The caption scrawled in pencil on the back of this 93-year-old photograph reads:
The photo would have been taken sometime between July 19-23, 1918. Men of the 1st Engineers, 1st Division, AEF, appear to be clearing away rubble, gathering it into mule-drawn wagons to be hauled away and dumped, or used to fill in shell holes in the road.
During the heavy fighting of these few days in mid-July, in which the 1st Division suffered over 7000 casualties, the Engineers traded in their shovels for rifles and moved right into the front lines. In several of their companies the casualty rate was as high as among any of the infantry companies. Altogether the 1st Engineer Regiment lost 251 men and 5 officers during the five days of fighting at Soissons.
A critical part of the Engineers’ support of the attack was keeping the roads cleared and repaired so that the artillery and tanks could move up into their front-line positions. One description taken from A History of the 1st Engineers, 1st US Division (Coblenz, Germany, April 1919) which describes this activity, appears to accord closely with the scene shown in the photograph:
‘D’ and ‘F’ Companies moved as far as Division Headquarters during the night 17-18 and at 3:30 AM on the 18th moved up to COEUVRES to be there by 6 AM and clear routes for the artillery. This work was done and required the removal of debris from the streets of COEUVERS and the filling of shell holes.
This isn’t to say conclusively that the scene in the photograph occured in Coeuvres on July 18, although it very well could have. As the History of the 1st Engineers makes clear, road-clearing and repair was carried on by the engineers in a number of locations on the Soissons front during the period July 19-23 (and this in addition to their stints of front-line fighting alongside the infantry).
Comments and observations about this photograph, or about the 1st Engineers at Soissons, are most welcome. Any additional information obtained will be printed here, with the contributors acknowledged. (Particular thanks to Jim Broshot for alerting me to the online availaility of the History of the 1st Engineers).
Below is the entire chapter on Soissons from the History of the 1st Engineers. Descriptions of road repair are in bold type.
After one day’s stop at ROISSY and before our wagon trains had caught up with us, the Regiment received orders to load into French camions on the afternoon of July 15 for parts unknown. We didn’t know then, but have since learned that a truck movement for a combat division usually means that a fight is to be staged very soon and they are to participate. The movement started at 7:30 PM, and the troops were disembarked in the Bois de COMPIEGNE near PALESNES at 8 AM the next morning, where the First Division was being concentrated. One day was spent in the woods and on the afternoon of the following day, July 17, a movement was begun towards the front, for the division was scheduled to attack, the following morning, in the great Allied counter-offensive of July 18 that cut off the CHATEAU-THIERRY salient and proved to be the turning point in the war. Our wagon trains arrived just in time to move out with the troops and they had been almost constantly on the move for five days with practically no rest nor sleep.
Below is given report of the operations of the Engineer regiment during the attack that out-lines the action of the various companies:
“For the first two days, there was some engineer work done, but most of the regiment was used as infantry reserves for the brigades and the Division.
“The attack started at 4:45 AM, July I6 without any artillery preparation. On July 17, one company of engineers was ordered to report to each brigade commander. ‘B’ Company reported to the First Brigade and ‘I’ Company to the Second Brigade. On this date also ‘A’ Company was ordered to report to the French Commandant in charge of the tanks, which were to be used in the attack. Later on in the evening, ‘D’ and ‘F’ companies were ordered to report to the Commanding Officers of the artillery groups with the two brigades to assist the artillery in moving forward after the first phase of the attack. This left but one company, ‘C’ Company, which was held as a Division Reserve at Division Headquarters.
“The work will be taken up by days for the whole regiment”.
July 17 and Night 17-18.
‘A’ Company reported to the Commandant of Tanks at Division Headquarters at Mortefontaine at 7:30 PM. There were three groups of tanks. One platoon was assigned to each group and one platoon was held in reserve. The company was equipped with picks, shovels, axes and saws. Five men were assigned to each tank. Their duties were to clear obstruction from routes for the tanks and to assist them to get moving if they were stalled. This work was to be carried on up to the front line trenches. The work was satisfactorily accomplished as is evidenced by the attached translation of a letter of commendation from the French officer in charge.
The Company Commander of ‘B’ Company reported to the Brigade Commander during the afternoon and received instructions to take the company to Brigade Headquarters near Coeuvres, which was done during the night 17-18.
‘C’ Company moved up from the rear to Division Headquarters at Mortefontaine during the night 17-lSth and remained as Division Reserves.
‘D’ and ‘F’ Companies moved as far as Division Headquarters during the night 17-18 and at 3:30 AM on the 18th Company moved up to COEUVRES to be there by 6 AM and clear routes for the artillery. This work was done and required the removal of debris from the streets of COEUVERS and the filling of shell holes.
‘E’ Company reported to the Second Brigade commander and then moved up to the Brigade Headquarters during the night 17-18, July 18 and the night 18-19.
After ‘A’ Company’s work with the tanks had finished, they were pretty well scattered. One platoon spent the morning bringing in wounded from the battlefield. At 3 PM, the company had been assembled and were in a position between COEUVRES and CUTRY. There they remained until night when they moved to a camp on the hill south of CUTRY with ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘F’ companies and the Engineer Train.
At 4:40 AM, ‘B’ Company received verbal orders to report to a battalion in support of the attacking waves. The Battalion Commander was found at 11 AM, near MISSY. ‘B’Company dug in on the trail leading from the cross-roads at TILIEULE to MISSY. At dusk they were moved back on the reverse slope behind the cross-roads and dug in. Four men were wounded here.
‘C’ Company moved up to COEUVRES during the morning and then repaired roads from CUTRY to RAPERIE, filling shell holes and clearing obstructions. The distance covered was about 2 kilometers. After dark the company moved to the position on the hill south of CUTRY.
After the artillery had gone forward, ‘D’ and ‘F’ Companies repaired roads in COEUVRES and DUTRY and between these towns. After dark both Companies moved to the position on the hill south of CUTRY.
‘E’ Company repaired roads in CUTRY during the day and night. Three truck loads of picks, shovels, axes and saws were moved up to a dump beyond CUTRY during the morning. Some of these were used by the reserve troops, but not a great number. During the afternoon six truck loads of tools, wire, and sandbags were moved up to RAPERIE. There were ordered to MISSY, but as the attack had advanced but a short distance beyond the town, it was not possible to take the truck train so far forward. During the night all the of the tools wire and sandbags were reloaded on the trucks and brought back to CUTRY.
July 19 and Night of 19-20.
During the day ‘A’ Company repaired roads from CUTRY to RAPERIE; from RAPERIE to DOMMIERS, a distance of about ten kilometers. Two men were wounded on this work.
At 4 AM, ‘B’ Company was ordered to advance with the battalion of the 16th Infantry in support of the attack. They passed the PARIS-SOISSONS road and dug in. Captain Carter and four men were wounded by machine gun bullets. At 11 F M., acting under verbal orders of the Brigade Commander, the company moved forward to the front line battalion and readied there at 1 A. M., on the 20th. They dug in until daylight 2 kilometers west of the railroad.
‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘F’ companies, as a Division Reserve, moved forward to RAPERIE and afterwards to TILLEULS, where they remained all day. During the night the companies moved forward across the PARIS-SOISSONS road in Reserve.
During the night ‘E’ Company carried ammunition, tools and rations to companies of the 26th Infantry in the front line. They had four casualties. At 6 AM, 9 trucks loaded with tools, wire and sandbags started from CUTRY and went forward to the farm at the cross-roads in the PARIS-SOISSONS road and a dump was established. This was as far forward as was possible to go at that time. During the night 2,000 shovels and 1,000 picks were moved forward from here to a dump one kilometer east of CHAUDUN. 150 wounded were evacuated from the cross-roads in trucks.
July 20 and Night of 20-21.
At 10 AM, ‘A’ Company moved up to the position of ‘D’ and ‘T’ companies as Division Reserves.
At 4 AM, ‘B’ Company was ordered to advance in the attack in the second wave as support for ‘C Company, 16th Infantry. They advanced as far as the railroad and were there all day. The 1st Brigade had advanced farther than the 2nd Brigade which was on the left. ‘B’ Company formed the left flank during the day and the night. Two officers were wounded here and 62 men were killed and wounded.
‘C’ Company lay all day east of the PARIS-SOISSONS road in support. Captain Drinkwater was wounded here and 44 men were killed and wounded. At night they moved up to PLOISSY.
‘D’, ‘A” and T’ companies remained all day and night east of the PARIS-SOISSONS road as Division Reserves.
‘F’ Company remained in Brigade reserve near the PARIS-SOISSONS road.
The trucks carried 1,500 wood pickets to the dump at the cross-roads on the PARIS-SOISSONS load. Also a dump of wire and pickets was made at cross-roads of CUTRY to be used as a reserve supply.
July 21 and Night of 21-22.
Companies ‘A’ ,’D’ and ‘P’ remained as Division reserves east of PARIS-SOISSONS road.
Company ‘B’ remained in Brigade reserve when the battalion advanced. At 8 AM, ‘B’ Company received telephone orders from the CO of the 16th Infantry to move to the front and reinforce any front line company that needed it most. They moved to the front and were given the left flank to the Brigade front to hold with an Infantry company remaining in support of the left Battalion. Nine men were wounded here.
At 6 PM, ‘C’ Company was ordered up to the SOISSONS-CHATEAU-THIERRY road to dig in. They ran into machine guns and two officers were wounded and with the artillery fire that followed. 67 men were killed and wounded. They then were ordered back to the railroad where they dug in.
‘K’ Company remained in Brigade Reserve near the PARIS-SOISSONS road. During the day the tools at the dump at the cross-roads on the PARIS-SOISSONS road were loaded on trucks and at night those in the dump east of CHAUDUN were loaded. These were held in readiness to be moved forward if needed by the Brigades. During the day a German Engineer dump was located near the cross-roads on the PARIS-SOISSONS road. It was well-camouflaged. It contained 1,000 picks, 2,500 shovels, 20,000 sand bags, 250 rolls barbed wire, 1,300 yards of Resaux Ribard, 1,500 lin. feet 3 in. by 6 in. lumber, 600 lin. feet 1 1/2 in. by 6 in. lumber, 300 screw pickets, 60 wood pickets. Also a German dump of 40 rolls of barbed wire and 150 screw pickets was located near MISSY.
July 22 and Night of 22-23.
Companies ‘A’, ‘D” and T’ remained as Division Reserves east of the PARIS-SOISSONS road.
‘B’ Company remained in the front line as the left flank of the 1st Brigade until relieved by the Scottish Rifles at 2 AM, July 23. They captured a boche machine gun and 2 prisoners and killed many of the enemy. They furnished men to fill up depleted machine gun squads, and men as runners. The First-Aid Station with the company ‘A’ as the foremost aid station and was used for evacuation from the front line for the 1st Brigade after the last position was reached.
‘C’ Company received an order to police the battlefield and bury the dead. They started at 10 AM and kept at it until 8 PM, burying 60 men and salvaging 5 wagon-loads of material. They were relieved at 9 PM, July 22.
‘E’ Company remained as Brigade Reserves until relieved.
The Engineer tools in the trucks were held ready all day but were not called for. At night the were taken away. The wire, sandbags, pickets, boche tools and other engineer materials in the dumps were turned over to the C.R.E. of the Scotch Division that relieved the 1st Division. During the night 22-23, all Engineer companies were relieved by elements of the Scotch Division.
Total casualties in the 1st Engineers at Soissons were 251 men and 5 officers.
IN THE FIELD
Tank Corps, Group XII
July 20, 1918
“Report of Major Commanding XIIth Group of Tank Corps, on the aid given by a Company of Engineers, 1st Division during the battle of 18th July 1918.
“The Xllth Group having no accompanying infantry and the passage of the great ravine of COEUVRES necessitating considerable work for clearing the roads, the CO of this group asked for a company of Engineers of the 1st Division on the morning of the 17th. This company of Engineers stationed at Palesne was ordered to place itself at the disposal of the Tank Group at Mortefontaine.
No trucks being available, it had to walk all the way through, the heat being very great. It reached its destination at 7:30.
Once on the spot, the three sections gave invaluable aid, working with remarkable ardour and intelligence and obtaining wonderful results. The aid thus afforded was at least equal to the one that could have been obtained from a very good Infantry company accompanying and working with the group since a long time.
Without this company of Engineers it is very likely that the group, which had no Infantry to accompany it, could not have been able to climb on the hill and take part in the battle from the start.
“The way through Cutry for instance was impassible without fixing it up. During the fight the sections remained at the disposal of the group Commander, following the tanks closely.
Commanding Group XII.
“The company of Engineers of the 1st Division placed at the disposal of the tank group has been above all praise. I would be pleased if officers and men receive due felicitations for their bravery and zeal.
“Signed Major MERLANT, “C. A. Tank Corps. 1st D.I.U.S.”
This was our first big attack and we experienced the terrific strain — physical and mental — of a modern offensive. For five days and five nights our men went with practically no sleep and without hot food, being subjected to intense artillery and machine gun fire. The enemy air-craft was very active and constantly machine-gunned the troops and roads.
As soon as it became dark, their bombing planes came over and we were bombed for the first time by the light of flares. The planes dropped parachute flares that lighted up a large area and then they bombed targets that were quite visible. There were but few trenches and it is a most uncomfortable sensation to be bombed when the bomber sees his target.
The advance of the Division was very rapid for the first two days and a large number of prisoners and guns were captured, with many of the enemy killed. Then the resistance stiffened, as the enemy threw in fresh divisions and the advance became very difficult. It was necessary to storm the village of BERZY-le-SEC three times before it finally remained in the hands of our troops.
Our engineers conducted themselves like experienced infantry. ‘B’ Company was in the front wave of the attack for three days and advanced successfully against the enemy in spite of very heavy casualties. ‘C’ Company also suffered heavily while acting as supporting infantry. The work of ‘A’ Company with the tanks enabled the tanks to get over in the attack in spite of many obstructions. ‘D’ and ‘F’ companies made it possible for the artillery to make an early move forward by clearing and repairing the roads. ‘E’ Company was in support of the Second Brigade throughout the attack.
Many of the features of a big attack stand out prominently because it was the first time we had experienced them. Large numbers of enemy prisoners came marching down the roads, the wounded were being carried back, the dead were strewn thickiv through the fields, broken wagons and guns lay in disorder everywhere, and the complete shambles of a terrific battle made a picture never to be forgotten. One gets the impression that everything is disconnected and that there is no organized central idea, unless it be to go forward.
About midnight July 22, our division was relieved by the 15th Scottish Division and the Regiment marched to an embussing point on the PARIS-SOISSONS road and the next night were loaded on trucks and moved to BEAUMARCHAIS. The wagon transportation made the same trip in two days marching. We had learned another severe lesson in modern warfare and felt ourselves a little older and a little wiser.
Daniel Ross comments: It is not uncommon for engineers to be required to fight as infantry. The Great War is replete with instances where they needed their rifle and bayonet as much as their pick and shovel. Numerous decorations have been won as recognition of this – from the Crimea onwards there have been quite a number of VCs won by the Royal Engineers