Local Board L. B. for County Fentress, and that claim for my discharge was filed with said Local Board on the 28th day of August, 1917, on the ground that I was a person who was a member of any well known religious organization, organized and existing May 18, 1917, whose then existing creed or principle forbade its members to participate in war in any form and whose religious principles are against war or participation therein, in accordance with the creed or principle of said religious organization. I do further solemnly swear that I am a member, in good faith and good standing of the Church of Christ in Christian Union, which, on the i8th day
of May, 1917, was organized and existing as a well recognized sect or organization whose existing creed or principles forbade its members to participate in war In any form. I do further solemnly swear that my religious convictions are against war or participation therein in accordance with the creed or principles of said religious organization. I do hereby bind myself to report in person and to notify said Local Board, at once, whenever the conditions entitling me to discharge cease to exist. A. C. YOKK, Pall Mall, Tenn.


York's request to be exempted from the draft was turned down, and he reported for duty at Camp Gordon, Georgia for training. He was an exemplary soldier, so York's commanding officer and another officer who were also deeply religious, spent long hours discussing the Bible with York. Eventually these talks allowed York to consider that within Christianity a justified war was possible.

Sgt York picture taken in 1919. Also, his draft card, with his concientous objectector declaration (these are available from the internet archive)


York took his fame, and dedicated his life to supporting his church, and improving rural education. He tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but was turned down due to age.

This is a Google Street view of York's home in Pall Mall, TN (now a State Park):
https://www.google.com/maps/@36.542008,-84.9606707,3a,85.2y,16.1h,100.91t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s6jX0OH3fS-0J2iYpq-T8GQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Holllywood

Unlike some military heroes, York remained humble in the face of tremendous publicity.  Not until 20 years after the event did he agree to sell his story to Hollywood. He used the funds to donate to the charities he supported. 

The movie "Sergeant York" was nominated for 11 Oscars in 1942, winning two. 

The Hollywood version of the fight, from the 1941 movie "Sergeant York", with Gary Cooper, is somewhat accurate; the map in the beginning of the video is not a bad depiction of the actual battlefield (even the German officer who speaks English in the movie is accurate…Lt. Vollmer, one of the officers York captured worked in the US before the war).

Here is the clip: 




Archaeology and Biography

Over the years (and another world war), the exact location of York’s fight was lost.  About ten years ago, a team of off-duty US military, dedicated themselves to finding the location.  Based on their extensive research and archeological finds, the team rediscovered the locations.  A “circular walk” and monument was put in place to mark the location.

The report of the team is available on-line.  It has quite a bit a military analysis and some great maps.
http://www.battledetective.com/images/York%20Spot/Lt%20Col%20Mastriano's%20report.pdf

The author of the report wrote the best book I have encountered on Sgt. York's fight. Colonel Mastriano's research covers not just the US side of the fight, but an in-depth look at the German side:
https://www.amazon.com/Alvin-York-Biography-American-Warriors/dp/0813145198

A biography published just after the war is called "Sgt York and His People", not nearly as good as Mastriano's book, but the price is right...free download. 
https://archive.org/details/sergeantyorkhisp00cowa/page/n9

Wargaming

Sadly, I know of no wargaming depiction of this fight.  However, the maps and unit data between Douglas Mostriano's York biography, and the "Report of the York Discovery Team" (both links are above), would give some ambitious gamer everything they need to put a good game together (hint, hint...:) )










« Last Edit: January 08, 2019, 06:52:54 AM by ArizonaTank »
"Baseball's Sad Lexicon" - 1910

These are the saddest of possible words:
      “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
      Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
      Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
      “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

"Tinker to Evers to Chance"
"where doubles go to die"

These three players helped the Cubs win four National League championships and two World Series from 1906 to 1910.


Offline ArizonaTank

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“Typical American Megalomania” - The German Response
Lt. Vollmer, German Battalion Commander, reacting to York's description of events


After the war, the German officers put forth their idea of what happened during York's fight.

An interesting read, that frankly comes across as self serving is this German response to York's feats compiled in “The Sergeant York Controversy”.  Most of the book comes from some indignant reaction from the German officers when York published his memoir in 1928.

The basic German premise seems to be that York was just full of boastful hot air; he could not have done everything he described.

In York's description, he uses his pistol to force the German Battalion Commander, Lt. Vollmer to order a large group of Germans to surrender.

In “Controversy” the German officers state that their troops would not have surrendered so easily. 

Of course the German account ignores the reality of Western Front in October 1918. In fact, Germans were surrendering in mass groups, up and down the Western Front. For example, an American sergeant, with an empty pistol, brought in 300 prisoners at St. Mihiel. In another St. Mihiel incident, two dougboys, armed with sticks, took the surrender of several dozen Germans. After the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, the British had long lines of “thousands” of prisoners, guarded by only a handful of Tommies, walking tamely back to collection points. 

Anyway, “The Sergeant York Controversy” is worth a look if you want a deep dive...and don't mind losing a couple of bucks on Kindle.

https://www.amazon.com/Sergeant-York-Controversy-German-Perspective-ebook/dp/B015WSIO3O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1538941671&sr=8-1&keywords=the+sgt+york+controversy

In the book, this is how Lt. Vollmer, the Battalion Commander of the 1st Battalion 120th Landwehr, whom York captured, describes the situation. A big sticking point with the Germans is that they believed York said Vollmer was captured while “drinking coffee”:

If it was York who disarmed me and led me to the American advance guard company, it is very unlikely that he commanded those elements which gained our rear. The individual incidents followed each other so rapidly that he could not have made his way through the dense undergrowth and reached me in such a short time. As may be noted from my description, my entire staff consisted of three persons at the most. I was in no mood for drinking coffee. As to the remainder of York's description - provided it applies to me at all - it is true only in that York constantly kept his pistol in the small of my back. Everything else is pure imagination, probably the product of a typical American megalomania.

As to the machine guns, I recall having seen only one gun of the 4th Company; in the morning of October 8, this gun was still in action, despite the fact that it was located only a few paces from the American advance guard company (obviously, this is the 'machine gun nest' referred to by Sergeant York). I observed no minenwerfer [mortar]; nor did I know whether and where any were employed.

In conclusion, I wish to say a few words about the morale of my organization (120th Landwehr Infantry). On September 23, 1918, the Allies launched their offensive with a tremendous superiority both in men and armament; our losses were immense. At noon, October 7, Captain v. Sick reported the effective strength of the companies to have dwindled from 60-70 men each to 10-15 men each. Although the 1st Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, was still considerably stronger, the men were completely worn out from constantly remaining on the alert, while the Americans kept firing on our shelterless positions day and night. Reporting to the Regimental Commander that I was gravely concerned about our situation, I received the bitter reply that we had no reserves. While marching back to the reserve line, October 7, and again while returning to the firing line the same day, we passed a great number of artillery positions that had been shot to bits and were in a state of chaos. Part of my own company, the 5th Company, 120th Landwehr Infantry, was lying on the NORTH-SOUTH ROAD; some dead, others wounded, those men were the victims of one single shell. Our men were so utterly fatigued that several companies even failed to call for the rations which the field kitchens brought up during the night of October 7/8. The inherent sound morale of our troops is reflected best in the fact that the 4th Company, which was lying opposite of the American advance guard company and bore the brunt of the hostile fire, held its position to the very last.


Otto. The Sergeant York Controversy: The German Perspective (Kindle Locations 525-532). Sturmpanzer.com. Kindle Edition.

For the record, here is what York said in his memoir about when Vollmer was captured. These troops were captured by York's platoon, before his platoon sergeant was wounded. Also, York got his rank wrong, Vollmer was not a Major, only a Lieutenant, but Vollmer was the Battalion Commander:

And when we jumped across a little stream of water that was there they was a Bout 15 or 20 Germans jumped up and throwed up their hands and said Comrade So the one in charge of us Boys told us not to shoot they was going to give up any way.

It was headquarters. There were orderlies, stretcher bearers, runners, a major and two officers sitting or
standing around a sort of small wooden shack. They seemed to be having a sort of conference. And they done jes had breakfast too. And there was a mess of beefsteaks, jellies, jams, and loaf bread around.

They were unarmed. All except the major. And some of them were in their shirt sleeves. By the way
they were going on we knowed they never even dreamed that there were any Americans near them.
Of course, we were 'most as surprised as they were, coming on them so sudden. But we kept our heads
and jumped them right smart, and covered them and told them to put up their hands and to keep them up.

And they done done it. And we fired a few shots just to sorter impress them. I guess they thought
the whole American Army was in their rear. And we didn't stop to tell them any different.











"Baseball's Sad Lexicon" - 1910

These are the saddest of possible words:
      “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
      Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
      Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
      “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

"Tinker to Evers to Chance"
"where doubles go to die"

These three players helped the Cubs win four National League championships and two World Series from 1906 to 1910.