August 18, 2018
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Mainers struck back against the German army a century ago

Maine National Guard Archives | BDN
Maine National Guard Archives | BDN
The young men of Skowhegan's High School Squad. In the Second Battle of the Marne, only one would return to Maine unwounded.
By Jonathan Bratten, Special to the BDN
Updated:

In the summer of 1918, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch would launch the first major Allied counteroffensive against the German army, called the Second Battle of the Marne. Maine’s own 103rd Infantry Regiment would be at the heart of this new counteroffensive, striking out of the famous Belleau Wood to seize the town of Torcy on July 18 and then taking Hill 190 on July 20 to break the German line. It was strong and bitter fighting as evidenced by the experience of Skowhegan’s High School Squad — nine young men who had all enlisted together before graduating from Skowhegan High School.

They attacked on the morning of July 18 with Company E from Skowhegan, charging out of Belleau Wood across half a mile of open wheat field to seize a railroad embankment. Sgt. Casimir “Cass” Bisson was wounded by shrapnel on the way out of the woods. “How badly is Cass hurt?” Pvt. Brooks Savage called out to Cpl. Alvan Bucknam. “Pretty bad, I guess,” Bucknam said. Bisson would lay in Belleau Wood until evacuated and left this account: “I can remember that the smoke was thick as fog, among the trees, and the air was full of the smell of gases and burned powder. Branches, and even trees were falling all around us and big shells would throw up dirt in every direction. The concussion from them would throw the boys over, even if they were some distance away.”

[Opinion: Mainers first tasted the horrors of France’s Western Front 100 years ago]

Back out in the wheat field, Company E pressed forward into a hail of machine gun bullets. Cpl. Harry St. Ledger, also of the High School Squad, was hit as they were crossing the wheat field. When his comrades had reached the railroad, he slowly crawled through the wheat until he reached them. Pvt. Savage bound the wounds of the former Skowhegan football star and gave him water, but the corporal — and first beau of Margaret Chase Smith — soon died.

The rail line was seized, but German fire was still strong. Cpl. Bucknam was talking with Pvt. Joseph Bolduc while standing in an exposed position, trying spot the German machine guns. As Bolduc implored him to get under cover, a bullet caught Bucknam in the left side, pitching him over onto the far side of the embankment. “Roll for the ravine, Buckie, it’s your only chance!” Bolduc yelled. Bucknam did, but when his friends tried to come out of cover to save him, he urged them back: “Don’t mind me — take care of the others!” He died of his wounds shortly thereafter. Out of the nine young men, only one would return home unwounded.

In the attack on July 20 to take Hill 190, it was Companies C (Livermore Falls) and B (Rumford) that would pay a high price. Company C rushed out of Belleau Wood and down the open slope “with the sunshine lighting up their bayonets.” Despite advancing behind a protective artillery barrage, they received 48 casualties in half a minute. The Rumford men advanced behind them and made it up the slopes of Hill 190. Four of the seven men from the Arsenault family serving in Company B would be killed or wounded at the Second Marne.

Fighting became hand to hand as the Mainers crept in small groups to knock out machine guns. Lt. Frank Burbank was the only unwounded officer left in Company C by the end of the day. He could only count 15 men left in his command on the evening of July 20. His log book for that day read only: “July 20th 1918. attacked and took objective hill #190. Chateau Thierry. with loss 1 officer 22 men killed 122 men 3 officers wounded 1 officer and 5 men dying from wounds.”

[Opinion: A century ago, Mainers marched to war to make the world safe for democracy]

The battalion commander, Maj. James W. Hanson of Belgrade, sent a quick message to headquarters at 8:45 p.m.: “We have taken and are consolidating the position but have had tremendous losses, have less than 200 men in the line available for duty but will hold the position to the last man.” In 1924, “To the Last Man” would become the motto of the 103rd Infantry Regiment and continues to be the motto for the Maine National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.

Maine soldiers would fight through the Second Marne from July 18 to July 24, advancing nine miles against determined German opposition. They would come off the line for three weeks in August, their only rest period during the entire war.

Capt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian.

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