Tragedy at Fismette, France, 1918

By Edward G. Lengel
1/6/2011 • Military History

An exploding phosphorous round silhouettes a helmeted American doughboy of the 28th Division at Fismette in August 1918. The French-ordered attack was a costly failure. (National Archives)
An exploding phosphorous round silhouettes a helmeted American doughboy of the 28th Division at Fismette in August 1918. The French-ordered attack was a costly failure. (National Archives)

“Here they come!”

‘Staring past the wall, Allen saw a sudden puff of smoke that rolled forward with a jet of yellow flame. Men curled up as smoke and flame rolled over them, and he dazedly thought of burning leaves’

To the surviving doughboys, the cry seemed like a death knell. Only a few dozen of them remained, scattered in the cellars of half-ruined houses and strung out behind a battered stone wall that spanned the northern edge of the village. They had been fighting for weeks and had not eaten a scrap of food for four days. Nerves frazzled and lungs wracked by gas, they slumped at their posts, seemingly more dead than alive. They had long since used up their grenades. German artillery had knocked out their only machine gun. Their rifle ammunition was running low. And they were trapped.

The doughboys occupied the village of Fismette, on the north bank of France’s Vesle River. German troops occupied the steep hillsides that dominated the village to the north, east and west. To the south the debris-choked river flowed 45 feet wide and 15 deep. A man could swim it if he didn’t mind slithering across submerged coils of barbed wire and risking German machine-gun fire. Otherwise, the only way across was a shattered stone footbridge that barely linked one bank to the other. Clambering over the bridge was a slow business—impossible in daylight, due to enemy mortars and machine guns, and risky at night.

For the past two hours the Germans had bombarded Fismette with every gun in their arsenal. Now dawn had broken, and German observers stationed on the hills above or flying in planes overhead would watch the Americans’ every movement for at least the next 12 hours. It was at this moment—when the doughboys’ situation seemed impossibly desperate—the Germans chose to attack. A full battalion of elite stormtroopers armed with rifles, grenades and flamethrowers rushed the weak American line. As thick black smoke and flames spurted toward them, the ranking American officer, Major Alan Donnelly, could find only two words to say.

“Hold on!” he shouted.

The Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division, the famed “Keystone,” was among the best the Americans had in France in the summer of 1918. “They struck me as the best soldiers I had ever seen,” said Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan, commander of the division’s 55th Infantry Brigade. “They were veterans, survivors who didn’t seem to be oppressed by the death of other men.”

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 109th, 110th, 111th and 112th infantry regiments formed the 7th Division. Later that year the unit was redesignated the 28th Division, assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces and shipped to France under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles H. Muir. Though grouchy and inflexible, Muir knew what fighting meant. Serving as a sharpshooter during the Spanish-American War, he had received the Distinguished Service Cross for single-handedly killing the entire crew of a Spanish artillery piece. Muir’s men affectionately called him “Uncle Charley.”

The Pennsylvanians entered combat for the first time in early July 1918, fighting as part of the American III Corps under Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard. As no independent American Army in France yet existed, however, they were under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Jean Degoutte’s French Sixth Army. Attacking northward from the Marne River about 50 miles east of Paris, they pushed into an enemy-held salient backed by the Aisne River. On August 4 the Americans captured the town of Fismes on the south bank of the Vesle River. They had advanced 20 miles in just over a month and cleared out most of the German salient. Degoutte nevertheless ordered the 28th Division to cross the Vesle, capture Fismette and hold it as a bridgehead.

Muir and Bullard vehemently disagreed with Degoutte’s orders. The bridgehead at Fismette was too vulnerable, they argued. Enemy-held hills overlooked it on all sides, and withdrawal under fire over the Vesle would be next to impossible. But Degoutte would have none of it, and the American generals had to swallow their objections. Until the independent American Army that General John J. Pershing had sought for so long became a reality, they had no choice but to follow the Frenchman’s orders.

The Germans did not concede Fismette easily. On the night of August 6–7, troops of the 112th Infantry attacked the village, but German resistance was too strong, and they had to withdraw. They tried again the following morning after American artillery had laid down a heavy barrage, and after a savage street fight they gained enough of a toehold to hang on. For the next 24 hours attacks, counterattacks and constant hand-to-hand fighting engulfed Fismette in an inferno of flame, smoke and noise.

Lieutenant Hervey Allen, a literate young man from Pittsburgh who would later become a successful novelist, approached the riverbank opposite Fismette late on the evening of August 9. His company of the 111th Infantry had been fighting the Germans for six weeks and had not received rations for the past few days. Allen’s thoughts were less than cheerful as he gazed across the Vesle at a churning cloud of smoke flickering with muzzle flashes and echoing with gunfire and explosions. Somewhere in there lay Fismette.

The infantrymen crossed the stone bridge just after midnight. As they picked their way forward, they prayed enemy flares would not light up the sky and expose them to machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the sky remained dark. Rifle fire intensified, however, as the doughboys entered Fismette. The Germans still held much of the village, and contested the Americans house to house. Allen’s captain led them through the village, dodging and sprinting, until they reached its northern edge just before dawn. Ahead, on a half-wooded upward slope cut by a small gully, German machine guns barked at them furiously from the shelter of some trees.

The captain ordered an attack but was shot dead as he led his men into the open. Allen and the others continued forward another 50 yards before retiring to the village with heavy losses. The few remaining officers in Allen’s company held a hurried conference in an old dugout. Their standing orders were to attack and seize the hills above Fismette, but this seemed insane when even survival was problematic. One of them, they decided, had to return to headquarters in Fismes and seek further orders. Allen said he could swim, so the other officers chose him.

Allen approached the riverbank by slithering down a muddy ditch, dragging his belly painfully over strands of barbed wire half-submerged in the mud. Small clouds of German mustard gas filled the ditch in places, and although he wore his mask, the gas burned his hands and other exposed patches of skin. Enemy shells fell nearby, stunning him into near-unconsciousness. Allen nevertheless made it to the river’s edge, where he slipped into the water, discarding his gas mask and pistol.

The lieutenant crossed the Vesle beneath the bridge, sometimes swimming and other times crawling over submerged barbed wire. As he reached the opposite bank, Allen’s heart sank. American and German machine guns constantly raked the shore. There seemed no way forward and no way back. “I lay there in the river for a minute and gave up,” he later remembered. “When you do that, something dies inside.”

After a moment, fortunately, Allen noticed a small culvert that offered just enough cover for him to make his way into Fismes. A few minutes later he was racing down rubble-strewn streets toward the dugout serving as battalion headquarters. No signposts were necessary—all he had to do was follow the macabre trail of dead runners’ corpses. He arrived at the dugout to the sight of an unexploded German shell wedged into the wall just over the entrance. Inside, Allen waded through a crowd of officers, wounded soldiers and malingerers to reach his battalion major. The major looked rather pleased with himself, for he had so far received only positive reports of the fighting in Fismette. Allen, as the only eyewitness present, quickly disabused him of his optimism. His duty done, the lieutenant saluted, moved to a corner and lost consciousness.

Several hours later an officer shook Allen awake and ordered him to guide a group of reinforcements back into Fismette. Night had fallen. Little remained of the bridge, and the surrounding area was strewn with shell holes, broken equipment and pieces of men. A sentry warned that the slightest sound would provoke German machine guns to open fire on the bridge, and that several runners had been killed trying to cross. Waves of nausea engulfed Allen. For a moment his resolve wavered. “No more machine guns, no more!” he said to himself over and over. An American sniper, sheltering nearby and waiting to fire at German muzzle-flashes, hissed, “Don’t stoop down, lieutenant—they are shooting low when they cut loose!”

Allen sucked in his stomach and led his men carefully over the bridge. As they reached midspan, an enemy flare lit up the sky. The doughboys stood frozen and prepared to die. “That,” Allen later recalled, “was undoubtedly the most intense moment I ever knew.” The flare seemed to float eternally, until it finally descended in a slow arc, sputtered and went out. Miraculously, the enemy had not fired a shot.

The hours that followed sank only partially into Allen’s memory, passing in a haze of sights, sounds and impressions. What he remembered most was weariness. “In that great time,” he later wrote, “there was never any rest or let-up until the body was killed or it sank exhausted.” Around him, the fighting continued without letup.

Months afterward many members of the regiment would receive medals in tribute to their bravery in Fismette. Sergeant James I. Mestrovitch rescued his wounded company commander under fire on August 10 and carried him to safety. Mestrovitch would receive the Medal of Honor for this act of heroism—but posthumously, as he was killed in action on November 4.

Lieutenant Bob Hoffman would return home with a Croix de guerre. He spent his days and nights in Fismette scouting German positions and fighting off counterattacks. One morning Hoffman noticed German preparations for an attack and deployed his men in a block of ruined houses they had linked together with strongpoints and tunnels. The Americans had just taken their positions, poking their rifles through apertures in the crumbling stone walls, when German soldiers came rushing down the street. Hoffman never forgot the sight: “Clumpety-clump, they were going, with their high boots and huge coal-bucket helmets. I can see them coming yet—bent over, rifle in one hand, potato-masher grenade in the other; husky, red-faced young fellows, their eyes almost popping out of their heads as they dashed down the street, necks red and perspiring.”

Hoffman had positioned his men well. As the 50 or so Germans advanced further into the village, they stumbled into preset kill zones and were shot down to a man. During the fighting, a young German popped into the doorway of the house where Hoffman had taken shelter and paused to catch his breath. Hoffman, standing in the semidarkness of the ruined house, hesitated for a split second as he decided what to do—shoot the German, challenge him to fight or just stick a bayonet in him? He chose the last option and lunged forward. The surprised German died spitted on the lieutenant’s bayonet.

After three days of fighting the 111th seemed in no condition to withstand a determined enemy attack. But everyone knew one was coming. One evening Hoffman led a scouting party that captured a teenaged German soldier. The frightened boy told his captors that German shock troops had arrived and were preparing an all-out assault on Fismette. Hoffman crept out along the village outskirts in a search for evidence to corroborate the boy’s story. He found Fismette strangely quiet. German artillery fired intermittently. Enemy snipers had gone dormant. American reinforcements had crossed the bridge without drawing fire. The only enemy activity seemed to be in the air. An unusual number of German planes were aloft, sputtering along slowly—and uncontested—above the village. A sense of stillness and expectancy reinforced Hoffman’s sense of foreboding.

Back across the river in Fismes the 111th regimental officers thought the tide had turned in their favor. Muir kept relaying messages from Degoutte—attack, advance, attack—and as the German guns fell silent, it seemed the Frenchman’s persistence had borne fruit. The time had come, they thought, to clear the Germans out of Fismette and seize the surrounding heights. Hoffman and Allen received their orders early in the morning on August 11. They must rouse every available man and attack at dawn. Fismette must be cleared. If the Germans fled as expected, the doughboys must also drive them from the surrounding hills.

“It was a frightful order, murder,” thought Allen. He asked Major Donnelly, whose 3rd Battalion would spearhead the attack, to reconsider. Donnelly brushed him off. Orders, he replied—they had no choice. The word “murder” also popped into Hoffman’s mind as he watched Donnelly assemble his men, but he stayed quiet. Neither Allen nor Hoffman took part in the initial attack—but they would share in its aftermath.

As the 3rd Battalion moved forward, the German artillery burst forth with sudden, frightful intensity. It was, indeed, murder. After a few minutes a handful of doughboys—all that remained of the battalion—came staggering back down the hill, chased by German shells. Donnelly, who had sent them forward, watched in silence. Then the American artillery retaliated, and Fismette burst into flames. Allen took refuge in a cellar, surrounded by the dead, the dying and men driven half-mad by shell concussions. Hoffman, delirious with exhaustion, made a feeble attempt to care for the wounded before he too hunkered down in a basement. There was nothing more any of them could do.

The German bombardment continued all the rest of that day and through the night. Toward dawn the shelling intensified. Then, as daylight broke, the German guns fell silent. “That,” Allen knew, “meant only one thing.” Hardly conscious of what he was doing, he ordered every man who could stand out of the dugout and drove them toward a wall to face the enemy attack. “They are all dead up there along the wall, lieutenant,” someone said. Hoffman, nearby and heading for the same wall, thought the same: “Everywhere I looked were dead men. There seemed to be no live men around to man the guns.”

“Here they come!” someone shouted. “Hold on!” Donnelly cried.

Staring past the wall, Allen saw a sudden puff of smoke that rolled forward with a jet of yellow flame. Men curled up as smoke and flame rolled over them, and he dazedly thought of burning leaves. Another flash burst among some nearby houses. One of Allen’s men stood up and whirled to face him, his body outlined against the flames. “Oh! My God!” he screamed, staring wide-eyed into the lieutenant’s face. “Oh God!”

Hoffman felt the same knot of terror in the pit of his stomach as he watched the flamethrowers move forward, borne by men with tanks on their backs, clutching hoses that spewed liquid fire up to 50 yards. His body seemed to shrivel with the heat as banks of smoke wafted past him.

For all their terror and exhaustion, the doughboys held. From behind the wall and along the village perimeter, they opened fire on the German stormtroopers. They concentrated on the men with flamethrowers. Their morale soared when a bullet punctured a flamethrower tank and a German erupted into flames. The other flamethrowers followed, one by one like roman candles, until all that remained was the smell of burning flesh. Rifle and grenade-toting German infantry surged forward regardless and managed to drive the doughboys from several houses. But the enemy had spent his energy. The American line held.

That night troops of the 109th and 112th regiments relieved the survivors. Hoffman’s entire company had been reduced to just 32 men. Allen was in no condition to call roll for his company. Suffering from gas inhalation and burns, shrapnel wounds and shell shock, he was evacuated and spent the remainder of the war in a French hospital.

The tragedy of Fismette had yet to reach its denouement. The Americans cleared the village step by step, and on August 22 they declared it under control. The Germans continued to hold the heights, however, and were reinforcing their lines.

By this time the defense of Fismette had reverted to the hands of the 112th Infantry. Its commander, Colonel George C. Rickards, knew the division was exhausted and that it lacked further reserves to meet a German attack. On August 26, Rickards invited Bullard and Muir to his headquarters in Fismes. After a brief consultation, all three men agreed the Americans must abandon Fismette. Muir promptly issued an order to evacuate the “uselessly small bridgehead,” and Bullard approved. Unfortunately, Bullard’s chief of staff tattled to Degoutte before Rickards could execute the order. Furious, Degoutte countermanded Muir’s order and ordered Bullard and Muir to hold Fismette at all costs.

That night companies G and H of the 112th—236 men in all—took up positions in Fismette. At dawn the following morning, August 27, German artillery laid down a barrage around the village, destroying the bridge over the Vesle and sealing off the beleaguered Americans. Twenty minutes later 1,000 German stormtroopers with machine guns, hand grenades and the dreaded flamethrowers descended on Fismette. The Pennsylvanians held on doggedly for several hours, inflicting severe casualties on the attackers. The Germans nevertheless broke through to the river at several points, separating the Americans into isolated pockets they then methodically destroyed. Just over 30 doughboys managed to swim across the Vesle to safety. Of the remainder, an estimated 75 were killed and 127 taken prisoner. Fismette was back in German hands.

Bullard blamed Degoutte for the disaster and wrote a letter to Pershing describing how the French general had countermanded Muir’s orders to evacuate Fismette. Degoutte tried to make amends by publicly praising the 28th Division for its gallantry. Pershing was not mollified. A few days later he confronted Bullard at headquarters. “Why did you not disobey the order given by General Degoutte?” he demanded.

Nothing like Fismette, Pershing resolved, must ever happen again. From then on the bulk of American forces in Europe would fight under American command. On August 10, even as Hervey Allen and Bob Hoffman fought for their lives in Fismette, the independent American First Army was formed. It would spearhead the American drive to victory that ended with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

For further reading Ed Lengel recommends Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I, by Hervey Allen, and Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in World War I, edited by James H. Hallas.

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