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The Charge Into Gesnes: September 29, 1918
Hundreds of soldiers were killed or wounded one-hundred years ago today when the 362nd Infantry Regiment charged across two miles of open fields to take Gesnes, a small village in the Meuse-Argonne. Among those killed were several members of the 362nd Officers football team and one member of Camp Lewis' 1918 Rose Bowl team.
The previous post described how the 91st Division and its infantry regiments -the 361st, 362nd, 363rd, and 364th- went over the top the morning of September 26th at the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They penetrated several miles into the German lines, taking Epinonville that day, only to be ordered to withdraw so the American lines could be evened up.
The Germans reinforced Epinonville overnight making the effort to retake the town on the 27th deadlier than the previous day. At one point in the battle, Colonel John “Gatling Gun” Parker, whose machine gun support had been critical twenty years earlier covering the American troops charging up San Juan Hill, personally led the charge up the hill as the regiment took Epinonville for the second day in a row. Shortly after taking Epinonville, a double column of one hundred German soldiers was spotted marching through a nearby clearing, unaware the Americans controlled Epinonville. Three of Capt. Lige Worsham’s machine guns waited until the entire German column was exposed in the clearing before opening fire, wiping them out.
The 91st Division took additional ground on the 28th leaving them approximately three miles from the village of Gesnes, which sat in the Kreimhilde Stellung trench works and was supported by German artillery on a hill immediately behind the village. That evening, the unit received orders to take Gesnes the following day and to do so at all costs.
The 91st, led by the 362nd, moved forward fighting under heavy artillery fire through the Bois de Cierge, a wooded area straddling the right side of their valley and the left side of the 37th Division’s area of responsibility and soon reached the reverse slope of a ridge two miles outside of Gesnes. Between the 362nd and Gesnes was a shallow, open valley with three softly rolling ridges running parallel to their lines. The ridges in the open fields afforded little coverage given the German machine guns and light artillery positioned to the sides and on the hills beyond Gesnes. Other machine gun nests were hidden in and around the town. All had clear lines of fire on the open field.
Shortly before 3:30 P.M., the Americans shelled the town of Gesnes and began the attack across the open fields. The companies advanced in waves across the fields, with Worsham’s machine gun company repositioning itself as the other companies advanced past the first of the rolling ridges. Worsham continued to lead from the front and at one point, took over a captured German machine gun, turning it on the fleeing enemy. The attack continued across the two miles of open field with the men charging to points in which the smallest roll of the land might afford protection, but terrible numbers of dead and wounded were strewn across the meadow.
The attack continued for two hours before the American troops took the town, but it was a costly charge. Among the many killed din action were three men who had played on the 362nd football team twelve months before. Capt. Worsham, who had played football at Purdue in 1904, was killed in action, as was his friend, Lt. Ralph Hurlburt, who played for Michigan in 1909 and 1910. Another officer killed in the charge on Gesnes was Lt. Frank Gard, a Stanford athlete considered by most to be America's finest rugby player a few years earlier. He had also played end for the Camp Lewis or 91st Division team in the 1918 Rose Bowl when they lost to the Mare Island Marines.
By taking Gesnes, the 362nd became the first regiment in the Meuse-Argonne to penetrate Kriemhilde Stellung, the last of the Germans’ four main trench systems. While taking Gesnes speaks to the valor of its men, doing so put the 362nd in an exposed position. They were two miles ahead of the units on either side of their position. Holding that ground was untenable given the losses suffered over the last four days, so they were ordered to withdraw from Gesnes under cover of darkness. Having twice achieved their objective at heavy cost, only to be ordered to return to an earlier position, the 362nd performed a slow withdrawal, carrying the wounded back to safer territory and bringing back many of the dead, a task that took all night.
The 362nd lost over 500 men during the attack on Gesnes. More broadly, having completed four days of fighting, the 91st Division had already lost more than one quarter of its men. It was a pace that could not be sustained and the division was put into reserve the next day to rehabilitate and re-equip.
Although the 91st Division suffered terrible losses, one soldier that survived the attack on Gesnes was Pvt. William J. Lake. Lake had rejoined the regiment that morning after recuperating from the Spanish Flu in England. Lake was a member of Worsham's machine gun company and had met with Worsham that morning to get his assignment. Although Worsham lost his life that day, Lake lived to be 108 years old and proved to be the longest surviving veteran of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; he was also among the longest living doughboys.
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