Campaign History of the 151e Régiment d'Infanterie - XXV
~ 1918 ~
After a winter hiatus from translating and transcribing regimental JMOs, we now resume the daily history of the 151 on a periodic basis. Upon completing the instruction of the 5th US Marines and 104th US Infantry Regiment at the end of 1917, the 151 passed the bitterly cold and snowy winter of 1917-18 in positions around Flirey, Limey, and Regnéville, which were part of the St. Mihiel salient. When they first arrived, it was a fairly quiet sector with only occasional light skirmishes. But with US forces taking up a portion of the front beside them, American led raids combined with a constant harassing fire on the enemy caused the sector to become ‘hot’. German retaliatory fire often involved mustard gas barrages, much to the chagrin of the troops. The winter and spring passed much in the same fashion, even after the German army went on the attack elsewhere on the front. But eventually the 151 would be thrust back into the maelstrom of combat in what would be a return to the deadly open warfare.
On 9 June 1918, the final operation of the massive German Spring Offensives that had begun on 21 March was unleashed. Code-named Gneisenau (alternatively called the Battle of the Matz), German forces consisting of 21 divisions attacking across a 23 mile front along the Matz River, between Mont Didier and Noyon. The assault struck the French 3rd Army and though the French were aware of the attack in advance and made preparations for a defense-in-depth, reinforcement from the 69e Division -- which included the 151e RI -- would be required. At this time, the 151 was already in a weakened state due to a strong epidemic of Spanish flu sweeping through the ranks.
On 8 June the regiment was transported by rail and then trucks to Compiègne, arriving at Gournay-sur-Aronde the next day. With the French line bending back on itself, the 151’s mission was to stop the enemy advance no matter the cost. Sent out at night into a corn field, the companies struggled to make contact with their liaisons. On 10 June after crossing the Compiègne – Ressons-sur-Matz road, they were met with a hail of machine-gun fire and then fleeing survivors from other units, who told them that the enemy had attacked en masse without artillery preparation or support. The 151 slammed into German formations south of Bois de Ressons and counter-attacks (supported by Renault light tanks) against vastly superior numbers. Without artillery support of their own, the battle was purely an infantry on infantry fight. Soldat August Bordinat described the fighting:
We shoot into this human wave without stop, which then hesitates in the face of our rifle and machine-gun fire crackling away from all sides. The Boches stop and we do the same. For two hours, there was only the whistling of bullets, no cannon shots at all, on either side. We don’t see anything else, no planes nor cannons. Our ammunition runs out and we have to rummage for more from our comrades killed beside us. Our fire slows, as we now have to make each shot count.The companies hold their ground, advance, then retreat, in a seesaw type of fighting not seen since August 1914. Gradually the 151 had to give way and began to conduct a fighting withdrawal towards Ferme Portes, inflicting heavy casualties on the German infantry. Eventually the weight of German troops and the threat of being encircled forced the 151 back. Though the unit had conducted itself well and delayed the enemy’s advance, the feeling in the ranks was that the Germans were close to a breakthrough. After falling back further the next day, the shattered remains of the regiment dug in on a ridge and awaited the enemy’s continued assault. Bordinat reccounts what happens next:
Suddenly, at around 4.30 pm, this large grey mass emerges onto the Gournay – Compiègne road. We stiffened up waiting to receive them, finger on the trigger, waiting for the signal to fire. Suddenly, an artillery barrage of all calibres is unleashed against them, while we open up on them with rifles and machine guns. In light of this good trick played by the artillerymen, we laugh and even dance about. Arms and legs fly through the air as the terrified Boches flee backward and try to pass through our barrage. Almost all are blown away by the savage barrage.The 151’s tenacious defense, together with the rest of the 69th Division, had limited the enemy’s gains to around a kilometer. Its conduct had also earned the regiment its third citation in the Orders of the Army but at the cost of nearly 640 men and officers, including Lieut. Courreaux (pioneers platoon), Sous-Lieut. Lecerf (2 Co.) and Sous-Lieut. de la Ferrière (9 Co.) killed, and Capt. Pey (3 Bat.), Capt. Edmond (2 Co.), Lieut. Donsimoni (1 Co.), Lieut. Metayer, Lieut. Dumesnil (11 Co.), Sous-Lieut. Puzeuat (11 Co.), and Lieut. Pegon (6 Co.) wounded. Sous-Lieut. Pochon (11 Co.) is missing.
The next day, the French counter-attack and the 151 makes contact with enemy forces south of Porte Ferme and Bois de Perimont, with brisk skirmishing erupting along the line as German inflitrations are beaten back by rifle and machine-gun fire. By the end of the day, the Germans appear to have entrenched in place and the 151 is ordered to do likewise. While the situation remains at stand-still on the 151 front, French counter-attacks involving 4 divisions and 150 tanks had made greater progress on their left. Losses for the regiment on 11 June include 8 killed and 27 wounded, including Lieut. Le Tollec (37mm gun platoon) who is wounded. Over the course of the next several days, the situation remains static, with only light skirmishing between the two sides resulting in 5 killed and 23 wounded. But the German threat has been checked and the final German push to end the war put to an end. It would now be the Allies turn to strike.
By the end of the day, the Germans appear to have entrenched along a line stretching from Cote 68 to 400 meters south of Porte Ferme and the top of the Bois "Le Chêne" ravine. , 1 and 3 Bats. are order to entrench where they are (2 Bat. has been assigned to 162 RI for the day) On 12 June, the situation remains unchanged. The front of 3 Bat. is highly extended. The 2 Bat. had returned and moved to the right of 3 Bat., ensuring liaison with the 162 RI. Regimental records (dating from 14-16 September) of the regiment's effectives reflect this grim reality: 1 Bat. (Cmdt. Bourgoin) - 12 officers, 483 men 2 Bat. (Cmdt. Martin) - 20 officers, 775 men 3 Bat. (Cmdt. Le Boulanger) - 8 officers, 480 men With the German advance brought to a decisive halt, it was the Allies’ turn to strike back. On 15 July, the 151 was sent to Compiègne and proceeded over the next several days eastward to make a push on Soissons, supported by tanks, armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, and planes. They’d received little in the way of reinforcements and with the units so depleted from combat losses, the 151 would primarily be used as a supporting unit and mopping up force working in coordination with American elements. With the exception of a powerful thunder and lightning storm on the evening of the 17th, the nights were clear and the days hot. The men ran out of water and with the swollen corpses of men and horses choking up the streams, there was little that could be done to replenish their canteens. To make matters worse, German artillery regularly sent over Phosegene and mustard gas shells. Over the course of days of hard fighting, the 151 retook the villages of Saconin-Breuil, Vauxbuin, and Villeneuve-Saint-Germain, and was now within striking distance of Soissons. A period of desperately needed rest and resupply was given. The hot humid days of July were accompanied by frequent rain showers, turning the ground into a muddy morass.